Boundaries

I haven’t seen many of my friends or family for most of this year, and I’m feeling hug-deprived. I am also one of those people who is only half jokingly saying “Let’s keep on wearing masks and not shaking hands and staying six feet away from each other forever!” There’s nothing I mind about not being crowded while in line in a store, or about not having near-strangers say “Are you a hugger?” and not wait for an answer before they move in and grab me while saying “I’M a hugger!”

I don’t come from a hugging family. We would hug when seeing each other after a long absence, but not so much on a day to day basis. My father was prone to patting us awkwardly on the head, arm, or foot in a way that makes me understand why animals flinch away from some human versions of touch, although inexplicably cats were always drawn to him. Perhaps because he did not ever try to pat them, even when they jumped on his lap. I have said that I sometimes think I get on with animals as well as I do because my mother was like a very well read and articulate cat, which come to think of it may also explain why she was drawn to my father. My mother and I hugged much more in my adult life than in my childhood – but I think this is true of all my immediate family, and probably because as adults we almost always see each other after a long absence.

When I was twelve, I started a new school with a lingering hippie reputation and I discovered there is a whole population of people who hug. It took a little getting used to but I not only got used to it, I learned to positively enjoy having friends to hug.

Lucky me, pandemic or no, I have animals that I get to touch. On the two extremes I have the dogs (huggers all, except for when they are not) and the cat (“touch me and you will bleed” is her default mood). In the middle are the horses.

I’ve been benignly neglecting the horses, along with most other things, for most of this year. A couple of weeks ago, Tabby cut her leg – nothing dire but bad enough to warrant stitches and two weeks of bandaging. As long as I was changing the bandage every two days, I also took the grooming box out with the medical supplies. Since I had to tend to Tabby’s leg, I figured at least I could offer grooming and see if she was interested, and then as long as I was out there I figured I could check in with the geldings too.

Grooming gloves are my favorite grooming tool. I can use them as curries and also for a massage. I can feel more of what’s going on with the horse’s body, whether I’m feeling for bumps or scabs, or feeling for where they stiffen, flinch, or lean in. The horses prefer them too. They seem to appreciate my ability to feel what I’m doing instead of having a chunk of stiff rubber or wood between my hands and them. Go figure. I have a very clear memory from a lot of years ago of watching a friend groom her horse while telling us how much he hated being groomed. She was talking to us the whole time she groomed him, focusing on her human visitors while scrubbing vigorously all over her horse’s body with one of the hardest and biggest curry combs I have ever seen. If I were the horse, I would have kicked her.

That said, I have done my share of oblivious grooming over the years. I get into a groove of what I have to do, and forget to pay attention to what I am doing and to how the horse is reacting to it. Whether my “have to do” is about getting tack on the horse so I can go for a ride, or about needing to groom the whole horse because that’s how it’s done, it causes me to stop listening to the actual horse in front of me.

Horses don’t touch each other all that much. They stand near each other, and they do something we call mutual grooming that doesn’t look anything like what we call “grooming” when we do it to a horse. And yes, I do realize that in referring to what the horses do I said “mutual” and in referring to what humans do I said “do it to.” Horses will ask each other for the scratching they want, and they will move around to get the right spot scratched, and they will leave when they are done or if the other horse is scratching too hard or not enough or in the wrong place.

Our current horses all have different feelings about being groomed. Niño generally loves it. He loves to be touched, and he really leans into anything we do with him. Even so, he has days and places he wants to be left alone.

Finn’s approach has always been to position the part that is itchy or that he wants to have massaged directly in front of me. For a very long time, I would try to insist that he stand still and let me go through my grooming routine that starts on the left side at the top of his neck, works all the way to his tail, and then repeats on the other side, finishing with his head. After a while I started to not worry so much if he moved around or what order I groomed him in, but I was still adamant that I touch all the parts. It’s only in the last year or two that I just let him tell me what he wants and leave it at that. I can visually check for cuts and bumps, and if I need to check something particular he’s fine with that. But if he tells me he has one itchy spot on his right shoulder, and another on his left hip, and then he walks away, ok.

Tabby is hot and cold. She has places she likes us to really scrub or massage, and she has places she’d prefer we not touch, and she has days she just wants to be left alone. I get this. All of it.

It would be easy to attribute their different approaches to grooming to breed, or gender. Horse people love to generalize about breeds, though our small herd goes almost completely against breed stereotypes. As for gender, there’s an often repeated saying in the horse world: you tell a gelding, you ask a stallion, but you negotiate with a mare. I don’t so much find this to hold true, either. Horses, like people, and dogs, and cats, and pretty much every other species I can think of, are individuals. They also have moods, and different levels of stiffness or pain on any given day, and they don’t react the same way to all people, or even to the same person on different days. I can guarantee that while I may go out on any old day and approach Finn with my ideas about what Finn is like and how Finn reacts, he’s busy tuning in to what is in his environment that day, at that moment, which includes me and my mood. Any horse being approached by a human with a grooming box and a lot of intensity – “I’m a groomer!” – may take the option to walk away, if given the choice.

I may not have to deal with unwanted hugs right now, but I also don’t get to have the wanted ones. What I do get to do is work on paying attention to the signals I’m getting from and giving to my animals who are, as always, my best teachers. Other people may have their pandemic bods, or their pandemic crafts, or their pandemic home improvements. I’m working on my pandemic boundaries. I’m sure the horses won’t mind.

Strong Medicine

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Last week was a long and stressy week. I’m anxious about everything right now. Last week more than some other weeks, each additional thing just added another layer with no time to level out or come down from the last thing. I probably should have realized it would be an anxious week when I woke up at 4:30 a.m. on Monday because I hadn’t taken the trash down to the road the night before and I might miss the trash pickup. Mind you, the trash pick up has been happening between 10 a.m. and noon for the last twenty years, and also I don’t actually care if we get the trash picked up every week.

I was anxious about work meetings, whether I had prepared enough, whether my presentations were good enough (hint: I don’t care about powerpoint presentations even more than I don’t care about trash pick up), whether after the next board meeting I might find my job had been deemed unnecessary.

I was anxious about Tabby’s leg wound, whether it was not healing well, whether I was bandaging it too loose or too tight, whether it was getting too wet in the five minutes of rain we had one night, whether the bandage would somehow come unwound and scare both Tabby and Niño into running through the fence and I would find them hogtied together somewhere in the back woods in the morning.

As I said, a stressy week, with periods of escalating craziness.

My most relaxing activity, always (except for when they fight), is to hang out with the dogs. So we spent a lot of time outside in the dog yard, generally with two dogs in one yard and the third dog in the other to avoid any possible fights. As always, I spent a lot of that time taking pictures of them. Also as always, sometimes the pictures were good and because even the worst ones – especially the worst ones – made me laugh. Laughter has been in short supply this year. It’s fair to say that one of the things I miss the most about people – about being around people at all during the pandemic restrictions, and also about specific people I haven’t seen in a long time, and people I will never see again – is laughing with them.

Ask me for a memory of most of my family members who are gone and the first one I think of will involve laughing. The kind of laughing at nothing that you can explain in a way that sounds funny, but in the middle of it you can’t stop and the harder you try the more you laugh. Laughing with my sister over the letters we wrote to our grandmother when we were really little and barely knew how to write. Laughing with my mother in a Thai restaurant over a silly poem until we genuinely thought they were going to ask us to leave. Laughing with my aunt over actually funny movies (the first time I saw Young Frankenstein was with her) and over movies that were so terrible we couldn’t stop laughing (The Abyss). Laughing at my father laughing so hard at his own joke that he could barely get the punchline out.

It’s hard to make clear why those moments were so funny. It’s probably just as hard to make clear why the photo of Boo at the top of this post made me laugh that hard, even if I zoom in closer.

Let me try to illustrate with a little story.

Last summer, which now feels like ten years ago, we were in Colorado and I had the chance to meet our son’s girlfriend for the first time. We planned a dinner for an evening after the kids got off work. Rose and I had bought some edibles the first day we were in town, because, hey, Colorado! And we were on vacation! And going to a music festival later in the week! We had the genius idea to try them out the very same afternoon of the dinner.

They were gummies, and we decided to each have one instead of splitting one, which sounded reasonable because they are really tiny. It turns out that even in the case of tiny gummies it’s really important to understand a) potency, b) your own personal (lack of) tolerance, and c) that some things have changed a lot since you were in college.

Also it turns out when you consume edibles it takes a lot longer than when you smoke for the effects to kick in, but oh joy, they also last a lot longer. Rose’s reaction to this was to get comprehensively ill and lock herself in the bathroom for either 30 minutes or 6 hours, it’s hard for me to say because I maybe lost my sense of time altogether.

In the middle of all this – Rose locked in the downstairs bathroom, me frantically googling “How do I counteract too much THC,” the girlfriend arrived. Now remember, we were supposed to go out to dinner. Dinner was very much out of the question, but saying this and explaining why was beyond my powers of reasoning or speech just then. I spent some time making getting-to-know-you conversation (I think) in the kitchen while Rose (who had already met the girlfriend) remained in the bathroom, with me periodically going downstairs to check on her and then going back to the kitchen and trying to act normal. Finally, Rose and I had a panicked conference through the bathroom door and decided we had to come clean. “We” being me because she was not coming out of the bathroom any time soon.

I went back upstairs and said something like “I’m kind of embarrassed to say this but we can’t go out to dinner tonight because we made a rookie Colorado mistake” and our son said “Oh no, altitude sickness?” and I thought – yes! Altitude sickness! It’s a total out, plus they will feel sorry for us! But what came out of my mouth instead was “Um, no. We had an error in judgement with some edibles.” Fortunately, the girlfriend thought this was really funny, and showed me a hilarious video called “What to Do if You’re Too High on Weed” which made me laugh in that laughing entirely too hard way. I can say that I’ve watched it again since then, and it really is funny. Probably more funny if you’ve ever had the experience, which I can’t actually recommend.

Now that I think of it, there’s some pretty good advice in that video for anxious times in general, starting with “You may feel like you’ve gone permanently insane, or like you’re dead. Here’s the good news: you’re alive, and your sanity is probably intact.” Some practical actions include breathing fresh air, staying hydrated, watching silly tv, and calling a trusted friend (“Talking things through can do wonders, and remind you that you’re a person, and not just a cloud of terrifying thoughts”).

If you haven’t guessed by now, that photo of Boo is a near exact replica of my face that evening, I’m sure of it. I’ll take my laughter where I can get it these days, and it’s nice to know the dogs will never mind when I look at pictures of them and laugh so hard I start to wheeze. I may not always remember how to relax, but they do.

Eavesdropping

This week we moved from culling clothing to a full on cleaning and clearing assault on areas of the house where things have piled up for too many years. I’m writing now at my newly uncovered desk, having thrown the antique mostly empty tube of toothpaste in the trash, and otherwise gone through the exercise of throw away, give away, put away that goes with this kind of tidying.

One thing I have kept is every notepad or index card or paper scrap that I found that has a quote on it. Some of them are inspirational scribbles, like a quote from Anne Lamott I jotted down that says “I also know that we don’t live long. And that dancing almost always turns out to be a good idea.” She’s right, even though I sometimes forget to dance for far too long at a stretch.

Many of these quotes are from eavesdropping. I don’t exactly do it on purpose, but it’s almost impossible not to overhear people in restaurants, airports, or pretty much any other public place, and once I hear one thing that gets my attention I start to listen harder. Sometimes I write them down because I think they will fit in a story (if hypothetically I start writing fiction one day) – like the guy I overheard in an airport security line who said “The last five years of my addiction I pretty much stopped watching everything but porn. Then I got sober and got out of the habit of watching any TV.” I still don’t know if the person he was talking to was someone he knew, or if he just had different ideas than I do about getting-to-know-you conversation topics.

I have one mystery note that just says “No one ever needs a ferret” and one that says “I’m surprised your phone still works with pictures like that on it.” There’s one I do remember – I was in a parking lot at a medical center, headed in for an MRI or an x-ray or a mammogram, and I overheard a woman saying to her daughter “You listen to me, Olivia” and the little girl said “I listen to mySELF.” Never change, Olivia.

In another overheard snippet from a medical appointment, this time at the dentist, a young boy was vocalizing how we all feel about being at the dentist and his mother said through gritted teeth “Listen – when we leave here I am taking you home, you are having a cheese sandwich, and you are going to bed” as if that were some type of punishment. I wanted to poke my head in the door and ask if I could come too. Cheese sandwich and early bed sounds like a cure for most ills.

There’s one that sounds like my mother but isn’t; it was an older woman in a local cafe, saying to her companion “I don’t like sticks and twigs tea. I like black tea.” At the time – and again now – this reminded me of my mother (and I have this written down somewhere that I haven’t tidied yet) when she told me that my father wanted her to go to his herbologist for something to do with her cancer or the side effects of her cancer treatment, and she said “I’m NOT going to the parsley doctor.”

I have an index card with something my father once told me about his friend Mary. She was an older friend from his office, and after she retired he used to pick her up on weekends and take her out driving – something he also did with us as kids that we all couldn’t wait to stop doing, but I trust he and Mary enjoyed their rides. Once when my parents and Rose and I were headed home from dinner, my father missed seeing a car coming when he turned out of the mall parking lot. As we all braced for the impact that somehow the other driver avoided, my mother yelled “Jesus, John!” A few minutes later when I asked him to slow down (in the dark on the curvy road that I knew well but he did not), he had had enough of driving criticism and said “Mary drives with me for hours every Saturday and SHE never complains about my driving” and my mother replied “Mary is old and ready for death!” None of that is written down (well, I guess it is now), but what I do have on a card is what my father said to me about Mary’s childhood: “She lived with an older aunt who was bludgeoned to death – BEFORE it was fashionable.”

It’s the things like Mary’s older aunt and the parsley doctor that make me miss my parents the most. Things that no one else will every say quite they way they would. I used to keep letters and cards, and at some point I got rid of most of them – one of the few clearing out decisions I sometimes regret. I did find two cards yesterday, one from my mother which includes a Garrison Keillor limerick that goes:

There was a young teacher named Deedee
Who went home and said to her sweetie
I’m worn out and wobbly,
So pour me a chablis
And don’t be emotionally needy.

The other card is from both my parents for a birthday I had sometime in the middle of my 30s – there’s no date, and it’s a lovely print of multicolored painted horses and a full moon, which I would have loved in a period from roughly birth to the present, so no clues there. My father’s birthday note, one of the few he wrote himself instead of just writing “Daddy” at the end of my mother’s message, says “Happy Birthday, Tessa. But then I think of you every day, so it’s Happy Birthday every day.” My mother’s note says “Tessa – asset backwards, forwards, and every other whichway, too.”

In one of my more insufferable childhood moods, when I first learned both what an asset was and that my name spelled backwards was an actual word, I believe I used to use it as a shield against sisterly teasing – something along the lines of “our parents think I’m an asset and that’s why they chose my name.” (“so there” is understood) Of course this was probably around the same time my sisters were doing a crossword puzzle and looking for a three-letter word for “self esteem,” which when your big sister says alound sounds like “self a-steam” to a young child. My suggestion was “hot,” and today I understand why they laughed so hard.

All I really planned to do was clear out my desk. It took longer than I thought, partly because there was even more stuff than I realized piled up here, but partly because I had to stop and read all the notes. I ended up with a lot more company than I expected, and now I’m surrounded by my parents, my sisters, Olivia, and the ferret people. Maybe I’ll go make a cup of sticks and twigs tea, and sit with them all for a bit.

Mix Tapes

We’ve been in a clearing out mood recently. I know a lot of people are, though I can’t say it’s particularly pandemic-related for us. For several years we’ve been talking about putting sticky notes on all of our belongings that say either “going to Colorado” or “not going to Colorado.” The specific location, or even the fact of a move, is not the point as much as is the question: if we wouldn’t move it somewhere new, why are we keeping it here?

The kids are all pretty settled in their adult lives away from here, and if their old belongings don’t have sentimental value for them, maybe we don’t need to keep hanging on to them. I mean, we’re the parents, so some things will always have sentimental value for us that they don’t have for the kids, but do we really need multiple boxes and backpacks of never-gone-through end of school year stuff from elementary and middle school?

Most of the things we have accumulated are ours, and not the kids’, however. Here at my writing desk I have a smattering of books, gifts, hobbies, and outdated technology that I simply haven’t organized, put away, or gotten rid of. In immediate reach of my left hand is: a collar tag for Cody, the box his clay footprint came back in from the crematorium earlier this year, two Liberian lappa fabric bracelets, three cables for computer peripherals I can’t identify, a horsemanship journal I started at a clinic in Colorado in 2004, several blank greeting cards for various occasions, a letter from the census bureau about how to electronically complete the census (which I did back in the spring), a Zentangle drawing book, a bandana, a mostly empty tube of toothpaste, a folder from Scout’s allergy vet with instructions I only needed last January, a computer mouse I haven’t been able to find for months, and a mix tape (literally a cassette tape) I received for my, let’s see, maybe 20th birthday. This is in a space roughly ten by twenty inches on the edge of my desk. Small wonder the whole house, not to mention the barn, the garage, and assorted outbuildings, feels a bit overwhelming. Also small wonder my go-to approach is to just get rid of everything.

When I moved from Vermont, where I went to college, back to my parents’ apartment, and then two weeks later to the farm in Maryland where I started a job, I packed everything I owned into my 1964 VW Bug, including the travel crate containing my three cats. Among the things I brought with me was a box of I don’t know what, because I moved it from the car to the room I slept in at my parents’ place (or maybe I left it in the car; either thing sounds plausible) to the closet at my house on the farm. When I moved from there three years later, having never opened the box, I just threw it away on the theory that things unexplored and unused were unneeded. I still have the desire to close my eyes and get rid of things.

When I look is when I start to have trouble. Not with some things – I got rid of easily half my clothes, probably more, without a thought, and I went through every item. In Deep Creek by the splendid Pam Houston, an author who makes me want write more and who also makes me want to give up writing entirely because she appears to have already had most of the thoughts in my head and has written about them better than I could, her description of identifying what she wants to pack in case of fire evacuation includes this: “I face my closet and can’t find one single stick of clothing I care whether or not I own.” A much less dramatic reason in my case, but a perfect description of my feeling about clothes.

The mix tape on my desk, though. It’s nowhere near a cassette player – in fact, the only cassette player in the house is currently in a pile of deconstructed stereo we haven’t made up our minds about yet. I think I pulled it out because I wanted to accurately cite the title (The Whinin’, Cheatin’, Drinkin’, Cussin’, Lyin’, Cryin, Dyin’ Birthday Tape), or maybe I was looking for one of the song names (my introduction to country music, in case the title didn’t give that away). I got rid of most of my cassettes – the store-bought ones, or the ones I made of albums I can easily get in another form – earlier this year. But I still have a box of mix tapes, and a few whole albums taped for me by someone else, in the basement, and I keep walking past it and thinking “I’ll decide about those later.”

I haven’t listened to any of those tapes for years, but just looking at the handwriting on them is enough to bring back memories. Some of them are tapes I made. In college in the midst of a pre-coming-out panicked depression, I made a tape with the title Trouble, Trouble, Trouble with every song I could think of about being troubled, having the blues, and just general misery, on the theory that if I wallowed in it for long enough I would eventually realize I was wallowing and snap out of it. Fact: I have never listened to that tape without starting to laugh, even if it’s not till the middle of side two. There’s one called Since My Phone Still Ain’t Ringing, I Assume it Still Ain’t You, which I made about, if not exactly for, someone I sort of dated in my early 20s. There’s a Yaz tape made for me by my best friend my senior year of high school, and a Robert Earl Keen Jr tape made for me by my sister. There is a tape that when Rose listened to it the first time made her say she felt like she was reading my diary, made for me by someone I’ve never met but a mutual friend thought we’d have the same taste in music and she was more right than she knew.

There’s a whole section of tapes Rose and I made for each other when we first became friends and then when we first got involved. It’s a bit of a musical time capsule – both in terms of what music was out at the time and in terms of the phases of our relationship (Songs for Louise from Thelma is still among my favorites). As I type this, Rose is listening to a playlist that has this vibe in the kitchen (I hear Melissa Etheridge, and a paragraph or two ago, Don Henley). I’ve thought about taking the mix tapes and remaking them as playlists, but there’s something about the handwriting that stirs my heart in unexpected ways.

I can make a playlist now without even listening to the songs. In the mix tape days, there was a lot of planning. Ordering and reording of songs on paper before I started taping. Deciding which songs revealed too much, or didn’t say it quite right, or felt like they came from somewhere in the most honest part of me. Stacks of vinyl, other tapes, and eventually CDs to pull songs from. Writing out the song list – include the artists with the song names? Write on the factory insert or make my own? The point of it all, of course, was in trying to show someone else what was in my heart. The opening chords of any one of those songs can sneak up on me and make me cry, or make my heart swell, before the words even start, remembering how I felt the first time I listened to one of those tapes Rose made for me. Would I save them in a fire? Hard to say. Would I move them to Colorado? You know, I think I would.

It’s Not the Fall

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When I was nineteen I broke my left foot. A few days after I got the cast on I went out to dinner with my parents and my sister Rachel. We pulled up in front of the restaurant, where my father’s uncanny parking karma once again provided him with a parking space directly in front of our destination, no mean feat in Washington DC.

There was a small section of sidewalk in between our car and the restaurant’s outside tables, all of which were filled. I was in the front seat because of my cast, and as I turned to lever myself out of my seat, one hand on each side of the door frame, my sister shut the back door. On my fingers. Through gritted teeth I said politely, “Rachel, open the door” and she said “Why?” “My HAND is in the DOOR. Rachel, OPEN the door.”

Rachel, my mother and my father all grabbed for the door handle. The door, naturally, was locked. Rachel reached past me to tug on the lock. My father said, “It’s not closed all the way. We need to close it the rest of the way in order to unlock it.” Rachel, my mother and I all said “NO!” Both Rachel and my father were trying to pull the lock up, my father inside the car and Rachel reaching in through the open front door. As far as I could tell through the swimming pinpoints of light in my vision, they were primarily getting in each other’s way.

My mother was outside the car saying “Oh my god! Oh my god!” and I remained in the front seat, cast on the sidewalk, hand in the door, alternately saying “Rachel, open the door” and “Mother, shut UP.” The diners were clearly thinking that they had no idea that the outside tables of Chez Gaulois came with entertainment, when my father thought to press the central unlock button.

The lock popped up, Rachel opened the door, my mother stopped saying “Oh my god,” and I completed my delayed exit from the car. Rachel handed me my crutches and we filed into the restaurant and to our table. I put the fingers of my right hand into my glass of ice water. Rachel said “I kept waiting for the sexy Nissan computer voice to say “Your hand is in the door. Please remove your hand from the door,” and we all laughed.

For years my mother and I would tell this story as an archetypal event in our family: a few moments of high drama difficult to differentiate from slapstick comedy, ending quickly with no lasting bad effects for anyone. Bad things that happened just weren’t that bad, and they were usually funny, at least in retrospect.

When my mother told me she had breast cancer two days before she went into the hospital for a mastectomy, it seemed like the beginning of one of those family stories. She had known for a while but she did not want to worry me. She told me that she had not told my sister Rachel, who was living in England. She did not mention whether or not she told my oldest sister Darcy, who lived nearby.

I called Rachel and she caught the first flight home, which caused my mother to be furious at me. My family is filled with unspoken rules about who can tell what to whom. In many cases people simply forget to share information, but we all assume that there was a reason so we continue to not talk about it once we find out from some other source. I knew perfectly well that when my mother told me she had not told Rachel, that was her way of telling me not to tell her either, but I chose to ignore this.

When I arrived at the hospital after the surgery, my mother would hardly speak to me. My father was already there with Rachel. My father, worried about my mother but not wanting to admit it, put his energy into treating Rachel as if she was visiting royalty that had never been to Washington before, apparently forgetting the first eighteen years of her life. The three of us stood at the foot of my mother’s bed bickering while she rolled her eyes at us.

By the end of the week we all retreated to our corners of England, Maryland and DC with relief. My mother was in the hospital for four days. She had three subsequent chemotherapy treatments, from which she did not get sick nor did she lose her hair, and then she was fine for years. In general, it seemed to be more fodder for the Pagones family way of having a crisis.

Seven years later when I called my mother to tell her that my chimney had been struck by lightening and chunks of it had fallen through my sunroom roof, my mother told me that “the cancer is back.” I questioned her as much as I could before she made some excuse to get off the phone. She did give me permission to speak to her doctor who told me that my mother’s breast cancer had metastasized to her lymph nodes and to bone, in addition to the breast tissue itself. It began to dawn on me that this was not going to be funny even in retrospect.

Over the next two years my mother’s symptoms continued to increase along with the frequency and strength of her chemo and radiation treatments. She developed neuropathy in both feet and legs, making it difficult for her two walk. She got a walker – a sturdy teal tripod one with white wall tires – and dubbed it The Batmobile (“because I’m an old bat”). She developed a new method of doing laundry that involved putting the dirty laundry in a bag, throwing it down each flight of stairs (three in total), following it by scooting down the steps on her rear, and then making my father carry the clean laundry back upstairs.

She wound up back in the hospital briefly after she fell and couldn’t get back up her own, and my father with his own tricky knees wasn’t all that much help. When she got home I asked if they had thought of moving somewhere with fewer steps. My mother thought for a moment and then said “Perhaps the terrorists will get us first.”

After another fall, my mother is in the hospital again, for the last time. I walk into the hospital lobby past the gift shop, remembering the first time I visited her here, before that first mastectomy, and stopped to buy her the least tacky stuffed cat I could find in the shop. It was a light grey tabby with green eyes, with a lavender ribbon sewn to its neck and tied in a bow. There are no animals without accessories sold in this hospital, but at least this one was not wearing clothes. This time I walk straight to the elevator and ride up to the fifth floor.

“What the hell?” is the first thing I say, as I see her right arm on top of the covers, not just bruised but fully black and blue from wrist to elbow.

“Oh!” my mother says, with a half-laugh. “I got up to use the pot last night,” as she gestures to the toilet chair between her bed and the wall, “and I fell.”

“Did you land on your arm? Is it broken?”

“No, but it took two nurses and a strapping young man to pull me out and get me back into the bed.”

I don’t know whether to begin by hunting down the nurses and the strapping young man and beating them with a stick or by calling all of my mother’s various doctors until someone tells me the exact scientific reason why she has bruised like that and so quickly, so I sit down in the chair at the foot of her bed and look at her.

After a moment I move to the foot of her bed, picking her feet up and placing them in my lap as I sit down. Her feet have been tingling for over a year now and I hold them in my hands, thinking of a book I read years ago in which a southern grandmother rubbed an old woman’s sore back and then rubbed her hands on the wooden bed post, saying that the wood was from nature and could absorb the pain. I look around the hospital room but everything is made of metal or plastic.

“How is the tingling?”

“The knees are bad,” my mother replies.

This is new. I slide my hands up her calves to her knees, the way I would keep my hands steadily on a horse’s leg so as not to startle it. Her skin feels dry but soft, and fragile, like moth wings. There are no muscles under this skin. The wonder isn’t that she fell, but that she got up at all.

Year of the Rat

Pig and Maya

This photo of my first dog and my now sole cat turned up in my facebook memories today. I brought the kitten home from the lab on my last day at work there nine years ago, driving away with the two lives I could save. When I first brought Pigwidgeon home, I put her in a crate in the hay stall in the barn, partly because she had been found in a hay barn and I thought it might feel familiar, and partly to buy myself a little time to break Rose into the idea that I had brought home yet another kitten. Maya disappeared that afternoon and did not come back no matter how much I called her. When I finally tracked her down, she was in the barn lying next to the kitten’s crate, claiming her new charge.

I’ve been thinking all day about animal acquisitions – the various dogs, cats, horses, and rodents that I have had over the years, and how they came into my life. My clearest memory of a pet introduction from my childhood is the rats. In 1972, the Chinese Year of the Rat, some friends of my parents came for dinner one night bearing two young rats for us to keep as pets. In my memory, the wife waited till after dinner and then pulled the rats – surprise! – out of her purse. Of course we had no cage, so that night we put them in a doll house from which they promptly escaped, but were retrieved before they went far. My oldest sister Darcy named them Cindy and Jennifer.

As Cindy and Jennifer grew up, Jennifer developed what we feared was a tumor. My mother called a friend who was a doctor (in retrospect I realize he was a PhD, not an MD, but he did work at the NIH) to ask his advice, and he suggested some brandy on a sugar cube. It didn’t do much to cure the tumor, but after Cindy gave birth to her first litter of babies it dawned on all of us that it was less tumor and more testes that Jennifer had developed. Jennifer remained Jennifer throughout her long life.

Darcy carefully chronicled the Ratti family generations in her perfect script in the back of a book called The Five Little Peppers, much the way I gather some families keep their own lineage in the family bible. According to The Five Little Peppers, Cindy’s formal name was Sindin. The first litter included Brown Sugar and Milky Way Bar. As time went on and rats added up, we had Lemonsadio, and Stale Bread Pudding, and Demitri Capeltiodis. There were rats named Linda and Richard Richard, so named for some married neighbors because when Linda got exasperated with Richard (which was often), she would say “Richard, Richard.”

The Five Little Peppers does not contain the detailed begats, though I’m sure Darcy would have remembered exactly which rat was the mother of which others (the fathers were a less certain thing). Darcy remembered the order and names of the 13 children in our mother’s mother’s family. She could identify who was who in every photo in every photo album, and what relation they were to us. She could recite family stories from our great-grandparents’ generation as if she had been there. She remembered every birthday.

Eight years ago my aunt and my father died within two weeks of each other, seven years after my mother’s death and nearly thirty years after my uncle’s death. I had a conversation with one of my cousins then about how odd it was to suddenly be the oldest generation in our family. At the time it did not occur to me that we would do anything but keep growing older as the older generation. But then last year, Darcy died.

I still have The Five Little Peppers, and when I think about the the Ratti names, I think about Darcy’s particular brand of creativity. She was the inventor of many of our childhood games. There was a game called Ghosties that my cousins and I can’t remember except that it involved being outside in the evening in our pajamas, and something to do with the streetlamp in front of our house. There was a game I remember nothing at all about but it was called Fall in the Toilet Orphanage and possibly that’s all I need to know. There was a game called Grand Championship that must have taken all day. First, the three of us sisters gathered all of our dolls and stuffed animals at the top of the stairs. Then, one by one, we slid them down the banister to the first floor. Anyone who fell off part way down had to come back up until they could make it all the way down on the banister. Since not all the dolls and animals were a convenient size or shape for banister-sliding, this part alone took quite a while. Once all the dolls and animals were gathered in three piles in the living room, two sisters would take one doll or animal each, stand at opposite ends of the living room, and simultaneously toss the dolls or animals to the opposite sister. They would do this back and forth until one of the dolls or animals fell, and that doll or animal would be out of the game. The third sister would come in with a doll or animal and play against the doll or animal who won the previous round. This would go on until there was only one doll or animal who had not been dropped, and that would be the Grand Champion. Not the sister, mind you, but the doll or animal.

When I think about Darcy I will always think about ballet. She was a dancer from at least the time I was born. I don’t even know how old she was when she started putting on annual performances of The Nutcracker in our basement – certainly no older than 11 or 12. Darcy choreographed, directed, cast, made costumes and sets for, and of course starred in, these productions. She was Dr. Drosselmeyer, the Nutcracker, and the Mouse King, which created interesting staging for the big sword fight when only one of them could be on stage at a time, but she made it work. She was always in one or more of the dances in the second act. There was one boy in the neighborhood who she was able to persuade to participate for a couple of years, and he played Fritz in the first act. There were always two Claras – Clara in the first act, and Clara in the second act. I still think of them as two distinct characters. Clara in the first act had a dancing role, and got to wear the pink party dress. This role rotated between my sister Rachel and her friends. In the early ballets I got stuck with Clara in the second act, in which I had to wear a nightgown and sit in a chair and watch the other dancers. Later I got to be a Candy Cane, which is still my favorite music and dance in every version of the ballet I have seen, but I never was Clara in the first act. Somewhere, however, there is a photo of me taken from behind, as I looked into a mirror to adjust my extremely home made aluminum foil crown. I am roughly 4 in this photo. You can see my face in the mirror and the look of delight on my face (I’m a princess! I’m wearing a beautiful crown!) tells all you need to know about the magic Darcy managed to create.

Some days I want to think about the complexities of relationships and families and memories, but today I just want a little magic.

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Yin Life

Finn

Not long before covid-19 shelter in place began, I discovered that there is, in fact a form of yoga I actually like. I don’t pretend to be any kind of yoga theory expert, so I mainly have my own experiences of classes to go by. And I do know that the one thing in common all the yoga classes I have taken is that I am there, so I can’t discount that as a factor. The wherever you go, there you are factor.

Most yoga I have taken fits into one of two categories. There is pretzel yoga – generally based on Iyengar, in my experience – where you twist yourself into complicated shapes while balancing on one toe and hold each pose for approximately 37 minutes. And then there is competitive yoga, generally referred to in class schedules as hot yoga, or sometimes flow yoga, or power yoga, or at one memorable studio in D.C. “stroga” which sounds more like pasta but I gather is a portmanteau (do we still call them that, or does that go with troglodyte and zaftig on the list of words only my parents used in conversation?) of “strength” and “yoga.” That kind of yoga appears to be an endurance test my shoulders simply are not up to, and for me almost always involves a lot more swearing than I think can be normal for a spiritual or meditative practice.

I have taken a few other kinds of yoga that I don’t actively dislike: some classes labeled “beginner,” restorative, partner, goat. But none of them spoke to me or made me want to keep doing that kind of yoga. When the most positive feeling I have leaving a class is “well, that wasn’t as bad as I expected,” it doesn’t inspire me to keep going back.

For a couple months there last winter I found a yin yoga class that I really liked. The instructor is always thoughtful and well prepared. She mixes a little traditional Chinese medicine theory in with the poses. We hold poses longer than some classes (though not as long as pretzel yoga), but they are manageable poses and usually on the ground. I always come away from her class feeling stretched in a nice way, not in a “I’ve been on a torture rack for the past 50 minutes” way.

In one class this instructor said that ideally a yin yoga class would be in a cool, dark room, or a cave. Her comment got me thinking about yin as a concept, not just a name for a yoga class. For me yin yoga is every way the opposite of a hot yoga class, though I’ve never heard anyone use the term “yang yoga” to refer to hot yoga. I know in the West we often distill yin and yang down to male and female. I also know that is a gross oversimplification. The thing that struck me most in reading about the concept is that yang is the active principle whereas yin is the receptive.

In working with horses, I grew up in a “make him do it” environment, as if little eight year old me, probably 55 pounds soaking wet, was going to physically make even a fairly small pony who was ten times my size do anything. In case I was unclear about this, in my first horse show at the end of a week of summer horse camp, my horse left the show ring in mid class and went back to the barn, totally oblivious to the child on his back, tugging and kicking ineffectually. As I got older and bigger I rode bigger horses, so the horses and I have tended to stay near a ten to one weight differential. Making them do anything is an illusion, but that didn’t stop me from trying.

It wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I first encountered trainers who approached horses in a different way, with the focus on the relationship between horse and human, rather than (as much) on the dominance of human over horse. I’ve learned a different way of approaching my horses, and both they and I like it much better. Even so, much like yoga, when I have taken a lesson from one of these instructors I have often left the lesson feeling more like “Well, that wasn’t so bad” and less like “How can I do more of that?”

One thing that comes up often in the lessons I’ve taken with this newer (to me) approach is the idea of giving to pressure. Whether it’s me riding, or the instructor working my horse, just about the first thing that happens is to see how the horse gives to pressure. I understand it in concept – if your horse is pushing against you or ignoring you or exploding when you apply pressure, even very light pressure, you are in a bit of trouble.  But lately I’ve been wondering what would happen if, with another human, I approached them with the intent of applying pressure on them in some way to see how they responded to it. Even if it was an employee, someone I am paying to do a particular job, I can’t think that would go very well. I know it doesn’t go well for me when the main thing I feel – in, say, a yoga class – is pressure. Like many horses I know, my response to it is often to shut down. I may appear to comply with the instructions I’m given, but I don’t enjoy it, I don’t find it relaxing, and I don’t want to do it more often.

I don’t ride much these days, but I have my horses living at home and I handle them daily. Sometimes I just go through the motions, because doing what I need to do with the horses is something I need to check off my task list for the day. If I approach the horses in this frame of mind, if any of the horses has any concerns about anything at all that day, our interaction is not going to be very positive.

Case in point: blanketing Finn. I blanket my horses below certain temperature and/or in certain types of precipitation. Never mind that I have been blanketing all of the horses for years and years, blanketing is always something of an issue for Finn. The worst it ever got was several years ago when I was trying to take his blanket off on a cold, dry day, and after I undid the leg straps and the belly straps, I moved to unhook the chest straps. In doing so I touched him on the neck and we gave each other a little shock of static electricity. Let me clarify: to me, it was little. To Finn, it was huge. He took off running, blanket flapping in the breeze. In not too many seconds the blanket flipped off his back entirely, leaving it hanging around his neck and front legs as he galloped in a blind panic. I figured (and hoped) the blanket would tear off – and it did, in a way. The binding around the neck and the chest straps held, so while he tore most of the blanket away and left it in the dust, he was still wearing a collar of blanket remains around his neck.

It took a long time that day for me to get close enough to him to get that blanket collar off. Just as Finn’s brain went into panic mode, mine went into “make him do it” mode, and instead of just leaving him alone (in retrospect, the “worst” thing that might have happened would possibly have been the best thing – if he put his head down to eat hay and the rest of the blanket fell off over his head of its own accord), I decided to stay out there and keep approaching him until I could get the blanket bits off. Probably because I did that, and in doing so kept his fear and adrenaline spiked, approaching him with a blanket – or a halter, or just at all – did not go smoothly for quite a while afterwards.

Last winter I went out to feed and blanket the horses one evening. As I picked up Finn’s blanket to put it on him, he spooked and jumped sideways away from his feed. I stayed where I was – I didn’t back up, move closer, speak, or raise or lower the blanket. I just stood. He took a hard look at me while facing me, and then he swung around so his left side was in front of me. He took in a big breath, squared up on all four feet, and then let out the breath and I could see and feel him settle his whole body and wait for me to put the blanket on. I did, and buckled all the straps, and then he calmly resumed eating.

As I was walking back to the house, I found I was thinking about yin. I thought about my friend, horsewoman, and writer Anna Blake saying that a huge percentage of riders are women but almost all instructors are men. I thought about the state of our country right now, and the percentage of elected officials (I just can’t call them “leaders”) who are men. But again, it’s not – or not only – a male/female distinction. The terms associated with yang include heat, light, strength, active, and giving form to all things. The terms associated with yin include cool, dark, soft, receptive, and giving spirit to all things. The yin yang symbol shows both parts of equal size. I think the work in front of me is to even those things up in myself, and in order to do that, just as if I were trying to even up an underdeveloped set of muscles with an overdeveloped set of muscles, I have to focus on strengthening the weaker ones and not on further working the strong ones. More dark, more cool, more soft, more receptive, more spirit. I’m pretty sure my horses will be grateful.

Finn2

Horsemanship through Triathlon, part 2

 

I left off last week at the intersection of SLOW DOWN and PLAN AHEAD. I did mention that “slow down” was reasonable since my main goal was to finish the event. As it turned out, a cyclist crashed while I was on the bike course, and we were held up in a big cluster while the medevac helicopter came to get him. Some of the folks near me were complaining about the hold-up and their race time, and all I could think was “If you are out here with me, you are in no danger of winning this thing.” (the cyclist was ok, and the first question he asked when he woke up in the hospital was “Where’s my bike?”) All that said, even when I am trying to go fast I find it helps me to slow down. A frenetic fast gets me nowhere. And slowing down, if only slowing my mind down, helps give me time to – you got it:

PLAN AHEAD

From a horsemanship standpoint, this also ties to a thing I have heard called the “scale of aids” – basically, a 1 is no pressure at all, and a 10 is more pressure than you would really ever want to use on your horse. The aids we give the horse fall somewhere on this scale, and you have to be at least one mental step ahead where you are physically in order to have time to apply the right aid at the right level. Or perhaps it would be better put to say you have to be aware enough of your surroundings to know not only what is happening now, but what is coming up next. Let me say first of all that I am not in any way comparing a horse to a bicycle here, but I did have a big revelation about the whole idea of a scale of 1-10 while learning to shift.  Bikes, or at least the road bike I was riding, have front and rear chain rings for changing gears (and a whole lot more gears than they used to have, might I add).  The 3 front rings change the gearing a lot, and the 10 rear ones change it less.

Cycling for 20 or 30 miles at a time in this hilly county where I live gave me lots of time to think and also lots of opportunity to shift.  At first this was a pretty klunky process (the shifting, but sometimes the thinking too), and I have to admit I often shifted just because I guessed it might be time to, or I was bored, or I wanted to see what would happen if I did.  One of these times I managed to completely lock up my derailleur by shifting too much at the wrong time in the middle of an uphill in traffic and had to quickly apply my “unclip both feet” lesson.  I’ve done the equivalent of this on horseback, and gotten a pretty nice view from above of my horse’s back before I hit the ground. Over time I have learned that if I pay attention to the terrain, and to how I feel, I can generally anticipate what kind of shift I will need to make and when I will need to make it. Or, with my horses, the kind of aid I need and when I need it – or perhaps more important, when I don’t need to do anything. This has gone hand in hand with learning more about…

CADENCE

In triathlon training I first heard about cadence while biking, but it turns out to apply to everything.  Keeping a steady cadence on a bike greatly helps decrease perceived exertion and generally makes the bike ride easier and more fun (assuming you keep a cadence your muscles and lungs can actually do – more on this later).  And in order to keep a steady cadence, you have to make the right size adjustment at the right time so that you don’t have big lurches downward in speed (which happens when you shift to a much harder gear than you meant to) and so you don’t wind up pedaling so fast that you feel like your legs might fly off (which happens when you shift to a much easier gear than you meant to).  Now sometimes a big change is the correct thing to keep your cadence steady, but you have to know what’s coming (plan ahead…) to know when that’s true.  Cadence also comes in when swimming (strokes per length in a pool eventually translates to a rhythm in open water) and when running (which is the one place where I seem to have a natural cadence that works).  And of course in riding.  The huge and inadvertent cadence changes while biking really clarified some things for me about the thing I always want to work on in my riding – smoothing out my transitions.  Which of course turns out to have everything to do with planning ahead and with making the appropriate scale request for the change. Knowing what you want and thinking about how to achieve it of course leads me to:

SET GOALS

This could also be called Plan Ahead part 3, but it’s more specific.  I’ve heard horsemen I respect say many times that rather than just getting on your horse and seeing what happens, you want to have a goal.  I’ve gotten so hung up on trying not to pressure my horses – or myself (“I just want to finish the course” applies to a lot of things for me) – that I often don’t want to set goals more than about an hour ahead of right now.  But I found that it helped me immeasurably to have one specific long term goal (complete an Olympic distance triathlon on May 18) and smaller but also fairly specific goals leading up to it.  These goals varied a lot.  “Do a workout in each of the 3 disciplines twice a week” was a fairly general goal.  “Increase my run cadence from 170 to 180” was more specific.  “Ride a practice ride on the bike course without braking on the downhills” was another type of goal. So some of them were technique things and some were more about getting accustomed to how something felt. “Figure out how to swim 1500 yards in the wetsuit without panicking” was actually my goal for one workout.  It took a lot of SLOW DOWN to reach that goal that day!  The other aspect of goal setting I learned while training for my first triathlon is to set goals in the positive – “finish the swim smiling” vs “don’t drown in the lake.”  Or, with my horses, “ride with softness and confidence” vs “don’t get bucked off.”

BLACK BELT MOVES

One of my best horsemanship teachers is an advanced martial artist and I’ve heard him talk about a yellow belt trying to (or wanting to) do black belt moves.  I’m not a martial artist of any kind but I thought I understood what he meant.  Something I came to a very different understanding of during triathlon training is that I am where I am, and while I can work towards learning more, or doing something better, it is also true that I am where I need to be.  I may hear someone else talk about something they did or felt and it may sound really cool to me – or maybe it just sounds really odd to me because I don’t even understand it – but the fact is, when I’m ready to do or feel that thing then I will be ready to do or feel that thing.  That probably doesn’t sound at all like what I mean. This brings me back to what I said about a cadence I can actually do. If I try to match some ideal cadence I’ve been told to do, and I physically can’t do it, I need to do something else.

Maybe it’s really about acceptance.  I may see a high level swimmer who can cross a pool in 11 strokes, and it takes me 24. As I improve my technique and my feel, I can get that down from 24 to 20.  And maybe eventually I can get it down to 11, or maybe I can’t.  Maybe I have to be 6 feet tall to do that, I don’t know.  But if I try to do it in 11 strokes, I will not only exhaust myself within minutes; I will disappoint myself with every attempt and I will never be able to see that I have improved from 24 to 22 strokes because all I will see is that it is not 11.  Which I suppose leads to the next thing:

STAY PRESENT

Being in the lake during the triathlon I was about as present as I have ever been.  I knew that I had to stay focused on each stroke and to keep telling myself to slow down because I had had so much trouble in my first swim practices in the wetsuit with focusing on the other swimmers and how fast I was (not) compared to them – this was where I would start fretting about being the last athlete on the course and all kinds of other things that had nothing to do with now.  What I found was that almost from the beginning as I focused on my stroke and how I felt in the water, what I felt was… GREAT.  I was having so much fun!  I felt like when I was a kid swimming in a lake, just playing in the water and loving every minute of it.  No worries about who else was doing what or what was coming next or anything.  Staying present helped get me to my next  point, which is:

HAVE FUN WHILE WORKING HARD

A week to the day after that first triathlon, I went to the first horse show I had been to in about 9 years.  It was a little local schooling show with maybe 25 riders, on an absolutely beautiful spring day on a gorgeous farm.  And NO ONE, not one single rider (or one single horse), looked like they were enjoying one single thing they were doing.  A week before, I had been with 1800 other people, some of whom are the top international competitors in their sport, and some who were total novices like me, and I did not encounter one person who didn’t smile or have something nice and/or helpful to say to someone else.  Now, I’m sure (I hope) I missed someone who was having a blast a the dressage show, and someone probably was miserable at the triathlon, but in either case it was hard to find.

It had already started to dawn on me that I too had gotten very far away from having fun with my riding, but this brought it home to me even more.  Or more accurately, it brought home to me that I had put up a big divide between having fun and working hard.  It became an either/or thing for me – sometimes I enjoy my horses, and sometimes I work my horses. But not both at the same time. It’s fair to say this can be a struggle for me in other areas. I don’t always remember that it’s not either/or, but when I catch myself I often remind myself of the smiling triathletes, or of one more little lesson I learned:

SIMPLE ANSWERS

When we showed up at the course to set up our “transition area” where we would get on our bikes after the swim, and get into our running shoes after the bike course, several of us first-timers were in a bit of a panic about how to fit our belongings in a very narrow area of a bike rack without impinging on people next to us. An experienced competitor overheard us fretting and he came over to say: “Your SHIT goes under your BIKE. You put your SHIT under your BIKE.” And there you have it. I’m not sure that last one has anything to do with horsemanship, but since it is one of my bigger areas of overthinking, I’m sure it does. Do the simplest thing and stop fretting. Not a bad lesson for life in general.

Team Crystal Tower Bear Bells

Horsemanship through Triathlon, part 1

Lil

Right around when I turned 40 I decided it would be a good idea to compete in a triathlon. Well, that’s not entirely how it went. A friend of our had been doing distance events – century bike rides, triathlons of various lengths – as fundraisers for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Through a combination of I no longer remember what – but I know it included his enthusiasm for the cause and for the events, some persuasive rhetoric about the bonds formed with the people he trained with, a friend of his whom we had met who was diagnosed with lymphoma, and, I can only assume, quite a bit of wine – Rose and I decided to sign up.

At the time I was still in the pre-facebook days of connecting with people I had shared interests with but didn’t actually know in person via Yahoo groups. There was a horsemanship group I had joined up with about five years earlier. That group, all of its different iterations, the people I met through it, and the people I met through those people – well, that’s a blog post or three all by itself. The general exploration we were all doing in our horsemanship was (and is) all about how horsemanship isn’t just a thing that applies to our riding, or our time with horses. It’s pretty well impossible to be any kind of a horseman and not take the principles and behaviors that serve you (and your horses) there into the rest of your life.

Given that, I should not have been surprised by how much of what I was working on in my horsemanship turned out to be applicable to triathlon, but I was.  And I was also surprised to find that some things that I thought I knew a little something about from horsemanship I gained a deeper understanding of from swimming, or biking, or running, or all three. I don’t ride horses much any more, and I haven’t done a triathlon for nine years, but I find myself reminiscing about both things right now when it’s about 187 degrees outside and I’m hiding in the house.

When I started triathlon training, the thing I noticed right away was how much I learned about learning.  It had been a while since I tried something new, and I am a person who likes to know what I’m doing before I sign up to learn about it. I was familiar with the component parts of a triathlon in a general way. I knew how to run and swim and bike – a little.  The longest race I’d ever run was a 5K.  I could swim enough to enjoy it and I knew more or less how to do three of the 4 main strokes (emphatically NOT the butterfly), but I was never a swim team kid and really never took lessons.  I had been on a bike maybe twice in the previous 20 years, and prior to that wasn’t much of a biker anyway.  The task at hand was a 1.5K (.93 mile) swim, 40K (24.8 mile) bike ride and 10K (6.2 mile) run, so I had some learning to do.

There were several categories of learning, or maybe better to say several topics I learned about, as I figured how how to get through those 30+ miles. I think I’ll group this by topic.

FEAR

One of the things that turned out to be a big factor in learning was fear. I rode horses a lot as a kid and would do absolutely anything absolutely anywhere, but then I got older and found that I don’t bounce the way I used to when I hit the ground.  I did not (and still do not) like to admit fear around horse-related activity.  When I started triathlon training I was still teaching the occasional riding lesson. When I had a student who spent the whole lesson looking like they want to cry or throw up but who told me they felt great, I wondered who they thought they were fooling – so of course I had to ask the same of myself.

Admitting I was terrified on a bicycle came a lot easier to me than admitting when I was scared around a horse. When it came to riding my bike down hill – well, ok, I have to admit – when it came to riding my bike at all, I was SCARED. The idea of swimming almost a mile when usually I maxed out at a quarter mile and then only when I stopped every 4 laps or so and rest was just as scary.  And I saw no way around it, so I just kept saying to anyone who would listen, “THIS IS REALLY SCARY”.  But I was determined to do this thing, so I had to figure out how to get past the fear.

Several lessons came out of just (just!) learning to deal with the fear. First, I would rather say the thing that is funny than the thing that shows vulnerability, but during that time it became increasingly important to me to spend more time practicing having my insides and outsides match, which meant admitting what I actually felt – out loud, to other people. Second, as long as I deny something, I keep myself from learning how to deal with it or move past it. Third, fear can actually be a good impetus for learning how to do something better and more safely. And finally, my patience with people – and horses – who are afraid increased exponentially as my desire for them to just get over it (you know, like I would…) decreased and my understanding of how fear impacts both mind and body increased.

BREATHING

And then there was the breathing. Breathing (without periods of holding my breath), breathing deeply and regularly, counting how many strides my horse took during my inhale and my exhale – I’d been working on this in my riding for several years. I had, of course, been thinking that my breathing had improved.  And it probably had.  Turns out breathing is even more important when you swim, and any weaknesses you have in this area are magnified quite a lot under water.

For the previous forty years – or however many since I first learned to swim – I had only breathed to the right when doing crawl.  Couldn’t (wouldn’t) even contemplate turning my head to the left.  Every once in a while I’d try, get a mouth (or lung) full of water and give up. When you are swimming in open water you never know which side the wind might be coming from or which direction you might have to go, so you best learn to breathe on both sides or you may find yourself doing a mile of dog paddle (not that there’s anything wrong with that) to avoid swallowing your body weight in funky river or ocean or lake water.

Learning to breathe on my left brought up a whole lot of other things that were one-sided about me.  My neck was stiffer on the left, and my left shoulder was stiffer than my right. My back muscles were uneven from years of doing things (mucking stalls included) only – or mostly – one sided.  The more I practiced breathing on both sides in the water, the more I practiced evening out my body, and the better balanced I found I became on a horse, or even just on the ground.  Which brings me to another benefit of the breathing lesson, which is that in order to learn to do it correctly while swimming I had to…

SLOW DOWN

From the beginning I was realistic enough to know that my number one goal was to complete the triathlon (goal 1.1 was not to be the very last person on the course).  Going too fast early on and burning myself out or hurting myself was a pretty sure way not to reach that goal.  And it also turned out that when learning to do something new (or an old thing a new way) it’s a lot easier – and more productive – to break it down and slow it down.

I learned this on the day I finally got brave enough to get on my bike in what they call “clipless pedals” – which means the kind you clip yourself into. I got on my bike in my driveway, clipped in, and started to pedal gently around the circle by the garage.  When I wanted to stop for a second I figured it would be quicker to just unclip one foot and put that foot on the ground with my other foot still on the pedal.  Excellent plan – except it required a level of coordination I did not yet have on the bike.  So in my attempt to do the fast and easy (ha!) thing, I unclipped my left pedal  to put my left foot down – and promptly fell to the right with my right foot still clipped in and the bike on top of me.

Two immediate changes I made in my life:  any time I think I might need to stop on my bike I immediately unclip both feet.  And any time I think “I might need to close that gate before I…” I go and close the gate.  Don’t ask me why I connected those two things in that moment on the asphalt under my bike, but I did.  This is where SLOW DOWN merges with PLAN AHEAD, which is where I will pick up next time.

Triathlon

 

 

Some Pig

Piglet Nursing

Twelve years ago I decided it was time to go back to school and finish the college degree I had not gotten nearly twenty years before that. During my first time at college I completed three and a half years of what would have been at least a six year program due to my inability to decide on a major. I started out as an animal science major. I had always assumed I would become a vet, probably a zoo vet. I was not daunted by the courses required for pre-vet studies; I was simply distracted by the multitude of options.

By midway through my first year I had decided to switch to political science. When I signed up for classes the fall of my sophomore year, I declared myself a Russian major. This may or may not have had anything to do with the fact that a) I missed all the deadlines and had to go to in-person registration where only the dregs of classes are left, and b) the only food to eat in the house for breakfast was the remains of a pan of brownies I had made the night before. Yes, those kind of brownies.

I had a brief flirtation with environmental science. I would have switched to microbiology if the school had had such a major at the time. I eventually settled on a double major in biology and philosophy. On second thought, maybe it’s not so surprising I did not stick around to get a degree.

Fast forward eighteen years and I was back to thinking vet school was a good idea. I enrolled once again, though at a different school, as an animal science major, this time surrounded by kids who were the same age as my youngest child. My classes were a blend of animal science classes like livestock management, pre-vet classes like physiology, classes I had to take again because the science had changed in twenty years like biology 101, classes I had managed to avoid the first time like organic chemistry, and classes I had to take for distribution requirements like history. For my first three semesters I would despondently review my class choices, this time without benefit of pot brownies, wondering how when I was so sure I wanted to be back in school and studying animal science there were so many classes I had to take that I didn’t want to take.

There were several different concentrations within the animal science major, not just pre-vet, and when I looked at them more closely I realized that the more general animal management track was full of classes that actually interested me. Around the same time I heard about a coveted internship at a large animal research lab that seemed like a good way to get some experience in a field I might be able to work in after graduation. The prospect of a starter job – and starter salary – when I was in my forties and had a mortgage, kids in college, and all the other financial ballast that accumulates when you no longer have a starter life was not something I could see a way to make work financially. Lab science tends to pay better than most animal sciences, even at the lowest level. My lab science professor, who was also the veterinarian for the school’s labs, was very up front about saying that it pays more because it’s hard and no one who gets into animal science because they love animals really wants to do it. What she meant by this wouldn’t become obvious to me until later.

At the time, I got no response from the lab to my inquiries about their internship. My classmates had the same issue, and we heard rumors that they were no longer taking students from our program. My first opportunity to apply my learning hands-on was a stint at the state fair birthing center, which was run by my livestock management professor who was and is one of my favorite people. The birthing center houses cows, pigs, and chicken eggs, and over the eleven days of the fair gives fair goers an opportunity to witness the births of calves, piglets, and chicks, and also an opportunity to pat the chicks and piglets. Swine flu outbreaks at state fairs have since ruled out piglet patting, but for the two seasons I was there we spent our days taking turns narrating the births, and holding piglets and chicks for people to pat and ask questions.

I don’t think I had ever met a pig in person before the fair, and I was hooked from the first day. We had some particularly special sows that year. The state fair pigs come from 4H projects. These kids love their pigs, but they are ruthlessly practical. All of them raise their animals for meat. They cuddle them and love them and care for them, and then they send them to market. One of them kept the meat from his favorite pig every year, and sold the others. Another kept some sausage from each of her pigs, labeled with their names, so she could do a taste comparison.

I can take or leave cows, and I can mostly leave chickens, but pigs got under my skin immediately and permanently. Even when I got attacked by Pigzilla the first year – I was checking her for milk to see when she might give birth, and she woke up from her nap by leaping onto her feet and charging me with mouth open, roaring. I have zero vertical leap but I jumped the five foot fence around her pen in one bound, landing on a group of surprised onlookers. 4H sows (Pigzilla aside) are by and large sweet and used to being handled. Piglets are adorable, but they are much easier to manage – and much less likely to permanently damage your hearing – if you can hold them while they are sleeping. My fellow birthing center workers would sometimes ask me if I could lull a piglet to sleep so they could hold one that wasn’t wiggling and shrieking. They called me the pig whisperer.

Some time after my first time at the fair the research lab of the coveted internship was hiring a lab tech, and a classmate who had graduated before me and who had, unbeknownst to me, started working there, reached out to let me know. The opportunity to work with pigs (and goats and sheep) all day AND make money doing it? A no brainer for me. Turns out I should have used a brain or two to think that through a little more.

By my second day in the lab, I knew I had made a bad choice. I was in the necropsy room – basically a closet with a concrete floor with a drain in it – using a kitchen knife – and not a very sharp one, at that – to cut the hind legs off of the thirty-odd goats that had reached the end of their study that day. There are plenty of euphemisms about death in the world – pass away, cross over, euthanize, put down, just to name a few. Lab science adds a whole new level: end of study, harvest, collection. When we lab techs were talking to the scientists, we used their terms, but when we talked among ourselves we were more direct. “End of study” days we called “death days.” As we were finishing up lunch, one of us would say “Ok, time to go kill those sheep.” My third day there, I worked with a pig for the first time. About ten seconds after it was dead I was up to my elbows in its chest cavity, while one of the more experienced techs talked me through how to remove its heart and lungs by feel.

The lab had a mixed bag of studies, almost all surgical. Some were what are called “acute” procedures, meaning the animal is dead by the time the surgery is over. Some were long term, so the animals had weeks or months after their surgery before harvest day arrived. As techs, in addition to assisting with surgeries, we fed the animals and cleaned their stalls. We prepped them for surgery, we monitored them after surgery, we administered their pain meds. And then we killed them.

Monitoring any animal in post op is intense. Pigs in particular take a long time to come out of anesthesia, and sometimes we would sit with them for hours, checking their vital signs every ten minutes. Literally sit with them, in their pens, often with some portion of the pig in our laps. The first two pigs from one study I was assigned to were in so much pain following jaw surgery that they wouldn’t eat. The only thing I could tempt them with was the syrup from a case of fruit cups long past their expiration date that we found sitting on a shelf in among the gauze and bandages. After the first day they would also eat the fruit, but only if I fed it to them by hand. I was eventually able to wean them on to eating soaked feed topped with fruit cup, and then just the soaked feed. Six months later they had grown from roughly 75 pounds at the time of surgery to 300 pounds. We were in surgery with another pig from the same study when the scientist stopped by to talk to the surgeon about how best to see what they needed to see at end of study. They had done earlier CT scans to look at the results of the surgery in the pigs’ jaws but by now the pigs were too big to fit in the scanner. I forget if it was the surgeon or the scientist who came up with the solution to cut the pigs’ heads off and just take the heads for scanning.

The most surprising part of this story is that I stayed there for a year. It took me that long to realize that I had gotten so far away from who I am that I was about to lose myself entirely. I was so focused on trying to do it well, on what I could learn, on the possible opportunities it could lead to. I was buried under the weight of my own expectations about what it meant to change careers, fear of explaining to anyone else why I spent all this time and money going back to school only to not be able to hack it in my new field, and a lifelong belief that I needed to just suck it up and tough it out, whatever the obstacle. I’d like to be able to sum up the whole experience with a tidy life lesson, but life lessons for me are rarely tidy. Sometimes I have to make massive mistakes, mistakes so big they can be seen from space, for me to get a message that I need to get. Maybe the fact that the pigs are on my mind today means there’s another message I need. Or maybe it just means I’ve finally forgiven myself enough to write about it.

Heart Piglets