Month: July 2014

Saved In South West Texas

My nine year old daughter is obsessed with horses.  I rank it up there with being obsessed with The Ritz Carlton, or gold bars.  There is not a doubt, horses are magnificent animals, those enormous eyes baring into your soul, figuring out whether or not they can buck you off and still get their oats when they trot back to the barn riderless.  Oh, I am well acquainted with these animals and our relationship is complicated.

Flying through the air six feet above the ground and landing on your head is not an enviable experience, especially if you are going sixty miles an hour.  Even if you land on your back, or your butt, or your shoulder, it still sucks.  To Native Americans (yes, I am lumping them all into one category here), horses are energy grounders, which means they absorb yours, it flows through their bodies, down their legs, and into the ground where it is neutralized, therapeutically.  Learning this helped bring a fresh perspective to these animals, whom I have always loved and who have nearly killed me on several occasions:  they absorb my crazy energy, which makes them in turn crazy until some sort of grounding occurs, and thus far that means I end up on the ground, which seems to be my role in the relationship.  Some would call it dysfunctional, but I’m not going to throw the foal out with the bathwater quite yet.

When I was young I had riding lessons at a stable not far from our house.  It smelled.  The horses were fat.  My mom testified that horses kicked indiscriminately and to not get near them, especially their legs, which is difficult to do when you are learning to ride them.  The first time I ever fell from one was at this barn.  I leaned over to help my boot slip into the stirrup and all the lazy appaloosa had to do was shrug its shoulders, which it did, and I was on the ground wondering what the hell had happened.  This was only the beginning of a long string of challenging equine experiences.

At a ranch in southwest Texas I rode a dappled gray dragon in disguise.  His name was Blue and he was the largest creature I had ever seen, a massive quarter horse with three thousand acres of cactus, rocks and pure open space to explore at obscene speeds, unmolested, all year round.  There were three of us, college friends in Austin for a summer of excitement and adventure and I had never been so far south in the U.S.  It was like being on another planet:  flat, desolate, scrubby and prickly.  Occasionally a mirage of Longhorn cattle appeared in the haze to stare at you, and would fizzle into the heat and disappear.  Under such foreign circumstances we saddled our horses and headed off into the expanse.  When I playfully yelled, HeeYAH!, and slapped Blue’s rear, I wasn’t expecting to propel through the air at supernatural speed.  Most horses I had ridden up to that moment ignored me completely, until they decided to throw me.  I was blinded as the hot air ripped into my eyeballs and whipped my hair around, lashing my face and shoulders like tiny whips.  I tried to slow Blue down, but he mocked my WHOAs and stretched his neck even further, galloping faster, and faster.

I don’t remember hitting the ground.  My eyes were closed and it was dreamlike quiet, the thundering of hooves absent, when a soft muzzle nudged into my forehead and a loud snort puffed the hair from my face.  It was a slow and painful rising, but eventually I pulled myself up with the help of Blue standing close to me and being absolutely still.  Perhaps he could see what I couldn’t:  blood pooling in my hair and running down my cactus needle-covered back and into my jeans.  I pulled myself into the saddle just as the other two horses galloped up to us, panting, horrified.

Blue walked me gently back to the ranch where I was loaded into a car and hauled off to town.  I laid on my stomach on a steel bed while the doctor/veterinarian numbed my head with a syringe meant for a much larger creature than me, and sewed the gaping wound in the back of my head with twenty-three stitches.  Gospel music blared in the background and he sang along passionately as he tugged and stitched, and plucked the hundreds of cactus needles from my body.  When it was over, he congratulated me for being saved.  The Lord Jesus guaranteed you were hurt just enough to get to town, but not enough to be flown to Austin, he said in a slow, happy drawl.  He hugged me, led me across the deserted street to a nondescript building, and opened the door.  The entire town was piled inside, singing, a contagious joy hung in the air and wrapped all around me.  Perhaps next time Jesus could let me fall into a patch of grass instead of cactus.

A less dramatic ejection was in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.  My sister worked on a beautiful ranch, which meant that I got to hang out there as well and pretend to work.  Our cousin was visiting and a group of us went out for a late afternoon ride through the mountains.  Indian paintbrush, bluebells and columbine dotted our paths across meadows and alongside mountain streams, through aspen groves, sage brush and pine forests.  Unbeknownst to me, my horse, a white beast who smashed me into every tree and hanging branch he could find for three hours, wanted to have a quiet day back at the barn and I was wrecking his plans.  He snorted and stomped, kicked every horse who dared approach, and periodically ripped the reins from my hands.  By the time the landscape opened and the ranch came into view, my legs were bruised, my pants were ripped, my pinkie was broken, and a cut on my cheek was bleeding.  As I pulled leaves and sticks from my hair, the monster sensed an opportunity.  He chucked me in the dirt and disappeared into the trail of dust his hasty escape swirled into the air.  Luckily, it wasn’t a far walk for someone in my condition, albeit a tad humiliating, and my cousin rode and snickered beside me.  Things were getting better, though.

Not long ago, riding with friends in Augusta, Georgia, my spunky chestnut with a white lightening bolt emblazoned down her face suddenly accelerated to uncomfortably fast.  Had I not been down this road a dozen times or so, I would have been scared.  Alas, I smiled, held on tight, and tried to relax… I tend to survive these moments.  We were set to blow by the others when I utilized my unique vocal projection skills and called a polite SOS to the foreman up ahead:   EXCUSE ME, EXCUSE ME!  In an instant his horse met mine and in perfect harmony we swung to a stop.  My heart raced through my chest.  The foreman rested his hands on the horn of his saddle, chuckling, looking at me as though my nose had just turned into a carrot .  I have never seen anything like that before, he said over and over again in a slow southern drawl, shaking his head.  In imitating my civilized plea for help, he sat tall for the others and wide eyed, smiling, princess waving high in the air, “EXCUSE ME!  EXCUSE ME!”   Although my ego suffered silently, at least I wasn’t bruised and bloodied, so in that regard some real progress was being made.

Interestingly, my husband rides and has no issues with these four-legged creatures;  in fact, he speaks their language.  As does my sister.  I would love to learn, by the way, but I’m so busy trying to stay alive that it somehow alludes me.  Perhaps it’s the stress.  Nevertheless, my nine-year old has the bug.  She speaks to them, and they to her.  At horse camp pick-up she showed us around the barn and introduced us to every one, complete psychological profiles.  This one is Nelly, she said, Stay away from the mares, they’re moody.  Life lessons in the barn.  Then on to Donner and Blitzen, one bites and one kicks, not very Christmas-y, if you ask me.  Joe, whose head is the size of my torso, I’ll stay away from that one.  And on and on through the barn.  Hank is an old one who pretends he’s a statue, even when someone is trying to ride him.  Caitlin loves Hank and is saving her allowance to buy him, and if he lives to see that day, I will be surprised.  When all is said and done, I still love horses.  I love being around them, admiring them, even riding them, even though for me it frequently ends badly.  Perhaps there was something to that sermon down in southwest Texas, something about being saved…

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All Funnied Out Until September

This is not my favorite time of year.  Crunchy ground, frost framing window panes, the warm glow of a fire, the silence of snowfall:  lovely, lovely Winter is my favorite.  In a close second is Fall with it’s rich colors and cool evenings, leaves rustling and falling, animals preparing, dashing about in their last hurrah.  Next is Spring in its glorious awakening and unpredictability, delivering colorful abundance and the cheerfulness we have all learned to expect.  The three together culminating in a nine-month family and friend affair chock full of birthdays and holidays, most of which have something to do with gratitude and love.  And then, there is Summer…

One of my biggest issues with summer is the widespread obsession with sunscreen and the scorn that diehard adherents reserve for those who refuse to slather stinky stuff onto our skin just so we can brag about how brilliant we are for doing just that one thing.  All else could be a complete bust, but if you dunk your family in 75+ you are a genius, and you can write a book on parenting, and run for office.  Personally, a nice glow is the most decent thing about the entire season, the one chance for everyone to at least look cheerful and alive, to fill up on Vitamin D and melatonin.  But the tyrants want summer to be sticky, noxious and pale.  And expensive.  I shouldn’t have to argue with so many about the whole sunscreen controversy.  That I choose to not buy poisonous chemicals that may or may not prevent my skin from developing cancerous tissue at some point in my life is nobody’s business but mine, and that they think it is makes me despise summer even more.  Because summer makes people nosy.

It is also when mothers turn into helmet centurions, wagging their fingers and shaking their heads as they paint their toddlers’ arms and faces in goo, while buckled to a tricycle two inches off the ground and strapped into a helmet the size of a suitcase.  I am in the perfect frame of mind to argue against this paranoid, mom-generated tyranny all the way from Memorial Day to Labor Day.  They must think an enormous ball of radiated rays is going to fall on their children if they happen to turn their helicopter eyes away from the flat driveway for a split second.  I do not share this type of fear.  It requires an extraordinary amount energy to maintain a complete suspension of reason.  To be terrified of a two inch fall, one must constantly be imagining crashes and blood and breakage, and lost scholarships.  I have not noticed the same degree of paranoia the other nine months of the year.  Because summer makes people irrational.

Women love summer.  It is a woman’s season, and women are difficult.  They wait for it.  They diet in anticipation of it.  They buy clothes to show off how their diet succeeded and then they complain all winter long about how the cold made them gain it all back.  They chat about camps and beaches and clubs and vacations.  They read magazines and talk about their pedicures and how they’re just not as good as they used to be, and about what the heat does to their hair.  I know this because I participate in the emptiness, and I hear it as it leaves my mouth and I feel like I’ve been possessed, unwittingly driveling and sniveling, and I pray that God will drop an arctic weather bomb and free us from our heat-inspired insipidness.  Let the cold wind shock us into depth and mental clarity, let it force us to jump around and huddle close together to keep warm.  May the temperamental and deciduous dream of Florida as their leaves and bikinis fall away for the year.  Because summer makes people shallow.

There is another frustration that is gnawing at me, and it is that I want to laugh more.  I want to be around funny people, and I want us all to laugh together in a cackling chorus of frivolity and wit.  I want the random phone calls from faraway friends and the meeting of kindred spirits with whom you can banter for hours, best friends in humor, forever.  But summer is too disjointed and hot for this.  People are more easily agitated, they are too busy road raging and sitting in air-conditioned rooms to work into an endorphin laughing fit.  So, here I sit, writing one unfunny essay after another, trying to fulfill an arbitrary posting goal and coax at least one crooked smile from my husband as he scans it.  Of remembering the good ol’ days of September through May in any given year, and of being stuck, waiting for the pool to open, for vacation to arrive, for camps to begin, sitting in a lounge chair with a criss-cross pattern of plastic weave imprinted in the backs of sunburned legs.  Because summer is not funny.

It’s an incredible feeling to make someone smile, or laugh.   But good humor, for me anyway, is conditional.  It has to be just right, the proper ratio of ingredients:  affable companions, absence of stress, excess of endorphins, good energy, lack of judgment.  It does’t take much more than a negative nellie or a know-it-all, or a super-serious jerk, humor parasites who suck creativity wells dry, to leave those around them inspiration-less and depressed.  Conversely, there are the muses who may not even say a word but simply being in the same room with them fills you with so much positivity and energy you feel you may explode with ideas, and happiness.  I don’t know where the muses hide, but I know they don’t like the heat.  Because summer makes people crabby.

And so it is, I’m stuck in a rut that is just as un-fun to experience as it is to be around.  I find myself wanting to read political treatises and to complain, to analyze human nature and protest things, and to be nosy.  I want to brood and to be serious.  To be analytical and argumentative, and at times, shallow.  This time of year is very stressful for the mercurial types, irrationally sensitive to seasonal changes and who wilt in heat and humidity, indeed not funny.  And, not to sound crabby, but for some of us summer is a misery filled with bugs, body odor, and a panoply of chemicals, mildew, skinned elbows and knees, and incessant demands for play dates.  Where is the joy?   I do apologize if you are a summer lover.  I’m not trying to spoil your sweaty adventures, I’m just not a fan.  Because summer is stressful.   And I’m all funnied out… until September.

 

Two Gigs and a Warehouse

Not so long ago I was in a rock and roll band that tested my previously high tolerance for drama and danger.  Music has a way of attracting colorful characters, sensitive types with explosive and expressive personalities.  The kind and the wounded.  Having only played the guitar for six months or so, I was honored to be invited to sit in with some musicians who were talented and seasoned, and I was looking forward to the experiential learning that is more my style than the incremental.  We rehearsed Thursday nights in an old converted warehouse that rented two stories of studios with padded walls, black paint and graffiti, soiled bathrooms, grungy floors.  It was disgusting.  And in a terrifying part of town.  And I loved it.

This is not how it was described to me, but if one were to ask directions to the studio, they would accurately be thus:  Drive south under the Saint Louis University archway on Jefferson (the one where the “S” in “Saint” is upside down), cross over the highway and keep going until you feel uncomfortable.  Take a right at a gas station you thank god you don’t need.  After three stop signs (at each one check the locks on your doors and take notice of the prostitutes staring at you across the street).  Veer right towards a weedy lot.  The Warehouse is the lone, dark structure with an open gravel parking lot dotted with tattooed skinny people in interesting tee-shirts.  You made it!

Inside was a deep cave with hallways holding secret doors that opened and closed as people darted in and out, loud bursts of music escaping for an instant and disappearing.  There were pool tables in a ghostly common area at the entrance just behind the steel door you had to be buzzed in through by a faceless, ageless reading guy at a desk who pushed the button to let you in and never looked up at anyone.  Ever.  The thumping of drum beats and vibrations of strings mixed in the air, where you knew there was music, and it was exciting, but you couldn’t tell whether it was good or not.  It didn’t matter anyway.  Once you were in, it was all good.

We were preparing for our first gig together, an outdoor music festival in the West End with blocked off streets, barbecue, beer trucks, and friendly crowds.  It was perfect in every way, aside for a demonic heat wave that descended upon Saint Louis that week, raising the temperature ceiling from an almost pleasant eighty-five degrees to a stultifying one hundred and five.  In the intense late afternoon sun we trudged onto a black wooden stage perched on a cul de sac of naked asphalt and gasped for air.  There was only a small canopy above the stage and behind us, more for sound than for comfort since it, too, was black.  I had the genius to wear a summer dress, only, it too was black.  As was my guitar.  And my hair.  As the sun beat down, all that surrounded us mercilessly worked in concert to greenhouse the relentless rays and insulate us in a hot box of darkness, shielded from all drifts of cool evening air and humanity.  Even the fan was black, shapeshifting into an old drunk man exhaling intensely into our faces.

It wasn’t long before we were ragged and drenched, resembling more a group of protesters shot with a water cannon than entertainers.  We didn’t utter a word to each other.  My fingers slipped around helplessly on steel strings and electrocution flashed in and out as a distinct possibility for all of us.  A voice was convincing me it would be a good way to go.  Maybe the next song I’d be out of my misery, checking out on a high note;  it had been a good life, after all, no need to be greedy.  Sweat rained down from the top of my head, mixing with mascara and stinging my eyes dragging black streaks down my cheeks.  So there I stayed, plastered in place, dripping and dizzy like a grizzly bear in the desert, fantasizing about electrocution, until our time was up.  It was a very strange sensation, an addictive cocktail of adrenaline and endorphins, of self-pity and generic loathing.

Our next gig was at Bob’s, a dive bar with an interesting story in another questionable part of Saint Louis.  I drove there at night, by myself, guitar strapped in the front seat.  It was a sordid adventure, even farther away from my newly expanded comfort zone, but when you survive scary things, it is emboldening.  Streets grew darker, restaurants disappeared, row houses carried post-apocalyptic accusations, but I wasn’t deterred.  Courage welled inside me as I reminded myself of the harrowing treks to the Warehouse.  Abandoned lots and burned out buildings, zombies standing and staring on sidewalks, cars with broken windows.  It took the sudden sound of an alarm to strip me of my courage and fear rushed to fill the void.  My heart raced.  I was about to turn around when I saw the sailboat on the pockmarked sidewalk.  A half-lit sign flickered Bob’s in neon like a prophesied star.

The faded yellow Sunfish lay on its side chained and bolted to a lamppost that didn’t light by the front door.  It was the landmark I was instructed to look for.  With several pulls and a hard yank the door popped open and a wall of smoke greeted me with open arms, hugging me, flying up my nose and into my eyes and filling my lungs.  I stepped in, coughing and squinting, seeing first two grimy, hollow bartenders, and a row of gray people wobbling on bar stools.  Muffled Jimmy Buffet blared overhead.  No one looked up when I walked in, and although I felt safer than I did outside in the de-militarized zone, the margin wasn’t by much.  I cut my way through the already drunken throng to my band mates in the back setting up between the pool table and Golden Tee.  I took in my surroundings and was overwhelmed by the feeling that I was far too old for these sorts of scenarios, when a thump thump thump on my thigh redirected my attention.

I looked down at a wheelchair with an outstretched wooden arm, attached to a man with a wooden nose, a wig, and a cigarette dangling from his lips.  The other wooden arm was resting across his lap.  How you doing?  I’m Bob, he rasped and thumped me a couple more times on the leg.  Nice to meet you, I said and smiled, shaking the dainty outstretched mannequin hand.  Bob continued to tap me as we were setting up, and stayed at my side.  He tapped when I was singing.  He bumped into my knees when I was strumming.  He ran his wooden fingers down my arm, and when I leaned down to reach a dropped guitar pick, he rapped me on the top of my head.  Hey! and You need anything? were all that he would say, and he said it to me a thousand times.

It was time for the band to take a break.  As we were turning down volumes and setting down instruments, Bob was in front of me, nudging me with his wheelchair and his wooden arms towards his office, which was covered in pictures of girls in bathing suits, beach scenes and racing sailboats, ashtrays and cigarette butts, full packs and empties scattered across his desk, and on the floor.  He lit a cigarette while one still burned in his mouth and  for a few puffs smoked them together.  And then he told me his story.  He had owned a bar and lived in an apartment above it.  After a late night of partying and closing down, upstairs he went with his smokes in hand and awoke in the hospital weeks later without his limbs, his nose, his hair and most of his skin.  His recovery was horrific and grueling, and eventually, he reopened another bar two blocks farther east from the old one, which remains burned out and abandoned.  As he spoke I stared at the tinder, casually clinging to his lower lip by a spec of moisture on dry paper, the ashes breaking off and fluttering onto his shirt and pants as it lightly bounced with his words.  I desperately wanted to brush them off, but the strangeness of being the only one of us worried about those ashes kept my hands still.

Those two gigs and rehearsing in the Warehouse are special memories ranging anywhere from humiliating to enlightening, from terrifying to liberating, and some others in between.