Saturday, September 22, 2007

Dirty Jobs

There are some dirty jobs on the farm. Quantity-wise, manure removal is the biggie. Even though I don’t keep the horses in their stalls, I still pick up three wheelbarrows full of manure every day. The pasture, if you can call it a pasture, needs to be picked up because it’s too small for five horses. Maybe if I had one or two horses, I could leave the manure out there and it wouldn’t bother anybody because it would disintegrate in the sun and the rain and the crows would pick it apart and spread it around, pulverizing it even further. But with five horses, there is no time for breakdown before they deposit more.

When we first moved here, I didn’t pick up any manure. I was used to having 110 acres in Oklahoma and 53 acres in Ferrum where the manure would turn to dust or decayed before it was discovered. And so I didn’t even think about it. We were so busy settling in, fixing things and hurrying up with important projects like putting the heat in, that I didn’t even go into the pasture. It wasn’t until I decided to check the fence line that I came upon the horror that my neighbors across the road were looking at every morning while they were having their tea. Hundreds, no, thousands of piles of manure, big blobs of poop, were everywhere. It was an obstacle course of land mines, bowel explosions, if you will.

It took me a few weeks to catch up. The neighbors were probably relieved when they saw me out there with the wheelbarrow and pitchfork. I made three manure piles where I empty the wheelbarrows. I dump onto whichever pile is the closest. I wish I had a ramp like I used to have in Jackson. Then I could just push it all the way to the top and tip it over. The manure pile would get taller and taller. But that’s another project that we haven’t gotten around to yet so I just empty them on the edges, as high as I can get the wheelbarrow, and the pile gets wider and wider, threatening to spread into Rockford County if this keeps up. Kurt moves the manure piles around with the tractor now and then to help it break down and sometimes I take shovelfuls of the rich black soil that is underneath for hole-filling or for the garden, but in the end, he will push it all down into the gully. In many years, the gully will become a slight dip in a lush, nutrient-rich pasture that won’t be so steep to mow.

Kurt wonders why we can’t just train the horses to walk down there and leave it there themselves.

“They’re not cats,” I said.

“You’ve got Motley crapping on the side of the yard.”

That’s true. Motley, the dog we got from the pound, aka The Big Stupid, turns out is not very stupid after all. Another dirty job we have around here is picking up the dog poop. We go around the yard once or twice a week with a bucket lined with Wal-Mart bags (what better use for them than that?) and a pooper scooper and pick up all the, how did we say it as kids? We pick up all the doggie doo-doo. Nine times out of ten, all fecal matter the dog is responsible for can be found on the fence line. Ninety percent of that is on the fence line behind our garage. Very easy.

Still, even with short cuts and good luck, Kurt said he was tired of being the middle man regarding the horses. We buy hay, feed it to them, it goes in one end and out the other and then we pick it up. Then the whole cycle starts all over again.

“The least they can do is put it in a convenient spot,” Kurt said. “I don’t think I’m asking for much.”

My horse Harley has potential. Though Kurt won’t give him credit for anything because he hates him. Harley used to be Kurt’s horse but he was unrideable due to being scared to death of Kurt’s deep, gruff voice. Kurt has the voice of ten men, hands and feet to match, and Harley is afraid of men so I had to take him over. Now Kurt won’t give him the time of day because I’m the only one who can ride him and he’s jealous of my power; the power of gentleness is what it boils down to.

I’ve watched Harley walk right across the barnyard, climb on top of the manure pile like a mountain goat and let loose. That’s stallion behavior, even though he is a gelding. Stallions tend to be neat and they often make stallion piles, going in the same place over and over again until there are little mountains of manure in all their favorite spots. I suspect Harley was gelded late because this is not the only stallion tendency he has. When we first got him, he tried mounting Minnie a few times. I don’t know what he was thinking, considering she is only up to his knees and he’s missing some of the required equipment. But like all American males, animal or human, he was driven by something other than his brain.

Quality-wise, perhaps one of the dirtiest jobs on the farm is sheath cleaning. Ironically also involving the private parts of horses, this one requires a person to be hands-on. Literally. It is not for the shy or the squeamish.

Most horses need their penises cleaned once every year or two. Dirt and crust accumulates on the penis and a lump of smegma can lodge in the urethra called a bean. This can cause infection and a blockage. What do they do out in the wild, you say, when there is no one out there to clean their penises? If they need it done and there is no one out there to do it for them, they die. It’s called the “crusty pecker disease.” No, only kidding. I don’t know what it’s called.

If the new pony Apache was out there in the wild, he’d be one of them with a short lifespan because I never saw a horse penis that dirty, ever. I don’t know how he fits it back in his sheath when he takes it out for air; it is so covered with dried gunk. It looks like the crust on a lemon meringue pie that’s been overcooked and now it’s sitting there in the glass case for too long because nobody will buy it. So I had to get out there and clean it ASAP.

The problem is, I’ve never done it before. I usually get the vet to do it when he comes to check teeth and do Coggins tests, but it’s not time for that now and when the vet was here last month because I was afraid the pony was drugged since he was so quiet and then he got hives from eating the weeds, I was so worried about all the other stuff I didn’t even think about his penis. And a farm call is fifty dollars just to get him out here. Then there’s the charge for the actual procedure and sedation on top of it because vets don’t like to take the chance of getting kicked even when you tell them that this horse is as gentle as a lamb. Plus a sedated horse’s penis will usually drop out of its sheath in a real relaxed way, exposing itself for easy cleaning. But I just spent a couple of hundred dollars on vet visits, and disgusting things don’t bother me too much, so I knew I should just go and clean it myself.

I saw the kids do it at the 4-H club. The lady from the Roanoke Horse Rescue came and did a demonstration. Everybody donned rubber gloves, squirted some Excalibur cleaner on their hands and then they stuck their hands up inside the horses’ sheaths, Kelly included. Actually, I also had my hand up there for a split second but with the horse rescue lady’s step-by-step guidance, I might as well have had a camera on the tips of my fingers because I felt like I could see everything inside of there as she told me what to do and what I was feeling. If Apache wasn’t resistant, there was no reason why I couldn’t do it again.

Apache didn’t blink an eye. I got my hand right inside the sheath, rubbed around and pulled out as much black gunk as I could. But I was afraid to go through the portal, the hole leading into the inner cavity where the penis had retracted. I was afraid I was going to have trouble with this. I also couldn’t bring myself to stick the thermometer up my babies’ butts when they had a fever because I was afraid I’d hurt them and so my mother had to come over and do it. I was quite relieved when they came out with digital thermometers that you just stick in an ear for ten seconds. I obviously have a fear of going inside body cavities that are really not meant to be entered.

Sweat dripped into my eyes. It was tight in there. I could feel his muscle. I thought I was feeling the portal. What if my hand got stuck?

“What’s he doing?” I asked Kelly, who was holding his head.


“What are his ears doing?” The position of a horse’s ears will tell you what he’s got on his mind.

“They’re going back and forth,” she reported. Okay. He was thinking but he wasn’t mad. If they were flat back against his head, he was ticked off and I better get out of there quick.

“Do you want to do it?” I asked her. “It’s kind of fun.”


“Well, it’s YOUR pony.”

I just couldn’t make myself go any deeper and so I extricated my hand and stood up. I dropped the wet gauze by my feet and said, “That’s it. Maybe I can pay Ashley a few dollars to do it. She can use the experience. Maybe she can use it for extra credit or something.”

Kelly rolled her eyes. Ashley is one of the older kids we know from 4-H who wants to become a vet. The pony was no trouble. I was sure she’d jump at the chance to get some real field experience.

Later, I did another dirty job. The barbecue grill. It appears that Kurt, unlike most men, doesn’t like to barbecue. He doesn’t care about the fancy stainless steel grill we splurged on even though I would have been perfectly satisfied with one of those little cast iron grills that come in a cardboard box with Chinese letters on it. He has no interest in it whatsoever and so he neglected cleaning the grill for the whole season other than taking the scrub brush, turning the heat up high and scrubbing the metal grates now and then so the grease would burn off. Just enough care to prevent us all from getting a case of botulism or whatever you get from dirty grills, but no real maintenance. I was unaware of the extent of the neglect since I had no idea to inspect the grill being that the burgers always came out so good and the point of grilling is so I didn’t have to cook. I had no reason to check up on him. I had no urge to hover. I was usually on the phone waiting for the hamburgers to get done while he was cooking.

But then I caught a glimpse of it by mistake and I was horrified, wondering what my brother-in-law thought when we asked him to do the grilling because Kurt wasn’t home from work yet. I could imagine the stories circulating in the family. You should see their grill; it’s disgusting. You should see their grill; nobody ever cleans it, rats would live in there if they didn’t have those cats. So while I had out the box of rubber gloves, I took it all apart and cleaned it real good. I put the grates in the bathtub with steaming water and a few glugs of ammonia and I let them soak. A little while later, I started scrubbing. The burnt-on grease came right off. My gloves were covered with black gunk not unlike some other black gunk on the farm and I got to thinking, why am I always the one who has to do the dirty jobs? It’s not my grill, it’s not my pony. According to Kurt, The Big Stupid is not even my dog. What am I the queen of yucky stuff?

It could be worse. I could be putting on pantyhose in the morning and driving to my job in some windowless customer service department in an appliance repair store where people on the lake would call and scream that the confection ovens in their Viking ranges didn’t seem quite hot enough or the freezers in their Sub-Zeros didn’t seem quite cold enough and they were having a dinner party and so I better get the repairman out there today, chop, chop, if I knew what was good for me because, wink, wink, they have money and they have power and I might lose my job if you know what I mean. That’d be taking some crap.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Catchy Things--Part Two

The fever broke. Once I remembered about liability insurance and all the sue-crazy people in the world today, I started thinking about selling stuff on eBay instead. If I had to buy insurance for giving a couple of lessons a week, it would eat right into my profits and what would be the point?

I’m scared for all the locals around here. They have no idea about sue-crazy people. It’s still like the old days down here when people took personal responsibility for themselves and if they tripped they paid for the Band-Aid themselves or if they hit their head on an awning that fell too low because a wind kicked up, they chalked it up to accidents happen—no one meant for that awning to fall on their head.

But where I come from, people search out reasons to sue. They are just waiting for their chance. They figure it’s the only way they can get even after all the taxes and insurances they are forced to pay. People up north are scared to death of getting sued because they know what they would do if they lost their balance on a loose railing. Therefore, they go above and beyond the call of duty and refuse to let children play on dirt playgrounds or metal slides. A kid might skin his knee or burn his butt. There’s a million dollars right there. They install special footing and plastic climbing equipment that is environmentally safe, organically created, strategically placed, with ergonomic corners and encapsulated bolts. And still, they get sued.

When we had our flooring business in New Jersey, Kurt got sued four years after he installed carpet in an office building because a worker tripped on it and supposedly, the key word here being supposedly, because we know she was lying, was irreversibly disabled. She was completely shot. Kaput. Might as well have been hit by a Mack truck. Couldn’t even have sex with her husband anymore. It didn’t matter that this woman had a history of frivolous lawsuits. It didn’t matter that the photographs of the carpet showed that it was in perfect condition. We fought them for years until our insurance company finally settled with them because it was cheaper to give up. And then the insurance company dropped us. Even though we never had another claim before. The new company was a high risk company with sky-high rates we couldn’t afford. In effect, it put us out of business. Which turned out to be a lucky thing because that’s when we hightailed it out of there and moved to Oklahoma.

What’s even scarier about Virginia is I heard they can take your house if you get sued and don’t have enough insurance to cover it. I worry about the people around here because they have the same kind of thinking they’ve always had but now they are surrounded by northerners who think differently and who will sue at the drop of a hat.

When we were driving home from looking at some hay the other day, we saw someone at the light with Jersey plates. We always get excited when we see Jersey plates. It’s not all bad up there. But Kurt thought he was funny. As we passed, he yelled out the window, “Go home Yankee!”


“I can say that because I am one. Of course it’s by association and that would be your fault…”

Kurt is really from Washington State. I said, “That’s up north too.”

“But we weren’t involved in The War.”

All you have to do is say, “the war,” around here and everyone knows what you mean. The Civil War. There was no other war so important or interesting.

“Well, she’s going to think the people around here are mean if you’re yelling ‘Go home Yankee!’”

I’m always protecting them. They are innocent. They are nice. Most of them wouldn’t think of suing if an accident happened, but what if I’m giving a lesson to a Yankee and I don’t know it? Or what if it’s a local but the Yankee ways have rubbed off on him? He watches TV. He knows this may be his chance to hit it big.

I have plenty of stuff I need to get rid of anyway. There’s a nice gas fireplace in the garage with a wood mantle that has just been sitting there all summer and a set of hand-painted antique lamps. Of course I will have to buy shipping insurance. But at least I won’t lose my house.

Catchy Things--Part One

This is with apology to all my friends who are into racking.

Kelly got a new school bus driver this year. All the neighbors are suspicious since the old one has been doing it forever. I found this out when I called him to see if he had any hay. He told me he quit the school bus because he had to take a job driving a truck for the landfill, times being tough. I don’t know if the new guy, Dwayne, will offer any of the special services like the old one did, like selling hay or shoeing horses and knowing things like who has a pony for sale, but he seems nice enough.

Since all the neighbors were up-in-arms not knowing who the new guy was and because I couldn’t remember what the name was that the old one told me, they got all the kids riled up worrying about it and it rubbed off on Kelly. She barely knew the old one because we just moved here, but she got riled up right along with them. Things are catchy with kids.

They catch everything when they go back to school. They make them come to school with hand sanitizer right alongside the three-ring binders and page dividers to try to prevent the spread of germs. They don’t want the common cold running amok. I already warned her not to touch her face with her hands; not to tap her lip while she’s thinking when she’s in school. But what do you do about soccer?

I found the soccer papers in the stack Kelly came home with that took me all night to read and sign. I warned Kurt, “Ut oh, we better get going with her riding lessons again or else we’re going to find ourselves doing soccer.”

We had put Kelly’s riding lessons on hold over the summer because we were just too busy with family visiting, two vacation bible schools and assorted day trips. It was fine. She was still riding, which is what she loves. But she bugs us to join things like soccer or cheerleading whenever she goes back to school and sees what all the other kids are doing. So far we have been able to avoid it by telling her, “You can’t do everything. If you are doing choir, 4-H and riding lessons, you can’t do soccer and cheerleading too. It is physically impossible.” The real reason is, I would rather someone pull my nails out with a pliers than sit through some kids playing a game in a stinky school gym, or wherever they have these things, with a bunch of parents who have nothing better to do that they actually find it interesting.

Kurt said, “We can’t do soccer. We don’t have a mini van.”

“I’ll call the instructor tomorrow and schedule the lessons.”

Kurt rubbed his belly thoughtfully. Oprah was on the TV. “I think I’m going to go to one of those make-over shows. That way there’d be no way we’d have time to go to soccer.”

“What if the instructor is not doing it anymore? I heard she retired.”

“Let’s tell her she has to sell her pony if she joins soccer.”


Kelly’s instructor hadn’t called me back after I left a message on her machine and after waiting a full week to hear from her since country people don’t do anything fast except drive, being genetically linked to NASCAR in some way, I knew it was true. She retired. I’d have to find someone else to give lessons.

The thing is, there aren’t many instructors around when you live in a small town with only a few hundred people and not many more in the county. There aren’t many people around period. The other thing is, this ain’t Oklahoma, land of western events like barrel racing and roping. Or even New Jersey, where a person could find a barrel race within driving distance at least once a week because we horse people were all crunched up together in the only county left that wasn’t bulldozed over.

Nope, the people around here ride a different kind of horse. It’s called a racking horse and I’m not sure if that’s actually a breed, or all the gaited horses fall under it as a category, such as Tennessee Walkers and Saddlebreds. Whatever it is, it is nothing like the discipline we do, which is barrel racing. It is nothing like western riding of any kind.

First of all, the riders of these racking horses wear brightly-colored silk jackets with Asian motifs as if they are the servers in fancy Japanese restaurants. Some of them wear little derbies like Charlie Chaplin. (And the women wonder why they can’t get their husbands into it—com’on, it’s dorky man!) Their horses have long necks, long feet and long tails. Everything is long. The day is long when you are watching them in between the western speed classes you are waiting for and I imagine it’s only a little bit better than sitting through a fifth grader’s basketball game because your daughter is going to cheer for a few minutes.

I have to admit, the first time we saw these horses it was interesting. We’d never seen anything like it before. But after watching two or three classes of them prancing around and around the arena in jerky, spastic motions, we had had enough. It was obvious to us that, even though the movement made for a smooth ride for the human, the horses were physically incapable of any real function like actually rounding up cattle. Maybe when I’m in my eighties and the doctor tells me I need a walker, I’ll get the Tennessee kind, but in the meantime, we’re going to stick to our good old American Quarter Horses and do some real riding.

So I knew that finding another instructor who teaches western riding was going to be difficult at best. There is some English riding around here. I wouldn’t rule out Kelly getting some English lessons because at least warmbloods and Thoroughbreds have the same gaits as Quarter Horses do and can actually perform. In fact, Kelly has expressed an interest in learning to jump, so I wouldn’t be against it. I figured if I could at least find her some kind of basic balanced-seat riding, that would satisfy her need to belong to something and we could work on barrels ourselves.

But there were no games in town and the soccer sign-up sheet was stuck on the refrigerator waving frantically and terrorizing me every time the door was opened and a breeze came in. I got out all the phone books, made a ton of calls and sent out e-mails. Does anyone know someone who gives lessons? I found a lady over an hour away but it was only five dollars a shot. How can you beat that? But she was all heart and no substance. Her lesson pony, though dead quiet, needed training himself, and the arena, which was set up in the grassy backyard behind an abandoned church next door, was ramshackle at best. She had ropes rigged up from the church steps, to a couple of posts, down to the chrome handle on the door of a 1967 Buick, and back up to the church steps again.

The next one, also over an hour away, invited us to come and watch her give a lesson. What is the best way to put this? She had no bedside manner. I found myself thinking, did she forget we are here? We watched her bark orders and belittle the little girl she was giving a lesson to. “What is wrong with you?! Now get on the correct lead!” Nope, this was not the instructor for us.

Finding the right instructor is tricky under the best circumstances. She must be knowledgeable so your child actually learns something but she also must be fun so that your child wants to keep going back. She must have a safe lesson horse and a safe arena. She has to be affordable and close enough. Basically, like porridge—not too hot and not too cold. Finally, I found someone who seemed just right. We scheduled our first lesson. And then I got a phone call. It was one of the mothers of one of the little girls Kelly goes to school with. “Do you give riding lessons?”

“Uh, um,” I stammered. My mind started racing. I’d just heard the bad news from my hay man. He wasn’t coming over with our delivery. He had to go and buy hay himself. That’s not good when the hay man has to buy hay. There were no second cuttings due to the drought. No one else had it and the feed store was selling it for four times what I usually pay. It was even higher than New Jersey prices. With the new horse on the farm, things were going to be tough this winter. I could use some extra cash.

“Well, let me think about it,” I said. The funny thing is, this was the fourth person who asked me since we moved here. I’ve given lessons before and am pretty good at it, which probably makes you wonder why I would get Kelly lessons from someone else and not give them to her myself. Two reasons. One, a kid listens to someone else much better than the parent. I get a lot of eye rolling and “I knooowww,” answers when I instruct her. Sometimes it escalates to tears. Hers or mine, either way it’s not a pretty picture. Two, the ulterior motive. Taking Kelly to someone else’s farm where there are other kids to meet, play with and compete against, satisfies the same thing that she’d get if she was kicking around a soccer ball on a field.

But then I started thinking. If I was giving lessons, she’d get the same thing right here. They’d all be coming here. I have the perfect horses. I have a round pen. I have helmets. I have all the right stuff. Just think, I wouldn’t have to leave the farm—I could make money right here! Who cares if Kelly rolls her eyes and sighs when I tell her to do a figure-eight? And maybe I could inspire a few young people to have the same kind of lifelong love for horses that I have. It’s catchy, loving horses. Once it gets in your blood, that’s it, you are hooked forever. And I’m a carrier. I began planning my little lesson business.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

In Memory of 9-11

9-11 is my father’s birthday. Six years ago this morning I called him on the phone to wish him a happy birthday before he went to work. Then I looked at the TV on the kitchen counter. The news was on. There was a fire in one of the buildings at the World Trade Center and they were showing it live. The newscasters were matter-of-fact. They didn’t seem nervous about it at all but I kept thinking, what if that gets out of control? We’re talking about a skyscraper here. How are they going to put it out if it gets bigger? It’s not like the fire trucks have ladders that go up that high.

I got on the phone with my girlfriend. She was watching it too. I said, “I don’t think that’s good.” I never heard of a skyscraper burning down to the ground before but you never know. Jenise, always the calm voice of reason and not a worry-wart like me, didn’t seem concerned. Suddenly, a plane veered onto the screen and we watched it crash into the second building. Now I knew there was reason to worry.

We were only an hour or so away from New York if you weren’t traveling during rush hour. Many of our neighbors worked there. My sister’s husband fixed elevators in Manhattan. We all went up there for concerts and Christmas. One time I even read one of my short stories on stage at the Hudson Grille. We were close. We were so close we could see the smoke. Later, we could smell it.

Everyone knew someone who died in the buildings. For me, it was my real estate agent’s husband, Louis Minervino. Barbara called him Lou. I never met him, but I know of him. I can still hear Barbara’s voice talking about “Lou,” and I knew he was a caring and kind man. Barbara was a caring and kind woman and when I heard Lou Minervino died in the towers, my heart broke even further.

I have a picture of the New York skyline with the twin towers in it. It is taken from my father’s boat. It is really a picture of my new boyfriend, Kurt, who is now my husband. But New York was in the background. The funny thing is, there is a plane in the picture. It looks like it is heading straight for the towers. But it was taken many years before. It was taken at a time when we took the skyline for granted, when we always thought we’d have it, when we were young and we thought that we’d always have everyone.

This afternoon I turned on the TV in the kitchen and watched a special on Oprah about the children of 9-11. Six years later, some of them never even knew the parents they lost. Others took on the parent role and raised younger siblings because there was no one left who could do it. There were boys who went to Rolling Stones concerts because their father loved the Rolling Stones and it was a small way to keep him alive. There were boys who promised to grow up to be good men just like the dads they lost. All of them impressed me with their maturity and their determination to somehow make something good come out of such a terrible tragedy. You could tell they were all good kids who didn’t deserve to be in such a position. I sat there crying my eyes out.

Then I called my father and told him how glad I was that I could still call and wish him a happy birthday. I know how lucky I am.