Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Part Three: The Lowdown

The old horse turned out to be two. Twenty-three months to be exact. But wait. Before you get all excited, he had thirty days on him. And this was the prettiest horse I’d ever seen. I’m not kidding. This one was really pretty. I say Cherokee was pretty. But Lowdown. Let me put it this way. He was so pretty that when we pulled up somewhere and I got ready to take him off the trailer, I braced myself for the paparazzi. As soon as people saw him, they crowded around, oohing and aahing. Their mouths dropped open. They swarmed all over him trying to get his autograph. But I didn’t buy him because of that.

Kurt told me to.

Back when we first started horse hunting, I was quite shocked that I couldn’t find one for seventy-five dollars like what I paid for Cherokee who walked over rickety old bridges and jumped off cliffs if I asked him to. I was fuming when I had to go up to almost three grand to get Spirit. This was highway robbery! I felt that way even before I found out he was a bucker. But when we were horse shopping for Kurt, money was no object. This was going to be his first horse and it had to be perfect. I didn’t want him to have any bad experiences. At least before it took. The magic of horses, that is. That addiction that is sneaky and cunning and makes you buy saddles you can’t afford and whole houses, in fact, so you can keep your addiction right in your own backyard and ride him anytime the urge hits you. No, I wanted him to love it like I did. Get hooked on it so that when he did run into the buckers, it wouldn’t rattle him. Therefore I wanted him to get whatever his heart desired. Which meant black. And it had to be beginner-safe. Which meant expensive.

We found Lisa, Kurt’s dealer (his horse dealer, not his drug dealer, though horses and drugs—what’s the difference really?) who at any given time had a dozen gorgeous, top-quality horses for sale with prices to match. Lisa sold us Chance, a black Quarter Horse gelding who was gorgeous and bombproof. There was no running around sorting through broncs and agoraphobic show horses who didn’t like living alone. And it worked. Kurt was hooked. He stayed up till two in the morning bidding on studded headstalls that complimented Chance’s face. He instructed me to have Chance all saddled up and ready for him so that when he pulled into the driveway after work, he could just hop on. He even started wearing a cowboy hat.

After the Spirit fiasco, when I started horse shopping again, he said, “That’s it. We’re going back to Lisa.” I opened my mouth to protest. I couldn’t see paying that. Not for me. Him? Yeah. Me? No. He reminded me of all the money I lost trying to get a bargain. “Stop crying and just pay,” he said.

Lisa specialized in pretty. Mostly horses of color—Paints, palominos, blacks, even the occasional grulla. Lowdown was a palomino Paint, the best of both worlds. However, I never expected anything this pretty. But he was a colt. Kurt, who I hadn’t seen this excited since I gave him my number in the Halfway Bar, lost his mind. “He looks quiet,” he said.

“What are you crazy? He’s two-years old!” I cried. “We came here to get one that’s twenty!”

Even though my heart was thumping. Already I was secretly hoping he’d talk me into it.

Kurt said, “He has a kind eye.”

I said, “He’s two!”

Kurt said, “Yeah, but look at him.”

Lisa stepped in. “Let’s put him in the round pen and see how he goes.”

He went real good. He went so good, we bought a round pen to go with him. Naturally, if I was getting a colt, I needed a safe place to train him.

Now you may see trouble brewing and you may or may not be right. Young horse and novice rider, because that’s what I was, (even though I spent every waking moment on my pony when I was a kid) is never a good mix. Add fear into the equation and all the wallets in the back pockets of every horse whisperer in the state were flapping open. And I was fearful all right. Skeerd, scared, whatever you want to call it—after Spirit, I was afraid to lope. I had a loping phobia, if you will. I was a little nervous about everything, but loping was the worst.

Trying to prevent Spirit from bucking when he loped had gotten me into a bad habit. For a long time, whenever I cued a horse to lope, I automatically pulled his head up to stop him from bucking. Whether or not he was going to do it. It was like a Pavlov’s dog reaction—horse lopes, I yank his head up. If I even got the courage to lope at all—that’s how scared I was. I made excuses to avoid it. The ground is too hard. The ground is too soft. I have a headache. The horse looked crooked today… Which was frustrating since running was what I loved to do the most. It was why I’d always dreamed of being a barrel racer. I was ruined. But now I was armed with the round pen. And I became, how do you say?—round pen dependent.

Sometimes I think they ought to have a twelve-step program for people addicted to their round pens. It appears horses are the gateway drug that lead to many others. Dependency on the color coordination of polo wraps, pads and reins; overuse of Cowboy Magic; and the hoarding of bits in search of that first high when you threw out the Tom Thumb snaffle and bought a three-piece twisted wire, copper mouth, with a dog bone in the middle.

And the round pen. I don’t know how people ever trained their horses without them. In fact, I don’t know how people even ride their horses without them! Because, to this day, I will not get on my horse if he’s been twiddling his thumbs out in the field for any length of time without throwing him in the round pen first. Just to see what’s under the hood. And if there’s anything sinister going on since I mounted him last, we have a little lesson in who is the herd leader and who is second in line. Then I’ll get on.

So when I bought the palomino Paint (who I named Lowdown after the Boz Skaggs song, Lowdown, for no reason other than I thought it sounded cool and his registered name, Im Justin Image was boring), I used the round pen on a regular basis. And I guess I hit all 7’s because mellow personality and compliant nature along with the round pen training enabled me to actually ride this horse. Even though he was, don’t forget, two-years-old. We went on many trail rides with many friends and no bucking. We even rode on a trail past the lions and tigers and bears that were caged behind Great Adventure in the safari park and not a peep out of him. We rode alone. We rode down neighborhood streets and across busy highways. We went to showdeos, parades, team pennings, and clinics where horses ten times Lowdown’s age made it clear they needed to be there and I, with the colt, could come up with no answer when the clinicians asked me what I needed to work on.

I even fell off a couple of times. Which is ironic, since I’d never fallen off any of the others.

And yet… I lost my fear.

It appears, and don’t tell him I said this since his cowboy hat is tight enough, but Kurt knows how to pick a horse. Either that or the horse Gods had mercy on me. Or you get what you pay for. Or it was bound to happen sooner or later if I kept buying them. Or Lowdown and I just clicked. I don’t know.

I do know that I’m glad I never gave up.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Part Two: The Bucker

After I got Dancer all tucked into her new home with the little boy, I decided to look for something with a little color again. (But not a little spirit.) Obviously buying a plain ordinary sorrel was no guarantee I’d get a horse like what I used to have when I was a kid. You know, something you could just hop on, with a saddle or not, even with a bridle or not, and mosey down the road, with another horse or not. You’d cross busy highways to get to strange trails in the woods, where you’d trot past scary waterlogged recliners and the skeletons of washing machines, suspiciously out of place and ready to lurch forward at any given moment and eat a horse! And your horse doesn’t blink an eye. No, buying a sensible looking horse was no guarantee I could get that again. If they even made them anymore. Therefore I figured I might as well get a Paint.

I hated the fact that everyone was on the Paint bandwagon. They were about as popular as the horse whisperers and round pens. I didn’t want anyone to think I was following the crowd. I’ve never been a crowd follower. I just found out the other day what a Coach bag is. I was standing in line next to a lady in the post office and I was checking her out because she was all dolled up in expensive clothes with an expensive blonde dye job and expensive manicured nails you can’t do chores in. I could tell she was from the lake.

Then I saw the pocketbook. Since I was right next to her and I had my glasses on because I was looking at the Ten Most Wanted pictures, I could see it had C’s on it. I realized that’s what they’re all talking about. That’s a Coach bag. And I thought, eew, what’s the big deal? I wouldn’t pay ten dollars for it. It’s ugly! This is what everybody is putting their stuff in because it’s the fad. It can’t be because it’s nice. My orange leather pocketbook fellow blogger Di from Snappy Finger gave me could run circles around it. Even my canvas bag with the picture of the barrel racer on it was nicer. Certainly more functional since you can carry a few magazines, a package of Little Debbie Nutty Bars and a tube of dewormer in either one (which I did just this morning instead of asking for a bag in the feed store). Or a lot of money. Which is ironic because the lake lady with the ugly bag was the one who has the money. Not me. But I could carry a lot of it if I had it.

Anyway, I’d always liked Paints. Because my first pony was a Paint. I’m imprinted with the tendency for loving anything that reminds me of Cherokee. Because even though he was a 13-hand, splay-footed, cow-hocked pony with lop ears, a sway back and no gas in the tank, he was absolutely beautiful. Stunning. The prettiest pony in the neighborhood! And he’d do anything I’d ask. One time I made him walk over a rickety old wooden bridge that had holes in-between the slats just the right size for a pony’s foot to go through and get stuck, dry-rotted boards and rusty bolts barely holding it all together. It wobbled when you walked on it and you held your breath until you got to the other side. But I didn’t think anything of making Cherokee go over it. There was no question. It was the shortest way home.

When I have my mind set to something, I make it happen. I take action. And so I found the fourth horse before I even got a chance to remove the nameplate on Dancer’s stall door. He was a brown-and-white overo with a black mane and tail and a slight Roman nose that was actually quite handsome. Made him look like an Indian horse. He was real quiet and mellow, not jumpy at all. But there was a red flag. Red flag! Red flag! Red flag! I ignored it. Of course. How could I not? He was so pretty!

The owner, a dealer named Pepe’ who had dazzled me by performing reining spins and side-passes, brought him over to the round pen for me to try. It was the middle of summer and obviously no one used the round pen because the grass in it was waist-high. That was a plus. If I fell off, it wouldn’t hurt so bad. Since having Dancer, and perhaps because I was a mother now, and older, I’d started to realize that I wasn’t invincible anymore. Images involving shattered bones and chests impaled on metal fence posts occasionally popped into my head. Even though I had never fallen off her, I was, how should I say it?—a little skeerd.

For those of you who are reading this before you’ve had your morning coffee, that misspelling was on purpose. There’s a difference between scared and skeerd. You get scared when you almost get into a car wreck. It’s not funny. When you’re skeerd, it’s kind of cute. Like I was skeerd getting my bellybutton pierced. (Hey, that was Kurt’s idea, not mine! And in my defense, I don’t have any tattoos.) Or I was skeerd riding the mechanical bull in the Bar-H, back when it was a country-western place and I owned a pair of cowboy boots that were too pretty to ride in but they looked great hooked over the chrome rung of a bar stool.

But I didn’t really expect any trouble. So when I started loping and Spirit bucked, I was shocked.

“He bucked!” I cried. “Did you see that?!”

“Oh, the grass just tickled his belly is all,” Pepe’ assured me. And since I’d already named him—Spirit (of all things)—I said, “Okay.”

That sucker bucked every time I loped him. Yeah, yeah, yeah, we did everything we did just like with Dancer trying to figure it out, trying to get him to stop. But nothing worked. Somehow I didn’t fall off him either. But the day we were out on a trail ride with a bunch of friends and everyone started loping and my horse started bucking and then I “got to” crying, as they say out in the country, Kurt said, “That’s it. You’re selling him.” And I was relieved. Because I wasn’t going to say it. I loved him! And though Kurt is not the kind of husband who bosses me around, even if I was the kind of girl who would take it, I was grateful to him for putting his foot down. Because by this time, I was full-blown scared.

Nowadays you can’t even give a horse away, the market is so bad, but back then horses were selling great. Still, I put him up for sale for half what I paid since he had “an issue.” The first guy who came to look at him was a big cowboy, quite unusual to see in the suburbs of New Jersey. He was wearing a real cowboy hat. I thought, “That’s a Stetson. This will be good. He won’t let Spirit pull any crap.” But I warned him double and triple anyway. I said, “If you lope, he is going to buck.” The cowboy pooh-poohed it, waved his big hand with the crooked index finger on it and swaggered over to the Roman-nosed bucker with the confidence and assurance of a seasoned rodeo rider. Honestly, I wasn’t too concerned because of those bowed legs of his. But I don’t think they loped three strides before Spirit threw him onto the neighbor’s roof next door and the cowboy lost his hat in the process, exposing more skin on his skull than I expected. I felt sorry for him. He was no cowboy. He was only human. And Spirit needed a different kind of human.

Spirit needed The Mexican.

The Mexican, barely five-feet tall, little, like a little Mexican peanut, and shy, like a boy on a first date, was a friend of a friend who got wind of what was happening through the grapevine. He came over with our mutual friend, took one look at Spirit, and said, “I take heem.” He didn’t even want to try him.

I warned, “He’s going to buck every time you lope him.”

He said, “That no matter. He es so beauty-full.” He peeled off the bills and paid me in cash.

I have to say that I was a little worried. I was not only worried about The Mexican getting hurt; I was worried about him getting hurt and then getting mad at the horse and sending him to the sale. But I got regular reports from my friend that surprised me. The Mexican took Spirit on a trail ride. The Mexican took Spirit to a horse show. The Mexican took Spirit to the beach. The Mexican took Spirit team penning. The Mexican was riding Spirit all over the place and he never bucked! I even started to see him around, on the side of the road, heading for the power lines where there were miles of sandy road to lope down and he’d wave wildly as I passed, a happy Hispanic cowboy on a horse who could care less about grass tickling his belly.

Even though I was happy for The Mexican and relieved that Spirit found a good home, it was a kick in the pants. Still, I was determined to keep going. We started looking for the fifth horse. This time I wanted an older one. Like twenty. Spirit-less. Color-less. I didn’t care. As long as it was like… half dead. Maybe that would work.

Part three: the story of Lowdown.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Horses Named Buster and Other Unsuitable Purchases

When Kurt and I started looking for our first horse after I hadn’t had any since I was a kid, I declared, “I want one with a little spirit. I like ‘em with spirit.” Ha! The first one I bought, but who never actually set foot on the property, was a black Quarter horse named Buster. That should have been a clue right then and there. Oh, he was beautiful. And he had spirit all right. Luckily he failed the vet check and after chasing the seller for two weeks for my money, I felt a weight was lifted. I knew when I was trying him out, when he was prancing down the road with smoke coming out of his ears and fire coming out of his nose, that he was too much for me. But my pride wouldn’t let me admit it even to myself. Fear was not what I remembered having as a kid. Who gets happy when a horse fails a vet check?

The next one was just as suitable for a middle-aged woman getting back into horses after twenty years. Basically a beginner. This one was a two-year-old Paint mare I bought at the horse auction. At the time, I thought, “This is good—she is really slow and mellow, not like Buster at all.” In fact, the owner had to drag her by the lead rope and tap her on the butt with a crop just to get her to walk down the aisle even though I was kicking till I was blue in the face. Later, when I got a few more years under my belt and I thought about it, I realized that she wasn’t slow and mellow at all. She wasn’t even broke! She didn’t know how to walk with a rider on her back—that’s why the owner had to drag her—and the only reason she didn’t buck me off was because I wasn’t on her long enough. But I didn’t know that at the time. Plus, she was so pretty. I gave the seller half the money and promised to come back with the other half before the sale started.

Luckily, depending on your perspective and if you count that no real damage was done, Kelly had a little mishap with Thrush X and had to be taken to the hospital where she got an endoscopy and a lollipop and which caused us to be late getting back to the horse auction to give the seller the rest of the money. Even though I somehow had the presence of mind to call to assure him we weren’t standing him up—we still wanted the horse, please don’t put her in the sale, we were simply delayed in the emergency room making sure our daughter didn’t have third degree burns on her esophagus but I was sure everything was going to be okay and we’d be there lickity-split—even though I told him all that, he sold her at the sale that night. I also had to chase that seller for two weeks to get my money back.

While I was chasing those two sellers, I bought a third horse. So technically, I owned three horses now since none of my money had been returned. And we didn’t even have a barn yet! Who knew I’d find so many nice horses so fast? Kurt was building the barn himself. I told him he better get hopping. This new horse I found was a sensible buy. This was one that even Jamie could ride. And Jamie didn’t even know how to ride.

Dancer was a plain, ordinary sorrel. She was nice-looking but she was nothing special. One of the boarders from the stable down the road was selling her. The kid had lost interest. Key word being “kid.” I went and tried her out. She was perfect. We loped all around the arena, turned this way and that way, and even jumped a little cross-rail though I am western and know nothing about jumping. She was easy-going and quiet, well-mannered and willing. Even the vet was impressed with this one. She stood sleepy-eyed while we looked her over, one back leg cocked in the sand. He nodded his approval. “Now you’re talking,” he said. She passed the vet check with flying colors and Kurt finished the little barn he was building just in time to take her home.

Where she promptly went berserk.

Dancer bolted around the corral for two days, crashing into the fences and banging into the walls of the barn. Slivers and splinters flew, nails popped out. She introduced me to the combo. That’s where a horse rears, bucks and whirls all at the same time. She tried to bolt. She balked. She spooked. She was dangerous to ride and I dreaded trying. One time when I was saddling her up, even though I’ve always cinched up slowly and carefully, she reared, broke the lead rope and fell over backwards. The crash was so loud, Kurt came running out of the house. My neighbors, all experienced horse people, were sure it was me. Or my saddle. They came over with their advice and their saddles and cinched her up themselves. But she blew up on them too.

I was starting to suspect that Dancer was drugged when I bought her. What else could it be? How could she have changed so much? How in the world could a child ride her and I couldn’t even lead her through the yard without her spinning around and lifting me off my feet?

This was right around the time of the new trendy thing called “horse whisperers” and the phenomenon of an old training method, repackaged and reintroduced called “the round pen.” Since I was a middle-aged, middle-class woman newly back into horses who had a problem horse, a little money to blow and the determination to fix her because…“I love her,” I was the perfect mark for gimmicks like training halters, motivational sticks, tie-rings, videos, clinics and anything magical that was akin to the snapping of fingers but that worked for no one except the person selling the idea or product. I even, I admit, bought a book by Pat Parelli, desperate for the secret. The cure.

But nothing worked.

Now some of you experienced horse people might be rolling your eyes right now and saying, perhaps smugly, that Dancer obviously had a pain issue going on that caused her to be such a freak and you’re waiting for me to come out with it. But I can assure you that it was not the case.

When I called up the people at the boarding stable and cried when I told them the trouble I was having, they said they had another boarder who would love to buy Dancer. I didn’t even have to ask them. I was surprised it was so easy, hence blowing my theory that they had drugged her or hid something sinister about her, right out the window. Otherwise they wouldn’t have offered to take her back. They would have been glad to be rid of her.

Long story short, Dancer went to another child. That’s right. A kid. A little boy who did hunters and jumpers. He won all over the place on that little sorrel mare and the last I heard there was talk of the Olympics and someone offered his parents a lot of money for her but they said no way. They knew a good thing when they had it. I didn’t feel bad about it. I was happy for the horse (and the kid). A problem horse is at risk and she obviously had no problems now. So was it me?

The only conclusion that any of us could ever come to was that Dancer had spent most of her life at that busy boarding stable where there were thirty other horses and people coming and going and she had never been alone before. Or ridden anywhere except in an arena. At my house, she lived by herself and the only place I had to ride was on trails. I didn’t have an arena or another horse to ride with (I’ve since created a herd. And an arena to go with it.) and she went crazy like I would go crazy if someone transported me to a place without, say, books and paper. Or spaghetti.

Next time I will tell you about the fourth horse. The bucker.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Virginia Houses

Why is it so cold in here? This house is the worst house I’ve ever lived in temperature-wise. This and the Amityville Horror House. I thought it was going to be better when we moved here but the only thing that’s different is there are less cold rooms. I’m never comfortable. It’s cold in the winter and hot in the summer. I don’t know which is worse. Well, yeah. The cold is worse. I can’t take the cold. Let me ask you something. Why does seventy degrees feel nice when you have the air on during the summer, but it’s downright freezing in the winter? Brrr. And why is it colder in the house than it is outside? It’s not right when you step out onto the porch and say, “Oh.” Surprised. And take off your jacket.

It wasn’t like this in the Jackson house. People came inside in the summer and thought I had the air on. I never put the air on. In fact, we really didn’t have any air conditioning except for a window unit in our bedroom that was used so little, when you turned it on, leaves and dead beetles blew out. And one in the kids’ bedrooms so no one could say I was a mean mother. In the winter, we never even turned the heat on! We started the woodstove at the beginning of the season and never let the fire go out, emptying the ashes from the door down bottom, and it heated the whole house. Ah, it was toasty warm in there. And yet we used very little wood. Good thing because we used to have to buy wood in New Jersey. If we used a cord of wood in that house the whole winter, it was a lot. It was a good house and a good stove.

The little bungalow we lived in on the Jersey Shore and the Oklahoma ranch were the same way. Warm in the winter, cool in the summer. But these Virginia houses… They’re about going to kill me. If you hear on the news that they had to carry a frozen body out of a house that had frosted eyelashes and white eyebrows, fingers frozen in a position as if poised over a keyboard, that’s me. It’s not even Thanksgiving yet and I have on two pairs of socks right now, a sweatshirt, a vest, and a sweatshirt jacket. If it gets any colder, I’m going to put on my hat. I’ve worn it in the house before and Kurt hates it. Says it doesn’t flatter me one iota. It’s one of those kind of hats that burglars wear with holes for your eyes and your mouth. Plus he’s sick of seeing it because once winter starts, I put it on and I don’t take it off. Even if it’s not very cold that day and I can get away with a light jacket, I still have to keep my head covered. I have two of them. I mean, I have many hats but I have two of my favorite. I have to have a back-up. You never know when you’re going to get the original all dirty. Maybe a horse will step on it, not with your head inside, but say you took it off to listen to a heartbeat and it blows off the nail you hung it on. It could happen. And so it needs cleaning. You have to have the back-up for cases like this.

My mother was so cold when she was visiting us when we were living in the Amityville Horror House that when I came downstairs in the morning, I found her sitting next to the stove, the oven turned on to broil and the door propped open. The sugar bowl, her coffee cup and the ashtray were on the oven door like it was a little table and she was reading the morning paper with a scarf around her neck. “Good morning,” she said, like it was normal to be sitting in front of the gas stove reading the paper.

Oh, but I knew the stories she was going to tell when she went back up north—Debi and Kurt are freezing down there! They are roughing it! They might as well be in Alaska and they ought to burn that damn house down they are living in and come back to civilization where it’s warm! (That was the year Jersey became Florida and people could go swimming year round because it was so nice up there and why did I ever leave anyway?)

Now there is no reason for these houses to be this cold. Yes, the Amityville Horror House was a one-hundred-year-old farmhouse with beadboard walls but prior owners had taken down all the beadboard, numbered it, insulated, and then put it all back up again. There was blown-in insulation in the attic, batting in the cellar, weather-stripping and plastic on the windows. We had two propane furnaces, one upstairs and one down. There was an electric wall heater in the bathroom. We had four fireplaces, two with woodstoves, one cranking continuously. And we had an outside wood furnace, the big daddy of all woodstoves. You could burn whole barns in that outside woodstove and in fact, we cut down and burned enough wood to fill two pickup truck beds every week. You don’t even want to know what the propane bill was. And still. It was cold in there.

Why can’t I be warm? That’s all I ask.

I thought this house was going to be better. This is the pig farmer’s house—a little Depression-era farmhouse one third the size of the Amityville house. The ceilings are low. I can touch the ceilings upstairs without standing on my toes. Handy for changing light bulbs and removing batteries in touchy smoke detectors when you’re cooking pork chops. Insulation and new vinyl siding were installed over the original clapboard. All the windows in the back were boarded up and sided over. (I didn’t do it—the lady I bought it from committed atrocious acts of destruction on this place in an effort to improve and modernize—someday I’d like to remove it and expose the charming, three-over-three windows that line the length of the back porch and put up little red-and-white checked curtains.) The rest of the windows are new. We put in a woodstove as soon as we moved in. And new electric heat with an impressive energy star rating. And still. It’s cold in here.

I’m getting that hat.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

A Bad Influence or Why You Shouldn't Hang Out With Your Mother

I’m such a bad mother. When Kelly came home from school yesterday, even though she had a lot of homework, I made her come riding with me. Well, I really didn’t have to make her. I just said, “I’m going riding after we eat. You’re welcome to come with me if you want...” Knowing full well she couldn’t pass up riding. I rinsed out my coffee cup and watched her out of the corner of my eye, nonchalant. Of course she wanted to go riding! She’s horse crazy just like me. I brainwashed her good. See! I am bad. What kind of mother brainwashes her kid to do something? I’m about as bad as those stage mothers who put fake eyelashes and red lipstick on their daughters and would stuff toilet paper in their bras if they were big enough to wear them because they want to catch the judge’s eye. Or a pedophile’s. I don’t know.

But horseback riding is different. I don’t just think that because it’s my thing to do. It really is different. One time I combined the two. When I was sixteen, my mother talked me into entering a beauty contest—the Miss Middletown Pageant. I did it because I was flattered she wanted me to enter. But when I was already signed up, I realized there was a category called talent. And since I didn’t play the flute or tap dance, I didn’t have any. Oh why did she make me enter?!—I wailed. What was I going to do?! The girls in the contest took lessons and had voice coaches and one of them even entertained the governor by playing Chopin on the piano at the governor’s ball. All I did was write stories and ride my pony. Now I knew I was halfway pretty even though I didn’t know how to walk in high heels or fix my hair, being a tomboy. But how was I going to compete with rich girls (those were the ones who got the lessons and the voice coaches) crooning Somewhere Over the Rainbow and playing the violin and the piccolo in fancy ballroom gowns? (What is a piccolo anyway? Isn’t there a Jenny Piccolo on Happy Days?) I didn’t have any talent per se. I was freaking. So I did the only thing I knew how to do. I wrote a story about my pony.

“Does your motorcycle nicker to you in the morning? Do your roller skates run up to you at the pasture gate for a pat on the neck?” Never mind. Hopefully I’ve improved since then.

But I won it! I won the talent award! I couldn’t stop crying up there. (Interesting since the ones who won the contest, didn’t even shed a tear.)

Anyway, even though I didn’t place in the beauty part of the contest, I never felt bad about it because the irony of winning the talent award outshined anything else. I sure showed them! Ha! Turned out I’m pretty talented after all! Forget that trombone I was thinking about taking up! Who needs it? Plus, I had some fierce competition. The winner later went on to become first runner-up in the Miss America Pageant. Besides, I already knew at sixteen-years-old that talent and what was inside a person was more important than outer beauty. Otherwise I would have known how to walk in those high heels.

I would enter Kelly in a beauty contest in a minute, she’s so pretty.

But I’d much rather her come out riding with me. Even if it means she’s up late trying to get her homework done. At least I’m not making her wear false eyelashes and red lipstick. And I can always write the teacher a note…

Monday, October 12, 2009

My Favorite Horse and Spaghetti

The wind is whipping like a mother today; otherwise I was going to ride. That’s why I left Oklahoma. Because of the wind. It makes me feel uneasy. It makes me feel like a storm is coming, even when it’s not. Every time I feel sorry for myself for getting rid of my hundred-and-ten acres out there, a windy day happens and I feel better.

You’d think the horses wouldn’t mind the wind because they’re used to it, having spent time in Oklahoma. But they don’t like it either. I’m sure they feel uneasy as well, and perhaps they expect a storm. Or at least some branches to fall down and clonk them on the heads. The last time we had real bad wind, a storm did come and it knocked down three trees. They fell on the roof that goes around the tobacco shed, where I’d just thrown down some hay and where Bullet and Minnie had hurried over to get out of the rain and start eating. I walked into the barn and as quick as it took me to walk out the other side, the trees were down and the horses were all up by the barn looking in the same direction. They were staring at the tobacco shed, huddled together like crowds huddle on curbs and stare at accident scenes. The three trees were down, and the tobacco shed roof, two minutes ago above my head, was sprawled out beneath them like a bug beneath a shoe.

I could ride those horses out there if I really wanted to but it’s no fun in the wind. I’m a fair weather girl. I don’t like rain either. Or cold. Or snow after the first day. Any sort of precipitation or conditions that require me to put on anything more than a sweatshirt jacket. But it turns out I’m going to be riding in the cold this year whether I like it or not. Normally I take a break from riding from Thanksgiving until March and concentrate on family stuff. Do all the extras. Cook using actual recipes, play Scrabble, put up new curtains, go ice skating. Well, not really the ice skating since I tried that once when I was a kid and I’m not willing to try it again. I fell a hundred and twenty-three times. Of course I fell a hundred and twenty-three times when I was learning to ride too but that’s different. Anyway, you get the picture. In the winter, I do all those things that are fun or good to do but can’t shine riding’s shoes.

Not many things can. Kurt wants to get a boat someday and I agreed I would go out on it with him and in fact it sounds like a good time driving it across the lake and getting some lunch on the other side. But I’d really rather ride one of the horses up the mountain, even if I’d just done it yesterday, and look at the lake from up there. Because horses are like spaghetti. I can never get enough. I could eat it every day. I live for my spaghetti. I mean my horses.

One of my horses I can only ride in the winter. He has headshaking syndrome. Harley jerks his head up and down uncontrollably during exercise like he just got stung by a bee. It’s impossible to ride him. The first time he did it, while we were riding out in the field in Oklahoma, I thought bugs or seeds popping up from the grass were bothering him. I urged him on. He was so irritated that he tried to wipe his nose with his forefoot and he fell down with me on top of him! Luckily, he’s very athletic and he scrambled right back up before I even knew what happened. But it could have been bad.

Right away I knew what it was because I read a lot. I have a vast supply of bits and pieces of knowledge in my head, a little about everything, especially horse stuff. Though I never went to college. I’m a big reader. I like books about as much as horses and spaghetti. When I was a kid, I took out every single book in the library that they had about horses. Even if it was about English riding. I mean real English riding, from the actual England, where their horses wore rugs instead of blankets and I had to decipher the jargon before I could even understand the discipline. If there was a horse in it, I took it out.

They only let you take out a certain number of books on the same subject and I thought that was terribly unfair especially since nobody else was reading them. Back in those days, they stamped the card in the back of the book so I could tell that The Fundamentals of Horsemanship hadn’t been taken out in eight months. So I borrowed a couple of extras without checking them out and snuck them back in when I returned the others.

Some of this reading must have stuck because whenever there is something going on with a horse, nine times out of ten, I know what it is, and know what to do, though I usually call the vet because I don’t trust myself. Sometimes I get the vet out so I can diagnose it for him. But it makes me feel better to have someone out who actually went to school for this.

So right away I knew Harley had headshaking syndrome. And I called the vet anyway. He suggested a few different things. Nah, that doesn’t work. Yep, I did that. Nope, they tried that and studies show no improvement. No, I won’t give that drug because some horses colic on it. Etc.

Nothing works consistently or regularly with these horses. There is no cure and they don’t know what it’s from. It seems like all they know for sure is the trigeminal nerve in the nose gets triggered and your horse is basically shot. Not literally. Well, I guess sometimes, some mean owner would shoot his horse if he couldn’t ride him. But I was talking figuratively.

Some of these horses are seasonal and so I’ve been waiting for the right time, hoping and praying that Harley wouldn’t do it when summer was over and I could at least get some use out of him in the winter. Even though I am a fair weather girl, I would put on my ski mask, the kind that burglars wear, my thermal gloves and goose-down coat that you can’t move in and be happy that at least I can ride this horse sometime. I love to ride Harley. He’s my favorite. He thinks I’m his mommy and will jump off a bridge if I ask him to. He’s light and fast and he loves to run. It’s like flying, when you’re riding Harley. I would do anything to ride Harley. I would even ride him in the wind.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Attack of the Spotted Donkey

Spot went on the warpath. Spot is the polka-dotted donkey next door who has long ears like the dishes for banana splits and round, pink-rimmed eyes like he’s been crying. He’s the one Eldon puts his grandniece on, the little girl who is his pride and joy and whose knees Pearl keeps padded, even when she’s not on her bike—that’s how careful they are with her.

One morning, very early, before I was quite awake, I saw Spot’s long, banana split ears bobbing past the deck. That wasn’t right. I blinked to clear my head like I blinked that time I reached up into the kitchen cabinet to get a mixing bowl and there inside, as casual as cake batter, coiled like a garden hose, was a snake. I screamed even though I’m not afraid of snakes. It was the shock of it.

The dog, AKA the Big Stupid, was as shocked as I was, and he started barking and running from window to window, jumping on the sills, threatening to crash through the glass, spittle flying every which way and then Kurt’s alarm started ringing. I grabbed the phone, slid into my flip-flops, and even though I was braless and still in my guinea tee, hair sticking out all over the place and teeth unbrushed, I ran outside while I dialed Pearl and Eldon.

By the time I got into the yard, Spot was trying to crash through the barnyard fence and the horses, who are unaccustomed to uninvited visitors of the equine kind and especially those who are attacking, crowded around on their side of the fence, the old guy, Doc, in the back, and the little one, Minnie, looking quite like me, with hair sticking out all over the place, behind him. Bullet and Harley were in front. Everyone was screaming—the horses were whinnying and Spot was hee-hawing. In between hee-haws, with his neck stretched out as far as it would go, his jugular quivering, his nostrils flaring, Spot clapped his teeth together and bit the air. Once or twice he made contact and grabbed a hold of the skin on Bullet’s neck. Bullet reared back, releasing himself. I looked for blood. Then they spun around and kicked at each other. Wham! Wham! Wham! Someone’s foot landed on a rail with a loud clunk. But the board stayed up.

“Get back!” I screamed. “Get back!” I waved one hand and dialed the phone with the other.

It rang. And rang.

Com’on, com’on.

I ran to the barn and grabbed a halter and lead rope and ran back out again. I broke a flip-flip. I discarded the good one. It went flying up by the pool and perhaps landed in the water—I don’t know—I never found it.

Finally Eldon answered the phone and I blurted out what was happening, “Spot’s loose! He’s attacking the horses!”

“What’s that you say?”

“Spot’s loose! He’s trying to crash through my fence!”

“Who is this?”

“It’s Debi! Spot’s loose!”

“Alright. We be right over.”

When I got back over to the horses, Spot was on the top rail and it was making a cracking sound like how a log sounds in a wood splitter. I don’t know how he got up that high. He’s only as big as a large pony. But to see him in action… It was pretty impressive. My horses hovered around him even though, fence and all between them, and he was sorely outnumbered, he was getting the better of them. If that rail broke, he’d get in there and he’d kill at least one of them, if not all. I didn’t know what to do! He wasn’t backing off because I was yelling. He was completely oblivious to me. So I took aim and whaled the halter and lead rope. It hit him dead on. Whump! He jumped down off the fence, surprised, and ran back a few feet. Then he turned around and faced me.

Now I had to catch him. He took a couple of steps toward us again, trying to figure out a way to get around me.

All this time I could hear Kurt’s alarm still ringing and the dog barking in the house. Eldon was probably still putting his shoes on. I was going to have to do this myself. But I was barefoot. And I was scared. Spot is a stallion. Now I knew why they say don’t keep stallions unless you’re a breeder. Who would have ever guessed Spot to be so violent? Spot, the one whose pink nose I tickle and who loves to get his neck scratched. Spot, who lives peacefully on the other side of the lilacs along my driveway and gallops clumsily to the fence when he sees me coming with an apple. This was not the Spot I knew. This was more like one of those stallions fighting to the death on a National Geographic documentary, ripping flesh and cracking skulls with flailing forefeet.

I’ve heard stories about stallions. I’ve heard that one will suddenly, for no apparent reason, maybe he smells a mare on you, or you made some sort of an error with your body language, grab a hold of your arm in his mouth and lift you off your feet and shake you like a rag doll. If you are lucky, he will dislocate your shoulder. If not, he will take the whole arm off. But I had no choice. I couldn’t let him get my horses.

I squatted down, and while keeping my eyes on him, I picked up the halter and lead rope. I stood back up. I took a few steps forward, reached out and talked to him in baby talk. But he stared at me, stock still. I didn’t know if he was suspicious because I’d just whaled him, or he was getting ready to attack me. I got closer and closer. Easy. Easy. I could feel his breath on my knuckles. The horses behind me were running back and forth along the fence, still whinnying, they were so shook up.

I slipped the halter over his head. Nothing.

Around that time, Pearl and Eldon appeared. They scratched their heads.

“How in the world did Spot get hisself out? Someone musta left them gates open.”

They were not fazed by what happened. They couldn’t picture it. I knew they didn’t get it because they were too calm, thinking about getting back to their coffee. Eldon slipped a piece of baling twine around Spot’s neck and handed me back the halter.

“Well, thanks a lot,” he said. “Com’on Boy.”

“Sure looks like it’s gonna be a pretty one,” Pearl said, looking up at the sky as they walked across the street.

“No harm done,” I called after them. “I didn’t see any blood!”

Perhaps they think I’m some hysterical Yankee who gets all riled up because of some loose livestock? Spot is as gentle as a lamb! Next thing you know I’ll be complaining about roosters cock-a-doodle-dooing or flies congregating. Maybe they thought I was mad at them and they felt funny? Which I was not. Because accidents happen. Especially concerning animals. My own horses got loose one time and ran down the middle of a highway causing traffic to be stopped in both directions for two hours and damage to the manicured lawns of brick McMansions newly built in the neighborhood. So I know shit can happen.

I just wanted someone to say, “Oh my God! That was close! I can’t believe he did that! You must have been scared to death!” Anything! But only the dog seemed concerned.

A couple of days later, Pearl brought us over a big mess of green beans and we brought them over some watermelon. That’s what you do in the country to make sure there are no hard feelings.

And put up good fences.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

A Crisis

Kurt got fired. I might as well have said Kurt grew another arm, that’s how unbelievable it is. Especially because it wasn’t due to the economy. And certainly not because of Kurt’s performance. Turns out the boss was using him to get his store up and running and then when he thought it was stable, he fired Kurt and hired some hayseed who doesn’t know half what Kurt knows for half the pay. We put our all into that store. I even worked there for free. Who does that?

We all worked there--Kelly came into the store to help me clean

It was a major shock. Kurt has never gotten fired in his life. There was no warning. We had no idea. If anything, we were getting pats on the back. So we weren’t prepared. And we were hurt. How could this guy do this to us after how hard we worked? How could he do this to us after we did exactly what we said we were going to do and ran that store like it was our own? Knowing, knowing his store was our only income (don’t forget, I worked there for free) and we had a child to take care of? He didn’t even have the decency to give us any notice, not a single day’s notice, causing us to be in dire straits. In fact, the day before this happened, we spent Kurt’s entire paycheck, part on work clothes for that place. And I couldn’t even return them because I removed all the tags and washed them.

Everybody got sick from it—there was so much stress. This happened right around the time my mother took a turn for the worse so if you want to look on the bright side, if this hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have been able to go up there for as long as I did because I was working at the store.

Even so, bright side, dark side, I couldn’t even talk about it on here until now.

The Chinese character for “crisis,” when translated into English, means “opportunity.” Maybe this was the kick in the pants we needed. In Jersey, we had our own company. But when we moved here, Kurt got wooed by a flooring store who heard abut his background and experience. A company van was dangled in front of our faces. There was a 401K plan, health insurance, vacations, raises. Still, we had to really think about it. We’d always been our own boss. But we were scared. Virginia is not New Jersey. Maybe we wouldn’t be successful around here? There just aren’t as many people down here to even buy flooring. And there’s that Yankee thing going on—will they trust me to do a good job for them? It sure would be nice to have a steady paycheck and not always have to worry and maybe even take a vacation like normal people do… And so we took the job.

Does anyone see the irony here? Couple works for themselves and does fine. Couple moves to a new area, feels insecure, and so works for someone else for the security. Ha! The first guy, though not intentionally bad, ended up giving us bounced paychecks because he was a poor businessman. He didn’t mean it. He was actually very good to us. But he put us in a hole. The second guy, who bought out the first guy’s store, had it all planned. He was the bad one. But that’s okay. If there’s one thing I believe in, it’s what goes around comes around. Anyone who has ever hurt me over the years has always gotten bad luck of some kind. I’ve sat back and waited and watched and something bad always happens to them. I don’t have to lift a finger. It’s nature. It’s karma. It’s even in the Bible. Whatever. The point being is if you are a bad person and you hurt people, your time will come. I’m sorry but somehow that makes me feel a little better.

My other consolation is that I know we are now going to be successful doing what we should have done from the get-go—being in our own flooring business—and the guy who screwed us is going to be crying when our company kicks his company’s ass and he realizes he blew it because he had two of the best people in the industry putting their hearts and their souls into his business.

Now we are putting our hearts and souls into our own business. It’s called Shop-At-Home Floors. I admit, it’s going to be tricky. We’re doing this on a shoestring because we’ve had no time to prepare and the economy is really bad, but that’s okay—if anybody can do it, we can.

And so now comes an exciting journey in our lives. The opportunity.

Monday, August 31, 2009

My Farm Girl

Turns out, I have a real farm girl on my hands. Kelly has been itching to drive the tractor. We just started letting her drive the riding lawnmower this past year and that was out of desperation because the grass grows like it’s on steroids around here and the weed-whacker, a weapon of mass destruction even with goggles on and long pants, was out of the question. But the tractor? The tractor is big. It’s a vehicle on steroids. I don’t even drive the tractor! And I probably would have kept saying no but it happened while I was taking a nap and the father was in charge. I heard it running when I woke up and looked out the window. Kurt was raking the riding arena. Maybe he’d do the trails next. He’s so sweet. I sat down at this computer to do some work and the next thing you know I saw a shadow behind me as someone stepped up to the back door and came inside. I turned around. It was Kurt. Odd, since I could still hear the tractor.

“Is that our tractor?” I asked.

“Yep. Kelly’s driving it.”

“Kelly who?”

“Com’on, com’on, come and see,” he waved at me to get up. “Now don’t get mad,” he warned as we hurried across the yard.

What could I say? She probably wouldn’t be riding a bike either, if it wasn’t for Kurt telling me to stop being a big worry-wart. Or feeding the horses because they’re rude and obnoxious at feeding time so she might get stepped on, or even baking the cake like she’s doing right now in the kitchen because what if she gets her fingers caught in the mixer? I know, the tractor is a little bit different. But farm kids have been helping on the farm by driving tractors for as long as tractors have existed. Plus it’s much better than sitting in front of the TV watching reruns of iCarly or playing Farmville on the computer. This is the real farm.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Hay Day

Hay day is the worst day of the year. Actually, it’s two or three days, depending on how much I can get from one hay supplier. I like to get as much as I can so it’s off my mind. That’s one of my big worries—feeding these horses. I always worry about the availability of hay. You’d think I wouldn’t have to give it a second thought in hay land. But I have a harder time finding hay down here where it grows right next door than I did in Jersey where people don’t even know what hay is.

For one thing, I don’t know if they take care of their horses different down here or what but no one seems to care about feeding their horses dusty or moldy hay. Whenever I warn that I won’t feed dusty or moldy hay, the farmers act like I’m one of those pain-in-the-ass Yankees who nitpicks about silly things and doesn’t know his head from a hole in the wall about raising farm critters. They eye me suspiciously and accuse me of putting blankets on my horses and talking baby talk to them, which I don’t do. Well, maybe the baby talk. Like Minnie. She’s just so cute you’ve got to.

I have to come up with reasons I won’t feed crap hay or else they’ll ignore me and sneak it in with the good stuff. Not because they’re necessarily trying to screw me, but because they think I am wrong. I should stop treating them horses like namby-pambies because them jokers are lucky they’re eating at all. Period. So I tell them I have an old guy who colics if he even looks at moldy hay. He’s allergic to it. Or he has heaves and can’t have any dust. And I have show horses, expensive show horses, and no they won’t eat around the mold—I have no grass here—they’ll eat every wisp of hay I put out there they’re so dumb. I’m still paying the vet bills from the last time… Not really but that’s what I say.

That usually stops the good guys but I’ve gotten hay from bad guys who’ve unloaded entire moldy, weedy loads on me that looked perfectly fine from the outside but was rotten and smelled like a grandmother’s basement on the inside and full of trash to boot. Very odd since the one we opened up to inspect was clean and green. I throw this hay over the fence for Eldon’s cows and he throws me back good bales even though I keep telling him don’t do it, I’m just glad to get rid of the stuff.

Forget bringing it back. After you get a bad load of hay, the supplier conveniently stops answering his phone and if you catch the wife, she has no idea what you’re talking about. She didn’t even know her husband was making hay for goodness sake. You might as well have the dog on the phone. You can take a chance and reload the whole thing and hope the supplier is there when you arrive or just drop it off whether he’s there or not, but either way, he’s not going to cough up your dough now or when he comes home because he’s already spent it on four NASCAR tickets, the light bill, not the electric bill, the light bill, and if it was a really big order, new tractor tires. Plus that hay was fine.

I never have the strength to bring it back. I’m lucky I go get it. In Jersey, I had it delivered. Every month I’d get a delivery of forty bales and they were always clean and green. Of course they were also double the price but you have to wonder how my hay man in Jersey could acquire good bales and in small quantities, when I have a hard time here where they make the stuff and when I do find it, I have to take all they’ve got and squeeze it in every nook and cranny, sometimes even filling up stalls to the ceilings, because there won’t be any more till the next cutting which is eight months away in May. They don’t store it for you down here. And they don’t deliver it.

So I take what I can and act real nice to Kurt when we have to go get it because he’s about ready to kill these horses for all the trouble they put us through including producing tons of manure and making us call the vet and then mysteriously getting better right before the vet arrives and stuff like eating the barn walls and breaking the electric fence, that kind of thing.

We got two hundred bales the other day. They were about forty pounds each. The hay guy, his wife, and the old father, all in straw hats and leather gloves, helped us load it into the horse trailer and pickup truck. I kept trying to make small talk so we could take a rest but they were in pretty good shape and kept on going, even the old guy who had white eyebrows and knotty legs. In fact, the old guy wasn’t even breathing heavy. It was kind of embarrassing since we were about ready to die.

They got us loaded up pretty quick. But when we got home, we had to do it by ourselves. Kelly and Motley got in the trailer and pushed the bales down. They came tumbling out onto the grass right in front of the hay shed and Kurt and I picked them up and stacked them inside. After a hundred, we had to go back and get the second load. By number one-hundred and eighty, I didn’t think I could go on. We were exhausted and we were starving. You really work up an appetite moving hay. The horses hung their heads over the fence and watched us like they had nothing better to do.

Now is the time that you would call and order a pizza for lunch but there’s no delivery of any kind out in the country. Now and then you might get lucky and the firehouse is having some kind of a fundraiser and you can go down there and buy a quart of Brunswick stew or barbecue, but in general, the best you can expect when you are exhausted and starving is putting some Pizza Bites in the oven. Times like this, you are too tired to even drive to town to get some Dairy Queen.

But the horses have hay.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Cleaning Up

The farm was still standing when I got home. It was even straightened up. But it was dirty. This is how bad it was: It stunk. It took me two days to clean up the clutter that was thrown into the pantry. When I finally got inside, I found a plastic gallon with sour milk inside and the shelf was stained where the potatoes rotted and melted through the bag. The hot dogs in the refrigerator were green-molded. Hot dogs are full of preservatives—they last forever. I don’t think I can get the stains out of the toilet. Kurt said that’s okay; we need a new one anyway. It was dark. I replaced two light bulbs in the chandelier in the kitchen. I soaked the kitchen sink and the coffee pot in bleach. I Windexed, polished or scrubbed every horizontal surface in the house causing my sponge to disintegrate and my mop to fall apart leaving wet yarns all over the floor. The weeds were growing up through the deck and the deck is high. I’m sorry, it’s a cliché, but it was a jungle out there. The barn smelled like a cellar. Saddle pads were speckled with mold. Mud daubers built nests on the pommels of saddles and there was cat poop or puke, I couldn’t tell which, on the floor. No one picked up manure in weeks.

I’ve been cleaning non-stop. I’m glad to be home and get my place back in order. Even more glad to be with my husband and daughter again. (Even though those two were the culprits in this mess.) But I feel guilty about going on with my life, sweeping the porch, riding a horse, while my mother is suffering up there. I haven’t been able to talk to her since I got home. She’s been too incoherent. They have her on a heavy-duty pain drug that is knocking her out. I couldn’t help thinking, this is what it will be like if I lose her. I won’t be able to tell her about the stains in the sink or the weeds in the yard. I won’t be able to say, “Do you believe this Ma?”

And yet…I am distracted by the dust.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Mothering My Mother

My mother needs me. I'll be gone for a while. I don't know if I'll be able to check in, but if not, I'll miss you all. Thank you for all the kind words, support and prayers. And the gifts from The Blue Ridge Gal and Blue Ridge Blue Collar Girl. You guys have made me feel better. Now I hope to help my mom feel better.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Dreaded Wal-Mart

Today I had to go to the dreaded Wal-Mart. I say “dreaded” because I hate that place. It’s a half day project and I don’t like to leave the farm period. Double that if it’s not horse related. I might leave if somebody says, “Hey, come and see my old farmhouse. It’s got bead-board walls and a claw-foot tub.” I might be excited to leave for that, especially if there’s a chance they’ll unload something old on me, perhaps a dusty old dresser they have no use for or even an old picture in a chipped and cracked gesso frame they think is ugly. Or I might leave for, let’s see…okay, I might be easily persuaded to go to a bake sale. If it’s not too far. Like say the firehouse was having something. I’d go down there. I’d be on the lookout for a pecan pie. You wouldn’t find any cheesecake. They’re not into that down here. That’s okay. I make my own. Three different kinds: New York style cheesecake, amaretto cheesecake and cream cheese pie. Kurt says I ought to sell my cheesecakes. That and my sauce. He says I can cater to the people from up north who can’t get good cheesecake and real Italian spaghetti sauce down here.

At any rate, I’d leave for a bake sale but I wouldn’t be happy about leaving for a candle sale, even though I like candles. Or a Christmas-in-July sale. Or a grand opening sale for a tire-and-auto parts store. It just wouldn’t be worth splitting for that when I know full well that when I get back a few hours later, the grass will have grown another foot and the horses will have dropped another ton of horse manure. Things pile up on the farm when you’re not home.

Sometimes you have no choice. Like when you are out of toilet paper, cat food and Blue Bunny Peanut Butter Panic ice cream. I mean, there’s no putting it off at that point. Plus I needed new socks again because they don’t make socks like they used to and about a month into it, you can’t keep them up anymore, no matter how careful you were about not stretching them out. Might as well think of them as disposable socks nowadays. So I had to go.

Like I said, it’s a half day project. It takes forty-five minutes to get there. That’s an hour-and-a-half in travel time alone. Then I talk to everyone. I can’t help it. Yankee or no Yankee, I am friendly. I like people. Especially the regulars, like the kind you find in Wal-Mart. I often want to stop and chat with the Wal-Mart greeter but they’re paranoid about having that job. There are so many jokes about Wal-Mart greeters that after they say, “Hi, welcome to Wal-Mart,” they just want you to not look at them and keep on going and don’t tell anybody you saw them there.

Don’t laugh but I’d love to have that job. I’d be wiping off carts, sanitizing handles (I’m a clean freak) and yakking my head off to whoever comes in. Say some old guy comes in to pick up his prescription. If he is wearing overalls, I might engage him in some conversation about the cutting of hay and the weather—how we’re all at its mercy and when is this rain ever going to stop? Or say a redneck guy comes in for a case of Mountain Dew. I might mention the NASCAR race. Like, “How about that wreck the other day?” If I had any idea. I’d have to keep up on those things if I was a Wal-Mart greeter.

I’ll tell you what makes me mad about those greeters. How come they don’t have a chair to sit on? They’re standing there all day long and what?—they can’t sit down for a minute? And most of them are old. That’s why I couldn’t have that job and I’m not even old. I’m one tough cowgirl out there pushing wheelbarrows full of horse manure and unloading grain, pulling weeds, pulling half-buried junk out of the mud in the dump that surfaces after it rains looking for something good. I mean, I have dents in my arms that define the muscle. I’ve got Michelle Obama arms. And strong legs like bull. And I wouldn’t be able to stand there all day long and not sit down for five minutes. I’m tough but my back would be killing me!

Anyway, the other reason I hate going to that place is because of the color. It is grey. It is dreary. It is the color of wet cement. It about makes you want to suck on an exhaust pipe if the conditions are right, like say you are due for your period. There are no windows. Where are the windows? You know, in the old days you’d go into a supermarket or a department store and hit songs would be playing (that’s what they called them back then—hits) but only the instrumentals, not the words: “Love is Blue,” “Close to You;” very soothing. There were big plate glass windows up front and you could look outside and see smiling ladies pushing shopping carts with little kids skipping beside them because no one dreaded going inside. They were in for a sunshiny shopping experience. They had a list that included cheerful groceries like Chex, Kool-Aid, Nestle’s Quik, a rump roast. Not a plain old roast. A rump roast. Whatever that is. A pineapple upside-down cake, peas-and-carrots, Jiffy Pop popcorn, St. Joseph’s Aspirin for Children and the ingredients for fondue. Perhaps they would pick up a Ladies’ Home Journal on the way out and the children would ride the mechanical horse up front in the bright sunshine that spilled in the windows and turned everything golden.

But the way Wal-Mart is today… I don’t know if they want you to actually forget there is an outside but when you’re in there, you might as well be in a cave. Maybe they don’t want the workers to see what they’re missing and make a run for the parking lot. There isn’t even any good music playing. I can’t get in and out of there fast enough. I often fill two carts since I put off going till I’m out of everything because I hate it so much. It takes forever. I have a lot to get, and in their defense, they usually have everything I need.

Except for American-made products. Like one time I was on a mission and decided, that’s it. I’m not buying Kurt a belt unless it’s made in America. I must have been making good time that day. Usually I just throw everything in the cart. I don’t care if I squash the bread or crack the eggs. I’ve got to get out of there! But I took out the glasses and looked for the tiny stamp on the underside of the belts. Made in China. Made in Pakistan. Made in Indonesia. Kelly and I went through every single belt on that rack. We were knee-deep in coils of leather like snakes around our legs and nope, not one American-made belt. That bothers me.

Looking on the bright side, I would probably spend more money if it wasn’t so dreary in there. But who has time to pick up a new toilet seat or a Swiffer WetJet Starter Kit on sale for sixteen-fifty when you’re rushing like a mad woman to get away from all that grey gloom? I did manage to grab a few cheerful groceries when I was in there today. Cream cheese, sour cream, graham cracker crumbs. I think I deserve a nice New York style cheesecake after going to Wally World. With cherries on top. I have no idea what I’m going to do with the rump roast.

(Check out www.GoingCrunchy.blogspot.com for another reason not to go to Wal-Mart.)

Friday, May 29, 2009


My parents offered to give Kurt and me their boat. It’s a beautiful 27-foot Sports Craft called the Cookie Too, named after my mother. Not being able to go on the boat is one of the things that Kurt misses the most about New Jersey. Occasionally he would drive all the way back there, just to go fluke fishing with my father. Eight hours one way just to go fishing when we have a lake right down the block. It’s crazy. But sailing along the Hudson, cruising around the Statue of Liberty, reeling in fluke or bluefish or even sharks, is a little bit different than standing on a bank casting a line. Plus, I know that part of it is the special relationship that he has with Dad.

So they offered us the boat when they got too sick to keep up with it. Even though they could use the money by selling it, they would have liked it if Kurt had the Cookie Too. Kurt is dying to get a boat. We’re walking distance to the lake. We could hop in it and cruise across the lake and park it, go have some lunch or go shopping. We’d catch some fish. No sharks. But maybe some of those country fish like catfish or bass. Do people even eat bass? I don’t know, but it’d be fun. Even without the Statue of Liberty.

But we had to say no thank you. The boat is too big to pull back and forth on a trailer. It needs to be docked. And it doesn’t make sense for us to rent a slip, which is very expensive, and we really can’t afford, when we can keep one right here in our own backyard and just pull it down the block when we feel like going out and not have to pay a dime. It broke our hearts to turn it down. Not only because this was a free boat, but because it was the Cookie Too. Someday we’ll save enough money to buy something smaller.

In the meantime, I’ve been riding that buckskin out there, affectionately called “the Bad Boy.” He’s not really a bad boy but he’ll buck at the blink of an eye. His mode of operandi is to buck. Even if the situation doesn’t call for it. Even if it’s overkill. For example, the other day while eating grass in the barnyard, he farted and scared himself. So he bucked. He’s very flamboyant that way.
But at the risk of jinxing myself, and to his credit, he’s never bucked with me on him. Still. I know he’s got it in him. And so I wear a helmet. I don’t normally wear a helmet. I’m going to be honest here. It’s dorky. I look like a big egg head. Yeah, yeah, I tried those helmets with the cowboy hat attached. I looked like a big egg head with a cowboy hat attached.

Maybe that’s why that chick tried to run me over the other day. Because I was really ugly in that helmet and needed to be put out of my misery.

I wear a helmet when I’m on a new horse, or training a young one, or on one I don’t completely trust. Don’t bother telling me that an accident can happen on any horse, it can be the nicest Rusty in the barn and I’m stupid as well as ugly. I know. I have no defense.

Kelly’s a different story. Kelly is not allowed to ride without a helmet and even if she was, I don’t think she’d do it because I’ve got her brainwashed about it. At least give me credit for that. She’s been wearing a helmet since she was three-years-old and she thinks she looks quite happening in her brown suede Troxel. Even if she thought she looked like an egg-head, and even though I don’t normally wear one and it might occur to her to demand that I practice what I preach or else she doesn’t want to wear one either because it’s not fair, too bad—she’s still wearing one otherwise she doesn’t get on the horse. That’s the rule. She’s lucky I don’t make her wear body armor…

Anyway, poor Bullet. I’ve given him a bad reputation by badmouthing him all over the place about how he’s a bucker and I’ve got to wear a helmet when I am riding him when everyone knows I don’t normally wear a helmet so he must be really bad. And the poor horse hasn’t done anything wrong! He hasn’t even given me a dirty look! Of course he has that gate issue. But that’s why I’m taking him to Ducky, the trainer. Kurt calls him “the Duckster.” Now he’s got other people calling him that. My girlfriend the other day, on the phone: “So, did you bring the Bad Boy over to the Duckster?” I don’t know. Maybe he’ll like that name. It’s much cooler than Ducky. It sounds fast. And barrel racers want to be fast. Ducky is one of the fastest barrel racers around here. He’s like a monkey on a horse and wears a cowboy hat with a big feather in it but no helmet. I did take Bullet to him last week and he gave Bullet a good workout. He never once called him “the Bad Boy.” In fact, he was quite impressed with him and asked who trained him. I looked at Kurt. Kurt looked behind him. When he realized no one was there, he said, “Uh, I did?”

“You did a great job,” the Duckster told him.

I saw Kurt’s chest well up. In that instant, I thought he was actually going to start riding again, being so proud and inspired. But no. He’s still bucking for a boat. No pun intended.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Getting Run Over on the Horses

On Sunday, as beautiful and peaceful as it was, one of our neighbors, a young woman a part of the local and esteemed Johnson clan, farmers who own a decent piece of land in the neighborhood and do something with cows—I’m not sure exactly what—almost ran Kelly and me over on our horses.

We waited till church was in session before taking a walk with the horses. There wouldn’t be any traffic when everyone was in church. Not that we get a lot of traffic around here. We wouldn’t have bought this place if it was a busy street. But when we do get it, they go fast. It’s part of the culture around here. In Virginia everyone thinks they’re a NASCAR driver. So we waited till church was in session before we took our walk.

But I miscalculated and we were still on the road, heading back to the house by the time church let out. Most of the drivers slowed down and waved when they passed us except for a small dark car with two young people in it. They were coming fast. I stuck my arm out and patted the air to ask the young man to slow down but he looked right at me, looked right in my face, and stepped on the gas. In that split second I could read his eyes: “F you. You’re not telling me to slow down.” My horse jumped. I told Kelly we better hurry.

As we approached our house, the road curved so we crossed to the other side of the street so oncoming cars could see us long before they were upon us. We’d almost reached the yard when I saw the white SUV barreling down the road from way past Pearl’s house. Oh no. She was flying. We got over as far as we could go. We couldn’t get over any further because our neighbor’s mailbox and a ditch were in the way and there was no time to get back across the street or to turn around and run into the driveway we’d just passed. As she got closer, I started waving my arms, screaming, “Slow down! Slow down!” She was completely oblivious to it. Or she didn’t care. She drifted into our lane. I yelled for Kelly to get back, though there was nowhere for her to go, and I ducked, as if that would save me.

She zoomed by us. A swoosh of air blew up my pants leg. Both horses reared up and stumbled into the street. Their feet clattered on the pavement. If I would have stuck my foot out, her side mirror would have ripped it from its ankle like a baseball bat decapitating a mailbox, that’s how close she was. Then she was gone, in a split second, just like she was when she nearly ran us over the day we were picking up litter a few months ago. I recognized the car. I suspected she was the Chick-fil-A eater. Someone who has such a callous disregard for another human being would be the type to throw litter out her car window. She must be a transient, passing through the neighborhood. Or one of those renters around the block who have big bald spots on their lawn and a blanket with a picture of a buck nailed to one of their windows. That’s who it must be. A lowlife type. But I couldn’t have been more wrong.

After we put the horses away, we drove around the neighborhood looking for the white SUV. I wanted to know exactly where this idiot lived or was visiting. I expected to have to drive all the way around the block to the rental house or into the next county where there are some old trailers, but it turns out I didn’t have to go far. Right at the end of the block, directly across the street from the blue sign the county put up announcing that the Van Cleave family had adopted the road and would be cleaning up everybody’s crap, was the neat, brick Johnson house and right behind the manicured lawn, on the shiny blacktopped driveway, under the carport, spic-and-span like a respectable family lived there, was the white SUV that almost killed us. And lo and behold, right next to it was the little dark car belonging to the cocky punk who’d stepped on the gas.

I couldn’t believe it but in a way I should have known. It appears rude driving runs in that family. A few times a year, (I’ve never kept track of it so I’m not exactly sure how often, but it lasts a week or two), the Johnson boys, and perhaps their farm workers, (all I know is they are male and there are a number of them), zoom by here transporting silage or wheat or something for the cows in the back of great big dump trucks. One after the other, all day long, they barrel down the road, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, doing sixty, maybe even more, chaff blowing out the back, tires spitting up stones. If you have a lick of sense, as they say around here, you better stay off the roads when the Johnson boys are hauling.

At first I thought this was the culture. I’m not going to be accused of being one of those Yankees who moves down here and then complains about roosters crowing or pigs stinking. Nope. If this was the nature of this type of farming, if barrel-assing down the road like out-of-control runaway trains past other people’s property with no regard for anyone’s life or limb, if this was the norm in the country, if this was acceptable, which it must be since they smile and wave when they go by, then I’d just have to be extra vigilant about keeping the animals and our daughter away from the road during their wheat runs and retrieve my mail either before they start or after they finish. We’d come out of hiding when they were done.

But after Kelly and I almost got run over that day, I started venting to the neighbors about it and they jumped right on the bandwagon and complained about nearly getting run over themselves. They said they can’t stand it the way everyone in that family drives, the girl and the men, and how they wait till the coast is clear before going down the road on their tractor or moving hay. They said they’re afraid to take walks or go for a bike ride. They told about how they don’t let their children play on the front lawn when the trucks are hauling, how their cat was run over by the Johnsons, and how they are going to give them one more chance before they call the law. And I, the outsider, the Yankee who is trying to fit in here and get along with everyone, I should go down there and have a word with Robby, the head Johnson, even though they see them all in church and at the livestock market. I should go talk to Robby and here’s their number. Go do it. Go do it before one of us gets killed.

Oh sure, throw the Yankee to the wolves. I can just picture how that will go over. Like I’m going to get away with telling members of a clan who have been here forever how to drive their cars. I can already see the trash thrown onto my lawn and the bullet hole in my barn. Or maybe in my dog.

Kurt said, “That’s it. You just can’t walk down the road anymore.”

He’s right. But it’s not fair. I pay taxes just like they do. In fact, I probably pay more because their property is in Land Use. And I’m the one who maintains the road so I actually do more than my share. But it’s not worth the danger. Which is the ironic thing because everyone always complains about the traffic and the rude people up north. That’s supposed to be why I moved away. I lived in what was considered a rural town in New Jersey. It has a population as large as Roanoke’s and it was still considered the country—that’s how congested it is up there. It was difficult getting out of our street pulling the horse trailer because so much traffic would be passing and you couldn’t step on the gas and make a run for it because you had horses in the back. Sometimes I’d be sitting there for ten minutes before I could go. But you know what? When someone saw me walking down our road on my horse, they passed slowly and respectfully. They made a careful arc around me. They may not have smiled and waved. In fact, they wouldn’t even make eye contact. But they didn’t almost kill me either.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

A Happy Mother's Day

It’s a happy Mother’s Day. On Friday the doctor said she’s in remission. He used that word. Remission. She’s not out of the woods yet. She has to get a bone marrow transplant due to having the Philadelphia chromosome. The Philadelphia chromosome has something to do with her type of leukemia and according to my mother, it’s bad. But she’s in remission. That’s good. I’m running with that.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Great Love

My mother has leukemia. I hesitated writing that because, there are probably people in my life, if you can call it that—in my life—forget it; let’s just say people I know, who would be glad to hear it. I know. It’s hard to believe that another human being would take satisfaction in such a thing. I don’t think it’s me being cynical or paranoid. There are some mean people in this world. Like the Evils. Or even that secretary of the horse club who hates me because we didn’t vote the same. I have no illusions that either one of them, if they were reading this, wouldn’t smirk and say “Good!” So with that being said, if the mean, evil people are reading this, if you are a mean, evil person, you should know that I could care less what is inside your sick mind and heart.

What is inside my mind and heart is great pain because of how lucky I’ve been to have such a loving mother. Maybe if she wasn’t so great, it wouldn’t be so bad. But it’s bad. I worry. I worry if the chemotherapy doesn’t work and the other things they will try don’t work, and I lose my mother, how will I get over that? How will I go on?

My father said if something happens to my mother, he can’t go on. I didn’t try to talk him out of it. I didn’t say, “Oh, you’ll go on, you’ll be fine.” Because it’s ridiculous. It’s as obvious as the nose on your face, which is one of my mother’s favorite sayings—my father would not be fine. He would not be able to survive without my mother and we all know it, everyone knows it and so there’s no sense to lie about it. He’s not the type to join a support group or to write a book about it or to take up some new hobby in his wife’s name or to find another wife in the Elk’s club some lonely Sunday. No bucket lists for him, no looking on the bright side, no carrying on for the kids. They’ve been together since they were kids. And he said the truth. I said all I could say. “You’re not going to lose her.” That is a possibility. But him going on without her? No.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Getting in Touch with Your Inner Redneck

We love it down here. Why move to a place you don’t love? We could have moved to any one of the 50 states but we chose Virginia. And so we embraced it. I promptly set all the dials on the radios to Super Country and ordered a subscription to Progressive Farmer. I started watching RFD-TV, just so I could learn the ins and outs of important things like steam engines and corn chowder and square dancing. I planted a garden and made Pearl promise to tell me if she saw me doing something wrong. “Don’t be shy now,” I told her. “I don’t know what I’m doing.” That was an understatement—the only thing I ever planted before was a hyacinth I got on Easter. It came in a plastic pot wrapped in pink foil. It was dead by Mother’s Day.

In addition to the proper reading material and music, and a good garden full of turnip greens, in order to get the full southern experience, one’s activities should include: listening to bluegrass music down at the Dairy Queen; shopping at Wal-Mart (that’s a given); attending the Moonshiner’s Jamboree; and going to a pig roast where the pork will be served with cold slaw on a hamburger bun.

You should go to church and say “Amen” out loud when the preacher recites something you find particularly meaningful. Don’t say it half-heartedly like you don’t really mean it or you’re going to take it back if the wind changes direction. No. Bellow it out to show your agreement with whatever it was Pastor Lonnie said that was so inspiring. Say it like you’re mad and nod with conviction. It’s a very heady experience. Next thing you know, you will consider joining the choir and maybe even getting saved. All very southern acts.

You should take advantage of the pancake supper down at the firehouse, almost as good as ordering a pizza, which is impossible to do in the country. Never again will you be able to stomp into the house dead tired, shaking with hunger, kick your shoes off and walk zombie-like to the phone, where you will dial Tony’s Pizza, on speed dial, and order a large pie with pepperoni and extra cheese that will appear at your door in twenty minutes flat. Nope. You’re getting pancakes. Or frozen pizzas and sandwiches on those nights you can’t bear to cook and thank God, that at least, you can get Thumann’s cold-cuts around here. Because your delivery days are over sister.

Shooting guns is required. Even if you’re against killing animals like I am, just shoot the gun at a tree or something. Or the rifle or whatever it is. Any of these things will put you in touch with your inner redneck.

You can also go see NASCAR.

Now that’s the grand poobah of all southern experiences. Listen, I’ll admit it takes a lot to float my boat. I’m the one who fell asleep at the circus during a presentation of humans being shot out of cannons. I’ve seen a lot in my life. Perhaps I’ve seen it all. So maybe I’m hard to please. There were 63,000 people there. 63,000 people can’t be wrong. But, truth be told, I just don’t get it. And perhaps, if I cannot appreciate the roar of the engines on a half-mile track surrounded by beer guzzling fans giving the finger to and throwing cans at the drivers who pass that aren’t theirs, I will never fully assimilate.

I admit, the first hundred laps were exciting. You see all the people that are on TV and I thought I caught a glimpse of Jeff Gordon’s arm through the car window and I could swear Junior waved at me. There are big screen TVs like at concerts and pit crews all decked out in their sponsors’ colors and they go running out there and change the tires lickety-split just like you see on ESPN and then the race car guy peels out.

The last hundred laps were also good because I could finally figure out what was going on. I perked up when I realized my guy was vying for the lead. Kelly and I picked Jimmie Johnson because he wears a cowboy hat. I found out his number was 48 and kept an eye on his car so I wouldn’t lose track even though it was making me dizzy. But I kept getting distracted by the Lowe’s logo. I made a mental note in my head of everything I need and they just sent out one of those no-interest-no-payments coupons so I might as well get that screen door I’ve been thinking of and a new light fixture for the dining room while I’m at it. I’m also out of bug spray and I need bone meal and weed-and-feed and some black paint for my wagon wheels. Then I saw the bullseye on the Target car and I remembered I wanted to get some new curtains for the bedroom and perhaps one of those vases covered in mosaic made out of broken mirrors and a leather ottoman shaped like a cube that you can put a tray on with drinks and cheese-and-crackers like I saw on Design on a Dime. Fantasy shopping and watching my guy maneuver himself into first place kept me busy for a while.

Kurt’s guy was in eighth place. Kurt likes Dale Jr. because he used to root for his father so he just switched over to the kid because he’s a loyal kind of guy. I don’t know who the rest of our group wanted but I suspect it was also Junior because that’s who everybody goes for around here. People have his number decaled on their car windows, on flags flapping from their porch railings, draped over mailboxes and on t-shirts, jackets and caps. Someone even wrote a book called St. Dale and if he isn’t a God, he might as well be, for all the worshipping the locals do. And southern fans can be rabid, let me tell you. Just so you know, it would be in your best interests, especially if you’re trying to fit in, not to bring the subject up if you are voting for someone else due to a cowboy hat or cute buns or because you saw him on Regis and Kelly (which is why I almost chose Jeff Gordon). I would keep a lid on it. Kind of like religion and politics. Some things you shouldn’t talk about if you want any friends. At least in the south.

Anyway, it was the middle three hundred laps that almost put me in a coma. I couldn’t tell what the heck was going on and I couldn’t ask anybody because you couldn’t hear anything. Even if you scream in your husband’s ear and make motions like you know sign language. He’ll just look at you, shrug his shoulders, and keep smiling. Even if you get up and climb over everybody to go out to the concession stands. If you want a Dr. Pepper, you have to point. Mouths were moving but nothing was coming out. So I couldn’t ask a question. Like, how can you tell who is in front? How come they keep stopping the race? Do they keep their same positions when it starts up again? And is it safe to cheer when Number 48 goes by?

When the race was over, I did hear something. The woman behind me leaned over, practically climbed onto our laps, and said, “Jimmie Johnson’s a loser.”

When I told Kurt what she said when we were walking out to the car, he laughed and said, “Did you tell her ‘not today?’” (For those of you not from around these parts and don't know because you couldn't care less, Johnson won the race.)

Nah. What’s the point of arguing with a class act like that? Luckily she’s not the typical southern experience. One of the ladies in the long line for the bathroom saw me dancing from foot to foot (that irritable bladder, you know) and she insisted that I take her place in line. That’s what I embrace. That’s why I love this place. And the pig roasts.