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Sunday, December 6, 2015

Perfect Storm

I wasn't really sure how to start this. I just know that if I don't purge this, I won't be very productive and I won't be getting a lot of sleep. It happens like that sometimes. It's the holiday season, a joyful celebration for many of us. Being Catholic, for me it's the Christmas season. Once upon a time in a much more simple world that was really all I needed to feel happy about life, the world, and everyone in it. It's the downside of maturity, I think; the complex awareness that comes with adulthood. But it isn't just about maturity. Try as might, that cheer is more difficult to come by these days.

I feel an immense sense of gratitude for all that we have. I have a family that I dearly love, I have a roof. My daughter still lives at home, and she is an endless source of joy to me. I have some of the best friends a person could ever ask for. Our tree is perfect this year, and I'm having a great time with my crafting projects; every stitch filled with love for the giftee. But I have a knot in my stomach.

Every day I turn on my TV and there it is. Or I sign in to Facebook, and more of the same. For me, TV is only entertainment. I have an awareness that TV is no place to get accurate information as a rule. For that matter, neither is Facebook. Facebook memes can be made by anyone to say anything. I understand this, but not everybody does. Sometimes I am deeply troubled by the things people are not only willing, but eager to believe. And so much of it awful. It feels like there is this endless source of toxicity, a constant dumping of mental garbage, or the intellectual equivalent of an oil spill, and it's unstoppable. It's relentlessly poisoning us against each other. I read an article about the unraveling of the Central African Republic, and I couldn't help but see us in it.

Lies, hatred, blame; more and more and more. And then violence. Let's add that. Let's make it okay, lets make it a duty, sell it as good. SELL it. Sometimes I feel like we are drowning, saturated in a ridiculous deluge, ALL of us. But some still think the solution is more water. Demanding it. As a right. What about the rights of the rest of us? A small, selfish part of me wishes we could reserve an island for those who keep demanding more; the rest of us could live in peace. It doesn't work that way. I hear guns called tools, compared to shovels and axes. Shovels were designed to dig holes in the ground, to plant gardens. Axes chop wood. Guns were created to accurately propel bullets at high speed into flesh. That is what that 'tool' was designed for. No, you can't blame the gun for doing exactly what it was designed to do, but you can blame the culture that doesn't take it seriously, you can blame the multi-billion dollar lobby that prioritizes the bottom line over human life. You can blame every politician who's taken a legal bribe from this lobby, and voted accordingly. This is a monster WE created, with our apathy, our misinformation and our relentless, cold and calloused pursuit of profit above all else. I'm not anti-gun. I grew up in Vermont, in a hunting culture. Everybody has guns, and there are very few laws. We don't have a lot of gun-violence either (although we did have a school shooting here too, so we are not untouched). But this isn't the world I grew up in. People used to respect guns for what they were-weapons. Guns came with an education and an attitude of respect. That is no longer the case. But you know, doing something about it wouldn't be profitable.

We have sold our collective soul so thoroughly to the false god of money that we completely forgot why it was important in the first place; to enrich life. We've made it more important than life, more important than people. We've taken it to such an extreme that we no longer require or expect morality from each other if it results in monetary profit.  And before you start with the religious rhetoric, remember that morality has nothing to do with religion.

.Let's make everything about money, and then make sure very few people have any, and those that do relentlessly use and exploit those that don't.We live in a culture that takes hope and possibility away from our young people, and then blames them for having no ambition. Hopeless people have no ambition. That is a fact, not an individual failure. Once upon a time, hard work meant success. But the minimum wage failed to keep up with the cost of living. If it had, it would be somewhere between just over $20/hr to just under $22/hr, depending on the source. Imagine how your "I pulled myself up by my bootstraps!" story would go if you were making just over 1/3 of your hourly wage instead. That's what people are faced with today. Education isn't the answer it used to be either, with today's exorbitant tuition costs. But we aren't interested in investing our people anymore. In their well-being or their success. The immediate desires of a few are taking priority over the quality of our country, the quality of our lives. The answer to poverty is to exploit third-world countries for cheep products to sell to broke Americans. Once upon a time "Made in the USA" and "Look for the union label" were the thing to do. Now, it's the ones who write the checks who have all the control, and they want more. Do we need another Triangle Shirtwaist Factory to remind us why we had workers-rights and unions to begin with? Patriotism used to be about the people, now it's about the compliant acceptance of mistreatment.

My point is, people are armed and under duress. They are being told who to hate and who to blame. It doesn't have to be true, it just has to sound true. We are relentlessly brainwashed by television. It's easy to believe, and we want so badly to have some 'other' to blame. And it's impossible to break though to people once they're there. It feels like screaming in a nightmare where nobody can hear you, and lives depend on it. In the end you just have to let it go. But we've created a pressure cooker of hate and blame and ugliness; a perfect recipe for self-destruction. And yet when violence erupts all we can do is sit around and recycle the same old platitudes: We'll pray.  How sad. Too bad there's nothing we can do.

We need to be honest with ourselves. There's plenty we can do, just nothing we are willing to do. We're being kept dumb by people who have much to gain by doing so (though only short-term, even if the powers that be can't see that.). We've abandoned ourselves, our ideals and our moral character. We've reduced religion to nothing more meaningful than conflict. There are so many things that need our attention. Humans are capable of music, beauty, art, magic...and we've been reduced to this. Worse, nobody seems to understand how serious it is. I still believe in us. I know so many wonderful, in tune and in touch people who walk through the world with their TV off and their eyes open.  Hope is something I still have. But I'll admit that being in the world in its current state gets a little tougher every day.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015


Statue of Liberty
The New Colossus 
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame, 
With conquering limbs astride from land to land; 
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand 
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame 
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name 
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand 
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command 
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame. 
"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she 
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor, 
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, 
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" 
-Emma Lazarus

I spend a lot of time on my computer, and subsequently, on social media. It's a by-product of hoping to get some writing done and even do a little marketing. While it's true that I could spend less time on Facebook or reading Twitter posts, it's a hell of a good way to gauge what is going on in the world and how people are feeling about it. It's also a great way to depress and discourage the hell out of yourself. Everyday I log on with a knot in my stomach. I know it sounds silly. If it's so bad, why bother? Well, for the aforementioned reasons, of course. Also, I really do care about my friends and like to keep up with what they're doing. It is what it is. Sometimes though, I would be far better off not knowing what people think. Everyday it's the same: Hatred, Islamophobia, violence, anger, black and white, more violence, paranoia, blame...and my mind and my heart are Us vs. them, money money money. Money is such and all-powerful and pervasive motivator in this country it never occurs to anyone to think about how messed up that is...NO. War, death, fear, more violence, guns guns guns, people starving to death, people being hated for who they are, death, terror, more blame. War on women, people dying because of their color, gender identity, economic status, legal murder. Why have laws because they just get broken.........NO!!!

I see people I love and respect who have lost their common sense and compassion. That's the part that's the toughest to take. And they go to great lengths to tell me I'm wrong because I still have mine. To tell me I don't know what I'm talking about because I don't think or feel like they do. It's not about right and wrong. It's about the choices we make for ourselves, and we each have a right to that. I spend a lot of time on my computer. I spend a lot of time taking it all in, and digging around for the truth. Enough time to understand that anger is a consequence of fear, and anger is weakness. It's why a cornered animal is the most dangerous. Violence is an extension of that anger. I reject all those things that play on my fears to manipulate me to feel anger. That's a choice.

I choose not to let the worst behavior of the worst people dictate who I am. It's a choice I make every day. I choose to believe the best in people. I chose not to penalize any group of people for what the worst of their numbers has done, either in my mind or my heart, and hope to receive the same understanding. If I can help somebody, I do it. I don't attach strings or conditions, I don't have expectations. People who need help the most need it because they can't help themselves. If I can't help, I say so, but I don't blame. I will not be robbed of my compassion; not by fear, greed, or pressure. It's a choice. I'm not naive, I'm well-informed. I choose love over hatred. I choose humanity over us vs. them. We need less divisive language, less that separates us. It's not blind idealism, it's reality.

We need to prioritize each other, to extend our hands to those reaching out to us in need. You can call me foolish, you can call me a bleeding heart, you can call me whatever you like. As long as you understand that your opinion of me is an opinion and not a fact. I wish more people knew the difference. I wish more people let their inner compass dictate their behavior, and not the opinions of others. I still believe in us. I still believe in humanity; I believe that enough people still care and can look past their fear and anger and hang on to their love and compassion. I have to believe that. 

Monday, November 9, 2015

Books and TV

Photo by Debbie Safran
I recently had the surreal experience of being featured on an episode of Paranormal Witness. The episode was based on my book In Stone, which was an account of a real-life event. I expected a lot of things. An acquaintance of mine said he doesn't do TV anymore, because they can edit it any way they like, and there is nothing you can do about it. I was a little bit terrified of what we had loosed into the world, but I had resigned myself to it in any case. When I finally watched the episode (Season 4, episode 11,When Hell Freezes Over) I was somewhat relieved. The only thing that was really contrived was the way it ended: With us fleeing to our Mom's house. I get why they did it. The episode needed to have a clear ending and our real story didn't end until three months after the ice storm. In reality, our Mom's place wasn't an option. We had three dogs (also left out of the episode) and our Mom lived in a condo where dogs weren't permitted. Seriously, if we could escape to Mom's, we would have done it a hell of a lot sooner.

I think it's interesting to see the TV version of our story. They actually left SO much out in the interest of time. I think they did a great job with the over-all feel of the experience, a great job portraying the cold, and the actors were pretty great too (wow...that little girl playing my daughter!), but some things are notably different. For one, it was a bit crazy-making to see everyone sitting around in the dark. NEVER would we have done that! We left lights on all the time, even overnight. We were terrified! Also, the house on the show looked pretty run down. Our house was really nice! Having said that, I fully understand how the dark, run down house would contribute to the aura of the story. It's funny though, how many people take TV so literally. I've noticed in some of the comments, people saying really nasty things about us for things that were actually artistic choices made by the show (like the low lighting) and had nothing to do with what really happened. It's a strange world! Of note, we also didn't share a car, and my daughter went to a Waldorf school, not a Catholic school. All irrelevant details, but examples of the difference between TV and real life.

All in all I think they did a pretty decent job. The toughest part for me was the absence of the dogs because they were such a big part of our lives and so much a part of how we coped with that experience. It felt a little empty without them there. I was concerned that the show might try and make things up, but they didn't, not at all. They did have to focus on only one aspect of what was happening though, and that meant a lot that we went through was excluded. Of course, that was necessary and expected. One of the things that TV doesn't tell you about real haunting is that it doesn't always make sense, there isn't always a tidy ending and people almost never behave rationally. It's an entirely irrational situation.

The episode was definitely an interesting step on the journey. When I wrote the book, I felt so responsible for telling the truth. I felt responsible to the people who lived the experience, the folks who so kindly helped to do research, the current resident of the home, so much responsibility to everyone involved. It was difficult to trust someone else with the story. I'm glad I did. I read comments about the book, about the episode, and so many of them are kind and supportive. I love that people have sent me messages on my author page and told me their stories. Sometimes I'm the first person they've told, and it's really emotional for them. I get it! I'm really grateful that I had the opportunity to do the show, and that the book has been so well-received. It's been such a healing process. I hope that by sharing my experience, I will continue to encourage others to do the same. It was a really difficult thing to hold on to. Oh, and for your viewing 'pleasure', here is a photo of the real me in the real house in '97 :-)


Wednesday, October 7, 2015


Faith is a word that means different things to different people. It's not even something that everybody has. Some folks think faith and religion go hand in hand, and I'm not one of them. Yes, my dear atheist and agnostic friends, this is going to be a post about faith and religion. You may want to bail while you still can. On the other hand, you may appreciate my point of view. Who knows? I won't love you any less for not reading this post ;-)

I always get a little sad when one of my finds "finds Jesus". It isn't because I don't believe in Him myself~I do, very much so.  But it's never really Jesus that they seem to find. It always seems that when it happens, my friend disappears and is replaced by a scripture-quoting, self-righteous, closed-minded entity that is no longer recognizable. Suddenly, they are absolutely convinced that their new-found, outspoken fervency is somehow superior to a lifetime of quiet devotion. My poor daughter was even told (when she was little, by other children!!!!) that she was going to hell because she wasn't 'saved'. My daughter, in her typical way, just said "No, I'm not. Saved from what?" so no harm done. But still!

Let me just say right away that I don't worship the Bible. I've read it; a few different version, in fact. Everybody gets all hung up about this version or that, but if you've read more than one version, you know the differences are merely irrelevant semantics. I respect the Bible and I respect the lessons it contains, the stories it tells and what it means to Christian faith. Having said that, I don't trust the literal interpretations of it imposed by religious leaders. Why would I? Somehow, it always seems to be interpreted in such a way that is self-aggrandizing to Christian men, demeaning and degrading to women (Yes, surprisingly, I think a life of indentured servitude and popping out children is absolutely unacceptable, as do these women) and dangerous and straight-up hateful to all but those who "believe" in this slanted and bastardized version of "god" (different from God). I'm going to do my best not to get nasty here, because that's just the sort of thing I've had about enough of, but I have some legitimate concerns.

To me faith is just that: Faith. It is belief in something intangible. It's a knowing that requires no proof. For me, it may be a little more tangible because I have some very real reasons to believe in something greater. I have faith. I always have. It's a personal thing, and it's mine. It's not open to anyone else's interpretation or judgement. I think for those of us who have faith, REAL faith, it really is that simple. God is everywhere. He has many names, He is non-gendered (though we often refer to Him as He). There are many paths to Him. He is in church, He's in everything in nature, He's in you and me. He is the Universal concept of love. You can't show me the path to God, because we each have our own, and mine is none of your business. Faith is kind, compassionate and inclusive. It is unconditional acceptance and love. It is bigger than our human pettiness. It isn't judgement, hatred, violence, oppression, verbal abuse (if you don't believe like I believe, you are bad and the devil has your soul!), manipulation, divisiveness. Unfortunately, that is all the realm of religion. And therein lies the difference.

Recently, I blocked a friend from my FB page because she was posting seriously offensive anti-Catholic videos, and encouraging Catholics to watch them because "love". I am Catholic, and when I pointed out that these videos were actually hate speech, (even going so far as to call the pope the anti-Christ) she just tried to justify them. If you need a clearer picture of just how messed up that is, substitute the word "Catholic" with just about any minority. Then call it "love". But you know, she claimed she had a right. Yup, she sure did. And that's another thing I'm getting pretty fed up with too: People are so f***ing concerned about what they have a "right" to do, they don't give a crap about whether or not they really should be doing it, or the actual morality of their behavior. Selfishness is the name of the game these days, but hey, if you're selling it as "god's" will, that magically absolves you somehow of having a conscience. NOT. But I digress. My point is, once upon a time my friend would have said, "Well gosh, you're right!" and maybe we would have had a good laugh. Not anymore. My friend is gone, and is now a scripture-quoting automaton. I know it doesn't always happen like that, but it's sad when it does. But the ability to quote scripture has nothing to do with faith or love (and certainly hate speech doesn't!). Even the devil can quote scripture, and I'm pretty sure he does.

Many horrible deeds have been perpetrated in the name of religion. That's one of the biggest dangers of being brainwashed out of your autonomy. People get so caught up in their own self-righteousness, and in the appearance of self-righteousness, that they don't stop and think about what they are actually doing. It's like all reality-based self-awareness is out the window. Instead of questioning their own behavior or considering their deleterious effect on other people (or taking any kind of personal responsibility for it!), the victims are blamed or there is just some outrageous justification. It isn't "for the greater good", it's just more self-aggrandizement. It's the underlying assumption of correctness and superiority that is perhaps the most dangerous. History is rife with Christian-based horror stories like this one, right here in the US about Native Boarding schools. (I don't have time to list them all...they are plentiful!). Even today, people will misrepresent and twist the cultural history of our Native people to promote their own political viewpoint. Because 'murica. And "god". Don't get me started. But this is only one story. Religion can do terrible things even to those raised within them: religious abuse of children. I have friends who have been so force-fed doctrine that they no longer believe. That's sad to me. Jesus' whole deal was one of love and kindness, and when His message gets so twisted that it becomes one of fear and oppression, it's the very epitome of losing the plot, and on a grand scale.

Religion CAN be a good thing. For me, it's about family and comforting rituals. It's about community. It's a feeling of belonging somewhere safe. But I have my eyes open and I take responsibility for my own morality, and more importantly, my own faith. I also recognize that others have differing beliefs, and that it's not any of my concern. I don't think a limiting set of criteria determines the value of a human being, or by extension, the value and destination of their soul. And I certainly don't think that it's any of my business, or my determination to make. I also know better than to believe things like "God never gives you more than you can handle" (He most certainly does) and that "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger" (Okay, not entirely religious but in the same vein. I think of it like muscular strength: use them and work them to strengthen them, but overdo and abuse them, they are just going to break down and hurt. Life can be that way. And it has nothing to do with an absence of God). I also don't believe in the online silliness folks get wrapped up in: "Repost this and give it an Amen if you believe in Jesus!" Seriously. Come on. I also get cranky when I'm in deep doo doo, and somebody says "I will pray for you". If you're praying for me while actually helping, it's all good. If you are praying for me INSTEAD of helping, well, you've missed the point somewhere. Faith is action; it isn't questions about worth or deservedness. I'm not anti-religion, not at all, but I'm very "Don't you dare try to make me live by your religious rules". People like to talk about a "Christian Nation", but our constitution is as much a victim of the 'pick and choose what suits my personal beliefs' nonsense as the Bible. We are a Christian nation only in that the most prominent religions are Christian-based, not in that there is an expectation that everyone should yield to Christian beliefs! THAT is actually unconstitutional. Religious freedom is just that...the freedom to choose. WHY does so much about Christianity try to take rights away? Anyhoo...I got that out of my system. Now here's a video, totally apropos of nothing:

Friday, September 11, 2015


STREET ART: Crying Statue of Liberty by NOK Crew.
People like to ask each other if they remember where they were on 9/11. I do, actually. It's one of two events in my life that is etched in my memory with alarming clarity. The other was my grandfather's burial. It's funny how little I remember about the funeral, but his military burial is something I will never forget. His death was the first enormous, life-changing heartbreak in my life, and something about the formality of a military burial adds a touch of finality that I haven't really experienced before or since. I remember vividly, my nerves jangled by the gun salute, and jumping at each volley. I remember the melancholy melody of taps. And I remember my tiny, stoic grandmother accepting the folded flag. All these years later, I still completely lose it when I see a military burial on TV, even if I know it's coming. I mean, I lose it. And it takes time to recover after. I know it sounds silly (to some), but it's like this scar that will never really go away. Not a scar; more like a wound that never quite heals, a chronic pain that I've become so accustomed to that it's background noise~until it isn't. I think remembering 9/11 is a little bit like that. It was the first time I ever felt vulnerable as a US citizen.

I was standing in my kitchen when the phone rang. I had just sent my daughter off to school with the carpool and was pouring a cup of coffee. I was going to ignore the phone (I hadn't even had coffee yet) but I heard my boyfriend's voice on the machine, flat and audibly upset. I picked up the phone and he asked me if I had my TV on~I didn't. I took my coffee to the living room and turned on my TV. There I sat for the next couple of hours as events unfolded, forgotten, cold coffee on my coffee table. I called my mom. I called everybody. I cried. "All those people!" was the phrase that kept running through my head. "All those people!" I remember it. I remember wondering if there was more to come. I live in Vermont, not exactly the epicenter, but too close for comfort. It change everything about my perspective. Somebody gave me an American flag decal for my car window, and it's still there. Yup, I'm still driving the same car. It was a real tragedy, and the first time in a long time that Americans really came together to help each other out. I thought that mindset of togetherness and compassion for each other would last, that out of this horrible event, at least there would be that positive legacy. Now all these years later, we know different.

What we, as Americans, fail to understand is that what happened to us happens to others every day. it's what WE DO to others with alarming frequency. Our tragedy didn't teach us anything, it didn't give us empathy or understanding. It gave us an excuse. To quote a friend: "R.I.P. The 2976 American people that lost their lives on 9/11 and R.I.P. the 48,644 Afghan and 1,690,903 Iraqi and 35,000 Pakistani people so far that have paid the ultimate price for a crime they did not commit."

He's right, of course. But I like to read it another way: R.I.P.  1,777,523 human beings, 1,774,547 who Americans fail to consider at all. It matters. It matters that we understand these are people, that each loss, each one, creates a ripple effect. This isn't theoretical, a video game, or some entertaining virtual reality. Each one of these losses is a person. A human being. That's a reality we need to get better at understanding and connecting to. Yes, emotionally. Otherwise, why be human?

I'm not unpatriotic. Quite the opposite. I give a sh** about what happens to this country; what we are about and what we stand for matters. But nothing good has come as a result of 9/11. It's like that day just pushed us downhill morally, and we haven't stopped falling yet. Is this really what we want to be about? Is this what my grandfather fought for, what so many have died for?

I think of "The Donald" and his stupid hat: "Let's Make America Great Again". What is great? Is a country with an economic system that's so dysfunctional that some people make billions of dollars a year while others die of starvation in the streets, great? Is the capacity (and propensity) to resort to outrageous violence, great? Is an attitude of " I have what I need, so screw you", great? Is large-scale vilification and dehumanization of the vulnerable, to the point that people are overjoyed by the imposition of punitive policies, great? Is cruelty and intolerance toward refugees, who have been through far worse than our 9/11, great? HOW did we get here?

I don't think there is anything great about those things. I think we certainly have the capacity for greatness, but we have to stop letting propaganda and BS cut our hearts out. Yes, we are Americans, but first we need to remember that long before America ever existed, we were human beings. The more we lose touch with that humanity, the worse things are going to get. The easier it gets to hate and kill each other, the worse things are going to get. We had a choice to make on 9/11, and we made the wrong one. Yes, heroes rose to the occasion. Everybody pitched in and helped each other. That was America in the act of greatness. That's what we should have clung to, but we didn't. We didn't learn. We made the wrong choice and we're still making it. Call me a bleeding heart if you want. I will just say "Thank you". Yes, I think compassion and empathy are important. Call me a pacifist if you like; I am in good company. I wasn't going to post this, I was just going to write it for myself. But sometimes, the truth and opinions about the truth aren't about being popular. Sometimes, A person has to have the stones to speak their mind. Here you go.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

"Natural" vs. Natural

In my last post I discussed artifice in the horse show world, and what I thought about it (boo!). As always, these posts are my (often well-informed) opinion. Today, I want to talk about the flip-side of the coin; people who take things way too far due to a misguided understanding of what's natural. The woman in the photo is a prime example of the sort of person who makes me headdesk to the point of distraction. The worst part is, though I'm sure she means well, her lack of knowledge and understanding has the potential to cause real harm to the animals she claims to care about, but she and her ilk aren't interested in that. They have an agenda, they're getting kudos and admiration. People (also misguided and misinformed) look up to them. I'm sure it feels good. And who needs facts, because EMOTIONS.

In many ways I'm pretty stoked about the tendency  toward wanting a more natural way of life. I wish it had come sooner. I am personally not well-suited to this new, technological era. I'm adapting and learning because that's the thing to do, but I'm more of an outdoor kitty for sure. As such, it's endlessly amusing to me to watch folks who have never really had any connection to nature and animals talking about what's "natural" for them. First, I will address our friend in the photo: Her sign talks about terrified horses (she's an anti-carriage industry activist), but she's standing in front of a line of relaxed and sleeping horses. I read some of the comments; some of the people talking about how "sad" the horses looked. Honestly, I laughed so hard I almost wet my pants, as did my fellow experienced, horsey friends.  What these folks want is this: All the horses turned out on farms to run free and wild "like nature intended". Sounds lovely, doesn't it? Until five minutes of research reveals that A) All this vast farmland apparently owned by people who live to take in horses doesn't actually exist anywhere, except in their imagination/favorite childhood horse-stories and B) Domestic, working horses were bred (for centuries) to work (including in cities) with people, and don't appreciate endless days of doing nothing in the prime of their lives. Even I have had a horse that resented the hell out of his winter "vacation", and showed his boredom and displeasure by wrecking whatever he could get his teeth on (and yes, he had plenty to eat!). Once summer came and he was back in work, he was back to his lovable self.

What about what's natural? We aren't talking about wild horses here. In fact, very few truly wild horses even exist. For more info on that subject, check out this page: Do Wild Horses Still Exist? Even the American Mustang is considered feral; they are descendants of domestic horses. So we aren't going to bother discussing what's natural for a wild horse, because that is simply irrelevant here. As I stated before, domestic horses have been bred and selected for centuries (at least) to work with humans, and they are very well-adapted and suited to doing just that. THAT is what is natural for a domestic horse. As a horse-person, it's something I'm well-aware of, along with the bond that forms, the love of routine and attention that horses have and the sense of purpose that so many of them enjoy as well. These activists, by failing to grasp even a basic understanding of the domestic horse and what the real animal (not the fantasy-book version) is all about (and being unwilling to learn) are trying to condemn these horses to a life that is actually unnatural for them. Please understand that the carriage industry is one of the best-regulated industries in the world, that the horses have better working conditions than many people, and that pulling a carriage is very light work relative to being ridden. When these horses are ready to retire, they DO go to farms, and they are ready to do so. If you would like to support the well-being of carriage horses, support one of these farms, like this one: Blue Star Equiculture,  that not only acknowledges the ongoing importance of our working relationship with horses, but takes care of them throughout their old age. That's something positive that you can do, something far more productive than standing next to a sleeping horse with a sign that advertises how little you actually know about the subject.

Speaking of domestic farm animals, what is the deal with the anti-farm nonsense I've been reading about lately? I've seen it everywhere: Don't eat meat! Avoid dairy! OMG! Be a vegan 'cause it's NATURAL! First of all, let's acknowledge that nothing in nature (besides humans) feels guilty about feeding itself. We are NATURAL omnivores. More about that here: Humans are Omnivores. Having said that, vegetarianism and veganism are entirely valid choices, especially in our culture where food-availability (ignoring monetary considerations for the time being) is fairly unlimited. If we weren't omnivores though, entire cultures would never have existed or exist currently. That is a fact. I especially have to shake my head when an anti-farmer has a cat or dog, neither of which is a vegetarian animal. A vegetarian diet for a dog is cruel, for a cat it's actually deadly. Where do you think their food comes from? Just throwing that out there. Let me be clear here: I think factory farming is evil, horrible, cruel and many other not-so-nice adjectives. I think it needs to go away. But I support agriculture and family farms. This is what a farm should look like: Maple Wind Farm. If you would like to advocate to put an end to factory farming, I am right there with you. But farming in general? Not so much. Folks with no connection or understanding like to post misinformed nonsense that make me cringe. Just the other day I saw a video of a cow calling out for her calf that had just been weaned. It was supposed to highlight the cruelty of farming, but again, just another example of the sad disconnect that exists. It's a familiar scene to me, both with cattle and horses. Weaning time is traumatic for a couple of days, without a doubt it is. "But in the wild they wouldn't go through that heartbreak!". In the wild, most domestic farm animals would starve to death or be eaten by predators early in the first winter, but let's play pretend: Female animals in the wild are almost always either pregnant or nursing (often both) for much of their life. The weaning of one offspring is usually necessitated by the birth of another, and is facilitated by the mother, often in a not pleasant way. There is more planning and spacing around pregnancy and birth on the farm, so humans intervene. Humans have been taking care of domestic farm animals for centuries, and there are a lot of things that we have to do for them because centuries of domestication have rendered it necessary. FYI: There is no monetary reason for a farmer to prevent a cow from taking care of and nursing a newborn calf, and no monetary gain to be had by having an immune-compromised calf (who didn't get colostrum) either. Just because it was posted on Facebook and it made you feel emotions, doesn't mean that it's true. More emotions doesn't make it more true, either.

Domestic farm animals are just that: domestic farm animals. As omnivores, some of us (meaning humans in general) hunt, some of us farm. Generally speaking we don't jump on a prey animal's back and rip it's throat out with our teeth, but hey, semantics. Domestic farm animals wouldn't survive as wild animals. There are so many things that domestic animals simply can't do for themselves because centuries of domesticity have rendered it unnecessary. I think specifically of bulldogs who can't give birth naturally, and sheep who are in deep doo doo if nobody is around to sheer them, like this guy: Lost sheep. I'm curious: What do the farm-haters think would happen to all the farm animals if the haters got their way? Do you really think farms would exist just to warehouse uber-expensive, high-maintenance pets? If you live in enough of a fantasy land to believe that is actually true, I invite you to do a little research into those possibilities. Understand also, that a rescue is where an animal goes because it's in trouble. It's not a cool place to exist indefinitely, or an alternative to a home. Sanctuaries are in short supply. So fantasy aside, what do you, based on the facts, think will actually happen to the animals? I won't spoil things by answering that for you.

Okay, I've had my say and I would like to apologize for my snippy tone. I actually really love farm animals (especially cows),  I think family farms are da bomb, and I love 4-H kids, the work ethic, the connection to nature (real nature, not disconnected, fantasy nature) that comes with it. I'm disheartened and frustrated by how few people are left with that kind of connection to agriculture, and how often disconnected people spread their own special brand of misinformed manure (not the good kind that's conducive to growth). All I ask is this: If you want to advocate for something, at least make some rudimentary attempt at understanding the reality of it. Don't just jump on board because it elicits an emotional reaction. Understand that misunderstanding can do so much more harm than good.

I have so much more to discuss on this subject, but I'll end it here for now :-)

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Animals and Artifice

There's been a lot of talk about abuse in the Tennessee Walking horse show world lately. It seems like it comes and goes, but the problems never, ever seem to be solved. By problems I mean specifically soring, stacked shoes, harsh, long-shanked bits and general rough handling that has plagued this (very sweet) breed for what feels like forever. How does this even happen? How do human beings get to a place where they can look at this and participate in it, and not only feel okay about it but defend it? Can we really become so desensitized to the pain and discomfort of another being that is ceases to move us? Of course we can. We do it to each other every day. Some days, reading my Facebook newsfeed makes me feel like a voyeur, watching people engaging in their own personal schadenfreude; insulting, dismissing and dehumanizing others openly. Finding so much joy in the suffering of others by finding justification for it. It's ugly, but it's real. And it's the justification piece that seems to be the basis of the "bad", with money being the primary motivation. I see it with dogs too. You get people together competing with animals in any capacity, and the insatiable human need for "more" and "better" takes over and thing go pear-shaped. If only our species could be more self-aware.

If you know me, you know that my position tends to be pretty moderate. I'm not so "animal activist" that I waste my energy on ultimately pointless nonsense, or on things the animals themselves could care less about. I'm not so over-the-top "squishy" that it's harmful (like farm-haters, Peta, and the idiots who want to ban the carriage industry in NYC, for example), that I have no actual knowledge and no concept of the consequences of my actions. What I have is experience and empathy. What I have is the basic belief that if you are causing an animal pain, emotional distress and physical dysfunction, something is intrinsically wrong with what you are doing. It's common friggin' sense.

I used to ride saddleseat. You probably knew that, but what you may not have known was that I LOVED it! It used to be kind of THE way to ride, especially if you had a Morgan, and I did. It was pure joy, both for me AND my horse. Full disclosure here: I didn't do a ton of showing and I certainly wasn't anything special on any show circuit (my family wasn't 'horsey' so the opportunities were few) but I jumped on every opportunity I had. Back then, only the park-type Morgans had special shoes, and the height and weight were very limited. Most of us stuck to the pleasure division, and it was a perfect fit. We learned how to ride in the best way to help our horse, and we were taught to have very, very light hands. I always remember Morgans being super versatile, and having just enough spring in their step to be kind of cool. I loved the naturally high head carriage too (it made it feel weird to ride the long, thoroughbred-y types later!). And that was kind of the thing~the natural awesomeness of the horse. And that was the emphasis; Morgans were a 'natural' horse, and (with the exception of park horses) it was almost a sacrilege to interfere with that. They were rugged, cheerful and spirited little horses that lived primarily outdoors, well-suited to the harsh Vermont climate, and they worked hard and carried their people all over the place. I used to trail ride like it was my job, and there was no place my Morgan wouldn't take me.

Fast forward to today. I like to poke around on the internet (read:procrastinate) and think about what my next incarnation as "horse owner" would look like. I looked into Morgans, showing and saddleseat. Holy. Crap. The entire scene is unrecognizable, and it's only been about 30 years. All the show horses are being trained with their heads tied back to their saddles (WTF is THAT?!). I'm no stranger to judiciously-applied side-reins and such, but GEEZ. I even saw a photo of a Morgan out on a dirt road "trail riding" (sorry, no) with it's head tied back to the saddle. The pleasure horses don't look much different to me than the park horses, and both are sporting outrageously long hooves. The hunters look like saddleseat horses (long hooves and all) in hunter tack. If you or anybody you know rides actual hunters, it creates a kind of cognitive dissonance that is hard to describe. And the riders are riding (really bad chair-seat) saddleseat in hunter tack, but with really flat hands. I watched a couple of videos of in-hand classes too, to see what they were looking like these days, and it was more of the same; horses with outrageously-high, fixed head carriage, huge muscle development on the underside of their necks (used to be a big no-no) and hollow backs; anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of equine physiology knows that the only way a horse can sustain an unnaturally high head carriage is to drop and hollow their back. It makes the back weak and sore, and it's especially shameful when it's caused by something people are doing. Maybe for the folks who are in it or raised in it it's no biggie. It's something they are used to seeing and I'm sure there are reasons for...all that...that I just don't understand (or want to, really). from the perspective of someone who was away for awhile, it certainly showcases the way things can evolve to an unhealthy extreme.

If you know horses, then you know that one of the most basic necessities of being a horse is mobility. It is what they are physically and psychologically made for. If you take that away by constant stabling and extreme shoeing you are taking away the thing that is of the utmost importance to your horse. To take that away causes an extreme amount of stress (and often ulcers). To a horse, mobility is survival; it's who they are. I don't care how pampered they are in their jail cells, it's still jail. Movement and social contact is what horses want. Being fussed over in a stall where you spend 23 hours of your day doesn't mean sh**. Most people these days are pretty aware of this.

I SO loved the Morgan breed (still do) and after the initial shock wore off, what I felt was crazy-sadness. I wrote to the AMHA and asked if there was a place for folks who used to ride like I did. The (quick and helpful) response assured me that I would fit nicely in the Classic English Pleasure division; that horses in this division were flat-shod, had turn out and went trail riding. I got a little excited, until further exploration turned up videos of  Classic English Pleasure horses in training...with their heads tied back to their saddles. No. A WORLD of f***ing NO. The registration numbers are down as are the show numbers, and yet this is the direction that today's stewards of this amazing breed want to go for show horses. To be fair, for folks who aren't interested in the breed shows, the AMHA has a lot to offer, including a program for folks who are entirely non-competitive. They are also really terrific at answering questions, and do so very quickly. That's working. Morgan horses still rock at just about everything, and that's sill working too. But how much better it would be if we were still focusing on what is so great about our horses, instead of trying to shape them into some some sub-par extreme.

Like I said, I loved riding saddleseat. These days, the clothing is SO much more fun and the saddles are SO much better! They are actually grippy and you can move the stirrup bars where you need them! Me and my short legs would have really appreciated that 'back in the day'. It was such a fun and joyful discipline, and I so loved the opportunity to show off my wonderful horse. I bet a lot of folks would enjoy it that way too. Having said that, the number of folks willing to do what they need to do to be successful in the showring in it's current incarnation is (thankfully) dwindling as we learn more about what horses need to be healthy and happy. I would love it if the show horse world would evolve in that direction, and I bet it would draw a whole new crop of enthusiastic showers (and a few of us old ones as well). In my perfect world, horse shows would showcase the wonderful, natural attributes that captured our attention and led us to love our breeds in the first place. Riders would be taught to ride in balance. Shoeing would be something we do to protect the hoof and have nothing whatsoever to do with changing movement (other than corrective). Hoof-length would be determined by natural need and health of the animal. Naturally high head carriage and knee action would be just that, and only ever enhanced by the natural joy and exuberance of the horse itself. Training would build the strength and endurance of the horse, not break it down by forcing it into a specific shape. Standing wraps would no longer be necessary because horses would be allowed to move. No more hollow backs and upside down necks, just well-developed, healthy happy animals moving cheerfully around the ring, representing the REAL best of their breeds, instead of an artificially-enhanced caricature. I don't know about you, but that sounds pretty great to me!