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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 :-)


                                         


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

Photo: enlightenedequine.com
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. Just..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!

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Labels

Photo: www.sharenator.com
Some days I sign into Facebook, and my first impulse is to sign back out again. I probably should, anyway. It's a procrastination tool more than anything else sometimes, and Lord knows I don't need any more challenges to my focus. But I use it for marketing and to keep in touch with so many people that I don't really want to let it go. I LOVE seeing what my friends are doing, seeing their families and being at least a peripheral part of my friends' lives. I love my friends, and they are a kooky, interesting and diverse blend of awesome most of the time.

Sometimes though, Facebook can provide insight into people that is a little disheartening. It's okay though, I mean, we are all on our own journey, at different places in our lives and in our minds. It's part of the human experience. Some of my friends (quite a few, actually) are younger than me and in places I used to be. Sometimes, that's the hardest thing to observe from the sidelines. Suddenly, people my age with my beliefs are this, that and the other thing. If I believe this, I most assuredly must believe that as well. Blah, blah blah. If one were to believe the propaganda, most people are doing everything wrong and need to be flogged. The rest (and the righteous) are going to start a gosh-darned revolution. Gee, I've never heard THAT before. Nope.

I've been there. I've been young and passionate about everything. I know what it's like to feel a deep-seated rage at the way things are, to feel a need to clarify who I am and what I'm about (though admittedly, and in hindsight, that was as much for my own clarity and understanding as for anybody else). I'm still passionate and angry in my own way, but I've come to understand that identity is fluid and growth is inevitable. I don't limit myself with labels anymore, and I won't accept those of anybody else, either. F*** your labels. They are meaningless. And they can make us insta-stupid. I will use Bernie Sanders as an example (calm down, just an example! Though I do support him). Some folks are all "Ohmagawd! He's a socialist!" and others are all "Ohmagawd! he's not even a real socialist!"  and then all manner of articles and whatnot are written about the myriad of ways that Mr. Sanders is/isn't a socialist (Oooh! Shiney!) while everybody completely misses the actual, relevant points (You know, what he's done, what he's doing, his record. Sigh.) It's exactly what we do to each other; we label and make assumptions, we get hung up on the most irrelevant things. In doing so we become blind to the meaningful, relevant reality. One of the joys of getting older and seeing a few things is the liberating acknowledgement that all of us are flawed, and the journey we are responsible for is our own. We don't get to impose our labels on other people, either with sweeping (and wildly inaccurate) generalities, or misunderstanding.

And here's the real kicker: The more labels we use to define ourselves and others, the more we create a divide. Labels are used to differentiate one thing from another; counterproductive when the point is unity. The point IS unity, right? I look at you and I see a human being, I see a face, eyes, a soul. Why is anything else relevant? Can we just be human? Can we just connect with each other on that level? Now THAT would be a revolution. Eliminating labels eliminates barriers, boundaries and blame. But then where would we direct our rage? Who would we blame for our unhappiness? Our feelings of being disenfranchised? I feel it sometimes. Less so now, but I understand. There is still plenty in this world that needs fixing and plenty to be angry about. But what's the goal? Is it to piss off allies and alienate people? Does anybody KNOW the goal? Aside from rage and blame, what exactly, is being done to reach the goal? (FYI: rage and blame are not a plan. They are a catalyst, a valid way to get attention so that a plan may be implemented. You DO have a plan, right?). I know that you all have to do what you've got to do. Though the enthusiasm and passion of youth isn't always productively aimed, it usually manages to  get something done in spite of itself. It would be a pretty crappy world if nobody cared about injustice, and in that regard I applaud your enthusiasm.

Just don't label me, and don't you dare make assumptions about people, just because their journey doesn't look like yours. Isn't that doing to others what you are angry about people doing to you? People care and act in different ways and that's for a damned good reason. Sometimes, you have to meet things where they are to implement change; you have to begin a dialog, listen as well as speak. But hey, I wouldn't have listened either. Just don't judge me (or do, I really don't care) for not doing things your way.


Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Rainy Day

Photo: newtopwallpapers.com
I woke up this morning to the sound of rain pounding against my bedroom window. I love that sound, even if it means I'll have to walk my dog in the rain. Since living here in town, I've been buffeted by the relentless sounds of traffic. An endless auditory assault. I've learned to always sleep with a fan on to minimize the impact, but it still drives me crazy. I miss falling asleep to the late-night serenade of crickets and frogs, taking turns as the season dictates. Sometimes a coy-dog or two would lend their voice to the concert, an impromptu solo, wistful and lonely. But these are the sounds I am used to, and they were a comfort.

The rain reminds me of that comfort. It belongs. It has always been here, and will be here long after I am gone. Elemental, necessary and right. It is part of what is supposed to be and what has always been. It makes me feel centered and calm, and quiets my mind. I know some who find it depressing, but I resonate with the vibration of the rain.

I put on my clothes to walk my dog, a sun-faded gimme-cap and a hoodie. I put on my sunglasses in spite of the rain, and pretend they render me invisible. I look a bit like the uni-bomber with my hat, glasses and hood, if he were ever to walk a large Doberman clad in a bright yellow raincoat. Dobermans hate the rain.

I like that my mind is able to function on days like this. The soothing, rhythmic sound speaks to my soul and dampens the anxiety. Water beads up on the leaves and grass and imbues them with a bright, inviting succulence. I remember hours spent laying in the grass as a child, studying each blade, and watching ants and rosebugs doing their thing. Sometimes I would catch a toad or a grasshopper and carry it around with me for awhile before releasing it back into it's grassy world. Today, earthworms lay across the sidewalk in my path for me to tiptoe around. I remember days and nights spent digging for worms. Coffee cans filled with dirt and worms, bait for fishing. I miss the world, my world. I miss having something to do on a sunny day, that feeling of ending the day dirty and exhausted and a little bit sunburned. I miss the well-earned golden streaks in my hair that came directly from the sun.

Someday. But for now, I have the rain. An old friend that stays with me no matter the circumstance, and surprises me with "hello" on mornings like this.


Thursday, July 16, 2015

Nosebleed



Rhiannon riding in Arberth. From The Mabinogion
I woke up this morning and had a nosebleed. That's never a good sign. It usually means my blood pressure is high and so is my anxiety. Not a good start to the day, generally speaking, but not all anxiety is bad. We're moving forward, and doing so in a way I had hoped and thought that we would. Just because it isn't happening fast enough for me doesn't mean it isn't happening. That's something.

I woke up around 4:00 AM and couldn't get back to sleep. It doesn't happen often. Sleep is one of those physical functions that I can usually count on, and I am ever so grateful for that. But sometimes, like this morning, I wake up early and I can't shut my head off. This hasn't always been so pleasant. Sometimes I lay in the darkness, freaking out about the places I haven't been and the things I haven't done. I feel old and a little panicked. I hear the clock on my life ticking, I worry about years wasted not doing the things that I want to do. It's a helpless feeling, because it isn't about desire, imagination or motivation, but about resources. At times I have felt that I would spend the rest of my life struggling without ever really having the opportunity to live. But things are moving forward.

Once upon a time I felt like a cautionary tale to all the other good little Catholic boys and girls. "This is what happens when you don't do what you're told, don't do what you are supposed to do." You grow up, go to college, get a job that you hate and work long hours at it. Complaining is mandatory, and the more you have to complain about the better. Maybe you get married and have children. If you're a woman, you give up your own ambitions in favor of supporting those of your husband. Worse, it's expected of you. If you're lucky, there might be something in it for you. Maybe at the end of your life, when you've been worked to death and your mind is tired (or if you're a married woman, you've sublimated your own desires for so long you no longer remember what they were), if you've been very very good and squirreled away your nuts, you might get to do something you enjoy. From the time I was very young, none of that sounded at all appealing to me. NONE of it. In fact, when I was in Kindergarten and the teacher asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said "retired". I didn't know it wasn't a thing I could be. I just knew that my grandparents did it, and though they were always busy, they seemed to really enjoy their lives. The other part of that was that my grandparents didn't have to go to school. As a child my greatest wish ever was that I would never have to go to school again, so even on that level, "retired" sounded like a pretty good deal.

And then you grow up. I tried to do things the 'right' way, I really did. It was awful. I didn't fit. I didn't fit in anything I did. Sure, I know how to toe a line, but it's exceptionally unnatural for me. It made me physically sick. I know how to be polite, how to sit calmly at a table with my napkin in my lap. I know how to sit up straight, and which utensils to use when. I can beat around the bush with the best of them too. Manners are cool. Everybody should learn some. But sometimes subtlety doesn't work. I didn't get that for awhile. For a long time I felt like the only thing I got right at all was having my daughter. If my only legacy is the decent human being I brought into the world then hey, that's something. Very nearly enough, really. But you know, I never got married, so judge away if you must.

Somewhere along the way I learned to be direct. Unladylike, perhaps (and at times VERY unladylike), but more me and more effective. It was the first inkling I had that maybe, just maybe, there was more than one way to get from A to B.

Have you ever dreamed that you were flying?  From the time I was little I used to have a recurring dream about flying. It was kind of funny, really. Everybody around me was flapping their arms and flying around successfully and happily. I would flap like crazy and never get more than a couple of feet off the ground. It never changed. Even as an adult, flap, flap, flap, nothing. Until a couple of years ago. It was the same dream, but this time I instinctively just raised my hands above my head like Superman, and off I went like a rocket. I know it was just a dream, but the message wasn't lost on me. The thing that had held me back was my belief that I had to do it like everybody else. It was just a stupid dream, but it changed everything.

I'm human. I care what people think. I don't care enough though, to change my priorities. I didn't get married. It wasn't because I failed, it was because I didn't want to. I work for myself. It isn't because I'm unemployable (in fact, I work happily with other open-minded, artistic folks with a shared goal), but because it's preferable to me. I've learned that sometimes, life is ugly and messy, and it's okay. It's okay to look at the mess and talk about the mess. The mess has far less power over you when you aren't trying to shove it aside like it never existed.  Sometimes, the mess is the lesson you need to learn before you are allowed to move on. You can't move on if you aren't willing to embrace all the things, messy, not messy.

These are the sorts of things I think about now when I wake up at 4:00 AM and can't get back to sleep. I look back on lessons instead of mistakes. My life hasn't been about rebellion and wrong turns, it been about moving in the right direction for me. I got something valuable from every experience in my life, even those that were the most difficult. There are things I never would have learned about human nature, or even my own nature (and capability and strength) without those experiences. All of it a means to an end. I may not be where I want to be yet, but I'm most definitely on my way. Knowing that makes for a much better 4:00 AM experience.




Monday, July 6, 2015

Perception

Photo: vdyhnovenie.kutiika.net
I've been in a really weird space lately. It has been my hope that I would simply snap out of it, but since that doesn't appear to be happening I'll try and use it to my advantage. Sometimes distance can create space for objectivity, and I guess there really isn't any bad there. I've got plenty to do, and plenty to think about when I'm not doing it, and for now, that has to be enough, I suppose. Sometimes, with introspection comes awareness, and that's a good too.

Folks, including myself, have lots of opinions. Opinions about religion, politics, each other and a myriad of other things. I think what we forget, though, is that there are reasons we feel the way we do about certain things. Sometimes it's about how we were brought up (and I suspect this is most often the case), about our life experiences, sometimes we share the opinions of those we admire, just because we admire them, and so on. It would seem though, that oftentimes the way we perceive others says far more about who we are and how we feel about ourselves, than about that person. For example: If I feel hostile and judgmental toward somebody, it may be less about them deserving it and more about me being a hostile and judgmental person (and I have my moments). We see it all the time in others, but are we willing to look at that aspect of ourselves?

I've met some really cool, very self-aware people. The thing that distinguishes them in my mind is that they are very secure and generally very non-judgmental of others. They know how to take care of themselves, and it makes them great at taking care of others. They are really great at holding their own energy in that they don't need to take it from (or throw it at) others. They are easy to be around, easy to talk to and just pleasant people in general. I would like to be that way someday. The 'security' part is indicative of another layer of perception: Insecure folks tend to live their lives based on how they want to be perceived. I'm not there, thank goodness, but I know what it looks like. They wonder constantly what others think of their appearance, their choices, what they have, etc. They inadvertently live their lives for others, but here's the kicker: Other people don't care that much. They really don't. And if they do, it's only their perception. Having said that, we really have no control of how others perceive us, because it's about THEM, not US. So being insecure and trying to 'people-please' is a complete waste of time. Am I making any sense?

I'm not saying that we shouldn't be conscious of the effect our 'being-ness' has on others. We absolutely should. More important though (as much for myself as anyone) is that we need to understand that our perception of others is just that~our perception~and not necessarily based in reality. It's a tough one. Especially since we are humans, and somewhat prone to 'group-think', and there can be a lot of pressure to conform to certain ways of being and thinking.

I've never been good at that. Even though I'm super-aware of it, it doesn't seem to make me feel differently. Growing up, that was a real chore. I'm okay with it now. Is my perception strange? It certainly may be, but it is what it is.  I try to think of what it all means, but being human I always come up short. Sometimes I try very hard to understand people that I can't wrap my brain around. I'm sure I'm one of those people for others. It's not bad, we're all just different. But it means we need to think twice before we judge. It also means that we have every right to define those things that are important to us, and to live according to those desires that we have for ourselves and to not let others make those decisions for us. And I think we have a responsibility to hold ourselves accountable, to not project our crap on other people and to keep learning until we are able to be in the world, holding our own energy and not expecting others to take responsibility for it. Having said that, we also need to understand that though we are individuals, we are not alone in this world. We have a responsibility to care for each other in moments of weakness and to do so without judgement or projecting our own beliefs and expectations on them. It's a tough balancing act, and I love watching those who are good at it do their thing. I'm not one them, but it doesn't mean I can't be or that I won't be someday.

There are no limits to what we choose to do or be. But our own understanding of the world, and subsequently, our perception of it, can be what keeps our lives small and our thinking limited. I forget that, a lot. I'm filled with "Yeah, but..." sometimes, and it's unproductive. The limits are real enough, but they don't have to be permanent. Anything can happen, at any time. Sometimes, wonderful things come out of the blue and surprise us. Expect it.




Thursday, July 2, 2015

Paranormal

Photo: www.queeky.com
"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
-Shakespeare (from Hamlet)

“The day science begins to study non-physical phenomena, it will make more progress in one decade than in all the previous centuries of its existence.”
Nikola Tesla



I've had a lot of opportunities lately, to think about the paranormal. I'm going to assume that if you're reading this post that you've thought about it a bit yourself (and if you don't believe in the paranormal 1. You might want to stop reading and 2. I don't care, so you might as well go try to invalidate somebody else's trauma).

YIKES but that was snippy! While the mature, polite woman trapped inside me wants to be all apologetic for that last remark, most of me has more or less had it with being called names, and having people who weren't there tell me how lucky we were to live in a haunted house, and how THEY would have done it so much better than we did (and maybe they would have. So what). I really have no problem at all with folks who are genuinely skeptical though. I used to be too, so I totally get it. To be fair, I think most people fall into the 'skeptical' category. I would be lying if I said I wasn't a little envious of those who could hold an objective fascination and excitement around all things spooky, without remembering the fear that we felt. I think some people are so much better at it than others though. It's like, some folks can study big cats of the Serengeti and learn tons about them, get great photos and have exciting stories to tell, and others would go and get eaten by a lion. The unprepared and uninitiated (like we were) would likely fall into the second camp (especially since we never planned on going to the Serengeti, never wanted to go to the Serengeti, and weren't even fully aware that the Serengeti is where we had ended up).

While my interest in the subject has gone on long enough for me to understand the fascination and excitement experienced by others and the desire researchers have to learn more (I share that desire!), the experience was incredibly traumatic for us. I watch shows about it on television (in fact, our story will be on TV at the end of the year) and it either seems as though the goings-on are very dramatic and in your face, or tiny things (that are really open to interpretation) are attributed to paranormal forces. It always seems as though the people involved know just what to do, how to handle it, who to call. The reality was so different for us. I think it was a time/location thing (NOBODY talked much about that stuff  back then). Even today, most paranormal discussions have an element of the tongue in cheek, and while interesting, one rarely hears about what the impact might be on the human psyche.

My sister (a psychologist) who was there in the house with me, compares what happened to us with being in a psychologically abusive relationship. I don't care that we were were rarely touched (well, rarely, not never. Dawn and my daughter were scratched and bruised). To say we were unable to think clearly was the understatement of the century. We were always afraid; afraid to talk, afraid to make things worse. I don't care how many people say "Oh, it's harmless", we knew, KNEW it wasn't. We knew it on a cellular, visceral level. It's as harmless as any form of psychological abuse could be. And hey, I'm not minimizing abuse by saying so. I have been physically assaulted too, and what happened to us in the house was worse. Not only were we tormented, but we had no way to manage and understand what was happening to us. I can't begin to tell you what it's like to not even have full use of your own thoughts, and to live at that level of fear for six months. And we aren't alone.

One of the most touching things about coming forward with our story was the number of people who contacted me via my fan page to tell me their stories. It touched me because, in many cases, these were people who had had really traumatic things happen to them and I was the first person (a total stranger, no less) they felt comfortable talking to about it. I'm so, SO glad that they reached out, and I understand how hard it is to keep a secret like that. If I could have hugged each one of them personally, I would have. Having to keep the secret makes everything so much worse. But not keeping it can lead to ridicule, which I'm all too aware of. And that can feel like being traumatized all over again. Over this past year or so, I've more or less learned to take the 'Taylor Swift/Shake it Off' route, but it was something I had to learn and I needed a lot of help to do so. I still have tough days. The saddest thing though, is knowing there are still people out there who are suffering in silence. I'm planning to do something about that, hopefully by the end of the year. Not sure what yet, but I'll keep you posted.

Having said all that (and in spite of my previous, snippy comment), I have been really grateful for ALL the folks who have shown their support. The people who get excited about haunting and want to buy and live in haunted houses inspire ME to keep digging! I still want it all to make sense. My logical mind fully expects that we will understand paranormal phenomena someday, and it's the brave folks who get excited about it all that may be the first ones to sort it out. It's an unusual journey, for sure, but one I'm not done taking just yet.





Friday, May 22, 2015

Silver Lining

Photo: www.wallpapersonweb.com
I've had an awful week. There are different degrees of awful; sometimes it means annoying or hurtful, and other times it can mean SO much more. Some weeks seem to be specifically designed to tick all the stress-boxes, and this has been one of them. I don't like to talk about being disabled because I don't like that to be the focal point of my life. Weeks like this force me to stare long and hard at that  'monster' though, and now I'm mad as hell. One of the most difficult parts of being disabled is how vulnerable you are to the foibles and decisions of other people. It doesn't matter how conscientious and careful I am if somebody else's wrecking ball (accidental or intentional...same effect) can still trash my situation. And that's terrifying, because it's MY family that has to live with the mess. I've had a horrid week. It should be over by now, it really, really should, but it isn't. It's that last part that I can't live with.

Okay, I'm done whining. I won't lie and say I didn't call my mommy and cry to her like a freaking baby. I won't lie about the repeat performance I treated my daughter and my bestie to, either. I don't do 'helpless' well, and patience isn't a virtue I have (and in a situation like this it shouldn't be a virtue I NEED). But the emotional piece is now on a slow, rolling boil that I can live with (or make some tea from) and I have the grey matter reengaged.

What have I learned from this? Isn't that the point? What is the silver lining? Well, I've learned that I have options. Had I not been backed into a corner, I wouldn't have had the conversations that led me to that awareness. There's real value in that. Those conversations led to connections. More value. Sometimes the best new ideas are born from the lowest moments.  Well, DUH! Isn't In Stone the best lemonade I ever made (so far!)? I know how to make constructive use of adversity; it's like some magical kind of alchemy we all have access to. Sometimes being forced to consider one's options is the best thing that can ever happen to a person. I was also made aware of what I DO have, and that is a fabulous network of supportive people. It's easy to take those folks for granted, but times like these remind me that I am loved. There is nothing more valuable than that!

One of my friends likes to talk about how the world isn't fair and you have to take what you can get, but I don't accept that. Frankly, that's just pessimistic BS. But once upon a time I subscribed to that. And I tried to be polite and fair to my own detriment. It has lead to a lot of hardship for me. My mother always said that I was the only one who could change it, but I was always so afraid of being unfair or mean. While I believe that no matter what others do, it is our own behavior we are responsible for, I have learned that it's perfectly okay to advocate for yourself. I want EVERYBODY to win, to be happy, to be successful, secure, etc. But I also want those things for myself. I deserve those things. If I don't make decisions that honor that, or if I'm always saying "oh, well that's good enough" so as not to offend, I fail to make myself a priority. Certainly nobody else is, so if not me, then who? Something to think about. Life can't always be about settling and getting by. You know? I'm sure some of you do.  But if you accept that, then that's all there will ever be.

I'll get through this. I guess that is my point. People survive terrible things. I hail from the sunflower tribe, so I won't be kept down long. Sometimes bad things happen, even we do everything right. What do we take from it? What do we learn? Oh so preachy today! Even so, I hope you all are having a great week, and at the very least, are proficient at making lemonade :-)




Saturday, March 21, 2015

People Who Do

Coggio Upholstery
I haven't written anything here for awhile. As I'm trying to get some real  work done, I've spent less time here and on social media. Don't get me wrong; online schmoozing is important in terms of marketing, but sometimes a person has to put some emphasis on having something to market. This is one of those times that I fantasize about having someone else available to do marketing for me (it's not exactly my forte), but then there's the whole 'reality' thing. Anyhoo, I'm back :-)

In my brief perusal of social media in the last few months, and in my research for one of the books I'm working on, I have noticed an alarming trend. Okay, it's not something I've JUST noticed (ergo my upcoming book about homelessness), but it's something I'm finding more deeply affecting the more I look into it: How little Americans in general value themselves and the work that they do. It's like there's some strange martyrdom attached to needless suffering; like you aren't doing anything important unless it's damned near killing you. That's twisted. The flip side of it is that the American worker is seriously undervalued by employers. There's this idea that folks should be so grateful to have a job at all, that they should be willing to take what they can get. Um...HELLO!

Once upon a time, folks actually felt somewhat responsible for the people who helped them to achieve success. A job was long term, people mattered, and folks could live on what they were paid. A friend of mine apprenticed for 14 years, learned a trade and learned it well. He now has his own business that he put everything into and he does all the skilled labor himself. His work is meticulous and beautiful, but he STILL has to argue about his labor costs (which are quite reasonable in his industry). It makes me CRAZY. Recently, someone close to me was lectured by her employer about how hard that employer worked for their homes and cars. Meanwhile, the employees (who are ACTUALLY the ones who's labor supports the employers homes and cars) are struggling to support their families and driving junkers or riding the bus to work. It's like, the worse the job is to do, the lower the pay-scale. There is something very wrong with all of that. The reality is, it's the people who DO who are the most necessary and valuable. If you don't believe that, try running your business without them.

Every once in a while I think "what if?" about random situations. As people are systematically being taught to survive with less and less income, it seems almost inevitable that the trend will ultimately make money obsolete (shh...just go with me here, lol). If it came to that, who would survive? People who move money around and tell others what to do? Not so much. In a world where money is meaningless, they're screwed. The people who do though, well, they'll just keep doing, but for themselves. The builders will build, the farmers will farm and the barter system will be alive and well. It already is. It's been around for a long time, and I've noticed a definite uptick in barter activity since the economy went south several years ago. Hell, even I helped clean stalls for fresh eggs not so long ago. I've done a lot of bartering over the years. The money folks will be waving around meaningless pieces of paper, and any power that may have given them at one time will have disappeared. The only thing I don't understand is why folks can't awaken to their own value NOW.

Okay, maybe I DO understand it. The propaganda is strong. But imagine a world where the value of a human being is actually recognized. What if? What if the hard working and skilled folks were running the country? Imagine the country run by farriers, folks who made or repaired quality items by hand, artists (who wear their souls on the outside of their bodies), storytellers, farmers, carpenters, and the people willing and able to assist and promote the value of others in a symbiotic and fair way that recognizes the value of all. What if?

Okay, reality time. I had my John Lennon moment, my dream of a utopia where a few people with money don't determine the fate of everybody else. It was a fun thought, and a blessed escape from a reality where people are asleep and believe all the bull-sh** that others feed them, even if the briefest moment of thought would enlighten them to the reality that it's to their own detriment. Okay...maybe I need to set the sad book aside for a bit and focus on the novel? It's scary and twisty, but is proving to be much more fun and lively than reality.

I believe in the power of the human spirit. I believe in compassion, kindness and love. I believe these things can overcome hatred, prejudice and unkindness. I need to focus on looking at what's positive for awhile so I can find my optimism again.




Thursday, January 15, 2015

Deputy Dawg and the Mighty Fee

Damn, it's been cold. Cold enough to keep Murphy and I indoors more than usual. I guess we're both getting old. I have an old horse-related hip-thing that's driving me bananas too. I think it's a combination of the cold, inactivity and trying to stay upright on a slippery sidewalk. Who knows. It's funny though, where my mind goes when it has a chance. Okay, sometimes NOT funny, but usually it is. Even stranger are the petty little things that connect and get lumped together in my mind. At one time, I thought that the important stuff pushed all the irrelevant stuff aside, but apparently, my biological operating system doesn't work that way. Hmm.

It started this morning when someone visiting a neighbor asked me about Murphy's prong collar. "Aren't those mean?" "Nope, only if you don't do any training and are a heavy-handed lunk." "You should use a headcollar." "He hates them, so no." "But they're so much more humane." "Um, not to the dogs who hate them." "He must really hate that collar." "He doesn't really feel anything about it. He has no reason to. " "Well, if he hates headcollars he HAS to hate that. Why don't you consider switching?" " Because I care far more about how my dog feels than I do about the latest fads and the opinions of strangers." People make me tired. The snark was going to happen eventually. I don't care for headcollars (Suzanne Clothier does a great job of summing up all the 'whys' here: The Problem With Head Halters), but I learned long ago to be flexible when it comes to living beings. There are no such things as always and never. All animals are different. I feel the same way about training methods. Just because a specific method can train a chicken to perform a simple behavior in a controlled environment, doesn't mean it's appropriate as the exclusive method to train all animals to do all things. I learned that, big time, about 20 years ago when I was working with greyhounds almost exclusively.

The first class I ever took was with my first greyhound, Garth. I had been reading tons of stuff on +R (you have to write it that way so people think you're all educated in the secret ways of positive reinforcement) and the use of clicker training, it's effect on the limbic system, etc. and was all indoctrinated and ready. I was ready to install the software into my dog via this "infallible" method. I took a few psych classes while in college too, and we studied behaviorism (and the various theories) at length. But even so, it still didn't occur to me to question why a training method would employ such a narrow aspect of one type of behavior theory, and employ it exclusively for a broad (read:unlimited) spectrum of animals and behaviors in essentially every situation, and call it science. The things I had read about dog training this way were very compelling, and furthermore disparaged all other methods for one reason or another. Besides, everybody who was anybody was doing it this way, and the only reason it wouldn't work like magic is if you screwed up. Nothing could go wrong there. Nope. (That was sarcasm, btw)

Then I went to class. The instructor was an awesome human being who I've been in touch with on and off ever since. Class one was without our dogs, and we had the chance to try two different teaching methods on each other. The first was clicker training in its purest form: Shaping. We were to train each other via this method, and see how we felt about being both the trainer and trainee. It was pretty eye-opening to be the trainee. I experienced an unbelievable level of frustration (as did several others, some actually giving up) trying to guess what I was supposed to be doing, and only sort-of 'learned' what I was supposed to. The second method we tried was lure-reward. It was quick, positive, and all the trainees were successful. Eye-opening, and the timing couldn't have been better. Trying to train most greyhounds via 'shaping' exclusively would be...interesting. They don't throw a lot of behaviors at you (most throw none) and all of mine would just stare at me until they were bored and then go lay down. They can be a challenging dog to engage and KEEP engaged (but individuality is always a factor). In the end I found that some combination of lure-reward to teach the beginnings of behaviors and clicker training to refine them worked best for my hounds, with some pressure-release-reward for leash work. It depends on the individual animal, and that's the most important lesson I ever learned: The animal in front of you is far more important than adherence to any theory/tool/etc. In the end, it's clarity and your personal sense of fairness above all that matters (compassion, kindness, an understanding of the individual animal's needs/feelings, responsibility in management) that matters far more. To the dog in the front-connect harness that has to jog with his shoulders immobilized and his arm-pits being rubbed raw, that tool is not humane. To the dog damaging his spine throwing himself around and lunging into a body harness or a flat collar, those tools are not humane. To the dog who's being driven crazy by the thing on his face, who's owner misreads his resigned expression as calm and happy, that tool is not humane. (These articles are helpful: Why are Choke or Chafe My Only Options, Not So Gentle Leader?). I know people who have done horrid things to their dogs without ever touching a prong collar, so it seems silly and petty to me to get so worked up about something so irrelevant. When you get obsessed with the tiny, irrelevant stuff, you tend to lose sight of the big picture. Almost any tool has a place. It's a personal philosophy of putting the dog first that is the highest priority for me, and being mindful and educated in the proper use of ANY tool (which isn't the same thing as reading the propaganda) before using it on my dog. Period.

But then there was Fee. Fee was, hands down, the most dangerous, aggressive and unpredictable dog I ever owned. To me, he was living, breathing (and flying and shrieking) proof that the 'nature' part of the 'nature vs. nurture' argument was very relevant indeed. Fee was the nickname for my greyhound, Kiefer (Anselm Kiefer, actually), and to his friends he was The Mighty Fee. It is exceptionally unusual to have a greyhound like Fee, but the rescue knew his litter would be, well...special. Each of the litter mates were place in experienced homes. Fee was not the worst of them (even so, there is a photo of him on page 93 in the book Dog to Do Communication by Jamie Shaw, in the chapter about aggressive dogs. Seriously). He was the one dog I ever had or worked with that wore a head collar successfully. Given his resistance to just about everything, it was a shocker. Even so, it was what it was and I went with it. He was really wonderful on leash and was very easy and cooperative in training, but having the ability to control his head was of paramount importance. I usually walked him in a basket muzzle to be on the safe side, but it was important to me that he was walked and had the chance to see a lot of new things. Interestingly enough, he had no issues with other greyhounds (Well, usually. He did start trouble with Garth on one very memorable and horrifying occasion. Fifteen hundred dollars worth of vet bills in less than 30 seconds. A new record). I took him to Delaware for the annual Greyhounds Reach the Beach event, and he was a perfect angel. But in every other way his behavior broke all the rules (and a couple of bones. He could hurt himself on himself). One of the biggest challenges was how damned fast he was. I had roomates when Fee was young. Being a dog-person, I was very much in the habit of never leaving food around. Having always had big dogs, that included the kitchen counter. My roomates didn't really think of such things so Fee learned to counter surf. It was a habit he never broke, even after years of never finding food on the counter. He would also snatch food from the unwary. He knew better than to try with my daughter or me, but my half-sister was lifting a burrito to take a bite and suddenly found her hand empty. Fee had it snarfed it down so fast there was no getting it away from him (also, the consequence of trying might be the loss of a few fingers). Fee spent time in his crate when nobody was home and when folks were eating from that point on. He actually really loved his crate. And I loved Fee. In spite of himself, he was a Momma's boy who slept on my head because he just couldn't snuggle close enough.

My roommates had the occasional visitor ( I say occasional, but one visitor actually stayed for several months, living in a blue school bus in my driveway) and I always gave them the rundown on the dogs, especially Fee. I was a boarding kennel at the time too, so the usual policy was pretty much 'don't mess with the dogs'. At the time, I allowed dogs on my furniture, so folks were briefed on how to get them off the furniture safely should they need to. It amounted to pointing at the floor and saying "off", and insisting. The dogs were pretty great about it and jumped down without argument. One of the visitors (a city girl) thought she would do it her way, and she grabbed Fee (of all the dogs, ugh) by the scruff with the idea of pulling him to the floor. He gave her a warning-snap (an EXTREME example of self-control for this particular dog...phew!) and the visitor freaked out. She started yelling "He bit me! I'm filing a report!" (He didn't. She had a red blotch where he smacked her. If this particular dog had really wanted to bite her, we would have been calling an ambulance), so I thought I should help her along. She asked for the phone number to animal control, and I gave it to her. She called, and the line was busy. Of course it was. She was calling my number. I tried really hard not to laugh, but I was only somewhat successful. It was kind of poetic. When she figured it out she looked really bummed that she wouldn't be creating any real drama that day. To be fair, I wasn't actually animal control, merely the answering service for them. I did the triage. If there was a genuine emergency, I would call my friends who actually WERE animal control. If it was a neighbor dispute between two rich flatlanders who were using animal control to harass each other (it happened a lot, unfortunately) then I could just make my friends aware of it when I saw them. Most of the relevant calls involved dogs in need of rescue or at large. Such was the nature of animal control in Huntington.

Eventually, my friends grew tired of the BS and quit animal control. My phone was much quieter, and I was grateful. Then, one day, a knock at my door. I opened the inner door, and through the screen I saw a small man wearing a cowboy hat with a gun on his hip. I thought "Does this guy think it's Halloween?" He identified himself as the new animal control 'officer' (his word) and said he was making the rounds and "making his presence known" to local dog owners. Hmm. I said "So, you're new." "How do you know?" "because I used to answer the phone for animal control. Also, folks don't usually live on the side of a mountain in the middle of nowhere because they appreciate impromptu visits". "You have a lot of dogs in there. Are they all registered?" "I'm a boarding kennel. Hey, did you talk to Olga (the town clerk) before making your rounds?" "Why would I do that?" "It seems she could answer a lot of questions for you. Save you some steps." "Can I come in and see the dogs?" "Not with that gun, you can't." "Ain't nobody's gonna get this gun off me!" "Then you won't be coming in my house." "But I'm a law enforcement officer..." "No, you're not. And even if you were, it wouldn't give you free access. Have a nice day." My first intro to the new animal control officer. I wondered how many people had met him.

I had coffee at the local store the next morning (it's what people did). The topic of conversation was the new animal control 'officer'. He been dubbed Deputy Dawg. I had a feeling nobody would take him seriously, and I was right. We passed the time for awhile, drinking coffee and swapping stories. Deputy Dawg, it seemed, had had a very unfullfilling couple of days. I wondered how he would deal with the rich flatlanders. I chuckled a bit to myself when I thought about it.

And that's how a train of thought really gets rolling. It starts with a comment, and ends with too much time on one's hands and long-forgotten memories about things that weren't really that important. I lost Fee a few years ago to cancer. Losing him changed the way I do a lot of things, and inspired my research into canine-feeding. I loved that dog, so much. He was holy terror, covered in scars of his own creation, but he loved with his whole heart in the way that dogs seem to do. He even let my daughter paint his toenails pink. Well, when he was asleep. I never did have to call an ambulance for anyone on his account, and he taught me a lot. That's the key. I could have handled him a number of ways: I could have given up on him and taken him back to the kennel, I could have had him put down because he was challenging, or I could have "managed" him into an isolated and lonely existence.  I didn't. In fact, I've never done any of those things. Instead, I thought I could try something new, learn something, and accept him for exactly who and what he was, and expand my thinking to encompass what Fee needed to lead a long (though not long enough), happy and fulfilling life. I liked that idea better.







Saturday, January 10, 2015

Poverty and Homelessness

A work in progress
There has been a lot of talk among my friends about poverty and homelessness lately. It has all been really constructive, positive and loving "What can I do to help the cause" sort of talk, and it's all good, but it's brought up a lot of things for me that I still really struggle with. Once upon a time, I thought some time and distance would fix the emotional wounds that are caused by poverty and homelessness, but I suppose it isn't that simple. Yes, I have been on welfare. My daughter and I have been homeless twice. We couch surfed so we were lucky, but luck is relative, I suppose. I grew up thinking, no, believing with my whole heart, that God never gives you more than you can handle, that adversity makes you stronger, that if you are polite and kind and do the right things, then bad things can't touch you, and that family will always be there for you. I believed that our lives are as positive or negative as the choices we make, but that we always had a choice. I know better than all that now. I wish I didn't, and maybe that's why I don't really talk about it, but if I can make just one person understand, or if I can take the self-hatred out of someone else's experience, then this difficult and painful disclosure is worthwhile. Sometimes things do the most harm if they're allowed to fester below the surface and never allowed exposure to the light of day. And it IS a new day, but nothing can erase what we've been through.

Poverty is one of those things that's extremely misunderstood. There's this idea that there is a solid safety net, that a person has to err egregiously to find themselves struggling financially, and boy, if you end up homeless,  then certainly you must have done SOMETHING to deserve that. I'll tell you what I did: I had a child. Even though it was the best, most positive and straight up honorable thing I've ever done with my life, it meant I was automatically living below the poverty line. I didn't get any child support. It happens. I hadn't finished college yet, so the amount of money I could make was negligible. I depended on welfare and the money I could make either working at home (I was a sculptor) or at jobs I could bring my child to. My grandmother helped me out a lot for awhile and we were okay, but then she died. My parents tried to help inasmuch as they could too, but the whole structure of my family had dissolved and my personal safety net was gone. Then, everything changed.

I won't get into all the details because they are tedious. But the reality for the average poor person looks something like trying to pay $800 worth of bills with $600 every month. Month after month. It fluctuates up and down periodicity depending on what you yourself are able to make (Congratulations on your new job. You are now losing your food stamps and have less money to work with.) I had a lot of nice things (I'm so lucky to have had good stuff to start with. I'm so lucky I came from a good family). I had to sell a lot of them at ridiculous prices, but at least I had them to sell. I was even able to start a business boarding dogs, and we did okay for awhile there too. But the thing about limited resources that is the most terrifying is the inability to absorb the impact of other peoples' decisions. You are quite literally at the mercy of people who care more about the bottom line than they care about you, or more about who knows what. I just know that when my basement flooded (the landlord had removed the pump before I moved in. I couldn't afford one of my own), my landlord got married and moved away, leaving her son in charge. He didn't take care of the basement (as promised), he didn't bring back the pump. When holes rotted through the floor and toxic mold grew in the walls, my daughter and I started getting sick (just get a spray bottle with bleachwater) and finally the place was condemned. It's what you can expect when the rent is "affordable", unfortunately. We couldn't find another place.

My parents rallied, my boyfriend at the time and his mom did too (Not my boyfriend anymore, but I still love them both). The plan was a house for my daughter and I, and an expanded business plan. I had this. I had people. We were going to be okay. We had it all worked out. And then we didn't. At the last minute, everything fell apart (My own family doesn't believe in me. I must be a terrible person). We scrambled to find something, ANYTHING. But rents are high and sometimes on purpose. Gotta keep the riff raff out, ya know. We lost our home and my business in one fell swoop.

There's something about packing your things when you know everything is going into storage (I can't believe this is happening). There's a disbelief (This can't be real) that goes with it until those final moments (at least my dogs are okay in my friend's kennel). It feels like a train is coming, and you're tied to the tracks. It feels like like screaming for help in a dream where nobody can hear you. And worse, your child's fate is inextricably tied to yours. It's what you think of in that moment when you load up the last of your things on the truck (I'm so lucky to have help moving my stuff), the moments when you are putting everything you own (at least I have stuff and a place to keep it) into a storage locker; your bed, your child's bed, your books and your child's toys. Then that slam of the door sliding shut on your whole world, and the click of the lock.  But the worst moment is that one when you get in your car (at least I have a car) and your child looks at you, and all you can think is "What do we do now?" (Oh God, don't cry. If ever you needed to hold it together it's now. Do it. Be strong. You failed. You failed. You're a failure. You failed your child, so you better HOLD IT TOGETHER YOU LOSER.) It's weird that life just keeps going. I'd bring my daughter to school, fortunate that she had that stability (Thank you, B&T), then go to the kennel to take care of the dogs (I'm so lucky to have a safe place for them), and search day after day for a place to call home. I would go pick up my daughter after school (Act normal. Keep it together. Nobody wants to hear about your embarrassing problems. Failure Failure Failure. Don't forget to smile. All these people get to go home and have dinner. They get to relax and go to bed. I wonder if they know how awesome that is.)

A lot of people have a lot of misunderstandings about poverty and homelessness. There's so much propaganda floating around out there that's very enticing. If you believe the poor are okay, you don't have to do anything. If you think the safety net works, YOU are off the hook.  If you believe that the poor and homeless did it to themselves, it allows you the triple advantage of 1) getting to pass judgement 2) getting to feel 'better than' and 3) you have the opportunity to feel good about turning your back on other human beings. I think very few people would knowingly do that, but the misinformation that's spread around has made poor-bashing acceptable and normal. It's disgusting. If you seriously believe that there is any advantage to being poor, I strongly encourage you to be in touch with local organizations who deal with poverty issues. Or, you know, talk to poor people. Perhaps even more important, set aside your personal bias and LISTEN.

Having said that, some of the LEAST understanding people I have ever met are social workers. Some are amazing, some just want to get through the day, but there are a surprising number of them who just want to talk down to you, talk at you, tell you how to live your life and talk to you about choices. They have the right intentions, but they are coming from their own place and not that of the client. They can't relate at all but they think they understand perfectly. It's a very dangerous combination, and likely the source of the perpetuation of misinformation so prevalent in the media today. They dispense a lot of advice that folks don't want or need and really can't take. To be clear, the REAL choices are: Food or rent, food  or gas, food or electricity, food or cleaning supplies, and when it gets toward the end of the month, food for me OR for my child (obviously a no-brainer). If I had a nickel for every person who wanted to talk at me about my "budgeting issues" or similar subjects (you just have to learn to be POSITIVE!), I would have had no more financial problems. My biggest budgeting issues were that I didn't have enough money, and lacked a magic wand.

So what DO the poor need? The short answer is more money. It takes a shocking amount of time and energy to wake up every day wondering how to feed you family, and to traipse about (if , in fact you are fortunate enough to have the ability to traipse), all over town to access random services, hoping to piece together enough money to keep the light on. It's energy that would be much better spent elsewhere. No matter what Fox "News" and their ilk say, nobody wants to be poor, poverty isn't lucrative, there is no advantage and nobody is doing well on subsidies. NOBODY. Pardon my French, but that is bullshit. I tried to come up with a better word, but there isn't one. On the rare occasion that somebody attempts fraud, they are caught and prosecuted. The second thing people need is opportunity. People who have opportunities take them so for granted that they can't even kinda understand that they aren't available to everyone, or conceive of how different life might be without them. It makes a huge difference when mommy and daddy pay for your education and sign off on all the big purchases so that you can build something positive for yourself right from the get go. It changes everything.

The other thing to remember is that homelessness isn't the problem, it's the symptom. If ever there was proof that the poor weren't getting what they need to help themselves and stop being poor, it's the alarming rate of homelessness. Homelessness happens when you have done everything you can do and it doesn't work, and have asked for help that doesn't come. It's a point of utter helplessness and hopelessness. I can't speak for everyone, but for me it was that moment when I realized that everything I believed in was bullshit. It was the moment when I knew to whom I mattered, and to whom I didn't. I realized that God most definitely gives you more than you can handle, and when it happened something broke so profoundly inside me that I've never been the same. Over the years I've worked hard at gluing all the little pieces together, but I don't think I'll ever be the same. I'm seriously agoraphobic. I mean, seriously. The panic attacks are so embarrassing, but it is what it is. I get nosebleeds whenever I get correspondence from my landlord, even though it's always benign. So no, adversity doesn't always make you stronger. Sometimes it fucks you up irrevocably. But I'm working on it. Even so, I can't help but believe it happened for a reason. I have yet to discover what that reason might be, but I'll know it when I see it.

It's over for us now, the 'living it' part. My daughter is an adult and we share household expenses. But every time I hear somebody trash the poor I get angry, because they are trashing me. Every time somebody disrespects and dehumanizes the homeless, they are dehumanizing me, and worse, my daughter. Those families are us, those children are my child. Anybody can end up there. It took me years of scraping and clawing to forgive myself for the sins that I was held accountable for but never actually committed, but I did do that much. I believe in myself, but very few others. My cynicism was well-earned. I wish I smiled more, that I was calmer and less emotional. I'll get there. In the meantime, I will always defend and advocate for those who can't do it for themselves, because I know they can't. I won't judge because nobody can be harder on a person than they are on themselves. But mostly because I understand that sometimes, people don't need a lecture or a pep-talk; what they need is real, tangible help.