Saturday, February 19, 2011

A Feminist on the Farm

Shortly after I bought my horses, an elderly man in my life shoved his hands in his polyester pockets, sucked his teeth, and said, “I’ve never understood why women like horses so much.”

I don't suppose he would have liked my answer, if he had really wanted an answer: Because you can swing up on them and get the hell out of Dodge.

Every minute that I live, it becomes more and more apparent to me that a woman has to take what she wants. Nobody but nobody is going to give it to her, not without expectation, and not unless the object of her desire falls safely enough within the proper bounds. Men take fishing trips and sports excursions for the pure pleasure of them; women take recovery. From my experience, "Girls Night Out" is always an act of desperation. And babies big or small  --  no matter how much they scream they want their independence, they can hardly bear for their mother's attention to be turned away. (Try taking five straight minutes to write a blog, for example.) They light out into their own adult lives, and still her countenance is supposed to be watching every time they turn. The collective message is subtle and complex. Societal machinations are humming in the white noise of a woman's world, every waking minute from birth. With every step she takes away from expectations, the tuneless screeching of violins grows louder, and words clarify themselves within the drone. You are so selfish. How dare you?

This is old news for women, a rehashing of the old blah-bi-di-dah  --  we fight it, think about it in our most exhausted, over-used moments, and too often fail to take what we need out of guilt. But there's another side we might not think about so much. That is, not just what to grab for ourselves  --  but what not to.

My horses are on a short list of the big things I have grabbed in my lifetime, for myself, without permission, and without apology. So it came as a surprise to me, that giving one of the horses away was as important to the effort as getting them in the first place. Because it's easy to forget:  The fabric of your life  --  whatever threads you find yourself studying at the end, turning over and softly rubbing between your thumbs and fingers  --  the quality is as much because of whatever material you leave out, as weave in. And it takes as much strength to stand up for what not to accept.

I'll not go into too much detail (it can be found here, in "Possession," Dec. 13, 2010), but the mare was aggressive to the point of being deadly, different from other problem horses in that she commenced full-frontal attacks seemingly without provocation. The first decision I made was between putting her down (because I would not have handed off a killer) and having a trainer with more experience than I work with her first. I chose the latter.

Two weeks later, the trainer and I met for an assessment, beginning with whether this was what in the old days was called "a bad animal." No, he said, just a very, very alpha one, a dominant leader of the herd, with no small number of issues. "I think this can be done," he said. "Are you ready to work hard?"

Ask a woman if she's ready to work hard? How, pray tell, is she supposed to answer that? I blinked at him silently, thinking, well, but, that's not the idea. Not that particular kind of "hard." I'm planning ahead for my golden years here!

The training was helpful, and at length I rode the mare on a number of occasions, quite proud that I still had it, I could still keep this headstrong 1000-pound female under relative control. The internal arguments began then in earnest. All the ones closely related to what you might expect from a mother trying not to give up on her difficult child, alongside all the ones that said I've already done this before. As a teenager I lied to my father for a year about how wild my gelding was, knowing he would sell him if he knew; that gelding and I eventually claimed a 1978 All-Around High Point Horse trophy in Texas that is still displayed in my living room. During that time, I only met one horse I never got a full handle on, and if we hadn't gone down in soft Texas sand when she reared over on me, I'd be dead. Good enough for near-death experiences; what do I have to prove now?

In the end, it came down to this: the mare was off-mission. I found I had to stand up for the decision to give her away, repeatedly. My trainer, my family, my own heart fought to see the effort with this mare through. It was hard, first because in a qualified way, I was fond of her. She is a beauty, and I continued to want to hold onto that beauty. But also because, once I'd said "damn the torpedoes" and brought my little herd home, the societal drone changed, inside and outside of my head. The subtle and complex message: OK, you did this. Now accept your responsibility.

 “Martyrdom” is something I’ve worked hard not to allow in my household of five women. Just as no one was allowed to say “no fair” as they were growing up. So first I accepted the responsibility of a horse, and yes, I turned and handed it off to someone else. A perfect match, incidentally, after $2,000 of training.

How dare I.

Suggested reading for mothers and anyone else interested in whether our modern, American way of raising children might be going off the rails: Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety by Judith Warner,

"The paradigm-shattering bestseller that investigates how women have fallen into the trap of "total motherhood," and how that mind-set damages them and their relationships with their husbands and children."

Sunday, February 13, 2011

All In This Together

I am an ape. An animal more specifically described as a human ape, but there it is. Out and proud, I say. Somebody's got to start the dialogue.

I wish I had a good answer for what kind of woman goes around publicly announcing she's an ape. Me, obviously, but I mean, beyond that. My undergraduate training in anthropology says absolutely, every single time, you must begin an ethnography by introducing yourself, as fully and honestly as you can. People ought to know who you are, before you then engage in the utter folly of trying to tell them about someone else, through your own self-deluded eyes. So far as I can tell, the effort works perfectly. Ethnographers tend to write the most amazing purple prose about who they wish they were, or how they wish the world to see them, but where ever you go, there you are  --  the deception is easily detected. In the process of writing, they might as well strip themselves naked before the security cameras in Grand Central Station.

Despite that, here's some stuff I know about me. Like a chimp, I always want to touch everything and anything that piques my curiosity. (In fairness, I like to think I share the keen intelligence of a chimp, too, which calls for a proper degree of caution and no small amount of fear when it comes to real danger.) But as an example of chimp / ape-like behavior:  My husband and I were standing on a treetop-high deck years ago, only a few feet a way from a pair of flying squirrels. He could see I was practically quivering with the desire to reach out to one -- something that was A) likely to get me bitten, and B) certain to interfere with our observation of the sweet squirrelly courtship. "Why do people always want to touch everything in nature?" he asked. As if this was a rhetorical question aimed at no one in particular.

Touch? I wanted to grab one of those cute little suckers up, turn it over, and see if I could find and name all the internal organs under the soft belly fur.

And if I ever accidentally wander onto an ancient burial ground, and no one except God is within a hundred miles? I'll touch something. I'll fall on the ground, look a skull right in the eye sockets and have a little conversation. I'll tiptoe around as carefully as I know how and slap myself on the head a lot, trying to sear everything I see into my brain. Heart going thumpity-thump and body quivering all over. Then I'll go directly to the proper authorities and point to the find, so they can secure the area and keep people like me out. (No I wouldn't do any of this really, same as I didn't pet the squirrel. But it would be hard. Sadly, this non-practicing anthropologist probably just put herself on the equivalent of an Indian No-Fly List.)

Whoops. I may have skipped purple prose, and gone directly to naked.

* * *

So believe it or not, this blog is about someone else. An ethnography, if you will  --  let the folly commence. Or continue.

In the late 1990s, a quiet young woman came into my life through a work association. She would become a close friend, but it could so easily have been otherwise. Whether she becomes a friend all depends in part on whether you notice her  --  she's so extraordinarily quiet  --  and then on whether you have a high comfort level with someone who, without a trace of self-consciousness or even of awareness, completely resists definition.

Strange that I say people wouldn't notice her, because she's got certain traits that we apes tend to notice. She's very tall and very angular; she has delicate hands and fingers that, because she is a born leader, creatively and technologically, she must use to illustrate and to teach. She has dark walnut hair that she has often worn buzzed boy-short. She surprised me recently, though  --  we hadn't seen each other in a number of years  --  with her hair in a shoulder-length sweep, magazine perfect, blindingly shiny after so many years of acute cuts. Short or long, the dark hair frames crazy-colored hazel eyes (teal?), round and fascinated, that swivel together to take everything into view, the world every moment with a childlike wonder. Whether she is trekking around Europe with a backpack slung over her shoulder, or sitting with hot tea at your kitchen counter, she is content in her own skin. She's always smiling. She likes to go and to play. Golf is a passion, as is sunshine on her face, and heaven help the person who gets between her and a county fair and a funnel cake.

She knows what she likes, and if her haircuts have dumbfounded people, so too has her unchanging wardrobe. Whose wardrobe doesn't ever change in this day and age? Jeans, comfortable cut; tennis shoes; t-shirts in the summer; sweat shirts in the winter. She has thus far forcefully refused to get married or to have children, and fiercely guards her time alone.

For the life of me I can never remember her age; I had to ask yet again, for the purpose of writing this. She is nearly 37, and though she does not seem to change one iota over the years, she is not a grown child. She can be extremely motherly, super smart to begin with but also with a wisdom that comes from not having the sometimes emotionally flighty encumbrances of a spouse and children. She is kind and a very moral person  --  but imagine a razor-sharp sense of humor, too, which will bust you in your follies, and make you laugh at them. (As in, once when from the back of a two-person kayak, as I was failing miserably to keep up with her athletic prowess, she said, "Just sit there and look pretty.")

People are always trying to label her. "Are you ________?" they ask when they believe they've gotten close enough to beg "the question," whatever it may be. I leave the space for the descriptive term blank not because of some concern for political correctness, but because that's the whole point. The question varies. There are no easy labels. Her surprised but not offended answer is always an honest "no." A little bafflement. "I am just me."

I understand this human  --  or is it ape?  --  need to categorize absolutely everything. I also understand that sometimes, you just can't. That's why I adore the study of humans. In addition to the usual biological variation within a species, we have consciousness and cultural variation that allows for infinite words with which to fill in the blanks. Think about it: infinite.
So I keep this friend of mine close, chase after her sometimes as she walks through the world, and stay clear of her place in the funnel cake line. And I turn my own primate brain to watching the fascination of everyone else, those who notice her. Because rude questions aside, people also want this rare quality, are magnetized to it  --  the magic of a person  who really, truly, genuinely, is herself. Who does not feel any need to broadcast it in some way  --  no outward physical purple prose that says, this is who I wish I was. And who is so visibly happy about it.

 *Comedy aside, disturbing or looting a Native American site is unethical and can carry extremely high costs for the offender: consider the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA) maximum penalty of a $20,000 fine and two years' imprisonment for a first offense. And it is unlikely "God" is the only one around. Please see for an excellent article  --  or just check out the photo to get the point.