Thursday, October 25, 2012

I know what I'm doing, and today I know why

I remember the first time I loped. I was on old Buddy, on a longe line. I turned my right foot out, laid it on him and made a kissing sound.

Then I hoped for the best.

It was several years before I understood what I was looking for, physically, and 
could adjust my hands, seat, and legs in order to get the horse to lope. It took even longer to understand why all my adjustments worked.

That is the way much of my riding has gone. Niki or Tina tells me to do something. I do it. I get results. I don't know why. Lately, Niki has been explaining, both before AND after, why she is telling me to do things. Sometimes she quizzes me.

Sometimes I pass.

For awhile now, she's been having me use my inside leg to bend my horse. At first, this felt contrary to what I had been taught. Horses yield to pressure. If you press on their side, they will move away from the pressure. Press them on the left, they will move to the right. In theory, you shouldn't press them with your right leg and expect them to move MORE right, apparently unless you're trying to bend them right instead of trying to push them left.

I know. I didn't get it, either.

Nevertheless, I did as Niki told me. I put my left leg on Snoopy and hoped for the best. Probably a good 75% of the time, he bended around my left leg and went left. The other 25% of the time, well, we went everywhere else, or I ended up tugging at his face to re-route him.

Last night (after months of doing this, I might add), it finally dawned on me what Niki was asking me to do and why it worked. Today when I rode Snoopy, I sat to my right and pushed my right leg into him, visualizing less of a bending action and more of a break at his midsection. He turned immediately right.

I tried the same to the left, and he turned left. We did not have our usual argument about where he was going. I did not have to tug him across to steer him. We trotted poles left, right, left, right, right, left, mostly with my legs and seat telling him what to do.

In the afterglow of such a good lesson, I thought about my epiphany. It applied to so much of my life. I've done what others told me, without knowing why. I always just hope for the best.

From now on, I'm going to put more effort into understanding why I'm doing things, instead of accepting direction without argument.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The reality of memoir

One of the many things I remember from one of Judy Reeve's workshops is that she said (paraphrasing here) that what really happens in life is always bent through our personal filters. If I ever wrote a memoir of my own life, I'm certain there would be friends and family popping out of the woodwork to tell people which events happened differently.

But they happened that way to me.

So now I'm writing my horse's memoir. I am giving him a voice, and an inner life. He may indeed have a voice I can't translate and an inner life I am not privy to. Perhaps, if he had opposable thumbs, he'd be writing his own damn memoir. I am not going to debate animal spirits or anthropomorphism or any of those topics.

What I'm going to do is tell a story. This means I'm putting thoughts and words into his head and mouth, and the heads and mouths of other horses. I'm giving him neighbors in the hospital that he converses with. Some of the horses are the ones I know. Some I've made up. Some events I've rearranged to fit with Snoopy's injury timeline. But here are the truths about his story:

1. He really did break his leg and it really did take two years to recuperate.

2. Other events really did happen, even if they didn't happen at that particular date.

3. Snoopy was changed by his experience. Yes, I believe that.

I realize I am treading the line between fiction and non, but I'm loving the writing, and it's kind of cathartic for me to tell the tale, even if it does blur reality.

Here's another  excerpt from the (very) rough draft:

* * * * *

One day, MomToo* came up the hill. I thought she was coming to get me, but she took Holly out of her pen and led her down the hill. Holly was kind of an old horse and walked like every bone in her body was stuck together.

“She moves funny,” I said.

“You will, too, if you live to be as old as her.”

“How old is old?”

“It depends. For horses, humans say we are old at twenty, but humans are still young when they are that age. You are a year old, and very big. A one-year old person is still carried around, unable to walk or talk.”

MomToo came back, leading Holly, who looked very clean and shiny.

“Holly.” I called out to her. “Why are you so clean and shiny.”

“I am leaving tomorrow,” she said. “I am going to the Clover Fields.”

I had never heard of this place.

“But you are not as old as me,” Bonnie said.

“No,” Holly replied, “But you can still walk up and down this hill without much pain. My knees have been aching for a long time. Remember how Tina had to take me out of the pasture because the other horses were bullying me?”

“Yes. My hocks hurt, but at least I could stand my ground out there.”

“Excuse me,” I said. “But where are the Clover Fields?”

They all looked at me. Uncle Snowy tried to explain it.

“The Clover Fields aren’t exactly a where, but a what. It is the place a horse goes when they die.”

I had heard about dying and death from Mom, and had sometimes seen birds and mice with no movement. Mom said everything had a spirit that was for always, but our bodies were only for right now. I didn’t quite understand at the time. As Uncle Snow explained, I tried to understand better.

“In the Clover Fields, we are whole again and may run without pain, and eat the sweet clover, and enjoy who we are. Others we have loved, humans or animals, can find us there. If we are needed, we can return to this place and allow our spirit to be born into a new body.”

“Why would you want to leave a place like that?”

“To help someone we love.”

I always believed Mom and Uncle Snowy, but it was a lot to think about. Something bothered me.

“Holly, how do you know you’re going tomorrow?”

“Your owner told me, while she was bathing me. She didn’t quite get all the details correct. Humans don’t know about the Clover Fields until they get there. But I understood what she was saying.”

Her answer frightened me. “Is my MomToo going to kill you?”

“No. It was sweet of her to clean me up. She thought I should sparkle when I get there. The doctor is coming tomorrow morning. He will give me a shot that will make me sleep so deeply that I will be able to leave this body.” She hung her head. “I will miss you all, but I am actually looking forward to not hurting anymore. And I will have company on my journey, as Uno will be leaving, too.”

Uno was a big sorrel gelding. I had seen him around the ranch.

“Uno?” Now Uncle Snowy sounded surprised. “But he is younger still.”

“Yes, but his front leg is giving out. I have heard them talking. The doctor has been out many times, taking pictures, and showing his heel sinking. He told his owner, Gayle, that she should not wait, or the bones would collapse through his foot.”

“Gayle?” I cried out. “That’s my MomToo.”

 “Do not think badly of your owner,” Bonnie said. “Our humans love us and do not want us to be in any pain that we cannot survive. Some pain we overcome. We heal. But Uno’s foot will never heal. It is on its way from a little pain to a forever pain. Just as Holly’s knees will never heal. Nor my hocks.” She smiled a little as she spoke of herself.

“How do they know a sometime pain from a forever pain?” I asked.

Uncle Snowy scratched my withers to calm me. “They look you all over, they talk to doctors and take pictures of you, and they try everything to heal you first.”

I remembered when I was little and my foot hurt when I walked on it. Every day, MomToo, Auntie Niki, and Hilde came to my pen and made me put my foot in hot water. Then Hilde would pick my foot up, dig around with the hoof pick, then put something black and icky on it and tape it. After forever, it stopped hurting.

Uncle Snowy was right. They tried everything, until I felt better.

Still, we were mostly quiet the rest of the day. Holly stood as usual, with her nose against Bonnie’s at the fence. I thought about the Clover Fields and what that might be like. I didn’t know what clover was, but Uncle Snowy said it was sweet. Apples are sweet, so I imagined a field of apples.

That wouldn’t be too bad, but I’d have no one up there to hang out with me, except Holly, I guessed. Maybe Uno would be my friend.

I also thought about leaving that place to come back here in a new body. Did that mean my spirit was in another body before this one? It was hard to sleep that night. I couldn’t imagine what I might have looked like, or why I couldn’t remember a field full of apples.

It was early the next morning when Hilde came up for Holly. The air was cool, but I could feel the heat would be here soon. The ranch was quieter than I ever heard it before. None of us spoke, until Holly was on her way down the hill.

“Take care,” she called back to us. “I’ll see you all again, one way or another.”

As I watched her walking, I saw another horse at the bottom of the hill. He was a big sorrel gelding, and MomToo was leading him into the big barn. I saw them come out the back. There were more humans there, but there were trees in my way and I couldn’t see what was happening.

Suddenly, I heard a deep voice. “Sorry about the bum leg.”

My MomToo’s thought voice answered. “Just find a new body and get back here.”

After that, there was quiet, then MomToo’s thought voice again.

“Good-bye, Holly. I’ll miss you.”

A loud, rumbling noise made me look away. Something large, with wheels on the ground and walls in the back, rolled into the ranch.

“That’s what the humans call the teal truck,” Uncle Snowy said. “It will pick up the empty bodies and take them away.”

 “Where does it take them?”

“I don’t know, and I don’t care. Holly and Uno don’t live there anymore.”

* * * * *

*After typing "Two-legged Mom" multiple times in this manuscript, I've changed what Snoopy calls me to "MomToo". Sue me. Or thank me.

Marcus on Hollywood Hobby, aka "Holly"

Friday, October 5, 2012

Finding Snoopy's voice

I'm currently on schedule to complete the rough draft of Snoopy's memoir by the first of November. When I began writing it, Snoopy's voice was like an equine Forrest Gump, a chap who knows he's stupid and it's okay with him. I also began with his accident, then alternated chapters between post-accident and pre-accident.

A couple of things made me re-think all that.

The big thing was that I sent a couple of chapters to a beta reader who was supremely helpful in pointing out where things didn't work. There were two big problems, as she saw it. When she explained them, I agreed.

First, it was not a good idea to start off with the accident. Readers have not gotten to know him yet, so it is hard for them to feel badly about what happened. They need to have an idea of who he is and why this leg break, as scary and sad as it is, does not ravage his spirit.

I rearranged the book so that it tells a linear story. We know Snoopy from his birth, just like David Copperfield.

Secondly, Forrest Gump aside, it's a difficult task to carry the reader along a simpleton's journey. It's a huge undertaking for the author to keep the voice authentically stupid, and it can be just plain exhausting for the reader trying to trudge through it without screaming, "Stop being such an idiot."

This meant I had to take another look at Snoopy, who he is, and what his voice is like. Here's what I know about him:

1. He is never mean or out of sorts.
2. He is rarely frightened of anything.
3. He touches everything with his mouth (unless we don't let him).
4. He mostly does what you ask him to do when you are in the saddle.
5. When he doesn't do what you ask, he acts like he doesn't feel your leg. When you get after him, he behaves.
6. Over poles, he is very careful with his feet. Everywhere else, he is not.
7. He is very trusting.

I then read some books that have been written in first-person from the animal's point of view. I read Black Beauty (again), War Horse, and the first three chapters of The Art of Racing in the Rain. Amazingly, the one that sounded most like an animal to me was Black Beauty. It is probably the standard, being such a classic, and while it is the story of a horse who must endure hardships until he finally finds his home, it is also a lesson in animal welfare and the need to treat everyone with kindness and respect.

I do not aspire to the heights of that classic, but I think Sewell got the voice very correct. He is an English country squire in his attitude, but the voice sounds very horse-like. As much as he understands people, he also has conversations with the other horses. We learn everyone's stories, and each one has something to say.

Here is a passage where Beauty was being trained:

"Next came the saddle, but that was not half so bad. My master put it on my back very gently, while old Daniel held my head. He then made the girths fast under my body, patting and talking to me all the time. Then I had a few oats, then a little leading about. This he did every day, till I began to look for the oats and the saddle."

Apart from a horse knowing the words saddle and girth, this sounds like a horse thinks, in my most humble opinion. He speaks in a straightforward way. He describes the feeling of being handled gently; this is important, as are the oats.

When I contrast that with War Horse, it sounds like a old man in a horse suit talking. Don't misunderstand - I liked the story. Even cried in a couple of places. But it's not a horse talking. At least, I cannot believe it is a horse's perspective on the world.

"As we approached the flagpole in the center of the green where the Union Jack hung limp in the sun against the white pole, an officer pushed through the crowd toward us. He was tall and elegant in his jodhpurs and military belt, with a silver sword at his side."

What horse knows what the Union Jack is? Or human fashion? Or cares?

I will, at some point, finish The Art of Racing in the Rain, but I am skeptical of the first person dog. He has an extensive vocabulary, which I am fine with, as well as his rich inner life. My one sticking point? He watches TV. I've never owned a dog who watched TV. Duffy listens to TV and gets very excited when there are dogs barking on it. But only my cats watch TV, mostly sports. They like to lay on top of the set and swat at the hurtling bodies and balls.

So Snoopy's voice will be that of a curious, naive horse, one who does not realize his own depth, or even his own strength, as he recovers from what could have been a life-ending injury. He will be plain spoken, and will have to be taught what things are.

Here's my new beginning:

"I don’t know very much, but I know what I am. I am a horse. Some people say we aren’t very smart. They may be right. They train us, though. It’s not exactly our fault if they teach us to be stupid.

And I don’t understand why they say we aren’t smart. I understand what people are saying. I even understand what they are thinking. Why can’t they understand my language?

I don’t even know how people understand each other. Their thought voices and loud voices happen at the same time, and most of the time, they’re not saying the same thing. Sometimes they’re saying completely opposite things."

Of course, this is just the rough draft.

Hee Hee Haw.