Thursday, January 29, 2009

Of Mice and Meadowlarks

Wednesday was an eventful day. And not necessarily in a good way.

It had recently iced, and Tuesday night it snowed several inches. The roads were dangerous, and the conditions were bad enough to cancel classes. This was good news because it meant I got to sleep in until a quarter past nine, then go out to do a few barn chores. I then planned to return inside the warm house, waste time on the Internet, and, if I felt like it, start working ahead on coursework.

Things started out normal enough. It was strikingly beautiful outside. There was a thick, smooth blanket of snow that reflected the sunlight. I had forgotten how blindingly bright snow could be. I was suitably impressed.

Next came the morning routine of picking stalls and dumping water, and then it was off with my mom to hay the horses in the pasture, since they couldn’t reach the grass under the ice and snow. Everything seemed normal at first, until we noticed Shorty hanging back in the woods by himself. He was unwilling to eat or move, and I took off my glove to feel his neck. He was incredibly hot. I had to remove my warm sweatshirt to lead (or rather drag) him back to the barn. His temperature turned out to be 106 degrees—dangerously high. He was lethargic and uncomfortable. Poor pony.

So the vet was called, and while she was on her way I gave Shorty a shot of banamine. The vet was unable to make a convincing diagnosis, but she administered antibiotics and several other meds and instructed me to give him a shot of immune booster. He showed some improvement, but he still wasn’t great. The blood work came back today, and the news was sobering. There’s a fair chance Shorty has cancer. We’re waiting on more definite test results, but it doesn’t look promising at all. Needless to say, this is a pretty awful blow. I’ve got my fingers cross that the news is good, but my hopes aren’t up.

While all of this was going on, Chi-Chi the dachshund was in the barn hunting the mice that overrun the feed room. They’re everywhere, and while I don’t usually approve of killing animals for human convenience, they’ve been spilling grain all over the place and making a huge mess, not to mention wasting money. Plus they stink. It’s hard to enter the feed room without gagging at the scent of disease-ridden mouse droppings. The dog succeeded in killing one, and chased another out in the snow, giving it a good bite but unfortunately not quite dispatching it completely. So it was up to a saddened and revolted me to bring my boot down and put it out of its misery. A repulsive and disheartening task, to be sure, and when I looked down to make sure I had done the deed properly, I saw a stain in the snow and a beheaded rodent body. How awful.

On a lighter note, however, there was another mouse in the barn that the dog didn't get (pictured). This one wasn’t of the typical small, ugly, gray house mouse variety. It was absolutely adorable and also practically tame. It calmly cleaned its face and nibbled on grain as I approached, and I succeeded in catching it in my gloved hand. I played with it while it crawled all over my arm, then it waddled off in search of more oats. According to my Internet search, it’s a deer mouse, even though they aren’t particularly common around here.

I still had to go to rehearsal that evening, but it went surprisingly well. I was happy with the way I played and thought the ensemble sounded pretty good. Walking back to my car along the haphazardly-shoveled sidewalks, I felt a sense of extreme peacefulness come over me. The sun was setting over the rose gray horizon, and the crisp snow on the ground was blue and sparkly. I felt perfectly content for the first time in a while. There was nothing that mattered beyond me and the handsome frame of Stone Chapel looming in the cold twilight. A magical experience.

Then, coming home along my driveway, I noticed a dark shape huddled in the deep tire tracks in the snow. I slammed on my brakes as I approached, and my car slid, grinded, and crunched to a halt. I stepped outside and there, not two inches in front of my wheel, was a meadowlark sitting flattened to the ground. I picked it up and looked it over. It was very cold, but bright-eyed and seemingly healthy. I brought it home and put it in a box in the garage, hoping to warm it up and then release it. Later I noticed a droplet of blood on its bright yellow breast feathers and lifted the down out of the way to expose a deep wound in its chest. Perhaps a hawk had caught it and then dropped it. The bird shivered. My options, I decided, were to either break its neck or leave it alone. I couldn’t bring myself to kill it. I’d already assisted in one involuntary euthanasia that day; I couldn’t handle another. So I fixed the box up with bedding, water, and grain and hoped for the best. Sure enough, when I came out a few hours later, the bird was cold, stiff, and very much dead.

Disease and death are everywhere. I’m worried sick about Shorty (who currently has a 102.2 degree fever and seems fairly comfortable, for the time being). But still.
In other words, I’m not in a particularly chipper mood right now. But you just gotta take it as it comes, right?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Mmm. Bovine.

I'm a hypocrite.

Although I freely admit that I'm a hypocrite, so does that mean that I'm not a hypocrite after all? The paradox confounds me.

See, the issue is this. I've been a vegetarian for more than 11 years. During that time, I haven't eaten any meat. Really. No cheating whatsoever; no sneaking a hamburger when I thought no one was looking; no "just this once and then never again" moments. I'm not even tempted anymore—it's been so long since I've tasted bacon that I no longer remember or have any desire for it. Plus, there are plenty of tasty alternatives ("Amy's" brand veggie burgers come to mind! Yum!) that I no longer miss meat in the slightest.

Yay for me, right? When I was seven years old, I made a commitment that I would become a vegetarian. I used to think that meat came from animals who died of old age or sickness, and that chicken nuggets were simply harvested after the birds’ natural, peaceful passing. When I learned the oh-so-ugly truth, I was appalled and horrified. Vegetarianism became my righteous crusade. It was my contribution to animal welfare activism. I felt pretty good about myself for it. Heck, I even gave up Jell-O because it contained gelatin (which, as I found out much to my dismay, is an animal by-product).

[Personal anecdote: I specifically recall a heated argument between myself, a rival carnivore student, and the elementary school principal. "Jell-O is made from cow bones!" I said. "No, it's made from powder!" said Molly the Meateater. "And the powder is made from cows!" said I. "It's made from powder," said the principal, hoping that that would end the argument once and for all and probably imagining the havoc that a school-wide vegetarian revolution would wreak on the cafeteria's budget. I was mad. This is also probably why I didn't have any friends in elementary school, come to think of it.]

But, you know, gelatin is in a lot more than just Jell-O. It's also in yogurt. And ice cream. And candy. And no way in hell am I living without my candy. Plus, there are animal by-products in many, many other foods on the market, too. It's almost impossible to avoid, and even if I was willing to give up on taste (which I'm not) and a healthy balanced diet (which I'm definitely not), eating would become pretty costly, and, well, I can't afford that. Besides, if I was truly committed to my animal rights crusade, I'd become a vegan. I've heard some horrible (but absolutely true and commonplace) stories about the egg and milk industry. It's awful. I'd almost argue that killing the animals outright is better than some of the treatment that egg-laying chickens and dairy cattle have to endure. I won't cover the atrocities here, but suffice it to say that it's completely unethical and disgusting, no matter what your view on animal welfare.

And that's not even getting into the fact that I use leather all the time. I love my expensive (and exotic!) leather horse tack. I've even got saddles made from alligator, stingray, and ostrich hide. Do I feel terrible about it? You bet! Does that stop me? Nope!

Since moving into farm country, too, I've seen that not everything that goes on in the meat industry is quite as horrible as organizations like PETA would have you believe. Cattle graze peacefully on grassy hills for the majority of their lives. It's not a bad existence, really. I assume they're later taken to a feedlot (which isn't quite so lovely), and then they're slaughtered (which can be accomplished humanely, but often isn't) and that's that. Perhaps it's not ideal, but it's not awful, either. These, however, are private individuals' farms. Factory farming works much differently and is nowhere near as nice, either for humans or animals. Gene Baur actually gave a convocation speech on that subject last semester. Very interesting stuff.

People often incorrectly assume that since I’m a vegetarian for animal rights reasons, I think it’s evil or immoral to eat meat. Not true at all. The unavoidable cliché is “that’s how it works in the wild,” and honestly, that’s a good point. Predator and prey. Survival of the fittest. All that jazz. However, just because we’re stronger and smarter doesn’t mean we can do whatever the hell we want. On the contrary—since we are smarter, we are capable of making the raising, transporting, and killing process much more humane. Unfortunately, we’re not there yet, and I can’t condone the meat industry until we take many steps forward in our production methods. Right now, greed reigns, and animals are suffering for it.

But in the end, I know that I as an individual am not making the least bit of difference. It’s not like a cow is saved for every hamburger I don’t eat. But the habit of vegetarianism is pretty well engraved in me now, and I don’t see myself changing. I guess it’s one little statement I can make, and while I never go around preaching my beliefs or condemning the wicked sinners who feast on flesh, maybe my tiniest act of rebellion will encourage someone to think about their own choices and beliefs. Maybe…

Friday, January 23, 2009

Stay tuned....

As part of the required Global Studies minor at Drury, all students have to take a human behavior class. I figured I’d go ahead and try to get some of my gen-ed stuff done this semester, but when I went to enroll, most of the classes wouldn’t fit in my schedule. No Psychology, Sociology, or Anthropology for me. That left Women and Gender Studies. Blech.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized I actually wanted to take the class. Since coming to college, I’ve had the opportunity to meet a handful of people—both students and professors, men and women—who are self-professed feminists. Interesting. Honestly, I know almost nothing about the subject. Apparently it’s a pretty common misconception that feminism is dead. That’s what I thought, anyway. But then I look around at culture and legislation and the like, and it becomes quite obvious that the battle for equal rights for the sexes is far from over. At this point, I’ve only had two class sessions and all we’ve worked on is introductory material, but I’m pretty gung-ho and excited about the rest of the class. If nothing else, it should be informative and entertaining. And I expect to emerge from it far more aware—if, perhaps, not quite empowered—of the issues and obstacles facing females today. (Don’t worry—I know I won’t turn into a rabid, foaming-at-the-mouth radical male-bashing activist. That’s not my style.)

But maybe I will be a little quicker to notice and then take up arms against potential injustices. Case in point: Just prior to my first WGST class, I asked the other students in Alpha if anyone else was enrolled in the course, since I was rather hoping there would be someone I knew and could chat with. “No,” spat the girl next to me, with obvious contempt and disdain. “I’m not a feminist. I like men.”

Um, OK. I like men too, actually. And I thought I just asked if anyone was taking the class. I didn’t realize that I had proposed to round up all males and force them into slavery, while founding a completely matriarchal lesbian society. Sorry. Next time I’ll be more careful with my words.

I started leafing through the textbooks for the class, and began reading one by Jessica Valenti called Full Frontal Feminism. It’s an incredibly interesting and easy read, and before I realized it I had read about 100 pages. Good stuff and definite food for thought. Then again, I’m still immature enough to find swear words and sexual innuendos quite entertaining, so when I read words like “superfucked” and helpful advice like “Don’t have sex with Republicans,” I giggle. And pay attention, as it turns out. This is gonna be a good class, methinks.

Anyway, I reckon my opinions and beliefs will change drastically by the end of the semester, so if it seems pertinent, I’ll try to blog whenever I’m confronted with new or profound ideas on the subject. And I thought that I’d try to lay out my experience right now, before I’m muddled and influenced by the course.

So, here’s a quick rundown. I can’t honestly say that I’ve ever felt discriminated against or held back because of my gender. Then again, I’ve never exactly tried to enter into any male-dominated field. My mother is a stay-at-home mom, but she's a very intelligent and confident woman who is in no way subservient to men. I am well aware of the double-standard that exists, especially in terms of sexual promiscuity (girl “sluts” versus boy “players”), and I’m somewhat familiar with the inequality associated with the “glass ceiling” and “equal pay for equal work.” Body image and language are two other areas of interest. The problems girls face trying to be “pretty” or “desirable” are no secret (Though I must say, I’ve never felt particularly compelled to follow them. I don’t dress all that fashionably or even wear makeup [more out of laziness than any specific desire to stick it to the man, but still, right?], so perhaps that means it’s not all that pervasive). As for language, it’s certainly an issue, with all sort of nasty words being used to degrade women. Heck, I’m even guilty and a little too fond of words like “whore” and “bitch.” The difference may lie in the fact that I’m always quite conscious of what I’m saying and the subsequent implications, but still, perhaps it would pay to watch my mouth a little.

And….that’s it for now, I think!

Monday, January 19, 2009

Scattered Ramblings and Pretty Ponies

When I first saw Brandy, I was going on 14 and she was going on 4. She didn’t look like much—she had just spent the past 24+ hours in a trailer with another horse without food, water, or rest. She was fairly scrawny and her bones jutted out at odd angles through her scraggly orange coat. Then again, there wasn’t much to that coat at all. At least a tenth of her body was bald, crusted, and dandruffy—the product of bite wounds and a pretty awful louse infestation. You could grab handfuls of hair and pull them out by the clump. Her mane was rubbed off and what was left stuck straight up, while her feet were unshod and overgrown. She had been due to be run through the local horse auction the next day where she would have almost certainly have be sold to slaughter, but just by sheer luck a woman I knew took a peek at her pedigree and bought her with the sly idea to sell her to me and make a quick buck. It worked, and I managed to convince my parents to fork over the $550 to make the mare mine. She was to be a training and resale project—my first attempt at finishing and flipping a greenbroke horse.

I didn’t work out quite as I intended. Brandy initially showed extreme promise in the barrel racing arena, so much so that I decided to make her a permanent “keeper.” Unfortunately for both of us, though, we soon proved to be poor partners. Our personalities clashed, and the youthful inexperience of my training efforts sometimes did as much harm as good. I’m also firmly convinced that Brandy’s history of neglect had done a number on her brain and personality, making her quirky and hateful. Then, too, were her many injuries. Three times in three months she nearly sawed a foot off in barbed wire fencing, though she never took a lame step. She got kicked in the head and fractured her skull. She colicked. She had allergies. She suffered from stone bruises, boils, and mineral deficiencies—a real lemon who cost a fortune in vet bills. But still she was mine, and I was determined to make things work.

And the mare blossomed. She made a complete ugly-duckling-to-swan transformation. Her burnt orange coat soon gleamed a bright brown sorrel, while her thin body put on a couple hundred pounds of fat and hard, knotted muscle. A light came into her dark rolling eyes, and her delicate ears curved inwards in architectural splendor. Her refined face was truly the picture of equine feminine beauty. Maybe I’m biased. But I’m proud.

And she wasn’t a total bust in the training department, either. We’re still working through our issues, and while she’ll likely never be a champion (at least not with me on board, because I’m not willing to give her the whippin’s that some other “trainer” surely would), she’s still a pretty nice little mare. She can run a decent barrel or pole pattern and she trail rides nice enough—and she looks great doing it, too. I’m proud of the work I put into her, both in terms of her health and training, and even though she didn’t turn out perfectly, it’s still not a bad result for a 14-year-old’s first effort.

All this to say: This is why I ride. This is why I give up hours and hours a week feeding and grooming and mucking and riding in sub-freezing weather. It’s about taking the blank slate of a young horse and turning it into fine finished artwork. It’s about putting effort and kindness in and extracting a ripe reward. It’s about bonding with a sentient being—albeit of another species—and forming a friendship and partnership. It’s about the aesthetic beauty of a quality animal, or about exploring the beauty of the natural world atop a horse’s back.

Riding, of course, is not my entire life. It’s not even what I most identify myself with. God forbid I ever consider myself first and foremost a “cowgirl” with all of the associated negatives. I’ll always be a lifelong student, more than anything else.

And I’m not someone who blindly romanticizes the horse, anthropomorphizing it and turning it into a human. It’s still a brute (and I say that in the most loving way possible), but a majestic brute at that. And that’s why I intend to be a large animal veterinarian: to help these creatures live long, healthy, productive lives. That’s not a bad goal, right?

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Prophet

Love gives naught but itself and takes naught but from itself.
Love possesses not nor would it be possessed;
For love is sufficient unto love.

When you love you should not say, “God is in my heart,” but rather, “I am in the heart of God.”
And think not you can direct the course of love, for love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course.

Love has no other desire but to fulfill itself.
But if you love and must needs have desires, let these be your desires:
To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night.
To know the pain of too much tenderness.
To be wounded by your own understanding of love;
And to bleed willingly and joyfully.
To wake at dawn with a winged heart and give thanks for another day of loving;
To rest at the noon hour and meditate love’s ecstasy;
To return home at eventide with gratitude;
And then to sleep with a prayer for the beloved in your heart and a song of praise upon your lips.

--Kahlil Gibran

Halfway through the summer, I received a "graduation" gift from my ever-so-slightly mentally-imbalanced grandmother. Now, of course it's the thought that counts, but all the same I didn't have particularly high hopes when I began unwrapping the packaging. Past gifts from dear ol' Grandma have included a very large and very heavy etiquette book, a 25-year-old ratty jewelry box (which, as it turned out, had once been a present she received from my parents), and Victoria's Secret candy and toiletry items--which wouldn't have been so bad if I hadn't been eight years old at the time. Oh well.

This time, however, was different. Inside the box was a small, humble, yellow book written by a certain Kahlil Gibran and titled The Prophet. There was a picture of my father as a young toddler tacked inside the front cover, and underneath was a description of the photograph and the inscription: Timeless words by a very knowledgable [sic] prophet. May your journey through life bring many adventures, joys, accomplishments.

I read the book. I don't know what style to call it, but I suppose it could be categorized as prose poetry. The work is incredibly short, but it must be read slowly. One must pause between verses and again after each stanza to appreciate or even to understand the message. And, like a cow and her cud, the words must be revisited, rechewed, and reprocessed in order to be assimilated into something meaningful. The book is both true and beautiful.

I found an online version while researching some of Gibran's artwork for this post. If you've got the time and want to be inspired, I strongly recommend looking through it. My favorite chapters are those on Love, Joy and Sorrow, Reason and Passion, Teaching, Friendship, and Prayer. Really, though, the entire work is outstanding and breathtakingly profound. Read it. Live it.

Then said a teacher, Speak to us of Teaching.
And he said:
No man can reveal to you aught but which already lies half asleep in the dawning of your knowledge.
The teacher who walks in the shadow of the temple, among his followers, gives not of his wisdom but rather of his faith and his lovingness.
If he is indeed wise he does not bid you enter the house of his wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind.
The astronomer may speak to you of his understanding of space, but he cannot give you his understanding.
The musician may sing to you of the rhythm which is in all space, but he cannot give you the ear which arrests the rhythm nor the voice that echoes it.
And he who is versed in the science of numbers can tell of the regions of weight and measure, but he cannot conduct you thither.
For the vision of one man lends not its wings to another man.
And even as each one of you stands alone in God’s knowledge, so must each one of you be alone in his knowledge of God and in his understanding of the earth.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

What's up there, Doc?

Meet Chi-Chi.

Chi-Chi is a four-year-old dachshund given to us several years ago by owners who no longer wanted her. Like many small dogs, she has issues with her hind legs. It’s called a luxating patella, and it’s caused by a too-shallow groove in the femur in which the kneecap rests. As a result of this conformation flaw, the joint and ligament slide out of place, sometimes locking or causing pain. If left uncorrected, the condition can worsen and cause permanent lameness.

Yesterday Chi-Chi had surgery to correct this problem. I was excited to see the procedure, because I’m interested in any sort of hands-on work related to veterinary medicine. I have seen a few surgeries in the past: a dozen or so dog and cat spays, a neuter, canine eye surgery, lots of dental work on various animals, a stillborn calf C-section, and hernia repair on a young filly, as well as dozens of smaller procedures. None of this has ever bothered me a bit—I’ve just found it all quite interesting. I didn’t think this would be any different.

And it started out fine. Doc talked me through what he was about to do, then started making the incisions through layers of skin, flesh, muscle, and synovial tissue. He exposed whiteness of bone and showed me just how utterly shallow the femur’s groove was—worse than a typical case, even. I bent over the operating table, asked questions, and was quite thrilled about the whole learning experience.

Then he pulled out the bone saw. By bone saw, I mean a two-dollar, five-inch long serrated blade from the hardware store. That’s exactly what it was, as Doc explained to me, and that’s what veterinary textbooks recommend. He then proceeded to take said extra-sharp dinner knife, place it against the femur, and start sawin’ away. The problem here was although the blade was five inches long, the actual incision was only three inches long, so there was a fair amount of overlap. This meant that as he scraped back and forth, metal against bone, either end of the saw grated against and ripped into muscle and skin. Ugh. The serrated edge was doing a number on what had been a clean scalpel cut. I hadn’t counted on it being so….messy.

Still, although MY leg started hurting out of sympathy, I was quite cool with the whole deal. I watched as he removed a good-sized chunk of bone, wrapped it in gauze, and set it aside to save for its cartilage. Fascinating. He then continued making the groove deeper, removing another piece and discarding it. As he went in for round three (back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, grate, grind, splatter) I think I allowed the rhythmic motion to hypnotize me. My mind wandered. I stared at the bloody opening, which only a minute before had seemed like an interesting science experiment. It came over me instantly. Suddenly I felt extremely ill. I couldn’t breathe. “I’m going to step outside for a moment,” I said, always one to explain myself calmly, even in moments of crisis. “That’s OK,” said Doc, and then, “Uh-oh,” and then, “Bend your knees and go straight down!” and then “Crack!”

Only that last crack, apparently, was me hitting the floor. I looked up sheepishly, immediately recovered save for my extreme embarrassment. I still felt a little queasy (probably due to my rapid descent to the floor), but as I wiped the cold sweat from my face and pulled myself up on my elbows, all I could think about was how much I would give to switch places with the dog, if just to rescue myself from my shame. How utterly humiliating.

Doc is a third generation vet, and his dad was there, too. Both of them were very nice about the whole ordeal, and they assured me that fainting is an extremely common occurrence, even among big brawny men and students already in vet school. It has to do with the unfamiliar smells, the confined quarters, the overheated operating room, and the sight of gore, they assured me. I looked it up myself, because I was curious what would cause me to lose all control like that.

I didn’t know what search terms to use, so my findings may or may not be correct. It appears as though the vagus nerve (which connects the brain to the digestive system) gets overexcited and pulls too much blood down too rapidly. This is a response to some sort of stressful stimulus, which can vary greatly and often does include the sight of blood or surgical procedures. Other things I have read suggest that this is a self-preservation mechanism—the brain purposefully shuts down in order to bring the body to a horizontal position, thereby allowing blood to reenter its cells and consciousness to be regained. Makes sense, I guess, though I wonder how this is tied into adrenaline and the fight-or-flight response. How is fainting in a time of crisis a remotely useful adaptation to survival?

The issue now is that it’s not exactly a mind-over-matter sort of thing. Even keeping a cool, clear composure won’t necessarily prevent a recurrence, I’m afraid. So it looks like I’m just going to have to keep working on desensitizing my body….and it’s quite possible I’ll end up embarrassing myself a few more times before I can handle situations like this. I actually ended up talking to another vet yesterday. This is a woman who has been through vet school and has had her own practice for years. She told me that even she can’t watch orthopedic surgery without passing out or at least feeling queasy. Odd. So at least I’m not alone, I guess, although it doesn’t make me feel all that better. Damn, it sure sucks to have the mind betrayed by involuntary instinct.

I did return to the operating room once I felt completely sober again. Doc was just beginning to put the first of four layers of sutures in. “I finished deepening the groove and replaced the cartilage on top. I got really aggressive with it while you were gone.” Don’t tell me that. “Here, I don’t really want to take out this stitch, but let me pull this tissue out of the way and I’ll show you what I did.” That’s OK, thanks, I’ll take your word for it. The rest of the surgery continued without incident, and both veterinarians repeatedly told me not to worry about it, that they’d seen it happen countless times in their careers, that it didn’t mean a thing about my future suitability as an animal doctor, etc. I know they’re right, and I’m most certainly not having second thoughts about my career choice.

But still. I just laughed the whole thing off, because if you can’t laugh at yourself, who can you laugh at?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Who Cooks for You?

Saturday night I went out with some old friends from high school to hang out and catch up a little before they headed back to college. We intended to go bowling, but we ended up shooting pool and dining at Steak ‘n’ Shake. It was nice to see them and hear what everyone’s been up to—all the various majors that we’re branching into and our diverse college experiences. It was also nice to see that even though we hadn’t talked in many months, we still had enough in common that we could talk and joke and have a good time. We haven’t drifted that far apart…yet.

Anyway, it was an enjoyable evening, and I didn’t start home until it was fairly late. I didn’t notice anything too spectacular until I exited the highway and drove off down the winding country roads through my town. Everything was unbelievably clear, as though illuminated by streetlights, even though there were none. I didn’t even need my brights to safely navigate the bends. I figured it had to be the full moon making things so brilliant, but no matter how I craned my neck, I couldn’t catch a glimpse of that celestial body. Finally, a quarter hour before midnight, I decided that I couldn’t take it anymore, so I pulled off onto a side road near a bridge over a creek (the same place I saw the heron and ducks several weeks ago). I turned off my car and stepped outside into the bitter night air—and it was bitterly cold indeed. My wool jacket didn’t do a thing to protect me from the elements, and my jeans had never felt so woefully thin.

Never mind that, though. God, it was beautiful. The sky was deep, dark blue, the color of spilt ink. The naked black tree trunks reached up, and the round, snowy white moon peeked out from between their branches. I looked around. I felt odd, out here all by myself, on a deserted country road, a mile from the nearest house, by a whispering creek, at midnight. But I didn’t feel a bit unsafe, either, because I could see and hear everything. Indeed, it was so bright that I could even make out some traces of color, despite the lack of any form of artificial luminescence. My shadow on the road was perfectly clear and defined, and contrasted darkly with the asphalt. The only noises were the clicks and protests of my car behind me, the gurgling of the creek (I could hear, but not see, the moving water), the lowing of Farmer Such-and-Such’s cattle, and—Who cooks for you?—a barred owl.

I recognized the call, but not the name of the bird, so I had to look it up. Along the way, I stumbled across this poem by a certain Richard Wilbur:

The warping night air having brought the boom
Of an owl’s voice into her darkened room,
We tell the wakened child that all she heard
Was an odd question from a forest bird,
Asking us, if rightly listened to,
“Who cooks for you?” and then “Who cooks for you?”

Words, which can make our terrors bravely clear,
Can also thus domesticate a fear,
And send a small child back to sleep at night
Not listening for the sound of stealthy flight
Or dreaming of some small thing in a claw
Borne up to some dark branch and eaten raw.

I kinda like it—it’s rather interesting. Owls are fascinating, too, though I don’t know much about them. All we’ve got out here are great horned owls and barred owls, like I heard last night. Both of their calls are paradoxically haunting and comical. In the summer I’d sometimes step out on the deck to catch the last frenzied notes of a great horned owl’s who-who-whoing as he crescendo’ed and accelerando’ed to his final point.

[Side note: Another one of my Christmas presents was a book called Wesley the Owl, which I read and enjoyed. Don’t go out and buy it—wait ‘til it comes out in paperback, or get it at the library, or just take my word for it. It was a decent book, but nothing spectacular as far as Touching Animal Stories go. While it’s not particularly well-written, the story itself (about a woman who adopts and raises a barn owl for 19 years) is fascinating and sheds light on all sorts of animal-related issues. Birds (and really all critters) are a lot more intelligent and emotionally-developed than we give them credit for. The author claims that Wesley could even understand many English phrases (including the concept of two hours time!), and I don’t think she’s making it up.]

Well, anyway, I digress. It was pretty last night, that’s all. I walked over the bridge and separated the various night noises until the cold drove me back to my car and I finished the drive home. As I drove back, though, the thought that’s been nagging me these past few months drifted back to the forefront of my mind. I’m changing. I’m not the person I was five years ago, or last year, or even six months ago, really. Never in the past would I have dropped everything to stand out in 20 degree weather and gaze, wide-eyed, at a Natural Wonder. I’ve got places to be, y’know? I’ve to take a shower and then sit by the fire, I've got to read my book, I've got to watch The Office or The Soup, I've got to check my email to see if anyone wants to buy one of my saddles, and I’ve got to hang out on Facebook and all that really important stuff.

Something has possessed me, it’s true, and I don’t know what it is or where it’s coming from, but I’m glad it’s got a hold on me. The night I lay on my back out in the pasture and stared at the stars until I convinced myself that they were all moving, slowing, almost imperceptibly, but moving all the same—that’s something the old me would never have done. I never would have stopped to stare at a sunset until the sky turned peachy-gray, or pulled my car off on a bridge to listen to an owl. But now that I’m partaking in these experiences, it’s as though I’ve gotten a new life perspective. Well, maybe not something quite so profound, but it’s a step in the right direction, nonetheless. Maybe by pausing to appreciate something so simple yet so elegant I’ll somehow find a way to access the divine. I’m not a religious person at all, and I’m only halfway-spiritual, but I want to find an acceptable way to live my life, and maybe the first thing I’ve got to do is look around for some examples of goodness and simplicity. Maybe. But I truly don’t know. I'll just take it as it comes and try to learn from it if I can.

The moon was so bright that as I sat and typed at my laptop in the upstairs room, the borrowed glow burst through the skylight and painted a rectangle on the carpet beneath my desk.

That is all.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

A Fleeting Moment

The sun was sinking, fat, slow, and red—engorged with blood and swollen as a tick. It disappeared into the gray sky behind the gray hills on the gray horizon. Later, the moon came out, perfectly round and bright, with wispy purple clouds passing in front of it in a haze. All so beautiful, and I stayed outside to appreciate it for as long as I could stand the cold. I wish I could have taken a picture, but it wouldn’t have turned out, and even if it had, it wouldn’t have done the reality justice. I wish I could paint well enough to portray the majesty of the moment, but I can’t. And I wish I could remember scenes like that forever, but as soon as I turn away, I forget. Nothing lasts. Impermanence, ironically, perseveres.

But living in the moment may be what it’s all about. You really can’t take it with you, and that’s what makes the moment so valuable. Enjoy it while you can. Savor it.

The color-patches of vision part, shift, and reform as I move through space in time. The present is the object of vision, and what I see before me at any given second is a full field of color-patches scattered just so. The configuration will never be repeated. Living is moving; time is a live creek bearing changing lights. As I move, or as the world moves around me, the fullness of what I see shatters. The second of shattering is an augenblick, a particular configuration, a slant of light shot in the open eye. Goethe's Faust risks all if he should cry to the moment, the augenblick, "Verweile doch!" "Last forever!" Who hasn't prayed that prayer? But the augenblick isn't going to verweile. You were lucky to get it in the first place. The present is a freely given canvas. That it is constantly being ripped apart and washed downstream goes without saying; it is a canvas, nevertheless.
--Annie Dillard

Sometimes I’m overcome by something so beautiful it takes my breath away. It doesn’t happen all that often, but when it does, I think I know what the Romantics were talking about. Is that it? Am I, like a handful of others in my generation, a hopeless romantic?

I hear that phrase tossed around a lot. “Hopeless romantic.” Seems that’s what everyone claims to be these days; it’s an epidemic, and I’ve been guilty of it myself in the past. But I’m not a hopeless romantic. On the contrary—I’m a hopeful romantic.

Or, rather, I’d like to be. Pessimism is tiring and unfulfilling. I wish I could look toward the future and say, “Ya know, there’s something out there for me. Infinite possibilities. I’m gonna live and love and make my way and do great things.”

Well, I’m working on having a mindset like that, just like I’m working on becoming a good person. It’s a long road, and I’ve just started on the journey. That’s all right. I’m sure I’ll get there eventually. We all do. We've got to.

And so for the time being, I’ll tip my hat to the transient present and raise my glass to the promise of the future.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

All Ye Know on Earth

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean'd my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripen'd grain;
When I behold, upon the night's starr'd face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love;--then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.

--John Keats

John Keats (or Key-otts, if a certain someone is still reading this blog) is one of my favorite poets—maybe even my all-time favorite. His writing is extraordinary, and his life was nothing short of romantically tragic. His parents and several siblings died when he was fairly young. Critics wrote scathingly cruel reviews of work. He had a rather unhappy love affair with a certain Fanny Brawne. And Keats himself died at the age of 25 after a horrible and painful battle with tuberculosis.

Keats knew he was dying, and his poetry reflects his hopeless-yet-idealized vision of life. It’s very melodramatic, but I reckon I’d be pretty melodramatic, too, if I were in his shoes.

So. I don’t really care to expound upon the poet’s bibliography or greatest works (although please allow me to recommend Ode to a Nightingale, To Sleep, and To Autumn). Instead, I’d like to discuss the curious closing lines of the Ode on a Grecian Urn.

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty”—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

All right. And what exactly does that mean? “Beauty is truth.” So, that which is beautiful is true? What is beauty? I’ve been thinking about the concept of beauty quite a bit lately. (I’d really rather not tackle the definition of “truth” right now. I think I’ll save that for a day when I’m a little braver and a little more motivated.)

I think that, in some ways, we have to be taught an appreciation for the aesthetic. We aren’t born, for example, loving the fine arts. We have to take Humanities classes in order to “get” it. So maybe that sort of beauty (of paintings and pottery) is artificial and also extremely subjective.

Next, there’s a sort of cultural appreciation and definition of beauty. Different groups of people place varying emphases and values on different things. There seems to be a cultural identity and tie that allows people to evaluate what is beautiful.

One thing that almost all peoples seem to have in common, however, is an appreciation for natural beauty. It’s almost as though that’s a sense that’s inborn. Perhaps I’m just naïve, but I personally can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t be awestruck by a truly breathtaking sunset, or who wouldn’t be blown away by a visit to the Garden of the Gods in Colorado (which, I maintain, is the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen).

Then, too, there is a sort of indefinable, transcendental, metaphysical beauty. I can’t express it in words, and I really don’t even have a clue what it is, but it seems to be something that reaches beyond physical senses. This is the beauty of peace and love and the divine.

“The answer must be,” writes Annie Dillard, “that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.”

Can we live without beauty? We can exist, certainly, and survive in beauty’s absence. But can we truly live? I don’t know the answer, but I think that part of being a free human being is the ability to love, create, and appreciate beauty in all of its many forms. I think it makes life more enjoyable and valuable.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009


“You haven’t a real appreciation of Newspeak….In your heart you’d prefer to stick to Oldspeak, with all its vagueness and its useless shades of meaning. You don’t grasp the beauty of the destruction of words. Do you know that Newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year?

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly
one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten….Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller. Even now, of course, there’s no reason for committing thoughtcrime. It’s merely a question of self-discipline, reality-control….

“By 2050—earlier, probably—all real knowledge of Oldspeak will have disappeared. The whole literature of the past will have been destroyed. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron—they’ll exist only in Newspeak versions, not merely changed into something different, but actually changed into something contradictory of what they used to be. Even the literature of the Party will change. Even the slogans will change. How could you have a slogan like ‘freedom is slavery’ when the concept of freedom has been abolished? The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will
be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking—not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.”

--George Orwell

I had wanted to read 1984 for a long time, and I was pretty excited when I received it for a Christmas present this year (yep, that’s how gift-giving goes at my house). I got really involved in the story and finished it in just a few days. Of course, there are all sorts of very relevant social, political, and philosophical issues brought up in this book. It’s a frightening cautionary tale, and I think we should all listen to its warning. I don’t think that society could ever quite sink to the depths that Orwell describes (surely some sort of human decency would prevail in the end), but in this age of global conflict and thermonuclear weapons, we really can’t be too careful.

That’s not really what I want to get into, though, and the last thing I want to write is a literary analysis of the text. Instead, I thought I’d post the above passage. When I was reading it, I literally had to stop several times to regain composure. It affected me profoundly. It disgusted me.

I love language. Now, I’m no linguist. I used to speak a fair amount of Latin, but not anymore. I took four years of Spanish in high school and was quite good at it, but I can already feel my ability to understand it slipping away. Use it or lose it, I’m afraid, and I’m not using it. What a waste.

Still, I love the inherent musicality of most languages. I enjoy the subtleties of expression that come from manipulating words and reforming them into nothing short of art. I love to read (obviously—else I never would have encountered 1984 in the first place!) and I like to write, too, even though I’m not particularly good at it. Sure, I can spew out a decent blog post, and I’m a first-rate bullshit-er when it comes to writing term papers, but creative writing isn’t exactly my forte. I lack both talent and attention span. My attempts at “books” and plays early in childhood were utter disasters, and my poetry wasn’t much better, so I gave it up as a lost cause. However, being an author is something that I would like to do if only I were capable.

I guess what I’m really trying to say, personal anecdotes and rambling aside, is that there is something exquisitely beautiful and powerful about language. It is the main mode of communication of ideas. It is an art form. It is, to quote the Theory of Knowledge diagram, one of the four Ways of Knowing, alongside emotion, reason, and sensory perception. So when I was reading about the destruction of Oldspeak (modern English) in favor of Newspeak (a horribly clipped, staccato, simplified dialect) I was appalled. I was even physically affected, curling up into a ball as I read.

To me, human decency and goodness are intertwined with creativity and beauty. Language is one of the main catalysts of said creativity and beauty. Additionally, as the passage clearly states, without language creative thought is “literally impossible, because there [are] no words in which to express it.” A loss of language means a loss in the “range of consciousness” and by extension a loss of individuality. The horror, the horror! I found this annihilation of words to be just as tragic and atrocious as the acts of beating and brainwashing that occurred elsewhere in the novel.

Let’s just hope that Orwell’s dire predictions never come true. May uniqueness, creativity, and language prevail.

(As a friendly warning from me to you, I really don’t recommend reading 1984 late at night just before falling asleep unless you want to have some pretty disturbing nightmares. I woke up at three in the morning quite convinced that there was a telescreen in my room and the Thought Police were coming to arrest me.)

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Somewhere Over the Rainbow

Here's a beautiful version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World." I heard it on the radio and couldn't wait to look it up on Youtube. Such a shame that the artist passed away at a rather young age.

I think every so often we need to kick back and listen to a song like this. It's a hopeful little ditty. Now, being of a rather cynical mind, I'm not really sure that I believe a place exists where "dreams really do come true." Still, it's a nice thought. If times are hard right now, they will get better. The future promises hope. And regardless of how good or bad things are right now, we should take the time to be grateful for the things that we do have. We need to appreciate the beauty that surrounds us. What a wonderful world, indeed.

Be thankful. Live fully. Enjoy it.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Indecisive, Noncommittal, and Uneducated

That’s me, apparently. Or at least that’s how one of those online political affiliation tests described me.

Sure, I’ve got my few Hot Issues in which I have a big stake and a strong, unchanging, vehemently-defended opinion. But for the most part, I’m a “roll wit’ it” kind of person. I don’t have a favorite color. And if you ask me about my favorite food or book or movie, I’ll be hard-pressed to come up with a satisfactory answer. And it took me a very long time to make up my mind when voting in the presidential election. I’m a moderate, I guess. Well, the test called me a “conservative liberal,” which I read as being a half bubble off plumb (to quote a T-shirt I once saw) and swinging just a hair to the left.

And what, pray tell, does that mean? I’ve been told I’m apathetic. I’ve been told that “moderate” is just a fancy word for “indecisive, noncommittal, and uneducated.” Really? So it’s better to have pre-formed, hard-set opinions, even when entering unfamiliar territory? So being open to new ideas and allowing influence (within reason) makes one apathetic and uneducated? I’m not buying it.

Too often I see people clinging to a certain ideology or belief with a rabid determination. When questioned, they become fiercely defensive. Probing deeper only serves to make them angrier. They think they have “reasons” for their beliefs, but it often turns out that they can simply reproduce political slogans and half-truth attacks against opponents. There’s no substance to their arguments, but they fail to realize this miserable fact and refuse to back down.

[Case study: Right now it’s pretty popular among the younger generation to be liberal. Democrats are the shizzle, dog. Everyone’s got to jump on the bandwagon for some Bush-bashing. Now, there may very well be legitimate reasons for doing so—I’m not going into that. And there are many informed, educated people who have examined and weighed the options and deemed this the best course of action. But there are just as many impressionable idiots who decided that since this was the cool thing to do, they’d join in as well. I’ve been guilty of this. In the 2004 election, I stuck by my parents’ sides and joined a minority of students who deemed themselves conservatives and the preservers of American democracy and values. The two groups got pretty pissy with each other. And, truth be told, there were only one or two kids in the class who had any clue why they supported what they did. The rest of us were just making false appeals to authority or popularity (thanks, Ess). In retrospect, it was all sadly humorous.]

So….I’ve gotten pretty sidetracked here. I think there were two points I wanted to make:

1. It’s really not a sin to be a moderate. I think there’s something to be said for entering every new situation with an open mind. Listen to the support for both sides, and then (and only then) make an educated decision. There’s no shame in lacking a well-defined allegiance to one side or another. Carefully weigh the evidence every time, and maybe you’ll end up making the better choice without the pressure to fulfill any outside obligations.

2. On the other hand, there is something to be said for being decisive and having strong beliefs. You need to have something to stand for. At times I think (as I’ve said before) that I’m a little too impressionable and open to outside opinion. Maybe I need to pick a few trusted mentors and listen to them and my own gut instinct, rather than trying to synthesize all of the information that’s thrown my way, legitimate or not.

Of course, that’s not going to make me say for certain whether I prefer turquoise or red or purple….

Friday, January 2, 2009

Pilgrim at Pomme de Terre River

Once, years ago, I saw red blood cells whip, one by one, through the capillaries in a goldfish's transparent tail. The goldfish was etherized. Its head lay in a wad of wet cotton wool; its tail lay on a tray under a dissecting microscope, one of those wonderful light-gathering microscopes with two eyepieces like a stereoscope in which the world's fragments--even the skin on my finger--look brilliant with myriads of colored lights, and as deep as any alpine landscape. The red blood cells in the goldfish's tail streamed and coursed through narrow channels invisible save for glistening threads of thickness in the general translucency. They never wavered or slowed or ceased flowing, like the creek itself; they streamed redly around, up, and on, one by one, more, and more, without end....Those red blood cells are coursing in Ellery's tail now, too, in just that way, and through his mouth and eyes as well, and through mine. I've never forgotten the sight of those cells; I think of it when I see the fish in his bowl; I think of it lying in bed at night, imagining that if I concentrate enough I might be able to feel in my fingers' capillaries the small knockings and flow of those circular dots, like a string of beads drawn through my hand.

--Annie Dillard
A good friend recently lent me a book by Annie Dillard called Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. It’s an excellent read, full of contemplations about life, biology, nature, existence, spirituality, and religion. It’s pretty heavy stuff, too: I couldn’t read more than a chapter at the time without pausing to rest, absorb, and contemplate. I understood most of the surface stuff, but I’m sure it will take another reading (or more!) to fully appreciate and comprehend the complexities of Dillard’s writing.

Her observations are profound. Her language is eloquent. I’m in awe of the beauty of her writing. Reading the book, I was getting the vibe of a younger woman who has spent a fair amount of time in isolation. Looking up Dillard’s biography, I learned that this was exactly the case. She was only 28 when Pilgrim was published. I was humbled.

Oddly enough, before I had even heard of the book I had written a blog post describing my fascination with moss sporophytes. At the time I couldn’t stop marveling at the intricacy and efficiency of such structures. Topics such as these are exactly what Dillard writes about. I noticed the similarity immediately, and quite frankly was a bit embarrassed. I felt like a cheap impersonator—I knew that my words could never match hers. I’m a decent writer and a deep thinker (sometimes), but I can’t hope to compare to someone so great.

But then again, why should I? I’ll do my owning thinking, I decided, and I’ll write what I know, because what else can I do? I continued with the descriptions of the world around not in imitation, but because those are the things on my mind right now. Let me search on my own. It’s not a competition. I’ll find my own voice and my own path and I’ll make my own discoveries.

See, Dillard and I have quite a bit in common, both in the way we were raised and in the ways we choose to look at the world. She had her Tinker Creek, and I have my Pomme de Terre River. I felt a deep connection and personal involvement with the book, almost as though it were written exclusively for my eyes. I was able to pick up on certain details and nuances that most people would miss—not because I’m so excellent, but because I’ve had a lot of the same background as the author. How many other people have seen the red blood cells flowing in the capillaries of a goldfish’s tail, or watched the movement of chloroplasts in an elodea leaf cell? I could even relate to the long descriptions of plant root hairs, mychorrizal fungi, and the long lists of fruit types (achene, samara, drupe…). Had I not taken that Botany class this past semester or been exposed to Anatomy and Physiology in high school, I would have missed all of those experiences and missed the true appreciation of Dillard’s musings.

[Side note: So what else do I miss? Experience is key, and if we can’t relate something new to something we already know, I’m sure we miss out on comprehension, appreciation, and knowledge. That’s a real shame. We should all work harder to expose ourselves to more and more things so we can learn and grow. Is it too late to make a New Year’s resolution?]

So let me go out and observe. Seek and ye shall find. Knock and the door shall be opened. I’ve got lots of exploring and lots of living to do.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

El Año Nuevo

A new year. Funny, I don’t feel any different. And nothing has changed.

When the clock struck twelve last night, I was sitting in an armchair in my living room, watching reruns of The Office with my mom. Shortly thereafter, she went to bed and I pulled out my laptop. There was nothing entertaining to do online, so at 1:30 in the morning on January 1, 2009, I stepped outside into the cold night air wearing pajamas and rubber muckers. I ran to the back of the 30 acre property and stopped at the tree line. There were no lights anywhere around except for the far off pinpoints of individual houses several miles off. The sky was clear and full of brilliant stars, just the way it had been on Christmas Eve. The tall narrow trees reached up blackly, in vivid contrast with the deep dark midnight blue of the heavens.

I don’t know what the windchill was last night, but I’m sure it was in the teens. Every time a breeze blew by it cut right through my shirt, but I was still surprisingly comfortable. It must have been an adrenaline rush, I guess. My God, it was simply beautiful outside.

….I want to climb up the blank blue dome as a man would storm the inside of a circus tent, wildly, dangling, and with a steel knife claw a rent in the top, peep, and, if I must, fall.

--Annie Dillard

My sentiments exactly, and such beautiful language. The branches of the trees reached up, up, up, straining stiffly, begging to touch the “blue dome.” I felt the same way. It was late, and I was half-crazed with exhaustion and cold. I stared up and raised my hands as high as I could, watching the tiny stars flicker between my fingers. I had to get higher. I looked about for a tree to climb. The big hickory wouldn’t do—there were no low branches to grab onto. No, it would have to be the skinny persimmon with the forked trunk. I latched on and pulled myself up, scrabbling awkwardly against the rough bark. It was not graceful, but I managed to ease myself into a comfortable standing position some eight feet off the ground. I looked around and laughed with wonder. This is how I would spend the first morning of the new year: greeting the stars and welcoming whatever was heading my way.

Soon I noticed that my hands were beginning their terrible deterioration into uselessness. The touch of the bark was exceedingly painful, like the prick of a needle. I needed to get down before I lost my grip completely, but this proved to be more difficult than I had counted on. I hung from a limb like a child on the monkey bars, but I wouldn’t let go because I couldn’t see how far down the ground was. Finally, I managed to swing my legs back onto the truck and shimmy to safety.

The cold was getting to me now. My face burned. I ran back inside (a mistake, as it turned out, because the temperature was incredibly low and I’m not exactly in the best shape, so I ended up making myself rather queasy) and jumped into bed. That was enough of that nonsense.

Last night, too, I took off my CHS class ring and replaced it with another—a tricolored, gold specimen that my parents gave me several years ago. It was time to get remove that symbol of the past and instead look to the future. I’ve got to let go. I’ve got to move on. I’ve got to grow up.

So, here’s to what’s to come! Here’s to opportunity! Here’s to good fortune and fellowship and love and life. Let’s make it all worthwhile, shall we?