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1/13/19: Miracles Do Happen - Part 4 

Bryn loved to sniff my riding pants, captured by horse smell. She had no clue what sort of creature had created it, though, so, one day I took her into the horse barn, aiming straight for the first bench just inside, out of the way of everything, but offering a fine view of the heart of the big stable. 
I got her attention, then issued the command, “Sit, and stay.” 
Plop. Down she went. I followed. We took in the view. 
Her eyes widened. Her mouth formed an O. A tall black horse, led by a stable hand, clip-clopped around the long aisle’s corner and headed straight toward us. My thunderstruck dog gave me The Look. 
Boss, What! Is! That?? 
The curious mare caught her eye as she passed; Bryn glanced back at me: Is it ‘run for your life’ time? 
 I grinned. 
“Horse, Bryn. That’s a horse. You must stay, and just look.” 
Look she did. My dumbstruck doggie mimicked a statue. Only her eyes and twitching nose worked to make sense of these scents. 30 minutes passed. Not a muscle moved. There was so much to comprehend! Just ten feet away someone was brushing a beautiful chestnut mare, who seemed to enjoy the attention. Two women wandered by, chatting. A few horses poked their heads out of stalls to whinny back and forth. And Louie, the stable cat, ambled over to her bowl ten feet away to delicately eat her dinner. A CAT! Bryn’s long ears perked: she glanced up at me, amazed, but uncertain. 
“It’s fine. This cat is having his dinner and the horses are chatting.” 
Bryn licked her black lips and resumed her statue stance. The O softened as she continued to process this weird, wonderful place. Louie ignored her. Later, though, he pretended to stalk Bryn, creeping in exaggerated slow motion on little cat feet to the underside of our bench, there to crouch and glare. Only the tip of his tail twitched. Bryn stared down at him, saw me shake my head, and so dismissed Sir Cat. Giants were so much more interesting! 
After an hour’s exposure, we reluctantly left. I drove straight to the dog park, only a quarter-mile away, knowing she’d run around like a wild thing, dumping energy. Horses were _______!  She simply didn’t know what, or how, to think about them. Bryn was full to bursting with awe and intrigue. There were Big, Friendly GIANTS in there-Wow!  
I was still mulling over WHY I could finally be around horses. What had changed in my life? Joe dismissed that I might have ‘aged’ out of it and instead, reminded me of a profound switch I’d made over three years ago, regarding food intake. 
I’d been physically uncomfortable my whole life on the standard American diet. No one had had a clue why. 
I couldn’t shed and keep off weight. Or, if I managed to for a while, I felt awful, not to mention desperately hungry, which would happen suddenly. So, I’d eat to relieve the deep need and avoid the shakes. 
One day in September of 2015 I happened upon a book that would change my life:  The Paleo Approach: Reverse Autoimmune Disease and Heal Your Body, by Sarah Ballantyne, Ph.D. 
An autoimmune disease means, in a nutshell, that a body has learned to attack itself. Once it knows how, the behavior can never be unlearned. The author related the shocking rise of MS, Psoriasis, type 2 Diabetes, Migraines, etc., and showed, backed by careful but still suggestive scientific research, how eliminating sugar, wheat flour and other suspected food culprits, may reverse these diseases’ devastating effects- for the rest of one’s life. 
Deeply intrigued, I read the whole huge, beautifully laid out book- twice. Joe assured me the science was very intriguing. 
It was hard to put down. 
In September of 2015, I took the plunge. Most of the food in our home was permanently eliminated. Including anything containing sugar- sauces, jams and jellies, condiments- and all bread, crackers, etc., made from wheat-based flour.  Very little in a bag or box survived. What I did save would be for Joe. 
Two weeks into my New Approach I woke one bright morning a changed woman. After over 70 years there was No ‘normal’ abdominal discomfort. Its absence was shocking. 
I could go on and on about what I don’t experience anymore. 
This qualifies as another Miracle. 
Furthermore, my dry, flaky skin (a supposedly normal annoyance of aging) had slowly changed, one cell at a time, into soft and silky. This metamorphosis took just under two years. I glory in it every day. 
The Paleo Approach author interviewed people young and old who’d battled a more severe form of dry skin, Psoriasis, all their lives. They are now symptom-free. 
A twenty-something MS victim abandoned her wheelchair and now leads a reasonable, normal life. 
Migraine sufferers find themselves free of that curse. 
The list of diseases that respond to the Approach’s benefits goes on and on. Impressed, physicians and researchers are looking closely at the possibility of connections between certain foods and Autism. 
When one commits to this new approach, autoimmune disease is quiescent –IF- one remains committed to shunning foods humans are not designed to ingest, especially in such massive quantities. Every time someone gets cocky, or careless, his or her particular misery re-appears. With a vengeance. 
Here’s another reward!  Over 20 pounds of unwanted weight that I’d carried around for much of my life FELL off. I hadn’t aimed for this benefit; I’d long since given up that fight. But now my clothes were loose. Nine pounds vanished in the first two weeks. Over perhaps 20 months, my body gradually, gently eliminated a lifetime’s accumulation of sugar and wheat-based foods- that were poison to me. (And, by the way, throughout my life I routinely never over-indulged in sugar-packed food and drink.) 
My body weight stabilized, leveling off at just over 100 pounds, I felt- and feel- brand new. I don’t own a scale. My body knew what weight was right for my frame. It hasn’t varied. 
After one year on The Paleo Approach, I conducted an experiment. I ate a small cookie that contained the normal amount of sugar. PAIN! Cramps! Life in the bathroom for days! 
Ingesting sugar affects me much like heroin withdrawal affects addicts. 
I will never conduct another test. This one hurled me back into that other miserable life. My new body chemistry simply won’t tolerate it. 
My daughters confirm this. Off sugar and flour etc. for longer than I, they, too, feel renewed. My younger daughter Lisa warned me that if I began this regimen I could never go back, and she was right. 
I never will. 
What evidence do I have that this new eating approach is why I’m allergy-free? 
Just before exposure to Ballantyne’s book Joe and I went to the huge, month-long horse show held every mid-summer just outside Traverse City. I hadn’t once dared to attend it over the years, but maybe, just maybe, I might be able to peek at some champion jumpers from a distance... 
Almost immediately, I was attacked. The very air I breathed, full of microscopic bits of hay and horse skin cells, produced a swelling throat, itchy eyes and wheals that began to rise ominously on my face and neck. Though I’d worn a mask and had been extremely careful to remain well away from the many gorgeous horses milling around, I was, apparently, still too close. 
We left immediately. 
That afternoon marked the death of the faint hope that I might have outgrown the autoimmune response. 
Ah, well... 
I shrugged off my acute disappointment and moved on. 
Shortly thereafter, the Book popped into view. Two years later, Horses appeared on the horizon. You know the rest. 
Horses and I are consistently together, and the joy I take from that fact is indescribable. 
Put succinctly, Ballantyne’s meticulous research and review of the literature provides very suggestive evidence that eliminating sugar and wheat flour, as well as other ‘trigger’ foods I won’t list here, will pay off big time. 
 ‘You Are What You Eat’ is truer than we know. Ingesting foods my body recognizes as ‘designer’ fuel means my one and only machine will serve me very much better for the rest of my life. 
**Next week: Bryn’s nosey horse prowess impresses her family! 


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1/06/19: Miracles Do Happen- Part 3  

After that triumphant first day in the saddle I immediately booked more lessons.  
The plan:  
Cram in as many as financially possible- three times weekly seemed doable for a while- and then ride alone when possible to solidify what I learn. Make every day count. At 75 I’m on a very short leash. I may have what -36 riding months? More? Less? Whatever. I’ll be the best rider I can be in the life I have left. Good enough! 

When ‘grounded’ I study online and keep in shape.  
The older I get, the more important this is. 
So, I trot with Bryn on her rounds when it’s safe to do so. (Ice puts us off, but there’s always our treadmill.)  

When I reach each day’s stamina goal I do enjoy a rush of exhilaration. 

Joe’s recorded some of my riding lessons.  Good thing, too. Early Dee-geek behavior included: 

-  Flapping elbows while cantering, reminiscent of a goony bird trying to take flight  

-  Leaning too far back or forward at the trot and canter (Drunken Sailor Syndrome) 

-  Allowing my legs to flap about  

-  Losing a stirrup while admiring my horse’s ears  

-  Dropping a rein while adjusting my saddle’s tendency to cant to the right as I rode 

The list went on and on. There’s nothing that motivates change quicker than watching oneself look foolish.  
My dopey grin didn’t help matters. 

Five months later I’m much more confident. My horses agree. Menessen, the Farm’s champion stallion, tested me for four face-reddening months after he’d been so incredibly obliging that first time, but now, acknowledging my growing skill and confidence, he’ll respond immediately to most cues. Laura, another superb teacher there, commented last week that I’ve begun to earn his respect. These days he’ll rarely show annoyance (such as flattened ears, or stopping dead, then refusing to move forward).  
I so want to avoid those embarrassing admonishments.  

There was another thing I fervently hoped to do-- clean stalls with the crew. Karen, the Farm’s owner, was fine with it after I assured her I knew what to do. (A twelve-year-old girl on YouTube had demonstrated how to clean a stall properly. It ain’t rocket science, for sure, but I’d never been in a stall, let alone clean one. She’d demonstrated the special filter rake to shake viable sawdust through, and how to rake the fresh sawdust stored against the stall’s wall to spread it over the bare, cleaned floor. Simple. Sensible.) 

I can’t remember when I’ve been happier to do scut work. For me, it’s an essential part of the whole horse experience. Every day there I learn something brand new.  
I wore a good mask, lest all that hay/straw/dust trigger The Monster. My wraparound glasses fogged, though. (Rats. I’d have to fix that, somehow.) 

Fun horse gossip kept us laughing as we worked. 
One of the staff commented that an experienced cleaner knows which stall belongs to whom, just by noting each resident equine’s toilet habits. For example-   

-  Some horses poop in one area and keep the rest of their home pretty clean.  

-  Others are messy, depositing droppings everywhere. They might add some bucket water or urine to a poo pile and mix it up, just for fun. 

-  One horse sometimes backs up to his emptied food bucket to poop in it- probably because it amuses him. Every day it must be checked, then cleaned if necessary, before fresh fodder is added.  

-  Another horse pulls a mouthful of hay from his rack, dips it into his water bucket, and then eats it. For him, water enhances the flavor.  

-  Others might have a favorite comfort toy tucked into a corner- a good-sized rubber ball, for example, or a cloth bear. 

-  One horse is very interested in the latch on his stable door. The staff, watching him watch them undo it, have since tweaked the mechanism slightly. (An ounce of prevention...)  
He still thinks hard about it, though.  
Watch ‘horse escape artists’ on YouTube. It’s a hoot. 

I love learning this stuff.  

It takes 3-4 hours every morning to muck out 30 stalls, sweep the long aisles and refill food and water buckets according to each horse’s nutritional regimen, printed out on each stall’s exterior wall. 

The huge manure pile outdoors slowly breaks down, cooking naturally to about 160 degrees f. It’s turned regularly. The resulting rich black compost is sold to eager gardeners every spring after cooking for a full year. (My secret garden contains countless yards of horse compost that I’d worked into the dusty soil 26 years ago. The result? Astonishing flower power.) 

One fine afternoon in late September I was driving eagerly to my lesson and had nearly arrived there- when a horrible realization hit me! Busily studying technique and setting a lesson plan goal I’d totally forgotten to take the three medicines!  The pill, for example, needed two hours in an empty stomach to be maximally effective...Ah, what an idiot! 

What should I do?? If I went back home to take them, I’d miss practically the whole lesson! And the pill wouldn’t kick in anyway. Not that soon. 
I pulled over, thought it through, decided.  
I rode yesterday. Joe once mentioned that these meds might take a while to dissipate. Maybe they’ll still offer some residual protection 24 hours later. Or not...  
Whatever. I’m not going back.   

That decision could be construed as stupid and dangerous. But here’s the thing: Danger be damned. Suddenly I was a lifetime’s sick to death of being threatened by this curse.  
I’d ride bare and deal with the consequences. 

Within 20 riding minutes the next Miracle manifested. 

Nothing dire happened in the arena. Not one thing.  
I breathed normally.  
No eye and tracheal blisters appeared  
There were no coughs, no vision problems, no egg-sized wheals popping up all over my body... 

Joe and I were stunned, disbelieving. Scarcely daring to hope, I went back two days later to clean stalls again and ride. The meds stayed home. And, in a truly bold decision, I even chucked the specially ordered mask. (In for a penny...) 
Still, Nothing.    

Turns out I’ve somehow evolved into ‘normal’---a standard issue human being who can mingle just fine with horses.  !!! 
After three quarters of a century, this astounding fact illuminates my life.

12/30/18: Miracles Do Happen; Part 2  

I had just discovered that my life’s passion, horses, and anything to do with them, might be a supreme dream fulfilled, after a lifetime of deprivation mostly due to debilitating allergies. (See last week’s column.)  As a child, I’d checked out any books having to do with horses, and had memorized them. Then, at age 13, when I finally was able to approach another horse, and the allergy disaster happened. I could never ride. Nevertheless, I spent subsequent decades thinking about the massive amounts of information the books had contained.   

I did manage to sneak in a few equine contacts, despite the danger. In the late 50s the Bay City State Park riding stable near our home in Saginaw, Michigan offered horses who had too often been roughly treated by clueless renters. Twice, I paid for an hour, took the reins and walked alongside their poor selves, glorying in their very presence. One wretched horse, Coco, kept waiting for me to whip or kick him, but we’d mostly walk, and he’d graze and heave huge sighs of happiness. I wanted only to be close. He didn’t mind how I looked. (Wearing thick gloves, goggles, a heavy mask, and loaded with antihistamines that made me vaguely ill and unsteady, I was a weird sight. The garb and pills were vital, though. If I touched a horse, or breathed in his special scents I would court deep trouble. 

Now, in July of 2018, my new meds had changed everything. 

Two days after my first visit to the 30-stall horse barn at Casalae Farms, I went back there for my first ever lesson, unmasked, ungoggled and ungloved.  
In the central stable aisle, I stared at magnificent Menessen, a pure white Arabian stallion (officially described as a grey by experts), who’d won multiple performance blue ribbons. He stood there, saddled and cross-tied, and looked me up and down.  
He knew I would be his rider.    

It was OK to feed him a horse treat. Looking pleased, still wearing just his halter, he crunched down the stable’s cinnamon-apple pellets, being careful not to bite my bare hand, which he’d quickly enveloped. (I hadn’t noticed.) He gently pushed it out, gave it a wash, then vigorously nodded his perfect head. He loved those pellets. 

Before I could ride I was asked to sign a paper that listed the sport’s obvious dangers. Casalae Farms would be absolved of blame, should I crash and burn.   
Snorting, I scribbled my signature immediately.  

Life is a risk, every single day.  

Looking back, I recall noting some nervous speculation. Standing before them was a 75-year-old pint-sized lady with zero experience determined to master the art of riding. If I were the owner, I’d be nervous, too. Anything could happen. But clearly, I was absolutely committed. 

Connie, my first teacher, had listened to my unusual history and decided that 22-year-old Menessen would be the perfect fit for me. They’d owned him nearly his entire life and he’d never chucked a rider. He and she would soon know a lot more about my skill level and potential. 
So would I. 

I climbed a portable stair to mount the 1100-pound horse. He stood quietly, awaiting orders. Connie carefully described what signals he responded to, and how, and in what order to apply them.  
I ate it up. 

“OK.  Remember. One cluck to walk.”  
I clucked, and off he went, neck arched, hooves perfectly placed. We slow-walked, and fast walked. 
“Hmmm,” she said, after watching me for a while. “You have a darn good seat, and a very light hand. Menessen is carrying himself well. Fact is, he likes you.” 

Time passed as my horse and I began to relax. 

Eventually she called, “Now, two clucks for a trot when you’re ready, if you think you can manage it.” 

Two clucks. He responded instantly. What controlled power! What a rush of awe I felt! I began with a sitting trot, and then moved into a posting trot. All my life I’d ridden this way, but only in dreams. 

{Heavens! I do define ‘permanently smitten.’}  

There was a shout.  
“For heaven’s sake, Dee, you’re a natural! You ride with instinctive balance and poise! How can this be? Are you sure you’ve never done this??”  

These words marked another supreme moment in my life.  

After some time trotting at a good clip round the big arena she asked if I wanted to move a canter. One softly spoken ‘whoa’ would stop Menessen, should I feel unstable.  
Was I game? 

I nodded, and she called out, “Remember, ‘kiss’ to canter.”  
I readied him, ‘kissed,’ and Menessen moved effortlessly into a smooth, collected canter (basically a controlled gallop).  His neck arched, his long mane flowed, his tail arched... 
It was my first up-to-speed riding experience, and I hardly needed the horse. 
I was transported.  

There were more explanations from other observers, who shouted that I was – “really good!” 

After whizzing around the area for a time I needed to stop for the day and collect my wits. The praise was overwhelming, my responses so natural and effortless and it spooked me. So I spoke a soft ‘whoa,’ and he responded immediately, and with fluid grace.  
This animal was the epitome of style and grace. What a gift! 
Needing to process what had happened, I dismounted, carefully sliding to the ground. It was a long way down.   

Just then, Menessen’s stunning three-year-old grey son (who’ll gradually evolve to white) pranced into the arena, ridden by a top US trainer, Tom. Everyone watched them work. Wow! To see an Arabian move is always a thrill. 
Like father, like son... 

This special day marked the beginning of my quest for riding excellence. I would learn from three experienced teachers and other educated horses. (It isn’t good to focus on just one.) Those well-trained animals would have to put up with my ignorance, but only for a little while. I never, ever want to hurt their sensitive mouths conveying clumsy signals. 
I’d home study, and then practice over and over, and encourage my teachers to demand my best efforts. And neither party would ever allow age-related ‘passes’ to excuse wishy-washy work. 
“Think of me as 35,” said I.  
And why not? I feel that young, thrive on constructive criticism and am certainly strong. Building my secret garden took a decade or two of truly hard work. I’ve never labored like that in my life. I can still dig deep, lift those 40-pound compost bags and run fast sprints. Asking a horse for a response isn’t so much about strength, but most often about communication. Reins and bit, legs and voice communicate. This can be done subtly. That's the art. 

Here’s a curious, amazing fact: I experienced zero soreness after that riding session and no aches subsequently, especially in my thigh muscles, which were totally unaccustomed to gripping. I have no clue why.  

And so ---my great horse adventure has begun!

12/23/18: Miracles Do Happen  

Our big tree glows with lights and cherished ornaments, and I’m sitting near it, warmed by my very cool Hogwarts School Scarf and a mug of delicious coffee. Ready to set down for you a marvelous life change- a huge event- that I haven’t been able to process sensibly, or think straight about until now, nearly 6 months later.  

Here’s what’s happened.  
One pretty afternoon in mid-July of this year Joe strode into Sunnybank’s kitchen, plunked down opposite me and asked for my full attention. Baffled, I closed my computer and stared at him.  
He placed three little containers in front of me. He touched the first one.  “Take one pill now. No questions. Just do it.”  
I did. 
He touched the second. “Put two drops in each eye.”  
Ahhh,.. o.k......   
He indicated the third container. “Squirt a mist into each nostril, just once.” 
I did, completely mystified.  
“Now, come with me.”   

What on earth??? 
Too flummoxed to speak, I followed him to the car. He drove precisely 5.1 miles, and I gaped at where we stopped. This place was called Casalae Farms. It was set off by what seemed miles of bright white fences, lots of paddocks, and LOTS of horses standing there, gazing at us curiously.  
I paled. Horses? “JOE! I am deathly allergic! We can’t be here!!!!! 

“Hey. Do you trust me? Do you trust our daughter? We two doctors researched the latest meds available. You’ve taken them. There. Will. Be. No. Problem. No inability to breathe, no lost vision, no sleepiness or drugged unsteadiness. Zero. I Guarantee it.  
Now, go inside. Take your time. We have all the time in the world.” 

I think I remained paralyzed by doubt? nerves? for a bit, but he simply waited. So I got out and made my way to the front door of a very large one-story building. I went in, very slowly...  

I’d never, ever seen the inside of a stable. Only pictures. Never saw horses in their stalls, heads poking out, munching hay. I’d only three times breathed in the scents that go with these beautiful animals. The first, best time happened on the evening of my third birthday. I was taken to a little clearing surrounded by very tall pine trees in the middle of town and placed on a shaggy pony, who walked patiently round and round a well-beaten circle with two equine friends who were carrying other happy children.  
That pony ride brought a rush of Total, Intense Joy.  I was profoundly changed in an instant. Precisely then, my life was set.  I would live it surrounded by horses.  
Here’s a weird fact: It was as though I was revisiting a shadowy former existence.  
Only 36 months in the world and I knew these scents, the feeling of warm horse flank, the pleasure of braiding a rumpled mane, the creak of the saddle, as certainly as I knew my name. It all felt so familiar. Yet, I’d never seen a horse, except in a picture book. 
It was eerie.  
It was the best, best --reunion.  
I can’t explain this better.   

But life had other ideas.  
Except for the annual September Saginaw Fair, where I could blissfully ride the gorgeously carved merry-go-round horses, sometimes twice, I rarely saw another live horse. I clearly remember the exceptions. 
Once, aged ten, while riding my bike around our block I suddenly skidded to a stop. There, right there, two girls, maybe a year or so older than I, were busily, expertly unloading two palomino horses from a dual horsebox built into a van parked in front of their modest home. These twins, Janet and Joan R- names forever engraved in my memory- backed them down, saddled them and rode up and down the street and into the open field that served as a huge communal play area behind all these middle-class homes.  
I think I stood there for hours, spellbound. I never approached them; they were based twenty feet away, across the street. That was not allowed. But I could look.  
I can play those two happy hours back as a loved mental movie, even today.  This is the first time I’ve ever spoken of it.   

Every Sunday at 3:30 we drove to Grandma and Grandpa’s house to watch Roy Rogers and his horse, Trigger, on TV, as they had another 30-minute adventure. It was the highlight of every week. 
And every Tuesday and Friday the milkman would deliver bottled milk to our front door. His horse happily accepted my proffered carrot. 
Once I sent $5 I’d earned babysitting to the Double Bubble Gum people for a rubber saddle that fitted my bike seat exactly. It was a most wonderful treasure______ but one day it vanished. 
I drew nothing but horses. St. Stephen Elementary School’s principal, Sister Paula, angrily rang my mother. I must never draw another: my teacher was sick of seeing them.   

Disobedience was unthinkable.  
But I could still draw them at home. And, at school, I drew a home, corrals, flowers, hay bales, meadows, grass and sun-- and a little girl in pigtails holding an extended rope that left the picture’s margins. Something was connected to that rope, something just out of sight.  
It angered them, but what could they do?  
I was never discouraged. I knew things.   

My cousin Nancy was given a beautiful chestnut mare when she was ten and I was thirteen. The mare had a foal that Nancy raised. But- then I entered puberty I found myself suddenly, violently allergic to all hay-eating animals after entering the county fair’s horse barn.  
Doctors diagnosed an acute allergic reaction to horses. That slammed the door on my dreams. It was a crushing blow. Epic.  

My first cousin, Nancy, and her parents lived in Dearborn, Michigan. I never was able to visit her, or see her horse. Undaunted, I formed a club, the BSKDC (Black Stallion Kentucky Derby Club- influenced by Walter Farley’s wonderful story, The Black Stallion, which I’d all but memorized) and we’d chat about her horse life whenever she visited Saginaw. I still have the paper I drew up to form the club, making Nancy vice-president. I was president, of course...  
Once I filled out a form that promised some lucky person would win the sleek bay racehorse pictured in LOOK magazine- if the name an applicant submitted was accepted. I studied that stunning horse for days, chose a name, mailed that form and haunted our mailbox.  
Nothing ever happened, of course. But anticipation, and the possibilities- made my daily life a bit more bearable. Denial of reality was an indulgence that helped mitigate the awful pain.   

Now, in 2018, I was at LAST inside a stable, after nearly three-quarters of a century of going to sleep every night thinking of horses, riding them, cleaning them, racing them.  
This new reality was Impossible.  
It was, in fact, how one defines a miracle.  
I stood rooted, extremely tense, for a long time, waiting for the ax to fall. Blisters might easily form on my trachea and on my eyeballs, and I would be felled, unable to breathe. 
But------ nothing happened.  

Suddenly, shockingly, I didn’t care if it did!! I’d enjoy every single second in this horse-saturated environment, and to hell with consequences! 

Inside that barn were two long aisles lined on both sides with roomy stalls.  
I counted.    Thirty.  
Some were empty, as their residents were outside, cavorting with friends or grazing. Insiders poked their heads out of their boxes to whinny to each other. Two stood quietly cross-tied in the central aisles, awaiting saddles and bridles, and their riders.  
This. was Heaven. 

I stood there and simply looked, and looked and looked, while breathing in their special perfume. It was, perhaps, the most perfect hour of my life.  
I wasn’t aware that I was silently crying. One lady, a large brush in hand, greeted me cheerfully, then looked closer, and quietly asked if I was all right.  
My husband answered behind me. “Oh, she’s just happy. We’re here to look around, if that’s OK.” 
“Sure! Wander wherever. You’re welcome to explore.”  
And off she went to groom her beautiful white Arabian horse. 

Eventually, Joe poked me out of my reverie. “Go on, move! Look around. Walk up and down the aisles. Check out the horses; look into all the tack rooms...and don’t miss the huge indoor riding arena and its elevated, glass-enclosed viewing room....” 

And so, this woman, this normal woman, did. No tightened chest happened. No wheals as big as eggs. No blistered eyes. No acute vision loss. Just me, walking slowly up and down the two aisles, peering into the stalls’ interiors, noting food buckets, water buckets, soft sawdust floors occasionally decorated with poop balls...  
One contented, curious horse’s flexible lips mussed my hair and flapped over my extended hand, hunting for a treat...The animal finally licked it thoroughly. I was enchanted. I’d never seen or felt a horse’s tongue.  I’d never dared to pet a horse. (All covert visits saw me in a mask, goggles and gloves.) I turned to go back, past another long row of stalls, and there, just down a way, was the huge indoor arena. It boasted a very long mirror so riders could more effectively evaluate their horses’ confirmation and their riding postures. Deep, chocolate colored sawdust coated the vast floor, and overhead lights brightened everything. This arena was closed to the elements and directly connected to the stable area.  
One could ride at all speeds, all year long.  
It was perfect. 
I found it impossible to grasp. 

After an hour of such massive sensory input I was suddenly overwhelmed, lightheaded, and had to leave immediately. I needed space, and lots of time to process what was happening------- and what wasn’t.  
We left. The car was silent as we motored along.  
I was semi-mute for days.    

I’ve lived a long life taking on all manner of delightful personal challenges, such as:   

-teaching myself competent gardener skills, and how to design lovely little gardens  
-researching what flowers appreciate to be happy 
-learning how to ski  
-learning to be a competent pilot 
-hiking through Europe alone for months, absorbing its lovely architecture and scenery 
-learning how to competently train our doggie  
-learning to sing properly and how to make musical CDs  
-writing a book and expressing myself in poetry 
-experiencing the great joy of motherhood  
-biking and hiking at least five National Parks with Joe and eventually, Bryn-dog 
-reading science and rudimentary astrophysics and all manner of philosophy and history-especially biographies of people who’ve moved this planet in a different direction.       

                     Willful ignorance of the world’s story is NEVER bliss. 

-sharpening my reasoning and evidence-based skills to more effectively deal with life’s odd, sometimes scary twists and turns 
-learning to be totally content with my own company 
-cherishing the friendships I have, every single day.   

To remain profoundly depressed, morose, and angry about what could never be was to waste my life.  
No horses, ever. Fact.  
I’d accept what could not be changed and move on- and, for heaven’s sake, try to do it with some grace. 
I’ll look back only if there was something to learn from Life’s inexplicable, often injurious curveballs. 

Forward thinking welcomes the fascinating pursuit of life’s changing panorama.  
Backing too far into regret or acute disappointment encourages a slow decline that metastasizes into rage and hate, a toxic brew that inexorably erodes a body’s balanced mental and physical chemistry. 

Bad things very often result from embracing that approach. 

Now, in this sparkling July afternoon, I’d been thrust squarely into a new, fresh, eerily familiar equine world. It was akin to finding one’s self transported to the moon. 

At 8 a.m. that evening, nothing bad had happened. I still breathed easily. There were no eye bulges. No giant wheals. I felt fine.  
I didn’t know what to say.  
Joe just grinned. 

There is so much more to tell. I couldn’t write about any of this since that momentous first day at Casalae. In fact, I couldn’t write about anything, period. I’d just sit there, staring at the keyboard.  
My mind had flat-lined.  
So, for months I’ve reprinted (and gently tweaked) favorite columns submitted over the last 13 years.  

I’d resume writing if-and when- my fingers and brain unlocked... 

Today, December 21, with zero warning, a word-tsunami suddenly roared toward me, almost too fast to comprehend.  I raced to my computer and this story spilled out.  
I’m just warming up!  
Be prepared; it’s gonna be all about horses for a good while!

12/16/18: Backward Bigfoot Bumpkins  

Joe and I needed an outdoor adventure to more fully appreciate Northern Michigan’s winter face.  

“Let's try something different,” said I. “How about snowshoeing?”  
Years ago my downhill skiing had been frequently plagued by acute ski-tangle. Any topographical anomaly encouraged them to mount each other: down I’d go. Rising again was comically difficult, as the mile-long skis refused to be reasonable. I’d flail around, graceful as a walrus on a dance floor. Joe, finally realizing I wasn’t behind him, would ski back, hunting for pole-sign under six feet of powder. After one 12,000- foot triumphant ski experience down---and three spectacular wipeouts in the Rocky Mountains, high, I huddled in front of Winter Park’s ski lodge’s blazing fireplace and firmly declared that the odds were against me. Downhill skiing would henceforth morph to the cross-country sort. It was just too frustrating, otherwise. 

But those (even longer) skis proved just as irritating. I found myself entangled more than upright. Face it, I grumbled to myself: you’re just too short (barely 60 inches high and shrinking) for such long fellows. 

This time, though, I’d acquit myself well. I mean, what can happen to a reasonably nimble person wearing little tennis racket-type thingies?   
Besides, I’d already mastered walking. 

So, off we went to rent some snowshoes at the Timber Ridge Lodge, about twenty minutes southeast of Traverse City.  

The clerk measured us and brought out two pairs. He was surprised at my surprise. I’d never looked closely at snowshoes; these plastic fatties looked weird! Bristling with teeth underneath and sprouting buckles and straps topside, they were strongly reminiscent of steroidal Bigfoot feet. Intrigued, I strapped them on (with his help) over my sturdy boots.  
If ducks could walk flatfooted, then so could I. 

Awkwardly staggering out of the lodge we set off through a huge, mature forest with powdery snow deep and crisp and even. Initially lurching, legs spread out like two-year-olds with a load in their pants, we soon found our strides, relaxed into a rhythm and began looking around the spectacular woodland with deep pleasure. The curved trail, which seemed to meander on forever, was wide and nicely groomed. Though the weather was incredibly cold (high teens) there was no wind. Plus, we seemed to be alone out here. 
Wow. We could love this. 

Crunch, crunch.  Lovely iPod music filled my headphones as I padded, buoyed by Bach. 

Half a mile later, I glanced back.  
Huh. Where was Joe? I listened. Nothing. 
I waited, sure he’d slide around that bend and wave, but no... 
Backtracking, I grinned. Was it possible I’d find him down?  

A few turns later there he was, lying on his back, waving those broad, webbed feet, chuckling.  
“I tried to back up to look at something more closely—unwise. I figured you’d find me sooner or later....”  
Oh.  Backup difficulties hadn’t occurred to me! 

Clumping over to him I extended a mittened hand to pull him up- and foolishly reversed, seeking more leverage. With a squawk of dismay, I fell backward. There we were, two prone stuffed sausages, flailing away in a deep snow bank.  
What can one do but laugh?  

Struggling to sit up (not easy, with protruding equipment swamping both boot ends) I finally managed to remove my gear, pull Joe up, and then re-buckle- which was a struggle, as my fingers went numb. But. Alas, all this huffing and puffing was for nothing.  Teetering to one side, I tipped into the snowy depression we’d made. OMG. 

Upright Joe fell against a five-inch tree trunk, laughing. Jolted, the tree dumped a large pile of snow smack onto my face. Sputtering, I rolled onto my side, noting glumly that our winter sports history was gleefully repeating itself. 
This footgear, though much shorter, was wider and, well, ducky, presenting its own challenges. 

On the bright side, only the forest had observed we two backward city bumpkins.  
It was small comfort.  

But now we’d become disoriented. Snowshoe and cross-country ski tracks went both ways, so it was tricky to decide which direction would take us back. After some discussion we simply trudged along the trail, reasoning that sooner or later, it would end up back at the Lodge. 

There was another problem. I was really hot! My snowsuit would be hard to take off, though. I’d have to remove my snowshoes again. And my gloves... 
I had warm, layered clothing underneath, but would then have to tote the suit... (Friends had warned against overdressing for this adventure but I didn’t listen.) To peel off the top layer now would eat up the scant minutes we had left. (Our rentals had a two-hour time limit.)  
Cooking, I carried on, with Joe firing off verbal pictures of roasting marshmallows melting the snow. 

The trail wound around and through the countryside and, a good while later, did eventually lead home. We were very late, though. The kind clerk let it go, noting snow where it shouldn’t be.  
He knew. 

All in all, though, it had been a thumbs-up adventure. Snowshoes are fun!  
Timber Ridge was beautiful, but we’d buy our own equipment and explore trails much closer to Traverse City. The Commons, for example, offered gorgeous possibilities... 

Joe has occasionally tried to get me to reconsider skiing, but I’m resistant to wearing anything skinnier- and longer-- than I am. 
These fatter pseudo-feet, however, promise a cool future! 

12/9/18: Cesar's Simple Gift 

Exercise, discipline, affection.   
In that order. 
Cesar Millan   

One Saturday night a few years ago Joe and I went to the beautiful Midland Center for the Arts to see and hear Cesar Millan talk about his life with dogs. Cesar, the world-famous dog whisperer, is incredibly wise about how to approach, understand and train them- and rehabilitate their owners.  

“There is no such thing as a problem breed. However, there is no shortage of problem owners. With a dog, people are not disciplined. They think that by spoiling a dog, it will love them more. But the dog misbehaves more because people [involved with them] give affection at the wrong time.”  

“Dogs in America get more affection than most women in third world countries.” 

-But not exercise, or discipline, which should always happen before affection is offered.  

Here was the auditorium scene that greeted us: 
On a large, deep stage with muted lighting sat a sofa, an end table, and a small rug with a coffee table on it, all set well back from the stage’s edge.  
It portrayed a typical living room. 
(Oh- and there were three huge screens set in a high triangle so that folks up in the highest balcony- like us- wouldn’t miss a thing.) 

Cesar popped onto the stage, his famous grin lighting up the big (sold out) auditorium. He was dressed casually in jeans and a long-sleeved gray tee shirt- simple attire designed to focus our attention on what he came to teach, rather than on him.   

Straightaway he commented that humans are the hardest to rehabilitate. They can be stubborn, or blind to why their pet’s objectionable behavior occurs. It can be humbling- and embarrassing- for owners to realize- and accept- that they, not their pet, are the problem. 

In his TV series (lasting nine years) desperate clients would come to him highly motivated to understand and change their enabling behavior. Viewers would watch the liberating changes with deep interest, hope, and not a little chagrin. 


First, Cesar would listen to the owners’ complaint, and while they talked he’d size them up. And their dog, too.  
The challenge? To coax the folks to see themselves as their dog did.  
As submissive.  
A Bad Thing. 

Didn’t matter if their beastie was gigantic or teeny. His message was always the same.  
Dogs, to be balanced, require a Pack Leader.

No pack leader around? Then the human will find him/herself with a willful, disobedient, confused, irritating, obnoxious, dominant dog.  

That final descriptive adjective is another Bad Thing.  


Dominant (‘alpha’) dogs have free rein to do whatever they please to their submissive humans- for up to fifteen years! Exasperated, frustrated, baffled owners might dump the dog, or have it euthanized, or give it away ruined. Then they’ll buy another, ‘better’ dog and repeat the same submissive behavior, expecting a different result.  
Or, resigned to their situation, they’ll submit to their out-of-control dog until it finally dies. How awful for both parties. 

Joe and I saw a lot of bobbing heads out there. 

Cesar asked us to move into our dog’s moment. “Dogs learn mostly with their noses. ‘I’ll believe it if I see it’ for dogs translates to ‘I’ll believe it if I smell it.’ So don’t bother yelling at them: it’s the energy and scent of calm confidence they pay attention to, not your words.”  

Humans, he mused, need to know how dogs sort out the world.  

Now came part 2- demonstrations.  The three dogs brought to him had never laid eyes on him. 

A local humane society handler trotted out a big, handsome, shorthaired dog obsessed with balls. He’d been returned to the humane society over and over by frustrated families because of this infuriating obsession. The staff was despairing. Charley-dog had an impossible-to-cure problem. Could they ever get him successfully adopted? 

After Cesar pulled these few scraps of information from the handler he asked her to bring out the ball she’d been hiding behind her back. “Please set it down some distance away.” She did. was a lovely big red one. Charley-dog came alive with a fearsome, laser intensity. His eyes gleamed! 
Ball was All. 
Cesar picked it up, ‘owning’ it. Charley, released by the handler at his direction, rushed toward Cesar, ignoring everything else.  

Cesar slipped on a simple collar/leash (one looped line) and continued to hold the ball while the dog visually devoured it.  
Then, he set it down in a spot he chose.  
When the animal went for it he made a noise:  
Startled, Charley’s focus broke. He looked up at Cesar for an instant before shifting his laser-gaze back to the Ball again. At that exact instant, the sound came again.  
Translation: That. Ball. Is. Mine.  
This time the dog stared at him, uncertain. Cesar moved the slim collar/leash high up on his neck (to achieve excellent control with minimal effort) and led him away about ten paces. Charley went willingly, but kept glancing back toward his beloved Ball. Cesar asked the dog to sit while pulling the lead straight up as his left foot tapped Charley’s hind end.  
Plop. Charley sat immediately and stared up at Cesar, totally attentive now, to this interesting human.  

Charley-dog instinctively knew he faced a Pack Leader. Happily absorbing Cesar’s calm, assertive energy and quiet confidence, he relinquished ball-thoughts without fuss.  
No problem, Boss. You own that ball. 

Cesar walked him toward his property, and a millisecond after Charley glanced at the ball, Cesar tapped his hindquarters gently with his left foot and made that noise. A reminder
Charley snapped to attention and looked up at Cesar intently.  
Ohh, right! That’s your ball, Boss. 

Redirection- and a new focus, Cesar- at precisely the right moment, was the key to Charley’s successful behavior modification. We watched the animal mentally switch to obedient, submissive respect. I could almost hear a ‘Click.’ 

Again, Cesar led him toward the ball. They padded around it and past it. Charley-dog, watching Cesar for cues while heeling, ignored it. Why?  
It wasn’t his.  

Satisfied, Cesar freed him. He wandered around to sniff the furniture and explore the whole stage, nose working busily. But he completely, permanently ignored the big red ball that sat before us.  
The handler and audience were gob-smacked. Dead still. Stunned. Blown away. After a long, dead silence, fierce applause. 


Punkin, weighing about 35 pounds, had a food obsession. The owner, a pleasant older lady, was going nuts. All her dog thought about was FOOD. Countertop food. Table food. Her granddaughter’s food. She always found a way to snatch it. Her owner couldn’t shame/scold/scream her out of her bad behavior. She felt helpless. Arghhhh!  

Cesar attached his slim collar/lead high up behind her dog’s ears and got its full attention by offering a delicious chicken morsel from one of three chicken-filled, cereal-sized bowls an attendant had quietly placed on the end table.  
Punkin scarfed the gift down. (Cesar had demonstrated, by hand-feeding her, that he owned the food.)  

He asked the owner to keep her (leashed) dog from following him while he walked away to set his three meaty bowls of chicken bits on the stage floor close to the audience, leaving perhaps five feet between each bowl. Punkin watched every move. Then he led the eager, wide-eyed, straining, salivating dog toward them. Ohboyohboyohboy....Her nose worked frantically. As she lurched toward the bowls he made ‘the sound’ and touched her flank with his sneaker, which came up behind his other leg, very fast. 
Translation: ‘No. Mine.’ 

No exclamation point necessary. It was a simple fact. 

Startled, she looked up at Cesar. He re-adjusted the slim collar/leash toward the top of her neck again and maneuvered her into the ‘heel’ position. (Remember, he’d never seen this dog before.)  Each time she microscopically tilted her body or eyes toward the food he got her attention with ‘that sound’ while keeping the collar situated high on her neck behind her ears and straight, but not taut. One minute later they began deliberately walking past the bowls.  
Around the bowls.  
Between the bowls.  
Back and forth.  
In and out.  
Round and round. 
Punkin never once looked at them.   

Your food. Understood, Boss. 

Cesar removed the lead right there by the bowls. Punkin wandered off to entertain herself while he chatted with us. She went deeper into the set to sniff the couch, end table and little rug. But. When she sneaked a furtive glance toward the food bowls from that long distance away, testing, Cesar was instantly ready. ‘Ssst!’  
(He’d been waiting for that long-distance glance, and had seized the moment to reinforce the lesson.)  
Punkin was startled!  
Oops! This Alpha sees all... 

Snapping to attention, she looked over at him. He held her gaze quietly. She dropped her eyes, a submissive gesture, and continued to explore the big stage.  
Just checkin’, Boss. 
The aromatic chicken was never acknowledged again. 

The dog’s owner stood there flatfooted, open-mouthed. The audience was too stunned to clap. It was pretty darn quiet in there for a long time, as we absorbed this. 
Finally, once again, the applause was thunderous. 
These two demonstrations were, in a word, Sensational

Last- a male handler from a local rescue group brought in a super-timid cream and white Labrador puppy about seven months old, who seemed glued to the fellow’s legs. The little guy wound apologetically around them, twisting the leash every which way as he hunched and fawned and crept about while being slooowly coaxed and tugged out onto the stage. The puppy looked thoroughly intimidated by life.  
The sad journey took awhile. 

Cesar went to him, knelt and patted him calmly, and then encouraged him to sniff his hand. He quietly positioned the slim collar/lead correctly, got the pup’s attention with a tiny tug, and began to walk steadily forward across the stage, radiating confidence.  
He owned that moment.  
He. Was. Alpha.   
An Alpha human represents Safety. Power. 

As they strode along the puppy’s confidence grew by the second. The little guy began to prance and gambol by Cesar’s side. He’d tapped into Cesar’s energy and made it his own.  
Life was good!   

There were gasps, then huge, sustained applause!  
What stellar demonstrations of ‘Own the ball,’ ‘Own the food,’ ‘Own the moment!’   

How could such effective training be. so. simple?  

He’d never laid a cross hand on the animals, never raised his voice. He did command their full attention by radiating calm, assertive energy, and by living in their moment. For Cesar, the dog in front of him was all there was. 

That’s focus

There was no mystery or magic here- only a man with a simple plan. By offering calm, assertive energy directed absolutely toward the dog he was working with, along with a deep understanding of how they worked, he offered them, their handlers, and his audience- a new way of operating.  

Everyone, he reminded us, has the power do this.  

He told us: “Never beg, never plead with your dog- ‘Sit! Sit! sitsitsit-sit! I said sit....’ or... ‘Stay, oh, please staaaay? Staaaaaay? staaaaaaaaaaaay...?’” Cesar, half-stooped, palms out, backed away from an invisible dog, pantomiming this all-too-familiar behavior, to great laughter. (He’s a fine comedian.) We ruefully recognized ourselves, all right. No decent dog would be motivated to obey a pleading human victim who would shrug sadly and sigh-but never take command when his pet routinely ignored his timid requests.  

Cesar demonstrated, over and over, that being The Pack Leader is essential for developing a balanced dog.  
And a balanced owner. 

It really is that simple.  

It was a pleasure to witness Cesar’s ability to change a dog’s life, just like that. His books, found in libraries and bookstores, are packed with insight and information.  

Joe and I understand how to be pack leaders.  
We deeply love our Bryn.  
She is our pet, not our child.  
We’ve set clear boundaries and defined the behaviors she’s had to master to enjoy a happy, balanced life.   

A few examples:  
Human furniture is for humans. Always.  
Never jump on humans.  
Chew only what is permitted.  
Pee and poo outside.  
Never beg at dinner tables.  
Be gentle to any smaller dog or child. 
Obey our commands immediately

And on and on. 

One other important note: make sure your dog is paying attention before you issue a command. Make sure it is looking at you and listening. Eliminate distractions.  

Bryn’s life-lessons are taught with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of quiet confidence.  
She is so pleased when she gets it right. 

Bryn-dog is respectful, knows her place, and loves us right back, in full measure, largely because we’ve accepted, and used, brilliant Cesar Millan’s simple, profound gift.

12/01/18: ‘Let It Rain, Let It Pour’…  

Funny, the memories a drenching rain recalls.  

One wet day a few years ago I grabbed my biggest umbrella and strolled to Hannah Park, just across the street.  Every so often I get the urge to walk in the rain. It didn’t hurt that I’d just enjoyed Gene Kelly making dance-magic in a downpour an hour ago- I wanted to recapture his exuberance for a while.  My day had been ‘bumpy,’ so gazing at the Boardman River, dotted with delighted, vocal ducks, will always lift my spirits. 

I carefully descended the steep cement stairs to the river—and came upon an amazing sight.  A large golden retriever stood squarely in the middle of the meadow, legs spread out, paws splayed, head slightly raised, eyes closed, utterly transported. The rain was pouring down in buckets; even the ducks had sought shelter under one of the big trees. But that dog, drenched to the skin, had planted himself out there, willing it to fall even harder. The wetter he got, the better. His fur actually parted in the middle of his back from the all that water.   

His owner, decked out in raingear, waited patiently under a tree.  He noticed me watching his dog, and chuckled.  “Sailor lives for these times. He does his rounds, then finds the perfect spot and places himself like that. Odd, eh? He’s too old now to manage the river; it moves pretty fast- so he gets his ‘fix’ this way. I think the experience must be similar to a massage…” 

“Sailor?  What a great name!”  

The man smiled. “Yeah; when my wife and I brought him home- he was ten weeks old- we noticed he took a great interest in the kitchen faucets.  Then, when she decided to take a shower and turned it on, Sailor was thrilled!  He yipped, hopped in and began snapping at the spray, inspecting the drain, and generally making himself at home.  Eventually, he just stood there, in the same position he’s in now, and let himself get pummeled. I swear that pup smiled.  We knew then what to call him.” 

I looked carefully; nine-year-old Sailor hadn’t moved.  And, by golly, he was smiling. That dog was the picture of contentment. 
“He’s lucky we’re willing to indulge this; it’s rarely convenient for my wife and me to walk him in torrential rain, but we’re always rewarded.”  

For nearly ten minutes we enjoyed his golden’s enjoyment. Chatting and laughing, raising our voices to accommodate the downpour, he told me his dog’s story.  
The couple had seen their daughter off to college, but within two months began suffering an acute case of ‘empty nest syndrome.’ Finding themselves moping about the house too much, they marched off to the local animal shelter. Their lonely puppy was waiting.  
They were cured. 

The rain lessened; it was time to break the spell.  The man whistled and shook the leash. “Wrap it up, partner!” 

Reluctantly Sailor opened his eyes, gave a heartfelt sigh, and shook himself mightily.  A ton of water flew every which way.  Two more vigorous shakes, and they squelched over to a blue van. After a thorough toweling, Sailor hopped onto the tarped front passenger seat, accepted a large milk bone, and dispatched it with relish. “We bought a heck of a hairdryer when the house started to reek of ‘sopping canine.’ Making him acceptable takes time, but it’s necessary. He settles down to wait again for rain. When he dreams, it’s not about squirrels, believe me.” 

A cheerful wave, and they were off to join his wife. Sailor sat, sodden and happy.  Obviously this was a familiar routine.  

I sloshed home, grinning in the rain.

11/25/18: Timeless Questions; Garden Reflections on a Gloomy November Day...  

Gardens possess an elixir that tinkers with my sense of time. I’ll ponder the rapidity of growth, the colors and perfumes, the variety of life out here and the science behind it all, and forty minutes will vanish in an instant. 

Canna lilies, for example, begin as dirt-y bumps. These tropical plants often grow two inches every sun-drenched day in here, to eight or nine feet high! Whenever I want to see something marvelous emerge impossibly fast from practically nothing, I’ll trot over to my cannas and stare. 
The despised, gorgeous Japanese beetles add a dash of delicacy as they voraciously chew those giant leaf tips to lace. What is it about cannas that they love? 

A drab-looking hummingbird moth hovers nearby. The heavy insect is easily as large as its namesake. Absurdly insubstantial wings hum: the creature hangs suspended in front of the big kitchen window as if inspecting its reflection…Imagine the huge amounts of energy needed to accomplish this feat! How long can it hover before refueling is necessary? 

A honeybee staggers around inside a huge hibiscus flower, its black and gold body completely blanketed in sticky white pollen. Even its eyes are coated. Yet it flies, undaunted. Just a skim of ice on a airplane’s wings changes the aerodynamics. Add an inch more, and it falls out of the sky. How has the bee’s aerodynamic design canceled this danger?  

Hundreds of unblinking black-eyed Susans — most minus their orange ‘lashes’ – dot the lush landscape. Each seed-packed orb demonstrates design perfection. There are no square, rectangular or sausage-shaped Susans. (Why is everything in our universe round?) 

My four massive sweet autumn Clematis vines are in spectacular bloom, blanketing fences, huge steel spider webs, gates and evergreens... They’ve grown fifty feet from little sticks in just three months! Millions of white starflowers bob with every tiny breeze: their perfume fills the garden. Their nectar intoxicates frenzied bees.   
Clematis isn’t bothered by mildew, mold, or beetles. Why? It’s chemistry. They’ve figured it out, somehow, over the centuries. 

The ‘bling’ of the garden bell roused me from my reverie. 

A dad and his teen son entered; the boy propped his glasses up on his nose as the two looked around. We began sharing thoughts, and favorite musings. Both loved science, so I shared some thoughts about organisms that prefer certain plants. 
His son glanced at me, glassed eyes gleaming with mischief. “Hey, Dad, here’s an experiment: microscopic life on a clothed human is the most varied and prolific on pants zippers and waistbands. To prove it I’d swab your laundered pants--the zipper, button, and the area around both-- for contaminants. There’d likely be nothing.  Then I’d test that area again before you tossed your pants in the wash. Remember, we zip up first, then wash our hands after using the toilet. There’d be residue there, from alien doorknobs, your flowerbeds, food, dirty dishes, grocery carts...  
The result – quite a microscopic population, compared with other clothing areas – should prove my theory!” 

We gasped, then howled with laughter. Todd grinned. He’d been joking, but I thought he might pursue this germ of an idea sometime, just for fun. 

“Seriously, what really interests me are the rapid multiplication of bacteria and viruses, and the chemistry behind their mutations…Why do bugs attack only certain plants, for instance?” 
His father smiled. “Yeah, you might have fifty years- a tick of time- to delve into things. So you gotta specialize. That’ll be a challenging part of the next few years. Choosing what to concentrate on.” Todd stared ahead for a moment, overwhelmed. 

Then he propped up his glasses and turned to me, his face lighting up. “MIT’s accepted me. I want to explore biological engineering, and maybe aeronautics —” 
A hummingbird, then a huge bumblebee, whirred by… "Dad, how can they do that? Doesn’t the math say it’s impossible for those bees to fly with that equipment?”  

Ah, a man after my own heart!

11/18/18: Dead Boring 

Dear readers; Bryn and I saw two field mice zipping through the parking lot near the library: the sight of them triggered a memory I thought I’d share again. This column shall serve as my 2018 annual rant. I always indulge in one per year.  


I’m nestled in my favorite chair, watching firelight create interesting shadow-pictures on the walls. They make me reflective. I’d been researching mice- especially field mice, who have a peculiar set of back legs reminiscent of kangaroo legs, and a little tuft of hair right at the end of their tails.  
What a year 2010 was! One memory remains particularly vivid.  

I lived in England for the first half of 2010, to be near David, my late mother’s English husband, who’d had a stroke. (He died in August of 2010.) During his last February he was temporarily transferred to a small hospital forty minutes away, because Ross Community Hospital, much closer to David’s home, had been plagued with a virus and needed disinfecting, from ceilings to sublevels. It would take weeks to scrub it down. When the massive job was done, he would be transferred back. 

Meanwhile, I motored daily to this far-away, much smaller facility... 
and found a surreal scene in David’s wing. Eight elderly men, who, as far as I could see, had working voices, active minds and movable limbs (they could sip tea and munch biscuits just fine)- who lay propped up in their ward beds, four to a side, in the immaculate room. As usual, there was no medical equipment in sight. Paper cups housed various pills.  
There was nothing to look at- no magazines or newspapers, no television, no soft BBC radio music/patter, no joke-y nurses, nothing to think about, or to see or do.  


Here’s the weird part. Nobody made a sound, though most were awake and alert. I couldn’t even hear them breathe.  


It gets stranger. Their Visitors were silent. They just sat there by their loved ones’ bedsides, exactly like spellbound Hobbits. Reflecting now, I suppose that they, being naturally reserved around so many other strange men, and having zero privacy, had chosen to say nothing at all. There weren’t even sheeted barriers between the beds to encourage whispers, or maybe a kiss?  
But no. Only stares were exchanged. Everyone was too shy to say anything.  
I was witnessing an extremely slow-motion checkout- death from boredom. 

If I were in charge, I’d offer some good gossip! Who were these elderly men going to tell?  
How about passing along village news?  
How about bringing along a young child who could chatter about her day at primary school? 
Why not have a caregiver offer to read short stories for an hour every day? It would be a highlight, I bet.  
Or, why not trade life-stories? Those long-lived men could relate some pretty lively episodes, I thought. Each man might await his turn with something like- anticipation. 
But oh, dearie me, it was not the British way. 

This silence was toxic. It can still give me nightmares. 

Sometimes British stiff upper lips are a huge pain. The British dislike making a fuss, and so were politely queuing up to meet Dr. Death. Chuckles and relaxed chatter were as unlikely here as dormice in teapots. All that was missing were eight coffins and some dirt. 

 Lunch and tea were served, ever so quietly.  I seriously considered dropping a teacup, just to shatter the silence. Maybe I could pass gas. Or bring a radio to play some great music.  
Jeez. I’d go absolutely bonkers in here, in a New York minute. (David would endure it for nearly three weeks.)  

I blew in every afternoon to chat, but he’d opted out. In fact, I never heard his voice again after that experience. 

The head matron was crisply unhelpful when I asked why he slept so much. Questions, especially from meddling foreigners, were unwelcome. Was he given sleeping tablets? She wouldn’t confirm or deny it. Any medical information was closely guarded.  

The doctor was, as usual, unavailable. (British doctors regularly insulate themselves from patients’ families. One asks ‘matron’ to notify his office, which is often in another part of town. Then the doctor’s receptionist rings to fix an appointment for perhaps a week later. By then one’s question is irrelevant.)  
American docs are infinitely more accessible. In fact, one often bumps into them on their hospital rounds.)  

Fighting back, I chose crackly brown paper to wrap a book of outrageous cartoons by George Booth, which I presented to David with a ta-da flourish. (This went over poorly. The British don’t do ta-das.) He remained determinedly asleep. I understood. This gangrenous silence was surely to blame. It was very like a pseudo-death. If waking up offered the same dreary blankness that sleeping did, why bother to wake up? 
Perhaps that was the point. 

The British National Health System is long past bankrupt. Though old, sick bodies are tidied, kept warm and decently fed, old minds are abandoned. 
There are no funds for “frills.”  
A nurse told me this. 

One day, fed up, I brought along two realistic wind-up mice and placed them on his taut top sheet. They busied themselves circling. David didn’t notice.  
A nurse delivering pills did, but wasn’t amused. I didn’t care. “Everyone here’s dying—of boredom, ” I commented loudly. 
One bedridden gentleman looked astonished at my boldness, but by God, he nodded. Nurse pursed her lips. Typically brash, rude American, she thought. 

I knew the indulgence was stupid. With this mouse silliness I risked making David’s life more difficult –but- how could his life be worse than having to endure these naked green walls, the bare air, and this dead-silent room? 

Two days later he was transferred back to Ross’s antiseptically scrubbed hospital. I was so glad! At least it bustled with activity and visitors, mostly farmers who sometimes chuckled in the big ward.  
Sometimes there was radio music.   

The starched Matron here was surely glad to be rid of me. I was disliked, mainly for talking out loud and actually being inquisitive.  
What rubbish! 

But I had the last laugh. I left those mice with two patients. Intrigued, they quickly palmed them. Other men noticed. At least one pair of alert eyes twinkled.  

I will always wonder what happened next.

11/11/18: Our Post-Halloween Treat- or Trick  

There is magic in the night when pumpkins glow so orange and bright... 

Halloween season stood out this year for Bryn, Joe and me.  She’d sniff her way up and down our street until her startled ‘pause-n-freeze’ pose would alert us to another neighbor’s newly installed lawn additions- such as skeletons sprawled on porch chairs or oozing out of graves, and witches that clung to overhanging tree branches, their capes twitching in the light breeze. Distorted, bone-thin men in rags- what Science Fiction writer Ray Bradbury might call ‘bump-in-the-night bogies,’ were animated by their owners from after dusk until well into late evenings so people driving past could enjoy the scenes. 
Humongous spiders waited on giant webs or swarmed over houses, climbing nearly to their roofs... 
One home advertised itself as a “Dead and Breakfast” establishment, causing lots of their front yard skeletons to climb out of their graves to snare a room with a decent bed. “Bein’ dead must be boring,” mused one child to his dad on Halloween. “That’s why they come up to the party out here...” 

My unsettled doggie preferred to trot on the street side of the wide sidewalks. (Too many bones without an ounce of meat on them?) 

One early evening a week before the big evening we strolled by a smallish yard that happened to light up just as we passed.  Alarmed, she leaped straight up into the air, landing stiff-legged, ears quivering and nostrils flared. What was this?? 
Four big wagons, one hitched to a skeleton-horse, had been set out. Skeletons manned the driver’s seats while their skinless friends lounged in the cargo beds. Ghosts, leering pumpkins, long deceased doggies, tombs and all manner of creepy stuff filled the lawn. The amazing scene attracted crowds of people holding their phones high to take pictures. It stopped cars dead: drivers and passengers were blown away by the awesome spectacle.  

Just before ‘The Event,’ even more homeowner marvels popped up. One really sweet one, an inflatable, full-size Cinderella-like carriage, pulled by two pretty gray horses, appeared on a front lawn three homes away from ours. Its generator purred almost inaudibly, keeping the airflow even.  
Wow! It was possible to peek into the carriage’s lit up interior. “Maybe Cinderella’s in there,” shouted one tiny child dressed as a ballerina. A six-year-old boy jumped up and down to sneak a peek. “No,” he pronounced. “No - ‘cause it’s not at her house yet- ‘member- she lives in the country!”   
The perfect answer! 
Everyone admired its charm.   

(Today, reading what I was about to submit, Joe chuckled. “Dee, that carriage was a hearse, not a princess’s carriage.” I was taken aback, then thoughtful. Ah...that was why those horses were dark gray, not white.  Silly me. But hey, the little dancer had thought the same thing...)  

Down the street a single skeleton horse was hitched to a wagon, accompanied by a Boston terrier-sized ‘bone’ dog; Bryn skidded to a stop to stare, baffled. 
It was an inspired, very effective tableau! 

Sixth Street had been truly transformed!   
Later, we decided 2018 had offered the best displays yet. So many well-lit exhibits had certainly thrilled loads of visitors.  
Joe and I arrived back in town only 40 minutes before ‘Trick-or-Treat’ was scheduled to begin. We tore inside, dressed up in the witch and warlock costumes I’d laid out days ago, dumped tons of candy into huge bowls and sat out on the front porch in hastily set up folding chairs to join in the fun. Near the end, Joe carried on distributing treats at a furious pace while I walked three blocks in my costume to see for myself what was happening. 

What a huge turnout- but fewer children had shown up compared to last year (when nearly 1,350 kids had trudged up our stairs).  Just over 1200 children trick-or-treated this time, and received our tribute. Almost every child thanked us. 

The morning after, I fretted about taking Bryn for her walk; she always sniffs diligently around trees, along sidewalks and into bushes for interesting news, and I’ve caught her many times trying to sample someone’s discarded summer hamburger bits or discarded pizza. But she has a serious medical problem, reacting violently to anything other than her special diet. Even a tiny bit of the wrong food could send her straight to the hospital. Halloween candy bits are routinely dropped or discarded, making the next day unnerving for us.  I’d tried a muzzle one year, but my normally silent dog actually cried until I removed it. So now, extra vigilance was necessary.  

Even though we walked well away from the most visited areas, and most lawns had been raked, making discarded candies easier to discern, she’d still managed to scarf down a 4-inch square, thin hunk of veggie pizza without our noticing until too late. Brightly wrapped candy always stands out, but this partial snack had blended too well into the leaf-mottled, curbside landscape. 
Horrified, all Joe and I could do was wait. 

We were incredibly lucky.  
Just an hour later up it came, having been inspected by her stomach and then summarily rejected.  She deposited it on the carpet still in perfect condition, still with the various veggies arranged nicely across the thin dough. It was WEIRD. 
To say we were amazed is to severely understate our reactions. 

Bryn, chagrined, left the room embarrassed and upset, though I’ve never scolded her for vomiting. That misery means ‘sick.’ ‘Sick’ means not her fault. Nevertheless, she wanted only to distance herself from this baffling barf. She couldn’t look us in the eye. 

We simply picked it up, scrubbed away the coffee can-sized stain and breathed a deep sigh of relief. 
No emergency room.  
No life-and-death situation.  
The invader was happily trashed.   

It was, if you will, as though lingering Halloween ghouls had seduced Bryn into gobbling down a potentially lethal Treat, but had then relented and taken it back again- call it their unlikely, gross, reverse Trick- for reasons we’ll never fathom. 
But who cares? Bryn had coughed up The Scary Thing. That’s what mattered. 
Life is good!