A Diversion: On Berryman

Berryman’s “Despair,” Matins,” “Sext,” and “Compline”: Explications

The task of beginning to understand John Berryman, as with any poet, allows for a multitude of possibilities, of directions in which understanding might be taken. But certain poems point to particular things: “Despair,” “Matins,” “Sext,” and “Compline,” as a small selection, direct me (at least, I see similarities in subject and tone) toward, in general, the Christian existentialists and the 17th century metaphysical poets. Specifically, many of the “Meditation” sections of John Donne’s Devotions upon Emergent Occasions and Søren Kierkegaard’s The Sickness unto Death inform my reading of the four poems I choose to explicate here.

Berryman’s “Despair” begins with a stanza of disjointed, sparse imagery, but each line does connect to the next. “It seems to be D A R K all the time” follows directly from the title, and tangentially from, or directs tangentially back toward, what Kierkegaard calls “the sickness unto death,” which is despair. Kierkegaard offers this useful explanation:

. . . the torment of despair is precisely the inability to die. In this it has much in common with the condition of the mortally ill person who is in the throes of death but cannot die. Thus to be sick unto death is to be unable to die, yet not as though there were hope of life. No, the hopelessness that is even the last hope, death, is gone. (48)

Berryman’s first line of “Despair” encapsulates what Kierkegaard defines as despair. “It,” whether the poet’s psyche, physical environment, personal imaginings, or whatever else may fall into the category of an appropriate subject–despair itself, even–is not, but “seems”–the poet questions his ability to define–not dark but “D A R K,” a visual essence of an emotion. The dark of “Despair” is not a friendly, calming, or simply indifferent dark. The dark is “all the time,” omnipresent. But what room is left for anything else, if any? Does the dark keep company with other nouns? The capitalization of it indicates all others are superseded. So the “difficulty walking” follows naturally. Not that the poet wanders aimlessly in a dark room and bumps his shins into the corners of coffee tables, but that simply to walk as a means of getting from one place to another requires either an active or passive guiding entity, which could be someone’s hand directing the ambler, or light illuminating a path. In dark, there are no paths and no guiding entities reveal themselves. The earnestness of “I have difficulty walking” lays upon the first line another stratum of tragic sentiment. Within two lines, Berryman establishes well the poem’s relationship to its title.

The next two lines explore a delicate idea: doubt. Kierkegaard takes an interesting position on dread, a facet of doubt:

All immediacy, in spite of its illusory security and peace, is dread; and, quite consistently therefore, it is most in dread of nothing. In immediacy the most terrifying description of the most horrifying and definite something cannot inspire so much dread as a shrewd half-word almost casually let slip but surely and calculatingly aimed by reflection, about something indeterminate. Yes, one inspires immediacy with the greatest dread of all by subtly letting it believe that it knows what one is talking about. For although immediacy surely doesn’t know, reflection never traps its prey more surely than when it makes its snare out of nothing, and reflection is never more itself that when it is–nothing. It requires an eminent reflection, or rather a great faith, to sustain a reflection on nothing, which is to say an infinite reflection. (56)

This passage speaks not only to “I can remember what to say to my seminar/but I don’t know that I want to”, but also to the remainder of the poem. The first two sentences of the Kierkegaard quoted above define “immediacy” as “dread.” I think it is important to say that I don’t think what Kierkegaard means by immediacy is the same as urgency, or a need to do something right now, such as write a poem, in order to maintain an urgent, necessary quality. What Kierkegaard means by immediacy is not simply dread, but a fear of not being satiated, and that his idea of the immediate consists of temporary things present only in physical realms, and these things lack what makes things eternal (though I’m not sure what does make a thing eternal). Dread appears in line 4 of “Despair,” and by the time the second “I” of the line appears, the dread clearly lives within self-doubt. The doubt does not indicate the poet is unsure of himself as one who would say things to a seminar, but that he doubts the necessity of his ability to accomplish the task at all. The poet has staked the clarity of his existence on the necessity of it. This is truly terrifying.

The indeterminate to which Kierkegaard refers lives and thrives on all the doubt of the remaining five stanzas. And these last five stanzas also seem to resist immediacy as Kierkegaard defines it without exiling it. “I said in a Song once: I am unusually tired” initiates the process of reflection, because it is a memory, a past event that the poet must call back into being. And so he does: “I’ll repeat that & increase it.” Simultaneous to the reflection runs the physical, the immediate: “I’m vomiting.” Berryman does not, as Kierkegaard does, separate an immediate existence from a reflective one. This does not lessen his dread; it fortifies it, if dread is capable of fortification, which leads to “I certainly don’t think I’ll last much longer.”

The fourth stanza gets to a kernel of despair. Hope is introduced as dark was: “Crackles! in darkness H O P E; & disappears./Lost arts./Vanishings.” If “reflection never traps its prey more surely than when it makes a snare out of nothing,” then Berryman has set an altogether keen trap as much for himself as for the reader. He describes what abstractly either emerges from darkness or illuminates what must be a very small circle within the vastness, which then “disappears.” Arts are lost and there are vanishings. What is vaguely defined becomes more vague and impossible to define. Hope is an opposite of, but also a close relative to dark because not only do the two define each other, but can one exist without the other and hold meaning as they do in this poem? In the line “Vanishings”, the poet questions not only meaning, but being. The participle of the verb vanish becomes a noun, a thing that exists, and is made plural. It lacks the ability to do, to be a verb, as it appears in the poem. Things are not vanishing, they are getting vanished, becoming gone, presumably by or because of something. Here, reflection borders on the infinite, but does not quite engage. The poet’s voice does not hold only dread and doubt, but also longing. To give “Lost arts” and “Vanishings” each their own lines indicates a slowing of time, a reverence for the ideas inherent in the words, and a desire to be as the ideas inherent in the words–a negation of self.

The fifth and sixth stanzas culminate in a return to the crackling of hope, the despair of negation, the despair stemming from the inability to negate the self, and come to a plea. At the end of “There are no matches” there is no punctuation. The line break and the stanza break serve to give a more eloquent pause after the line without clearly defining the connection, or disconnect, between it and “Utter, His Father, one word,” which also lacks a final punctuation mark. Hope crackles again in “matches”; the strike of a match precedes a crackling spark of flame. But “There are no matches.” The possibility of hope dissolves before becoming fully realized. No line of these stanzas in particular indicates a specific attempt at negating the self, but the despair of the inability to do so surfaces in the plea “Utter, His Father, one word”. The poet still speaks, still asks to be spoken to, which tells a reader that the poet’s existence persists, that the poet’s attempt at negating the self fails to become manifest. The relationship of the plea to the preceding line confounds me. No punctuation guides me, though I am not sure that the presence of a punctuating mark would be much help. The matches could perhaps be matches in the sense of pairings or couplings. Whether as such or as matches struck to produce fire, I do not think that “utter” is a verb applied to them in any way, or an adjective. “Utter” really doesn’t seem to work as an adjective when read as related solely to what comes after it. The plea is a prayer or a command of some kind, one from which the poet excludes himself from its possible consequences. It is to “His Father,” not Our or My. Even the plea seems one final attempt at quelling despair through ceasing to exist.

Despair continues to color the next three poems, but the poems reach further into the nature of being and how one’s spirituality or lack of it and the nature of it affects one’s being. “Matins”–a daybreak prayer–appropriately deals with the sun before and as it rises. One of Louise Glück’s “Matins” (3) from The Wild Iris helps to glean meaning from Berryman’s “Matins.” Glück’s opens with “Unreachable father.” Berryman’s, with:

Thou hard. I will be blunt: Like widening

blossoms again glad toward Your soothe of sun

& solar drawing forth, I find meself

little this bitter morning, Lord, tonight.

Berryman uses 29 words for what Glück says in two. But Berryman positions himself explicitly; Glück does not. Berryman provides a sense of place and self and need. The sun is or has “soothe”, or the ability to do so–a placating entity. So the place the poet is in is somewhere the sun reaches, or will reach. The self is “little”–lessened or insignificant, which fits if the self compares itself with the sun. But the self also benefits from the sun: “Like widening/blossoms” and “glad toward.” The need is not described but implicit, as the desire to negate the self was implicit in the final stanzas of “Despair.” What is implicit is the need to be heard, hopefully by the “Thou,” the “Lord.” Kierkegaard helps to discern the significance of the need: “The standard for the self is always: that directly in the face of which it is a self” (111). He precedes this with, “And what an infinite reality this self acquires by being conscious of being before God, by being a human self that has God as its standard!” (111). I’m not sure how much or what kind of a standard God is for Berryman, because he at times seems more envious of the deity he addresses than reverent of him. But his kind of relationship is not so unusual. Glück’s “Matins” (3) addresses a deity in a bitingly honest, even cruel voice:

We never though of you

whom we were learning to worship.

We merely knew it wasn’t human nature to love

only what returns love.

These lines echo Berryman’s, “Less were you tranquil to me in my dark/just now than tyrannous.” Though the “you” is not capitalized, Berryman still may be addressing the deity, but also, possibly, a haunting plurality. So this deity before which the poet places him or herself appears a rather daunting measure and one that occasionally inspires bitterness and spite. Another of Glück’s “Matins” (12) serves to complicate and to question the practicality of Kierkegaard’s assertions about the standard of the self. The entire poem is worth quoting here, for its antithetical nature to what Kierkegaard asserts, and for how well it matches Berryman’s “Matins”:

Forgive me if I say I love you: the powerful

are always lied to since the weak are always

driven by panic. I cannot love what I can’t conceive, and you disclose

virtually nothing: are you like the hawthorn tree,

always the same thing in the same place,

or are you more the foxglove, inconsistent, first springing up

a pink spike on the slope behind the daisies,

and the next year, purple in the rose garden? You must see

it is useless to us, this silence that promotes belief

you must be all things, the foxglove and the hawthorn tree,

the vulnerable rose and the tough daisy–we are left to think

you couldn’t possibly exist. Is this

what you mean us to think, does this explain

the silence of the morning,

the crickets not yet rubbing their wings, the cats

not fighting in the yard?

According to this, the self has nothing, really, to work with, as far as a standard can be reached when ascertaining a deity. A deity is not ascertainable. It is instead a number of possibilities, and exists, interestingly, in a number of things that are not–“the crickets not yet rubbing,” “the cats/not fighting”–including what the poet cannot do–“love” and “conceive.” Now the self is not attempting to negate itself directly. The self is defining itself by what it negates–the deity, the standard for the self. The negation takes an indirect path to its fruition. This happens in the Berryman:

However, lo, across what wilderness

in vincible ignorance past forty years

lost to (as now I see) Your sorrowing

I strayed abhorrent, blazing with my Self.

The self takes a rather treacherous step beyond negating the deity: it admits to superseding, for “forty years,” the deity. “Blazing” even more brightly than the deity! But the self knows its abhorrence and its ignorance and the deity’s distaste for such things, which is a humble gesture beyond the reach of the Glück “Matins” (12). The final five stanzas hold the self before the mirror of the deity, the deity before the mirror of the self:

poor scotographer, far here from Court,

humming over goodnatured Handel’s Te Deum.

I waxed, upon surrender, strenuous

ah almost able service to devise.

I am like your sun, Dear, in a state of shear–

parts of my surface are continually slipping past others,

not You, not You. O I may, even, wave

in crisis like a skew Wolf-Rayet star.

Seas and hills, the high lakes, Superior,

accomplish your blue or emerald donations–

manifest too your soft forbearance, hard

& flint for fierce man hardly to take in.

I take that in. Yes. Just now. I read that.

Hop foot to foot, hurl the white pillows about,

jubilant brothers: He is our overlord,

holding up yet with crimson flags the sun

whom He’ll embark soon mounting fluent day!

(A scotographer, it is helpful to know, is one who writes in the dark. I had to look it up.) The poet praises the sun, the world it illuminates, the deity which created it and now controls it. Penitence becomes a possibility for the poet–“almost able service to devise”–but whether this is because the poet recognizes himself in the deity or fails to do so is obscured by his likening of himself to the sun. And then the sun is what the deity supports above the world bestowing its light. But the crisis of self comes in the seventh stanza of the poem: “parts of my surface are continually slipping past others,/not You, not You.” The poet cannot elude the deity, he realizes, cannot at his surface deceive it. But what about what exists below the surface? I do not think the poet explores that in this poem. I cannot find an answer to the question; any implicit hints fail to discover themselves to me. The surface, the visible, the discernable self, and also the discernable deity–the sun–constitute the matter of this poem. Even the surface that the self cannot maintain, as with the “Wolf-Rayet star”– a kind of massive star with stellar winds strong enough to carry away the star’s stellar matter, its surface (“Big Old . . .”)–, prevails over the internal and psychic worlds.

A more interior, contemplative poem is “Sext” (noon of the canonical hours). Perhaps the direct sunlight serves to illuminate even what is most obscure.

High noon has me pitchblack, so in hope out,

slipping thro’ stasis, my heart skeps a beat

actuellement,

reflecting on the subtler menace of decline.

With the first stanza, the poet engages in “reflecting,” an internal activity, “on the subtler menace of decline.” Decline of the self, of the state, the church, the faith–all are possibilities, but none more likely or more frightening than the decline of the self, because the self ultimately determines the remaining arrangements. State, church, and faith tend to lose meaning when no self can give them their significance. “Sext” delves into the origin of the preeminence of “Self-Preservation.” “We do not know, deep now the dire age on,/if it’s so, or mere a nightmare of one dark one”–what is not known? The poet asks, how real is this decline? Or is the decline merely a fantasy of “one dark one,” an obscure philosopher, “disciple,” idol, false god. Does this poem really ask what is THE answer? If the decline is of the self, then perhaps it’s time to bring in John Donne. In Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, Donne of course does not question the existence of a deity, but does offer “Meditation” on, among many things, the orientation of the self in relation to the deity, which is a primary pursuit of “Sext.” Donne, in sickness:

Solitude is a torment which is not threatened in hell itself. Mere vacuity, the first agent, God, the first instrument of God, nature, will not admit; nothing can be utterly empty, but so near a degree toward vacuity as solitude, to be but one, they [the physicians] love not. When I am dead, and my body might infect, they have a remedy, they may bury me; but when I am but sick, and might infect, they have no remedy but their absence, and my solitude. (26)

Though Donne speaks of a physical sickness, how conveniently his words fit a spiritual sickness, that is, Kierkegaard’s concept of despair, or simply a near-emptiness, a state of spiritual exhaustion. And solitude is this state’s primary attribute, because solitude allows for reflection, how Berryman opened the poem. And the writing of poetry is as solitary an activity as reflection. The hope in Donne is not simply the certainty of the existence of a deity, but that “nothing can be utterly empty.” One in solitude may be spiritually replete and no one can truly be a spiritual void. So the final stanza of “Sext” comes as a rather hopeful prayer, however dire the content of it. The poet ends with

so of rare Heart repair my fracturing heart

obedient to disobedience

minutely, wholesale, that come midnight neither

my mortal sin nor thought upon it lose me.

The deity is addressed by a part of it, part of the whole, as the life-sustaining organ, life-sustaining because of its relationship to blood, as blood’s engine. The “Heart” becomes the deity because it is named as such and because of its perpetuity. It is unlike the “fracturing heart” of the poet. But the poet’s heart is an acting heart, “fracturing,” in the act of fracturing itself, perhaps others, and not fractured, not acted upon unless repaired in the future by the heart of the deity. The poet pleas to be not lost from the possibility of repair by the deity’s heart. The self begins to recognize itself in the things it shares with its conception of the deity–such as a heart–, a conception not possible for the voice of Glück’s “Matins” (12), but wholly possible for Berryman throughout “Opus Dei.”

“Compline,” the last prayer of the day, said after sundown, creates a portrait of a poet either surrendering to or accepting into himself the deity. “Not that I’m not attending,/only I kneel here spelled/under a mystery of one midnight,” presents the poet in a posture of supplication and humility. More importantly, the poet implicitly admits supplication of the self through the diction: “kneel here spelled/under a mystery” indicates an awe and even some reverence for the power which holds him in thrall. The poet’s conscious realization of the thrall carries over into the urgency of the next stanza: “I’ve got to get as little as possible wrong.” The next six lines have no punctuation, but the recurring consonance of the “t” sound–as in “squat,” “unfit,” “inherit,” “left,” and “feet”–at the ends of words, though it does not cause the same pause as punctuation, serves to replace it. Consequently, these six lines move very fast, their urgency apparent in the physicality of the imagery. “Skull & feet/& bloody among their dogs the palms of my hands” transforms the living poet to an amalgamation of body parts, possibly not quite alive, though not yet dead, because the poem continues.

The speed only increases in the sixth and seventh stanzas; the poem propels itself with dashes and, in the first two lines of the sixth stanza, trades consonance for assonance, giving the impression of a speed at which pieces of the poet shear away, as in “Matins.” “Lord,” “long,” and “done”; “lapse” and “straps”; “oaths” and “toads”: what remains counters the sounds without slowing down–“phantasmagoria prolix,” exhaustion caused by sensory overload. The exhaustion causes a turn from the outward to the inward, the core, “a rapture, though, of the Kingdom here here now/in the heart of a child.”

What follows confuses. Does the poet write earnestly, or mockingly? In bitterness, or in contentment? Or even in hope, knowing that what he writes is too hard to believe?

If He for me as I feel for my daughter,

being His son, I’ll sweat no more tonight

but happy snore & drowse. I have got it made,

and so have all we of contrition, for

If He loves me He must love everybody

I believe Berryman writes earnestly here, but also that he writes, as he writes in “Despair,” in doubt. This prayer functions as prayers do. It is a comfort, however difficult to believe, to say to oneself over and over that one is loved and will be forgiven, and also that one is capable of love because of forgiveness. To say “I have got it made” is not to mock or to jest, but to comfort oneself with a familiar phrase in a moment, or a lifetime, of doubt. Just to be able to say or to write such a thing lets an individual, if only for a moment, feel the possibility of it.

The final stanza slows down to about the speed of the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, though so much of the poem before this stanza had been the speed of the third movement.

Heard sapphire flutings. The winter will end. I remember You.

The sky was red. My pillow’s cold & blanched.

There are no fair bells in this city. This fireless house

lies down at Your disposal as usual! Amen!

The sentences consist primarily of subjects, verbs, and small predicates. The tense shifts cause moments of poetic fugue (in the psychiatric sense). The first line moves from past to future to present, but what carries a reader across the cavernous silences between the period and the next capital letter? From “flutings” to “winter” to “You” the method of travel does not reveal itself. The next few sentences place the self more clearly in a particular environment, without increasing the speed of the line. Here the poem maintains the validity of the title. “The sky was red,” as at dusk, as though the poet remembers the evening in winter before he came to this canonical hour. And his pillow is “cold & blanched” so he is in or near, or feeling close to, his bedroom and his bed, though his bed is empty–a cold pillow, untouched.

About the last lines of “Compline” I can say that they are true to the poem and to “Opus Dei” and that the poet’s doubt remains unresolved. The beauty and pain in them speak more succinctly than anything I might say about them. They are incredibly powerful. For a city to have no bells, no church bells ringing, or clock towers chiming, means a city where time and humanity have lost each other. The poet has no place to situate himself among other beings. Donne offers: “As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come, so this bell calls us all; but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness” (102), which I apply to Berryman’s final lines of “Opus Dei.” If there is nothing calling to the poet, do his words answer anything, engage anything in dialectic, imagination, discourse, or conversation? So the “house,” the body of the poet, the psyche of the poet, is “fireless”; what doubt and despair have done to the voice of the poet.

The voice of “Despair,” “Matins,” “Sext,” and “Compline” consistently pulses in the realm of prayer, sometimes ripping through ideas so quickly the poet loses pieces of himself before he can stop them from tearing away, sometimes slowing to a nearly halting heartbeat. Berryman is “so near the door.” The door is faith, and the door is death. I don’t know if to resolve doubt would be to walk through the door, or to close it.

***

Works Cited

Berryman, John. “Compline.” “Despair.” “Matins.” “Sext.” John Berryman Collected Poems 1937-1971. Ed. Charles Thornbury. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1989.

“Big Old Stars Don’t Die Alone.” Goddard Space Flight Center Top Story Page. 5 Jan. 2004

Donne, John. Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. Devotions upon Emergent Occasions and Death’s Duel. Eds. John F. Thornton and Susan B. Varenne. New York: Vintage Spiritual Classics, 1999. 1-152.

Glück, Louise. “ Matins.” “Matins.” The Wild Iris. New York: The Ecco Press, 1992. 3, 12.

Kierkegaard, Søren. The Sickness unto Death. Trans. Alastair Hannay. New York: Penguin, 1989.

“Immersed in a Cocoon of Serenity”

Hello! I am still here and kind of did not notice that I have neglected to blog for two months – for many reasons. I have various updates on Eli, Eli’s fly boots, Eli’s preternatural ability to get randomly injured, Eli’s tack, and Eli’s mommy’s (yes, me) recent realization that is it VERY IMPORTANT to leave work at work and forget about work while interacting with Eli. So that’s where the title of this post comes from – me recognizing I need to be peaceful while approaching Eli if I expect Eli to be peaceful while approaching me. This makes it sound like something dramatic happened but I really just had one exhausting day at work and failed to check my stress at the barn door. Fortunately, I realized this and dismounted and came back the next day with renewed calm and Eli was – magically? no. Responsively. – calm. So I’ll get to that more later in this post.

Moving on to the meats of this update! Eli is doing well. Eating well. Playing in turnout as the weather allows (which omg I think it rained every day in May

and now all week we are getting rain which is super weird for July in Texas but climate change and such, so … ). Going well under saddle if I have my head screwed on straight … and when is THAT never the case for any horse & rider?

Okay, so, Eli’s fly boots: I sucked it up and bought a pricey set of the Shoofly fly boots. Although are they really that pricey if you get 4 to a set? I have never bought fly boots before so I genuinely don’t know and did not research other options since basically everyone recommends these.

At the time of purchase, I was having a difficult time tracking down a blue set in size medium for Eli. So he got orange. I do like orange but wow, these would not be difficult to find if he took them off in turnout somehow. More importantly, they work. Which I am surprised about, because what stops flies from landing above the boots and crawling down the legs? Sorcery? I don’t get it. But they work! Eli’s farrier agreed that they are helping a ton with the condition of his front feet. No stomping = no cracking. He wears them almost all the time, just not when I ride him.

Oh! Before we get to Eli’s random injury of the day/week/month, I did have to get new tall boots. Okay, maybe did not have to, but. I broke the zipper on my Salentos. I mean. I really did a number on it. I zipped a boot sock into it and it took me a really long time to get the sock all the way out of the zipper, all while Eli started at me, tacked up, wondering why no cookie, no bridle, no mommy attention. I gave up and rode in the Dublin river boots and I don’t know how people do that on a regular basis. The sock and zipper suffered complete shredding annihilation. I can get into my black Ego7s as long as I am wearing thin thin thin riding tights. But even so they are snuuuuuuuug.

My orange Deniros need new zippers. Now the Salentos need new zippers. My brown Deniros are too precious for daily use. I need another option. So I ordered brown Ego7s from Equizone (highly recommend Equizone if you are not averse to ordering stuff from Europe) and can now wear breeches again. Yay.

On to Eli’s injuries. A number of weeks ago now, I came out to the barn and Eli’s back legs were a bit chewed up and swollen. He had tiny scrapes all over below the hock on both hinds, and random areas of localized swelling. I have no idea what he did and it doesn’t really matter because horses do random shit to themselves so I may as well treat and move on. I “iced” a lot with the Incrediwear circulation wraps and didn’t ride for a few days, mostly from the rain. Kept icing, rode at just a walk for a few days until all the swelling was mostly gone. He seems fine now. I did try to put the Incrediwear standing wraps on him one night, but he managed to take one off and generally doesn’t like things on his hind legs so I stuck with just the icing after that. And liberal amounts of Sore No More Gelotion.

Now for Eli’s tack: I have switched things up a little bit.

Another thing I ordered from Equizone a long while back is a Trust elliptical sweet iron dee. I like it. I think Eli likes it. Mostly I’ll still ride him in the Dynamic RS but I know he enjoys sweet iron so I wanted that option.

I noticed a few months ago that my saddle developed a squeak (ugh, probably a loose rivet, yuck). Could it be the humidity? Maybe. I also noticed Eli seemed a bit irritated near the top of his shoulder (only under saddle, not really all the time or anything). I started suspecting that his alfalfa bod, my saddle, and the Ogilvy half pad were a less than optimum combination. I swapped the Oglivy for the Thinline, got some Back on Track Mathilde pads, the weather dried out and my saddle stopped squeaking and Eli seemed more comfortable under saddle. It’s weird – it’s like the Ogilvy is just too thick and also slightly unstable. I don’t know why I suddenly experienced all this at once, but luckily I already had the Thinline and everything is working for now. I do wonder if Eli would be better in a different saddle, but due to a particular situation at work which, yes, I will get into in a minute, I am reluctant to spend much money on anything right now if what we have is serviceable already. Which it seems to be.

The little Polaroid Cube tries but damn I am having Pivo envy. Also I need to sit up.

So yeah, Eli’s tack set up is sufficient for now. My stirrups and stirrup leathers needed a bit of an update, though. I picked up some TSF stability leathers in the Riding Warehouse Memorial Day sale and I don’t know if I like them or not. I have yet to pull the trigger on any new irons. Again, trying not to spend money. To which you may respond, but you got a Trust bit and new boots … ??? Yes, well, those things happened before a particular work thing happened and I had not been concerned about that particular work thing happening for real because of reasons one might characterize as “separation of powers.”

On to the job stuff … I am, along with a couple thousand other people, in a situation that is very fluid but could still possibly end in not getting paid after September 1. Otherwise I would be saddle shopping. This is an interesting situation that has changed my attitude about my current job. I mean. I am a librarian, a public employee. I expect any job to come with some stress but I am now faced with A LOT of stress, much more than I would expect as a librarian. Books do not cause me stress so wtf. On one hand I am completely fascinated by the entire situation because I am a law nerd and a political junkie. On the other hand, I have to eat and put gas in my car and take care of my animals, so it’s a bit of a mess. If you are a law nerd like me you can follow the case.

As a result of this political Gordian knot at work, I had a stupid exhausting day earlier this week and came out to the barn with nothing but anger in me. Eli picked up on it immediately. I did tack up, and did get on, and walked around for a minute, but realized I was not in a mental state that was fair to Eli. I dismounted and felt defeated at not being able to control my emotions over stuff that I normally never even think about while I’m at the barn. But later at home I ran across a couple of posts – one from Warwick Schiller and one from Denny Emerson, both making very strong cases for staying calm around the horse if you want a calm horse to ride. I felt less lousy about dismounting so quickly.

The following day, I got to work from home (we are still hybrid right now at work) and took a lot of breaks, drank a lot of water. Bill filing started up at work and I do truly enjoy indexing legislation so that helped to have my favorite work task. I put on some labradorite bead bracelets (placebo effect is still an effect) before heading out to go ride. Eli nickered at me as always when I walked into the barn and I was much better able to leave stupid work at work and brought peace and happiness up to Eli as I got him out of his stall. And what a difference attitude can make. He was a perfect gentleman under saddle. He was cuddly on the ground. Cuddly! Him! So yeah, if you want a calm, happy horse, you gotta be calm and happy, even if it’s a difficult thing to do under whatever circumstances you might be in. You CAN control whether or not you are calm and happy around your horse. And it makes a huge difference! “Immersed in a cocoon of serenity” comes from the Denny Emerson post and it struck me as a slightly dramatic but very wise way of describing how a calm, centered, serene rider produces a calm, centered, serene horse.

Conrad will be back on the blog soon, too, and he has just as many updates! Blogging helps me track events for both Eli and Conrad, so I hope to get back to it more regularly. There are few affiliate links in this post, too, so if you feel like doing a little shopping through them I’d be very appreciative – I prefer to be proactive about my current income quandary 🙂

6 Days in the 9th Circle

Remember how it already snowed 6 inches in my corner of central Texas back in January? Texas got wrung through the iciest wringer in the state’s recent history (meaning since weather has been recorded here back in the late 19th century) starting with Valentine’s Day. And then President’s Day. And this extended through an entire week — 6 days below freezing, 6 days of ice and snow, and wouldn’t you know it, our federal regulation-free, independent little power grid almost collapsed catastrophically! 

Along with many, many trees. So yes, as I am sure you have now read in the news, Texas went through days of “rolling blackouts” which were just straight up blackouts for some, no rolling about it. I stayed up all night without power the night it was 5 degrees at the lowest, snuggling Conrad under 5 blankets and drinking hot beverages periodically because the gas stove could at least be lit with a match to heat water. I have rediscovered the deliciousness that is percolator coffee. I was lucky, as my house stayed just above 50 degrees and we got power back before many people. And I never had a water issue, but I am sure you have also seen the news — Texas is in a water crisis as a result of the “rolling” blackouts. Water treatment facilities lost power and left 14 million Texans without potable drinking water. FOR DAYS. Some had no water at all. 

No, snow is not fucking pretty. No, we do not have snow plows in central Texas (Dallas has a few). No, we do not have snow tires, crampons, pipes buried eight feet deep, or taboggans. (We can’t bury pipes 8 feet deep in central Texas anyway because just below a thin layer of crappy topsoil you get into our limestone karst systems — our ground is a mix of solid sedimentary, fossil-flecked rock and hollow caves that live and grow and store water for some of us.) Why I bought snow boots years ago I have no idea, but it made me the designated backyard guardian so I cleared small areas for Conrad to relieve himself and for birds to eat birdseed. I regularly tromped through icy, crunchy, deep (for Texas) snow and I NEVER want to do it again. And compared to many, I had it easy.

People died here because of this weather. It started with a heinously nightmarish pile up in Fort Worth caused by black ice and ended with children and the elderly freezing to death in their homes, or dying due to lack of access to medically necessary life-saving treatments like insulin and dialysis. And but for Texas’ obstinate independence from federal regulation of electric utilities, these deaths were preventable. 

Like I said, I am one of the lucky ones. Conrad is totally ok. Eli is totally ok and was in the best care for the worst of the weather and it’s already spring-like here again, the kind of Texas winter Texans know and love. I may have gone 6 days without seeing my horse because of hazardous road conditions (and a car that did not want to start so that was a’ whole n’other thing), but I knew he was safe where he was.

Eli’s opinion of snow seemed pretty low, after he licked some while grazing – it produced the flehmen response so I’d say he is still indeed a summer horse. He finds the white stuff bewildering and of course there was too much ice along with the snow for safe turnout. The turnouts dried out enough fairly quickly and he’s had sunny outside time again. I am keeping tabs on him closely though, since stuck-in-a-stall time for 6 days other than hand-walking is not his favorite and I hope he is not getting ulcery again from it. 

So …. yeah. 6 days of the 9th circle here in Texas. I much prefer it in the 1st circle … or even the 6th is probably ok for me personally. Anything but entombment in this much ice and snow ever again. 

That’s a Lot of Snow

For here, anyway, in Central Texas. I got like 6 inches of snow at my house! It snowed ALL DAY. That just … doesn’t really happen here.

I really don’t like snow at all. Snow is pretty and magical for about an hour, then it’s just cold, wet, and hazardous to tree branches. Some of which snapped loudly as though someone fired a rifle just on the other side of the fence. 

Cardinals do look really good in snow, though. I am sure the ones here were surprised AF. Conrad was also surprised.

I did not think I would ever need snow boots for my dog, but he could have used them on Sunday.

I am pretty sure I am satisfied with the amount of snow that has fallen at my house in 2021 for the next 30 years or so. 

The snow was nicer than the usual ice storm we get around this time of year, at least, so perhaps we’ve dodged that bullet? Ha, yeah right. 2021 seems to be continuing in the tradition of 2020 but on steroids so I am sure we will get an ice day before the end of February. 

I am ready for warmer weather now for sure!

Scaling Back but Feeling Full

Nothing like a pandemic to make me thankful for what I have, and to show me just how much of my life falls into the privileged sphere. I am one of the lucky few whose routine has barely changed, and what has changed so far has been mostly for the better.

I still get to work! This alone is immense, as many millions of people will end up unemployed as a result of the pandemic, if they are not already. Just like some people may not survive COVID-19, I fear that many people may never recover economically from this crazy situation. But addressing the pandemic is much more important than addressing the economy in the immediate future, as difficult as that may be for many, many people.

Conrad gets a few more walks. I don’t think he minds. He’s not too happy at me about working from home and not paying more attention to him because I am at home. But my home office area has a couch he can nap on. He’ll figure it out eventually.

I am still able to go to the barn to see Eli. I know barn access varies from state to state right now and many people are relying on barn employees for all of their horses’ care. Lesson programs in my area have been suspended at many barns, but some barns are still allowing access to boarders.

So what am I scaling back? Driving — my commute either involves a drive in to work three days a week with little traffic, or a really short walk over to my desk at home. Running everyday errands — I am avoiding this if possible. I have a bracelet that needs fixing at a jeweler and a snap on a tall boot that needs replacing, for instance, that I’d take to a shoe repair place. But this kind of thing is on hold indefinitely. Riding Eli — Eli can be a bit spooky, as we all know. I am limiting his under saddle time to just a few rides a week when the weather permits it and keeping the rides at a walk or trot. I am going for low impact and minimizing risk. I do consider his exercise as essential pet care and it’s also my outdoor, socially-distanced exercise anyway, so I do not really feel like I am skirting any stay-at-home orders in my area with this. I understand that MANY people may disagree with my interpretation of the local stay-at-home orders. However, I am at the barn at times when few other boarders are there, and I am only touching Eli’s stuff, so I am minimizing risk in that way, too. Eating out — oh how I miss Mexican restaurants. I am not on a budget that allows constant take-out, as much as I would like to do that to support the restaurants around here that I like to go to. This does seem to have the benefit of cleaning up my waistline a bit, at least. Visiting friends — I don’t visit very many people, and now I am hardly seeing friends in person at all. I am not going to rule it out completely because when I do visit friends, it’s usually one person in a private residence and it’s to watch streaming stuff, drink wine, and catch up.

I find myself asking daily the question, “Is this really necessary?” A lot of the time, whatever it may be, it is not really necessary.

And here’s my last little editorial thought for the day: Even if inadvertently, COVID-19 is showing us a path to mitigating climate change. We are quite obviously capable of making many of these changes for the long-term, if there is even much of a long-term to look forward to.

That being said, I CANNOT WAIT for all the restaurants and bars to reopen! When that happens, maybe we could all consider tipping at 30%-50% for a month or so if we can swing it. I also want to go to ALL THE MUSEUMS and donate $$$ to their programs and collections. I miss having a Manhattan at Lamberts. I miss the Austin Opera. I miss meeting up with somebody for lunch downtown on a weekday. I MISS QUESO. But we could all stand to drive or fly a little less after all this craziness subsides, right?

Stocking Stuffers

Not every equestrian-themed stocking stuffer has to be strictly for equestrians, right? If you’re ready to do some shopping (even if only to avoid interacting with family), either pre- or post-turkey, these tiny little treasures fit in equestrian stockings of all sizes:

 

Do I need to explain why the Lip Smacker Lippy Pal is on this list?

So for a slightly more luxurious lip option (and my favorite lip treatment ever) the Fresh Sugar Honey Tinted Lip Treatment has SPF, which makes it a requirement for an equestrian, considering all the time we are out in the sun.

One of my favorite things of 2019 (other than Baby Yoda, obviously) is the Coola Rosilliance goop. Another SPF necessity! This stuff is so smooth and leaves a bit of a dewy look, but doesn’t melt off or dry out. I have the weirdest, most sensitive skin that reacts to seemingly benign things, and I was so glad to figure out that this stuff is compatible with my skin and worth every penny!

Tall boot socks are basically all I wear. They work for the barn and for work, and for barn work. And you can get a 3-pack of Sox Trot boot socks for under $30. And you can never have too many.

Sometimes an equestrian does expect an exclusively horse-related gift in their stocking, so let me suggest the Ultimate Hoof Pick Jr. If you don’t have one yet, you don’t know what you’re missing. This is one of the sturdiest tools in my groom box.

Another tiny treasure is for the horse girls that insist on “hunter hair.” Rider’s Hair Nets, especially the heavyweight ones, keep all of my hair up in my helmet. No flyaways, and no hair sticking to the back of my neck and creeping me out. I can’t live without these things. Well, maybe I could but I don’t want to.

So you know my little Polaroid Cube? And you’ve seen the videos I get with it, night or day? I paid considerably more than the current price Amazon lists right now. You can’t pass this up! It has come in so handy for me. It’s super easy to use and takes pretty good HD video.

So while back, I discovered simple boot trees in the form of plastic sheets that you and roll up and stuff in your boots, and they conform to the shape of the boots. These are less expensive than actual boot trees and don’t deflate like the popular inflatable boot trees. Amazon has a pack of Household Essentials Boot Shaper Form Inserts for a good value. I kind of need these for all of my boots, not just my tall riding boots.

Last, can you exist in the horse world without coffee? I just tried some hazelnut flavor. It’s delicious.

Anything you are asking for that you hope to see in your holiday stocking?

 

Odds & Ends I Could Live Without … But Why Would I?

If you live under a rock, you may not realize Amazon’s Prime Day is happening across two days and this is day one. I am not sure how many deals are going to appeal me, but I guess I’m going to find out while window shopping online. In the meantime, I have found a handful of things via Amazon that I didn’t realize I needed until I had them and now I’m like, whoa. Glad I bought that. Maybe some will be Prime Day deals?

Who needs easy-care, comfortable work pants? Since my breeches are not work pants (well, okay, maybe sometimes they are) I have been digging through the internet for affordable, work-appropriate pants with a tailored look and reasonable price tag. I searched “betabrand” on Amazon. Amazon showed me Rekucci instead. (I am not going to pay $80 for work pants that fit like yoga pants, betabrand.)

Rekucci offers a lot of styles of pants that are all pull-on type pants that sort of feel like yoga pants but look much, much more tailored. My favorites have been the boot cut pants. They work for work. Pay attention to the size chart, for sure! And the length. In the regular length pants, I have to wear heels or the pants drag on the ground. (I’m 5’6″.) The short ones are good for me for wearing flats or kitten heel shoes. And they actually look like work pants.

This is the Indigo color. And I cannot live without Worishofers.

If you are super curvy, I am not sure how these would work — they are pull on and while they do have some stretch, they are not super stretchy in the waist. I can get them over my hips easily, but I am not sure how they would work on someone with wider hips and a trimmer waist. I also wash them inside out in cold water and hang to dry. Some reviewers have noticed fabric wear after only a few washes, but I have not run into that problem yet.

Since the Amazon oracle (or search bar, whatever) showed me reasonably-priced work pants, I wondered what it would show me for boot trees. That are not actually boot trees. And also not inflatable boot trees. Would such a thing even exist? I have mentioned them once before, and yes they do indeed exist: boot shapers.

Not gonna lie … these things are genius

They are basically flat plastic inserts that conform to your boots’ shape. I liked the first set I bought so much that I bought more for all my tall riding boots. I am kind of thinking I should get some for my wear-to-work boots, too.

If you have not figured out by now that I am susceptible to online advertising, you must be a new reader. Scrolling through Instagram can be dangerous when it’s not actually kind of boring. I see all kinds of ads, one of which was for amazing hair towels that speed drying and minimize frizz! How can this beeeee! Okay, well, let me just see what Amazon has … and yep, they have the advertised towels. You don’t have to get them via Amazon, but I have found the Amazon price to be slightly lower than other vendors. The product is Aquis towels, and they do indeed speed drying and minimize frizz. Do I end up with completely dry hair and zero frizz? No, don’t be daft. My hair is fried from years of dyeing it. But I am in the midst of a hair renaissance and have stopped dyeing it. The 4-5 inches of growth that has not been traditionally dyed is actually pretty healthy looking, thanks to Olaplex, oVertone, and these towels.

The dyed hair is a lost cause, but the Aquis towels do seem to keep my frizz from getting out of control. They have towels for fine hair, towels for curly hair, towels for long hair, turbans … They are also WAY easier on my neck than big heavy bath towels. 10/10 recommend. (Also got hooked by Sand & Sky from Instagram ads …)

Don’t think my animals don’t benefit from my window shopping. First, Conrad: he is REALLY sensitive to fat content. For a while there, he was doing okay with treats under 10% crude fat and I was giving him the single ingredient duck liver treats, which he loved. And they are like 9% fat. His digestive system eventually rebelled, so I sought out lower-fat options. I found single ingredient chicken breast treats from the same brand.

They are freeze-dried, made in the USA, and are 3% crude fat. And luckily, Conrad loves these, too. I am now sticking with treats for him that are under 5% crude fat. You know what other treat — that Conrad loves — has just 5% crude fat and is made in the USA? Milkbones. Classic! He gets one after each of his meals to chomp on.

So Eli is no stranger to me stuffing his face with all kinds of treats. But I needed something that wouldn’t crumble in my pocket or get all sticky or melty when it’s hot because it is really hot here right now. Like … so, so hot. I found these Ginger Ridge Meadow Mints, and the brand also offers a Vanilla Flax flavor if you are looking to add a little more flax to your horse’s diet.

These stay in tact in my breeches’ pocket, they aren’t gooey, and they aren’t in a plastic wrapper. Eli may not go nuts over them quite like he does for Stud Muffins or German Horse Muffins or Gala apples, but he likes these and these keep his mouth occupied while I am doing up his girth.

He also might get one to chomp on during a ride as a reward for not killing me. What? Our bar is low right now.

I discovered a few other interesting things offered via Amazon that deserve a mention. The first is a newer version of the Polaroid Cube. I have a Polaroid Cube+ and it has been a handy little camera for filming rides. I ran across a Polaroid Cube Act II for an interesting price — much less than what I paid for the Cube+. Does anyone have experience with this one? Do I need it?

I was surprised to find that you can get a 23andMe DNA test kit through Amazon, too. Honestly, I was looking for a doggy DNA test kit and saw that 23andMe could be purchased via Amazon. This is something I have experience with — and the genetic reports keep coming. When you test with 23andMe, you get initial results, but the company keeps your DNA and keeps studying it. On one hand … creepy. But on the other, it’s a wealth of health knowledge. No, you can’t be diagnosed with anything through your DNA, but the company notes what genetic predispositions you might have. That information you can use over a lifetime. If you don’t mind strangers mapping your DNA. If you can’t get past the potential privacy issues, this probably isn’t for you. Because 23andMe will know if you are more or less likely to have wet or dry ear wax. Nope, I am serious. The latest Trait report I got was about Ice Cream Flavor Preference …

Ultimately, I think the best deals are going to be on Amazon devices. I am not in the market for any today, but that Ring doorbell/home security stuff is super tempting!

Customer Service

Last week, I experienced two drastically different consumer transactions. The tone of customer service played a large role in both. In one instance, I had been left cautiously … we’ll just say not pessimistic. The second instance won me over yet again as a customer for life.

The key thing here is that customer service isn’t just about being polite and friendly. Sometimes something goes wrong, and sometimes it’s up to a company to make it right. I don’t just want a friendly, “that’s just the way it is.” I am not going to throw a tantrum in public about it, but I might make you think I am about to after something like that.

I am naming companies in both cases. I might leave some details out due to privacy, but you will be left with a mostly clear picture of each experience.

The vehicle in question. And Eli.

The first is a decidedly non-equestrian situation. (If you came here for horses, too bad, suck it up.) I took my Toyota in for service at the Toyota dealership, where I have been a customer since like 2006. I went in for a regular maintenance package, as I have done every few months for years. I diligently keep up with vehicle maintenance because I expect my vehicles to last a long time. I left my car in the service drive after discussing what services were recommended. I thought it was a bit weird that there were two services we were 20k miles overdue for …. I really wish someone had mentioned them then …. but no matter, the car was running great and I’m not going to not do something my car needs, so I agreed.

After a few minutes in the waiting area, free cappuccino in hand, the service rep — who was extremely polite, forthright, and helpful and remained so the entire time — came back with a few additional things the car needed.

One was front brakes. Fair enough. And, Toyota had indeed mentioned this to me during the previous service visit, so I wasn’t too surprised and expected to replace them soon.

The next thing …. my exact reaction was “HAHAHA that shit ain’t happening.” Let me point out here the car is a 2017, just outside the mileage to be covered under warranty. Here’s an approximation of our conversation:

Rep: Do you know if you have an extended warranty?

Me: No, I don’t think so. I just bought out the lease.

Rep: Are you sure about the warranty? Did your husband buy the car?

Me: <glaring through narrowed eyes> I don’t have a husband. I bought the car.

Rep: Okay, sorry. Yes, of course. Forget I said that.

Me: So explain the problem … ?

The rep, polite as she ever was, did explain what was going on with the car, but I did note that the paperwork said that I had complained of a squeak or rattle, which was NOT the case. (I did ask why my car no longer beeped when I set the alarm and asked if it could be fixed. Misinterpretation?)

Anyway, I made it pretty clear that, that day, I would not be doing the brakes or the other service related to the squeak and rattle I hadn’t mentioned. The problem, as explained, meant taking the engine out of the car to fix it, and the estimate for labor was comparable to what, let’s say, a neurosurgeon or orthopaedic surgeon might charge for surgery:

The rep started walking back pretty quickly. Then the rep said since I was a valued, loyal Toyota customer, she would pull all of my service records, contact the appropriate people, and see if there would be any leeway on the warranty, considering the circumstances.

It was here I began to question whether this thing was even wrong with my car.

I also remembered the labor from a previous instance on a similar issue with my previous Toyota. This current labor quote was 4x the previous one, and the previous one wasn’t exactly pocket change. In both instances, the engine had to be taken out of the car to fix it. With my older Toyota, it was a 200kmiles+ 4runner from 2004. Why does the engine of a 2017 even need to come out? And maybe it does. And I get that it’s a big job. But it is not neurosurgery.

Ultimately, Toyota agreed to cover the entire cost, and offered a loaner car for the day at no charge. On its face, this is pretty much excellent customer service. The rep solved the problem at no cost to me. Toyota preserved our relationship.

Maybe. … I, uh, take issue with the labor quote. I am perplexed by the assumptions the rep made about me, polite and helpful and accommodating as she was — truly, she gave me excellent service… but … I am still not sure where someone got the idea I complained of a squeaky rattle (or that I was married lol). Yes, my car got taken care of. I got taken care of. But something about the whole situation was almost satirically off kilter. I am proceeding with caution in any future transactions with Toyota for now. 10/10 service but with an asterisk.

The second instance, thankfully, left me with a feeling that awesome people still exist in this world and shopping with a small business that cares about its customers is 100% the way to go. And this is an equestrian apparel business! So here’s your horsey moment!

You will not be surprised about how much I love my Botori riding pants. I have multiple pairs. I wear them a lot. I may or may not have slept in them. Or sneakily worn them to work. But, unfortunately, a specific production run of some styles didn’t meet the company’s standards, but that wasn’t apparent until after people had already been wearing them.

Still obsessed after many wears.

Botori’s response was swift and transparent — we sold you some pants we need to replace for you. Here’s how you do that.

I actually did have one of these pairs, but had not experienced the defect until last week. Botori honored the exchange, of course. But even better? Some new styles were released over Memorial Day weekend and a few days later I ordered one of the new styles. The genius behind Botori, PJ, refunded my shipping for the new pair and would send the new pair and replacement pair together. Yes! This! Honestly, my hope was that they would be sent together, because small though it may be, one shipment has a smaller carbon footprint and less packaging than two shipments. I did not expect to be refunded shipping, as I had ordered something new I fully expected to pay shipping on. So thank you, PJ! You have a customer for life! Which … I probably was already, but this is exactly the kind of transparent and generous customer service I greatly and genuinely appreciate.

White breeches + brown tall boots = ugh. love.

So customer service, to me, is not just about being courteous and trying to solve problems. It’s about honesty and transparency and preventing problems in the first place. I KNOW I get all this from Botori. I think I might get it from Toyota (?), but now I want to know what y’all think!

Also, work craziness is mostly over so I hope to get back to regular typing and dumping of pictures and video. Thanks for being patient with me, those of you who stuck around.

As an aside, I am slightly wondering about Toyota design and why the engine has to come out of the car for some maintenance and repairs. I drove Chevys prior to this and don’t remember that being a thing.

The Reading List

Fortunately, work granted time off to the staff over the Easter weekend, so I suddenly had an unplanned 4-day weekend. It gave me more time to spend with Eli, time that allowed me to get him out of his stall more to walk and graze. I also shortened his mane and bathed him.

But I also had time to actually get back to reading for fun, which I rarely do — I try, but I tend to fall asleep while reading in bed. But since I have been almost constantly thinking about animal cognition and animal emotion, I thought I’d organize a reading list here for anyone interested in the same thing. Beware; it’s haphazard.

The first is one I don’t think I would have ever purchased, except that Eli is injured in such a way that he can’t do much under saddle for a while. I don’t have an ETA for saddle time yet. He actually gets some treatments today, but I can’t be there because of work. Maybe I’ll get some hopeful news from the vet? Anyway. I bought 101 Ground Training Exercises for Every Horse & Handler to get ideas for things Eli could do on the ground at the walk, in hopes of keeping his brain engaged at least a little bit every day. There’s this whole section on poll pressure I am interested in trying, mainly because I have never even thought about this from the perspective of working a horse from the ground. I probably should have.

The next is a book I highly recommend if you are at all interested in how domestication works. How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog) chronicles a long-running experiment in Russia (started when it was the Soviet Union) aimed at domesticating foxes. The experiment wasn’t really about domesticating foxes: it was about understanding how dogs got domesticated from wolves in the first place. The experiment is still running today and of course now has technologies that didn’t exist when the experiment started. Domestication seems to rely more on gene expression instead of gene mutation, with the endocrine system playing a significant role. The book also provides little vignettes of familiar stories from animal science, such as the study of primates, the New Caledonian crows, and Clever Hans. It’s an easy, short read. Plus “domesticated” foxes are cute AF.

I haven’t even started Mama’s Last Hug yet, but I read about it in one of the periodicals I review for work and immediately knew I needed to read it. I think it seems obvious that at least some animals have complex emotional lives. But finding the underlying science to support this assertion interests me, and I think this book aims for that kind of thing. Maybe I’ll hit up page one this evening?

And of course finding one book leads to those Amazon recommendations that are pretty spot on for me at this point, and this is why I picked up The Genius of Birds. Is there something about being able to regulate one’s body temperature that allows one to develop intelligence and sentience? I have noticed that animal cognition and emotion are studied through mammals and birds mostly. Not exclusively, of course, but an adaptation such as warm-bloodedness seems to go along with deliberative thinking.

This next one is something I encountered shortly after getting my MFA and began undertaking library school, and it’s definitely on the academic side of things so it may not be a super accessible read for those with merely a passing interest. I never read When Species Meet cover to cover, but parsed out excerpts to contemplate whenever I had time. I am in the midst of reading it cover to cover now. If you are academically-oriented and interested in the interaction of human and dog, this will be a great book for you to read.

The next two books are by Gerd Heuschmann: Tug of War and Collection or Contortion? I have read the first, and hope to read the second soon. Tug of War explores how bad training negatively impacts a horse’s health. Is it directly about horse cognition or emotion? No, but training affects both directly, so considering the concepts within are worthwhile. Collection or Contortion? apparently builds on how training affects a horse’s health, focusing on flexion and bend. Yeah, I’m going to have to read this soon, too!

As what I see as a follow up to When Species Meet, the same author published Staying with the Trouble not too long ago, and I am interested in reading it. It seems WAY more way out there, but I generally enjoy such challenges. It dwells in of-the-moment-ness to a certain degree, trying to reconcile human existence with nonhuman existence and maybe it explores how we have messed up our shared home and the nonhuman are stuck with our folly. Sorry, animals and other things. But notice the subtitle? This gets me on a tangent related to the poles of our shared home. And H.P. Lovecraft fans out there? I don’t think the author is necessarily directly relying on Lovecraft, but it’s hard to see “Chthulucene” without going there. And since she brings up tentacles, maybe that’s exactly what she’s doing.

There is one Lovecraft book that stands independently of that whole tentacled thing: At the Mountains of Madness is a weird, quick read about an expedition to Antarctica, and if you are into weird sci-fi/fantasy/horror/Gothic stuff, you’ll love it. Really. It does get freaking weird. But it brings me to two other books grounded much more in reality, relating to polar expeditions. Not sure if Frankenstein got me hooked on polar adventures, but here I am.

Earnest Shackleton is my jam. His descriptions are so detailed! The problem with this book is that I know what happens so I keep starting it, then putting it down before it gets gruesome. South starts off magically, with glittering sea ice and charming penguins. I don’t really want to read the rest, but I suppose I will finish it eventually. It compels me to consider the idea of pushing the human constitution to the extreme and what that does to the human psyche. The Third Man Factor is no doubt about one of the craziest possible adaptations humans have developed. People get close to death and experience a rather fascinating phenomenon. And where do people get near death a lot? The polar regions. Also on mountains and in deserts.

This tangent brings me to a melancholy question. Do animals hallucinate when near death? Humans foolishly push themselves to these novel limits, but animals certainly don’t seem to seek out such limits. Is this the thing that separates humans from the rest of the animal kingdom? Not emotions, not cognition, not sentience … but our utter stubbornness about doing stupid things? Oh, wait, horses are kind of like that, too. Just maybe less purposefully so.

Yeah, I got to this question in a rather circuitous way, wondering how different are we really from our animal companions. My first thought is that we are really not that much different at all. We are, after all, also animals. My second, darker idea is that the difference is we are destroying our home, while other animals are just trying to live here. Some animals have cast their lots with us inextricably. Maybe we should try harder to keep our shared home livable? Maybe it’s too late.

 

My Eye Care Tools

It’s been a little over a year since I last talked extensively here about my vision situation. I think for the most part this update is good. While my left eye is not entirely stable, the medication is slowing the progression of bad things. Which is what it’s supposed to do. I recently had an appointment confirming all of this, thankfully!

If you have ever been to an ophthalmologist, you’ll be familiar with all of the testing that can go on at an ophthalmologist’s office. The visual filed test (not my favorite), the retina scans, the eye pressure test that involves those weird yellow eye drops to numb the surface of your eye so the doctor or assistant can put the blue glowy thing on the surface of your eye (super technical jargon there haha), the vision testing … my eye doctor appointments are not short, and I go twice a year. I have some eye conditions that mean I’ll be on prescription eye drops (at the very least) for my whole life, and I use OTC eye drops, too. I have very mild astigmatism, and do have prescription eyeglasses. And on top of this, I have what have been hands down the best pair of (non-prescription) sunglasses I have ever owned. (Although prescription ones are an option.)

The prescription eye drops are affordable, and the OTC eye drops are actually more expensive but effective — I use the Refresh Optive Lubricant Eye Drops. They keep my ocular rosacea from getting too crazy. I can’t really use steroid eye drops because of a different eye condition (that I am noticeably not mentioning in this post because denial).

I used to blanch of the sticker shock from getting prescription eyeglasses. Even with insurance covering some of it, those visionwear places in the malls always felt like a rip off, mostly because I think they were. And maybe still are. I don’t know, because I found a better way to get eyeglasses.

I don’t remember how I even found Warby Parker, but they had a cute little school bus converted into a eyeglass shop here in Austin for a little while. I read about the company online and I was impressed both at the price of prescription eyeglasses they offered, and because the company gives back in a big way — for every pair sold, Warby Parker gives back a pair of glasses to someone in need, all over the world.

Ordering is easy — I just sent in my prescription from the ophthalmologist and picked out frames. When I say “sent” I mean I took a picture of it and uploaded it directly which was beyond easy. You can try up to 5 frames at home with free shipping both ways, but I didn’t even bother because I am decisive like that (plus I was trying them on in the little school bus the first time I got a pair!). I had my glasses within a week, for $95. That is MUCH LOWER than what I paid for prescription eye glasses through another route by a few hundred dollars. I didn’t even need to update my prescription after my last appointment, but when I do I’ll be using Warby Parker again. And now I just realized maybe they still have my prescription and I could pick out a new style of frames …

And then the sunglasses … Oakleys. It’s funny, because for 15 years I rode with a trainer who INSISTED on Oakleys for himself. I never understood it, and it always seemed like a bit of an unnecessary splurge, paying that for sunglasses. And considering I have a tendency to break or lose them, I never really understood what he meant. But then a few years ago I was at the end of my rope with how sun-sensitive my eyes have gotten, and how sunlight was definitely worming its way in to my list of migraine triggers. I don’t want a vampire lifestyle, so I started googling madly, as you can imagine. What came up the most frequently for best sunglasses for migraineurs? Oakleys. And not just generally. The Oakley Black Iridium lenses came up, url after url leading to something recommending these lenses, claiming they were the gold standard for blocking painfully bright sunlight. Now, I don’t wear polarized lenses ever, because something about them makes me sick to my stomach and I start to feel intense sharp pain behind my eyes. (The same thing happens with the newer 3D glasses.) Luckily, you can custom order just about any pair of Oakleys, so I got the Holbrooks with Black Iridium lenses, not polarized.

Toss your $15 Target frames, y’all. You need these. They don’t move around on my face when I ride. Even better, they don’t distort my vision, and they don’t turn the world weird colors. Everything looks the same, only I don’t have to squint. No oppressive light! No glare! Yay! I might need a second pair, like a car pair and a barn pair, right?

I know this isn’t exactly a post about Eli, or about Conrad. But my eyes are pretty important. Without them, the way I enjoy time with Eli and Conrad would change drastically, so getting my strategies documented is important to me. And maybe it’ll help someone else?