Archive for June, 2011

my god, it’s full of bells

I was up late and woke early and XO was out of chocolate croissants, so that although it was a glorious day I felt a bit frail and mostly glad that I would be riding Bella.

But also just a tiny, secret bit bummed, because she’s little and has an upside down neck and doesn’t really come on the bit like the BIG horses.


“Dez,” I said to Dez, our lovely trainer: “should I be using a driving seat with Bella?” This is the sort of rubbish I get out of books.

“You already use too much driving seat,” said Dez, who is lovely. “I want her to move off your legs.”

So off we go, and I am pushing her and pushing her and also messing with the bit, because for heaven’s sake Bella you are a grown horse, do not be ponying around with your nose in the air.

“Leave the bit alone,” said Dez, fountain of loveliness. “It’s more important to get her moving forward.”

Okay, so, this isn’t working, why don’t I do a crazy thing and try what the trainer says. Leave Bella’s ridiculous head in the clouds and ride her off my leg into a light, consistent contact.

Trot without stirrups, counterflexion, circles at counterflexion, true flexion, canter, drop stirrups, flying change. Lots of work at the canter, me trying to sink into the saddle, hold my legs soft and still at her side. Not use a driving seat.

I started to feel her finding her own cadence. I tried to sit still and soft and supple, and actually felt my hips creaking, too stiff to move with her. Dez has always told me I do this, but I never felt it before. I tried to soften, and tried to soften, and tried and tried and tried.

And Bella reached her neck down into the contact.

Well, I thought. I’ll be damned.

She wasn’t arch-necked and picture-perfect like Archie and Dillon and Omni. Her little neck is too short for that. But she was moving off my leg and accepting the contact, and I had done it without my hands, just with patience and my seat.

Next we did a distance exercise and I threw away the reins and she ran out on me in front of a six-inch log, the little brat. But later again we jumped a course most of which was 2’9″ and half of which was oxers and all of which felt enormous to me. And we rode it in that same forward gleeful canter, united in a single purpose, counting strides and hitting good distances and taking off and landing like Fred and Ginger. I eased her into a trot with the biggest grin my face is capable of.

But the biggest happiness didn’t wash over me until later, when we were walking back to the barn, and I looked at the sun shining on her iridescent orange withers and her strawberry blonde mane. She may be little on the outside but don’t be fooled. Bella is large, she contains multitudes; she has infinitely more to teach me.

Showjumping is in and of itself a pointless pastime, I know that. On the drive down, Katie and I were chuckling about our habit of driving thirty miles to ride horses round and round in a small arena, and how we might explain this to our great-grandparents. But equitation is also an art, and like any respectably pointless human activity it contains both nothing and the everything that that tiny point of nothing is connected to. It is teaching me history and psychology and anatomy and genetics. It’s teaching me how to learn.

I propose a third domain of study, beside the sciences and the humanities. I shall call it, the equanimities. The queue forms to the left.

i ♥ my big dumb imperium

We catch the end of a pet food commercial. The spokesmodel is saying: “…we are the leader in holistic pet food.”

Jeremy cracks up.

Claire asks: “What’s so funny?”

“We live in paradise,” I said.

oh, this is lovely

Motherhood is nuanced too. My children are people that I share my life and my home and my stories with. I have shaped my life around them for now, because they are vulnerable to the weather and hunger and bodies of water and wild animals and need a place where they are protected and can grow and be provided for. My body and my lover’s body made them and they brought enough love with them to keep them alive (through our parental fascination), and then more love grew. We have made a life for ourselves, hewn it out of raw materials, carved it from the landscape. There are rich rewards for this kind of life, and there are penalties too, and you show me the kind of life where that isn’t true.

Then she quotes my favourite bit of Lost in Translation.

peak rach: it ain’t over till it’s over

Sundays have been perfect for a while now. They start on Saturday nights when I go to bed early BECAUSE I AM OLD AS DIRT, and curl up in my lovely bed with my lovely cat and a library book. They continue when I wake up and kiss everyone goodbye and walk over to Cafe XO and have a pain au chocolat warm out of the oven. Then Katie and I carpool down to the barn and talk about books and politics. Then we have a showjumping lesson, on horses dappled with good health and shining like Akhal Tekes, under the sparkling aspens and the benevolent smile of the Stanford Dish.

Then when I get home Jeremy is making French toast for the girls. Today was even better than usual because my lovely Yoz had come over with his lovely Dexter. We walked up the hill, kidnapping Martha and watering Fitzmurgistead Farm on the way. We sat in the sun in the playground and went to Tacos Los Altos for burritos and Jamaica and went back to the park and Kathy and Rose and Salome came and found us. And then we wandered home and drank wine and played Fluxx and I made tagine and it was unctuous.

Now we are watching the adorable Brian Cox, and I am wondering what I will say to him when I meet him in London next week.

Sundays! There should be more of ’em.

lessons with sam

(Even if you love me dearly, you are not expected to read this; it’s mostly for my future reference. Also: my birthday saddle is back from the saddler’s and the new knee pads and blocks have made it amazing. I sink into it and ride like a centaur.)

Colin’s daughter Sam McIntosh has moved back to New Zealand from Europe, and is spending a couple of weeks in California, so she took a bunch of us for lessons. She is a Big Deal, considered one of the prettiest and most correct Grand Prix showjumpers in the world. I was nervous as hell.

My usual Tuesday night lesson I was surprised to see that I was down to ride the big blood-bay gelding Dillon. I rode him once, when he arrived, and could not make head nor tail of him. He’s very tall and very long-backed and was, at that point, quite green. I couldn’t get him to go in a straight line and therefore I couldn’t get him to go around corners either. I’ve seen other friends ride him since and knew that he has no vices to speak of, so I wasn’t scared. But Tuesday night made it obvious that either he had improved or I had (actually both). He goes along in a nice light contact and is very responsive to my leg, not in a hot way, just in a friendly, forward, willing sort of way. I still had trouble getting him to track around a corner with his hind feet in the prints of his front feet, but Dez gave us a clever little exercise with a shallow serpentine from the quarter line to the rail, and that helped a lot.

Wednesday night I ran late, and I couldn’t find Dillon’s bridle, and my hands were shaking. I saw Beth and she said “How are you?” and I said “Nervous as hell, glad I am riding with you and Austin,” and then Sam, who was standing right there, introduced herself and I felt like an utter tool. And then I was late getting out and warming up.

And then I just stopped freaking out because, why. The sun was slanting through the aspens and Portola Valley is beautiful and there is nothing I’d rather be doing. We rode trot circles at the far end of the arena. Colin was watching and he chuckled: “They never sit up straight like this when it’s me teaching.” I sat as still as I possibly could, concentrating on keeping my shoulders back and my hands still and my bum in the (awesome new!) saddle and my lower leg quiet. We trotted and cantered poles and changed direction after and did figure eights with the poles in the middle. Then Sam gradually added fences.

This, of course, was the first time I had ever jumped Dillon. Being as long and thin as a noodle he has an enormous stride and is maybe the scopiest horse I ever sat on. The first exercise was the canter poles, then a hard right turn to a vertical, then back over the canter poles. Hard enough getting that turn, although I could feel my lower leg holding me still and my core balancing me on the landing side. Reassuring! Next we did a bending line over the vertical to a pole on the ground, then a more-than-rollback to the wall.

Then, the first course: the wall to the bending line, a rollback to a HUGE oxer (me biting my tongue not to say “That’s too big for me;” I checked later, it was only 2’9″), and then a one-stride both elements of which were also huge (2’6″:). I sank into my heels and kept my contact as light as I could. When Dillon tried to get fast, I tried to lift him back in front of my leg then leave him alone. As Sam said afterwards, there were a few mistakes, but it was effective. My lower leg was there, my balance was there, and the speeding up and slowing down came from that. My confidence has improved as a direct result of my improved fitness and strength. And from my point of view, there were a couple of moments where we hung in the air like planes over San Francisco airport, like ringed planets. I had time to think, “This is going rather well,” before he landed. It was like a dream. Music of the spheres.

Then we jumped the whole thing going back the other way! He got much too fast over the one-stride to the huge oxer and I dropped him in a dreadful spot, but did I mention how scopey he is? He overjumped it, and I stayed on. He bucked, which is more than fair, but I got him back in hand nicely for the last three. Then we did it again, and Sam pointed out that he actually needed more canter going into the double so that I could rock him back for the oxer. I tried it that way and he jumped it perfectly.

Sam’s very different from our usual trainers, in that she’s quiet and apparently very shy, and doesn’t say anything while you’re actually on course, just lets you figure it out for yourself. Makes me feel much more competent and independent. What really impressed me was how she increased the difficulty of each exercise while building on what we’d achieved in the exercise before. There was a huge amount of narrative logic to the lesson.

Colin said: “I’ve never seen you ride that well before.”

Utterly illogically, I was even sicker with nerves the next night, Thursday. I was hideously early and warmed up in the dressage arena for about half an hour, until my feet had gone to sleep because I was forcing my ankles so far down at the walk. Sam said “We’re going to ride in the big ring,” and my heart sank with my dead feet into my boots. It was a long walk out there.

And of course as soon as I put Dillon into a trot, the circulation came back into my feet. I could feel all the work I’d put into my lower leg, all the two-point and sitting trot with toes pointed up. I could feel the new muscles in my core. I didn’t need to haul on the reins because he likes a long low contact, and he is honest and kind and mellow and will come back into my hand if I so much as think of collecting him. All this without being the slightest bit lazy. By this time, of course, I loved Dillon with a desperate passion.

“He really likes you,” said Sam.

Pole on a bending line to a vertical with a ground pole before and after, then four strides to another pole. Easy uphill, much harder downhill and we kept missing it until Sam told me to add a stride in the first part. Then he popped through it, five, vertical, four, pole. The vertical kept getting bigger and bigger, by the way! Oh, that feeling of having him collected under me, his short stride, his calm competence. That was key to the whole lesson.

We added an oxer (that kept getting bigger as well), then we did exercises, and finally a course bigger than the moon: panels to a water jump, inside turn to the original vertical, another vertical, a picket fence, a one-stride. We sped up and sped up. Second time through, we crashed through the first two fences, then managed to get it together as we went along.

Finally, what Sam called a jump-off: water and panels going the other way, very sharp turn to the black oxer, winding back through the other fences to the original vertical, jumped at an angle, then the one-stride going the other way. I knew I had to balance him going into the water and panels – the opposite problem to what I’d had the day before. And I found that popping canter again, as I had done in the five strides after the pole. He popped over the water and the huge panels like they were nothing. I felt my seat deep and square on the sharp turn into the oxer, then put my leg on and took off and landed like we were one being. I found my line across the vertical at an angle, then as he wanted to race into the one-stride I caught him and made him add the extra stride, and he was full of joy and so was I.

“He goes really well for you,” said Toni. I couldn’t wipe the huge stupid grin off my face.

I remember looking at Beth and Austin in the sunset light, Austin with the look of eagles on his face, and thinking “Let me keep this. Let this be one of the memories I get to keep until I die.”

the downstairs neighbor took my kids

Julia, Ada, & Claire by jon_gilbert
Julia, Ada, & Claire, a photo by jon_gilbert on Flickr.

And all I have to show for it are a couple of hours lying on the couch with my cat, drinking hot tea and reading my Lionel Shriver novel.


sleep no more

It’s mostly a quiet grief, except when it isn’t. J’s been sleeping badly and I’ve been having nightmares almost as Gothic as the ones I had when I was pregnant. The other night I dreamed (because I am pretentious EVEN IN MY SUBCONSCIOUS, EVEN WHEN I AM ASLEEP) that I was scrambling through the flat searching for my copy of King Lear. I didn’t want to read “Fear no more,” I wanted to read Lear’s dying speech:

Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!

life imitates what-now?

This morning two workmen carried a pane of glass across the busy intersection of Stockton and Geary, and a car chase did *not* roar through and shatter the pane of glass.

I remain confused!

ETA: Badgerbag points out that the car chases don’t get triggered unless there are fruit barrows as well, and a couple of Vespas.

peak rach

I sat in Cafe XO this morning contemplating my pain au chocolat and my coffee and my unopened Lionel Shriver novel and my forthcoming riding lesson, and I experienced perfect happiness.

Now I am at home after a great lesson and my cat is draped across my collarbones like a mink stole, purring like fule, and Jeremy and the children are off seeing Kung Fu Panda 2 and I am contemplating the hot shower I am about to have.

Rest of my life’s going to be downhill after this, is what I’m saying.

considering hamsters

Super cute. Soft fur, inquisitive whiskers, absurd little stump of tail. A little like sugar gliders, but wingless and they don’t purr. But adorable nevertheless.

in which i resolve various things

  1. Don’t be a dick to your kids. Don’t be a dick to Optimal Husband. Don’t be a dick to hapless customer service staff. They are human shields for The Man, and deserve your compassion. Channel that anger into constructive change. HULK SMASH.
  2. Eat more kale. Eat more apricots. Eat more nuts. Eat more Greek yoghurt. Eat more olives and tomatoes and basil and buffalo mozzarella. Eat more spinach and avocado and pine nuts. Drink more water. Drink more Marlborough sauvignon blanc.
  3. Be kinder. Be more curious. Be more aware. Praise more. Laugh more. Be in the moment. Be flexible. Be humble. Be grateful. Be amazed.

unexpected wins

win the first: I ask Claire to run through her recital pieces. “Okay mama, I will play them all once.” “Fine. I just want you to feel confident and proud on Saturday.” Pause. “Okay mama, I will practice them all twice.”

win the second: I trot across Geary to Peet’s to order my medium coffee. It is already made! My barista knows what I mean when I tell him: “I don’t even NEED a Ducati!”

in other news

I have been having epic rides on Omni and thinky rides on Archie and funny, challenging rides on Oliver, who is new and a bit of a clown and perfect for me. Oliver is a dapple grey with huge dark circles on his shoulders and haunches and mysterious white spiderwebs on his forearms and hocks. Archie likes hugs. Omni is my sweetie. All these horses. I walk around the stables cleaning tack and rolling up polo wraps in a sort of daze of happiness, like a kid in a candy shop.

war horse, by michael morpurgo

This was not very good on horses, and not very good on the war. So, um. He seems like a nice person?

Also! That’s a Western (as in cowboy) show halter on the horse on the cover! I just. Gnnrh.

bloodlands, by timothy snyder

The bloodlands lie between Berlin and Moscow. You’ve read parts of this history before, but Timothy Snyder’s contribution (a great one) is to change the frame of reference. His subject is the decade and a half of mass death in these lands, considered as the outcome of deliberate policies on the part of both Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Germany. Snyder’s story thus transcends national and ethnographic boundaries and the ideological differences between Hitler and Stalin to discuss how institutional genocide was allowed to take place. In Europe. And no one cared.

It is, as you might imagine, depressing. Parts of it are heartbreaking. Parts of it are nauseating.

It’s amazing.

It’s effectively the sequel to Margaret MacMillan’s Paris 1919 and a companion to both Deathless and The Hare With The Amber Eyes. The other book that keeps nagging at me is Helen Darville-Demidenko’s The Hand That Signed The Paper (no link love for you, lady: you know why) which considered the Holocaust as some sort of legitimate revenge for the Ukrainian famine… of course she was a liar, as it turned out. But that’s my country for you: people lying about genocide for notoriety. (Hi, Keith Windschuttle!)

I’m listening to it in the car, which is a good way of forcing yourself to keep going. The narrator has a very particular diction, with clipped enunciation and a downward inflection. I couldn’t place it for a while, then I realized who it reminded me of: Paul Darrow as Kerr Avon. Which is downright unsettling.