Sunday, February 13, 2011

Pleated Jeans and Riding Boots

NPR and I carpool together. Well, I drive and NPR is the passive, chatty passenger, but you get what I'm saying. The car starts and the local NPR station automatically comes on the radio and that guarantees at least an hour each day of political and current events news and commentary, education and entertainment and then my personal favorites, the personal stories.

I've always had a fascination with hearing other people's stories. People are simply captivating, even the nasty ones, sometimes especially the nasty ones. I could listen to Story Corps, This American Life and The Moth all day, everyday. I want to hear about the mistakes people make and why. I'm intrigued by the way people deal with heartache, tragedy, discrimination, repression -political and social, and those unifying core needs that stretch across all cultures and peoples. The need for love, a sense of community and connection, the deep desire to be known intimately by other people, and the ongoing need for laughter and joy despite what degradation or turmoil may bubble up during a life. Maybe I'm speaking of my own priorities, but I'm certain many people crave these same things.

My most recent favorite story series on NPR is The Hidden World of Girls, created and produced by The Kitchen Sisters. The Kitchen Sisters have created several compelling, diverse and award winning story series in conjunction with NPR over the last several years, including Hidden Kitchens. Nearly every story they tell is intriguing and thought provoking. They tell stories that are too small or personal to be captured by the national media and that's the beauty of each one of them. Telling stories of girls both nationally and internationally, I'm thrilled every time I hear that the next story on NPR is from this series. I feel uplifted and connected to women from all of the world after listening to these tight, beautifully crafted stories. I may not directly relate to each one, but hearing about each woman or girl's chapter helps me reflect and process my own struggles and joys.

Last week driving home after a fabulous work day, our office presented a luncheon seminar for about forty clients and my colleagues and I each had the opportunity to present, I felt good and energized and mature. Most days I feel like a 16 year old whose pretending to be an adult. I felt my age on Wednesday, in a good way. Work success does that to me, I suppose. So driving home, feeling powerful and totally thirty five, the Hidden World of Girls story comes on and I'm suddenly 10 years old again.

Wednesday's story was about Dolphins, Horses and Unicorns and specifically why so many girls are drawn to these three creatures. "Horses and dolphins and unicorns — these are all borderland creatures; gateway animals to other worlds," Laurel Braitmen,an MIT graduate student in the history of science who writes about animals and what we think about them, says girls' fascination with these animals is more than power — the animals fuel girls' imaginations. "They help us imagine wonderful other ways of being in the world. They let us be cowgirls and oceanographers and mermaids and princesses." Charming, funny, insightful interviews with girls and women, great quotes and some fantastic references to that Amazonian princess of my childhood, Wonder Woman. And it could have been me in any one of those interviews.

Horsing around on Rosarito Beach
Beautiful photo from LifeSupercharger on Flickr.

Horses were the animal that enchanted me the most as a kid. I never collected or played much with My Little Ponies or horse figurines or anything unicorn or dolphin related. In fact I don't know that I ever really believed in unicorns. Other than watching the movie The Last Unicorn on Betamax with my little brother nearly once a week in 1983, at least until our Betamax player died (Last Unicorn killed Last Betamax.)

My love of horses started when I was around eight and my Campfire Girls group took a field trip to Benjamin Ranch and Stables here in Kansas City. It was love at first sight. Her name was Cinnamon. A beautiful Red Roan with a dark chestnut coat, glossy long mane and a speckled white rear end, Cinnamon was sweet and enormous. She was docile, she was easy to lead and she was forgiving. My little eight year old hands could control this powerful animal, balancing on her broad back, lulled into her confident rhythm. She trusted me to lead her. I had the chance to ride her a couple of times over the next year. We got to feed our horses, brush them and help clean out their stalls. It was this combination of nurturing care, leading and controlling her that I enjoyed. It made me feel strong. I remember writing little illustrated stories about Cinnamon. Cinnamon getting lost in the woods, Cinnamon becoming friends with a yellow dog, silly, but I loved her. I'm sure I asked my parents if I could have my own horse, but I don't really remember. Often I had this fantasy of riding bareback on Cinnamon through fields of wildflowers, wearing a flowing dress with my long brown hair floating out behind me. I think it was the freedom of galloping along all alone that was appealing to me.

Camp Towanyak 1985
Yes, that's me, the tall one in the back row with the pleated pinstripe jeans and the white floppy hat, 9 years old.

My horse obsession, or specifically Cinnamon obsession didn't last very long. The summer I turned 9, my parents sent me off to horseback riding camp at Camp Towanyak in Shawnee, KS. I would have my very own horse for a whole week. We would get to ride several hours a day, handle the care and grooming and even stall cleaning for our horses. I was giddy. I pictured Cinnamon and I leading the other girls and their horses through forests, past gurgling streams and through those fields of wildflowers, feeding them sugar cubes, the horses not the girls. And then I met Brillo.

Brillo was dark, nearly black, young, male and more obstinate than an ugly mule. He lacked Cinnamon's sweet disposition and her glossy mane and in it's place was a surly attitude and a mohawk. Cut short and bristly like a new recruit sent off to boot camp, Brillo had a sharp, stiff, short mane made of steel wool. And his personality was the same. Abrasive, defiant, if he was human he would have been decked out in a distressed black leather jacket decorated with safety pins and listening to the Buzzcocks. He ignored my every request. He would creep along when I wanted to trot. He would gallop and blow past every other rider while I fumed and struggled to regain control. I whined and complained repeatedly to the horseback riding instructor. "He is mean." "He tried to bite me. Three times." "He never listens." "I think he's laughing at me behind my back." My instructor bit the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing and tried to give me good advice, tips to assert my authority, and finally said, "He's just a tough one, but you'll be fine. He's yours this week."

We battled each other for three days. Brillo would listen and obey compliantly for a half hour and then ignore me for the rest of the day. I think he did it on purpose to keep me off balance. I never got comfortable with that horse. It was aggravating and exhausting. I wanted to scream and kick him harder than necessary. But I just kept climbing on his stubborn back and pushing on. Sweating, angry and glum, I kept going and Brillo kept winning. The other girls teased me a bit about it. Those three hours each day that they spent frolicking with their horses cast straight out of National Velvet or Black Beauty, I spent cursing Brillo. I went back to the cabin smelling of animals and hay and frustration. Sitting and digging the manure out of my boots with a stick, cursing the fact that I'd actually willingly and giddily signed up for this torture in the first place.

But then on the fourth day of camp, my group arrived at the stables and another horse was in Brillo's stall. I went to ask the instructor where Brillo was and he told me that Brillo was going to spend the rest of the week on an overnight camping and riding trip as the horse for one of the counselors. My new horse could have been Cinnamon's cousin. Flower was sweet and compliant. I had gotten exactly what I wanted, an easy and docile animal. But I missed Brillo. I missed that recalcitrant, pain in the rear, punk bastard. Suddenly I missed the cocky way he would snort at me when I tried to lead him into his stall at the end of our riding session. The way he pulled away hard enough to nearly drag me off my feet when I went to brush him. Flower was just easy. I didn't have to think about riding her, I just climbed on and she did what I commanded. She was polite and deferential and eager to please. She shivered with pleasure when I patted her side or stroked her mane. But it was boring. Where was the challenge? At nine years old I was startled to find this out. I liked how hard Brillo had fought me, he had challenged me.

This is indicative of my own young personality, and even as an adult. I have been called stubborn once or twice. I don't learn things the easy way or like to be told what to do, or led by someone I don't believe in or respect. And why would Brillo have respected an inexperienced nine year old girl? I admired his spunk and his spirit and I didn't realize it until he was gone. That cranky little horse inadvertently taught me that I like a challenge and if things are too easy they aren't as interesting or worth fighting for. And I like that spirit and spunk in my friends too, though they generally have much better haircuts.

After that camp experience, the reality of horseback riding, the expense and the work required became more apparent to me. Like my dad, I tend to jump a bit from hobby to hobby. My interests tend to burn hot and fiery, but that kind of passion can't sustain itself for long. Horses went by the wayside when I turned eleven. I found myself wrapped up in books, biographies and poetry, swept away by Little Women. I didn't ride a horse again until I was fifteen, on a trip to Colorado. I haven't missed it much. In college I took my little sister, Rita (from Big Brothers Big Sisters) horseback riding. She was excited but tentative. She climbed on, she rode around the corral on an old gray mare, then walking through the woods for an hour, strode back to the stables, hopped off her horse, ran over to me and said, "That was fun, can we go swimming next time?" She wasn't hooked. It was a novelty, but it didn't sweep her away like it did for me. I was a little disappointed, and that's ok. Just because horses or dolphins or unicorns engage and delight a certain group of girls doesn't mean it does for all of us. As some of my Facebook friends pointed out the other day, not every girl connects with these dynamic animals. But that's the beauty of The Hidden World of Girls. Everyone of us has a story to share. Everyone of us has our own truth or own lessons and our own passions. And I can't wait to see what the next story is going to be.

What did you love as a little boy or girl? Barbies, baseball, latch hook rugs, rainbow sticker collecting, torturing your siblings?


AmyK said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
AmyK said...

I, too, love NPR and the shows your in list are the podcasts the iPhones are filled with as my husband and I travel from MN to our folks' places in WI.
Thank you for this line "I have been called stubborn once or twice. I don't learn things the easy way or like to be told what to do, or lead by someone I don't believe in or respect."
Yep. Exactly. And woe be it to the person who has lost my respect.
*sorry, had to edit the comment. P