Just another rambling fool at WordPress.com

Posts tagged “books

Rift (A book review)

Screen-Shot-2015-11-02-at-9.21.04-AM

 

*

This enjoyable collaboration between Robert Vaughan and Kathy Fish is sure to get your motor running. Sharply focused and carefully honed, each story is presented in an alternating style that is both complementary and unique. Some of the stories in Rift feel straightforward, light and amusing, while others are complex, brooding and deep. Because they are masters at their craft, Fish and Vaughan succeed wonderfully in drawing the reader into the raw, visceral undertow of their words. On several occasions I emerged from a story with lingering thoughts of the people I’ve known or the places I’ve been. This cornucopia of delightful short stories and flash fiction can be devoured quickly, but the real flavor of this book improves when savored slowly. Magical and entertaining, yet meaty enough to challenge any imagination, Rift does not disappoint!

*

Disclaimer: I am related to Robert Vaughan. I was not asked to post a positive review and my comments are not slanted as a result of our relationship.


Getting It Right

IMG_2752

*

Whenever I finish a good book it takes a few days to slip back into the real world. My body goes through the motions of my daily routine, but my head isn’t in the game. I’m still back there …. wherever that might be. The book Stable Relation was “that” kind of book; a book where somewhere around the halfway point I started glancing at the dwindling pages left to read and dreaded the fact that the book would soon end. I slowed myself down to a crawl, putting the book aside every couple of pages and giving myself time to digest the words. Still, the story had to end and when it did, I found myself wanting more. More wisdom. More patience. More love.

Anna writes a lot about love and patience and her intuitive wisdom leaps from nearly every page. That’s not to say Anna thinks she’s wise. She doesn’t. But I guess when you spend the first two decades of your life steeped in angst and irritability you eventually have to make a choice: you can either become what you’ve been shown or you can run like hell in the opposite direction. Having been trapped in midst of a very dysfunctional upbringing, it seems like it would be the wise choice to try to change your destiny. That said, I’m fairly certain this is MUCH harder to do than most think.

I grew up in an era where animal training and farm life were not particularly pleasant. We did not operate from the core philosophy of first, do no harm. It was more or less assumed that all animals were “dumb” and humans needed to bend them to our will. The vast majority of farmers didn’t consider the animals in their charge pets, friends or companions, but saw their animals as a source of income, be it in the beef or dairy market or as breeding stock. And they didn’t speak of these roles in politically correct terms so as not to offend anyone. What’s the saying now? It was what it was.

When I left home with the first dog of my independent, adult life, I didn’t know squat about training an animal. I grew up with an assortment of animals, but training wasn’t a big focus in my life. I had a horse that was already broke to ride when I got her and although I suppose I can claim I taught her how to race barrels, I suspect (because she was so enthusiastically good at it) that she already knew how. My first dog was a Humane Society adoptee who, a little initial fear aggression aside, was so biddable and willing to please that merely thinking what I wanted her to do got immediate results. Naturally, with these two highly successes starts behind me I thought I had a gift.

I do not.

As life went on I got out of horses (briefly) and into dogs. By the time my future husband entered the picture we had four dogs  between us, and that number didn’t drop for several years. The dog’s ages were staggered and almost as soon as we lost one, we got another. We were into the big breeds then; German Shepherds and Dobermans, soon followed by the slightly smaller (but formidable) Australian Cattle dogs. I was usually the one who spent the most time putting some basic training on our pets. I had moderate expectations and none of our dogs were particularly difficult to train. I soon found I had good results training the dogs I considered “mine,” but somewhat less success working with the Doberman gang that belonged to my husband. By the time we morphed into Cattle dogs my husband was removed from the training process all together. It was me who spent the lion’s share of the day with our dogs so the responsibility fell on my shoulders.

I never took a formal training class until I got Cattle dogs. Having been forewarned that ACDs can be more of a challenge, I enrolled my second ACD puppy in something new: Puppy Kindergarten. It was 1998 and it sounded like a great idea. After all, who can argue with teaching a young puppy how to sit, come, and play nicely with other dogs? I eagerly arrived for the first class only to discover that I had the smallest, youngest and most easily intimidated pup in the group. Unfortunately, the trainer knew very little about how to help pups with issues like mine and I was even less enlightened. With hindsight, I should have gathered up my puppy and walked away, but I thought I had to stick it out and we were encouraged to try. By the third or forth class my pup’s fearfulness had turned into aggression. She was so tiny that several of the other puppy owners thought her behavior was “cute,” but I got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach and I think I stopped going shortly thereafter. Fortunately, my puppy didn’t end up aggressive, but she was always aloof and very much a loner. I’ll never know how much of her adult personality was nurture or nature.

Because I’m a slow learner and have a burning need to DO THINGS RIGHT, several years later I enrolled my next ACD puppy in puppy kindergarten. By then the Internet was well into swing and I belonged to an ACD news list. For the first time I could rub virtual shoulders with experienced trainers and dog folks and learn the proper way to go about raising a responsible pet. Most of the people on these lists had high expectations of new puppy owners. Lots of folks showed their dogs and bragged about their prowess in everything from conformation to obedience and agility. The Canine Good Citizen test had just been created and many experienced handlers encouraged novice folks to aim for that.

My second puppy kindergarten class was far worse than my first. My puppy Hazer was a social menace and our attempts to change his behavior with positive reinforcement and gentle exposure was a disaster. In his defense, he nailed everything connected to performance. Sit, come, stay, down, place … he did it all and he did it flawlessly on the second or third try. Problem was, his mind worked at warp speed and he was easily bored once he knew something. He didn’t “get” repetition. It irked him. And when he was bored he was trouble with a capital T. I distinctly remember the instructor asking me to remove my puppy from the classroom while other dogs were socializing off-leash. Hazer was a land shark and nobody wanted him anywhere near them or their puppy. I stood in the hall with my treat bag, drilling Hazer on anything I knew he could do so I could reward him. “Watch me!” “Good boy!” “Sit!” Over and over we worked on skills he’d already mastered while his classmates flailed around and failed abysmally in their attempts to grasp the most basic stuff.

In retrospect, I should have left that class too, but I didn’t. Some deep desire to Get It Right held me captive to the bitter end. That decision was hugely detrimental to my dog. I didn’t know that then.  I erroneously thought  sticking with it was important, but I know that was a mistake now. Fortunately, I’ve since learned to put what’s best for my dog ahead of my own needs, wants, goals and yearning desire to “fit in.”  But back then Hazer was going to be my golden boy, my first wonderfully bred, purposely chosen dog who was created and selected with certain long-range goals in mind. I had high hopes and standards. That sounds pretty lofty for someone who’d never really learned how to train a dog before. But all my previous success (via minimal effort) with my former dogs led me to believe that I knew a boatload more than I did. I had an ego in my way. Not a loud, pompous ego, but a quiet, profound belief that I was much smarter than I was.

I firmly believe Hazer came into my life to teach me that I didn’t begin to know how much I didn’t know. And much to my chagrin, he wasn’t the only pet to do this. A few years later my new horse Dharla did the same thing. She rode into my life on the heels of a well-honed 23-year relationship with the perfection that was known by me as Tia. Young, green and full of vinegar, it would have been easy to blame Dharla for our early blunders, except at some point I stumbled onto Anna’s blog and I stopped thinking I had the wrong horse. Ironically, I also stopped reading everything I could find about “natural horsemanship” and began looking at my own heart stuff. Because Dharla and my roadblocks weren’t about leadership or round pens, they were about me. I am my own worst enemy.  I know that now. No, Anna never came out and told me so, but her words left little doubt in my mind. And I’m actually OK with that, with me being the problem. It makes me appreciate Dharla’s patience with me so much more.

To show you just how far I’ve come, there was a time when I thought I knew what leadership meant. I did lots of basic training and ground work and tried to build trust slowly. Still, Dharla and I continued to encounter friction under saddle. The more we worked on basics, the more frustrated I got. So I started to search for a different approach and naturally, turned to the Internet for answers. Eventually I found Anna’s blog, signed up and started the gradual shift in my thinking. For awhile I still grappled with the concept of leadership. Oh, I understood what the word meant, but the internal debate about leadership and how one ought to go about creating it was so mixed and emotionally charged that it was only through much experimentation and personal exploration I came to see that leadership is the wrong word for me. I now prefer to have a partnership with my animals because a “partnership” suggests the mutual desire to share an activity or goal. A partnership also implies respect. Respect for the leader as well as for the led. So when I’m working with my animals I like to keep in mind the concept of asking as opposed to demanding. A leader says, “Follow me because I said so.” A partner says, “Let’s do it this way, together. Will you trust me?” Bottom line, am I asking my horse or dog to follow my lead or am I stubbornly insisting? Since force tends to lead to resistance, I try to keep my leadership soft and pliable. I’m open to options. I’m willing to work with what my animals can give me today, even if it’s not the whole enchilada. Don’t like passing the gate? OK, let’s cut the ring in half and skip going past the gate for now … and my, what a wonderful, calm trot you have today! It’s hard to make an issue out of something if you remove the problem from the equation and focus on what is going well! Go back and revisit gate-passing another time, when you and your horse are working and thinking better as a team. I try to remember there’s no “Have-to” in training. You get to progress at a rate that’s right for you and your partner. Sure, in an emergency situation you might have to insist your animal follows your lead without hesitation, but that aside, most training is about building trust and partnership slowly, one small step at a time time. It’s about finding that sweet spot that’s not built on the theory of “Because I said so!” but, “Because I asked.” And yes, I’ll always be grateful to Anna, the friend who helped me hone my mantra.

So what is getting it right? I guess for me it’s learning a better way, a way where I can lead and follow with my heart. Because like Melvin Udall says in As Good As It Gets, that makes me want to be a better woman.


What Is Home?

untitled-0136(Rascal, at home)

*

Stable Relation: A memoir of one woman’s spirited journey home, by way of the barn

By

Anna Blake

When friends ask me why I like to read memoirs I usually say it’s because I’m the curious sort. Perhaps that’s just another way of saying I’m nosy, but there you have it. I like to read about how other people have navigated the challenges they’ve met in life. Because we all have them, you know. Some memoirs do a great job of telling you about everything that went right or wrong, but fail to really explore the nuts and bolts of the journey. That’s not a criticism; everyone tells their story their own way and for different reasons. But I happen to be most fond of the memoirs that tackle the grittier stuff. The stuff that makes you have to put the book down and really chew on the words for a bit.

Stable Relation is that kind of memoir. A perfect blend of tongue-in-cheek humor, confessional and a heaping dash of salt-of-the-earth common sense. This book not only challenges how you think and feel, but encourages you to become more present and aware of your path in life. Yes, there were several Kleenex moments for me. Actually, I lost count, but I’m a woman of a certain age and I’ve earned the right to lean more toward the sentimental side now. And no, I’m not ashamed. You won’t be either. It’s OK.

This memoir is about Cattle Dogs, Dobies, mutts, ducks, horses, llamas and goats. There are blizzards, bad memories, blistering sun and batty first dates, as well as the occasional flashback about dysfunctional family, distant relatives and old friends. Anna makes it pretty clear from the start that her birthright was an early life chock full of crap and crisis. By the time she hit midlife she was at a crossroad. She wanted to exorcise the crazy and decided to use a career dilemma as her turning point. With little more than burning passion, determination and an abundance of elbow grease, Anna begins to carve out a place of her own on the prairie.

As the story unfolds, Anna talks about becoming temporarily attached to the various assortment of birds and critters that share the daily routine at her farm. I can relate. The first Spring on my farm we were visited nightly by a methodical, comedic female raccoon who not only stopped by to see what we might have to offer, but for several years thereafter brought her entire family along for the ride! (We called her Sport) And I still search the trees by the pond where I once photographed a one-eyed hawk. I have no reason to believe she might still be around, except that I’d like to think she is. Anna writes about her awe for the creatures and the unique environment she shares with them, in spite of life’s ups, downs and (often times) harsh lessons. Anyone who grew up on a farm knows that as beautiful as farm life can be, an unforgiving and harsh reality is always lurking in the shadows. Survival depends on balancing what is perfect and good with the fear of what that can morph into in the blink of an eye. Mention the word colic around any horse person and you’ll see what I mean.

Anna shares several experiences that helped her find the strength to push past a miserable start in life and mature into a woman who, above all, values and models grace, kindness and generosity of heart and spirit. What makes this book so special is the hilarious cast of characters who mentor Anna on this journey and help her build a new trust in the healing balm of love. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be humbled by the author’s unfiltered adoration and devotion for her charges and impressed by her intuitive, gentle approach. These gifts seem especially unique given how little love or compassion she was shown as a child. How does one learn to use these tools if they’ve never been taught? Anna shows you how. And if she can do it, so can you.

I started out reading this memoir slowly. I wanted to savor every chapter. But as the story continued I no longer had to force myself to slow down rather, I NEEDED to read islowly.

This book is not just good.

It’s not just a winner.

It’s profound.

And if Stable Relation is any indication of what we might be hearing from Anna in the future, I can’t wait for more!


Safe and Secure

IMG_6866(Click on photo  … because the resolution here sucks!)

*

I’ve been reading Wild, by Cheryl Strayed. What I mean to say is that I’ve had my face buried in that book so much over the last two days that I woke up this morning with blurred vision. Literally.  The book is that good. And I didn’t think it would be. I ear-marked it for my reading list when it first came out, but then Oprah put it on her book list and that’s a total buzz-kill for me. I’m not an Oprah fan. And I don’t much like reading books that everyone is talking about. I like reading stuff that coasts slightly under the radar.

Based on what I was hearing I was ready to dismiss Cheryl as needy, narcissistic and shallow. Her mother died and her life fell apart. Boo-hoo. My father died followed two years later by my mother and my life didn’t come to a screeching halt. Granted, I wasn’t in my late teens or early twenties when they died, but still. I felt a disconnect with the whole premise of the book. That’s before I started reading it.

Wow. Just … wow. I was wrong.

Understand that I have an innate love and respect for the wilderness. I was an avid Scout growing up and our family did tons of hiking and back woods camping. I’ve been lost in the vastness of the Adirondack Park a time or two myself. Though I was admittedly only a few feet off the main trail when I was “lost,” that alone gives me a reasonable amount of respect for any woman who has the fortitude to try to hike the Pacific Crest Trail alone, with no prior hiking experience or skills. Talk about not having a safety net!

But it’s not just the sheer audacity of Cheryl’s hiking tale that’s grabbing me, it’s the whole ball of wax: Her honesty. Her stupidity. Her strengths and weaknesses so carefully and truthfully exposed. There’s nothing gratuitous in this book at all. Well, the death of her mother’s horse was a little more than I could almost bear to read. But even that gut-wrenching story was frightfully authentic and contributed to the sum of the parts. Cheryl puts it all out there, lumps and all in a very readable, sometimes funny sometimes sad, but always sincere narrative.

I’m about halfway though the book. So far I’ve gasped, laughed out loud, cried, and had to set the book down to process the story more thoroughly before moving on. In other words, this book has made me THINK. Think about my past, my journey, my current life and my future. Think about how everything I’ve done in my past has made me who I am today, and how everything I do today will affect who I am tomorrow. All this from a story about a girl hiking a very long and remote trail all alone.

*

We’re at that time of year when the leaves are falling fast and furious. I’ve been doing a lot of trail riding. Alone. (Hm. I think I see a common thread) And speaking of getting lost … I’ve been lost twice in the last two weeks. Not “Oh My God I’m lost!” but, “Dammit! I hope I can retrace my footsteps!” lost.  Either way, I HATE getting lost in the woods. I fear that moment when your eyes start to scan the landscape, hoping to fall on something you half-recognize. (Or try to convince yourself you recognize) Like the HUGE oak tree above. It’s hard to miss that beauty. Centuries old, still holding court smack-dab in the middle of a much younger crowd. She’s like an old friend, a lighthouse with a welcoming beacon for those who wander weary in her territory. “Come! Rest awhile beneath my canopy. Home is just over the next ridge.”

And so it is.