Archive for the ‘Relationships’ Category

Reach Out and Touch Someone

Friday, May 13th, 2011

I take my vitamins.  I walk my dogs every morning.  I go to the gym about three times each week.  I don’t drink coffee and rarely drink soda.  I eat my vegetables.  I get regular checkups.  And yet, the best thing I’ve done for my health in the past six months may have been the decision to stop eating lunch alone in my office and start eating in the company cafeteria with three coworkers.

As it turns out, our health is the product of a much greater combination of factors than merely what we eat and how often we exercise.

While trolling The Huffington Post yesterday I came across this article about how the Mediterranean diet isn’t just about food.  As a longtime disciple of fish, vegetables, and olive oil I was intrigued.   After World War II a group of researchers began the Seven Countries Study, which evaluated the health of more than 12,000 participants.  According to the article’s author, Georgianna Donadio, the study accurately identified that “certain Mediterranean lifestyles and dietary patterns were connected with good health.”  But the study failed to look beyond the food-based components of the Mediterranean Diet and further evaluate the lifestyle as a whole.

“…the Mediterranean Diet is not just about what people eat. It is about the values, habits, relationships, quality of how food is grown and the quantity of how food consumed by these particular groups — not just how or what they eat. … The whole health of an individual is about the physical, emotional, nutritional, environmental and even spiritual components that create our overall state of health. Our dietary choices and habits can be seen as a metaphor of what the overall or whole picture of that individual’s health is expressing. We eat how we think, feel, work and behave, all of which are influenced by our environment, values, age, financial and education levels and even by our gender.”

This explanation got me to thinking about a passage I read nearly a year ago in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.  Gladwell begins the book with a description of an Italian immigrant community in Pennsylvania in the mid-1900s.  The first generation immigrants in the late 19th century kept many of the old country’s culinary ways, but as their roots grew deeper in America they adopted many of their new home’s tastes.  A young physician was alerted to the strikingly low incidence of heart disease and other comorbid conditions and began to study the community.  What this physician found was a dietary and exercise culture like that of any other Pennsylvania community, as was their genetic makeup.  A thorough analysis of the community pointed to the town itself as the source of such good health.  Gladwell points out that it was the transplant of the paesani culture of Southern Italy – the intergenerational families, the civic organizations, the unifying effects of the church, and the neighborly culture – that insulated these people from the pressures (and ailments) of modern life.

These kinds of studies fascinate me.  It seems we are always looking for the short answer or the quick fix.  How easy it would be if the silver bullet to good health were contained in some tiny pill.  How easy it would be (relative to the truth, that is) just to adhere to a regimented diet and exercise plan.  But in today’s world, you know what is hard?  Participating in a community.  (And I’m not talking about Facebook or the blogosphere here!)  It’s hard to reach out to people all the time.  It’s hard to let other people reach out to you.  It’s hard to carve out time and effort for your friends, neighbors, and relatives.

We constantly bemoan the busyness of our lives.  As a working mother this genuinely resonates with me.  But studies and anecdotes like these always grab my attention.  There are incredible health benefits to friendship and community.  We may think that we are just fine going it alone – or even going it only with our immediate family.  But we are likely wrong.

I’ve yet to read a study indicating that strong friendships and strong communities are overrated and not worth the work.  If I ever do, I’ll be sure to let you know.  In the meantime, I think I have some reaching out to do.  Or at the very least, I should go eat lunch with my work friends.  I have to look out for my health, you know.

Robotic Relationships

Wednesday, March 16th, 2011

A couple of weeks ago GAP and I were driving somewhere and he said to me, “You know what the next big thing is going to be?”


“No.”  He blew right past my joke.  “Robots.”  And then he went on to tell me how we are standing in the doorway of a whole new era of robotics.  I felt like I’d traveled back to the early eighties but still listened attentively while he told me of an article he read about recent advancements in robots.

Then, driving to work one morning last week I heard this piece on NPR about… robots.  As it turns out GAP was not so far off the mark after all.

Apparently there is, in fact, a new wave of robots being designed, built, and actually used in society.  Up to this point most robots (C-3PO notwithstanding) have been utilitarian in nature.  They performed repetitive physical functions like assembling car parts.  They lacked distinctly human characteristics and they presented no threat to our understanding of interpersonal relationships.

However, the nature of robots is changing.  Per NPR robotic babies are being used to comfort the elderly, and robotic nannies are helping look after children.  According to Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, the evolution of robots to fill human emotional needs is cause for concern.  Turkle was interviewed in the NPR piece and commented that the difference between new robots and old robots is that the new robots are, “proposing themselves to substitute for human beings in these more intimate roles.”

Turkle goes on within the interview to explain that the people she has interviewed have expressed interest in robot companions because of the disappointment they experience in other people.  She even told of one woman whose boyfriend was such a slouch that she envisioned replacing him with a robotic boyfriend.


Maybe I’m naïve.  Maybe it’s all written on the wall in front of me and I’m still not seeing it.  But I just don’t see this actually happening.  There may be a sad, lonely, person here or there who dreams of life with an inanimate companion, but I think that person is the exception.  The reason I believe this is that we know the difference.  (Did anyone else see Lars and the Real Girl?)  We know that programmed affection from a machine is not the same as real affection from a person.  No amount of technological sophistication can change that.

What interests me more, though, is a tangent to the robot premise.  I wonder about the increasingly robotic nature of our relationships with other people.  We keep up via Facebook and Twitter.  We hit Reply All on e-mail threads.  My MBA girlfriends and I try to connect for one breakfast or dinner per month, but even that has been hard now that most of us are mothers of very young families.  Apart from the three colleagues with whom I eat lunch most days, the sweeping majority of my interaction with my friends is electronic.

This is largely due to convenience, but there is also a safety net in mass electronic communication.  If I’m sitting in a one-on-one situation with you I have to be tuned into you.  I have to read you.  I have to respond to you.  That’s a lot of work, not to mention the fact that I could really screw it up.  Conversely, I have an audience of one.  If something I say doesn’t resonate with you, it might hit me hard.  But in the electronic realm we communicate with a panel of friends.  We only have to talk about ourselves.  Chances are good that someone among our online friends will see fit to endorse what we post.  And we only have to respond to people if we really want to.  Most of what we read goes untouched.  We could never get away with this kind of behavior in real life.

I don’t think we will ever rely on robots the way we rely on people.  It just won’t happen.  But I do worry that without practice our interpersonal skills might atrophy over time, and with that atrophy our in-person relationships will become unsatisfying.  The risk here is not that robots will replace people as companions.  The risk is that without practice our social skills become so scant that we might, even if only for a moment, want them to.  And that, to me, is scary enough.

Love and the Ledger

Wednesday, March 9th, 2011

There are places where it’s appropriate to keep score.  Sports games.  Debate matches.  Grade point averages.  But not marriages, right?  Mostly right, I think.  A standard understanding of psychology and marriage tells us that keeping score within a relationship is a bad idea; that the tit-for-tat approach only leads to bitterness and hurt feelings.  Nevertheless, I contend that it still goes on, and with good purpose.

A tweet from Gretchen Rubin turned me onto this Wall Street Journal article about how we divvy up all of the responsibilities within a marriage.  Author Katherine Rosman wisely observes that, “In a coupling of two busy people, it’s inevitable that a marital ledger develops, sometimes spoken, sometimes not.”  She notes that during a week in which she had to work especially long hours her husband put in a lot of time with their two young children and then ponders how much free time on the weekend that earns him.

GAP and I have similar arrangements.  We alternate who comes home by 6:00 to let the nanny off.  I volunteer at the children’s hospital on Sundays, and he plays league basketball on Tuesdays.  There is a give and take to these things.  But in order for there to be a give and take, there has to be some sort of score – some baseline of equality against which we measure.  The distinction here, and in Rosman’s description, is that we have to care more about what we owe than what we are owed.  If I care most about when GAP is in the hole, this scorekeeping devolves into the stereotype we all fear.  But if I worry only about my debts, and let GAP worry about his debts, then we stay balanced without things turning sour.

Rosman tells a story about a recent week when her husband and kids were plagued with the flu, when she did laundry for days on end to keep the germs at bay, when she was dealing with a looming deadline that overwhelmed her, and how her husband helped her through her meltdown to make the deadline.  The morning after the deadline she and her husband were both cranky and tired from having been up late.  It had snowed overnight and the car needed to be scraped.  And she explained:

He could have said — but never would — that I should scrape the car because he had helped me with my story the night before. He never would say that, because that isn’t why he had helped me.

In every marriage, there are things we do for the ledger. And then there are things we do for love.

And that’s what makes the difference.  For all our efforts to keep our marriages balanced, what really matters is that at the end of the day, when we really need each other, we help each other not for the IOU on the other end of the favor, but for love.

Friends with Sponsorships

Monday, February 28th, 2011

We’re friends, right?  You come here on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and we talk.  I tell you what’s on my mind.  Some of you respond.  I respond back.  We trade ideas and perspectives.  We support each other sometimes, and challenge each other sometimes.  It’s a nice little rhythm we’ve established, isn’t it?

What if I were getting paid to be friends with you?

Would that change our friendship?  Would you still want to be friends with me?  Would you still believe that I wrote my posts without influence or bias?  Would you believe that I wrote because I wanted to share something with you and hear your thoughts?  Or does the whole operation become suspect because I might only be writing to you for the paycheck?

I’ve never thought about selling ad space on this site.  For starters, I don’t have the readership to make it worthwhile.  (I like to believe that what I lack in numbers we make up for in substance.)  But more than that, this site is all mine.  It is a reflection of me and an extension of me.  I am beholden to no one here, and that is a rare and precious thing.  Not something I would sacrifice easily.  Many (most?) bloggers start out this way, but reconsider that decision if and when their readership grows to levels that cause them to quantify their lost opportunity.

I got to thinking about all this yesterday afternoon as I read the NYT Sunday Magazine’s article on Heather Armstrong – mommy blogger and writer of  The article traces her path from her roots as a blogging pioneer back in 2001 to her current status as one of the most successful personal bloggers on the Web.  That journey included the difficult decision to sell ad space on Dooce.

As is the case with many successful bloggers, Armstrong’s decision to air ads drew the ire of many readers.  As the NYT Magazine article points out:

“It is a question that hovers over all personal blogs — if they are based on trust, do you violate that trust by introducing commerce? Readers of personal blogs return again and again for the connection, the feeling they really know the writer — and ads can break the ‘we’re all friends here’ mood.”

The connection.  Like any lunch or coffee date, we come for the connection.  But what happens to that connection in the presence of corporate sponsorship?  Does it atrophy and die off?  As I look at that question I see a correlation, but not a causality.

The blogs I love the most are the ones where I’ve found a connection.  They are the blogs whose authors I can relate to, those whose thoughts provoke me, and whose stories touch me.  They are the blogs whose authors have taken the time to e-mail me outside of comments, or to respond to an e-mail I sent to them.  Simply put, I feel a connection when there actually is a connection.

Almost by definition, this happens only with smaller blogs.  When visitor counts start numbering into the millions (as is the case with Dooce), the blogger simply can’t actually connect with individual readers anymore.  No one has a million friends, and there is a reason for that: it’s impossible.

So about that connection.  I don’t think it dies off because of ads.  I think it dies off because of increased online traffic.  But frequently increased traffic and ad sales come onto the scene around the same time.  Much like anyone in the public eye, the more people who follow you (be it in People magazine or on your blog) the more protective you become of your existing relationships – and the fewer people you’re willing (or able) to connect with in a meaningful way.

I suppose that’s why, of all the blogs in my blogroll, only a couple are “big” blogs.  Like most of you, I’m here for the connection.  For the conversation.  In blogging, as in real life, I’m not friends with celebrities.  And I’m okay with that.  If this blog ever grows to the size that would cause me to consider, even for a moment, selling ad space (unlikely), I will do well to remember why I started this blog in the first place.  In the often-divergent world of quality and quantity I hope I’ll always be smart enough to choose the former.

Pausing to Reconsider

Friday, February 11th, 2011

Last night as I put the finishing touches on my Friday post, GAP and I got to talking about it.  As I told him of my topic and my perspective on it he furrowed his brow.  He didn’t like where I was going.  I’ve written many posts that GAP disagrees with, and I’m fine with that.  I don’t write with or for his approval.  But while I don’t care if our opinions on a topic differ, I care greatly what he thinks of my writing.

Last night, while he did disagree with my perspective, his larger objection was with my approach.  He felt that I was parroting a refrain that has been exhausted in the national media, without taking the time to consider it critically or to look at the other side.  He was right.  His criticism stung then (it still does) but I have a greater appreciation for it this morning.

So I come to you today with half a post, but not half a point.  We should all exercise careful judgment when choosing the people whom we allow to assert their influence over our beliefs and actions.  But once we’ve made those choices we should hear what our counterparts have to say, even when we don’t like it.  My conversation last night was certainly one of those times.

My original post will be published at some point, once I’ve researched it further, based it in fact rather than anecdote, and broadened my perspective to represent other views.  In the meantime I am thankful that GAP (a bit like Mrs. Elliott) reminded me that I am capable of more.  It seems that these are lessons we must learn more than once in our lives.

I Will Wear Red

Friday, January 28th, 2011

Tomorrow morning I will gather with the rest of GAP’s family for his grandmother’s memorial service.  GME (her initials, in keeping with my naming conventions on this blog) passed away last Friday and it was sad, but also a blessing.  After 93 beautiful years here she has gone home – to a place where her frail body can no longer limit her and where she has joined her husband for the first time in seven years.

GME was one of the most honest, curious, and lovely people I have ever known.  She is a testament to what this blog is about, and was a role model for me as I transitioned from a late-blooming adolescent into a grown woman.  And so it is that today I dedicate this post to her, and just a few of the reasons she will be so dearly missed.

She raised five kind and generous children, one of whom is my mother-in-law, who in turn raised six kind and generous children, one of whom is my beloved husband.

She had a passion for music and raised a family of carolers.  In keeping with their tradition that was founded back in the ’50s and ’60s her kids take their own children caroling to nursing homes (a massive group of nearly 30 now) every Christmas.

She was a reader.  Any time we visited her she asked GAP what he’d been reading (inevitably something political and challenging) and would ask to borrow it.  In turn, she would make margin notes in anything she read and would pass it along to GAP when she finished so they could discuss it.

She loved rain.  As a farmer’s wife she loved looking out the window to see darkening skies because it meant that her hardworking husband  could not go out into the fields and would instead be at home with her.

She was stubborn and humble.  In her later years as many of her grandchildren were getting married she was unable to walk down the aisle as part of the formal processional without the aid of a wheelchair or walker.  So she made sure that she was seated before the ceremony started so as not to draw attention to herself.

After September 11th she was curious about Islamic extremism and how it evolved.  Rather than plunge into day over day of cable news she ordered a copy of the Koran and read it to gain a better understanding of the religion itself and what might have prompted those men to do what they did.

She had eyes that sparkled with life.  No matter how many years her skin betrayed, her eyes were young until the very end.

And, all she wanted out of life was for the people she loved to be happy.  She hated all manner of sadness and was not one to indulge in it under nearly any circumstances.  And so it is that tomorrow’s service comes with strict instructions.  It is to be short.  It is not to be sad.  Men are not to wear suits.  We are all to wear bright colors.  And there is to be pizza afterwards.

GME was not perfect.  But she came awfully close.  Between life and death she chose the better option, but she will still be acutely missed for a long time.  I am thankful that I will live the rest of my life as a member of the family she raised.  Her life and beliefs will be imprinted on my own for the rest of my life, and I am better for it.

I was reminded of this last night.  We arrived at my in-laws’ house late in the evening.  After sleeping in the car IEP was eager to play for a bit prior to being put down.  Our bedtime routine includes a handful of books each night, followed by IEP curling up in GAP’s or my lap, rocking in the glider, and being sung to for a few minutes.  Last night my mother-in-law (E, for those who are frequent readers of comments here) was up to bat for bedtime duties.  As I listened on the monitor I heard her sing “Bless this House” to my baby.  It was the song that her family ended all of their caroling stops with so many years ago.  And it is the song that the entire family will sing together at her memorial service tomorrow.  It was late, she was singing quietly, and her typically strong voice cracked in a few places.  But I could hear GME coming through loud and clear.  And I was thankful, once again, for this woman whose life is now intertwined with mine forever.

This Bud’s For You (or not…)

Wednesday, January 12th, 2011

One of the cutest things that IEP does is to take the earbuds from his dad’s iPhone, hold them up to his ears, and bob his head along to the music.  He looks like a tiny little dude and it makes me laugh every time he does it.  Unfortunately, I just learned, if he keeps it up he could end up on a one-way path to hearing loss.

Earlier this week an innocent stroll through the New York Times Sunday Magazine led me to this article on the correlation between headphones and hearing loss.  Apparently the number of teens with some hearing loss has climbed 33% since 1994.  Earbuds, which have become significantly more popular since the launch of the iPod nearly 10 years ago (has it really been that long?), are particularly bad offenders as they block out less background noise prompting users to listen at higher volumes.  It seems that the same man who gave us the chance to conduct our lives to the tunes of a personal soundtrack is also slowly whittling away at our eardrums.  Steve Jobs giveth, and Steve Jobs taketh away.

However, worthwhile a topic as hearing loss is, there was actually another side-effect of headphones that I found more intriguing, namely isolation.  In today’s world earbuds are ubiquitous.  We see them everywhere.  On the subway.  At the gym.  I even see them on people walking around my office during the day.  But what does this little accessory say to other people?  If you go about your life with earbuds forever in place, what is the net effect to our culture?  It prohibits a shared experience.  It mitigates conversation.  And it sends a big visual signal that you are off limits to those around you; that we are off limits to each other.

I have sat on both sides of this fence, and so I struggle to say what is right and what is wrong.  I have sat next to overly talkative people on planes and been grateful that my big headphones (my ears are too small for earbuds…) signaled to the intruder that I was not an appropriate recipient of their chatter.  I have also tried to approach someone at their desk in the office and been frustrated that I was forced to “interrupt” their personal concert to ask a work-related question.

As I think about it I believe there should be some social code surrounding headphone usage.  It’s taken us years to get there, but I think today most people understand the do’s and don’t’s of cell phone etiquette.  Not all people follow them, but we at least have a common understanding of what they are:  Don’t talk loudly in a public place.  Don’t constantly check your phone while someone is trying to have an in-person conversation with you.  If you have to take a call in the middle of a meal or a meeting, excuse yourself first. And so on.

The problem with establishing such a code for headphones is that their usage is, by definition, silent and unobtrusive.  But silent and unobtrusive carry burdens of their own.  We are social creatures.  We live in a society of shared experiences.  If we all self-select out of the collective, what does the collective become?

The NYT article suggests that in 2011 we all unplug from time to time; that we listen to music together.  If we did that a bit more frequently I suspect we might be exposed to something new that we like.  Or we might have an interesting conversation about it.  Walking through your day with a “don’t bother me” sign hanging from your ears might be appealing from time to time.  But if it becomes our default I think we all lose.

And I Love Her

Friday, January 7th, 2011

Earlier this week I attended a business dinner with several colleagues.  With the social lubrication of a drink under our belts the conversation veered from professional to personal realms.  Younger members of the group complained of approaching 30th birthdays.  Older members of the group traded war stories of raising teenagers.  And eventually one member of the group told the story of how he got together with his wife.

This man is usually all business, so it was refreshing to hear him speak so candidly about his personal life.  Since he was a bit older (40-ish) when he married, embedded into his story was the following synopsis of how his selection criteria in a potential wife changed as he aged:

When I was in my early twenties I thought, “She’s beautiful.  And I love her.”

When I was in my mid-twenties I thought, “She’s beautiful and she’s funny.  And I love her.”

When I was in my late twenties I thought, “She’s beautiful and she’s funny and she’s smart.  And I love her.”

When I was in my early thirties I thought, “She’s smart and she’s funny and she’s rather pretty.  And I love her.”

When I was in my mid-thirties I thought, “She’s smart and she’s got a solid career and she’s funny and she’s really somewhat attractive.  And I love her.”

When I was in my late thirties I thought, “She’s level headed and I enjoy her company and she’s not altogether bad looking.  And I love her.”

And when I hit 40 I thought, “This is really someone I can work with for a long time.”

I suppose if I were this man’s wife and I wanted to choose the most objectionable interpretation of his story I could be offended that he seems to be implying that it was only after he lowered his standards six or seven times that he found himself interested in marrying me.  But having heard his little litany firsthand I can vouch that this isn’t how he meant it at all.

Rather, what he meant to convey was how foolish we can be in our youth.  When we are 22 appearances are paramount.  But by the time we turn 30 we need more.  We need someone we can relate to, someone who can have a conversation, someone who is fun.  And as we age further we need more still.  We need compatibility.  Give and take.  Balance.  Trust.  Fulfillment.  And a thousand other things that mere beauty can’t deliver. 

If you think about it his standards actually increased over time.  Finding a beautiful man/woman?  Not so hard.  Finding a man/woman you want to build a life with?  A Herculean task.

What I find curious about this little phenomenon of evolving tastes is that it takes us so long to figure out what really matters.  Do 20-year-olds not care about a decent conversation?  Do they not care about a good laugh?  Do they not care about common interests and values?  Or is it that at such a young age the need for real compatibility seems so far off that in our youth we indulge ourselves in the qualities we know can’t matter as much when we start to look at “forever”?

I like to think that I had a better-than-average head on my shoulders back then.  In retrospect, I know I didn’t.  So I suppose the fact that I ended up with a handsome husband is either a function of dumb luck or hard work.  Actually, I think it’s a bit of both.

The Future of Friendships

Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

As I think about the people I see in person on a daily basis, it is a short list: GAP and IEP, our nanny, my coworkers, and one or two neighbors.  As I think about the people who are most important in my life, it is a slightly longer list: GAP and IEP, our nanny, my family, GAP’s family (which is huge), and my girlfriends.  The thing that strikes me about these two lists is the minimal amount of overlap.  Of all the people who matter most to me, only three – husband, son, and nanny – do I see every day.  This bothers me.

It bothers me in part for obvious reasons – a lot of people I love live far away and that is hard.  But it also bothers me because of this article which says, “Hey Gale, you are doomed to a life of dissatisfaction and interpersonal failure because you don’t have weekly personal contact with the important people in your life!” …  Okay, that’s not quite what it said, but that’s how it registered with me.  (In case you don’t want to click over, the article is actually about a study showing that electronic communication is not a satisfactory substitute for in-person communication and nurture of professional relationships.) 

Juxtapose that article with this post which I read last week about the ages from 25 to 40 being a perilous time for women’s friendships, and you end up with Gale (who is 33 and smack-dab in the middle of that range) finding herself a little spooked.  I want to have and maintain meaningful relationships.  I want to have friendships that are mutually satisfying and valuable and precious.  And I worry that the structure of my life can’t readily facilitate this.

I will pause here to offer the following disclaimer: I understand that some of these things are within my control.  I control how often I call a long-distance friend to chat and catch up.  I control how often I reach out for a lunch or coffee date.  I am not purely a victim of circumstance in the fate of my friendships.  Nevertheless, the logistics of the young working parent are demanding, and it shows.

Most of my childhood friends I haven’t seen in years.  The same is true of most of my friends from college.  Time and distance have loosened those bonds.  And while many of the people still matter a great deal to me, the friendships themselves have atrophied.  I have a good group of girlfriends from graduate school.  We are like-minded career girls who have a great time together.  But between jobs and young families (our group has experienced a baby boom in the past three years) it took dozens of e-mails and an online poll just to find a single time slot in the month of December for a holiday get-together.

And so I sit and struggle with this conundrum.  I lack the BFF – the lifelong friend who knows me intimately; who both accepts and challenges me; with whom my conversations can resume after a month as though no time had passed.  I lack this friendship in my life.  (I’m not counting my sister here.)  Given this, I am faced with the fact that to maintain the friendships I do have I am going to have to put forth incredible effort.  Even with such effort I may be disappointed with the results.  I may just be in a period when female friendships exist more in the background than in the forefront of my life. 

We are a young family.  We go out with friends a couple of times a month and are reasonably social, but this is still a period of our lives that is going to be largely marked by bibs and sippy cups and bedtimes.  Life is full of tradeoffs; I know that.  But for reasons that I cannot entirely articulate, this one is hitting me harder than some of the others.

The Shape and Size of Loss

Monday, November 15th, 2010

Loss comes in all shapes and sizes.  It is most poignant and painful when it is shaped like a person – a parent, or spouse, or, God forbid, a child.  Sometimes it is shaped like a burning house, as happened recently to a friend of mine.  Sometimes it is shaped like an unemployment line, as has happened to thousands upon thousands of people in this country over the past few years.  And sometimes, as happened to me on Friday, it is shaped like a beautiful and spirited Palomino mare named Sundae Reason. 

The list of things you don’t know about me is long.  Today it gets just a bit shorter. 

Based on the pictures I’ve seen, I think I was about three years old the first time I sat on a horse.  It was five years later that I started taking lessons.  My mother used masking tape to tighten my jeans at the ankle so that they would slide down into my tall riding boots.  I used a borrowed helmet and rode for hours on my instructor’s horse.  At the beginning I rode in circles attached to a longe line with my arms free.  I learned to evenly distribute my weight between my seat and my heels, keeping my arms distracted with circular motions overhead.  Eventually I was given the reins and learned the importance of soft hands, the difference between direct reining and neck reining, and how to use hand and leg cues in concert.

I started showing at 12 and rode two lovely geldings for a year or so.  Then, when it became evident that my abilities warranted more rigorous training my parents supported my transition to a new trainer located closer to our house so that I could ride daily, rather than weekly.  That transition included the sale of one of the geldings, and the purchase of a mare, boarded by my new trainer, whom I’d been riding on a trial basis for several weeks. 

Sundae Reason was pale golden in color with a white star that narrowed into a very slim blaze.  She was athletic and temperamental, much like I was.  And she didn’t take easily to new riders, making the relationship that we would build together critical to our success in the ring.  Every day after school my mother drove me to the barn and dropped me off.  And every evening after work my dad would pick me up.  In the three hours that passed in between, I rode.  Sundae and I did rail work, pattern work, ground work, and jumped.  We worked to ease her naturally quick-paced gaits.  We worked to figure each other out and learn each other’s cues.

In that time a number of things happened.  I became a much more talented rider and a fiercer competitor, but I also learned how to be alone.  Many days I had lessons with my trainer, but many days Sundae and I were the only ones in the arena.  I was intensely focused on my riding, but also aware of my solitude.  In a strange and almost completely silent way, we kept each other company.

When I was 15 or 16 I made the decision (which, even today, I’m not sure was the right one) to stop riding.  I wanted a “normal” high school experience with “normal” high school memories.  I wanted to go to football games on Friday nights, dance in the chorus line in high school musicals, go on Spring Break trips with friends, and attend Prom and Homecoming dances.  We sold Sundae Reason back to her previous owner and I cried and cried as I handed over her lead rope.

That might have been the end of the story, but nearly 10 years later, when I was 24, I had a dream about Sundae.  It came out of nowhere and I woke up worried about her.  I called my dad and asked him to get in touch with the woman we’d sold her to in order to find out if she still owned Sundae, and if so how she was.  She did.  And Sundae was fine, but was being boarded and was not being ridden.  After tiptoeing through a couple of phone calls with her owner my dad discovered that there was an opportunity to buy Sundae back.  My parents have a country home about an hour outside of town, where Sundae would be given more attention, exercise, and care.  And so we jumped on it. 

For the past nine years my old show horse has lived out her retirement years on my parents’ farm.  I rode her every time I went home.  She didn’t have quite the same fire she had in her younger years, but she was still my girl.  We each fell back into our old rhythms easily, as old friends do.  It makes me sad to think about it, but I don’t remember the last time I rode her.  It was before I got pregnant with IEP, and by the time he was born she was just too old.  But I still called her in from the pasture for a hug and a brushing every time I was there.  

A week or so ago she had a close call with colic.  And on Friday a man who works at the farm found her lying down in a shelter.  He covered her with a blanket and called the vet, who determined that there was nothing to do.  I was hoping she’d make it to Thanksgiving, but it would have been unfair to ask her to go on any longer.  She is buried on a hill, under a tree on the South side of the sheep meadow.  And when I go home in ten days I will say my last goodbye.           

Loss is a strange thing.  It comes in all shapes and sizes.  This time it was shaped like my beautiful girl.

IEP meeting Sundae Reason, October 2009