Who You Callin’ Crazy?

“This horse is crazy, be careful!”

“You need the curb bit or she’ll never listen!”

“Yes, and don’t hesitate to correct her! She’s strong but not real bright!”

“Can’t trust this one. She’ll go bonkers without warning! Threw someone just last week, for no reason!”

Do you ever get this weird feeling of disconnect, when part of you realizes people are you oktalking to you, but what they’re saying seems so unrelated to what is happening that the rest of you is convinced they’re speaking to someone behind you? Rather like walking down the street in jeans and a shirt, and someone looks you dead in the eye and says “Nice dress”?

I turned around. There was no one there. I turned back, and there were the gentleman and the two ladies with concerned expressions, and yes, the little pinto mare standing right where I’d left her, loosely tied to the fence post. Eyeing the saddle and bridle I was carrying with mild interest, her ears swiveling lazily.

“This horse?”

Three nods.

I looked down at the saddle – a nice, well maintained all-purpose English saddle. Nothing fancy, no great brand name, just sturdy and functional. Over my shoulder hung the bridle. Equally no-nonsense. Soft black leather, snaffle bit. I rather liked it. Yes, I had seen the bridle with the curb bit hanging next to it – nice quality, with a few playful rhinestones on the headpiece. But I’m no dressage rider to handle a curb bit with ease, nor did I have any ambitions beyond a nice spin across the hills that day. I looked back up.

This little horse.”

A chuckle. “If you want to call 16 hands and then some ‘little’.”

More nods.

Look down. Saddle. Bridle. Look up. Horse. People.

Yes, her owner’s friend had told me she was a former show-jumper and an eager girl who loved trail rides. Yes, I knew she was neither short nor tiny. But how would I explain to these well meaning people that my Icelandic redhead would have this much taller horse for breakfast, and not even break a sweat? That hands and inches and centimeters mean squat in the face of sheer gigantic Viking personality?

Saddle. Horse. People.

“She thinks she’s little,” I offered.

The humans traded bemused glances.

“Well, just be careful!”

“The owner really should have told you about the curb bit!”

“And the unpredictable crazy episodes!”

Saddle. Horse. People.

“Okay.”

How To Feel Stupid

By now, my Viking would have either practiced her Spanish Walk, pawed a hole halfway to Australia, and/or made a fair attempt to gnaw through the rope out of sheer annoyance. One does not tie up a fierce warrior and then abandon her to stand around while humans make silly noises.

Little Bailey for her part had cocked a leg and watched a bumblebee bounce from one dandelion to the next. Boing, boing… I bet that grass over there tastes nice… boing… are the humans done yet… boing… should I tell them the goat got into their food box… boing… 

“Sorry about the wait, darling,” I hoisted the saddle onto the fence and gave the little mare another quick once-over. An hour or so of groundwork had done us both some good, not only to properly introduce myself to her, but to warm up and stretch. Check for soundness. Learn her little quirks, such as her yielding her hindquarters like a champ, but getting befuddled when I asked for her forehand to move. Such as her willingness to please, coupled with bouts of insecurity (Am I doing this right? Human? Did I get it right? I did? Cool!). She was relaxed, but alert. Loose-limbed and warmed up, but not sweaty. Exactly what any rider hopes for.

I saddled up. Still no sign of impatience, only a soft nibble at my shirt (Why do you smell like watermelon? – It’s my favorite gum – Can I have some? – Nope. But I have carrots for later – Awww bummer. Wait, what? Carrots?) and a friendly nicker to greet a pasture buddy coming back from the trail (Haaayy! I’m over heeere! – Haaay girl! I’m baack!)

‘This horse is crazy!’ – the woman’s words echoed in the back of my head. I wish people would stop doing that, even if they probably meant well. Crazy. What does this evengiraffe mean? The horse who experimentally licked my hand when I held out the bit for her seemed the farthest thing from insane, nutty, berserk, bonkers. Compared to my redhead (who by turns loves to play giraffe, Swan Lake without tutu but with hooves, or ‘steal and then eat the reins’ when it comes time to put on the “Stupid leather on my face thingy”), Bailey was a model of decorum. One nibble on the snaffle, one exchange of glances (Yea? – Sure. Watch the ear, please – Will do) – aaand done.

Crazy. This horse is crazy. You can’t trust her. I wanted to kick myself for letting those thoughts run circles in my mind. Could I be that far off? Was I that bad at judging horsey vibes when there was no one I trusted there to give me feedback? Was I missing something important? What if the signs were there, but I just wanted to like this horse and didn’t look for them? What if… a soft nose whuffling the hair at my ear jolted me out of it.

“Yea. Stupid human, right?” – we going now? – “Yes girl. We going.”

I walked off, long legged Bailey ambling companionably beside me. If there is one lesson I never quite managed to unlearn, throughout all my issues, it’s that you don’t get in the saddle when your head’s a mess. It’s unfair to the horse, it’s bound to drive you both batty, and it can be flat out dangerous. So we walked. A human kicking at rocks and scowling at her boots, and a tall mare with deep, dark eyes contemplating the fresh spring grass, the wheeling birds, the soft breeze, the funny human.

Walk it off. Move on. Such a deceptively simple technique if taken literally. Move. Onward. Onward.

‘You can’t trust this horse.’ Wasn’t those people’s fault that they’d unwittingly poked at the trust in myself, in my gut feeling, in my hard won faith that my old abilities weren’t gone, just buried under a heap of bullshit. Wasn’t the little mare’s fault that suddenly my shoulders were bunched, my chest an anvil, my movements jerky and wooden. Crazy. Was I crazy, to not see what was obvious to everyone else? Why was that curb bit there, if not because…

Human? – Yea, sweetheart? – Grass! Look! Fresh, green, juicy, tender, sweet smelling grass! –  Ah. I am kinda walking you through a candy store here, aren’t I?

Her eyes held all the gentle patience of animals throughout the ages, waiting for the daft self-declared Master of the Universe to figure out the obvious. Opposable thumbs and space rockets, but manure for brains. “Right you are. Dig in, boo.” I plopped down, earning myself a ‘you’re sitting in my salad’ look from Bailey who didn’t need to be told twice. It did smell sweet. The first spring grass, bright and fresh, reaching for the sunlight.

Crazy. I’ve been called crazy, too. Many times. Sometimes in awe, more often in the “nuttier than squirrel poo” sense. Sometimes in the “Poor thing, it’s the … well, you know. Air dummyJust let her sit with her back to the wall, and make no loud noises” sense. Bailey didn’t care. What’s one more weird human? Bailey didn’t bother obsessing over “Why did she saddle me and now we don’t ride? Did I do something? Did something bad happen? Will something bad happen? Oh My Horse, will a Terrible Tractor come and eat us?!” Bailey had grass. Bailey had company, even if it was just a friend of a friend of her human, come to help out and look after her for the week. Bailey had … I really can’t have no watermelon? – bugger off, precious – Your hair smells funny, too, you know! Grapefruit? – UNH! Look, darling. I’m trying to brood here! – Why?  … Bailey had fun.

Can’t trust this horse. Well, she trusted me, after knowing me for just about three hours. Unless I was wrong about that, too, and if I was that far gone I might as well check into Hotel Loony right now. She had trusted me enough to let me brush her, pet her, check her hooves; to waltz around the arena while I was asking silly stuff she’d never done before but that she was game to try for the giggles. Trusted me enough to walk out into the big wide world with me, where you never know if there will be sweet grass or mean tractors. No hesitation. Wait, hold on, there had been those few moments when …

“I’m stupid, sweetheart” – Well, you are sitting on perfectly good food and talking out loud when you know I don’t speak human – “Not that. You’re just a bit insecure, aren’t you?” – What’s that mean? Mind moving your boot, there’s a juicy bit under there – “Strong but not real bright my fine ass! You’re smart. You were watching me, looking for confirmation when you were unsure what was happening, or what I wanted. And. I don’t know how long you’ve been at this barn, but my friend said her buddy just got you a little while ago. So. A smart horse is cautious around stuff she doesn’t know. And if you don’t get the ‘all clear’ from your human, you react. I’ll bet that same fine hind end I mentioned! Literally, if I end up in a shrub with torn jeans.” – Humans sure make a lot of noise when they get excited about something – “Yeah, I know. Wanna test a hypothesis with me, boo?” – Is that a fancy carrot? – “Funny little horse. I meant I’m done brooding” – We go? – “Yes. We go.” – Awesome.

The Art of Keeping The Horse Between You And The Ground

If any other humans had been nearby when I swung my much mentioned derriere into the saddle, there would have been little doubt to whom the ‘crazy’ label should havewhat if you fly been affixed. No, not the tall mare with the beautiful brown and white patches watching inexplicable human antics with bewildered patience. The gigglesnorting woman who bounced around on one leg with the other in a stirrup, after remembering that 16 hands is taller than 14, and that a certain other horse would have given her the third degree by now.

What do they know? The longer this sweet little horse stood perfectly still with a stupid human hopping like a deranged one-legged bunny and laughing tears, the more I had to laugh. The more I had to laugh … well, let’s say I made it up there. Eventually.

What do they know? No more anvil, no more doubt. It wasn’t just the hilarity of a spectacularly inept display on my part, though sniggering at myself is enormously therapeutic. Not to mention I’m a bottomless well of folly, so I never run out of reasons to laugh. It was the ‘Crazy Horse’ behaving exactly as my poor battered confidence had predicted, it was the relief of having come full circle and being back in the ‘zone’ when I didn’t need to see her pretty ears swivel to know she’d heard a bird in the trees. That she was paying careful attention to our surroundings until the silly human got done being daft.

I got you. I got us. – Thank you, sweetheart. You’re a good pal, looking out for me like that. But I think I’ll take it from here – You sure? I hear better, you know. See better, too. – Aye. But I’m the big bad predator with claws and an attitude. I’ll be your Simba, you be my Timon. You tell me what scares you, and I’ll eat it. Or give it a mean Look. – I can do that! I can! – I know, boo. I know now. We go? – We gooooo! 

May my fierce little Viking forgive me, but it was magical. There is something about a tall horse stretching her legs that makes you feel like flying. Bailey’s walk was like being rocked in a cradle high upon a tower. Bailey’s trot catapulted me upwards with half startled, half delighted “Mwah!” sounds until I got my bearings and adjusted to the rhythm. Bailey’s canter … barely touched the ground. Imagine being used to a racecar – low center of gravity, hugging the road, able to turn on a dime. Then someone puts you in the seat of a biplane. A Bailey plane.

Indeed there were some wobbles. A massive pile of lumber, stacked haphazardly near the path, caused some sidestepping and anxious breathing. This wasn’t here last time! It’s biiig – Yep, and slow. Want me to tell it off? – Would you mind? – Bad logs! Stay right there and mind your own business or you’re gonna get it! – It worked? It did! Ha! That’s right, how you like them bananas, stupid logs! There was also a Huge Tractor of Death, but we just stared at that one meaningfully and then gave it a respectful berth because Bailey’s predator pal wasn’t in the mood to eat it (all that steel gives me gas). Bailey didn’t mind. She was more interested in showing me how she can jump a creek, and how neatly she can gather her haunches and tuck her hooves. Cool, right? I can do bigger ones, too! – Holy shitballs! I mean, awesome, sweetheart! – Wanna do a fence next? I know a good one! – Erm. Fence. Right. You see, I’ve never actually … oh look, a nice flat stretch for cantering. Flat being the ticket! – That’s going back to the barn. Where the carrots are. – Carrots it is. Giddyup, darling! – Giddying, funny human!

Owning Your Crazy

By the time we rounded the pond where the frogs had started their early evening concert, and Bailey strolled onto the dirt path leading to the carrots, only one of the concerned humans was still around. I couldn’t resist. I gave her a little royal wave. No queen, no empress, no victorious general riding ahead of their troops has ever waved so graciously. Nor returned in such triumph.

It wasn’t just that my jeans were mercifully untorn, and that I was riding a happy little horse with naught but my knees to steer at this point, because she was so relaxed I’d dropped the reins without thinking. It wasn’t just that by that time I was feeling more than a little cocky (keeping your seat while a professional jumper shows off her skill will do that), and that this particular lady had first dubbed the little mare “Crazy”. It was all of the above, and then some.

Damn right we’re crazy. Little Bailey, for trusting a human she barely knew. Trusting so hard, she’d put all her insecurities right into my hands and faced the big wide world. Lethal Logs and Terrible Tractors and Moving Shrubs of Imminent Death and all. For a horse, that goes against all common sense. And me? Well, I’m peculiar on a good day. But the only truly nutty thing I’d done was to let random strangers mess with my head. Let them knock loose my poor battered screws, and almost deprived sweet Bailey of a fun afternoon in the process. Stupid human.

Cowgirl

 


Human? – Yes, darling? – I distinctly remember you mentioning carrots! – So I did. But wouldn’t you prefer I get that saddle off you first? – Ooooh yes, and brush that spot there please! It’s itching! – Yea, we both worked up a nice, pleasant sweat, huh? – Har, but not as much as that stupid tractor. He ran away from us so fast, he must be halfway to Russia now. Human? – Yes? – We were awesome, weren’t we? – We were marvelous, boo. And Bailey? – Yea? – Thank you.

Bailey (3)
Is this a carrot which I see before me, The top toward my nose? Come, let me eat thee.

 

Bailey (1)
What is this human fascination with little flat boxes anyways?

 

Bailey (15)
Cuddle bug? I never met a bug who wanted to cuddle. I’m a cuddle horse, thank you!
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Little Vikings and Wounded Warriors

“Leave the thinking to your horse, he’s got the bigger head!”

This advice, delivered in a merry voice and translated almost 1:1 from an ancient German proverb, floated towards my ears in the middle of yet another standard leg-yield exercise gone awry (for non horse-people: a sideways walk that looks easy and is in fact not too challenging for a decent rider, but can turn into a hilarious turkey-trot performance if said rider overthinks the thing. Drastically overthinks, like an engineer fixing a carburetor trying to apply quantum physics).

And so I had. Again. For the umpteenth time. Adjust speed. OK, his head is at the correct angle. No, just a little more. Now the shoulder isn’t moving right. Too slow. Shoulder

turkey trot
Think how exciting this would be with four legs!

good, now gentle pressure to the … cue the Charleston music, we’re off to the dance! It is a testament to the Icelandic Horse’s renowned amiable and good-humored nature, that my dear friend the “Night-traveler” did not unceremoniously dump me into the sand and waltz off to find somewhat more interesting to do. Possibly a root canal.

But coach’s equally good-natured advice snapped me out of the vicious circle of tension and thinking and planning, of angles and posture and watching every twitch of my horse’s ear, analyzing every change in his gait, every tremor in the reins (I am convinced that his half-sideways nod is nothing other than an equine eye roll, especially when accompanied by a distinct, deep-throated huff).

Leave the thinking to your horse. Coach might have said “Stop treating him like a finicky bit of technology that will blow you halfway to Russia if you get it wrong, and just bloody well GO with it!” but she didn’t. “He’s got the bigger head!” He’s a living being with thoughts of his own, let him do his part. Let him carry you. STOP overthinking every damn thing. Wasn’t that why I had gotten back in the saddle after a long hiatus in the first place?

The long road back

It’s supposed to be like riding a bicycle. Due to muscle memory and “once learned, never forgotten”, you’re supposed to pick up where you left off, and canter into the sunset. Maybe for some people that is true, but my experience was rather along the lines of “once learned, relearning everything”. Some of it certainly had to do with the switch from Western to English Riding, and from steady, eager, happy-go-lucky Quarter Horses and clever, playful Appaloosas to five-gaited “Devil May Care” miniature Vikings with a quirky sense of humor. But there was also, perhaps mostly, the difference in the rider herself.

There were, in essence, two separate riders.

The Force of basic, fundamental trust we develop (or don’t) in infancy was strong with the teenager who considered climbing out of yet another shrub somewhere in the Northern Adirondacks just another adventure (do not blame Binky, I should have known Image result for horse lover stable mindbetter than to ask such a sharp turn of him when he was distracted by the charming chestnut mare). The immortality and invincibility of youth, combined with a deep-rooted sense that it’ll all turn out alright in the end, that the annoying broken leg will heal before long, that the bruises only mean you had fun pushing another limit, and that there were always people who would pull you out of the shrub and slap a band-aid on your arm (but dammit, that was my favorite ratty old shirt), left little enough room to doubt myself. Or the world I lived in, for that matter.

Horses were boon companions, as were dogs and bunnies and chickens and whatever critter dad brought home to nurse back to health any given day (mom drew the line at that baby wolverine though, much to my dismay). Being smarter than most humans, the 1000 pounds of muscle I fed and brushed and saddled on a regular basis picked up on that cheerful confidence with ease, and responded in kind.

Many years, several deployments. and far too many close encounters with the darkest, most hateful and vicious side of humanity later, that cheerful serenity had been replaced with a wary cynicism on a good day, hypervigilance and obsessive situational awareness alternating or concurring with emotional detachment and numbness on a bad one.

It’s not that the US military hasn’t learned some hard lessons from the past. There is help available. Nor is the stigma of seeking said help as prevalent as it once was. Like as not I’d have cowgirl’d up eventually either way, because once your ability to get the job done becomes compromised, all excuses are feeble. I wasn’t raised to make excuses. “I don’t like shrinks” and “I’m tougher than this” doesn’t fly when you’re responsible for other people’s lives.

But it does help if your superiors support you in your decision to fix a mild issue before it becomes a major one, rather than take your admission of being less than 100% as ‘unfit for duty’. And it certainly helps to have other people in similar situations covering your six. Thus the slightly unconventional suggestion to seek out a barn in the beautiful Middle of Nowhere, Bavaria. “You had horses as a kid, right? I know this place where they do amazing physical therapy with veterans – no EAP per se, but…” “Horses?”

Well, my dog has been my reality check and guardian against nightmares more times than I can count. So, why not let horses help me to remember a simpler, more innocent time? Help me reconnect with the teen of days gone by? What could possibly go wrong?

I should have remembered how much smarter they are.

Murphy’s Law of Combat 5.1: If it’s stupid but it works, it ain’t stupid

Contrary to what you may have been told, the Icelandic Horse doesn’t care if you call him a pony. He doesn’t even care if you treat him like one, as long as it involves carrots. He is, Related imagehowever, as tough as his Viking ancestors, and about as easily persuaded to deviate from a chosen course. Unless of course you’ve managed to gain a measure of respect (or have a limitless supply of carrots available).

Fortunately for me, the barn in Nowhere, BY is run by one of those legendary women who can take you for a 20 minute walk across a pasture with 45 horses and then match you to your partner based on how the herd reacts to you. Which, in the beginning, was a gentle, playful bay gelding by the name of Náttfari.

I’ve never been one to subscribe to the notion of signs and omens and secret meanings. It’s quite likely my buddy with the rockstar mane and the smooth gait was named for the legendary first permanent settler of Iceland, rather than the literal “Night-Traveler”. But it felt apt all the same. If the little guy had a knack for navigating dark places, I’d not turn up my nose at the help.

And so he did.

Bit by bit, week after week, rain and sun and wind and snow and ice, the brave little Viking horse shouldered the responsibility of teaching a wounded human how to keep moving forward. How to take the dark and the light as equal parts of life, and that watching your step in the dark doesn’t mean weakness, but translates to common sense. That keeping a vigilant eye out for predators doesn’t mean you can’t graze and flirt and play. That trust doesn’t mean you’ll never fall, because stupid rocks and slippery mud can pop up out of nowhere. That if you just keep moving, there’ll be unexpected carrots along the way.

In the arena and on the trail, he kept murmuring those lessons to me. Kept moving through setbacks and dense fog, always carrying the weird but pleasant enough human along. Remember. Remember. One step after the other. I got you. Remember. Trust. Feel. It’s just a shadow. Trust me. Remember.

The Path Untraveled

The day that my equine pal and expedition guide so kindly refrained from dumping me, aka “this overanalyzing nuisance on my back”, into the dust was not a quantum leap event for my riding. Rather, it was one in a series of events big and small. Some of them inching me along, others gaining 100 yards at a time, but until that moment always trying to move towards the “Rider that Was”. The one who never had nor ever needed formal training, because a horse is a horse, right is right and left is left, slow is slow and fast is YEE-haw. The one who knew in her bones that it’s never the reins he follows, but the human saying “I got this, buddy”.

It was the day I realized there was no going back to the First Rider, much as I wanted to leave the tense, overalert Second one behind. Because life doesn’t work that way.

The lesson my quirky, amiable Viking had tried to get into my stubborn head all the while suddenly seemed so simple. I could have sworn that for a moment the famous light bulb did not so much appear over my head with a cheerful ‘ding!’, but rather hit me with the ‘whoomph’ of a 1032 ergs solar flare. Remember, silly human. Forward is the way to go. You knew this, once. What you were, what you are, has brought you here. You are the First Rider, you are the Second, both of them will be part of the Third. Let’s go see what she’ll be like. And she better bring carrots.

Related image
My work here is done…

 

It’s been a year and a season since.

And even as my little buddy has moved on to help others while I’ve been exploring the New Rider with two other, quite different horses, I often find myself drawn back to him. If only to stand near the pasture gate for a while and watch him play. Or for those moments when he comes strutting up to blow warm air into my face and nuzzle my hair.

“Looking good, funny human. I saw you with that feisty mare yesterday. Not bad. Did I mention I have a bit of a crush on her? That swish of her tail when she tölts … oh, brother! Hey, remember when we ran into that patch of mud and Snöggur fell on his bum? And you got out the saddle to help his rider up, and then you both fell on your bums? Did the four of us ever make a picture. But anyways. Got carrots?”  

Confessions of an Accidental Liberal, or: Speak Softly and Have Air Support on Standby

I should have listened to Nancy.

“Just say no!”

But like millions before me, I saw no harm in a little curiosity, some entirely legitimate

Mrs Reagan and 99 Luftballons?

scientific spirit of inquiry, and I tragically misjudged the slippery slope that my wide-eyed, guileless poking at the unknown should lead me onto.

The unknown of differing political viewpoints, that is. Radical, exotic, tantalizingly extravagant viewpoints. Elitist, even (don’t blame me, elite sounds so charmingly French! How was I to know the word that once meant ‘choice’ and later meant ‘of great quality’ is now yet another bad thing)?

Honestly, I thought I could quit any time. Even as my descent into flower-powered liberaldom was already painfully obvious to innocent bystanders, I still firmly believed myself the poster-child of the Moderate Independent. You know, the girl who goes both ways. The reasonable one who balances the scales and chooses political candidates not based on party affiliation but on (oh, dear) common sense.

It took nothing less than a full frontal intervention by a trusted buddy for me to see the terrifying truth. Engaged in the time-honored military maneuver known as “Hurry Up and Wait” we were completing a tactical analysis (debating which Hollywood movie contains the biggest FUBARs in terms of depicting the military), when Murphy (don’t ask)  declared in a matter of fact tone: “You’re such a Liberal!”

Naturally, my response was a decisive “Am NOT!”

“Are, too!”

“Am SO not!”

“Are so, too!”

Yes, we’re the people entrusted with your safety.

 

And it all had started out so well

Granted, mom has always been a staunch Democrat. The proud blue collar daughter of 3rd generation German immigrants (add a generous dash of Louisiana French for spice, and of course there’s great-uncle George the cranky Alaskan but every family needs one of those) has always been pro unions, pro reasonable taxation in exchange for social safety nets, and has some rather fierce views on healthcare. Yet to many of her fellow Democrats in the Empire State her political leanings tend rather a bit too far right of Mr Bill Clinton, disqualifying her from the “Centrist” label by 20 degrees starboard of fiscal responsibility. And please don’t get her started on Mrs Clinton. Or Mr Sanders, for that matter.

One wonders how she ever gets along with the Republican she married -holy cow – in 1967. Or perhaps not, seeing as the gentle Scandinavian bear, self-chosen blue collar son of a white collar East Coast clan, declares himself a Moderate Republican (when he can be bothered to have any label affixed to his broad shoulders). Far, far out of right-swirling waters in matters of environment and education, he was (and is) nonetheless the poster-man of Reagan voters (“Bad actor. Good president”), and still champions supply-side economics and much of the Gipper’s free-market philosophy. Dad also quite reasonably decided that voting for Bush the Elder and (less enthusiastically) the Younger, gave and gives him license to exercise his 1st Amendment rights at his leisure by offering mild rebukes and occasionally scathing commentary on either’s performance in the White House. Please don’t get him started on Mr Trump. Seriously. Please don’t.

So what happened?

How does a child destined to walk the moderate, centrist ground of politics suddenly find herself tumbling out of that comfortable, stable middle ground and slide headlong into the rabbit hole of the (gasp) Libertarian Left? cartesian plane with horizontal left-right axis and vertical authoritarian-libertarian axis

As a good Snowflake/Hippie/[insert insult of your choice here] should, I blame my parents. That’s right, the ex-Catholic (aka Agnostic with an Attitude) Democrat and the laid-back Protestant Republican, who huddle snugly in the political middle. The couple who for over 50 years now have made an art of not merely coexisting with a different opinion, but celebrating their differences (admittedly, that celebration sometimes involves ballistic kitchenware from the Democrat and pithy retorts worthy of a Spartan warrior from the Republican).

On the political compass it’s astonishing just how close these two warring lovebirds are –Image result for churchillboth are floating companionably near Winston Churchill in the middle to lower left of the blue, with mom but a bunny-hop and a skip left of dad on the economic scale, and him (my goodness) beating her and any other self-respecting Republican on the social scale with a noticeable southward drift. “Must have been the porn questions” spoke the Viking and went to stack some firewood.

Mother dearest disputes this conclusion and places the blame squarely on his insufferable feminism. Sometimes I really can’t tell when she’s joking.

And I guess therein lies the rub. They don’t fit the stereotypes. Despite loud (or laconic) protestations to the contrary, my parents are fierce individualists, liberal in the literal sense of the word. The “Believer in Liberty” sense. The “Freedom and Pursuit of Happiness” sense. Each of them may have chosen to align with a party that most closely resembles their views, but within that framework they refuse to be pinned down, corralled, labeled, or herded along party lines.

How did they end up raising a scion who snuggles up with Nelson Mandela (not that I’m not mildly flattered, if bewildered) in the green square?

I believe it’s because they’re Americans. Yes, you read that right. Solid, patriotic, “Keep your eyes on the stars, and your feet on the ground” honest Americans. Firm believers in

Image result for statue of liberty
Looking good, old girl!

the First Amendment (please don’t get them started on the Second, though. The last time that discussion happened we had to evacuate half the county and apologize to Canada for that friendly-fire teacup), in self determination and inalienable rights. Including their daughter’s right to be a gun toting Hippie, a grown-ass woman in uniform who volunteers for animal rescues and pesters the commissary for more organic food (I draw the line at kale, though), who believes that putting her hind end on the line for her country means she damn well can argue for renewable energies and better health care. And don’t get me started on minority rights, or protecting my beloved rivers, lakes and mountains. Seriously, don’t. My weapon was made by the lowest bidder.

The Oxymoron resolved

How does this individualism square with the lovebirds’ relatively high scores on the authoritarian scale, and mine own willing endurance of the most hierarchical command structure available?

I recall asking dad many years ago, before donning my own uniform, how he had resolved the dilemma for himself. Thusly spoke the Viking: “Freedom isn’t saying no to authority just because it’s authority. It’s saying yes when and because you choose to. Now go help your mother with the horses.”

Yes, dad.

 

 

 

A Soldier’s Christmas

It sucks not being home this time of year.

There are perks – amazing ones – to being stationed in Germany, rather than tracking Santa via NORAD from another sandbox. All throughout the Holiday Season there are distractions galore. Magical Christmas Markets beckon. Small towns and major cities engage in a quintessentially German competition over who has the best decorations, the most whimsical attractions, the finest foods, the most awesome events. You can tell they’re German, because they’d rather traverse the Arctic in pink satin shorts than be caughtImage result for romantic christmas market regensburg doing anything tacky, overblown, … *coff coff* American *coff*. No, it’s elegant understatement for the Teutons, or if you have to go all in, do it in a playful, not quite taking yourself seriously way. So you get rows of miniature log cabins decorated with intricate woodwork and tasteful lighting, serving food and drink and selling handmade toys … right next to a bunch of donkeys with Santa hats. Yes, live donkeys, and a rather bored looking cow. Do watch your just purchased Lebkuchen around the longears.

With Gluhwein and Bratwurst Semmel warming your insides, and your new best friend Josef the donkey searching your pockets for leftover crumbs, the pangs of homesickness are just that. Little bittersweet specks of frost in the warm glow.

But it still sucks.

The native population – an attraction in their own right – will not let you dwell, however. Not once they’ve adopted you, like one would a friendly, if rather quirky and not very bright puppy. Now that you’re theirs, you’re dragged to ski trips, beer league hockey games, and cheerful gatherings at the local inn. These will resemble pagan revelry and involve the lighting of candles (unless Ms Sabine accidentally burns down the wreath Related imageagain), a mildly inebriated Mr. Florian playing the Zither (or a three man band in Lederhosen bringing the house down), and ever more fantastic dishes. If you thought you knew Bavarian cuisine – you ain’t seen nothing yet, brother.

You will also be introduced to the Jagerbomb’s big older brother – the Jaegertee. Do not let the sedate name fool you – this stuff is made for Bavarian stomachs fortified by pigs’ feet and fiery horseradish, and it will end with bewildered Americans stumbling from one snowdrift to the next while caroling like lovesick moose (meese? mooses?).

But it still sucks.

Because as Christmas Eve rolls around wrapped in freezing mist and all grows quiet, as the base falls into a watchful doze with those who were lucky enough to catch a flight home long gone, as the natives retreat into the loving or at least drunken embrace of their families, you look around and see those familiar faces.

The Ones Who Stay Behind

They’re not the same every year. PCS is part of military life, and the guy you worked with and had beers with last year is sending a Christmas card from Benning this year. But they are familiar in that they all have familiar expressions. Some slightly forlorn, some melancholy, some determined to make the best of it, some just grateful for a bit of peace and quiet, some settling into the routine of holding down the fort. All of them with nowhere else to go.

I’m one of the luckier specimens, with two dependents and sufficient rank to live in a nicer military housing area. We didn’t go home this year for various reasons, and my two military brats have been in this situation more than once. They take it in stride. And they, too, see those members of their tribe who got the shortest end of the Christmas tree. They’re as familiar with them as they are with the smell of lived-in ACUs, muddy boots, and DoD schools.

So a few years ago we started our own Holiday tradition. We call it Christmas for simplicity, though we’re neither Christians nor attend mass, but in a nod to our Scandinavian ancestry we have a tree and lights and a fine feast (we’re also stubbornly trying to import the Jólabókaflóð – so far with limited, but mildly encouraging success). And on the 25th we’re gathering up the stray members of our tribe. The young single soldier and the divorcee without the money to go home, the grizzled war horse who stuck around pulling duty so those with families can catch a break, the unattached SGT with estranged parents. Bring your friends. Yes, that quirky 11Bravo can come, as long as he doesn’t try to puppy-nap our dog again.

The Longest Night

Take away the ornaments, the reindeer, the carols and the shopping craze for the perfect gift, and I still believe we would huddle together as the days grow short and the light Related imagewanes. We’d still seek out our families – blood or no – and draw close to the hearth fires. Because somewhere in the ancient, primal parts of our brains that howl at the moon and don’t buy into the modern gimmicks just yet, we feel the cold claws of winter coming to take the most vulnerable of our pack.

Is it a coincidence that Christianity picked the time celebrated as the return of the light for as long as humanity has existed for their own expression of hope? And deep down, does it matter as long as the message is carried onward?

Even the longest night ends. The world keeps turning, the seasons change. The circle of life keeps rolling on. And in Ned Stark’s words: “When Winter comes the lone wolf dies, but the pack survives”. So gather your own and raise a glass to life, roast that bird and sing a song, because we’re all in this together.

It sucks not being home. Home with your first tribe, your family and old friends. Home, where everything is familiar and comforting. Even drunk uncle Harry and his hopelessly ancient and out of tune guitar. Maybe especially him.

But it’s OK. It really is.

Deck the halls with boughs of holly

Mother and children and a fluffy dog, 14 uniformed personnel decidedly out of uniform (though that ugly sweater should qualify as psych warfare), 1 DoD civilian and a stray spouse, one large turkey, a-wassailing they go…

Christians, heathens, a SGT declaring himself the mandatory Jew and cheerfully drowning out the “Jingle Bells” crowing atheist (yes they do exist in foxholes) with an off-key rendition of something with a Dreidel. “Die Hard” and “Miracle on 34th Street”. Surprisingly little shop talk. A happy dog gorged on ham and bird. Stories of home. Bittersweet.

We’re OK.

A Happy Yuletide to All, a Merry Christmas, Joyeux Noël, Peace and Hope and Chocolate! 

 

 

Winter Solstice

Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it’s queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there’s some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

(Robert Frost)

Solstice

The not so Old Girl and The Sea

It started with a Hashtag.

Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, the tributary streams of our modern world flowing into the big river of awareness. Then the conventional media outlets caught on and before we knew it, the Weinstein dam broke and it was Land Under in Hollywood.

I’ll admit, my brain went into ‘white noise’ mode after the first few hundred Tweets. It seemed yet another sad, frustrating déjà vu moment in history – I’ve already seen this, and not once but twice, three times … it’s like we’re forming a brave bucket brigade on the Titanic, shouting encouragement to each other while that sad, lonely SOS echoes over the frozen Atlantic. If anybody out there really gave a damn, wouldn’t they have answered by now?

So, I was resigned to have another talk with my teenage girls about why life isn’t fair,

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about politics and the legal system, and that there really, really still are good men out there. I thought about calling my dad – the guy who always has, and always will top that list for me – and tell him I love him. Not in those words, maybe. He’s a sardonic, oft taciturn fellow who shows you how he feels rather than prattle on about it. I thought about checking in on an old friend, who struggles to this day with the aftermath of an abusive relationship. Offer support in case her Facebook feed had her puking and crying. Keep bailing water while the band plays on. And tomorrow we’re on to other news. Again.

Only it didn’t stop. Not this time.

When the Bough Breaks

Encouraged by the sudden, inexplicable shift in the winds, that unexpected turn of the tide, women told their stories. One after the other. A great many of them no doubt felt like having stumbled into a kind of Narnia – a magical land where suddenly the laws governing the world no longer applied and women were believed instead of dismissed, ridiculed, silenced.

But it was the stories you don’t find in newspapers that stood out for me. While the

narnia
I don’t think we’re in the 1900eds any more…

reckoning that caught the rich and powerful like a tide was important, even crucial, it was a glimpse at the ocean from a sandy beach. Or an iceberg, as it were.

Among those stories from the depths of the ocean was one one of my favorite bloggers who broke her long silence, making a quiet but powerful statement about the “Silence of The Abused” 

Like my friend, this sweet, funny, generous lady was and is suffering. Yes, even years later. Like my friend, she struggles against the dragnet keeping her down, keeping her silent, every knot made of fear and shame and dismissal.

This one hit me hard.

I have amazing parents, loyal friends, and have never been described as a shy girl, or timid woman (rather the opposite – I often have to convince people that I’m actually quite a sweetheart). And I still have #MeToo stories. Stories I don’t like to tell, because of the “Naaaww, you? Get outta here!” reactions. Because of the “You just want some payback on a guy who ditched you!” bulldung. Because it’s tiresome. Because bucket brigade.

But for my friend, and that blogger whose posts I’ve always enjoyed, and for anyone whom it may help, I’ll take my skiff out and hunt marlins (pardon the shameless Hemingway reference). Because even women who kick arse and take names know what it’s like to be stuck between a rock and a hard place. And because you need to know we have your six if you need it. All you have to do is ask.

Damn right. Hashtag Me, too.

I was 16, and had just grown from the cute tomboy into your “All American Girl Next Door” – though with the vestiges of the tomboy still clinging to me. That, combined with the facts that I was a late bloomer and that my interest in boys was still mostly limited to how well they could shoot a hockey puck, had thus far saved me from much unwanted attention – in school and elsewhere. Well, that, and Billy’s black eye after he pulled my hair in 7th grade (guess who got detention).

Mother nature caught up with me eventually, and though I never saw the point of overly highlighting my figure which suddenly resembled a 50ies pinup girl rather than a baby giraffe, it did attract notice. Like most girls, I put up with the catcalls, swatted away hands attached to grabby teenage boys and employed the occasional strategically placed elbow if the gentler methods had no effect. I gained a reputation as a “mean bitch” for not responding well to what to my mind was just plain rudeness.

But life in a small town in Northern NY, with a well known and respected veteran for a father and a veritable firebrand for a mother has its advantages – and granted me a reprieve I now know many women never had.

Until it didn’t.

As sexual assault tales go, my first is almost embarrassingly brief and undramatic. Just a young woman working a summer job at the hardware store, trying to save up a few bucks for that old pickup truck I had my eyes on. Jeans and a tshirt, some solid boots – simple, sturdy clothes for when an elderly customer needed help hauling stuff around. I was as oblivious to the men’s weird “hardwood flooring” jokes as a gerbil to quantum physics. And as stunned as a hockey player who takes a puck to the head when one of those men cornered me behind some shelves and slid a hand under my tshirt to yank at my bra.

I remember the smell of sawdust. I remember freezing like a deer in the headlights, trapped between a guy who outweighed me by at least 50 pounds, and the wood. And I remember that it hurt, worse than stupid Billy pulling my hair, and then the rush of fear followed by pure anger.

I don’t remember what I said, but my boss later told me he’d never heard such language from me before. I don’t remember kicking the guy hard enough to make him yelp, though apparently I did, earning me an ‘attagirl’ from bossman’s wife. I don’t even recall said bossman pulling the sonofabitch off me after he heard the ruckus, only that shaky feeling you get after being slammed into the boards at a hockey game. Adrenaline, fight or flight.

It stuck with me in such annoying detail not because it was horrifying (I was more angry and disgusted than frightened), but because it marked a sad end to innocence. And because of the aftermath, which is a story every victim and survivor can tell like a litany

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in Catholic Church, the same old song, over and over, only the singers change.

“Are you sure you did not encourage him?”  YES I’m sure!

“Could you have misunderstood?”  Hard to misunderstand being pinned and groped to the point of pain!

“But you were leading him to that secluded section” It’s where the oak wood is

“You claim you did not understand the … hum hum … hardwood jokes?” I did not. I do now.

“But you realize how it might have seemed you were…” NO.

“But we never had any trouble with him” How nice for you.

“Well, no harm done, right?” Are you f*ing kidding me right now?

Believe it or not, I was lucky. Though that police officer had me doubt my own sanity for a minute, my boss’s testimony was convincing enough (a fact which didn’t much help my anger – why do you believe him but not me?). The guy walked away with a slap on the wrist, but he was no longer welcome at the store and at several other local businesses. I had to put up with some whispers about being a tease, and the already familiar “mean girl” as well as “probably a lesbian”. The fact that it required another man – in this case my dad – to silence most of those with some well placed, gruff comments and his trademark calm, no-bullshit attitude …. it should have bothered me, but didn’t. I had better things to do. Like buying that truck.

And just when you thought it was safe…

Older, not much wiser, with still a bit of that sweet naïveté but thinking I knew it all … you guessed it. College.

And of course I was asking for it, working as a barkeep in the evenings, right? Wearing those snug, comfy old jeans and v-neck shirts that let you see just enough cleavage to leave the girl a nice tip. Never mind said girl is a margarita wizard and plants your Bud Light in front of your nose before you finished the ‘ght’. Never mind it’s hot and loud and she’s working hard, and already sweating worse than Sidney Crosby in round seven of the playoffs, she should have worn a baggy turtleneck.

Don’t get me wrong – I met some awesome guys at that bar. Sports fans shooting the breeze, appreciating a girl who knows a linebacker from a left winger and can rattle off her favorite players’ stats rather than gush about their cute behinds. Quiet guys, talkative guys, sad drunks, happy drunks. All of them fine men.

I learned to handle the unpleasant ones. The octopus who seems to grow more arms every time you smack one away, the would-be poet who’ll croon odes to your female attributes and switches to crude insults when you explain you have other customers. Or don’t give him your number. Or politely decline a drink.

Again, it often took one of my ‘regulars’ to step in and remove those guys. Because a woman saying ‘stop that nonsense’ was not enough, it needed another man. Vexing, but you deal with it. Paying customers waiting. Four Molsons, coming up. Down, boy, I ain’t got time for this.

Until the night two men decided to wait for that “Cocktease bitch” and teach her a lesson. crime_sceneWith any other crime, this would have been called ‘premeditated’. They had planned it well, scouting out which car I drove, where it was parked, when my shift ended. The forced nonchalance of “Who do we have here?” wouldn’t have fooled a blind goose wrapped in cabbage leaves. It didn’t fool me. But until they actually put their hands on me, I remained in that “they’re rude assholes, but they wouldn’t cross the line to criminals” state of denial.

I’ve never been tiny or frail. I thank my father’s Scandinavian blood every day, not only for a lovely, gravity-defying rack and legs that won’t quit, but a 5’7″ frame of sturdy bones, and a left hook that will make you hear the Valkyries sing. But I had no hopes of outmatching the weight and muscle of two grown males. So yes, I panicked. The moment  my arms were wrenched behind me and I was shoved behind a large SUV, the moment that hand went for the waistband of my jeans, denial took a hike and survival instinct roared to life. Complete tunnel vision. I cared about nothing but getting those guys off me. By whatever means. Kicking, scratching, biting, slamming my forehead into a nose. I still hear that sound, and the guy’s howl. The curses. The “You’re gonna get it, bitch”. Still feel the backhand blow that made stars dance before my eyes.

I was saved again by other men attracted by the yelling – they thought it was a bar fight spilled out onto the street and went in to separate the combatants. Go figure.

And just like that, the litany started once more. Nursing a swollen, bleeding lip and more bruises than I could count, I got to explain to a dubious law enforcement officer that I had neither invited, instigated, nor sent mixed messages. That I hadn’t broken a poor man’s nose for a harmless butt-pinch. That I hadn’t flirted with the poor besotted guys and then changed my mind. That I wasn’t a college girl gone wild who then couldn’t handle what she had coming.

“But you talked to them. In the bar.” I’m serving the drinks, talking is required!

“If you saw them waiting by your car, why did you keep approaching them? If you felt threatened, why not go back inside?” I underestimated the threat. Next time I shoot first and ask questions later. Would that suffice?

“How much have you been drinking?” Nothing

“You tend bar, and no one bought you a drink?” I don’t drink alcohol at work.

“Why didn’t you call for help?” I don’t know. I thought I did.

“You realize broken nose guy is pressing charges?” Oh? What paragraph covers ‘I was prevented from raping a woman’?

“There is self defense, but you really went after those guys.” I. Was. Scared.

“You don’t look scared.” Tell it to the mother-effing Marines. I want to go home.

Again, it was the testimony of other men that changed the tune. My regulars at the bar, explaining patiently that I was not in the habit of beating up men. That those guys had shown some issues with boundaries before. A man saying “If those *%&#$ers show their faces again I’ll bury them” was shrugged off as chivalry. Me saying “I wish I had broken more than his nose” was considered vicious and vindictive.

And again, don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful for the cavalry charging to my aid. I’ll never forget the guy who gave me his jacket to cover my torn and bloody shirt, and I’ll never Image result for rape cultureforget the police officer who finally barked a “You shitting me? The girl is bleeding. I’m taking her to the hospital. Get the statement later!” Much of the rest is a blur. There was a soft spoken nurse, and bone deep exhaustion. Simmering anger and frustration, more questions. Always more questions.

In the end, I was cleared of the charges – but the mere fact I had to defend myself for, well, defending myself, left a bitter aftertaste. That I was once more the mean girl who had tempted upstanding citizens into rash actions, and now was crying rape – and they didn’t even get to do it, the poor guys. Punished without getting a piece of the action. What a bitch.

Cry me a river, cry me a sea

Not at all surprisingly, the pushback in form of “Feminazis want us all oppressed” and “What about Muslim women? You don’t care about them, do you? (newsflash: I do) – bitches don’t know how good you have it” and other agonized cries of “I’m being punished for being a man!” and “I’m afraid to be chivalrous now, they’ll misunderstand and make me look bad!” is already in full swing.

Never mind that if a guy so fears being hated by women, he just might have a reason. Never mind that the horror of ‘politically correct libtards’ is all too often identical with your own nana telling you to mind your manners or there’ll be no cookies. Never mind that physically opening doors and slamming metaphorical ones into women’s faces is not chivalry.

This post isn’t about blame. Do I hope those guys learned something in the end? That maybe their grandmothers gave them a good ding behind the ear and their fathers sat them down and rehearsed common decency 101 with them? I do, actually.

But I wrote it for the women. The ones who still feel somehow their SOS calls are disappearing into the void because they’re not important enough, because their stories are not horrifying enough, because their tormentors are too close, too powerful still. The ones who are still scared to speak up. The ones who think their pain and fear makes them weak. Who still believe in some corner of their soul that they share at least part of the blame.

I hear you.

You’re not alone.

And the good guys are out there.

Any Port in a Storm

It feels as if women are navigating an ocean where not all boats are equal, and some seem to stumble from storm to storm while others sail cheerfully across the seven seas, Storm only bumping into the odd reef here and there. It’s neither fair nor right that I got my start as a well armed frigate straight out of a fine East Coast shipyard, while others have to brave the roiling waves with a leaky dinghy. It’s neither fair nor right that I have a solid home port to put in for repairs if and when I do run into trouble, while so many others are still frantically searching for a welcoming light, and harbor. Any harbor.

What does one do with such privilege? For now and always, never less than the best I can do. I’ll keep patrolling the seas, answer any and all distress calls I can reach, and keep my guns at the ready. And right now, I’ll make that call and say thank you to my dad.

Thank you for teaching me to stand up for myself. For teaching me right from wrong, and to fight for those who can’t defend themselves.

Thank you for showing me how a good man treats his woman (and yes, I know that over the past 50 years your wry comments drove her up one wall and down another so many times, there’s a groove in the ceiling. She loves you anyways. I know. She told me.)

Thank you for having my back, again and again, even when it looked to all the world that I might have been in the wrong. Even when I myself was not sure. Thank you for telling those gossiping biddies “I taught my girl to never start a fight, but to damn well finish it. So bring your beef to me.”

Thank you for teaching me it’s OK to sometimes not bother with the bastards because I’m tired of the drama, and that I’m not weak for calling in the cavalry.

Thank you for letting me fall on my face sometimes, so I could learn to get up. And for being there with the band-aids and an attagirl.

Thank you for showing me that a hard-as-steel veteran can sniffle away tears when his first grandchild is happily dozing off in his arms. That you learned how to bake for your grandchildren (and after you retired took over the kitchen completely – mom loves your cooking!)

Thank you for being you.

Of Candy Bars and Climate Change

“Dude, you can’t be serious.”

Leave it to my 14-year old to sum up a generation’s dismay and bewilderment in five words.

What prompted the above statement was an adult’s diatribe on how this past January had been awfully cold, and how the sheer amount of snow should convince even the dumbest climate-change believer that it was all a giant hoax. Invented, of course, by China.

Image result for snowball senate
Behold, The Snowball. We are saved.

“Dude, you can’t be serious.”

Alas, he was. Deadly serious. And the crux of the matter is, that both the teen and the adult stared at each other in a deadlock of mutual incomprehension. Each of them thinking:”How can you not see what is so clear, so obvious, right before your eyes? How is this possible?”

“Dude, you can’t be serious.”

Alas, he could. The approximately fifty year old man, who could not or would not believe that his generation might have tragically, disastrously erred somewhere along the way and handed the teenager standing there in disbelief a gigantic mess. Please don’t be serious. Tell me you’re not looking me in the eye and disavowing any responsibility. Tell me you’re not washing your hands off me. You’re supposed to be the elder, the wiser, the one who looks out for me. Tell me you didn’t sell my future for your comfort, and now explain to me I am stupid for asking what you’ve done? Tell me you’re joking. That you didn’t mean to make a mess, but now you realize what’s happening and you’re going to man up and try to fix it. Please don’t be serious…

“I can’t even.”

Leave it to 17 to express ultimate defeat in one pithy sentence.

But 14 would not surrender her guns just yet. After a brief recovery period involving the stages of denial (“He isn’t serious”) , anger (“That son of a biscuit IS serious!”), bargaining (“Maybe if I act all sweet and stereotypical good girl he’ll at least listen ….”) , depression (“I want piiiizzaaa! And ice cream! Buckets!”), she arrived, not at acceptance, but at:

“How do you talk to people like that?” 

Oh child of mine, if I knew that, we might well not have this problem.

So, although mom “can’t even” either, nor uneven (I can do odd if it’s any help), here’s what our customary after-dinner talk produced:

Maybe just KISS – Keep It Simple, Stupid

Image result for candy bars bagBasic: If mom brings home a bag of candy with 20 bars, and I have 4 friends over, I don’t need to be a math genius to make sure everyone gets their fair share.

Intermediate: If I need to figure out when those two trains will meet, or want to balance my checking account, or want to build a shed for the chickens that won’t collapse the first time one of the feathered darlings sneezes, I need a basic understanding of numbers. You know, so many square yards for the roof. Does a steeper angle mean more lumber or less? What angle is more practical anyways? Does anyone have a calculator? Paper and pencil?

Advanced: If I want to figure out the coalescence rate of massive black hole binaries, or what the einsteinspeed of light has to do with time dilation … I need an aspirin. Or find a university that will teach me such things, along with a large supply of aspirin. I’ll need people who studied these things for years to explain to me why the increased relativistic mass of a body comes from the energy of motion of the body divided by the speed of light squared, and why this is important. I need books. I need research. I need the shoulders of giants to climb onto and have a look around.

What in the name of Frigga’s cat has this to do with climate?

Well, it sort of is like the climb from candy bars to general relativity.

Basic: If I step outside to feed my chickens (frolicking outside their new shed I hope) and see big balls of gray on the horizon, I don’t need to be a meteorologist to smell the rain. If after a sweltering hot day the wind suddenly picks up and the sky turns dark, I need no weather channel telling me that Thor is about to start a ruckus.

Intermediate: My hometown in in upstate NY. We have four seasons. (Or two, known as Image result for shrieking brass monkeyWinter and Construction). If we’ve had snow every winter for as long as I can remember, safe bet is we’ll have snow next winter, too. If I believe my elders who say it’s been the same for them, and their elders, and theirs … I’ll just keep the big coat handy. But if I want to know whether the coming one will be rough or mild, it helps to have lived there a while. How early, or late, did the geese leave? Did we need two or three layers under our Halloween costumes? I don’t need to go to college to know that if February was “Shrieking Brass Monkey cold” 34 years out of 36, mom is likely sitting under a pile of blankets right now. But a newbie to our region might not realize that planting your tomatoes in early May is a spectacularly bad idea.

Advanced: If I want to know why the horses are giving me dirty looks even though there is not a cloud in sight, I might rely on my experience and add “muggy weather plus a weird wind” to equal “Maybe not go for a ride down by the lake just now”.  Or I might turn on the TV and see satellite images of a massive storm brewing over Canada, and know for certain  (score one for the equines though, it turned south faster than the weatherman thought). But- I have no satellites, no high tech weather stations measuring temperature, barometric pressure, humidity, wind speed, wind direction, and I most certainly have never studied how to interpret those massive heaps of raw data. Which is why I’m constantly amazed just how often they get it right (and the express delivery of buckets and buckets of rain did arrive – from Canada with love I’m sure …)

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Photograph by NASA

If I want to know why the U.S. military is worried about Norfolk and Camp Pendleton and bases in Alaska … I need another aspirin. Or find someone who can explain to me the correlation between the data gathered from buoys in the oceans and satellite images, between the Gulf Stream and the number of hurricanes in the Caribbean, between what the guys up on the ISS are measuring, and observing with their own eyes, and the numbers on old, yellowing paper that talk about summer in Queensland, Australia, in 1907.

Not enough aspirin in the western hemisphere. But lots of people who studied this stuff for years and years. Who might not know a stellar nursery from a pulsar (or in some cases, where the hell their glasses are again), but can look at a chunk of Antarctic ice and tell me how much CO2 there was in the atmosphere 400 000 years ago.

I see smart people …

So, does that mean we should just take the experts’ word on everything because they studied their respective subjects a long time and are, you know, experts?

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Credit: SG Atlantis “Brainstorm”

If they’re self-respecting scientists, their answer will be a resounding NO!

If you know the very first thing about scientists, it’s that there’s nothing they enjoy more than poking holes into each others’ hypotheses, theories, statements, papers, and offhand remarks about why deep dish is better than thin crust. It’s their favorite sport, and climate research is almost akin to the Super Bowl.

If you know the first thing about good scientists, it’s that they want you to look at their hypotheses, theories, statements and papers (stay away from their pizza), double checking their numbers, criticizing their methods, questioning their conclusions. Of course, if their paper is bulletproof in the end – that is oh so sweet. But if it isn’t? New stuff learned. New data to add. More knowledge. Poking holes in the old paper just helped them make a new paper. A better one. Thank you.

If they had a credo, it might well be: “Show me where I was wrong. Tell me why you think so. What verifiable data do you have to prove … oh hold on, this is interesting. Don’t tell me you didn’t see that. It’s your own paper. Can we call that guy on the ISS to confirm the readout? Whaddaya know, we were both wrong. Unless McMurdo goofed. Call them, too. And order some pizza, it’ll be a long night.”

οὐδὲν οἶδα – don’t look at me, I’m as clueless as you

So, should I trust every hypothesis, theory, statement and paper to be 100% correct and accurate and applicable?

If I want to graduate from aspirin to vicodin, maybe.

Should I pay attention when this squabbling mass of smart people who constantly explain to each other why that equation there contains a goof of Iliad-epic proportions, and “by the way, Frank disproved that data from the Phillipines last year, catch up willya”, actually agree on something?

Maybe? I don’t know. Let me check the numbers. Florida may be six feet under by the time I’m done, but at least I’ll be 100% sure. Wait, what?

 

Fork Bomb :(){:|:&};:

But they’re all elitist eggheads, looking down on simple folks like me with my haphazard chicken shed and my deep, deep knowledge of Canadian goose migration. They could tell me the sky is purple and prove it, and I could tell them a thousand times to look up, “Look, it’s blue!”, and they’d call me stupid. Because data. Because complex equation that doesn’t mean squat to me (the horse seems to think there’s something to it, though…). Because lots of big words designed only to make me feel more stupid.

You know what? Maybe I should get over my insecurities one of these days. Maybe I might Image result for blueberry clipartacknowledge that a meteorologist (BIG word alert) doesn’t call them “big fluffy grey clouds” the same way I don’t call wild blueberries “weird round things, can I eat those?” (The answer is yes. Yes, you can Mr. Egghead).

Maybe … maybe they’re trying to talk to me (revolutionary concept, I know) and they assume I’m smart. That I understand, and will start poking at their numbers, asking things like “why” and “where did you get that” and “but Frank said it’s only half a degree Fahrenheit”. Maybe they think that if I don’t understand, I’ll tell them.

Maybe, if I feel stupid, I could ask myself “But can they make blueberry jam that countries would rightfully go to war for, can they soothe a skittish horse so nana can remove the splinter?” and then I would not feel small and defensive when I say: “Once more from the top please, and this time assume I have no idea what you just said?”

But, but … conspiracy! China!

Seriously, dude?

 

Je suis Charlie

Remember this?

Has it really been two years? Am I the only one who feels as if it happened yesterday – and a lifetime ago?

 

I got off work a little late yesterday and drove down to the train station to pick up my older daughter, who was not at all mad she got to stay with her German friends a bit longer (for context: I am a single mom of two teens, serving in the military and currently stationed in an astonishingly pretty area of southern Germany).

Looking for that little café nestled behind some buildings that were old when the Mayflower set out across the Atlantic, I absentmindedly returned the occasional perfunctory nods and friendly half-waves of the locals. You see, even though we’re not supposed to wear uniform, or anything that might give us away as members of the US military while frolicking among the natives – they’re not going to be fooled. This close to a US garrison, their “Ami”-radar has been calibrated and fine-tuned for 60+ years. And so when I came to a screeching halt at the quaint little newspaper stand just outside the ‘Bahnhof’, the kind elderly man immediately registered “Ah, one of them” and addressed me in English as if it were the most normal thing in the world. And for him, I suppose, it is.

“Times, Madam? We have London or New York. English magazines, too.”

But I was staring at that French magazine sitting next to something displaying a scantily clad woman and an issue of the “Frankfurter Allgemeine”.

“Oh yes, Charlie. Very funny. If you know French. 4 Euros, Madam.”

Somehow I dug the by now familiar Euro coins out of my pocket and mumbled my way through my still heavily accented German courtesies, before returning to my original mission: locate teenage daughter, forage for food, drive home.

But the magazine, and the avalanche of memories it had set loose, stayed with me.

 

Déjà vu – I have seen this before

The first time I set foot on European soil, I was a teenager. The Cold War was nearing its end, though none of us knew this at the time. The “Winds of Change” were in the air, but exactly which way they would blow a day, a month, a year from then … we had no clue. Terrorism was on people’s radars – the IRA, the ETA, lots of acronyms, varying causes, varying levels of concern – but it was not the haunting shadow that seems to cast its pall over the globe these days.

I remember an autumn day in London, dad and me riding the subway (sorry, the Underground. Or is it the Tube?) when quite out of the blue our train stopped at an odd looking little platform that to me seemed straight out of a James Bond movie. Or maybe a WWII film – it certainly looked ancient to a “Yankee” teenager. A voice came over the speakers, but in the low buzz of English people expressing their discontent in more or less polite ways, all I understood was that we weren’t going any further.

So we disembarked amidst Londoners who seemed to alternate between vexation and resignation, and befuddled, nervous tourists. True, I noticed dad’s frown, but was too busy absorbing this unexpected adventure to even suspect anything other than some sort of technical issue. I remember marveling at how deep underground we were, trying to count the steps of the big winding stair we had to climb to get back to the surface, trying to figure out where we were once we emerged into daylight. I remember dad’s dismay at the suddenly overcrowded streets, the iconic buses stuffed to the brim, no taxi to be had even if traffic had been moving at more than snail’s pace, and pedestrians everywhere. I remember thinking “All we need is a hot dog stand and some cursing cabbies and it’s rush hour in Manhattan” right until the first casual mention of “Bomb threat. Bloody terrorists.”

Strangely enough, I don’t remember being afraid. If I grabbed dad’s hand a little tighter, it was because my biggest fear at the time was getting separated in the press of people, all of whom seemed to know where they were and where they wanted to go.

I remember this, because I admired the Londoners for their stoicism and acerbic humor. I admired how they dealt with this major disruption – and very real danger, as I slowly came to realize after watching the news that evening – it felt as if their entire city had been wearing a “Keep Calm and Carry On” T-shirt.

I remembered this long after we were back home, safe and sound. Or so we thought.

(Of course to this day my dad blames the IRA for my career choice. I don’t recall wanting to race after the bomb squad that day so I might peek over their shoulders; my sole intent after what felt like crossing London on foot was to secure a mountain of fish and chips, followed immediately by scarfing down every scrap of Indian food within 40 miles. But he’s a wise man, and an amazing cook. Therefore I will not contradict him).

Déjà vu – here we are again

The woman who returned to Europe many years later was quite different from that innocent teenager. Not only had the worst terrorist attack in our country’s history taken place in my home state, but this time I was a member of our armed forces. Thanks to my lifelong fascination with chemistry and physics, and particularly the science of “Why does this go boom, but that only bounce around in odd ways?” I had followed a path similar to the one the guys in London had taken so long ago: going towards the thing everyone else gets away from (and should! Seriously. Even if it only goes “squish” in the end. Get away. Don’t try to be a hero, they’re not paying you enough. They’re not paying me enough, either, but I got all the cool toys).

And Europe, for better or worse, was different, too. Perhaps not so much the Germans, stubbornly sticking to their proverbial guns rather than real ones – the descendants of the people who started a World War now seem to have a unilateral and uncompromising distaste for the concept. But Europe as a whole felt more tense than it had living under the Soviet Union’s shadow. It was subtle enough at first – mostly politicians bickering over details. How much hijab is too much? May a minaret be taller than a church tower, and will Swiss cows object to a muezzin’s call? (This is serious, people, do not mess with Confederate cows. India may hold them sacred, Switzerland will fight you over them).

It became more heated when the war in Syria – for a long time only another soundbit on the news, another hopeful Arab Spring turned slaughter – became the breeding ground for yet another terrorist group. This time, with their sights fixed on Europe.

Then came Paris. January 7th 2015

Je suis Charlie 

Is it more scary, or less, if you already know the gamut of emotions you will run from the time you first hear the news? If you can almost clinically analyze “Yep, still in disbelief. With early signs of anger. Give it a few more hours for the grief to hit. Fuck this. Hello helplessness, my old friend.”

Is it more scary, or less, if you immediately start running your mental checklist “Who is where, anyone close to this situation, when have I last checked in with x and y, what is the threat level at this location, at that one, …”

There was relief, making its entrance right around the time anger morphed into sorrow, because this time there had been none of mine affected. But that same night I started wondering whether that was true. None of mine?

 

“All is forgiven”

Agree with Charlie Hebdo’s satire or not, laugh or find it distasteful, France values their freedom of speech no less than we do.

Having been born in Lady Liberty’s own shadow, I could not help but take this one personally. Not just because that beautiful lady is French, not just because I truly, deeply believe in what she stands for. Because those had been my people. Irreverent cartoonists and a somewhat cynical soldier, we might have gotten into some heated arguments had we met in a bar – but at the end of the day we shared our belief in having that argument. In liberté, égalité, fraternité.

I was Charlie.

But Paris was never the same. Even as the French – magnificently irrepressible bastards that they are – suspended their bickering they enjoy so much for a while to stand together, their world was changing.

November 13th 2015

Déjà vu – when does it end?

From #portesouvertes to “Je suis en terrasse“, Paris was defiant. But this time, the leaders could not ignore the calls for something, anything to be done and declared “état d’urgence”. A State of Emergency that was extended again and again, and still could not prevent the attack in Nice.

July 14th, 2016

No two weeks later, the girls and I went to see the horses in the Camargue, stroll through beautiful Marseille, and stuff ourselves with French delicacies far off the beaten tourist paths. We had planned this trip for over a year. We discussed whether it would be a good idea to go. We hated even asking the question “should we?”

As a mother, I was immensely proud of my girls when they went into a quick huddle and then declared like two small Generals Patton: “Toujours l’audace!”Also as a mother, I could not prevent the dark shadow stirring, the one that wanted to protect my young at all cost. The reasonable approach – there is NO place they’ll ever be 100% safe – did not weigh as much as the argument “It is well to defend a life, but should they not have one first?”, and in the end we were safe enough. Safer than we would have been much closer to ‘home’, as Berlin reminded us painfully not a few months later.

m.jpgStill, it was impossible to not see the large police presence, the soldiers keeping a watchful eye over the milling crowds in the larger cities and near the tourist attractions. It was also difficult to not overhear the locals grumbling about it. One might of course argue that grumbling is the French default state, and if they cease doing it, the midden truly is about to hit the windmill. So we asked. Me in stumbling high school French augmented by the bits and pieces you’re bound to acquire growing up a moose-hop south of the St Lawrence, my girls rather more comprehensively.

I shall not translate the profanities, beautiful and creative as they were (Really? Zig-zag? I had no idea you could do that…). But it boiled down to this: 10 out of 10 French agree that terrorist may go procreate with themselves.

3 out of 10 believe Madame Le Pen is on to something, but considering she’s a politician will surely find ways to screw it up. The police? Yes, good. Let them pull their weight a bit. The soldiers? Bah. Fat lot of good they’re doing just standing around. But they look handsome, non?

4 out of 10 felt that politicians are all idiots but what can you do. What, afraid? Bah. Well, the homegrown extremist bastards are just as worrisome as those coming in, but how do you communicate with people who live in/come to the best country on earth and want no part of it? So they must be idiots as well. You’re not, obviously, since you came here to visit and spend your money. Good for you. The soldiers and police? Would you have come without them making you feel safer? Yes? Very good for you. Have another glass. Tell your friends to come.

2 out of 10 felt that their current politicians are the worst idiots but what can you do. At least they are French idiots, though it is small consolation (yes, the “your idiots are bigger than ours” was implied. Or stated outright). The soldiers? Waste of taxpayer money.

1 out of 10 was either uninterested in sharing, too interested in sharing (I still have that manifesto somewhere), more interested in flirting with lovely American ladies than politics, or too upset about the quality of the fish to bother with silly tourists.

Their world may have changed around them, and they may have adapted (while grousing and squabbling) because that’s how you survive. But for those we talked to, living is still more important than mere survival. As our gruff horse-tour guide out in the marches of the Camargue put it “The f*ck I’ll let anyone screw my life for me. If I go out tomorrow it shall be biting and clawing, because what I have is too good to give up. You hear, mignonne? No dying before you die.”

It was yesterday. It was a lifetime ago.

What did I take home from this trip, other than a truckload of memories and excellent wine?

If I must raise my children in this age of terrorism, let me do it with courage. Let me be irrepressible. Let me hold on to the things I believe in. Let me always remember that I am not alone.

Je me souviens.

Je suis toujours Charlie.

 

Jolan Tru from the Outmarches

Stardate: Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!

So here I am – a soldier stuck in the Neutral Zone between the Romulan Star Empire and the United Federation of Planets, chugging along in my Warbird, trying to make sense of it all.

No, not really of course.

My Neutral Zone is nothing other than the lovely country of Germany and my Warbird a quite stationary USArmy garrison rather than an instrument of wholesale destruction floating in space – but that doesn’t make me less of an alien in these parts. A heavily armed alien with fully loaded disruptor banks as it were, yet patiently tolerated by the indigenous population.

Rather suapple-ipad-star-trek-padd-romulanrprisingly, some of the locals even have a certain fondness for us odd Red-White-and-Blue aliens who stuck around after that big, horrendous war. First they stayed because of the mean guys behind that other Neutral Zone, and later … well, probably out of habit. Or maybe they like the beer so much? Right, there was that NATO thing. Anyways, want to buy a cuckoo-clock?

What is this all about?

Primarily it is an attempt at keeping a “ship’s log” – random thoughts interspresed with “Encountered Bird-of-Prey, sank same” and knowing me, tangents going off into subtangents and ending up dancing the Macarena with osculating circles.

Maybe it will end up a kind of interactive diary, a travel guide (do NOT order the green drink in Austria!), a running commentary on anything from Swedish cheese to nuclear proliferation treaties, any of the above, none of the above …

All secure for warp speed? Right, then. Let’s go boldly. And maybe stop at a bar or two along the way.