Kick Up Those Heels and Run

I was watching a television interview with a couple who had just come in from horseback riding on their beautiful Montana acreage. The man was walking his horse to the gate the woman rode up, dismounted and pulled off her horse’s tack. Both horses were beautiful, healthy and contented looking animals, and clearly had bonds with their riders. But when the woman took off that bridle, the mare kicked up her hooves and ran into the pasture at top speed, rocking like a foal over the tussocks with her tail streaming behind illustration

There was no sense that she wanted, let alone needed, to get away from her Person. Still, she seemed to relish the unencumbered moment and revel in what she could do all of her own volition in it. And that, I think, is a wonderful thing.

Shouldn’t we all remember, from time to time, to throw off the traces of what we must do, throw our propriety and responsibility and all of the trappings of expectation and normalcy and Requirement and just cut a little caper? Isn’t there a reason we are capable of being free, adventuresome, unpredictable and happy? I’m pretty sure that the earth will not stop rotating on its axis if even the most high-powered and busy, the most seemingly essential and useful people on it, actually get out of harness once in a while and take pleasure in the moment with childlike innocence. And I’m even more sure that once anyone has taken the break that offers such a sense of independence, ease and simple happiness, he/she can return to work as a healthier and more productive person; whatever might have been missing or diminished in the time of absence is caught up and refreshed, right along with the person who does it all.

What could be better than to return to our day-to-day Normal life refreshed, renewed and recharged because we dared to demand a moment of freedom and playtime! Yes, we do have to demand it. It’s almost unheard-of that anyone would hand any of us a one-hour holiday, let alone a day or two. Why should they? Every one of us has a whole list of things we need, or at least want, others to do for us, so we aren’t likely to cut each other a break from supplying our wants and needs unless and until they buck their bonds, too.

It won’t do to be rude and selfish about it, but I would advocate for our all keeping our eyes open and ears pricked up so we can notice any opportunity to stand up for our good health and happiness. And take it. And take off with it!

Smart as a Pig

digital illustrationIt’s good that fiction has not entirely neglected the intelligence of the porcine race. There are such admirable figures as the marvelous Wilbur, saved in E. B. White’s superb story by that great media campaign waged by the arachnid heroine of ‘Charlotte’s Web‘; the stalwart Babe of Dick King-Smith’s ‘The Sheep-Pig‘, famous for being Farmer Hoggett’s eventual go-to pig for sheep herding and assorted acts of clever heroism; there’s the not so brilliant but ever so endearing Porky Pig, he of the stammering charm and accidental accomplishments. There are Snowball and Napoleon, who use their canny piggy wits in a dystopian world to prove that some pigs are more equal than others, a less sweet and engaging use of porcine wit and intelligence than some might like, but they are still outnumbered in the literary pen by Miss Potter’s little creature Pigling Bland and his far less bland but equally stimulating porker, Mr. Wodehouse’s Empress of Blandings.

All of these, of course owe a certain debt to their famous forebears (or forepigs) who were Little in size and Three in number. The Three Little Pigs, not all of them geniuses, I grant you, manage eventually to outwit the beastly Wolf. They’re so good at it, in fact, that their cleverness has continued to be immortalized for ages since their first appearance and they star in everything from many classic-styled re-tellings to a wide range of variants like Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith’s delightful ‘True Story‘ and even the Ninjas in Corey Rosen Schwartz’s version.

And still there are so many real, live pigs with even more impressive mental acuity than all of those little pretend ones put together; just ask any pig person (farmer or veterinarian or person with a companion animal). Ask Celi over at thekitchensgarden about Sheila’s exploits and the adventures and discoveries of the plonkers (the half-grown young pigs); go over there and Search her site for Sheila posts, and you too will grow wiser.

I hear a lot of people praising horses for being as intelligent as dogs and dogs, then, as smart as apes; apes, in their turn, for being as smart as their cousin humans—but I would be pretty flattered, myself, if anyone found me as clever as a pig.

Time to Pony Up

“Let’s canter to the car, Auntie!”

I’m going to lay down a seriously sizable wager that few others ever heard that particular construction from a little kid, but that’s just the way my father once famously startled his great-aunt with in suggesting how they might approach their ride home one legendary day many decades illustrationSafe to say that Auntie was as bemused and amazed as anyone would be. No idea where he got that particular word ‘canter’, since he was a townie through and through from birth and if he’d ever heard reference to a horse’s gait it must’ve been in a story everybody else had since forgotten. Regardless of the origin of his comically odd suggestion, he was undoubtedly on to something useful. Why slouch or straggle when you can get up your gumption a little and break into a comfortable run?

It’s never a bad idea to try a new approach to life, especially in something as generally promising as intentionally re-energizing oneself and committing to a higher level of focus and commitment. Even better, if the technique chosen can add a little pizzazz and humor to the act. Why wander aimlessly when you can trot cheerfully?

Around the changes of life as time passes, whether changes of season or millennium or merely of day to night and night to day, it’s always a fairly useful thing to consider What Next–more specifically, how to make what’s next more fruitful, interesting, productive, and enjoyable. And often, such changes needn’t be as daunting as we let them be. The tiniest alteration in the way things have always been can have a remarkable and positive ripple effect if we just put a little heart into it. Why amble when you can gallop?

As the end of 2013 approaches I will as always have spent a fair amount of time looking at what has been in the past year and considering what I might like to add or improve as I move into the beginning of 2014. While I might like to spend time communing with a nice horse or two in the year ahead, because after all they are beautiful and intelligent and full of personality, I might be better served by contemplating how I can pick up my own pace and move forward in a comfortably equine manner. It’s a good time to saddle up and do things that challenge and amuse and please me, most of all those that can help me improve myself at the same time. I can talk about it all I want but until I pony up and make the effort, I’ll only dream of what good can come of it all. Why walk when I can canter?

Persistent Admirers

digital illustrationLeave the Help at Home

Off she went to see the market, basket full of goods and greens,

And the fond companions with her came to see the market’s scenes,

Prancing, dancing, baying, barking, nipping at her head and heels;

By the time they neared the city, all beset by crowds and wheels,

She her petticoats beribboned had all stained and soiled and torn;

Hat askew and heels unbuckled, basket broken, cob and corn

Strewn, her lettuces and flowers flung amain, and so she sat

In the rutted road’s dry scours, in the dust, and that was that–

No point now to going onward to the market if she would,

Dog and pony show now ended (at the least, that part was good)–

Then the animals felt sorry for the chaos and the mess,

Made a show to make her cheery, give her back her happiness.

Nothing mended for the market, recompense for not a sou,

But she smiled at how they capered, no more anger and to-do,

And they picked up, swift and swishing, tails and coattails all a-sway,

Backward home, though she was wishing it had gone another way;

To the market back, tomorrow, she would go to sell her wares,

But avoid her current sorrow,

Locking up those pranks of theirs!

A Pantomime Horse

digital illustrationIt Takes All Kinds

I am the back end of a pantomime horse,

and I say this without much embarrassed remorse,

because I could never have claimed too much class

to have let people see I’m a true horse’s ass.

No reason to laugh, though, or mock me in jest,

since I’m in such fine company with all the rest

of the others (this, straight from the true horse’s mouth),

for we know every north end requires its south.

No cause for weeping, dear friends of my heart,

for prancing behind is its own kind of art,

and no matter how foolish the fine equine farce,

better far than play dead to just play the arse.

Love, or Something, Conquers All

Is there something else you want to tell me, sir? You say you are a musician, yet I distinctly recall that on evenings around the campfire you’ve always strummed off-key and your songs are always unrecognizable to your fellow players. You tell me that you are a skilled horseman, but I have known you to fall off every mount you ever met and the way you’re always sneezing makes me pretty sure you’re more a specimen of the allergic type than a cowboy of any real sort. As for your claims of being a king of the romantics, they strike me as far more hopeful than strictly factual, considering that you cannot read, write or dance, never remember to comb your hair or wash your face, and are cowed into stammering and foot-shuffling when actually in the presence of anyone even slightly ladylike.

Forgive me, then, if I tend to take your claims with a certain jaded skepticism. I am fairly certain I do not want to listen to you bash away on your two-stringed guitar, to watch you topple out of the saddle the instant your horse makes a move, or to wait for you to wrestle up the courage to make small talk while I dream of my escape from your company. And if you should persist in attempting to convince me that you are the master of the Wild West, I shall be reduced to the expedient of dispatching you with a hefty branch of mesquite laid across your noggin, stuffing you into a handy gunny sack and slinging you over the back of a mule headed toward some terribly remote corner of the prairie.

Other than that, though, I suppose I don’t mind your company. A girl can’t be too choosy out here on the frontier if someone offers her his family fortune and she has her eye on a particular set of acres for ranching. Business is business, after illustrationOn Closer Examination

A fella whose flaws were prolific

And both manners and taste quite horrific

Filled my soul with alarm

But still had one great charm–

His inheritance, to be specific.

The Center of Attention

When I am making artworks I am the ruler of all I survey. I get to invent my reality and decide how much of it I want to reveal to you, and even (to a certain extent) how I want you to experience this particular reality. I do know that you will bring your own point of view and that my art, this Empress having invented it or not, will tell you a story that exists in its own unique way within your personal context.graphite drawingHowever, like all storytellers visual or otherwise, I still control how much I’m willing to reveal to you of the whole project in the end. Do I give you the ‘whole story’ or choose to share a scene, a snippet, and then let you extrapolate from that to decide what the storyline is in the image, not to mention all of the possible storylines extending beyond the image in every direction? I choose the window; you interpret what you see through it.

In the case of this drawing of a lady with her fat pony, I’d say that a cropped version of the picture gives plenty of information about both characters and their relationship but mercifully deletes some of the evidence of my horribly sloppy parody of equine physiology, something that’s far more painfully exposed in the larger version of the piece. Yes, there I go, showing you my ‘underwear’ again. But don’t you agree that the image is improved, its focus stronger and its flaws somewhat mitigated, by the cropping?

graphite drawingUltimately, of course, I’m still Empress around here. I get to choose whether I’ll show you my process and share my behind-the-scenes action like this, let alone whether an image is finished or not, whether I’m going to use it for a post or not, and whether I’m going to tell a whole large story or a tiny bit of one. It’s good to be the Empress.

Depends on Whom You Ask

What’s happening in any given scene? Everyone who answers the question is sure to have his own answer. Point of view is colored and skewed every which way by one’s position at the moment, by the context of experience, by taste and beliefs. Is this a drama? A comedy? Every actor in the event might well give you a different answer.

The other day when I was hearing a delightfully humorous arrangement of the old western song ‘Blood on the Saddle’ (arranged by Trent Worthington) I couldn’t resist adding a silly illustration of my own to the music. In my sketch, the horse whose saddle has presumably been bloodied stands still enough now to act as a comfortable perch for a vulture that stopped by to survey the fallen cowboy as a potential buffet–though as the vulture has just landed he’s more interested in a short rest first. The horse, now riderless and not forced to buck, has no particular remaining interest in the fellow who until recently expected him to lug around the cowpoke‘s weight and kick his heels in the rodeo arena for a living. The cowboy, now just a flat stain in the dust of the ring, is of no more interest to the horse and little yet to the buzzard (not ripe enough yet, presumably). In fact, when I cropped the cowboy out of the picture altogether, it struck me that the horse and bird looked pretty peacefully contented just lounging around together.graphite drawingSo, whose point of view matters here? The cowboy’s, not so much. Having croaked, he’s now short on both opinions and feelings, so we’ll leave him out of the equation. The bronc, of course, has got to be somewhat relieved at the current situation; while he did participate in the squashing of the aforementioned rider, it’s a pretty safe bet that having the guy pile on his back and goad him to buck was hardly the horse’s idea in the first place, so he can hardly be blamed for, well, bucking the buckaroo off into the dirt. Falling over the fallen fellow, I feel it’s safe to say, wasn’t the horse’s idea either, but just a natural consequence of being thrashed around unwillingly in a dirt arena for someone else’s amusement. Fictional or not, this poor horse deserves a break after all he’s been through.

The buzzard, on the other hand, is just a passing freeloader. Of course, that’s what vultures are designed by nature to be and do: the cleanup crew following food-related disasters. Some days, the sacrificial mammals are less human than in this instance, but regardless of the source, nice dead things are made to be Vulture Chow. And the upshot of the dining experience is that the buzzards will leave the scene a much spiffier one than when they arrived on it. Seems to me that this vulture, too, deserves his moment of happy contemplation and repose before hopping down to dine. I’m guessing, then, that his view of the whole scene is rather–if you’ll pardon the expression–sanguine. Unlikely he’d care how the meal arrived at his ‘table’ so long as it arrived. He sits on his equine throne and surveys what, to a carnivorous bird, is a royal feast indeed.

And what of me, the observer and, partly, inventor of this scenario? How am I to respond to it? I bring my own baggage to the occasion. I’m not a lifelong fan of vintage Western songs, having come to appreciate them as a piece of Americana and folk music culture later in life but still from the remove of something like an anthropological observer. This song itself has had a number of covers from the period-traditional to playful takes like Mr. Worthington’s above-mentioned arrangement, and each iteration adds new aspects to the folklore of the story, tingeing it further with tragedy or humor, history or fiction. The story of a cowboy riding a bucking bronco until thrown and crushed by the horse is swiftly told but can grow and change with each retelling. Do I feel sorry for the cowboy? Insofar as I get involved in the lives, loves and losses of fictional characters (and I do), I will admit his story has its sorrows. It’s arguably a tragedy in the classical sense, since it was through his own choices and actions and the consequences thereof–one could even conceivably see his fall as a direct result of hubris–but death of anything other than comfortable old age still strikes most of us humanoids as just plain sad.

I guess you can tell from my earlier remarks that my sympathies lie more with the horse in this equation. He was put into an untenable situation and responded in true horse fashion to the best of his ability. Too bad for the cowboy that horse logic says the correct response to being strapped into bucking gear is to buck, and that, as hard as you possibly can. The horse in this tale got lucky and knocked that unwelcome irritant off his back. Tough luck for the irritant. It really is all about perspective when it comes to assessing the situation. What it boils down to for me is a recognition that being the cowboy may appear more exciting and impressive, but sometimes it’s better to be the image from a graphite drawingWho knows? I might even root for being the buzzard: none of the hassle, all of the free booty. Say, I might be a vulture already! And I’m okay with that. Stop by and find an already made idea for a drawing? Why, sure. I am a shameless scavenger. But I prefer the term ‘artist’, if you please. And all you others are free to agree or disagree, just as you wish.

Question: What are Saturdays?

My answer: Saturdays are for both horsing around and embracing my dogged pursuits. Laziness and productivity. Rambling and re-energizing. Drawing on my strengths and, well, just drawing.

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Some of Saturday should be for just horsing around . . .

So I’ll try to get a few useful things done (chores: Check! exercise: Check! planning for the week ahead: Checkmate!) and I’ll also relax and indulge in those forays into the fantastic that make all of the useful things possible. What is Saturday to you?

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. . . and some should be for showing my dogged devotion.


Raised by Dogs


graphite drawing

Who’s looking after whom?

Some people might say I was Raised by Wolves. Insiders say, in a cheerier tone, that I was Raised by Wolds. The strange truth is that, though I have lived my entire life thus far without having “owned” a pet since my late lamented goldfish, I have been nurtured throughout my years by various cats and dogs.

There was that one goldfish, true: Patrick Richard. What, you don’t think that’s the most obvious and logical name for a goldfish evah?? Suffice it to say that the fish was simply named after the school friend who bestowed it on me. I’m pretty sure I must have had a crush on him, the boy I mean, to have named a fish such a thing, but then I was never the most conventional of children. Perhaps the whole goldfish episode was simply precursor to my much later fish-and-pencils phase of artworks. In any event, Patrick Richard had a rather short career as my pet and might be presumed to have expired of overindulgence, since if I recall correctly he grew quite large quite quickly until the day when I came home from school and his ample orange belly was topside-up. I gave him a simple and dignified burial out behind the house that evening, the funeral if any somewhat truncated by my bare foot landing on a slug out there in the dusk, prompting a quick dash back into the house. I don’t think I went back out and erected a monument or anything.

The companion animals that played larger (and generally longer) roles in my life belonged, then, to others. It mayn’t have prevented me from forming attachments, but I suppose I don’t have the same deeply familial link with them that I would have had I taken full responsibility for the animals’ well being.

When I was still in the midst of grade school, it was the semi-rural setting where we lived that provided the most constant access to “pets” of this sort. There were always pastures within a quick walk from home, where I could linger at the fence and feed grass or fallen apples to the horses and cows that would come over for a friendly trade of nuzzling and scratching. Some pastures were particularly close: when we moved back to western Washington from Illinois and I was about twelve, we lived for a while in an old parsonage that sat between the older chapel and a modest and uneven pasture where a shaggy little pony kept company with a handful of grazing cattle. One morning when Dad was getting ready to head over to work, he came into the kitchen and there on the back stoop, gazing in the window curiously, was the enormous bull, who had escaped from next door. Apparently he thought a cup of coffee and a bowl of cereal would be preferable to puddle water and a salad of pasture greens.

All of this was good company, and very pastoral indeed.

Cats around there were primarily those accustomed to keeping down the rodent population and reminding the dogs of their place in the hierarchy of the universe. Dogs, those were decidedly the most individualistic and interactive of the beasts around my neighborhood(s) as I grew.

The first dog of importance in my little life was undoubtedly my cousin’s funny little cockapoo Raskal. He was among the first in what would become a designer-dog race, very possibly because his sire and dam had no clue about pedigrees and just did what comes naturally to any self-respecting dog. But since Raskal arrived before anyone had ever heard of the phrase “puppy mill” or worried much about the genetic time-bombs in designer breeds, I think he was designed by Mother Nature strictly to be a truly fun play companion and to think of life as one big exciting adventure after another. When he wasn’t too busy being passed around from one admirer to another for his extreme cuteness and friendliness, he was very willing to work hard at attempting to “dig out” any kid that happened to be trapped in the impenetrable prison of a closed sleeping bag, or to romp off on all sorts of mini-adventures, his body trembling with happiness and his curly blond coat rippling like he was on fire. His was a short tenure on earth: driven by his (aptly named) rambunctious energy, one day he dashed up over a blind hill and right under a car when we kids were once again all on an outing being led with aimless and artless abandon by his lightning-bolt zipping. But in that too-short life he still managed to imprint himself and his boundless good cheer and infinite thirst for play on all of us. He was surely a better teacher and good influence than a whole lot of sober grownups can be!

Another in my pantheon of Great Dogs was the next-door neighbors’ Dutchess (their spelling, not mine–is there a theme of distinctive spellings among my dog friends?). She did indeed have a certain regal aloofness. As a half-coyote mix (again with the pioneering hybrids), she expressed her royalty with either disdainful avoidance or, more likely, with a couple of sharp barks and a good growl or two, when anyone approached the property. I was traditionally rather over-cautious around dogs myself, having been knocked over and winded when small by a not-so-small farm dog that seemed to be considering whether I would be tasty or not when my parents retrieved me. So when I met Dutchess, and for some time thereafter, I took my time about getting very close. But I think she appreciated my deference, because after I babysat at her house (for her young human charges) a time or two she seemed to decide that I was acceptable and even became rather kindly toward me and a little bit protective of me if I happened to come by with anybody else in sight. It wouldn’t by any measure be considered a close and cuddly and playful relationship, but the fact that this rather fierce and solitary little creature treated me as accepted and respected company and even let me stroke her thick coyote fur collar meant a great deal to the person I was at that age, another somewhat solitary soul.

On the other side of our house were the neighbors whose dog Tar was the polar opposite of Dutchess, the local extrovert, the neighborhood captain of entertainment. He was still clearly not a pampered and sheltered purebred, either in looks or personality. I would guess at this great remove of years that he probably had a bit of long-haired German Shepherd in his multifarious lineage. He was really a very beautiful dog, a bit smaller than a typical shepherd and slightly more compact, less lanky. But just the right size for hugging, and covered with a long, thick, gorgeous tar-black coat.

Tar was easy to anthropomorphize. He seemed to have just as much the mischievous and play-hungry attitudes as all of the neighborhood kids had, and an egalitarian willingness to embark on any expedition with any of us, whether with him in the lead or being allowed to trail alongside. He couldn’t resist hunting, and was mostly welcome to do so around there, where at the time the street was only half built-up, still checkered with weedy, tall-grassy empty lots, and dead-ended by a beautiful little woodland of Douglas firs and salal and ferns. Tar didn’t know the difference, of course, between a mole and a small kitten, but he could hardly be faulted for that; so as long as the folk around kept the kitties indoors, we were at the same time kept mercifully molehill-free. Being as inquisitive as any dog, Tar did have a few run-ins, not least of all with the toad he caught that left him running around foaming like a punctured beer can for a short while.

His worst run-in, though, could be said to be with his otherwise kind owners and the annual summer haircut to which they subjected him (known to us as the “lawnmower” haircut) that left him looking like a black sheep clipped by a woefully inebriated shearer. We felt deeply sorry for him; he was painfully aware of being stripped of his accustomed handsomeness and would immediately set to work to deliberately do some forbidden thing right in front of anyone so that they would scold and banish him and he could go hide and nurse his shame in private for a little while. After a short period of growing out the offending haircut, however, he would return to his sanguine equanimity and rejoin the forces of the street’s youthful denizens at play.

Tar was an able guard dog when we were fort-building in the woods, keeping unwanted squirrels and crows at bay. He was a great exercise coach, leading us on loping, leaping bounces through the waist-high grasses in the vacant lots–and also our watcher lest any of us come unexpectedly upon one of those Timmy’s-in-the-well-sized holes dug in them to test water table levels before a build. Pity any of the kids that came along too late in the neighborhood development process to watch Tar pronking his way across a vacant lot with exuberant abandon. He was truly the very picture of living fully in the moment.

I still enjoy the company of a well-behaved and friendly dog so much that if my life weren’t so overfilled with other enjoyable company and activity I would undoubtedly succumb to canine charm and adopt such a companion after all. I am grateful to have a number of friends with sufficiently delightful beastly members of the household–dog, cat and otherwise–to keep me from mourning the vacuum (or more likely, the need to vacuum much more frequently) occasioned by lack of a dog or cat or small wildebeest keeping us company in our house. After all, it’s through others that I’ve always had the pleasure of meeting and being befriended by great animal companions.

Makes me wag my tail with happiness.

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One should have as many Best Friends as possible in life . . .