Sunday, August 29, 2010

The musical horse

One of the unexplicated mysteries in riding is why horses like human music and why so many horses have specific tastes in music. 
Big Band for a big horse
    I had a big spotted mare when I was growing up who was a fearless jumper but who otherwise unpredictable and often quite cowardly. Scatty, unfocused, and  prone to  panic, she liked Bach--I found this out quite by accident one year when I was teaching at a summer camp and brought her with me. The only station we could get on the radio there was a sort of light-classical mix, pure mayonnaise, but each Friday morning from ten to noon they played Bach. And, as it happened, Fridays morning was when I would usually work her on the flat, with Bach in the background. She would settle into the music and stay on tempo, her ears flopping to the sides like a donkey's, completely relaxed. She was my  first horse.

My last horse, before all these neck surgeries put a stop to riding, was a huge Dutch Warmblood gelding (above) who had nothing whatsoever going on between his ears. This was nice sometimes, when a spectacular lack of imagination made my life easier, but it also made schooling him up both boring and frustrating--we could work on transitions and brightness off the leg on Wednesday, and by Thursday morning he'd simply forgotten everything we'd talked about. It was as if he'd done a full system dump overnight, and all I came back to was a blank screen and a blinking cursor. 

He liked big band--String of Pearls, Parade of the Milk Bottle Caps, Walkin and Swingin, stuff like that. And like the spotted mare, he set himself inside the tempo, flopped his ears, and danced. And the four horses I have had in between all did exactly the same thing, once I stumbled over (and learned eventually to hunt for) the music that liked best.

It's easy to dismiss this phenomenon and say of course horses like music because music is beautiful. But that assumes that horses share our opinions about beauty, whatever beauty is, and these's no real evidence that this is true. I've never seen a horse admire a painting or get caught up in an interesting movie or play, for example, and I'm quite sure that the stories horses tell to themselves and to each other are very different from the stories we tell about them or, for  that matter, the stories we humans find beautiful and describe as literature. 

I've been thinking a lot about this lately, and wonder if musical preference in horses is linked to their individual body music--their natural tempo and their individual nuances of gait. One of the things that make horses so interesting is that they are all so  different--they trademark themselves, and elaborate along a consistent theme. They know who they are in a purely physical, very specific way, and their reliance on tempo is far more advanced and complicated than a cow's or or a pig's or any other domesticated barnyard creature. Pigs are very intelligent, and I'm a fan of pigs, but horses trump every species but our own in this one dimension. 

Friday, August 20, 2010

True Confessions: Why I love The People's Court

Marilyn Milian
Over  the past five years I've spent a lot of time loafing around the house waiting for surgery to heal or for some chunk of neck hardware to settle in, and one result is a secret, intense passion for the television show, The People's Court.

Featured in Rain Man and often referred to in the olden days simply as "Wapner," after the then-presiding judge, this semi-bogus show walks like a courtroom, quacks like a courtroom, but is actually a session of binding arbitration between plaintiffs and defendants who have agreed to appear on the show in exchange for an appearance fee and relief from actually paying any sort of judgment that's handed down. 

In our household, this show goes by the alternate title of My Boyfriend Owes Me a Thousand Dollars,  since this accurately summarizes what about a third of the cases are about. Couples in love fall invariably fall out of love, then use the court system to wrangle over broken cell phones, gifts that have morphed into loans, and bail paid out when the lover-turned-defendant got picked up for DWI. But there are also fender-bender cases, dog bites, home-improvement squabbles, and landlord-tenant disputes over why a security deposit is being withheld.

I like watching people argue, and when the argument is proceeding within the structure of the law, it's even more compelling. But I also like Marilyn Milian, the Latina judge who has been around since 2001. Unlike that other television benchmeister, Judge Judy, Milian cares about the law and is interested in explaining how it works; Judy Sheindlin scolds, vents, insults, and humiliates, and the spectacle is not edifying.

"See, here's how it works," says Milian. "You can make that decision, but it comes at a cost. You signed this contract. I didn't sign it--you did. And you can break it or ignore it or use it as a doily, but you have to understand there are consequences to those kinds of decisions. And you certainly aren't allowed to make money off that kind of decision."

It's fun to watch the body language of the losing parties as it slowly dawns on them that being hopping mad is not necessarily grounds for legal action. Their eyes narrow, their shoulders come up, and they cross their arms defensively over their often ample bosoms. There are rules, and the rules are real, and the rules are not working in their favor. This gives me an intense pleasure that I find very difficult to explain.

But fairness--and especially structured, evenhanded fairness--is important. Each new case seems to reinforce this essential concept, whether we're squabbling over a puppy, a broken windshield, or a slip-and-fall with injury resulting. And this fairness relies on proof--Milian reminds both plaintiffs and defendants that talk is cheap but real documentation, credible evidence, is what gets the job done. Often, when a plaintiff or defendant claims they have proof of something but forgot to bring it, she asks, "So, are you saving that for some other judge?"

I admit I'm a little bit ashamed of my liking for this slightly cheesy show, and I never would have gotten started on it if I hadn't spent so much time hanging around the house with nothing to do. But now I am well, and yet I still knock off work at four each day to watch Marilyn Milian do again what she did yesterday--demonstrate the essential beauty and logic of civil law. 

So now I've confessed and actually feel better for it. Just for the record, though, I have no appetite for soaps. I tried them, and it's no go--the people on soap operas never seem to have  anywhere they need to be in the middle of the day and they spend way too much time talking behind each other's backs. That's distasteful, and all the chatter leads to crisis after crisis but never any real conclusion--I'll take the gavel and the final ruling any day. 

Monday, August 9, 2010

The hind leg off a donkey

My husband's sister has just decamped after three solid days of nonstop talking--we listened to hundreds of hours of pressured, pointless, controlling, and profoundly boring discussion of unrelated minutiae, one incoherent topic chained tightly to the next.

She told us about every single plant in her garden, the weave of the carpet on the stairs of an apartment she rented in her twenties, the many things an old boyfriend spake unto her, the provenance of a specific stone on an ankle bracelet, the mysterious mixing bowl with the flowers on it,  how many times, exactly, she went to the store and why and who she took with her, the names and individual habits of her three hermit crabs,  and the night she spent at the Red Roof Inn and why the Red Roof Inn is superior to the Comfort Inn and Motel Six.

She was so busy talking it became impossible to do anything--when we finally got her dislodged, after many overt prompts and signals, to, say,  go for a ride on our lovely boat in perfect weather on the bright blue waters of Mallets Bay, she just kept yakking away, so utterly absorbed by all the unsaid things that she couldn't even notice her surroundings.
Now that she's gone, I can uncoil long enough to understand that this strange affliction is probably a kind of mania and not her fault. But it feels like her fault--the woman can talk the hind leg off a donkey.

Of course I can be intolerant and uncharitable, but my husband, in contrast, is amazingly polite, always willing to make other people's comfort a priority even if it means being excruciatingly uncomfortable himself. Yet even he had had enough when he had to listen to a lengthy disquisition on how she calculates her car mileage in this certain specific way.

What kind of life is that? Is it a life that someone would choose? Of course not. It must be torment for her as much as it is for the people around her, but she cannot simply stop. What's that old joke about the twelve-step program for manics? Alanononononononon.

I'm glad she's gone, and of course now I feel guilty in that gladness, but the peace that descended as soon as she left was blissful beyond description.