Gris Gris Rides Again: The Adventure Continues (with a twist)!

This is the face of a horse who is ready to work with you.

Remember this guy? Gris Gris, the world’s greatest grey Trakehner! At least in my book, and I’m writing this story. In the picture above you see a horse who is at ease, paying attention, and in G2’s case, ready for his next trick (always!).  Before I continue, here’s another picture form our most recent cowboy session.

You say “lope,” I say “canter.”

The picture above shows something I never thought I would see again- G2 cantering under saddle. No bucking. No farting. No squealing. The B-F-S is a move that most horses can do. The elements can be performed in any order, or simultaneously. G2 excelled at it as a form of exuberance as well as a way to let me know that he was hurting.

Right after I took this picture, it was my turn to ride. G2 was most obliging and happy to walk, trot, and canter (walk, jog, lope) whenever and wherever I asked. Yes, I cried.

After weeks of carefully monitored workouts and days off, G2 accepted the fact that he can tote a person around and not be in pain while doing it. His ears were even flopping (a sign of extreme relaxation) like they used to do when we had a really good ride.

“No, you may not stop, drop, and roll. Please walk along.”

Here we are starting some ground work. Gris Gris loves to roll, but we usually do not get to do that until after we work. This next picture shown the early stages of a BFS just because it’s fun. Note my defensive stance!

Go on and get it out of your system!

Well, life and rehabilitation continued. Enter Crocket.

Crockett’s first ride in his new arena. He also packed my husband down the driveway (half a mile of gravel) and back.

Crockett is a mild-mannered, 21 year old Quarter Horse who, I suspect, has been ridden hell-for-leather on more than one occasion. I also suspect that he enjoyed it. He certainly loves to go! However, while I would not call him a packer, he is one of those good old equine souls who seems to know when a novice has been entrusted to him.

During our test ride at Crockett’s previous home, I was cantering around and asked him to go on a circle. I twitched my hand to the left, and we practically did a 180 on the spot! It would have been more fun if I had been expecting it. Husband got on, and Crockett was a different horse. Slow and careful. He came home with us that day.

We did the usual slow, careful introductions over the fence.

Oh yeah?

Everybody was happy with the new kid except Başka, aka El Bastardo these days. When, after a few days, we turned everybody out together, my aloof Spanish horse was having none of it. He chased that poor Quarter Horse from one end of our property to the other scoring some nasty bites along the way. At one point Gris Gris tried to go over and meet New Kid. Well, Başka wasn’t going to share his new victim and kicked poor Gris Gris in the shoulder. We are now back to square one regarding turnout.

I haven’t been able to ride Gris Gris since the day after he got kicked (last week). He was too sore to do anything more than walk, so that’s all we did. Then he got the rest of the week off. Today we worked on the lunge line. He showed only a bit of discomfort that actually lessened as he worked out the kinks.

So… I still don’t have an answer for anyone (including myself) about how far this rehab is going to take Gris Gris. I know he loves the attention, and he likes doing new things. He also enjoys getting to pick his own treat before we head back to the barn.

“This one looks good!”

All in all, I’d say it’s pretty good to be Gris Gris right now. Not sure I can say the same for poor Crockett.

 

 

A Moment of Silence and Peace

I wrote this sketch while in Afghanistan. I don’t need a picture (not that I would have taken one) because I can still see the scene and faces of those involved as if they are in the same room with me. It seemed appropriate to post this today as we reflect on our lives and how the events of 11 September 2001 shaped who and what we are today.

A few hours before a huge group of us headed to Afghanistan, April 2010.

July 06, 2010, 22:09

Normally the words Marine and beauty are not used in the same breath, or even the same paragraph. One of my dear friends, himself a Marine who deployed in 2001 to Iraq, once told me that Marines use the F bomb like most people use punctuation. Perhaps that is why what I am about to describe makes my heart ache all the more. One day last week I wandered into the MWR/A (Morale, Welfare, Recreation/Activity) Tent to engage in some recreational activity on my computer. For several days KAIA had been overflowing with Marines. They were everywhere you went- the DFAC (dining facility), the gym-DUH, and the MWR/A. They were usually seen in clumps of at least five just talking quietly among themselves. They sunbathed, messed up the showers (at least the female showers- there were females among them), smoked, and drank lots of coffee, but mostly they just walked around looking detached from it all.

Many were quite young- maybe twenty- but I overheard discussions about husbands, wives, and children. Back to my own wanderings… As I entered the upstairs internet area I was stopped by a scene of simplicity, innocence, incongruence, and yes, beauty. Recalling it still brings tears to my eyes. Directly in front of me, about ten feet away were five Marines gathered around a low coffee table. Their average age couldn’t have been twenty-one. One of them looked all of sweet sixteen, emphasis on sweet. At first I thought they were playing a game, but in that split second in which realizations come, I saw that they were working a jigsaw puzzle. They were so peaceful and calm, passing pieces to each other and whispering. Two were perched on the arms of their buddies’ chairs. At a table nearby, a lone Marine was working on another puzzle by himself, but also talking in a near whisper with his buddies.

I stood looking for as long as I dared, then took a seat. It’s best not to stare at Marines for too long. Where were they headed, I wondered. That sort of question is just passing conversation around here, but it seemed wrong to disturb them to find out. I was pretty sure they were headed South- always a safe bet with the Marines in Afghanistan. A week later I learned that some Marines had drowned in a river down south. They were on a routine mission. I wondered if any of the young men I had seen on my base were among those who were lost or who were hurting. Given their location, I knew they probably had no puzzles or time to work them.  I wonder where they are now.

Something Old, Something New- Some Things Never Change.

Perhaps I got my love of travel and things foreign from my Grandmother. Whatever its origin, I definitely have it. One year for Christmas, she even gave me a globe! OK, I was a bit bratty about it because it wasn’t whatever stupid toy I thought I couldn’t live without, but it was one of my favorite “things.” I used to just sit on my bed holding it and looking at the Encyclopedia (yes, we had those in actual hard cover), planning my world tour.

On one of her trips my Grandmother (Grandmother was also her name as far we were concerned) went to Greece. She loved it and talked about it more than most of the other places she visited, except maybe Switzerland. Those conversations introduced me to all sorts of wonderful things, among them and for purposes of this post, baklava. So hold that thought.

It was also from my Grandmother that I heard the word “vegetarian.” I though the term referred to someone who liked vegetables. My mother informs me that my Grandmother’s cook shared that understanding. Family reading this will know immediately of whom I speak. Maybe I will post her caramel cake recipe!! Anyway, the exclusive properties of this new category had to be explained to me, but I was not impressed; nor did I participate in the ensuing kitchen debate over things like the inclusion eggs or seafood. I liked vegetables and still do (even though we no longer cook them with bacon or fat meat… at least not very often!), but my quite fertile imagination just couldn’t imagine limiting myself like that. For the record, many a good Southern meal, even the modern ones without the cooking fat, consist of vegetables only!

Well guess who was coming to dinner? Actually it was lunch, but I couldn’t resist the reference. I also had to call my mother to get the genealogically accurate answer to that question. My great, great, great aunt, her daughter, and her granddaughter, that’s who. They had acquired this dietary affliction through a German relative (as if that explains it). I can still hear my Grandmother as she declared, more than asked, “What in the world do vegetarians eat for lunch?” In late 1960s Mississippi, globalization had not yet to hit the Jitney Jungle, so many of the options which my Grandmother had probably enjoyed abroad were unavailable, even if heard of.

I had to call my mother to find out what Grandmother eventually served since I was not present at the “meal” preferring instead the world of kindergarten. My mother couldn’t remember exactly, but here’s what she did recall:

A “nasty” spinach salad (there was neither bacon nor egg)

Boiled corn (no butter, but at least there was salt)

Potatoes or rice (she didn’t remember which)

Some sort of green vegetable (because your Grandmother would not serve a meal without one)

No bread

I’m sure there was iced tea, so I didn’t ask. I’m also equally certain that the meal was flawlessly prepared and probably tasty as well, my dear mother’s comments notwithstanding. Less youth and experience have taught me that down South, any guests for any meal cause a kind of consternation that can only be described as masochistic.

The same thing applies to Southerners who live in places like, say… the Mid West. You definitely get more credit for “the thought” outside the South. Which brings up to the past Labor Day weekend’s events! And baklava.

While I was in Afghanistan, I became friends with several guys from Turkey. We quickly discovered that our differences, while significant, in no way prevented us from finding lots of common ground, especially where the combination of friends and food was concerned. I still correspond often with them and miss them terribly.

A few months ago I received a cryptic message from one of my friends in Turkey informing me that one of his friends would be coming here to study. He asked permission to give my contact information. No problem; however, no further information was forthcoming, not even in subsequent e mails. He is very security conscious.

When “the friend of my friend” arrived, he contacted me and said that he would like to come visit. Again, no problem. Well, it took several weeks of short and also cryptic e mails to get to the Sunday before Labor Day when I got a message that said they (not he) would be at my house tomorrow around noon. Good Heavens!

The answer to the question that some of you may have formed is, “Yes, they eat halal.” Travel with me back in time to my Grandmother’s kitchen… Now is a good time to get up and do whatever it is you are thinking about doing as you comment about how long this post is.

Aaaand we’re back- but in my kitchen reading labels and using the iPhone to google to make sure whatever we had was ok. Nix on the fried grits with crawfish cream sauce, although the fried grits would have been fine.

Fried grits smothered in crawfish cream sauce. Hungry?

Then I saw all the brie that remained from another party. YES! One of my all time favorite appetizers was about to become a sandwich! Known in my family simply as “brie treats,” they consist of slices of French bread, a paste made from nuts (I like pecans) and olive oil, slices of Granny Smith apple, and brie (sans mold). In that order. On a cookie sheet in a 400∘ oven for about 5 minutes to melt the cheese, and you’re done! Put them together ahead of time then just pop them in the oven as guests start to arrive or right before the meal depending on how you’re serving them. I don’t have any pictures, but these look really nice with lots of different food items.

The green salad we had was nothing spectacular, but of course, it was above average! We had the best tomatoes that one can expect in this part of the world at this time of year. They were average until I drizzled them with olive oil, sprinkled basil all over them, then slapped a thick slice of fresh mozzarella on top. The same conditions applied to the fruit salad except I used sugar, mint, and lemon juice instead of olive oil. And the tea? Lightly and perfectly sweetened. Our delighted and delightful guests thought it was so good it had to be Turkish tea!

I billed this lunch a typical of what Southerners would prepare for friends who dropped by for lunch. Sadly, that tradition has all but disappeared even down South. When this kind of lunch includes international guests as such occasions often do (or did), there must be some sort of culinary nod to the guests’ homeland. As it happened, there was one small container of baklava left in the refrigerator from the aforementioned party. With great trepidation I pulled it out, hoping that there wouldn’t be enough so I would not put myself through the angst of serving baklava to people whose people claim not only expertise in this pastry, but to have actually invented it! No such luck.

What do you have with baklava? You guessed it. Turkish coffee!

My Turkish coffee pot (cezve/ibrik) and one of the cups my friend sent to me via our now mutual friend.

Along with the baklava we had some slices of pears from our tree over which we drizzled some of the extra baklava syrup (There’s always extra. Always save it.). This thrilled and astounded our new friends especially since we had devoted a portion of the never- flagging dinner conversation to baklava. For those of you who are just now wandering into this blog, the recipe and pictures can be found in my post about parties and secrets. Just as I am apparently incapable of serving a simple meal (without at least trying to make it hard), I am also incapable of writing about one topic at a time. It’s just not that simple!

Penultimate note: I just wasn’t able to get any pictures of the actual meal. Apologies!

Final note: If you still want more evidence of my talent/tendency for guilding the lily, wait until you see what evolves around a white chocolate and ginger cheesecake that gets coated with a shell of white chocolate. Because I can.

 

Cowboy Magic

I have written a good bit lately about my fancy, first string horse. The horse I want to write about today is my first horse- well my first horse since childhood. I went through my teens, 20s, and most of my 30s without my own horse. Finally I managed to scrape together a few thousand dollars and purchase this guy.

The Big Gris Gris

He didn’t look quite like this when I got him. He wasn’t even three years old yet. He was skinny, and and several inches shorter. His color seemed to change on a weekly basis, so I won’t go into all that. He has been every version of grey that a horse can be.

Gris Gris is a Trakehner, a breed known for its intellegence and , some would say, sense of humor. I have seen G2 run through a pasture with a 6′ length of plastic tubing in his mouth- chasing the other horses and thoroughly enjoying himself. He can untie any know and open most locked, chained gates. He will rip the clothes off of most other horses just for fun, but will keep his own.

Hey! Give that back! Mom!!!

The horse in the burgundy blanket is the one from Spain. This picture was taken on his first morning at my house which is a long way from southern Spain. I bought him a neck piece (think turtleneck) to go with his blanket since he had no winter hair to speak of. Notice that it is not present in this shot.

What? I was just playing!

When I walked out into the paddock, G2 was waving the neck piece in the air, taunting the poor new kid to come get it! The other grey, a persnickity Oldenburg mare, was telling G2, “You are soooo busted.”

Before I move on with my story, I have to say a few more things about this fabulous horse. Other horses loved him. People loved him. Judges loved him. I still love him! All he had to do was enter the arena, pack me around and win a blue ribbon (sometimes red). More importantly, we always got really good scores and comments from the judges. When he bucked, which he sometimes did out of pure exuberance, the judges wrote that he was “playful” or “energetic.” Had G2 been any less of a horse he wouldn’t have put up with being my learning horse. He was that good.

X Halt Salute
(coat rule was waived b/c of heat)

The Champ After a Day at a Show (the big ribbon means he was the high scorer and champion of that level)

Somewhere along the way, G2 injured his stifle. That’s a bit like our knee but higher up. His promising show career was at an end. Not that I gave up that quickly. I spent every spare cent I had, and some I didn’t, to try to discover what was the matter and fix it to no avail.

Fast forward about six years to yesterday. I will spare you all the vet trips, therapies, and heartbreak of watching him become yard art. You didn’t think I would get rid of him did you? He’s only 13 now! Back to yesterday… I had been talking with my farrier who also happens to be a cowboy who starts horses for folks and gentles problem horses. I took G2 over to my farrier’s house for what I hoped would be some cowboy magic.

This is not the face of a horse who is worried by a little thing like a plastic bag on the end of a whip! He’s thinking,”Maybe I can catch it!”

We both had some concerns about hopping on a horse who hadn’t been ridden in at least six years. My farrier got on, walked and trotted a bit, then told me to get on! G2 was happy to tote the guy around cowboy style. So…

What next?

You will notice that I am dressed for English riding. Those pants still work fine in a Western saddle! Other than jeans, I don’t own any Western riding clothes, or tack either.

G2 and I poked around the arena a few times, but he started to get a little tense every time I tried to use some of the old dressage buttons. Then it dawned on us- G2 will never be a dressage horse again, but he may be OK packing people around! I used to take him on the trails all the time as a reward. He loved it!

This story doesn’t have an ending of any sort yet, it’s just a possibility. G2 was getting sore after 45 minutes of “work.” It was work after his time off. I’m going back this week for more rehab for G2 and maybe for me. If the big Gris can stand it physically, he will be re-educated so that he knows he will not be asked to carry himself like a dressage horse. That means I have to learn to ride Western! Happy trails to us all!

 

Unemployment, Deployment, and Dressage

A lot has happened since my last bit of noise. Among other things, I have been to another horse show and officially joined the ranks of the unemployed. The reason I link these two particular events is that, unlike some folks, I have to have gainful employment in order to support my equine habit. I also like finding connections between seemingly disparate things. It is one of life’s great ironies that I have always craved the time to train myself and my horses on a more serious level, but have always had to work. Now I have the time, but… see where this is going?

Last weekend’s show was what is known as a schooling show. In dressage that means you don’t have to put on the coat and the tidy whities, and you don’t have to braid your horse’s mane. I did anyway just because there is always a lot of down time at shows.

It’s all about the hair!

I did reasonably well considering that  my ribs are still quite sore from that fall (see previous post “Well, I Never!”). At Training Level Test 2, we got a 66.8%. There was a time when I would have been ecstatic with that score. Now I know just enough to be able to beat myself up for the pilot errors and to know just what the judge was talking about when she said “ride with brilliance!” I was trying to draw a deep breath and be better than average. That is not an excuse, just an explanation.

My trainer rode my horse at Training Level Test 3. She was brilliant, even if my young horse was trying his best to take a nap. She and horsey got an 8.5 (out of 10) on one canter pass, and she did ride brilliantly. The judge said so! She pretty much does that on any horse she gets on though. Definitely one to listen to and emulate.

So, while I try to figure out how to further my dressage career, such as it is, I also have to figure out what I am going to be when I grow up… again. Last time I checked, training of any kind for me or my horse was not free.

Being unemployed also gives one considerable down time. Another dilemma. Do I spend more money to get more training to get another job, or do I continue to spend money that will soon run out to chase the dressage dream? I point to more job training (back to school?) for me because there aren’t a whole lot of jobs out there for what I do.

I’m reaching deep into the internal blogosphere for this one, but like the Grinch, my puzzler is sore. My attitude could also use an adjustment.

Just do it!

Did I mention that I could return to my old job, sort of?  In order to do so, I  would have to apply to a contractor,  and then go through the training that I have been delivering for the past year. This applies to all of us who got let go. Put another way,  I would have to re-enter government employment at a lower status that that which I previously held and sit through training for a job that I have successfully trained for, done, and trained others to do. Even got a meritorious service award.

In dressage the only time there are mandatory do-overs is when you or the horse has been injured or you have to start all over with a new horse. I’ve had to do that three times! We expect setbacks in the horse world, and my story is far from unusual or even exceptional. It certainly isn’t tragic. It doesn’t give me a bad attitude to see others have better “luck,” even those people who seem to have more than their share of fortune’s favors.  I’ve had some pretty good breaks, help from friends, a great trainer, and have gotten some pretty decent scores in the dressage arena,  and am looking forward to more of the same. That said, we have a saying: Ride the horse that gets off the trailer!

So why do I feel like I have been kicked upside the head (or maybe in the gut)? I think it’s time for me to saddle up and get over myself again. My favorite attitude adjustment ever is waiting for me out by the gate. It won’t be the first time I’ve ridden of into the general direction of the sunset without an actual plan.

 

My Resume


 

The time has come for me to take things up a notch and write about something that most of you will find more important than dressage. I’ll save the dressage follow up as a recovery act for what follows here, to wit, a near rant about the job I am about to lose.

“So,” you ask, “what do you do?” The elevator version of my reply is a few mumbled phrases about  socio-cultural research and the Army in Afghanistan. “Really? How fascinating,” you reply, your curiosity piqued while you try to pigeon-hole me into whatever categories you find most helpful in organizing people in your life. “Well, what do you think about ________?” I usually reply that what I think is often irrelevant in whatever it is that I do.

Who says I have to stay inside the lines?

BIG FAT DISCLAIMER: The ranting below IN NO WAY represents the views or opinions of the Human Terrain System. They are MY IDEAS and MINE ALONE (unless some of you actually agree with me).

Many of us have read, and perhaps written, those sophomoric essays that begin “Webster defines ____________ as _______________.” They set us up for a debate in which the author is already committed to a definition when what is called for is intellectual engagement. Rather than resort to sources (which must be cited), I will make this up as I go, i.e. wing it on paper (I will also use the first person pronouns, something I normally eschew except while blogging). The goal is to arrive at a concept of Social Science that the reasonably prudent person (a legal standard, I know) can accept and employ- or at least talk about.

The degree of difficulty in organizing this discussion will be increased by the fact that not even academic institutions are able to agree upon a definition of Social Science and its practitioners. Some universities house their departments according to the degree to which its members apply quantitative methods to their research. Others need to balance distribution of credit hours and faculty lines, and so designate disciplines such as History to Liberal Arts or Humanities, or Social Science, depending on the need.[1] To my knowledge, no one gets a Ph.D. in Social Science.

So, what is a Social Scientist? I stated up front that I was going to provide a framework, not a definition, and my intention is to honor that. I do not wish to argue about it, though I suppose I must at some point. We have more definitions to guide us right now that we can possibly use. Some of these definitions support good Social Science and support our ability to provide operationally relevant research results to people who need it. Others confound us at every turn. By learning to live with contextually dependent definitions, we can, through the continued exchange of ideas, loosely describe (as opposed to define) ourselves and those portions of the world with which we come into contact.

Before being hired by Human Terrain System (HTS), I did not consider myself a Social Scientist. I am a Historian by training. I have also spent a considerable amount of time studying and practicing leadership, whatever that is. Maybe one day I’ll get it right. I usually enjoy doing what I do, and I am able to comfortably switch from staunch defender of the Liberal Arts and Humanities to proud practitioner of some Social Science methods in order to try to be of use in this world. I definitely prefer application to theory. Sadly, these days I find that neither a degree on a wall nor a patch on a uniform can be taken as evidence of ability to perform Social Science research in a combat zone.

Having a job in a certain field can be indicative of what one actually does. Those of us who have tried to explain HTS to the reasonably prudent person who has no military context upon which to draw will understand why I say ‘can’ in the previous sentence. I also find that, despite great strides in the educational field, those parts of the military with which I have had direct experience remain too concerned with the rigid categorization of people, places, and things. To be fair, we can also see such activity in some branches of the Social Sciences.

Despite the assertions of some branches of the Social Science tree, I maintain that the abilities to teach, do research, and learn are akin to the ability lead. These skills are not instantly found within certain disciplines. If I have no ability at all, then no amount of remedial education is going to bestow upon me the ability to do anything well. Putting me in a situation in which I must learn by doing would be equally dangerous because of the potential harm to those must attempt to learn with/from me. HTS tries to identify people who have some abilities already and equip them to go into a war zone to “do” good Social Science. Since I assume that a teacher is a subject matter expert (I’ll go so far as to say that a trainer should also be a SME), as opposed to someone who has read a lesson plan, I cling to the hope that HTS will come up with a way to engage real experienced teachers/trainers who will be able to provide some depth to the classroom experience that is now HTS Training. We will not find these people within the halls of TRADOC or schools of education. Rather, these SMEs will come to the HTS schoolhouse with a successful deployment and the ability to share that with others.

One way in which civilian and military institutions bolster their legitimacy is through publication of research in peer-reviewed formats. This gives tangible evidence to others that we do what we say we do. The more publications we have, the better we are… or so the line goes. Yet, in the age of globalization and democratization, we are all authors, and everybody knows everybody. As with resumés and rank, a long list of publications can signal many things to the reasonably prudent person. I recently had a conversation with a Social Scientist who claimed to be the “top producing Social Scientist in Afghanistan.” No mention of quality. This person is “good,” but the system has defined success in terms of how much we produce because we are afraid to make judgement calls.

HTS is in a position that many would find envious right now: the ability to set a few, hopefully flexible,  boundaries. In order to make the most of this situation, we must all be aware of as many layers of context as possible in order to make good decision. Social Scientists do not operate inside intellectual vacuums. Just listen to some of the conversations in which we engage. We would prefer to wrestle with intellectual issues rather than PowerPoint. This includes the best way to prepare others to go ply their form of Social Science downrange. We resent what we perceive as busy work that keeps us from being able to practice our form of our craft. We resent not being trusted to do our jobs (as we understand them?) in order to serve not only a greater good, but our own collective and individual curiosities, and yes, even our personal interests (more loosely defined concepts).

So what, inexactly, do Social Scientists do? We ask questions. We are curious to the point of skepticism; sarcastic to the point of irreverence; and respectful to the point of dogged devotion to people who are “good.” We continue to ask questions even if we are unable to provide answers. In whatever context we find ourselves, we are driven to identify, if not understand, the layers of meaning that constitute what may be called culture, life, ___________ (fill in the blank). We have extensive education and/or experience to help us form our questions, to strive for intellectually honest answers, and effectively present them to our audience. Our methods and talents are as varied as the topics we study.

I suppose that we must at least acknowledge that the title Social Scientist, as opposed to Social Investigator, or Social Theorist, does entitle people to some expectations. I would also like to address the expectations of those to whom we provide the results of our work. The reasonable person should be able to expect that we are able to ask “why?” and provide credible hypotheses (answers?).  HTTs may have the luxury of testing their own answers. More often, they will not. Others may, and in fact will, generalize from our localized findings. HTATs may try to do so as well, but in Afghanistan anyway, this approaches the bounds of futility.Over there, our “research” is mostly short term.

Social Science is a grand endeavor. To limit it to the village level limits its immense potential unless there is some larger goal, yet our current version of Social Science has hamstrung itself by promising “scientific” answers to local questions whose solutions may not be applicable beyond the local level to a customer who doesn’t understand that generalization beyond the local level is still a dangerous practice. Starting small is but one way to grab some turf in a debate. It works in Afghanistan, but we must also keep a big picture in mind. Who gets to draw that picture? You tell me.

 

 

 

 


[1] I can, of course, provide examples of these and other academic organizational structures.

Dressage #1 (and it is #1)

There are so many things that I want to say about dressage that I am having a hard time organizing this post. Whenever I find myself in such a predicament, I find that getting some of the silliness out of the way can help find a real direction. So without further ado, I give you some of my observations about those of us who are to deep in to get out- not that we would ever ponder such an option.

I couldn’t help myself.

You may have noticed what appears to be a lock of hair in the picture above. It is a lock of hair. It is from my horse’s first haircut- when I trimmed his mane for what is known as the bridle path. I’ve saved this lock from every horse I’ve ever owned and am considering having a bracelet made from this one! It’s not a dressage thing; it’s just the sort of behavior exhibited by horse nuts in general.

Ann Romney jokes aside, the atmosphere surrounding dressage is a bit rarified for some. Images like the one here do not help.

I believe he will also be able to stand up on this trip.

My horse came over from Spain on a plane, and it cost me a pretty penny plus years of planning and saving to be able to afford it. Like most of my dressage friends, I clean stalls, carry water buckets, and even vaccinate or give other shots when necessary. I do not fly out to sunny California when I feel like riding. Rather, I hope that the weather is decent so that I can ride (when don’t I feel like riding?) in my outdoor sand box. Indoor arenas are for sissies (sez me because I do not have one).

I do not buy into the myth that the most expensive stuff is the best stuff. Dressage is expensive enough as it is. For those of you who know gear (for anything), you know that it can literally make the difference between life and death. Does paying over $200 for a pair of breeches make me ride better? On the other hand, paying a bit more for a helmet does have an appealing sort of logic to it. Or even boots… to a point. I know children who are trotting around in $500 boots.

Dressage riders who choose to compete participate in a sport that requires us to wear white spandex pants. Really? Whoever thought that one up definitely had a host of minions to do all the dirty work for them. Here I am in my tidy whities at a show.

White gloves too!

White saddle pads are preferred, though black or navy are acceptable and look especially good on a grey. The only thing harder to keep clean than yourself  wearing white while grooming and tacking up is a white saddle pad. I have some friends who even school in them. Tradition  is great and serves a valid purpose (hey, I think I just found focus for my next post), but in the schooling arena wardrobe? I think not.

On the subject of “bling” dressage riders are nuts. Did you notice the bling on my tie (yes, my tie!)? Subtle, yes? It matches that on my boy’s bridle! I have a friend who makes them if you’re interested. I have to get my color fix outside the show arena because more than what you see above is way beyond tacky. Despite our desire to stand out a little, it really is about how well our horses are schooled. On the other hand, something shiny does give one a bit of a boost…

Our rigs are another source of humor for me. Since I was knee high to a pony I’ve been fascinated by trailers (for both people and horses). Imagine my ecstasy when I discovered that you can get a 2H StL LQ (a two horse straigh- load with living quarters)! I only have a 2HStL w/TR (tack room). Life is tough. Here is what they use in Afghanistan.

Getting there is part of the adventure, yes?

You will notice that the horse above is wearing a blanket. I have heard certain members of my household mumble that my horses have a larger winter wardrobe than most humans. Well that may be true, but we insist on shaving off the horses’ winter coats so they won’t sweat when we school indoors all winter. We even blanket in the fall to prevent the growth of a winter coat! And as for shoes, the same grumbler has pointed out that one horse gets the equivalent of a high-end pair of Nikes every six weeks while he only gets two pairs per year. For the record, the youngster above had such fantastic feet that he is shoeless. My farrier (and he is MINE!!) does not charge an month’s worth of hay to take care of my herd. He is a saint.

Actually, most things can be sources of humor for me- even a spectacular dismount that results in bruised ribs that still trouble me as of this post. See my post entitled “Well I Never!” for the full story on that one. The biggest source of happy amusement right now comes from schooling my young horse (the one in the picture) and myself. His antics make me laugh, and sometimes I swear he is laughing at me too!!

Borders, and Tribes, and Affairs! Oh My!

Some words of introduction here: When I was in Afghanistan, I kept a journal. I wrote down lots of things ‘as they happened’ or ‘the way I remembered them! Now that I am home again, those entries have been placed in an already existing file of writings that I call “Skeletons” because they need to be fleshed out. Maybe I should call it “Bones” because some of them need connecting as well!

 

I recently attended another meeting at the Ministry of Tribal and Border Affairs (MoBTA). My understanding of my task was that I was to offer some guidance to fourteen Afghan guys who would be conducting surveys around the country to find out what folks (tribal leaders) think about Reintegration and Reconciliation (R2). Aside from the irony of me training Afghans on how to get information from their own people, I was skeptical from the start.

My  RM was wearing her Afghan costume. The only other woman there was an English Army person. She wore her civvies and a cute yellow scarf. Neither she nor the RM said a word the entire meeting. This was clearly another case of “Meg’s in charge. Let’s just sit back and watch.”  I chose to wear my ACUs that day but took along a lovely pink and green silk floral scarf just in case (Luckily for all of us, I can’t find that picture! Will keep looking.). It’s a good thing I did because the room was filled with all sorts of tribal elders from down South and representatives from various GIRoA ministries. The imbed over at  Ministry of Borders and Tribal Affairs (MoBTA) was not known for his organizational or communication skills, but this took the cake, or the naan, or whatever they take over here. It was one big interpretive dance (presenting a train heading for a cliff) from the moment we entered the room until we left.

The Afghan gentlemen, were not quite so reserved. In fact they were quite animated at times, like when they argued for ten minutes about the wording of a particular question that they had already decided was stupid.  By the time this argument flared up I was contemplating the best way to go about painfully attracting my interpreter’s attention  because he was joining in the discussion instead of keeping us abreast of things!! The non-Afghans in the room had no clue what was going on and no way to stop it!

This argument only saw the light of day because we had to go through each question one by one and let everybody “vote” on it. I would say the question number then the Minister of Mustaches would read the question in Dari and Pashto. It is safe to assume that some, if not all, of the fantastically dressed Elders couldn’t read (another fashion note: One Elder had a hideous cold and was using a huge silk Hermes scarf that he was using as a hanky. Made quite a show of it too!).

Hermès Hanky

The Elders were not rude- they just weren’t cordial. The more urban dudes had no issue with the  presence of women in the room or the fact that I was (supposedly) running things. Well, things were getting out of control, and the guys weren’t going to take ‘shushing from any woman- not even one in an Army uniform. My mind was racing, trying to figure out how to salvage some semblance of order when I recalled an article that I had read about the Jirga and how men are honor-bound to listen when women speak for peace. Desperation can lead us to take risks. So… I took a deep breath and started talking (I had managed to make my interpreter recall his job for the moment)  The minute I/he said ‘peace’ the room was silent. I owned that meeting for the rest of the afternoon…or maybe they just let me think that, but we had a great discussion about surveys, PEACE, reintegration, PEACE, reconciliation, PEACE, even the Taliban and Pakistan, and PEACE.

Buying Sunglasses in Kabul

They never did say what they think the role of women is in the R2 process, but THEY are the ones who brought up the question (or maybe that’s just what I let them think), and I put my hand on my heart and thanked them. Smiles almost all the way around.

 

Of Parties and Secrets

A little while ago, I had a party at my house. It was originally supposed to be a farewell party for myself- so I could see all the folks I would really miss before I headed back to Afghanistan again. Well, most of you know what happened with that, but I’ve never let a little thing like impending unemployment stand in the way of a good party. So, on with the show!

Parties always provide an excuse for me to clean house. Clean stalls in August heat? No problem. I have been known to lose my vacuum. Parties also give me a chance to break one of the cardinal rules of entertaining: never try a new recipe for guests. I cleaned my house (sort of), and concentrated on what matters- the menu! Here’s what we ate: prize-winning country ribs (they actually did win the People’s Choice Award at a rib cook-off in Athens, GA, corn and black bean salsa, roasted potato salad with rosemary and balsamic dressing, sliced tomatoes with mozzarella and basil leaves, mixed berry salad. And that’s just what we made! Friends also brought some yummy concoctions and potables!

If you’re lookin’, you ain’t cookin!

”But, what about dessert?” you ask. That’s where we get to the secrets and entertainment rules part. I made one old standby, my baklava. The rule breaker was a white chocolate cheesecake, doubly so, because I made a huge departure from the recipe. I’ve been making baklava and cheesecakes of all kinds since I was in high school, so I’m fairly conversant in phyllo pastry and cream cheese.

Whenever there’s a do, folks ask if I will bring baklava or a cheesecake, or both (really good friends can ask that). Folks also always ask for the recipes, but until now, I have never shared. Here’s why. I can’t stand it when people claim that they invented or thought of something that has been around since before they discovered thinking. Maybe it’s a Southern thing, but it’s extremely bad form to take someone’s recipe ( not to mention other things) and pass it off as your own. It’s culinary plagiarism, and if one gets caught, there is a heavy penalty.

Chances are that some of you will recognize parts of my recipes. If you recognize all of it, I will be very surprised, but pleased… great minds and all. My baklava recipe is a combination of recipes from one of those cookbooks that is so well loved that it is in need of replacement.

Culinary credit- a secondary source.

I also do a lot of measuring “to taste” and will advise you to do the same. So without further ado, I give you…

Yours should look something like this.

My Baclava (it really is easy. I promise!!)

5 cups of nuts, very finely chopped- I like a mixture of pecans, almonds and walnuts

1 cup sugar

2 t cinnamon

1 box phyllo pastry

1 stick butter, melted

½ cup olive oil

For the syrup you will need:

 Syrup

1 ½ c water

2 ½ c sugar

6 cloves (or to taste)

2 sticks or 1 t cinnamon (or to taste)

1/8 t salt

zest of one lemon and one orange (you can use dried here, also to taste)

1 c honey

Preheat oven to 325.

Instead of messing about brushing every delicate sheet with butter (been there, done that), lift 5-6 sheets of pastry and place on bottom of pan. (The ideal pan is the same dimensions as your pastry, but then again, I love the edge pieces with all the extra pastry, so you decide here.) Spread about 1 cup of the nut mixture on the pastry. Add more sheets of pastry. Add more nuts. You get the picture.

Work quickly. You’ll get faster as you develop your own methods. Keeping a damp cloth over the pastry will help keep it from drying out.

With a very sharp, serrated knife, slice the baklava- diamonds, squares, whatever. Combine the melted butter and olive oil. Pour over the baklava. Make sure you coat every piece.

Place on middle rack in oven and bake until golden brown.

Make the syrup while the baklava is baking.

Place all ingredients except honey in a saucepan. Dissolve the sugar by stirring. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and add honey. Set aside and check the baklava. The recipes I have used all say it takes an hour to an hour and a half to cook this stuff. Not so in my oven. More like 30-40 minutes.

When the baklava is a nice golden brown, take it out of the oven. Pour about a cup (+/-) over the pastry. Let it soak. Keep pouring syrup in intervals until it reaches top of baklava. You will probably have some syrup left over (you should). Keep this because the baklava will soak up everything you have just poured on, and you may want/need to add more!

Let the baklava cool. Refrigeration tends to make it soggy. Cover and let it continue to soak. When presenting, you can leave in pan (not traditional, but practical at larger parties) or, if practical, remove and separate each piece. Place on a dish. There will be syrup running everywhere. That’s a good thing!!

Make some good coffee and enjoy!! Btw- the leftover syrup is good on all sorts of things!

Oh! I nearly forgot! Some people think the edge pieces are too untidy to share with guests. That’s up to you, but I happen to think they are the tastiest. Just sayin’.

So… I have now bared a small corner of my inner cookbook. I am still too insecure to share the rib recipe though.

 

Turkish Coffee- another thing that shrouded in a myth of difficulty

Well, I never!

I never thought I would own a beautiful PRE horse. I never knew what one was until I went to Spain and learned that a PRE is a Pura Raza Española (pure Spanish horse). Back here in the USA, most folks refer to them as Andalusians (when they refer to them at all). As it was explained to me, any horse from Andalusia or the Iberian Peninsula can be called an Andalusian. Only special ones get to be PRE.

I went to Spain by way of Afghanistan. Not wanting to travel all the way back home at the mercy of military travel, I went to Spain instead. Make sense? By the way, I also just listed several other things I never thought I would do. Watching that horse get off the trailer on a cold February night was definitely a high point worthy of pictures and another post.

Fast forward to last week. One of the things that makes a PRE so special is the disposition. Nothing really phases them. Well, they do not have horse flies the size of hummingbirds in Spain. I never thought I would fall off of my horse, but I did last week. I made it past the eight-second count, but that horsefly was as determined as I was to hang on. I did a spectacular face plant in my (yes, my– another I thought I’d never) arena after bouncing on my side. Just to make this more fun, my PRE is also tall (16 hands 3 inches; one hand = 4 inches; that’s 67 inches tall at the withers, that ‘bump’ in front of the saddle).  I thought I would never catch my breath. When I tried to get up, I thought I would prefer never to do so. I had bruised multiple ribs. My dear horse was watching me writhe in the sand, unfazed by his induction into the Mother Bucker Club.

Last Wednesday’s tumble added insult to an already injurious day. I never, ever thought I would be let go from a job, especially one at which I am (not quite was) way better than average even on my off days. My ribs, my ego, and my self-esteem have taken quite a beating in the past week, and I have been asking myself where all my hard work, loyalty, and  devotion to “the mission” have gotten me. Obviously, they’ve gotten me quite a lot in terms of material things, but what do I have to show for myself in other realms?

Now I am testing the waters with you- trying to decide just how serious I can be in the blogosphere. Sure, it’s my blog (there goes another one!), but I’d like to have a few loyal readers. I am a great fan of sarcasm, so I had to stay away from the keyboard for a few days (even after I could remain sitting) for fear of launching an all out attack on some people and institutions who/which, however deserving they may be, are entitled to  a more thoughtful assault. And yes, this reflexiveness has to be turned on yours truly as well.

I’ll be coming back to this topic in the near future, so either stay away or chime in. For me, it was hard enough to get to this place.

It’s not just about the hair.