Category Archives: Texas

Let It Snow, Let It Snow…

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I’d planned, this morning, to pay a visit to The Wonder Horse, dust him off, bond with him, give him a treat, and send him back to the Great Outdoors (or, at least, as much of it as is enclosed by his electric fence).  A quick glance at the weather changed my mind.  It’s 11 degrees.  I just can’t see stripping my horse nekkid, even in the barn, and obliging him to stand still just so I can fluff his air and shine him up.  Yes, he needs to be groomed for health reasons.  No, it doesn’t need to happen today, not at 11 degrees.  Besides, the thinsulate in my barn gloves is wearing out.  I discovered this when I went by to say a big “hello!” to him, give him four carrots and two horse muffins.  After that fairly brief foray, the tips of every one of my fingers was on fire.  Also, anything liquid in my grooming kit (like his Anti-ZAP Spray) was frozen like a rock.  The heck with this, he’ll get clean on another day.

We’re under our first winter storm warning of the season, and it’s just started to snow.  National Weather Service is saying maybe 6″, maybe a foot, maybe a little more.  I have the inclination to be thrilled because my ski hill is rolled into the Warning area, which means more trails open, more fresh snow, and a whole lot of fun.  I have the leisure to be thrilled because school’s out of session, I don’t have to commute to anything but the grocery store, the barn, and the ski area, and I can afford to keep the terrifyingly ancient and massive barrel in my basement full of heating oil.  So, from where sit, this winter storm is great news, pure and simple.

It’s not without its inconveniences, though.  I know, for example, as I look out of my window, I am probably seeing the clear surface of my driveway for the last time until April.  And last night was, in all likelihood, the last night for the next four months when parking my car and Roy’s in the driveway was completely uncomplicated.  And Huey’s farrier is coming out on Wednesday to pull his shoes off for the winter, but right now, things are just a little on the slick side for him, which strikes a little arrow of fear that he’s going to injury himself AGAIN horsing around in his already snow-covered paddock.

Then, of course, there’s the grocery store.

Now, I’m from Texas.  Houston, in specific, but I spend plenty of time in Austin, San Antonio, and College Station.

In Texas-speak, “flurry” means that someone on the freeway saw four things that they thought might be snowflakes.

In New England-speak, “flurry” means that it isn’t snowing hard enough to make it impossible to drive.  It’s been “flurrying” like this pretty much all week up at the ski hill.  On Tuesday morning, we had “flurries” that put an inch and a half of snow on the car in the space of a few hours.  Yesterday, it was “flurrying” all morning long, making it impossible to ski without goggles.  Not that I want to ski without goggles – cold air, contact lenses, stray tree branches, and stuff – but my goggles fogged up on the chair lift despite the anti-fog coating, and started raining inside, so I had to take them off for the rest of the run in order to be able to see anything at all.  But I then had to stop every couple of minutes and scrape the “flurry” out of my eyelashes.  And the plows were out, treating the roads on the way home.  That’s a New England “flurry” for you.

In Texas, a weatherman using the word “Flurry”, or “Sleet” is a Sign of the Apocalypse.  It’s the signal for everyone in town to get in a car or board a bus, and stampede to the grocery store/Costco/Sam’s/Walmart/package store and empty it out.  I’ve seen desperate people brawling in the aisles over the last case of Pellegrino.  You can’t find a can of beenie-weenie, chili, or soup anywhere in the territory covered by the weather station.    Parking lots become a madhouse, but that’s nothing to compare to the violent rodeo of the checkout line.  Panic reigns supreme.

In New England, no one pays any attention at all until the weatherman starts using the words “winter storm warning.”  A watch?  Pshaw.  If it’s not a “warning” it’s not happening.  The weather in New England is inherently unpredictable, according to my Harvard Physicist Buddy who knows about these things.  She says that it’s the density of the mountain range, which makes them act more like a big tall range than the short one they are, and the proximity to the ocean, and the proximity to the giant plains of Canada.  No one here with two brain cells to rub together pays any attention to the long term forecasts, and by “long-term” I mean “more than 18 hours out”.  It was different in Texas, and Wisconsin, for that matter.  The weathermen there could forecast the approximate half-hour when some weather system was going to roll in.  Here in New England, we’re lucky to get accurate forecasting for what’s going to happen in the next six hours.  Both of the days I went skiing the week, for example, had forecasted “mix of clouds and sunshine” and “precipitation 0%” at 8am when I left the house, when what we actually got was a total of 4 inches of snow.

So they don’t use the words “winter storm warning” here unless 1) the storm isn’t on the doorstep, but it’s been sighted walking up the path to the front door, and 2) it’s going to drop truckloads of snow, and maybe some ice.  Or, in the wrong time of year, or under evil circumstances, truckloads of ice, and maybe some snow.

The thing is, even when the forecasters do use the words “winter storm warning” what happens is that some people go check the woodshed to make sure it’s still full, some people double-check to make sure the storm windows are in place, and all the people who planned to do the weekly grocery shopping tomorrow decide to do it today instead.  No panics, no raids, no fights breaking out anywhere.  It’s really quite dull.

Now, what you also have are a pile of skiers paying very close attention to those forecasts, and you might wind up with a minor traffic jam on some country road in the Vermont mountains as a critical mass of people flee into the storm … just to be certain of being a skip and a hop away from the base area and chairlifts when the weather kicks in – or for the saner of us – when the wind starts to die down a bit.  That kind of excitement I can absolutely get behind.  Roy and I were part of one of those epic junkets last winter, as a matter of fact.  I wouldn’t want to be traveling up Vermont 100 right now.  Not because of the snow, but because of the massive exodus of sport utes from New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.  With any luck, the Massachusetts State Police Operation Ski Trap is in full swing, lining our coffers and engaging wealth transfers to pay for roads, state parks, and essential social services.

Anyway, there’s nothing that makes me feel quite as Festive as a mid-December snowfall.  It’s feeling like time for a mug of hot chocolate.  I might even have a candy cane to stir it with.    I need to go say “goodbye” to my driveway.  See you next spring, you gleaming asphalt strip!  Au revoir, curbs!  Two-way streets, later alligator!  Catch you when the seasons turn again, and hopefully, that won’t be until April!

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Coming really soon, I hope!

Feeling Like Home Around Here

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New England, like every other place in the country I’ve lived, has the saying “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.”

The difference between New England and South Carolina, Florida, Texas, and Wisconsin is this:  here, that statement is actually true.

Case in point: Monday, I had to fire up the furnace, because it was freezing in the house.  And only 38 outside.  Saturday, we had a record low high temperature for the day: 48.  Today, Thursday, it is 90, with a heat index of 94.  This pattern (bloody fricking freezing followed immediately by sweltering hot) has been repeated three times in the last four weeks.  Last night, we had thunderstorms that are impressive for this area – but would have been pretty much a Usual Spring Evening in Texas or Wisconsin.  The difference here is that in Texas or Wisconsin, those thunderstorms would have happened because an approaching cool front with nice dry air ran head-first into a big swampy mass of hot steamy air.  The result being that when the storms were over, it would cool down.  Not here.  When those storms were over, around midnight, it started getting warmer and stickier, to the point where 1am found me going through the house, closing all the windows, and turning the air conditioner on.

Today, it is every bit as disgusting as any nasty May day in Houston. And Houston can get pretty darned vile in May.  This is right up there.  Dewpoints hovering just under Miserable (70), temperatures hovering around Bake (90+) and an Ozone Alert.  Ugh.

It’s kind of sad when a person walks outside into a revolting steam bath and says “Ah, yes, just like home” with a sigh of satisfaction.

The bad news is that there’s no way in hell I can work the Wonder Horse when it’s like this.  I don’t need to put this kind of stress on his body or mine.  We’re not used to it.  He can’t decide whether to grow in his winter coat or to shed it out.  I might be used to this weather by July, but not when I had to put a sweater and warm socks on three days ago.  Not even Texas has weather this psychotic.  Texas weather is more impressive, I’ll grant that.  But certifiably insane?  No.  Not to this degree.

The good news is that I haven’t lost my Houston Know How in the last decade of living away.  This is grilling weather.  Only someone every bit as nuts as the weather itself would be heating up the kitchen by using the stove or oven in weather like this.  This is why the Good Lord Gave Us Gas Grills.  Yes, I know, I’ve just invited caustic commentary from the Charcoal Briquet Crowd.  I, myself, love the smell and flavor imparted by the good old charcoal grill.  However, when it’s 94 outside, I want the convenience of going outside, turning a knob, pressing a button, and returning to the air conditioned climate of my Great Indoors.  I do not want to stand about flicking matches, and repeatedly checking to make sure the briquets are ashing over evenly, and then rearranging them once they’re good to go.  That’s just more time in the sauna, to my thinking.

So today featured a Festival of Marinade.  A balsamic, oil, garlic, honey marinade for the fennel bulbs.  A mustard and watercress marinade for the salmon fillet.  And – best of all – a tequila lime marinade for tomorrow’s chicken.  That one left my kitchen smelling like a fresh margarita.  All afternoon I’ve had to resist the urge to break out the blender and whip up a frozen concoction.  All I need now is a six string and a blown-out flip-flop.

Tequila and lime and steamy hellish heat.  Feels like home. Anyone seen my lost shaker of salt?

Tequila-Lime Chicken

Marinate the chicken overnight.

Juice of 6 limes (approx 1 C)
½ C tequila
½ C orange juice
half a bunch of cilantro, chopped
large fat jalapeno, deseeded and minced
2 T chili powder
1 t salt
generous grinding of black pepper
6 chicken breast halves with skin

Mix marinade in bowl. Add chicken, coat, cover, chill overnight, turning a couple of times.

Preheat grill to medium and brush rack with oil. Grill chicken until cooked through, turning twice. Chicken should be cooked to temperature of 160.

Dock

Chappaquiddick, not Texas. But it could be.

Dilly What? Retro Rewind

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Most of the interesting things that are going on here aren’t mine to talk about.  There have been two dreadful storms, and one of the horses at the barn passed away. No, not Elvis.  I know Elvis has a certain Fan Base out there, and I want to reassure you that he’s just fine.  But I don’t feel like I can write about any of that stuff because it’s too close to capitalizing on someone else’s grief.  In lieu of that material, then, I present to you another Oldie But Goodie.  This one has the twist of putting me in the seat of the Straight Man, and Roy in the role of the Comic.

Without further ado, I give you “Dilly What?”

April 5, 2009

Roy and I have been down in Dallas with some friends – we’ll call them Sharon and Neil – for the weekend.  There are two things you need to know at this point.

1. I hate Dallas with a passion that only a Houstonian could have.  If you want to understand the relationship between Dallas and Houston, you can develop a suitable frame of reference by regarding the Capulets and Montagues, the British and the French, Milan/Venice/Florence in medieval times, or the Crips and the Bloods.  There is no baseball team I hate more than the Texas Rangers, because it’s just like Dallas to arrogate the name of the entire Great State to themselves.  Everyone with sense hates the Cowboys, and if you want to know why, just ask a fan why Texas stadium has a hole in the roof.  Dallas, itself, is not worth the breath it would take to discuss its failings.  Note that Fort Worth is not rolled into this snowball of contempt and disdain.  Just Dallas.  And it’s one zillion soulless bedroom communities.

2. Roy is Mister Itinerary.  Show him a trip and he reflexively generates a plan.  I’ve been Working With Him for years on this, because his plans tend to be a bit short on opportunities for sleeping and sitting down.  He’s come a long way in the last ten years, but he still – definitely – likes to assemble a plan.

Now you’re armed for the story.

So when we planned the trip to see my friends, I requested him not to cram a bunch of stuff into the weekend, since what I really needed was some quality bonding time with S & N, who I hadn’t seen in nearly 2 years.  After we arrived on Friday, Roy and Sharon had a brief pow-wow about how to spend Saturday afternoon.  It seemed that there was some landmark that Roy was particularly interested (in Dallas? really?) that Sharon thought would be a good idea.  Dilly something.

Now, Dilly is a town outside of San Antonio, so I registered it that far. Then I tuned out, having collected just enough information from their dialogue to conclude that we were going to go down and look at some plaza, probably something like the Hemisfair, with sculpture, a water fountain, and some flowers.

“Sure” I said, and went back to playing with a cat.

Saturday we rolled out around noon, and laid tracks for a San Antonio-style TexMex restaurant (of the nicer kind, with waitstaff and a patio).  Terrific ceviche, great ritas, plenty of food.  Shrimp with garlic sauce, caldo, and I was feeling Happily At Home back in Texas.  Then we piled into the car to drive off to see the flowers.

Roy parked the car on one a relatively empty downtown street and we piled out.  While Neil trotted off for change to feed the meter, one of those guys who sells papers to benefit the homeless zeroed in on Sharon and started a sales pitch for his paper.

He interrupted our conversation on Scenic and Exciting Amsterdam, and I expected a quick brush off to be delivered. To my total astonishment, however, I watched Sharon cut loose not with some pocket change, but with an entire five dollar bill (the stated price) for the Homeless Guy Paper.  She’s a lawyer and very into Public Interest Work, so I assumed this was More Of The Same, but I also wondered why the Homeless Guy Paper had an article in it about JFK.  Neil and Roy caught up with us and were chatting away.  I caught the word “Kennedy” and wondering what the devil the Kennedys had to do with Texas.  They’re all over the place in Massachusetts – Roy ran into Jackie O riding her bike on the Vineyard one summer, but I didn’t know they’d had much of a family presence in Texas.

We were moving down the street, Sharon with her nose in the Homeless Guy Paper, Roy and Neil rattling along about some political thing also involving JFK.

“What the devil are you people on about the Kennedys for all of a sudden?” I asked.

They stared at me.

“What do they have to do with Texas?” I said.  “Does JFK even have a presidential library?  It wouldn’t be here, certainly.  Up in Massachusetts, maybe.”

Another round of blank looks.  “We’re moving, we’re moving, we’re moving” Neil said, while shooting me another perplexed look.

Roy said “Assasination. Book Repository.”

“Huh?” I said. Another neuron fired. “Oh yeah. That’s right.  He was shot in Texas, wasn’t he?”

That brought everything to a halt.

“Ah.” he said. “Yes. From that window, right up there.” and pointed up at the building we were walking toward.

“What?” I said. “JFK was shot in Dallas? Here?  How did you know that? Is there a plaque on the building?”

“Ah.” he said again. “Ah.”

About that time, Neil reached for the handle on the door, which a third neuron firing permitted me to read.  Something about a Museum.

“Where the hell are we?” I said. “This is a museum? There’s a museum here? In the middle of Dallas? For what?”

I got another set of blank stares.

“What did you think we were doing?” Sharon said finally.

“I thought we were going to some plaza to look at flowers and fountains.”

So.  Not Dilly Plaza, but Dealy Plaza.  And the Sixth Floor Museum with a 45 minute multimedia exhibit all about the assassination.

Jesus.  It’s not like I was even born when it happened.  And who the devil would have thought that someone would erect a museum on the spot?  I had always assumed that the building had been torn down, or turned into condos or something – if I thought about it at all.

Am considerably better informed…NOW.

Serves me right doing the Spousal Multiprocessing Thing, I suppose.

 

Ode To A Breakfast Taco

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When to the southern star my heart does yearn
And absence long does cause that heart to ache
Then southward must every step drive, to earn
The rewards of long nights’ sleep…to wake
The spirit and the mind and tell
Of ancient sacred spells to cast:
Shelled egg, warm and spicy gold,
And cheese, grated fine to soften well,
Potatoes fried and crisp, and last
Tortilla grilled and warm, all enfold.

There are a lot of things that have made their way out of Texas and onto the national stage.  Some of these things are wonderful, like barbeque rubs and chili.  Some not so wonderful.  Texas politics is best when it stays in Texas, where we understand these things.  It doesn’t translate well to the National Stage, and provides nothing but Prime Grade Fodder for Yankee pundits wishing the criticize the state.   Just try explaining Ma and Pa Ferguson to a New Yorker and getting any response other than a derisive look.  Or Bob Bullock.  People just don’t understand these things outside of the state.  As Molly Ivins once said, “Good thing we’ve still got politics in Texas  – finest form of free entertainment ever invented.”  People who aren’t from Texas, I think, take Texas Politics more seriously than Texans do.  And that’s fine, for at-home.  In Texas, we don’t hide crazy, we put it on the front porch in a rocker and strike up a conversation with it.  But that’s a different matter than sending it out to the world on a book tour.

I’m back home for a visit – a happy event, a wedding – and it’s been a couple of years since I was here.  Too long, in fact.  When I’m away from home – say, living in my home-away-from-home up in New England – I feel like I spend half my life getting Weird Looks, or explaining myself and then getting Weirder Looks.  This is because, as the Texas Tourism Board had the Moral Strength to let the world know, Texas Is A Whole Other Country.  Up until 2000 or so, I reckon a lot of people assumed it meant that Texas was huge, which it is – it is approximately the size of France. Texans, I think, considered that this slogan referred either to the astonishing natural diversity of the state’s ecological areas, or to the viscerally-held belief that Texas can secede from the Union at will.

When I left home in 2002, I understood it on a different level:  it’s just literally true.  Texas is part of the Union, yes, but it might as well be a foreign country given the yawning gulf between Texas and just about every other state or region in terms of culture, values, experience, and language.  It’s not like I lack a basis of comparison.  I have lived in the South (Florida and South Carolina), the Mid-west (Wisconsin) and now New England.  I’ve traveled more extensively than that.  And yet I haven’t encountered any place that is more foreign to just about everywhere else than Texas.   I speak mostly the same language as the people in California, Oregon, Kansas, Wisconsin, Virginia, Vermont, New York, North Carolina, Georgia…in much the same way as people from Britain speak the same language that they do in Hawaii.  (Actually, I suspect that Hawaii is a Whole Other Country as well, but I don’t have any evidence for that.  And quite possibly Alaska is also a Whole Other Country.  But that’s as far as I’ll go.)

These cultural difference cause a great deal of trouble for me, because no one expects them.  Texas is part of the Union, no reason to expect the people there to be substantively different, after all.  And yet…there we are, all of us Texan Expats, getting Weird Looks or Weirder Ones, every time we turn around.  I learned early on that as soon as I detect a Weird Look, it’s a good idea to offer the simple blanket statement: “I’m from Texas.”  This isn’t really an explanation, but it somehow is usually followed by a Clearing Brow and the Sparkle of Enlightenment coming to rest in the Dubious Eye.  A general sense, you might say, of someone saying silently “Oh, well, that explains it.”  The fact that this is sufficient to explain (if not excuse) virtually any kind of aberrant behavior, tells me that Texas must have been exporting at lot more than margaritas and beef.

NOTE: The omission of “Tex-Mex” from any list of Texas exports herein is because I cannot consider Tex-Mex to have been exported, since it is fundamentally unavailable at any level of minimally acceptable quality, north of Dallas.

One of the things that I am eternally surprised that Texas has not exported is the Breakfast Taco.  While this falls under the very general heading of Tex-Mex and thus should not be exportable, it is an item of such stunning and beautiful simplicity and elegance that even a Yankee shouldn’t be able to screw it up.  I know, to my eternal sorrow, that all too many people are completely unaware of the scintillating brilliance of the Breakfast Taco, which consequently deserves an introduction.  A better introduction than my ghastly Ode, above.

The Breakfast Taco.  It’s easier to list off a recipe than it is to describe it.  Scramble some eggs.  Grate some cheese.  Cook up some cut-up potatoes on the griddle.  Heat a flour tortilla and wrap everything up in it, then wrap the stuffed tortilla tube in a square of aluminum foil.  Sell to the guy at the window of the truck for $1.00.  Or, better yet, sell the guy three of them, at which point he now has a hot, moderately low-fat, nutritionally-complete, substantial breakfast that he can eat in his truck or at his desk, all for $3.00.

How could this not be available with the same ubiquity as a Starbucks grande latte?

Having provided that recipe, however, I’ve told you nothing that is truly important.  The execution is everything.  There are condiments, like salsa, or if you’re going the Luxury Route, guacamole.  There are options, like chorizo, or refried beans, or the Poor Man’s Taco, potatoes and eggs only, for $0.75.  A lukewarm Breakfast Taco, made with an inadequately heated tortilla, and using undercooked potatoes, is still a more desirable meal than a day-old bagel smeared with fat-free cream cheese.

A well-executed Breakfast Taco, on the other hand, is a Culinary Gem.  A treasure.  An experience to be savored.  Something to write home about.  I had such an item, or, rather, two of them, just this morning.

There was a perfect quantity of eggs, perfectly scrambled – neither too soft nor too hard, not wet, not dry.  A light sprinkling of salt and pepper.

There was a perfect quantity of grated white cheese, queso blanco, an item for which Monterey Jack is not an acceptable substitute.

There was a perfect quantity of potatoes, cooked until tender but not disintegrating, then fried lightly until crisping on the corners.

There was a fluffy, homemade flour tortilla that had been griddled until it started to crisp in spots, cuddling the eggs, potatoes, and cheese.  When I opened my packet, the cheese was just starting to melt over the potatoes and eggs.

And – this is essential – there was a container of fiery hot tomato salsa.  Salsa is not the stuff that your Whole Foods is selling in the produce department as “salsa”.  That stuff is actually pico de gallo, an entirely different condiment.  Real salsa is runny and juicy, and while there may be chopped jalapenos delivering heat, there is almost always some kind of Hot Sauce.  Hot Sauce covers a pretty broad spectrum of offerings – I, personally, have ten different kinds in my pantry at home.  There’s Tobasco, the “brand” leader of the Hot Sauce world.  Calling all hot sauces “Tobasco” is like calling any beverage that comes out of a pop-top “Coke” – and that includes beer.  There is so much more than just Tobasco.  There’s hot sauces made from habaneros, the five-alarm fire of the chili pepper world.  There’s habanero in other incarnations – one of my favorites is habaneros and mango juice.  And it just starts there.  Pico de Gallo, or “Salsa” as our Whole Foods is calling it, is chopped up fresh tomatoes, onions, and jalapenos.  The proper term is “Salsa Fresca”.  Fresh salsa.  Because “real” salsa usually comes out of a jar.  It’s possible to make it at home – and some serious cooks do – but for the rest of us, there are so many excellent and inexpensive commercial offerings available (IN TEXAS) and the volume of the stuff a household can expect to go through is so large (IN TEXAS) that it’s easier just to buy it readymade.

The salsa from the taco truck had originally – in my estimation – come from a large industrial-strength plastic handle of salsa from the Fiesta! (grocery), but it had been substantially doctored up with Hot Sauce in after-market processing.  The first dash was All Heat.  By the second, the endorphins had kicked in, and by the third, they’d caught up. So you will have to imagine the tube of warm grilled tortilla cuddled around perfectly scrambled eggs, potatoes just starting to crisp, and exotic white cheese melting over the top…and lay in a solid stream of Red Fire to cap it off.  Then roll back up, careful to mind the wrap at the bottom of the tube so it doesn’t leak…and eat.

This is an experience that cannot be had for love nor money outside of my home state.  You can get something similar in San Diego, or in New Mexico – although there you will have green chiles liberally and suspiciously scattered about in everything.  But the pure Breakfast Taco?  Nowhere but Texas. (I know someone from Manhattan, or worse yet, Brooklyn is reading this and thinking “No way! The Food Truck in my neighborhood has GREAT tacos!” but – trust me – they don’t.  They have better tacos than any other place you’ve tried tacos, but they are NOT great, and you’d know it if you’d ever had the Real Thing.)

Objective One for the trip back to Texas:  Eat TexMex and Lots Of It.  CHECK.

Now on to Objective Two:  Buy Cowboy Boots To Go With My Fringed Leather Jacket.  With any luck, I’ll find a decent hatband, too.

She Said, I Bet You Don’t Remember Me…I Said, Only Every Other Memory…

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It’s amazing how many New Friends you make when you walk into an equine supply shop and announce that you’re buying your first horse and you need some advice.  I’m sure that it’s a factor in the New Friend Factory that you might as well have said “I’m coming in to drop BIG BUCKS here!” but I’m equally sure that this is not the major motivator behind the Tsunami of Goodwill and Interest that breaks over your shores.  My experience is that Horse People love horses.  Riding them, grooming them, maintaining them, standing around and watching them eat, and playing with their lips (this is actually a whole lot more fun than it sounds – horse lips are damn near prehensile, and they’re rubbery, and they’re covered with fuzz and whiskers, and are generally totally irresistible…the good news is that most horse want to use their lips to play with you, so there’s total goal convergence).  The next-best thing to being around horses is talking about horses.  And right after that is buying stuff for horses.  I had previously considered Alpine Skiers to be Ultimate Gear Hounds, but Horse People have that distinction in the bag.

In addition to this, being a Horse Person is like a disease.  Actually, it’s more like a birth defect.  All of the horse people I have met were born that way, not made.  It’s not genetic – all the time you wind up with Horse People being born into Non Horse families – but it’s definitely some kind of disease, an addiction that no Horse Person actually wants to kick.  And since misery, etc. loves company, Horse People like to watch other Horse People getting hoovered a little further into the hole.  It’s not exactly schadenfreude, because the person getting sucked in is usually doing so with pleasure, if not with outright glee.

So today, I drove out to one of the big regional tack shops, in a town called Framingham.  It’s on the outskirts of Boston.  Generally, we don’t have a lot of suburban sprawl here – property values are way too high and there is a vast amount of conservation land – but I would pitch Framingham against any soulless suburban hell spawned in the pits of Houston or Dallas.  Every minute I spent there sucked 1 year of life out of my soul.  I could feel it happening.  Fortunately, my new BFFs at the tack shop restored much of that spirit.

I instantly got everyone’s attention with my announcement above, and they wanted to know all about my horse, what breed, what color, how big, how old, do I have any pictures?  It was deeply gratifying.  As was their response when I told them I needed help picking out a saddle that would fit both of us, and displayed his wither tracing.

“Oh my gosh, those are high withers!”

“And wide shoulders!”

“Where did you take this measurement?”

I am happy to say that I’d taken pictures of the flexible curve on the horse, so I actually had an answer for that in the form of the photograph on my smartphone.  Awestruck silence fell when I showed it.

“Oh, my gosh, and they get even higher.

“Look at his shoulders! He’s huge!

“And so cute!  I love his chrome!  Look at that blaze!”

And then they were off like little chirping birds. I had measured his withers in exactly the right place, they said, and someone produced a neat little tool for deciding the shape of a saddle tree (the firm thing inside the saddle that gives it its shape).  According to the tool he needs an Extra Large tree.

“You’re right – this is going to be a tricky fit!” someone said.  Then they started educating me and didn’t stop for the next hour.  I tried saddle after saddle on the stand, and we narrowed the selection down to four or five that fit me pretty well, so it’s just a matter of getting them out to the barn to try on Huey.  Someone at the store actually does that – travels around with saddles for this purpose – which is why my trainer suggested I start with them.  All of the saddles that fit me were dressage saddles.  It’s just as well that I wanted to go that direction anyway.

I had about three hours in the car to spend listening to music and cogitating.  And, of course, because it is September 10 today, there was a great deal of discussion of the the events of ten years ago tomorrow.  And that sent me directly into the Land of Philosophy.  And what I was considering, in that three hour drive, was the question “whence and whither the arts?”  Historians, we know, have an imperative to examine and analyze history.  But they don’t typically write it – that is left for the journalists and the clerks to do.  But the recording of history by these individuals is going to be focused and the scope narrow, defined by the particular job for which the recording is performed.  The historians, then, specialize in identifying these narrow pieces of information, and assembling many of these pieces in the hopes of obtaining a larger view.

But there is another group that may bear the social imperative not just for recording history, but for analyzing it and helping others to make sense of events: I speak here of the artists.  I ask, is there a social obligation laid on the heads of our artists to preserve and interpret historical events? The answer that I have arrived at over the years is this: yes.  Possibly, there is an even greater obligation on the artists than there is on the historians.  Why?  Because historians deal in facts…and while facts are absolutely necessary and of great import, a strictly fact-based accounting of an event leaves out the critical dimension of Feeling.  I believe that there is value in understanding not just “what happened?” but “what was that like, to be there?”  It is my experience of human nature that people rarely change as the result of being presented with an assortment of facts…but if you can induce an understanding of the facts with feeling then, and only then, do people attain a level of understanding that promotes change.

The events of 9/11/01 changed us all.  And many artists stepped up to the plate to shoulder their responsibility.  In many instances, with collections of exploitative and tacky dreck.   (There’s more, too.)  But many stepped up to the plate with honesty and courage, and these acts were seen in unexpected places.  The Onion came through with surprisingly emotional content. Not Knowing What Else To Do, Woman Bakes American-Flag Cake stands out as one of my favorites:  it captured perfectly the anxiety, the need to do something, the dazed grief, and the instinctive turning toward one another in the shock.  This article also expresses the superficiality of many responses, but the overarching feeling is never permitted to descend into vacuousness: “[after] Mixing the cake and placing it in the oven shortly after 3 p.m., Pearson sat at the kitchen table and stared at the oven door until the timer rang 50 minutes later.”  The shock was just that huge, the national grief just that obliterating.

The artist who – in my opinion – left us with the best depiction of how this event was for those of us who did not have personal ties to New York City is Alan Jackson:

Capturing the incredibly broad range of responses that individuals had to the event had to be a truly daunting task for an artist but I would be willing to bet that anyone who was an adult ten years ago will find themselves somewhere in this song…and possibly in many places in this song.  I remember when I first heard this, in the late fall of 2001, I stopped the car so I could listen better, and I had one and only one thought: that he had accomplished the impossible.  That this song, when people listened to it ten, twenty, thirty years later, would still have the power to convey what it was like for us at that time.

And yes, I do remember, perhaps not every other memory, but many times per year.  It was Tuesday.  A front had blown through my part of Texas and left the sky sparkling and the air dry, and what passes for “crisp” in the Gulf Coast.  I was teaching full time for the first time, and had just delivered my first lecture the day before and was getting ready to do it again the day after.  I was teaching at Texas A&M, a school with a significant military population.  Sophomores.  Intro to Accounting I.  I had a doctor’s appointment in the early afternoon for an allergy shot.  The phone rang early.  It was my ex-husband, telling me to put on the TV.  I turned it on just in time to see the second plane hit.  I fell to my knees and didn’t move for an hour.  I cried for days.  I had an obligation to help my students, 19 years old and already feeling a little lost, make sense of things.  I don’t remember what I said to them instead of talking about balance sheets and income statements, but I think it had to do with understanding that the world had changed, and things were going to be harder now, and they would have to grow up faster because of it.

I did not bake a flag-shaped cake.  But when they shut the school down on Thursday morning and sent all 40,000 students home to their parents for the weekend, I did throw a leg of lamb into the truck bed and took off, myself, for home, and cooked, and cried, and cooked some more.

Because it's really hard to get too wrapped up in grief when there are things like this going on around you

Here’s an insanely good late-summer soup.  Everything you need for this is waiting for you at the produce stand, right now!

Tomato and Peach Bisque

1 onion, chopped
2 T butter
2 lb tomatoes, peeled, cored (but not seeded) and coarsely chopped
2 medium peaches, peeled and chopped
½ C cream
½ t salt
tarragon

Heat butter in large pot over medium heat.  Add onion and cook 5 minutes.  Add tomatoes, peaches, salt, and a T of tarragon and simmer about 20 minute or until the tomatoes break up. Puree in a blender and add cream.  Serve hot or cold. Top with more chopped tarragon.