What Horses Can Teach Us

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On August 9th, I returned to Ocean Riders of Marin for a very special morning. There is always activity around the place, but usually it is members tending to their boarded horses or preparing to go out for a ride. This morning’s visitors were from Coach Bob’s Adventure Camp: seven children (ages five to ten), two young counselors, and Bob. For some of the children, this was their first up-close-and-personal experience with horses.

Their first activity was the most unique of the day, as one by one they spent time in the arena with Jessica Pinto and her very special buckskin, Lucky Little Bear. Jessica is a Marriage and Family Therapist who uses Equine Therapy as one of her methods to help people who struggle with developmental or social challenges. As she explains it, “I consider myself a ‘translator’ for the client and the horse as I have been consistently inspired by the profound impact a horse can make on our sense of self and our way of being in the world, if we only allow them.”

In fact, anyone can benefit from what Jessica and Bear teach. The children listened with rapt attention as she spoke of the three important elements needed to work successfully with a horse: trust, respect, and communication. And all three must go both ways. Horses are very intuitive animals with a strong desire to please. But, in ways that can sometimes seem very human, they will occasionally choose to do as little as they can get away with. Jessica met each child where he or she was in their level of confidence around horses, and coached them to be assertive.

Bear has been trained in Natural Horsemanship, so he responds to body movements and signals that are based on horses’ natural way of communicating with each other. Jessica carefully taught each child in turn just how to “talk” to him. Imagine the feeling of empowerment derived from making a 1000-pound animal back up with a simple waggle of your finger, or watching him step toward you when you invite him in with a bow from the waist. The expressions of wonder and pride on the children’s faces were priceless.

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Bear also responds to praise and thrives on positive attention. His favorite trick is to stand on a stump in the arena and strike a regal pose. The campers rewarded him with a very satisfying round of applause.

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Next, we walked to the nearby pasture where each child was taught how to lead, ride, and groom a horse. Frankly, being in the arena with Bear was a hard act to follow, but taking a slow turn around a big meadow on such a beautiful day was pretty cool. Once again, the experience was a lesson in give and take. The kids enjoyed their rides, and the horses appreciated being brushed and combed so diligently.

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Ocean Riders is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA), along with their neighbors at the Green Gulch Farm Zen Center. Their harmonious relationship extends to the organic gardens at the Zen Center. Maureen Pinto, Ocean Rider’s Manager, explains it this way: “We at Ocean Riders know it is a privilege to have our horses in this special watershed, so we have to take excellent care of the land. The horses thrive on the grasses in the pasture and what they don’t need goes back to the land. But we must move it to cook in the compost for it to nourish the land… a full cycle of life.” Not even waste is wasted. The campers final task was to clean the pasture and walk the wheelbarrows full of manure over to add to the compost piles. I’m not sure the pasture was ever mucked so enthusiastically.

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A lot of personal growth and learning happened while these kids were having fun. It’s an experience they may never forget.

And it all happened before lunchtime.

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Pretty Coffee

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I remember the first time I experienced latte art. I was visiting Grace in Chico, it must be six years ago now. We went to her favorite coffee place, The Naked Lounge, and my drink came in a big white bowl of a cup with a perfectly delicate fern frond drawn in the foam. I felt like I had been given a gift. I love coffee, but pretty coffee takes things to another level. It was a surprise the first time, but even now that I know it’s a thing, it still feels a little bit special every time.

So when I heard there was going to be a latte art competition at one of my favorite local coffee places, I was in. Local 123 in Berkeley is a lovely spot for coffee or wine, music and art, conversation or just quiet reading. Owner Frieda Hoffman is also the creative mind behind the airstream coffee trailer at Flowerland Nursery in Albany. I like the way she thinks.

The latte art competition is brought to us by the folks at the Bay Area Coffee Community, and it is now in Season Two. Last Thursday evening, forty baristas signed up to pour their hearts out. Two by two they created their liquid masterpieces, and one of them was selected to move on to the next round. It was sort of like March Madness for coffee, and all in one night. It started out like a party, with friends and colleagues cheering each other on. But as the final round approached, things got quieter. A hush fell over the room as the judges made their final deliberation. Then Selina Viguera was proclaimed the winner, and the crowd went wild.

What a fun night! Season Two of the Latte Art Competition continues on September 19th at Ritual Coffee Roasters in San Francisco. You should go.

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Imagining a Life

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These opera glasses are part of a small collection of objects I display because they are beautiful and because they have meaning for me. They belonged to a woman I never met: my grandmother, Ethel Maugh Brown, my father’s mother. They have fascinated me since I was a little girl. We were not a family who had much use for opera glasses. As I recall, they spent most of their time safe in their almost-distintigrating leather case, in a drawer nestled among my mother’s also-rarely-used silk scarves.

They are one of very few artifacts we have of Ethel. Half a dozen photographs, a gold-nibbed pen with a delicate mother-of-pearl handle, and a letter she wrote to my grandfather (I like to imagine she used the pen to write it) one week before they were married in September 1915.

Other than that, we have dates. Lester Brown was born in Plymouth, Michigan, on October 13, 1880, and Ethel Maugh was born in Mooretown, Ontario, on March 25, 1884. They married on September 2, 1915, when Lester was almost thirty-five and Ethel was thirty-one years old. They were mature newlyweds by the standard of the day. Ethel was thirty-five years old when she gave birth to her first and only child, my father, on August 6, 1919. She was forty-eight years old when she died on September 6, 1932, four days after Lester and Ethel’s seventeenth anniversary. My father was thirteen.

I try to imagine their love story. That’s all I can do, with so little to go on. I don’t know how they met, only that Ethel was a schoolteacher. I do know that in March 1915, Lester started working for A. Bentley & Sons in Toledo, Ohio. Lester kept a small notebook in which he listed all his places of employment, from starting his first job at Conner Hardware Store on May 3, 1900, to starting as a payroll auditor at Michigan Mutual Liability Company on July 15, 1918. He worked there for twenty-five years. He used the same little notebook to record his daily expenditures starting on November 15, 1906 through June 15, 1907. Every meal, every streetcar ride, every visit to the barber. Lester was a detail guy.

Ethel, on the other hand, sounds like the Gracie Allen to Lester’s George Burns. In that one precious letter, written one week before her wedding day, she tells him, “Received your letter this a.m. Was in the midst of packing my trunk. You see I left it until the last moment. Will you look after it when it arrives? Of course I didn’t remember the number of our house so I just sent it to Toledo. Hope nothing happens to that trunk. Most of my earthly possessions are in it.” I just love that. I’m sure Toledo was a smaller city in 1915, but still.

My grandfather lived to be ninety-six years old. He married again in 1941, and lived with Alma, the only grandmother I ever knew, until he died. Grandpa was friendly to adults, but he never really knew what to do around kids. I remember him as a Sunday-dinner-mind-your-manners kind of grandpa. For the last dozen years or so of his life, he and Alma lived around the corner from us. I don’t think I ever saw him without a tie.

I never heard Grandpa talk about Ethel. I’m sure he would have thought it inappropriate, and disloyal to Alma. It never would have occurred to me to ask him about her. Toward the end of my father’s life, he gave my sisters and me the gift of going through old family photos and sharing his memories. Whenever he picked up one of the pictures of his mother, his face would soften and light up all at once. It seems she was a special person. That’s why I particularly love the final picture below. I love the playfulness of it, the way Lester looks so happy. It takes a woman I never knew to show me a side of my grandfather I never saw.

Yes, I am a romantic. But I love the mystery of these few mementos, and I’m happy with the way I have filled in the blanks. I believe Ethel was the love of Lester’s life. I wish I had known her.

Perhaps she would have introduced me to the opera. I bet she would have made it fun.

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Life Lessons From A Small Town

On June 28th, the Albany Recreation and Community Services Department hosted its first Pechakucha Night, and I was honored to be invited to be one of the presenters. Pechakucha is a concept that started in Japan and has been embraced the world over: twenty slides, each projected for twenty seconds. Those are the only rules. The subject matter is wide open, and you can narrate any way you like.

That’s a little too wide open for my little brain. I needed some kind of structure or theme before I could even begin. Thankfully, this opportunity coincided with another big event. Our younger daughter graduated from college in June, so I had commencement addresses on my mind. Looking through the collection of images I have made in Albany over the years, I began to wonder what it might be like if Albany gave a commencement address. It was a challenge, a fun one, to find images and words that would combine to convey what I wanted to say. The result is kind of a love letter, to my girls and this town. It snuck up on me a little bit. But now that it’s done, I realize how much it means to me.

This isn’t something I would ever have thought of doing without the kind invitation from Chelle Putzer and the folks at the Albany Community Center. They are a wonderful group.

I’m proud of this. I hope you enjoy it. (If you don’t want to watch the video, the images and words appear below.)

If you prefer, following is the self-guided version with captions following each image.

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I didn’t grow up in Albany, but I have lived here for 24 years, which is longer than I have lived anywhere else. It is my children’s hometown. If a town could give a commencement address, these are some things I think Albany might say.

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Keep learning how to do new things. It won’t be easy at first. It isn’t supposed to be. You might fall down. Choose the pursuits that matter to you and keep trying.

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Be thankful for the folks who were there to cheer you on, when all you had to do was show up and do your best. Those people and those experiences provided such an important foundation.

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Because eventually they do keep score. Whether you win or lose will start to matter. But so does how you play the game. Maybe that matters even more. Always play fair.

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School and work and life may be hard sometimes. Keep something in your life that brings you joy. And then let yourself enjoy it.

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Whenever your Glory Days are, know that the next group is coming up behind you, ready to take their turn. Don’t begrudge them their moment in the spotlight. Come back and cheer them on. Sing along.

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Make a place in your days for creativity, however you define it. More than likely, it won’t be how you make your living. But it will enrich your life.

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Gather with people occasionally. Whether you knit, or sing, or discuss books, doing it in community — live — offers something you can’t get in the virtual world.

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Take it Old School from time to time. The old movie theaters and ice cream parlors and small shops may not be around forever. You’ll miss them.

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Go outside! It could be as simple as spending time in a garden with a cup of coffee and a good book. Find your own favorite al fresco experience and make time to indulge in it.

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Make time to celebrate. You don’t need a reason.

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Be there when your friends and neighbors need you. And be grateful for the people in your life who go above and beyond what is required. Say thank you.

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Remember how great it feels when your efforts are recognized. A gold star might just be a sticker, but it matters. If you ever have the chance to lift a child up with a word of praise, do it.

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Remember that nothing gets done by magic. If it happened, somebody did it. Appreciate the people who do the work.

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Resist the urge to be cynical. It isn’t as cool as it might seem. It’s okay to have fun putting up holiday lights in the rain.

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A big part of your hometown is your home. Whatever your rituals, or traditions, or shared moments are, may you look back on them with fondness.

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It’s easy to take the familiar for granted. Remember that you live in an area that is a dream destination for many. Every once in a while, look around with vacation eyes. Appreciate and experience the wonders that are close at hand.

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Stay curious. Fascinating things are happening right in your own backyard. Most people insist they are not very interesting. That’s not true. Everyone has a story to tell. Listen to the stories.

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Take what you’ve learned here and go out into the wide world. Explore. Experience. Live your life.

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And know that there are folks back home who are rooting for you. All things considered, this is a pretty nice place to be from.

After the Fair

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The Alameda County Fair in Pleasanton is over, and racing has moved on to the State Fair in Sacramento. But even while the fair was in full swing, most visitors had no idea that beyond a fence or two is a year-round world populated by trainers and grooms and up to 1000 thoroughbreds. The Backside at the Pleasanton fairgrounds is where trainer Natalie Houle looks after her horses, 365 days a year.

Natalie considered applying for stall space at Golden Gate Fields, but her horses seem relaxed and happy here, so she stayed. It means she travels to races, which can be challenging, but she does what’s best for her horses.

Every trainer has a different style, and a different set of priorities and values. Natalie is intuitive. She takes time with her charges, challenging herself to find out what makes them tick. She likes getting inside the horse’s head. “I feel responsible for these lives. They are not expensive cars. They are living beings,” she says.

The life can be lonely sometimes. It’s hard to make friends outside of the racing business, since people often don’t understand why Natalie is unavailable to do stuff. But Natalie is sure of her priorities. “I wake up every morning to find out how these guys are doing.” She loves to ride them in the darkness of an early morning. She loves to figure them out, to help them like their job as racehorses, to give them their heart.

So every day you’ll find Natalie in her barn on the Backside at the Pleasanton fairgrounds. The carnival rides and the crowds are gone, but she is there with her partner Carlos Vasquez and her dog Finn. Working with the horses. Giving them their heart.

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Music and Place: A Lovely Meeting

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It has been almost two weeks since Les Amis Zydeco played at Tara Firma Farms, and I’m still thinking about it. It was a match made for a beautiful summer evening. Maybe this is what it feels like to be at a house party in southern Louisiana, where this music began.

Tara Firma Farms in Petaluma is a beautiful property, well worth a visit. I had a little time to explore, and shared a moment with a barn owl who I swear posed for me. I can’t resist sharing that photograph with you. Guests were treated to a delicious dinner complete with fresh peaches for dessert. Sitting on hay bales as the sun lowered in the sky . . . it was pretty much perfect.

But, as always when I hear Les Amis Zydeco, the music was my favorite part. Zydeco music is played for dancing, and I love the relationship between the musicians and the dancers. There is an undeniable give-and-take. The dancers enjoy themselves, so the musicians have fun, so the music gets even better, so the dancers enjoy themselves more. It is such fun to experience. And as the sky darkened and the twinkle lights grew brighter, it became magical. What a lovely night!

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You can learn about Les Amis Zydeco’s upcoming gigs here. Maybe I’ll see you on August 17th at the Cotati Accordian Festival.

Getting Back On That Horse

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On our recent four-generation Buchanan family getaway to the Sierra foothills, some of us took an excursion to Yosemite for a trail ride. I was one of them. I am still wary around horses, but I’m getting better at petting them (with supervision), and trained rental trail horses are more my speed than thoroughbreds. This is conveniently forgetting that the last time I rode — ten years ago? — my trail horse chose to end our ride by practically walking me into the ranch hand’s cottage. Let’s just say horses know who is in charge.

Needless to say, Yosemite is a beautiful place for a ride. One of my personal pet peeves is the overuse of the word “awesome”. It really should be saved for places like Yosemite. We took a two-hour guided ride from stables near Curry Village to the site of the former Mirror Lake, and back. I was situated between Goliath in front of me, and Pale Face who wanted very much to be in front of me — and eventually got there. Just before we turned around, which put him behind me again. So there.

I was concentrating, I admit it. Especially on rocky ascents and descents. But Visor knew what he was doing and he took his time. There were even a few moments when I managed to hold on with one hand and raise my camera to my eye. I’m a daredevil (when my horse is standing still).

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At eight years old, Beth is already an accomplished horsewoman. She brought her own helmet. She rode a mule this time.

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Some of my photographer buddies will know that I was thinking of William Allard with this shot. And laughing at myself.
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