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Saturday, January 22

NOT KNOWING WHAT HE WAS

It is early January and I am at the therapeutic riding center. I know a session is to begin soon, but I have not been apprised of the nature of the patients. Will they be blind? paralyzed? addicted? I wait for their arrival in the cold barn, taking off my gloves to warm my hands against the live heat of a horse who is being tacked up in preparation.

Soon they are here. Six boys have come running in, followed by a teacherly voice: "Now, remember what we learned about running around horses. I said, Steven, stop it!" Giggles and shared looks amounting to the child's credo: I heard you and will submit but do not ask me to acknowledge that I did.

I am looking hard, trying to find something. Some disability, where is it? These six- and seven-year-olds are about as normal as you can get, some quiet, some shy, some downright brats. These particular children look less in need of help than the horses, living in standing stalls with abused saddles pinned to their backs for much of the day, mainly elderly, they still must work seven days a week. The boys evince little interest in the animals themselves, except to shout, "Oh, not Dazzle! I don't like HIM!" Finally I have to ask one of the volunteers what is it these children need therapy for, Attention Deficit Disorder, I am told. Riding is supposed to help them learn to focus. That seems to beg a question, especially as these days the questions are as thick as ants on a watermelon. If the problem were truly chemical in origin, how could a nonchemical intervention affect it (and conversely, if behavior modification works, why resort to medications that have never been tested for long-term effects?) Clearly I do not understand something, and the boys merely appear as unfocused as every child their age had ever been and ever would be; it is involuntary when I avert my eyes halfway through as they are asked to stop their horses and an adult come around to each of them to offer their morning dose of little pills. The boys focus intently on the benevolent hand reaching up to give them the medicine that will make them well.

Then they continue their lesson, under the eye of their professionally chipper but personally sour tutor, who berates them constantly and views their only problem, if her attitude is any guide, as willfulness. At one point an altercation between two horse threatens to become serious, and it occurs to me that perhaps the horses know something about the true condition of their riders, given what I know of their unflagging protection of the genuinely weak or needy. At any rate, the woman running the class blames the two boys for the near incident, though an observer might as easily have faulted her for allowing it to happen on her watch, because she wasn't watching quite carefully enough.

When it comes time to dismount, one little boy is having trouble keeping his horse from prematurely leaving the ring, and as there is a dearth of volunteers, I go over to assist with the reins. As we then stand waiting for further orders, one of the horses unsheathes his impressive equipment to pitch a line of steaming yellow froth into the sand. A few of the boys find the sight riveting and hilarious at once. There are cries and pointing and hands over eyes, "Gross!" they cry one after another. I mention to one boy that his penis does pretty much the same sort of thing, and that horse and boy had both received one to aid in purely animal functions, "You are too an animal," now fully prepared to engage in "am not," "are too," until I should pin him flat on his back on the turf. No one had ever told this little creature, this little sufferer, the most basic fact about his existence. He was growing up not knowing what he was.

What is the source of my infantile petulance in this matter? Why does what I see with my eyes differ from what others see with theirs? What has happened to me in the last fifty some odd years since that bon voyage dinner, or I borrowed Charlotte's Web from the library? Why is it that I now see no innocently unimportant sign at the New London ferry---NO ANIMALS IN THIS AREA--- but instead an instruction in a dangerous irony, since there are human animal lounging all around it? It's as if I have noticed a small inch-long crack in a mile of sidewalk, and on closer inspection see that there is some sort of water flowing underneath it, no, a river, and it has banks and trees and occasional cities and barges and factories, but mean-while people hurry past my kneeling form with their eyes straight ahead. I feel flabbergasted and sickened and angered and despairing and amazed. No one CARES that a whole other world exists beneath our feet! Hello, hello, I call in a faintly echoing voice that seems now to be disappearing into the miniature crevasse, and I sit down in perplexity and try to think.

I must have something to do with some first little denial, some tiny misstatement. WE ARE NOT ANIMALS. But such a small thing to pay attention to, when there are so many great lies afoot---read the paper, watch the news! The trembling masses of people cringing before their blows.

But, oh, how we do not want to be animals.

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