Healing horses

This is the story that I did for USAA insurance company a few weeks ago — although it just posted today — on the equine therapy program called Equi-Vets that is operated in Virginia Beach.


My friend Jason Hirschfeld, a supremely talented photographer, took the photos that run in a slide show accompanied by audio of the vet, Chris, I interviewed for the story.

I am proud of it. (I wrote it, even though it says “By USAA,” ha.) I hope you like it.


Work and learn? Yes, please.

The word of the day is bioluminescence.

You might already know what it means. Somehow I have lived fift . . . um, a long time, but did not know the word until I Googled it Thursday, although I guess I’d have puzzled it out in the usual way we break down words for their meanings. Loosely “bio” — natural. “Luminescence” (luminous) — related to light. Natural light.

This word came across my new desk at my new job writing for Old Dominion’s public-affairs staff. My small, break-him-in assignment was to cobble together a news release on a lecture to be given next week by an expert in marine organisms that “glow” in the ocean deep.

Hmm. I read up for a bit on the guy and his research, took the dense title of the planned lecture — “dense” speaking for my non-academic self, of course — and turned out a functional addition to the slate of happenings at ODU.

It all made me smile, even still after my kid shot down my bragging about learning this new word by informing she’s long known it. My satisfaction, though, was for the very small victory, the modest validation, it provided me. When I was considering the job, an enticement to me was the chance to work in the vibrant environment of a college campus with really smart, diverse people discussing really smart, diverse things. Impactful things. So many things I didn’t know or think about. Things that explore and describe natural mysteries and social solutions where I was unaware there were mysteries and solutions to be found.

I could have come across bioluminescence in prior random reading. Heck, I probably have and forgot it or skipped over it. But in this  context, working now among an academic setting for the first time since my undergrad days, learning and incorporating this new scientific word, I’ll be honest, it made me feel good. One day older and just a tiny bit wiser — or at least less unaware — to the world around me.

Clearly, a Ph.D pursuit will not be far behind . . .

(Stay safe out there on the still-frozen tundra, friends. )

Sliding through time


To us, Larry’s Hill seemed a mountain. A steep, asphalt slope packed in ice and dirty snow. It loomed a block over and a block up, and we covered it like ants – the hardy breed that totes wooden sleds — when it snowed amply enough to compel a Flexible Flyer along a rapid descent. I remember it snowed hard, plentifully, back then, although I do wonder if the weather archives would confirm that recall, or if they would call me out as a tale-teller. Perhaps I exaggerate through the mists, yet I very easily picture ancient slides and Polaroids of the sidewalk outside our house on the corner bordered by walls of shoveled snow up to my waist. Chest. Shoulders.

Larry’s Hill was really just the top half of Prospect Ave. It bottomed out at the intersection of 5th Ave. and extended straight and flat another block before it T-boned 4th. We called it Larry’s Hill for the little deli that held forth at the top of the street. Larry was a butcher, a red-smeared smock his giveaway. His was the first place my mom sent me alone to buy the week’s cold cuts, before the shiny Wawa opened nearby and turned Larry’s into a barbershop. A half-pound of boiled ham. Liverwurst. Pimento loaf. “Lunch meat (?).” American cheese. Never Swiss. No provolone. American. I’d read Larry the list, pick up bread and Tastykakes, and cart them to the counter, where Pete, in a cleaner apron would punch the cash register. “Charge it,” I would say. I had no idea what that meant, only that it was Pete’s prompt to dig out a sheet of paper and jot down a note. Directly, as my grand mom used to say, Pete would load the items into a brown bag and I would be off on my two-block trek home.

Snow, though, would transform that trek into a sled-track, or a luge run, depending on whether you mounted the Flexible Flyer headfirst, stretched out on your stomach, or sitting and leaning back, holding the rope tethered to the steering swivel. Like paratroopers awaiting our calls to leap, we would mingle at the top of the hill in a loose array, decked in gloves, wool caps and winter jackets. One would take his running launch and, once a half-the-hill head start had been granted, the next would depart with a whoop, replaced in our ears by the sound of metal blades crunching and wind gushing.

It was Rockwellian, until those times it wasn’t, thanks to the lurking bullies who smoked and inspired fear in the innocents. The ambush on, one would bolt from behind a tree or car and jump on your back, a hobo hopping a freight, or else go straight for the tip over that would separate sled from rider. Screams might ensue, fists (of the braver kids) might fly, and the rider lucky enough to pass unscathed would at last exhaust momentum and trudge back to the summit, relieved to be outside the fracas, at least for the moment.

At least until the next slippery run down a little hill frozen in time.


(photo cc by-SA 3.0 File: The Childrens Museum of Indianapolis)







Pay now, remember always


I’m blowing the freelance-writer monthly budget for this brief trip to the Bay Area to see this kid of mine who suddenly lives and works here. Some piggy bank protecting rainy-day reserves is in for a pummelling, I’m afraid. Sorry, piggy. But if there’s something I’ve learned as gray (silver?) layers thicken atop my head, it’s paying for experiences is the far more delicious pain than paying for, you know, the superfluous stuff of our desires. Like, I’ve wanted some stupid brand of stupid car for a while. Doesn’t matter which one. I started noticing it all over the place once I started to want it. Want … not need . . . but feel, in my more self-centered, insecure moments, that I’ve “earned” it or whatever, because I’ve been told life is short, etc. etc.

I’ve resisted pulverising the piggy, though, and for that I pat myself on the back. Good boy. Good parsimonious boy. Except flying on relatively short notice to San Francisco and paying for a few days out-and-about is one of the more extravagant American urban pleasures, I have to admit. So my responsible financial profile is skewed. Skew it. Um, screw it.

Because we will appreciate and remember these few days forever, the things we see and do in the short, spare time she has as she learns a new job among new people in a new land, and before I return to wander into a new employment adventure myself.

We will sit and talk and laugh and eat and drive and cry — me, I mean, always freaking crying — (as an aside interesting to perhaps only me and a few of my closest friends, I also will pay a decent penny to witness professional golf on the world’s most beautiful stage, yards off the Pacific blue and its sweeping fogs) before the time comes again for another goodbye.

And I can’t wait for every sweet second of it, for every ch-ching moment that will mean so much more to me, by untold multiples, than wheels in the driveway, a designer suit in the closet or the screened-in deck that’s been demoted down the to-do list for 20 years in favor of more urgent to-dos of younger days. Those days when “experience” is often  by necessity just the commute to work or a trip to the doctor for ear drops to soothe a screaming baby.

But as years gain and days diminish, we find dollars take on a different purpose. They sustain, naturally. But they are never as worthy as when they are able to enhance the sensual thrill of being alive, for ourselves, for friends and loved ones, or for anyone who benefits from the power of their philanthropy in any form.

I am beyond grateful for the ability to blow the budget, here and perhaps there, to buy a permanent imprint on my heart.

Virginia wins again, and the run to March begins



CHARLOTTESVILLE – There has been earlier evidence, but Saturday convinced me that scoring the basketball, as the Dickie V.’s of the hoops world like to chirp, on Virginia presently is one of the hardest things to do in American sports.

More accurately, I should say Louisville’s ugly offense, matched against the smothering blanket of the Cavaliers’ harassing D, convinced me.

The Cardinals, ranked 9th (for whatever the Associated Press rankings are worth), scored four baskets and 13 points in the first half. None of those four baskets, nor any free throws, went through the hoop in the half’s final 10 ½ minutes of what became No. 3 U.Va.’s 52-47 victory, one that stretched its stunning record to 21-1. That’s a serious scoring drought in any league, but one that was raw meat to a ravenous, orange-clad crowd turned out to revel in the cult of their Cavaliers.

For sure, it was a pumped-up night at John Paul Jones Arena, as you would expect. A full house. All the blaring music and rousing cheers that come with it. A home team facing one of the “royalty” programs of college hoops for the first time in ACC play, and its third Hall of Fame coach in three games (Rick Pitino), looking to launch into the last four weeks of the season the right way.

And if U.Va. never quite dominated, thanks to a lackluster offensive game and the hand injury of star guard Justin Anderson, the Cavaliers controlled the play and won with only mild drama. (The Cards closed to within four with 35 seconds left and then three with 18 ticks to go.)

Controlling the play, both with and without the ball, is of course how U.Va. has made its bones under coach Tony Bennett. And so the Cavs made the Cardinals dance: Louisville never led past the opening five minutes and scored its second-fewest points this season.

Especially in the first half, the Cavs flummoxed the Cards with the trap-the-ball-out-front, collapse-on-the-ball-down-low defense on which Bennett has built a stellar career, first at Washington State and now, in his sixth season, at U.Va. Louisville figured some things out in the second half, but that 24-13 halftime deficit was too large to overcome.

So the Cavs are down to eight games left – they will be favored to win them all — before the ACC tournament, and then the NCAAs that follow. That’s the part of the schedule their fans long for — if they could only skip right to it — especially after U.Va.’s long-shot chance at going undefeated was ruined by Duke last Saturday.

It took a while, what with Kentucky’s roster full of NBA prospects dominating the buzz, but the national voices of college basketball eventually got around to acclaiming U.Va. a “legitimate” contender for the throne of March Madness. That’s impressive praise to breathe in, but it’s deserved – for the simple reason that defense should never really have an off-night.

The Cavaliers’ deliberate, but uneven, offense will ultimately come to haunt them. I think. If there is a hedge against that, it’s because the defense and rebounding aspect of the game always comes down to “want-to,” to that hand-in-glove tandem of effort and concentration.

The consistency with which Bennett coaxes that performance from his players, and how regularly they respond – to the hungry cheers of fans conditioned to treat the dwindling of a shot clock like a dog treats a dinner bell – is the new story of U.Va. basketball. One that is, at the top of this stretch run, is about to get even more interesting.


Signing Daze

I feel fortunate that “signing day” as a craze arrived long after I was responsible for covering a college sports beat. My water bill would have been astronomical each February for all the showers I’d have needed to take.

Bad enough I had to proffer opinion most years about the obscene indulgence of an event – trumpeting the signing of national letters of intent, or that is, scholarship acceptance by already entitled teenagers — that fluffs sports programs and inflates impressionable egos.

Somehow it was always the same opinion on rewind, that, well, it’s an obscene indulgence. As it was again Wednesday.

It is a perpetuating embarrassment to the adults of college sports – administrators, coaches and fans — who have created a four- and five-star frenzy over college recruiting, and in the reactionary sports media that blankets it all ’round the clock.

As a matter of fact, I don’t drive a Buick, and I do fancy the Internet. Still, is it that old school to be offended by the rush to instant judgment that has bled into “amateur”  sports and applied unnecessary and unwelcome marketplace pressures?

Or that many top youth players who want to play beyond high school are forced to “commit” to college programs as sophomores, under vague threat of being recruited over and losing their spot on the factory line?

When it comes to young bodies and minds — in general, not just among athletes — sensible observers understand what is now is not what will be, good or bad. Future performance is never guaranteed.

Yet mature sensibilities take a holiday when we create a growing market for subscription-based websites selling “expert” scouting reports on high-school athletes and their potential.

That in turn demands the college coach to proactively respond — with predictable gushing praise — to snap reviews of his recruiting success based on obscure ratings and blind trust. The ravenous who buy seat licenses and season tickets must be fed.

Here is a quaint quote: “Proof of the pudding is in the eating.” That’s the actual proverb, did you know that? The trouble is, reflexive — refluxive? — response has ruined a sports nation’s appetite for patient tasting.

It’s regretful that gorging on the whims of high school kids, the definition of signing day hype, is the default behavior we bring to the table.




To ride . . . and to heal


We stepped into the stables and rounded the corner. Inside the first stall stood Jack, a magnificent brown Percheron that had spent most of his 16 years pulling Amish carts in Pennsylvania.

Chris, the Air Force veteran who would groom and ride Jack this day, leaned into the space, whispering to Jack. The horse stepped forward, lowered his massive head and, as Chris stroked the side of Jack’s face, nuzzled into his friend.

In that instant, my eyes stung.  I had to blink, remember to take a breath. What the . . ? It shocked me.

I had only met Chris about five minutes earlier. He had agreed to be the subject of a story an insurance company hired me to do on Equi-Vets, an equine-therapy program in Pungo.

I didn’t know Chris’ own story yet, why he was drawn to Equi-Vets last year or what communing with horses did for him.

But in that first moment, when my throat reflexively tightened to dam in my professional composure, the truth was clear.

Like the members of a military unit, this beautiful, powerful beast had Chris’ back. And Chris very much had his.

Chris spent the next hour walking, talking, trotting and running with Jack inside a riding arena and across some of the 92 acres off Heritage Park Drive on which Equi-Vets, and the more populated Equi-Kids program, operates.

In a compulsive minute toward the end, Jack even dashed off toward the stables, evidently spooked by a noise or some potential danger. However, Chris rode so steadily during Jack’s flight, it appeared he had asked his mount to let it out, or however Horse Whisperers say “step on it!”

Only after Jack eased to a halt near the barn and we caught up in a golf cart did we learn that Jack had acted alone in his hair-raising jaunt. But Chris, who’d grown up riding horses, steered with the calm assurance of a man who knew far greater peril, transferring that confidence through his hands and legs and voice to his best friend for the day.

I haven’t ridden a horse. An elephant, yes. Not a horse. Still, it takes zero horse sense to see how and why equine therapy is a wondrous tool for physical and emotional rehabilitation. Horse people have long known this. They could cluck with condescension at my wide-eyed, “Wow, horses are awesome,” announcement, as if I’d uncovered a huge discovery. But to the credit of instructors Susan and Liz, they nodded and said, “Yep. Aren’t they great?”

Equi-Vets, yeah that’s great, too. Wounded veterans ride free of charge, although if they can’t or don’t want to ride, they can groom, walk with and talk with the horses, whatever works.

There is incredible power in any and all of it. The veterans are broken, in ways inside and out that many of us cannot fathom. Chris’ personal story of his year in Afghanistan leading engineers trying to build infrastructure is beyond haunting.

He told me he has found conversation with counselors has its place and its purpose.

But one gentle eyeful, let alone one hour, of him loving a noble horse, sharing with it in soft word and silent thought secrets he shares with no human, speaks a much different language of healing.

For some, it catches the breath. For others, it completes a fractured soul.


(Equi-Vets can be reached at 757-721-7350)


(Photo courtesy jasonhirschfeld.com)