My Smirk

When I was twelve, my current best friend Kathy and I loved horses. We talked horses walking to and from school, imagined grand horse adventures with that home-on-the-range freedom promise, and made plans as if we were ranchers. For two city schoolgirls who pined for weekend rides with backpacks and tents under the stars, our real animal access was limited to our cats and dogs and hamsters. But dream we did.

Given that any adventure for me these days must include hot running water, electricity and a comfortable bed, I chuckle at the memory. Along the way, I traded in saddle dreams for keys and carbon, not to mention that straddling a horse now would inevitably be followed by significant medical attention.

Back then though, despite our urban circumstances we did not give up and finally convinced our parents to let us go on a trail ride just north of the city. Kathy’s parents would drop us off; mine would pick us up. Anticipating the escapade was the best part as our excitement grew. For a week I imagined the wind in my face as we galloped freely over hill and dale…regular cowgirls, Annie Oakley and Dale Evans, (although I always thought Roy Rogers got the better deal…notably Trigger).

“Have fun, girls,” said Mrs. O. as we hurried out of the car.

The place wasn’t exactly a sprawling dude ranch; it was muddy and run-down but we didn’t care. We could smell and see horses. A small group, already saddled, was tied to a post across the yard in front of a somewhat dilapidated barn. We dismissed the O’s concerned look in their quick glance to each other as we shouted, “Thank you” and took off towards the horses. They drove off slowly yet still sputtered mud in the ruts.

“Just one minute, missies,” came a voice from behind the cluster of beasts we were already adoring. “Slow right down and come over here.”

His tone did not leave room for interpretation. He came around the side where we stood and was joined by two older teenage girls, who were dressed in sloppy plaid shirts under well-worn jean jackets, jeans, and mud-caked cowboy boots. But it wasn’t his tone that was unsettling; it was the smirk on the girls’ faces. They looked us up and down and laughed. Then the one in red plaid looked at me and pointed towards, to use a cliché, an old gray mare. “She’s yours.” And pointing again, turned to Kathy and said, “this one’s yours.” All horses were beautiful to us but the two they selected weren’t quite our spirited dream beasts. Still, we rallied and made them our chargers.

Red plaid then turned to the other two, laughing and said to the man, “We’ve got this,” and he went back into the barn.

“Let’s go,” she barked.

We mounted the poor disinterested creatures, still excited to get on the trail. I pulled up on the reins and…nothing. No lifted head, no movement. I tried again. Nothing. Red plaid mounted and pulled her horse out and then promptly my horse turned and without any direction from me, head still down, started slowly walking in the same direction. Kathy’s horse did exactly the same thing. Then I squeezed my legs for a faster pace. Nothing. I lay my left rein against her neck to move closer to my friend but again, all in vain. So along the concession road we walked, horses’ heads down, red plaid girl now joined by the other talking away as if we weren’t there. After five minutes, our pleas ignored, it was clear our escapade was toast. Our crushed dream weighed on my temper and after ten more minutes I shouted out to them to take us back. My first try failed and then I shouted louder, “This is a rip-off and we want you to take us back.”

If their looks could kill, we, the unrealized Annie and Dale, bit the dust. Take us back they did where we raged about the unfairness and the man simply said, “Tough beans.”

With an endless hour to wait, I wore my self-righteous indignation like armour in the smirk on my face as he railed against us. Apparently two rude teenagers who were cheated of their dream meant nothing to him. And rude I was.

We couldn’t reach my parents who were on a leisurely drive while we rode, blissfully unaware of our mess and my behaviour, so Mr. and Mrs. O came back up and took us home.

The only memory I have after that is of my parents and it is not pretty. As planned, they went to pick us up not only to find we had left but also to be regaled with how terrible we were.

I seethed through their reprimand. They didn’t even want to hear our side. It didn’t matter to them. They were angry because they were put out, yes, but because they raised me to be a better person than that. Yes, we were mistreated but I was rude and awful and behaved in a way that shamed my parents. And when the dream dust settled, I realized I had shamed myself. I knew better.

I had mastered that smirk like the best of them. Until recently, when my nasty smirk was bested.

It’s true; my disrespectful actions were not displayed across the universe on social media. Nor were they polarized by masses on the left and right. Nor was I investigated, nor my actions diluted, reworked and re-polarized. Nor did I need a PR firm to manage my self-image crisis.

It was pretty simple. My behaviour stank and I was wrong. My parents punished me and they were right.

Why I was rude was tricky but my behaviour in the moment was inappropriate. Period. No amount of additional context can change that. It seems to me that people now always look for alternate interpretations to bad behaviour. To which I say, look in the mirror, take ownership. Learn. Grow. Be better.

In the end the double-pointing fingers land squarely where they belong anyway…on me, at the ‘ranch’ or on each tomahawk-chopping individual or on each hate-spewing member of the group who used religion as their justification…or on a single smirking boy whose stance was directed at an elder. Regardless of greater context, which, to me, simply dilutes the perspective, he was disrespectful…and as for the rest of them, well, words escape me.

Surely we were all taught to be better.

I think we have choices in how to respond to anger and hate. God knows, there’s too much out now to test us and frankly, my fear and anxiety grow daily. A powerful quote I heard the other day resonated with me. Paraphrased, it said that the world is engaged, every single day now, in revenge politics. I fear we’ll become those trail-ride horses of my youth, marching in collective solidarity, disinterested in any new information, mobilized only by the guide horse that leads down one perspective’s path.

I realize I am part of that. All sides matter but change starts with self. Time to shovel out the barn and let my inner spirit she-horse gallop through my remaining years with joy.

Actually, I would prefer she walked.

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