A Little More About Me

A Little More About Me

by Pam Houston


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780393343465
Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 01/28/2013
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 1,138,293
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Pam Houston is the prize-winning author of Contents May
Have Shifted, among other books. She is professor of English at the University of California–Davis and lives on a ranch at
9,000 feet in Colorado near the headwaters of the Rio Grande.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Long Way
to Safety

    Early this summer, I paid $4,500 for a horse. He's beautiful: a quarter-horse gelding nearly seventeen hands high, the grandson of the nationally famous Two-Eyed Jack, a blue roan with rust-colored markings on his face who in the sunlight looks like he's sculpted out of Oreo cookie ice cream. His name is Roany, evidence of a slight lack of imagination on the part of the cowboy named Skip who sold him to me. Skip is good at being a cowboy though, and if Roany's anything to go on, even better at training a horse.

    I've been driving to New Mexico to ride Roany once a week for the last couple of months, testing him in every circumstance that I can think of to see how he responds to trouble on the trail. We've crossed rivers, negotiated highways, hurried across slippery blacktop parking lots, and chased off a whole pack of snarling Doberman-mix dogs. We've ridden through culverts under interstate highways where I had less than two inches clearance between my head and the structural concrete above me, and we've sidled up to barbed-wire gates so I could lean over and open them without getting off.

    In eight four-hour rides the only time I felt Roany's body tense was when an Air Force bomber executed an alarmingly low flyby in the middle of a spring thunderstorm, and even then he got over his minor panic before I had time to get scared. The words I keep using to describe Roany to my friends are centered and balanced. Being on his back, being in his presence, is a little like beingin the presence of a Zen master. It's not just that he doesn't make me nervous, it's that he makes me calm beyond my wildest dreams. Skip says it even more simply: he calls Roany the horse with the heart of gold.

    I have always owned psychotic horses. Savannah, my Morgan mare, had a thing about scraping me off on tree branches and flying into bucking frenzies whenever she got bored. Willy, a thoroughbred quarter-horse mix, had been drugged to make him faster on the track when he was younger. He seemed perfectly calm until one day he had a flashback and shattered my forearm so badly the doctors had to remove nineteen pieces of bone. Deseo, who is a perfect gentleman around the barn and a star in any ring or arena, works himself up into such a fear frenzy whenever we go out on the trail that there is often nothing for me to do but get off him, try to calm him, and lead him quietly back to the barn.

    There are no problem horses, say the equine gurus of the day, and I am 100 percent sure the fault in all of these cases is mine. When I bought each of these horses they were young, untrained, and inexpensive (except Savannah, who was free; I should have known she might have some problems when her owner said he'd pay me to get her out of his sight for good). And hard as I might try, however much book and clinic knowledge I can put behind me, I am simply not connected securely enough to myself to train young horses properly. I believe I'm getting closer, but I'm not there yet.

    For the last twenty years, I had everyone convinced I wasn't afraid of anything; but try telling that story to a horse when you are sitting on his back. Horses know the truth about how you are feeling faster than you have time to think it, no matter how hard you try to appear confident and calm. Horses are perfect mirrors of the psyche, seeing through manipulation and deceit and then acting out whatever fear picture you've shown them.

    This may be why, in spite of a handful of fairly serious injuries, I have never stopped riding horses. Even in my most locked-up periods of denial, I wanted to be in the presence of somebody or something who knew the deepest truth about me.

    I started riding when I was eight years old, at about the same time I stopped crying when things hurt me and just before I stopped admitting I was ever scared. I spent every afternoon and most weekends at one barn or another, cleaning stalls in exchange for lessons and trail rides. I went to the barn because it was a good way to escape my parents' house, which in those years was full of disappointment and anger.

    Even then, I felt understood by the horses. When we communicated well, and they timed the jump over the hedgerow perfectly, or sidestepped a neat diagonal across the dressage ring, I felt like I'd been given a gift by a friend. And when they wouldn't listen to me, when they refused a jump and I went tumbling headfirst into the wooden standards, when they fell out of a fast canter and into an extended trot, and the teacher yelled at me in her German accent, "He can tell you are afraid, he can tell you don't really want to do it!" I would be half chagrined and half delighted. I really didn't want to do the scary thing—ever. The horse, in all his equine wisdom, was in perfect agreement with me.

    Then I grew up and got so far away from myself that the word afraid ceased to be part of my vocabulary. By my sixteenth birthday I had walked away from sixteen serious automobile accidents. In more than half of them, the car I was in was totaled; in more than half of them, a great, deal of alcohol was involved. My mother drove a Plymouth Fury right through a 7-Eleven, my father rolled a Cadillac Seville nine times on Christmas Eve, my best high school girlfriend put us and her Ford station wagon under a semi, right at decapitation level.

    My reasoning must have been along the lines of If I'm not dead yet, I must have drawn a real lucky number.

    I entered adulthood seeking out one life-threatening adventure after another, and the ones that I didn't seek out seemed determined to find me. Hurricanes, tornadoes, avalanches, and hundred-year floods followed me around the globe like a pack of unruly dogs, and I never seemed to have access to shelter when they caught up. I bought horses that would stand as monuments to my bravery, and I got hurt, and I got hurt again, and I followed the old cowboy rule and always got back on. In time the thing I valued most about myself was my level-headed courage in the face of (usually self-inflicted) danger. In time it became the thing other people valued most about me.

    Therapists have told me that I am determined to recreate the danger I faced daily in my childhood, putting myself at risk again and again, as if it would give me some retroactive feeling of control. Their hypothesis might explain several of my less successful relationships. It definitely explains the psychotic horses. It probably also explains the avalanches and hundred-year floods. But I don't want it to explain why I love a good adventure. I don't want it to explain why I love to be outdoors.

    Happy-to-be-alive adrenaline is a powerful and addicting substance, and I've had a lifetime's worth of it, in less than half a lifetime's years. But I can't deny the unadulterated joy I have felt in each adventure, a joy so pure it must be separate from the addiction. Sitting safe on the other side of those high-risk years, there isn't one heart-stopping moment I would have wanted to miss out on, not one where the life experience gains—in retrospect—didn't exceed the terror and discomfort level at the time.

    Our mid-thirties is the time when most of us stop bouncing and start breaking. It's an age when we begin to fear that our luck may run out. I've been trying, these last few years, to find a way to hold on to the joy of adventuring while I also try to shed my penchant for unnecessary risk.

    The Buddhists believe that before they begin the life-changing work of their Zen practice, the world is exactly how it appears. Mountains are mountains, they are famous for saying, and rivers are rivers.

    Once they start to meditate, though, to lose themselves in the change that must occur, mountains cease to be mountains and rivers cease to be rivers. The Zen student loses the points of reference he has always relied upon: mountains overlap and dissolve into rivers, rivers break their barriers and rise up like mountains, and the student becomes less and less sure about who and what he is, dissolving his sense of self within a dissolving world.

    With enough understanding and practice, things click back into place: mountains go back to being mountains and rivers go back to being rivers. But meditation has moved the student to a place where he can see that the mountains exist in relationship to the rivers and that they make each other possible. He has opened his eyes to the interrelatedness of everything, including the world and himself.

    In the last few years, all my mountains became rivers and all my rivers became mountains. In the most literal sense, I found myself negotiating rivers when they fell down rapids as steep as the sides of mountains, and I learned that rather than climbing to the top of mountains, I preferred to walk around them, to encircle them, the way a river would. I also lost every reference point that had kept me grounded in my fearless and emotionless life. The next thing I knew all the big words had started to shift on me: Adventure, Success, Friendship, Marriage, Feminism, Love, Morality, Home, Safety—before long I wasn't able to make anything stand still. Everything that was a mountain in me turned into a river. I don't know how long it will take until I'm part mountain again.

    When I was in graduate school, my professors told me that there was no reality outside of language, that the desk where I was sitting, frantically scribbling notes, didn't exist unless I called it a desk, and for quite a while I believed them.

    I didn't understand then that theirs was a belief system that, among other things, let us all off the hook. If there were no desks, then certainly there were no polluted rivers; if there were no chairs there was no poverty; if there were no walls and windows, there was no pain or violence in our homes. If the world could only be talked—or written—into being, we would only have to take responsibility for what we said, and never what we did.

    Perhaps I took what my professors said too literally, but I finally left graduate school five years into it, only six months before I could have walked away with my Ph.D.

    It was a typical day in the English department, and I had been waiting in the office to get a piece of paper signed that said I was teaching a class that didn't exist, so that imaginary money could be transferred from one department to another, to pay my tuition for the class that another piece of paper said I was taking, which didn't exist either. Two of my professors walked in and had a twenty-minute conversation over the Xerox machine about the relative merits of imminence and eminence.

    Never mind that I knew that both of these men were faring tragedies of the highest order in their lives. Never mind that our country was about to go to war again for reasons that none of us understood. Never mind that sixteen inches of snow had fallen on the peaks just outside the window and was making the world look like the paradise it might have been if only we could see it.

    For the first time since I had become a graduate student, it occurred to me to be astonished at all the things my professors weren't saying to each other. For the first time it occurred to me that my professors might be wrong. There was a world that existed outside of language, and I had been away from it far too long. I left the office that day without getting my paper signed, and I never went back.

    I understand now, but only just now, that my premature departure from the university may have been not a failure, but a success, the very first time I acted on a belief that was entirely mine and entirely unpopular. I loved the university, and had I stayed I probably would have done everything in my power to make it love me back, to become one of those professors I still greatly admire, to be imminently on the verge of eminence, to live in a world where there really are only words.

    I also understand now that it was not such a bad thing for a young writer to believe that the world is made of language in the same way it might be good for a sculptor to believe that the world is made of clay. I learned language games in grad school that I still haven't tired of playing, and it was those professors who taught me how to make the words dance.

    What I know for certain is that when I left graduate school I reentered the world with a hunger for it that I had never felt before. I felt nothing short of ecstasy seeing a cottonwood tree, a clearwater stream, a Bhutanese child, or a sled dog in harness and realizing—like waking up safe in my bedroom after a dream that my house burned down—that the world is real, all of it, and it had been waiting for me all that time to wake up and begin my day.

    The essays in this book are a result of that continuing reentry. You will find them full of all the real things: rain forests and deserts and osprey and oceans, mountain goats and river ice and camping trips and wine. You will find grizzly bears and gynecologists, silver mines and steelhead fishermen, human stoplights and junkyard horses, a few good men, and a lot of good dogs. You will find the Tetons, the Wasatch, the Andes, the Himalayas, the Brooks Range, and the San Juan, the Main Salmon, the Dolores, the Colorado, and the Rhone, the Kalahari, the Great Basin, the North Slope, and the Pacific Rim. There is a hippopotamus named Esmerelda, a wolfhound named Dante, and a Buddhist named Karma, proving again what we've always suspected: that fiction has nothing at all on real life.

    The essays in this book have been written over a period of five years. In that time I have run more than forty whitewater rivers. I have hiked in the backcountry more than three thousand miles. I have visited forty-three countries on five continents. I have had search parties sent out for me twice. I have been on more than four hundred planes. I have been told to get into crash position for landing four times. I have gotten immunizations for every disease the world has to offer. I have been mugged three times, always in the San Francisco Bay Area. I have been to every United State except North Dakota. I have put a total of four hundred thousand miles on three different cars.

    In addition to the travel that has set the pace and the rhythm of my life, several things happened to me during these years that I wouldn't have expected. I was married to and left a man I thought I would be with forever. I made a best friend and then watched her slowly die. I had a dog I thought irreplaceable, and then I replaced him with one I may love even more. I lost my mother to heart failure, and in a more metaphorical sense, I lost my father that way too. In the process I regained a childhood I had almost forgotten. I made some new friends, and lost even more than I made. (You need six in the end to carry your coffin, is what my friend Jack Hicks says.) I bought a house that came with a great big mortgage, a truck with automatic doors and windows, a dog with a family tree much taller than mine.

    I moved twice in the last five years, from Park City, Utah, to Oakland, California, and then back to the Rocky Mountains, to a town called Creede, Colorado, which I believe with all my heart will be my permanent home.

    The road I've taken these five years has been a long and twisted one. A weathered sign stuck into the dirt by the side of it reads The Long Way to Safety, and I can see by the grass growing up along the yellow line down the middle that this isn't the route Triple A recommends.

    Through the windshield I can see everything I want to take with me: horses and men and mountains and rivers. But in the rearview mirror, damned if I don't see horses and men and mountains and rivers, everything I need to leave behind. On both sides of the car, horses and men and mountains and rivers, and I'm just trying to keep it between the lines. Two wheels off one side and I know I'll lose something essential, two wheels off the other and I'll wind up paralyzed or dead.

    Only in the throes of a life-and-death situation, my therapists used to say, will you feel comfortable and safe, and I'm dedicated these days to proving them wrong. I've stopped running rivers at high water, and I've sworn off even trying to climb the kind of mountain that requires hardware and a rope. In situations that are harder to call, I question my intentions and try to stay one step ahead of the danger. If I crawl several hundred yards into a crumbling silver mine in Bolivia, I want it to be because I will learn something about the miners' humanity. If I have a heart attack at seventeen thousand feet in Bhutan, I want to have something in my first-aid kit that will help.

    There are people—a lot of them—who have resisted my desire to change, who believe it is more important than ever for women to prove they are Amazonian. When I read my essay "On (Not) Climbing the Grand Teton" to a group of outdoorswomen in Wyoming they all leapt to make excuses for me, low biorhythms or PMS, and they finally wound up blaming it on my guide.

    I tried to explain to them that for me, in this case, true success lay within the failure, in listening to my fear and standing firm in my desire to go back down the mountain, but they wouldn't hear of it. That same month I was told by an editor who wanted me to go sky surfing (sky surfing!?) that I'd have a hard time getting assignments if I wasn't willing to stay out there on the edge. But how many times can you walk to the same edge and find it interesting? And now that I've begun to step back off the one that was my nemesis, I see new, more interesting edges everywhere I look: artistic, spiritual, emotional, even physical edges that don't necessarily involve risking my life.

    I finally sold my Morgan mare, Savannah, because everyone I knew said she was going to kill me. I sold Willy because the doctor told me it would take more than two years to repair my arm. I still have high hopes for Deseo—evidence not of success, but neither of failure. If Roany has the same effect on him that he has on me, everything ought to work out just fine.

    So now Roany's out there in the pasture, pulling up the first of the spring grasses and looking like cookies and cream. Tomorrow, for the first time since he's been mine, I'm going to throw a saddle on him and ride up into the mountains. I'm starting to suspect that the old saying about getting right back on the horse that's thrown you may be overrated. I'm learning to say I don't know when I don't and Yes when I do and That hurts or I like you right as it's happening. I'm wondering how much longer my mountains will need to be rivers. I'm finally wrenching my mind around to the fact that Roany is worth $4,500 because he is safe and gentle. In my life, more to the point, he's priceless.

Table of Contents

The Long; way to safety 15

Dogs and other Reasons to Live

The Bad Dogs of Park, City 29

Looking for Abbey's Lion 38

The Blood of Fine and Wild Animals 43

Dante and Sally 53

Mountains and Rivers

A River Runs Through Them 65

The Pit Bull and the Mountain Goat 70

Powerhouse by the Book 84

On (Not) Climbing the Grand Teton 91

A Few Good Men

In the Company of Fishermen 103

I Was a Captain in Colonel Bob's Army 113

A Man Who'll Freeze His Eyelashes for You 124

One Long Look in the Mirror

The Morality of Fat 139

In Pursuit of What I Don't Do Well 147

Out of Habit, I Start Apologizing 154

Redefining Success 165

Pregnancy and Other Natural Disasters 170

Breaking the Ice 176

Dispatches from Five Continents

African Nights 189

Waves Every Color of Harvest 205

Soul of the Andes 217

Eight Days in the Brooks Range with April and the Boys 233

In Bhutan There Is No Way to Be Famous 245

Home is where Your Dogs Are 279

What People are Saying About This

Amy Bloom

Pam Houston makes the page disappear. She tells us new stories: funny, sad, compassionate, and true as secrets whispered between friends at night.

Melissa Bank

With all the drama and irony of fiction and the intimacy and truth of a story told to a friend, this book will break your heart and then make it stronger.

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A Little More about Me 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Zinnia More than 1 year ago
Well, I love Pam Houston and her writing, so this was a slam dunk for me. These are a delightful collection of stories of her life ... this is one woman who I can really admire and identify with. And somehow she always manages to totally engage me... there is never a dull moment. Her candor and honesty are a breath of fresh air, her imagination is absolutely marvelous, and the way she observes people is rich and detailed. Read anything she has written!
Guest More than 1 year ago
After reading it himself, my boyfriend loaned me his copy of this book and told me to read it right away. I did, and knew immediately why he'd recommended it (besides the fact that Houston and I both have dogs named Jackson, with similar tempers). Houston captures (and has become something of a symbol of) a new breed of women: grown up tomboys, living in the West. I am such a woman myself, and I identify with most of the issues Houston discusses. In these autobiographical essays she explores her responses to adventure and the outdoors, and begins to allow herself to step back from the ledge of the extreme. As other grown-up tomboys know, this is a hard thing to do, but is also part of the maturing process. This collection of essays is the first I have read that really captures the spirit and the thought processes of adventure-prone Western women, and was altogether an enjoyable as well as enlightening read. Highly recommended for all women living in the West, their significant others, adventure-loving tomboys everywhere, and anyone who likes a good story about dogs!