I was put on a
horse at the age of three, behind my older brother. We lost him, and I ended up with the whole saddle dangling under the mare’s belly between her pounding legs. Lady was the name she came with. But Lazy we had called her until that day when we took the same route back to the barn as the one she had so slowly started out on.
I don’t remember being hurt in the dusty fall. Being bucked off the back of my grandfather Doberman pincer (Ari he was called) and hitting my head on the floor, that’s what gave me the first pain I remember. Physical, I mean. The psychic undoubtedly started before I was conceived.

“Jerk its fool head off!” was the way Grandpa told other people how to raise their dogs. He was a doctor and a member of Rotary. He had been elected to the high school board. If people didn’t follow his advice, they at least listened to how patience and the choke chain had taken Ari to the working dog competition at the Cow Palace in San Francisco where he won the gold cup. From having been yanked to the heel as a pup, Ari could sit on his haunches forever, balancing a hot dog on the end of his nose, drool running down his massive jowls onto Grandma’s floor, until Grandpa said, “Now Ari." Then with a flick of his head, the hotdog would somersault in the air, slobber doing cartwheels alongside. At full arc jaws snapped the hotdog from sight. Ch-chu-chump. Ari seemed hardly to chew it: the chomping came from licking up his own drool.

Grandsons and nephews were put on his back at parties. Ari didn’t really buck so much as whirl like one of those devil duster bulls at the rodeo that the riders can’t get good times on. So we’d fly off quickly, one by one.

After my dad moved our family to Boston, Ari proved that The Choke Chain Method of Obedience could take a dog only so far. He had to be exiled to Idaho where he got run over. What touched off this unfortunate turn was my little cousin Kirk's fascination with the rosebud under Ari's bobbed tail. Kirk put his finger in to explore. Ari turned his head to investigate. Kirk still has a scar on his forehead.

As with Lady, I was three when I was thrown from Ari's back and hit the floor. Subsequent headaches would touch off a picture in my mind. From the inside out, my forehead was really made up of bars, with tiny prisoners swinging ringing hammers to smash out of them. The picture wasn’t worth sharing with anyone because my great aunts had worse headaches that they more graphically painted.

They were Grandma's five sisters, all of whom were born in Utah. Two of them lived in town, and the other three made pilgrimages to California once or twice a year. One spent some time strapped to a table for electro-shock treatments. They said she was depressed, but she was the kindest to be around. Her husband sat in a chair mostly, with two tall green bottles of oxygen nearby for his emphysema. He talked about his days with Jack Dempsey, growing pale until he would strap the mask to his face and bring back the pink to his cheeks.

Another aunt was twice married, producing three sons, two of them convicted felons. She was the most fun to be around, full of life, dating this soldier and that cowboy well into her senior years.

By the time I was nine I was back in California, noticing things that I didn't know what to make of. When my aunts were all together with Grandma, they would sit around the table at dinnertime, swallowing back burps. Then in mornings at breakfast they would discuss who had a bowel movement and who had not. It was debated whether prune juice, stewed prunes, All Bran or all three would be an appropriate remedy because without a remedy a headache would surely ensue.

A gray-haired head would be crooked to the side, eyes tightly knitted, while a liver-spotted hand traced the trembling course of pain from temple to back of the neck and up to the crown and across to the other temple. Because I was never constipated, my headaches were mere riots in Cell Block 3. Theirs were full breakouts, guards and bloodhounds chasing them through the fields. One had a headache that took over a farmhouse and held the family captive. The siege lasted a whole week. When she finally passed a stool and “they uncoiled it,” it measured four feet long.

To this day I don't know who uncoiled it, why anyone would uncoil it, and whether it was a tape measure or a yard stick used to determine length. As a boy I just knew that life is full of unanswered questions, and some questions you need to keep to yourself.