Excerpt: 'Animals in Translation'

I was so wrapped up in them that I spent every spare moment working the barns. I was dedicated to keeping the barn clean, making sure the horses were groomed. One of the high points of my high school career was the day my mom bought me a really nice English bridle and saddle. That was a huge event in my life, because it was mine, but also because the saddles at school were so crummy. We rode on old McClellands, which were honest-to-god cavalry saddles first used in the Civil War. The school's saddles probably went back to World War II when they still had some horse units in the army. The McClelland was designed with a slot down the center of it to spare the horse's back. The slot was good for the horse but horrible for the rider. I don't think there's ever been a more uncomfortable saddle on earth, though I have to say that when I read about the Northern Alliance soldiers in Afghanistan riding on saddles made out of wood, that sounded worse.

Boy did I take care of that saddle. I loved it so much I didn't even leave it in the tack room where it belonged. I brought it up to my dorm room every day and kept it with me. I bought special saddle soap and leather conditioner from the saddle shop, and I spent hours washing and polishing it.

As happy as I was with the horses at school, my high school years were hard. When I reached adolescence I was hit by a tidal wave of anxiety that never stopped. It was the same level of anxiety I felt later on when I was defending my dissertation in front of my thesis committee, only I felt that way all day long and all night, too. Nothing bad happened to make me so anxious all of a sudden; I think it was just one of my autism genes kicking into high gear. Autism has a lot in common with obsessive-compulsive disorder, which is listed as an anxiety disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.

Animals saved me. One summer when I was visiting my aunt, who had a dude ranch in Arizona, I saw a herd of cattle being put through the squeeze chute at a neighboring ranch. A squeeze chute is an apparatus vets use to hold cattle still for their shots by squeezing them so tight they can't move. The squeeze chute looks like a big V made out of metal bars hinged together at the bottom. When a cow walks into the chute an air compressor closes up the V, which squeezes the cow's body in place. The rancher has plenty of space for his hands and the hypodermic needle between the metal bars. You can find pictures of them on the Web if you want to see what they look like.

As soon as I caught sight of that thing I made my aunt stop the car so I could get out and watch. I was riveted by the sight of those big animals inside that squeezing machine. You might think cattle would get really scared when all of a sudden this big metal structure clamps together on their bodies, but it's exactly the opposite. They get really calm. When you think about it, it makes sense, because deep pressure is a calming sensation for just about everyone. That's one of the reasons a massage feels so good -- it's the deep pressure. The squeeze chute probably gives cattle a feeling like the soothing sensation newborns have when they're swaddled, or scuba divers have underwater. They like it.

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