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Horse play 

I may not be stable, but surely I can hold my own in a stable ... or at least in the bar-adjacent greeting room at the front of the horse-o-riffic dinner-theater extravaganza, Arabian Nights. Out here in the Irlo Bronson world of Splendid China and Shell World, nothing really makes sense. That alone explains the three horses and the prince and princess cluttering my observational periphery. Giddy up! Er, down boy.

But could anything make less sense than a horse-touching, second-grade literacy project co-hosted by Romantic Times magazine, a romance-writers' convention and an equestrian-romance dinner theater, I beg you? OK, could anything make less sense than me being there?

"It's like `theater` owner Mark Miller always says," stirs a literacy rep. "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink!"

Make it a double and we'll talk.

"Billy," intones Miller's wife, Galen, with a hint of Bea Arthur severity. "This is a very interesting collaboration. We have a convention here in town for the romance writers, and this convention has chosen the Black Stallion Literacy Project to benefit. ... The tie-in is simple. The romantic writers, the romance of the horse. The literacy project is using the romantic power of the horse to draw children into wanting to read, creating a desire for them to learn how to read."

Fair enough. Today's proceedings are to go something like this: Second-grade kids read sentence from little black picture book, touch horse and squeal. Cher's "Half-Breed" is poring through my nappy head as it swishes around on the thought of how far I've come from breeding potentiality. The kids look more like little vermin to me than symbols of hope. Mommy, I'd rather have a pony.

Fortunately for me, the man manning the littlest pony is porn-star cute, and suitable for guilty distraction. Fortunately for him, I'm writing, not reading.

"The horse is really inside us," snaps Ms. Miller to my wandering eye. "With-out the horse, we would still be living in caves. We would not be able to ... conquer new lands. So the horse was the means by which we became civilized.

"There are those who would say that the horse is encoded in us genetically," she reaches. "Our relationship goes back 11,000 years. I mean, we've been to aboriginal islands where the people have never seen a horse. You show them a picture of a horse, and they have a word for it: power. We don't know how deep this is in us, but it certainly resonates."

Yikes! It's a little early for that kind of talk, isn't it? She goes on, telling me all about her fabled Arabian Nights show.

"There's 60 horses, and the horses have many parts. Some of them play five or six roles," she promotes. "We have probably the world's best bareback rider performing here."


"He does a backflip on the back of a galloping horse."

Pretty soon, I'm wrapped up in the whole literacy thing like a lactating mother, tearing up as child after child stutters through monotone readings of helplessness. It's all painfully sweet. I, however, am not.

I soon find myself holding court with a couple of representative romance matrons, here to wield the metaphorical impact of their mass-market craft before these children get past the sixth-grade reading level. Lynn and Enise are not the loinclothed maidens draped around Fabio's torso that their book covers might have you believe. But they are love machines, built for churning out the kind of drivel you can read under a hair dryer without the need to mark your page. Just look for the sex, darling. That's where the fun is.

These ladies are no fun, though. The romance business isn't all it used to be, they complain. "It's more competitive now because there are fewer publishers ... they keep buying each other out. I mean, you go in Target, and they've only got the top-ten sellers," snips Lynn.

But aren't they all the same?

"You start with the premise that you're ultimately gonna end up with the hero and the heroine," she flow charts. "You have the 'lost-baby' theme, the 'marriage-of-convenience' theme. ... You just kind of have to twist and turn to make them original."

I'm twisting as we speak. This time, reluctantly, to a suited representative of what this event is really about: the public presentation to the literacy project of the prestigious Points of Light award, some philanthropic proliferation involving a lot of 'p's.

"As you know, Points of Light was set up by George Bush Sr., although it's a bipartisan organization," veeps VP Gary Deverman. "It's about bringing people and resources together to confront human issues. You know how devastating illiteracy is. I mean, if you look at Afghanistan, 70 percent of the people are illiterate. I mean, Bin Laden couldn't even ex-ist if there was literacy."

Doesn't sound so bipartisan to me. Bipolar, maybe. Hey, and maybe if there were more romance writers in the region, the women would be wearing fewer clothes!

Fortunately, a podium speech from Mr. Miller saves me from further Republican-lobbyist speculation. Dissent is this year's Foot and Mouth, so I'll keep my former clear of my latter, thank you.

"As Winston Churchill once said," sets up the cowboy-hatted proprietor, "there's nothing so good for the inside of a man than the outside of a horse."


Almost on cue, the big horse -- Big Black -- rips a big quote of his own, right out of his rear, and right in my face.

I couldn't have said it better myself.

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