Monday, November 22, 2010

A Window! My Kingdom For a Window!!

I live in a safe, pretty quiet place. Or at least I thought I did. And then on Friday I was awakened by a phone call telling me my car had been broken into. The driver’s side window was obliterated and a honeycomb of shiny aquamarine colored glass was strewn across both seats and the dashboard.
Bits and pieces of window saved for future artistic projects.
 The maintenance staff was already cleaning up the shards on the pavement around my car and helpfully putting a temporary plastic covering on the space where I’d formerly had a window. They pushed the black plastic back so I could look around and see what, if anything, was missing.

**Before I continue, let me make this disclaimer: I am the girl who locks her car no matter where it is, including her parents' driveway in Minnesota. I am also the girl who keeps her car in meticulous condition, inside and out. I love my car and treat it with great care. It is neither an old car, nor a customized car of any sort.**

Right, so where were we…? Oh yes, I was going to tell you what was missing. On first glance the only thing missing was an ancient 2nd generation iPod which I use only in the car and worked about, oh, say 50% of the time. It’s been obsolete for a few years now and it honestly never occurred to me in a million years that anyone would actually break into a car to get it. Everything else seemed to be intact, from my full little Liberty of London coin purse to a Dunkin Donuts gift card that was also pretty full.

Annoyed as I was, I came inside and called the police and was informed that this was a pretty typical crime, some kid looking to pawn something to buy a “dime bag” of some drug. I’m not actually sure what most of that means, but it suffices to say that it was unlikely I was going to get my iPod back. The policeman never even got out of his cruiser, looking over at the mess with a disappointing nonchalance. He then handed me a card with a number on to get the police report.

Excellent, I figured, police report taken care of, I’ll call my insurance company and file a claim and get working on a replacement window.

Um, not so fast. I have a $500 deductible and while the replacing of said window is not cheap, it is under $500. Okay…not amused but, that’s the deal. After a few calls to dealers and glass places, I settled on a national company--recommended by my insurance company--that said they could be out that afternoon. Huzzah and Halleluiah!!

Well, readers, let’s just say that things went down hill from there. I barely got the final chorus of Halleluiahs out when, while doing a more thorough check for missing items I found that the bastard thieves had also taken a small good luck piece--a tiny gold wishbone pin--that had been given to me by someone whom I love very much and which had, in turn, belonged to someone whom he loved very much, his mum. The small pin had been given to her by her father and had watched over me from my car's visor for a couple of years now. I’d not been angry about the iPod, but with this discovery I could immediately feel hot, angry tears streaming down my face and a sourness churning in my stomach. Insult had been added to injury and on top of everything else I needed to break the news that the pin had been stolen. I figured that once I had the window back in and the glass cleaned up I’d take care of that difficult task.

The glass company (to remain nameless for the time being) sent out a very nice gentleman who got straight to work and told me what to expect, etc. About 45 minutes later he calls me back down to the car and tells me there is a small problem--the window wasn’t the right one. It was the right shape, but two small holes, needed for bolts at the base, were not there. He did a quick little plastic treatment and told me they’d reorder the part and someone would be back out the next afternoon. I wasn’t happy, but it wasn’t his fault and I went about my business after a bit of a rant on Twitter.

Saturday morning rolls around and lo and behold, a call from the glass guys. The part had come in wrong again. It was going to be Monday (today) before they could get the part from a dealer or dealer’s vendor. Less amused than ever, but I was polite and thanked them for letting me know.

Morning came today with a renewed sense of hope and feeling that I was going to have a car with all four lovely windows in place once again. Alas, it was not meant to be. This morning’s phone call alerted me to the fact that the dealers hadn’t told them this was a special order and was going to take an additional 3-5 days…and when you add in the holiday, well, it was going to be ANOTHER WEEK. Next Monday. Meaning my car was STILL vulnerable and by the end of this all it would have been so for 10 days.

I really didn’t know what to do upon hearing the news this afternoon. I was furious beyond reason, but no one else was going to get me the glass any sooner at this point since it clearly had to be ordered and shipped in. After a few phone calls to area dealers I realized I was just going to have to suck it up. I asked the young woman on the phone if someone could come out and do a “new and improved” window treatment to get me through the next week…one that is forecast to include inclement weather. She said absolutely and they sent out a very thorough repairman who gave me about as sturdy a temporary window as a girl could hope for. Not perfect, but with any luck, it’ll do.
The "new and improved" temporary window, thanks to Paul!
As for blame…well, I’m as upset with myself as anyone for leaving even a crappy old obsolete piece of electronics in a visible spot in my car. As far as I can tell both the glass guys and the car dealers are equally responsible for how long it will take to get me an actual window, so that’s a wash, I guess. What is always interesting to me, though, especially in a time of crisis, is who steps up. Who comes thru and who doesn’t. It’s a good reminder of who has one’s back, isn’t it?

Oh, and the pin…I did finally tell him about the pin being gone. I sobbed through the telling of the whole sordid story and he interrupted by telling me it was going to be all right. I sniffled through more details and he said of course he was disappointed that the pin had been stolen, but what was most important was that I was okay. This induced more tears at which point he said, ”the pin may be gone, but the sentiments behind it still remain, okay, no one can take those.” 

That'll do...that'll do. 

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Queen Mum

Ah, there's nothing like a match between an attractive, talented, elegant and well-bred young couple to send the media into a minor feeding frenzy. The speculation about offspring and heirs is quickly zipping across cyberspace and every punter has an opinion.

Zenyatta paddock schooling on November 4, 2010
with her groom, Mario Espinoza. Photo courtesy of Frances J. Karon. 
No, no, I'm not talking about Wills and Kate, though I'm sure the punters and speculators are having their fun with them as well--not to mention the boon to the commemorative china trade. I'm referring to the lucky stallion who will get to be the sire of Zenyatta's first foal and take the meaning of royally-bred to an entirely new level. Who will it be? Who could possibly be good enough for Zenyatta? One of the most poignant moments of Mike Smith's pre-Breeder's Cup 60 Minutes interview came when he was asked about Zenyatta's future in the breeding shed. His response was heartfelt and honest, something you'd expect to hear from any proud human one was good enough for her, not for his special girl.

Z and Mario arriving at Churchill Downs. Photo courtesy of Frances J. Karon.
And she is special. She's brought nothing but joy, grace, and inspiring athletic achievement into the skeptical and often jaded world of racing. But the Queen is now off to bigger and better things, which got me to thinking, anthropomorphically, of course, about what kind of offerings her prospective suitors might bring...

Typically it is the bride's family who worries over a dowry or fortune (see Maureen O'Hara's character in the The Quiet Man for the ideal portrayal of this) but in Zenyatta's case, I think the stallion's connections ought to be, for lack of a better expression, ponying up big time for a chance to be romantically linked (to put it delicately) to a mare of this stature. They ought to come bearing precious gems, special hybrids of apples and carrots, the softest straw and the tastiest oats. Perhaps they can offer up deals with Guinness or luxury bridles and blankets from Hermes. Or maybe one of the stallions is connected to a peppermint manufacturer and brings that to the table, along with just the right balance--an alchemist's secret formula for that magical combination of speed and stamina. And let's not forget the dancing, this girl has serious moves and any worthy male must possess not only the elegant agility of Fred Astaire, but also the sweeping athleticism of Gene Kelly.

Trainer John Shirrefs chats with Z. Photo courtesy of Frances J. Karon
While I realize that equating human comforts and traits to a horse might seem a bit silly, I can't help but want a happy and comfortable future for Zenyatta. I'm personally saddened that I won't get to see her race again, but I take heart in knowing that she'll be as well cared for in motherhood as she was during her racing career and that's how it should be. This wonderful horse who has buoyed spirits and made even non-racing fans sit up and take notice deserves nothing but the best, she's more than earned it.

For those of you who haven't checked out the piece in The Thoroughbred Times about her likely mates, here it is...Zenyatta Retires. And a special thanks to Frances for her up close and personal photos of Z that she kindly let me use for this piece.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Hold on a minute...

Still autumn here in southern New England, let's enjoy it while we can!
I got into my car yesterday to run a few errands and switched on the radio. It was still tuned to one of my favorite XM presets, 40s on 4, from the weekend. Instead of hearing a swingy melody from Benny Goodman or a forgotten treasure from Bing Crosby, I heard Dean Martin singing Silver Bells. Huh? Wah? All due respect to Dino, whom I truly do love, but WHAT THE HELL?? It was the only 15th of November, still 10 days out from Thanksgiving (!), and my radio was already pushing Christmas at me. 

Well I'm stopping the presses and slamming on the brakes this year. Autumn transitioning into to winter is my favorite time of year. From the hazy, warm, Indian summer days that are sprinkled throughout October to the first snow flakes, I relish every bit of it and I enjoy taking it in. 

And yet, even as I mulishly dig my heels in to slow the progression of the coming weeks, I know that outside forces will be conspiring against me. Okay, that sounded a wee bit paranoid, but you know what I mean. The always lovely Christmas windows at Lord & Taylor in NYC were unveiled last night--complete with an appearance by Santa. Target barely got the Halloween candy into clearance aisles before restocking the shelves with Christmas candy. And let's not allow the television adverts off the hook, they've jumped the gun entirely by bombarding us with Christmas products. I mean really, don't we deserve a little breather between the bellicose and cringe-worthy political campaign advertisements and the silly, over-the-top commercialism of the holiday season? 

I always assume that Americans are worse about this than other cultures because of our general state of rushing about and hurrying in, but in truth, I suppose all of Western culture is guilty of this non-stop quest for what is next or new. In the process, though, we rarely seem to stop and enjoy the present, the now. And I'm as guilty of this as anyone, always longing for, say, the start of the summer season in Saratoga or looking forward with great anticipation to the first snowfall each year. It's great to have things to look forward to, but I know that I sometimes I do so to the detriment of the present. This year, though, even the moody fall days that blow in on a chilly breeze will get their due. It is, after all, autumn in New England. So enough of the pre-Thanksgiving Christmas rush, there'll be plenty of time for Christmas after Thanksgiving, I promise. So save your Christmas tunes and colorful lights, your holiday cards and candy canes, please, until November 26th, at which point I will joyfully and happily share in the countdown to Christmas. 

In the meantime, how about a little lost Bing Crosby-Judy Garland treasure that celebrates my beloved nutmeg state, hmm? 

Thursday, November 11, 2010

On Legacy

I've been besieged of late, for lack of a better word, by multiple thoughts on the nature of legacy. Musing on the nature of how a story is told or interpreted is nothing new for me, it's been part of my work in both the museum and publishing worlds, but for the past week and a half everything I've encountered--from election results to horse races--seems to boil down to that double-edged sword of a word, legacy.

This entire thought process began about 10 days or so ago when the Snow Monkey and I visited Springwood, Franklin Delano Roosevelt's estate in Hyde Park. I've been there many times, most often to wander around the grounds and soak up some inspiration, but himself, well, he'd never been there so we opted to take the house tour in addition to having a good walk around the grounds. As we meandered through the home it was interesting to eavesdrop on the quiet comments murmured between our fellow tourists and the inquiries made to our guide...there was an air of unspoken respect for the man and for, I hope, his place in history. I'm always amused by his well curated and somewhat cheeky collection of 18th and 19th century British political cartoons; just as I'm always moved by the dumbwaiter (originally used for cumbersome steamer trunks) that was re-purposed as an elevator to allow a wheelchair-bound FDR to get himself to the other levels of the the home. He pulled himself upstairs, essentially, in a small dumbwaiter car, using a rope that must have tested and tired the strength of his entire upper-body. Once outside, amidst the rolling hills and ridiculously beautiful views of the Hudson River, it's nearly impossible to leave Springwood without a sense of the Roosevelt legacy of Franklin and Eleanor. Stop to consider that in addition to repealing Prohibition (my personal favorite of FDR's myriad accomplishments) he also is responsible for creating Social Security, Unemployment Insurance,  the CCC, the WPA, the SEC, and the March of Dimes for starters. And for as much as I fully understand the flaws and foibles of FDR's alphabet soup of recovery programs, this time I left with a sinking feeling that some of the things he'd fought for and left in trust for future generations were actually in a kind of danger.

Yes, I said in danger. Prior to that Sunday afternoon, pre-2010 election, I had read of and watched politicians from a handful of states stumping and advocating for the dissolution (or serious dismembering) of programs like Social Security and Unemployment Insurance. These upstart sorts, to my mind, were tampering not only with FDR's legacy of compassion and social responsibility, but they were also, in their own way, demolishing important and necessary safety net programs that people count on. Beyond that, we (yes, WE) have also contributed to these programs all of our working lives. This isn't charity, it's something that working people have earned. The Roosevelt administrations of the 1930s and 40s fought hard for us to have these's one of the most important parts of his legacy as far as I'm concerned. Seeing these necessary and enduring pieces of legislation challenged and almost made light of by cavalier and common politicians was worrisome, to say the least. It seems we all need reminders that vigilance is the price we must pay to ensure the future of important legacies handed down to us for protection.

And then, nearly a week after our little Roosevelt excursion, there was the big upset of this past Saturday, Zenyatta being nosed out of her 20th victory and a Breeder's Cup Classic win, by a horse called Blame. For those of you who don't follow horse racing and are now wondering who these horses are, I'm a little sad on your behalf. Go ahead...Google Zenyatta, watch ANY of her races, and then come back, we'll wait for you to get up to speed.

Impressive, right? Kind of makes you want to go back and watch all of her 19 brilliant victories, doesn't it? It's'll find yourself a little teary and most likely cheering wildly for this amazing mare in spite of the fact that you know she's going to win all 19 in style--patented Zenyatta style--coming from behind, her long, rolling strides seeming to eat up the ground.

So this brings us to her 20th start in the Breeder's Cup Classic against the boys. There was talk that she might retire to the breeding shed after this race, and surely with a win, her legacy of greatness would be cemented. However, as most racing fans learn early on, the racing gods and goddesses can be terribly cruel. Heartbreak is built into both baseball and horse racing, it's part of the bargain we accept for the pleasure of sweet swings or an amazing turn of foot. Just as there was no joy in Mudville when the Mighty Casey struck out, there was no joy at Churchill Downs (or anywhere that racing fans congregate) when Zenyatta lost. The elegant, smart, stylish, and cunning mare who had so nobly borne all of our wishes, dreams, and hopes for perfection on her well-bred shoulders came up a nostril short.

Her legacy? Absolutely untarnished for this fan. She's a wonder and a marvel and she has more than earned her place in history with her incredible record of 19 consecutive wins. Race fans will debate and debunk the sometime rivalry of the mighty Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra, but at the end of the day, Zenyatta's record speaks for itself. I have such love and respect for both these mares and their connections that I mostly just consider myself lucky to have been able to watch them race so many times. I often bemoan not being around to watch in person Secretariat's Belmont blow-out or Seabiscuit's match race against War Admiral, but instead I've been able to watch Zenyatta and Rachel. Not such a bad trade off, all things considered.

My hope is that when Zenyatta does eventually make her way to the breeding shed that she'll throw beautiful and talented foals for us to marvel at and cheer on for generations to come. Now that's a and stunning little mini-Zenyattas making their way to a racetrack near you in 2014 or 2015!

On a closing note, a much smaller, but more personal legacy that I consider myself the keeper of--along with my family, of course. The photo of the clothespins above was taken on the porch of my maternal grandparent's home in Fountain City, Wisconsin. The porch looks out over the Mississippi River, rather lazy at that spot, and bears witness to seasonal voyages of numerous barges and the occasional long ago visits from the Delta Queen, a historic sternwheel steamboat, complete with calliope. The twine clothesline and clothespins pictured are a tactile representation of my grandmother's philosophy and work ethic. Hand embroidered dish towels, plastic baggies turned inside out for reuse, and colorful--if threadbare--aprons were fixtures on that length of twine. After big dinners with lots of cousins and family present the day would end with the lines covered with wet dish towels, or pieces of butcher's paper--all hung to dry with a view of the river rolling calmly by.

The sight of an old wooden clothespin never fails to remind me of my "Grandma K" and her own little legacy of daughters who sew, embroider, and quilt (to this day) and grandchildren who cherish and recall fondly her handiworks, fresh bread, popcorn parties, and chaotic fishing expeditions.

Legacies can be national, political, ordinary, and even equine in nature. More important is that we recognize the pieces of history, large and small, that are entrusted to us to care for and nurture for coming generations.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Tailcoat

Clothing makes a statement, it gives clues to the world as to who we are and even, to an extent, where we've been. Imagine Humphrey Bogart's Rick Blaine character in Casablanca wearing something other than his classic ivory colored dinner jacket. Sure he'd still be Bogey and he'd still deliver his lines in that inimitable fashion, but it wouldn't be the same. Nor would Mad Men be the fabulously addictive program that it is if it didn't have such an impeccable wardrobe for its talented cast--consider Pete Campbell's blue suits or Don's variations in grey. And the women's clothing, I'm terribly envious of the wonderful day dresses, gowns, gloves, and hats that are often sported by the female cast members.

And this brings me to The Tailcoat. For the past couple of days I've been able to visit dear old friends and help out with the work being done to ready Historic Mayowood Mansion for its Christmas season which begins in early November. I've loved Mayowood since I was a wee girl taking riding lessons in the Mayo's former stables and I learned a lifetime of lessons working at the house as an adult, it's as much a part of me as New England or horses or France.

On Wednesday we were putting away a few small artifacts in an upstairs closet and I noticed a beautiful gentleman's wool tailcoat with some other clothing. Because so many generations of the Mayo family called Mayowood home, there are clothes spanning eras from 1911 when the house was built all the way up until the early 1960s...there is everything from old style riding togs to beautiful handmade silk chiffon gowns. This coat stood out though. It was made from a beautiful medium weight charcoal grey wool and as we removed it from its special container for a closer look we could see it was custom made tailcoat in mint condition. The seams and hand sewing were works of art created by a skilled hand and the buttons on the front, tails, and sleeves were covered in a woven silk damask. Folded carefully beneath the coat was the matching pair of deep grey wool trousers and a silk vest with delicate pearl buttons. The entire suit was in perfect condition, not a moth nosh to be found. But who might have worn it? 

We examined the interior pockets on the coat a little closer--those slick, slim, secret pockets that held letters of transit or fashionable cigarette cases once upon a time--and found it had been made by Fieldcrest in Chicago for Dr. J. Mayo.
I felt an immediate and powerful pang of sadness at seeing his name in this beautiful garment, my heart sank a little in my chest. As my friend left the room to answer a question elsewhere in the house, I whispered quietly, "Oh, Joe, this is heartbreaking." I couldn't help myself, I always felt a real connection to Joe--Dr. Joseph Graham Mayo--from the first time I saw his portrait on a wall at Mayowood. 

Joe had been the second son in a family where the first son, Dr. Charles W. Mayo, bore a immense responsibility on very capable shoulders. Joe was an avid horseman and hunter and a lively soul. From all accounts, he had a big personality and razor-wit--possibly because he enjoyed freedoms that eldest sons from prominent families often don't have the option to pursue. He also was, to my mind, the great tragic figure of the Mayo family. He was killed in a car-train collision in November of 1936 (at the tender young age of 34) while on a hunting trip near the Alma/Cochrane/Buffalo City area of Wisconsin, leaving a young widow, Ruth, and two small children well as a heartbroken family and devastated older brother. His beloved hunting dog perished in the accident as well and it is said that the dog is interred with him. The premiere issue of Life magazine from November 16, 1936 featured a photo and short obituary of Joe Mayo in it--right below a blurb announcing the marriage of John Barrymore. President Roosevelt sent a letter to the Mayos the next day assuring them of his deep sorrow for their great loss. The stack of telegrams the family received after Joe's death was immense and a measure of the void he would leave in the lives of many people.

The tailcoat, vest, and trousers were a sharp reminder of the unfulfilled promise that young people like Joe Mayo leave in their wake. Had he worn them while dancing with Ruth at a lovely party, had the suit been made for a special occasion? They'd been cared for meticulously, the owner clearly intending to wear them again when the opportunity arose. Beautiful garments--be they gowns, tuxedos, or tailcoats--are meant to be worn. They are part and parcel of occasions large and small and this suit was a physical reminder of all the moments that Joe didn't have enough time to experience. 

Even after I'd neatly packed the suit up again, I couldn't get it out of my mind and I was (and am) still a little surprised at how deeply a mere garment could resonate with me. The passage of time can sneak up on us in unexpected places and in the oddest of ways, but I'm glad I spent a kind of stolen moment and spared a thought for a gentleman whom I never knew, but one I feel sure would've been a kindred spirit. 

Cheers, Joe, and here's to all the happy times you must have enjoyed in that magnificent suit. 

Thursday, October 7, 2010

If These Walls Could Talk--A Glimpse Into a World Long Gone

This morning as I was scrolling through my always-interesting Twitter feed I noticed a piece posted by Valerie (aka @swannoir27) about a Paris apartment that had been shuttered for some 70 years.  The link pointed to a piece in the UK Telegraph newspaper about a valuable piece of art that was found within the flat and had recently sold for 3 million or so dollars at auction. The painting itself is interesting, if not more than a little over the top, but I found myself far more interested in everything the article did NOT mention and despite my best intentions to accomplish other things, I’ve spent much of today daydreaming over this long-abandoned Paris flat. There's a link to the Telegraph piece HERE and a link HERE with more photos to the lovely The Paris Apartment blog; plus THIS link with a few more images of the flat.)

The newspaper article mentions that the apartment had been closed up since before World War II--when the owner fled to the south of France--and it remained unoccupied until the owner died sometime in 2010. That means that this space was, for all intents and purposes, a kind of time capsule--a “through the looking glass” place that existed in its own time--free from the march to modernity that we've all been part of. Untouched, from what I can figure out, through the D-Day invasions at Normandy, the liberation of Paris, and V-E Day. It’s a kind of silent witness…if those walls could talk.

Then imagine being the first person to open that door after 70 years--in my romantic mind it would have been a little like when Howard Carter first peered into the wonder that was Tutankhamun’s tomb. The photographs give us a tiny glimpse at what appears to be a place that was left abruptly. Had the occupant fled Paris, or merely left it for a safer existence in the south? Why did she never return? The rent, taxes, and other fees were continually paid, but apparently the owner, the granddaughter of Marthe de Florian, never went back after vacating the flat. Can you imagine having a comfy flat in the middle of Paris and not using it...for 70 years? This is a mystery as delicious as your favorite French pastry! 

Some of the furnishings and items that we can see in the photos are rather remarkable, others typical of early 20th century life. Attractive chairs and artwork in various states of framing are prominent in the pictures, as is the fantastic mirror that dominates the left side of the image. Even though there’s visible water damage, some of the wall coverings look to be a once-lovely damask and there appears to be some impressive plasterwork or carved wood moulding as well. The tall windows and heavy draperies belie a once elegant space with marble fireplace mantles and beautiful old carpets. Even the harsh angle of the walls as they meet in the corner evokes the quirky appeal of the quintessential Paris flat. There's an adorable stuffed Mickey Mouse toy (and is that a Porky Pig doll I spy behind him!?) sitting at the feet of an extraordinary stuffed ostrich--more than likely purchased from the famed Parisian taxidermy shop Deyrolle.

What I’d really love to see photographs of, though, are the contents of the kitchen, bedroom, or bathroom. What kinds of potions and tonics (in my imagination they are in charming, flowery bottles with glass stoppers) lined the glass shelves of the bathroom? Were there beautiful tiles on the walls so typical of many early 20th century baths? In the kitchen were there ancient tins of spices and bottles of liquor and spirits? Did a bottle of Veuve Clicquot happen to be stashed away in a cupboard for a special occasion? Perhaps there were piles of fashion magazines from the period, filled with the latest couture and haberdashery. One article does mention a number of calling cards from prominent individuals of the time--another treasure of a bygone era--as well as piles of love letters held together by ribbons of various colors.

There are so many things I want to know about this apartment, about the woman who occupied it--or didn’t, actually--for all those decades. I’m sure the contents were carefully inventoried and cataloged by a wonderfully bureaucratic French official, but I hope that someone else was there to document it all as well. I’d love to have a French writer’s take on the place and how it was allowed to exist out of time for so long. This apartment is a time capsule of the most wonderful sort and a veritable feast for any historian, archivist, curator or writer. The real story of this space is likely better than any fiction writer could conjure, but I wonder if we’ll ever know?

Not so long after stumbling upon this piece I read Roger Ebert’s poignant (and wonderful) review of the forthcoming Secretariat film. At one point during the review he mentions that his beloved friend and long-time co-host Gene Siskel used to say that, “his favorite movies were about what people actually do all day.” I immediately thought it was precisely that feeling which resonated so strongly and moved me so about this abandoned apartment. It was a scene from a day in the life of a pre-war Parisienne, a glimpse into a world long gone. 

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Willing Heart of a Champion

Sporting events large and small over the course of the past few days got me wondering about the nature of greatness. What separates the good from the great, the historic from the fleeting, the moments of collective memory from smaller instances of personal victory? It’s too simplistic to say it’s just about numbers. The most victories, the largest scores, and most copies sold are all measures of a certain kind, but are they the most important ones? I think there’s another yardstick, one with no numbers, which is a vital component of greatness--heart.

A huge heart--literally in horse racing legend Secretariat’s case--is for me the unifying thread among so many of my heroes and heroines, literary and athletic, human and equine. It is the act of recognizing in another being an iron will, a divine spirit, or a heart for battle. Heart is the intangible, unquantifiable nugget that elevates the good to great and the ordinary to extraordinary.

I realize none of this is particularly revelatory, but I think every now and then (not unlike Ferris Bueller) it is worth stopping, looking around, and assessing just to be sure we don’t miss something important. It’s easy to throw stones or snicker derisively at another’s accomplishments, but it’s far more interesting to step back and take a moment to appreciate moments of greatness. It’s the road less traveled and that path is almost always the more scenic and more enlightening. Records come and go, statistics will be asterisked and analyzed, wins and losses quantified, but when all is said and done, I don’t think that’s what remains with us. And that brings me to Zenyatta.

Anyone who was fortunate enough to be in attendance at Hollywood Park for her penultimate race yesterday got to see a genuine beauty in whom beats the willing heart of a champion. I have to say that for me, while her 19-0 unblemished record is damned impressive, what I love about this majestic soul has less to do with her statistical place in history and more to do with the manner in which she’s raced to such heights. It’s the same thing I love about so many horses, their grit and determination, their will to win…but add to that her natural ability and you know you have a once-in-a-lifetime athlete. Special and amazing are overused these days (and I’m as guilty as anyone) but Zenyatta is, simply put, a great horse. She is the kind of horse that people in the future will look back upon and say they wish they’d had a chance to see race in person. As the neighborhood nostalgic--to my mind, anyway--witnessing one of her victories will be the equivalent of having seen a race run by Seabiscuit, Secretariat, or Man o’ War during their glorious salad days. The best of the best, those who embody the word great, find ways to win and Zenyatta has always found her way to the wire like a perfectly calibrated heat-seeking missile. It is a privilege to watch truly great athletes compete and to see her run a race without turning a hair or sweating a drop--all the while toying with her competitors--is to witness greatness amplified by heart and elegance. I won’t ever see Zenyatta race in person, but I'll look forward to visiting her in the coming years and seeing her beautifully dappled bay coat glistening in the sun as she dances across a field. As time passes I’ll likely forget whom she beat in which race or by how many lengths she won, but I will never forget--nor cease to be in awe of--her love of running, her exceptional heart, and her classic beauty. And I’ll leave the comparisons and rankings to those with minds more mathematically inclined than mine.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Rachel Alexandra: An Appreciation

I couldn't decide whether I wanted to write anything about Rachel Alexandra's retirement...and then I read through some of my old pieces about her and realized that I really owe her (and her team) a sincere thank you for two spectacular racing seasons. (And she appears no less than 28 times in the 150 or so blogs I've posted.)

The first time I ever even heard the name Rachel Alexandra was when she emphatically won the Kentucky Oaks, before Jess Jackson, before running against the boys. I remember hearing Tom Durkin's voice escalating with excitement as she pulled farther and farther away from the field. As I walked in from the kitchen to see what all the fuss was about, there she was...a big, beautiful bay striding, almost gliding, over the sloppy track at Churchill Downs. Had I really seen that? A few quick keystrokes brought me to a race replay that confirmed what I'd just seen. It was love at first sight.

From then on I followed her 2009 campaign like I suspect little boys once followed Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak or Lou Gehrig's consecutive game streak, I was an obsessed fan. I'd be fidgety the day of her race (like I was racing myself!) and make myself practically sick. I wasn't ever concerned that she'd lose, I was worried that she'd break down. I've loved a lot of horses, but this time, thanks mostly to the Internet, I was able to follow and fuss over her workouts and race placements in a way I'd never really been able to before.

So when the opportunity arose to see her for myself, I knew I needed to make the quick trip down to Belmont. She wasn't slated to have much competition in The Mother Goose Stakes, but I was there to see her--for all I'd have cared she could have been racing against a stable pony. All my expectations were met and exceeded when I saw her in person, she was gorgeous and she ran like the wind that day. I practically floated home from the track, thrilled that I'd been able to see her race in person.
Rachel Alexandra heading out in the Mother Goose Stakes at Belmont

Flash forward to the Woodward, also known in my personal memory as "the day I couldn't watch the race." My maiden trip to The Spa to see Rachel again, this time, running against older males. I knew she had a Herculean task ahead of her, but I'd potted myself right by the finish line along the apron so I'd have a good view--regardless of the outcome. Well, it suffices to say that when she tossed Calvin Borel during the post parade, my heart sank like a rock. So after an entire day of camping out on the benches, I left and watched the race, chewing on the sleeve of my cardigan, from the televisions beneath the grandstand. The reverberation and screaming as she came down the stretch battling Macho Again would have led any sane person to believe that not only were the rafters being raised at The Spa, they'd soon be caving in, too. It was a collective and epic release of joy when she crossed the finish line first. Post race I was calling everyone telling them what I'd just witnessed. Driving home with the Adirondacks behind me and the Catskill's on my right, I felt like I was soaring over them all!

And when she won her controversial Horse of the Year award in January of this year, I celebrated with a split of pink Veuve Clicquot in her sits on my desk (labeled with her victory and the date) next to the old-style pink baseball cap that I have (in her original Dolphus Morrison silks) with the words Alexandra the Great across the front.

This year, even when it became clear that Rachel version 2010 wasn't the same Rachel as 2009, I still hoped she'd finish out the season at the Breeder's Cup Championships. Even if she isn't the same as last year (and hey, who amongst us really is...) I love watching her compete and would've enjoyed seeing her race. I'm insanely loyal and as long as she came out of a race okay, I could never really think less of her or her efforts. Losses are tough and disappointing, but there's so much to be enjoyed and praised in the effort and she never gave less than 110%.

However saddened I am about her retirement, I'm grateful above all else. Grateful for all the anxiety, thrills, chills and tears. Grateful for getting to see one of my equine athletic heroines in person and be there to cheer for her win or lose. Thank you Rachel Alexandra, for sharing your gifts of blazing speed and great heart with us for a few short months. Thank you for making my heart beat faster and sending my thoughts wandering about the true nature of greatness. Your career would never be long enough for those of us who enjoy watching you, but that's okay, we'll remember you--and your singular and beautiful blaze--fondly for decades. This racing fan is in your debt.

And here are my pieces--with photos--from Rachel's 2009 campaign:

Rachel running in The Mother Goose

Rachel's victory in The Woodward

Sunday, September 26, 2010

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year!

New Moon (Maxfield Parrish)
Yes, I know the song is about Christmas, but I love autumn. And I especially adore autumn in New England with our crisp apples, incredible foliage, and starlit evenings. So what else am I looking forward to in the coming weeks?

1. The wearing of the suede, the corduroy, and the wool. Suede is much less seasonal than it used to be, but I still can't really bring myself to do much with it until the leaves start to change. Growing up in chilly Minnesota corduroy and wool were wardrobe staples for most of the year so I always enjoy bringing out the wool cable knits and cardigans. There's one giant, schlumpy wool sweater I particularly adore; it's at least 13 years old, a hand knit fisherman cable crewneck from JCrew in a dark charcoal grey, and probably 3 or so sizes too big. It's not in the least bit flattering but it's sheer wooly comfort cancels out any other considerations. When worn with a well-loved pair of corduroys it is absolute wardrobe heaven. 

2.  The wearing of actual shoes and boots. I spend most of the summer in strappy sandals, sneakers, or flipflops--with the occasional light driving shoe on a rainy day. With cooler temps comes the need for more closed toe options. Oxfords and flats and boots, oh my! I have a beautiful pair of black, Church's Diplomat semi-brogues that came into my possession last year and I'll be happily sporting them this fall. Oxfords and brogues of one sort or another are very fashionable this season and it's fun to mix it up now and then. Plus, how can you help but love a pair of fit-like-a-glove bench-made brogues? 

3.  Black. I did wear my share of black and white this summer, but there's nothing like autumn and the approach of winter to really bring out my love of New York's staple color. I was a bona fide New Yorker for a decade and black is still a comfort color for me. The moment the temperatures start to drop in the evenings I start to roll out more black clothing. And my favorite complement to black? Navy. Black and navy...once you go there you will nevah evah go back.

4. Baseball, football, hockey. Even though "hocktober" is nearly upon us, I love September and October baseball. The pennant races, the posturing, the last game's great stuff. I miss my Red Sox being in the hunt this year but I'm thrilled that the Minnesota Twins have had such a winning inaugural season at Target Field. You can bet I'll be cheering them on in between Pats and Canadiens games and singing "We're Gonna Win Twins" down the stretch. Once upon a time (1991 during a Twins World Series run) I stood at a Dairy Queen window buying ice cream in a near blizzard (because the Twins had won the previous game and we'd had DQ that night) to keep a winning streak alive. They did win and I was not alone that night at the DQ. (Yeah, I'm that superstitious. Didn't we all learn from Crash Davis in Bull Durham that a player--or fan--has to respect the streak??)

5. Seasonal cuisine. No, not just the pumpkin spice lattes at Starbucks (of which I'm not a fan) but pumpkin pies and soups, apple tarts and pies, casseroles, hearty stews, and mac & cheese. I can almost smell the caramelized onions for my French onion gratinee. Did someone mention pot roast with Yorkshire pudding?

6. Long shadows. There's a bright, almost harsh feel to summer due to the sun's high angles. Autumn is a gentler, more flattering light--it's a candlelight glow in comparison to summer's sometimes unkind glare. That glow showers us with fiery leaves and crisp blue skies during the day and offers Maxfield Parrish-esque sunsets as evening draws near. Parrish-colored night skies are among the best parts of the cooler fall weather. I don't even mind the shorter days that are part of our descent into winter, it's a good excuse to sit down with a warming glass of wine and steal a few extra minutes of reading or writing.

7. Okay, it really is all about the leaves. The aforementioned things are all lovely and I am looking forward to them, but let's not kid ourselves...this is New England and it is all about the leaves. Our beautiful, rolling hills and picturesque river valleys are decked out in their autumnal finest for the next few weeks. Tall, white steeples on old churches and meeting houses pierce the red and orange patchwork hillsides and gleam against the bluest of blue skies; rivers tumble over rocks and past pools with colorful leaves that float playfully downstream. Hell, they've even written songs celebrating it...Autumn in New York, Moonlight in Vermont! This is the season to don a sweater, toss away the map, grab your favorite apples and go for a good old-fashioned ramble along the by-ways of quintessential New England. Follow the earthy smell of the leaves to your favorite vista and just marvel. If you're short on inspiration--quelle horreur!--read a little Longfellow or Whitman or Frost, they'll get you sorted.

Oh, sweet September, how you've flown by, we hardly knew ye...

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Sound of the Sea

The Sound of the Sea

The sea awoke at midnight from its sleep,
  And round the pebbly beaches far and wide
  I heard the first wave of the rising tide
  Rush onward with uninterrupted sweep;
A voice out of the silence of the deep,
  A sound mysteriously multiplied
  As of a cataract from the mountain's side,
  Or roar of winds upon a wooded steep.
So comes to us at times, from the unknown
  And inaccessible solitudes of being,
  The rushing of the sea-tides of the soul;
And inspirations, that we deem our own,
  Are some divine foreshadowing and foreseeing
  Of things beyond our reason or control. 

--Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Journey to Valhalla

Yesterday (pre-tornadic activity) was another spectacularly beautiful day in New England. I needed a little artistic inspiration and the thought of walking around an indoor museum was just not all that interesting. I wanted to be outside, enjoying the dappled sunshine and smell of freshly mowed grass and fallen leaves. I also didn't want to have too drive far to get there, so the obvious choice was a visit to Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, NY.

I don't have anything against I-84 and the other big highways and byways of the northeast, but I do love the less manic local roads, too. I wasn't in a big hurry so I took a bit of an old-timey route taking Route 6 west (generally) until it met up with my old friend, the Taconic Parkway.

Route 6 tends to meander, but it winds through villages and hamlets (literally, Carmel Hamlet) along the way and there are some beautiful little architectural gems, many in need of some TLC. Mansard roof-lines or rickety widow's walks peek out of the trees and stately Colonial era homes overlook the placid waters of the region's reservoirs. Not surprisingly, signs of the times are everywhere, with shuttered businesses and for sale or for rent signs on most blocks. 

By the time I hit the Taconic, I was ready for the open road. I am a big fan of the area's parkways--The Saw Mill, the Taconic, The Sprain Brook...all of them. I'm sure I'd feel very differently if I had to commute via these busy roads every day, but for the occasional traveler, they're attractive--gentle curves and tree lined vistas--and enjoyable to drive.

Arriving at Kensico the first thing visitors see is the charming faux-Tudor manor house that is the office. They have maps that show you were the famous are interred, but the map also has a lot of excellent historical information that's good background on the who, what, and why of some of the residents. Many of those memorialized here (Bonwits and Bendels for example) are early New York captains of industry or the like, so their monuments are impressive and architecturally interesting. There are also a large number of actors, songwriters, and other creative sorts at Kensico, making it a veritable (and very creative) sculpture garden. Some of the larger family plots are decorated with ornamental trees and shrubbery (not unlike Mount Auburn or Forest Hills in the Boston area) that will only be more beautiful as the seasons change. The aroma of boxwood is prevalent and contributes to the feast for the senses that is Kensico.

My favorite spot is the Bell is one of the most interesting sculptural grave markers I've ever seen. Last year, after having newly discovered the Bells I did a little digging and wrote this post about them and Kensico-- read it here, The Bells of Valhalla.

Without further delay, then, some of the wonderful and unexpected markers and monuments I was inspired by on my outing. Full disclosure I scaled the saturation on the photos WAY back so they'd look very nearly black and white.

The Bell monument

The BPOE plot, Elk's Rest
Intricate Celtic cross
Doorway to the Sulka mausoleum

Wall in front of the Kroger mausoleum
The Landon mausoleum
The Rohde monument
Detail of the Rohde monument
The pool within the Storrs plot
I'll close with the inscription from the beautiful sculptural marker at the Storrs' plot, "Life is a book, a different page is turned each day. The happiness of the next, none dare say."

Thursday, September 16, 2010

It Puzzles Me

1.  How can people continue to deny climate change? The planet is hot and angry…and can you blame her? Even if the dire predictions prove not to be completely accurate (and we should all hope they don’t) why would you not act prudently to try to do what you can to mitigate further impact? Hello, we clearly can’t turn back the clock, but we can do better in the future, right? The answer is obviously yes, but not if we don’t get out of bed with big industry (big coal, big oil, the natural gas lobby). Nothing good can come from allowing them to continue dictate environmental policy.

2.  And speaking of big oil (and their cohorts) why would anyone usher these foxes back into the proverbial henhouse? They will continue to compromise safety, the lives of their employees, and our environment in the name of profit as long as they have no oversight or regulation. Allowing them to regulate themselves is like allowing a drunk driver to have the keys--deadly. And if you think natural gas is the answer to all our energy troubles, watch the HBO documentary Gasland, it is an eye opener. T. Boone Pickens and his friends, who own millions of dollars in natural gas leases, also have spent a fortune buying up water rights and leases. When you see the havoc these corporations have wrecked on our environment, imagine what they can do when they get to ration and control water rights.

3.  How can inflammatory sorts like Glenn Beck even begin to suggest that violence is going to come from the Left when it’s his followers who have all the guns? That’s ridiculous! Much to my dismay, President Obama has not been a friend to gun control advocates in this country, and yet Beck’s minions seem to think the president is going to come after their guns any day now. Are they living in the same world as I am where disgruntled employees--bearing both legal and illegal weapons--walk into work places and take their murderous revenge out on their colleagues? I cannot fathom a reason why an average person needs a semi-automatic or automatic weapon. I’m not anti-gun, I’m anti stupid guns in the hands of stupid people.

4.  How did it become so unpopular to be smart? When did having a brain, an opinion, and an erudite voice become unfashionable? There’s a strong wave of anti-intellectualism in this country and it’s really rather worrisome. The sillier and more down home you talk, the more “real” you are. And if you really butcher the language--repudiate, refudiate, what's the difference?--so much the better. Your loyal followers will leap to your defense and tell the nasty, pedantic grammar police not to be so elitist. I think of FDR--one of my favorite historical figures and certainly one of our best speakers--and how he’d likely be viewed by certain factions today, and it really saddens me. Good ideas can come from everywhere and just because they come from someone who is well educated doesn’t mean they are anti-American or subversive. I want someone smarter than me to be my representative in government! 

And a few other less political puzzlers…

5. What genius at TVG decided not to broadcast most of the opening day’s races from Belmont? Yet again, racing seems (in my opinion) to shoot itself in the foot.

6.  How could the venerable Grey Lady even consider ceasing to print newspapers--albeit at an unnamed future date? What would a Sunday morning be without ink on your hands from doing the NYT crossword? Madness I tell you.

7. How could my Habs have traded my favorite goalie, Jaroslav Halak?? Yes, I’m still a little bitter. Halak carried the team a good distance into the playoffs with little or no help (other than the occasional pout) from Carey Price. Only a few weeks ago Halak returned to Montreal where he signed autographs and raised tens of thousands of dollars for a local hospital. Jaro was and is a class act and I’m afraid any positive opinion of Carey Price remains to be formed. I know, I'm working on getting past this. 

* The citizen of the world phrase always reminds me of Humphrey Bogart's response to Major Strasser (the criminally good Conrad Veidt) during an early scene in Casablanca. When asked about his nationality he says he's a drunkard and Captain Renault (the brilliant Claude Rains) replies "that makes Rick a citizen of the world."

** "these things puzzle me" should be read with your most Tim Gunn-like inner voice

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Decisions, Decisions: The van Gogh or the Homer?

It felt today as if autumn was serious about its arrival. After yesterday’s crisp blue skies and plentiful warm sunshine, today was a cool, almost brooding reminder of this being a transitional time of year. The sounds of football and smells of fall’s heartier fare drifted out from windows all over New England today. And while I’m not prepared to completely pack away my summer clothes or take my always-at-the-ready beach supplies out of my car’s backseat, there are important changes to be made: yes, it’s time to change the wallpaper image on my BlackBerry.

The BlackBerry wallpaper decision is, for me, never quick and rarely simple. I love many artists and there are some paintings that buoy my mood just by appearing on the inch-and-a-half square screen each time I turn on my electronic brain. I’m not one of those girls who can just choose a pre-loaded image, no, I’m rather fussy (read as: slightly obsessive) about what graces my little screen.

All summer I’d had Edward Hopper’s The Long Leg (1935) as my background. I love the sea and the palette of the work is so marvelously blue that it is the perfect summer painting. The small sailboat passes close to the shore, dunes, and lighthouse, but at no point does the viewer feel anything but freedom and relaxation—the way the best summers feel.
The Long Leg, 1935
Prior to the beautiful calm of the The Long Leg, I’d had a few spring wallpapers that I’d rotated between. A favorite for the early spring was Grant Wood’s The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere (1931). For me it’s a wonderful, if simplistic, painting that gives a wink and a nod to the tradition of Longfellow and the cult of Revere. Even though the piece is somewhat naïve and utterly inaccurate historically, I do love the rolling hills, the classic New England structures and the rocking-horse-like figure of Revere’s fleet and fearless steed.

In rotation with Revere was a much less artistic image, but one that always brought a smirk—a tgreat Montreal Gazette/The Sporting News photograph of Ryan O’Byrne upending Sidney Crosby. This happy image carried me through the entire Habs run in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Seeing “Sid the Kid” horizontal never fails to elicit a grin and moment of schadenfreude.

Houses of Parliament, 1881
So what to do about early autumn, then? There are a ridiculous number of Hoppers and Homers that I love, seascapes and moonlight images, are always favorites and there’s an exceptional Homer watercolor, The Houses of Parliament (1881) that would fit perfectly into the tiny screen. And then there’s dear Vincent. How could I go wrong with a van Gogh? There are few artists of any medium who have the power to move me as consistently as van Gogh.

Hopper, Homer, Wood--maybe a Breughel? There’s a wonderful autumnal Kandinsky, hmmm. So much wonderful art, such a tiny screen. Of course I could change my wallpaper more often, but I like my mostly seasonal approach. This way I get to look forward to a new season as well as a new image to pore over on my BlackBerry.

So who won out…
Mulberry Tree, 1889
Of course, Vincent did. It’s Mulberry Tree, 1889. The fiery, unruly warmth that emanates from the tree and the swirling blue skies seem to me an ideal representation of what I hope autumn will be. 

Friday, September 10, 2010

Remembering The General

Sometimes when you can’t decide what to write or which approach to take, it is wise to take a step back…and decide to clean out your summer bag to make the transition to one of your autumn bags. It’s surprising the amount of debris that accumulates in both wallets and handbags over the course of a season’s use; movie stubs, tote tickets and straw sleeves from Dunkin Donuts.

While sorting through one of the pockets in my wallet I came upon a photo that cleared away all the cobwebs and I knew I had to put together a long-overdue obituary for my beloved Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson Moscovitz Davidusky Schmenckmann, whom we lost on the 11th of September 2008. (Talk about making a difficult day exponentially more difficult.)
The Schmenckmanns from left to right: Simba Louise, The General and Mieux

Young master Schmenckmann began his life on a farm in Wisconsin as the runt of a litter of tabby-striped barn cats. He and his two fortunate sisters escaped a life of cold winters, drafty barns and serious mousing for a slightly more gentrified life as the trio of mousers (their quarry included but was not limited to mice, bats, chipmunks) in a historic home in Rochester, Minnesota.

The trio would become known to tour guides and visitors alike as The Schmenckmanns. Mieux Schmenckmann was obviously named after hockey great Mario Lemieux, while Simba Louise took her name from The Lion King. And then there was Jack.  The General, as the museum’s director called him, he gradually just became Stonewall Jackson. He was alternately known (depending on how naughty he’d been) as Jack Schmenckmann, Stonewall Jackson, General Jackson, or JACKSON!@#
The General

Jackson would pass his days lazing around in the mansion’s staff quarters, usually sprawled out in one of the wide, old windowsills while his sisters would be on the lookout for the various varmints that found their way into the house. He clearly enjoyed watching his talented and ambitious sisters leap acrobatically while knocking down a bat or two or terrorizing a mouse, but he didn’t show any interest in exerting that much energy himself. He was, after all, The General.

When the time came for me to leave, two loving tour guides adopted the Schmenckmann sisters and Jackson came home with me. I couldn’t leave him, he’d grown up to be a beautiful tabby with eyes as green as envy.

And so our feline friend enters the next stage of his life. No more mansions, no more mousing—as if there’d been much to speak of anyway—but there would be another well established cat (portly and used to being in charge, Koji) to win over. Oh, and a big orange dog.

Koji, the current occupant and HCIC (Head Cat In Charge) would prove most challenging to win over. Koji by then was well into his teens and must have been terribly annoyed by the young and still kittenish Jackson. The first few days were filled with standoffs and hissing and then gradually a kind of détente was reached. Territorial battles were still pitched, but they were rare, and when the two of them managed to squeeze into a small basket together, they looked like a perfect two-tabby version of Yin and Yang.

Jackson would outlive Koji and Beaujolais (the aforementioned big orange dog) and go on to co-exist peaceably with Remi-Roo (a second big orange dog) and even Lady, (a third big orange dog.)

He was mischievous to a fault. Green eyes gazing and cajoling, daring you to be cross about the vase of flowers he’d knocked down from on top of the piano or that he’d snuck outside and required long minutes of shaking the treat container to bring him in. Jackson was a gorgeous and beloved cat and he knew it. If cats have egos, Jack’s was the size of Texas. I always imagined him as being the real live counterpart to the impish and carefree cats Edward Gorey drew with such charm.

When the time came for me to move to New York, Jackson had to stay in Minnesota. I was heartbroken, but I knew my parents loved him and would take very good care of him in my absence. Every time I flew between Minnesota and New York I’d threaten to take him back east with me, after all, he was already cozily curled up in my suitcase.

Jackson had a terribly comfortable and coddled existence after I left. He was the lone housecat and Lady, the Golden Retriever, was made immediately aware that Jack was neither interested in, nor amused by, her presence. Now and then Lady would watch Jack playing or tearing through the halls and look like she wanted to play too, but she mostly knew better than to try to join in.
Lady and Jackson, an armed truce being observed
When Jack got sick and eventually had to be put to sleep I was beyond devastated. That his beautiful, tiger-striped face and lively green eyes wouldn’t be there to greet me when I visited my parents was unimaginable; that I'd never again feel the warm rumble of his contented purr, heartbreaking. And that it all happened on a date already rife with difficult emotions and hair-trigger memories meant torrents of tears. Not only was he a beloved and loving pet, he represented a time in my life that while not necessarily perfect, was important and memorable.

In hindsight, that I got to say goodbye to him, albeit over the phone in a call to the vet’s office, before he was put to sleep, was a real blessing. I owed him that, to know that even though I couldn’t be there, I loved him and knew this was what was best for him. I couldn’t bear the thought of him suffering, not after all the laughs and joy he’d brought to our whole family over the years.

The little runt of the litter that grew up to be a strapping tomcat left quite a hole in our collective hearts. I am happy to report, however, that he now lives with me, or at least his ashes do. He’s on my dresser where he’s watched over by a stuffed lion that he used to love to sleep next to on my bed.

Goodnight, Jack Schmenckmann, your charming, furry, striped soul is still missed and is certainly not forgotten.

Monday, September 6, 2010

If On a Late Summer's Day Two Travelers...

Was there anywhere I’d like to go for the day? How about a little road trip? I know just where to go and it’ll be like a tonic, I tell you, a tonic. That’s how the day had been proffered.

Donning whites, linens, and seersuckers—decked out with a hat for him, a scarf and Ray-Bans for her—our duo traveled north by way of the Taconic State Parkway’s graceful curves. North through Dutchess County’s undulating hills and farms, soon the Catskills began to appear off to west, purplish and distant, but majestic. The bright greens of high summer had already begun to give way to autumnal browns and the occasional sumac bush that was prematurely ablaze. (It should be noted here that in keeping with the spirit of the moment speed limits were casually observed—more as loose, general guidelines, less as actual posted limitations.)

Passing the capital region the air began to change, and as our travelers entered Saratoga County any stresses and cares of the day drifted away silently and swiftly like the puffy clouds in the late summer sky. This would be the day they finally added historic Saratoga Race Course to their list of us places—shared destinations where their mutual (and pari-mutuel) love of history, tradition, architecture, and atmosphere combined to create a magical day.

She was the more experienced, Saratoga-wise at least, of our pair. Showing off a place she dearly loved to one she dearly loved was an undeniable pleasure. She realized immediately that seeing it all through his eyes—from the incredible painted white ironwork to the witches-hat peaks on the grandstand—reminded her of her own maiden voyage to The Spa only a year before. To a pair with artist’s eyes, if not their talents, the feel of the place was old world in the best of all possible ways. Winslow Homer would likely recognize the view (costume aside) as not so different from the one he immortalized in August of 1865 for Harper’s Weekly in his print, Our Watering Places—Horse Racing at Saratoga. She’d been certain her companion would love the place, but the level of his appreciation, how fully he got it, outdistanced even her lofty expectations.

They visited The Big Red Spring, the closest either cared to come to “taking the waters” on this particular day, and lunched next to the saddling paddock admiring the rippling, muscular visions of equine athleticism who were prancing and pawing in front of them. Observing the usual customs, his wagers were based on an unusual recipe of pedigree, hunch, looks, jockey and gate placement. Success is hard to quantify in cases like this (or not, perhaps) but the sheer pleasure of watching the competition and taking part in the day’s activities was more than enough of a payout. Fully immersed in everything that is Saratoga and horse racing, they reveled in each moment, smell, gaze and vista.

But as so often happens on days that you just don’t want to end, no matter how valiantly and stubbornly you may resist, they fly by like calendar pages in an old movie. Thus was to be the speed at which this day passed. Post times seemed to get closer and closer together as the day progressed and the long, late afternoon shadows reminded them that this was late summer as well.

Our happy pair of travelers lingered awhile after the 11th race, savoring the beauty of the end of summer light that left the entire grandstand shadowed and in silhouette.  Slowly, as the crowds began to thin, they made their way under the grandstand laughing a little at the piles of torn up tickets that littered the floor like fallen autumn leaves. The gentleman feigned anger and shook his fist in solidarity with all the other losing punters. She consoled him, albeit in a slightly mocking fashion, reminding him that he was doing his bit to assist the ailing racing industry.

After a lingering, backward glance at the ironwork that had so appealed to them both, they strolled back in the general direction of the car, passing the empty silks room where only a week before the entire rainbow had been represented, row by row. On this evening, the penultimate night of the 142nd summer meeting at Saratoga, the hooks were barren and wooden crates with bits of color spilling out were packed and ready to be shipped down to Belmont for the fall meeting. Even the cool breezes that blew through the tall pines seemed to be sighing a kind of farewell. One last drive around, she suggested, and then we’ll hit the road. They drove past the barns and Oklahoma training track, admired the incredible high-Victorian architecture of Union Avenue, saw the blue lights of Siro’s emanating from behind the trees and did their level best to firmly commit it all to memory.

Wistfulness was the prevailing emotion of the journey home; both of our travelers left to marvel privately at what a wonderful day they’d shared. So wonderful that it would compare favorably with other classics in their Pantheon of Amazing Days—an evening celebrating the Canadiens in Montreal, a day amidst the Breughels in Vienna, and numerous walks across the Brooklyn Bridge at sunset. It was one of their best days.

Homeward bound, the night sky was worthy of van Gogh with one of the dipper constellations spilling out stars in front of them. The car was filled with crisp and newly autumnal air that carried with it Bing Crosby’s melancholy rendition of I’ll Be Seeing You. Summer was over and they’d been privileged to end it with a bang and in a place that any of their forebears would have both relished and envied.

Had it been real? 

Saratoga sky

The easily recognized witches-hat peaks of the Saratoga grandstand

Underneath the grandstand at day's end, the ground littered with losing tickets

The nearly empty jockey's silks room at Saratoga

Packed and ready to ship to Belmont for the fall race meeting