Monday, August 30, 2010


Adirondack Reflection I

Adirondack Reflection II

Adirondack Reflection III

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Small Acts of Kindness

I know I'm not the only one disappointed with Rachel Alexandra's loss earlier today, but as her co-owner Jess Jackson said, "...we are certainly not disappointed in her." I can't think of a better way of putting it and I'll leave it at that. I'll be anxious to hear that she's come out of the race okay on Monday morning. Saratoga's reputation as the Graveyard of Champions is certainly intact as well.

So after my short sojourn in Saratoga on Thursday, I decided to trek a little farther north into the Lake George area of the Adirondack Mountains. I figured I had time for a little driving, a little hiking, and some plain ol' gawking at the beautiful scenery surrounding me.

My first views of the lake were from the shore in the village of Lake George. As I sipped my iced coffee I was treated to the sounds of a calliope tootling away on a nearby paddle-wheeler. There was a collection of dark green Adirondack chairs situated so as to give the best views of the lake and hillsides. I'm usually rather a purist when it comes to Adirondack chair color choices, I typically prefer they be a crisp, clean white or a deep greenish-black Charleston Green, but these were just perfect and deliciously comfortable to sink down into.
Comfy chairs in the village of Lake George, NY
As I left, I tossed a coin into the fountain near my car...I secretly hoped it meant I'd visit here again soon. 

Driving up Route 9N (a road I can highly recommend for a Sunday afternoon ramble) I passed numerous motels with kitschy names like The Do-Rest Inn, The Cozy Nook, The Capri Villa, and my favorite of all, Wade's Canadian. Many looked like small resorts frozen in time that you might see in an episode of Mad Men, or a Doris Day movie from the 1960s. Charming, yes, and with picture postcard views of the western side of the lake, too. Yet somehow it seemed a little anachronistic to see them advertising "Free Internet," "HD Cable TV," or in a very few instances, "Free Wi-Fi!" The signs alone would make a great little photo journal because they are all very unique and vintage/retro in style. *note to self...*

Windows open, chilly fresh air filling my lungs, I turned off the radio and was able to hear the chirping of the birds and frogs as I drove. The breeze would blow through the pines and balsams when I'd stop to take a short walk or hike. Around some corners it was so incredibly quiet that I was a little startled when a frog would jump into a pond or stream, making a tiny ploop sound and leaving a little ripply wake as it swam away.
A totally silent Adirondack pond
Atop one of the larger hills was a small parking area for drivers to pull off the road and spend a few minutes taking in all the surroundings. A few other travelers had pulled over as well and we did a polite dance as we jockeyed for position to get just the right photograph in just the right lighting. I sat on the guardrail (bringing back memories of the "Great Budapest Silent March" wherein I was in BIG trouble for hanging off a parapet--and potentially endangering myself--to take the perfect photograph) looking out at the expanse of the deep blue lake and spotted a small boathouse in a cove right below me. Beautiful and secluded, the inhabitants/owners were clearly enjoying the day as well. I also noticed a small white, plastic picket fence at my feet guarding a pink, flowering rosebush.
Overlooking Lake George
I was immediately struck by how hearty the plant must be to survive there amidst all the sand, gravel, and grit that it endures over the winter and spring. Had someone put it there to mark the site of an accident where a loved one was lost? Maybe it was a favorite vista of a spouse of long lost friend and this was a way of celebrating it. Or perhaps it was a wild rose that had ended up there accidentally, the way you often see stray roses along barns and stonewalls on long-abandoned farmsteads. In any event, someone had taken the time and care to make the modest effort of giving this little rose a chance. This small act of kindness--a touch of grace, if you will--stayed with me all day. What a perfect symbol of how a little kindness and care can go a long way...and a quiet reminder that you never know whom it will impact over the course of time.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Cool Saratoga Breezes

The beautiful old iron work at Saratoga
There's a change in not only temper, but in temperature once you pass Albany and head farther north on Interstate 87 toward Saratoga Springs, NY. The Spa. It is quite simple to see why people have been flocking to this town and its beautiful racecourse for well over 100 years. The breathing seems easier, the pines whisper more sweetly and even the horses are happier, I think. Despite the hustle, hype and hoopla, Saratoga gives off a vintage vibe that begs visitors to stop, look, listen, relax.

I made my first pilgrimage to Saratoga last fall to see Rachel Alexandra run in the Woodward and I had a whale of a time. (My post-Woodward blog post can be read HERE.) As much fun as I had, though, I knew I needed a slightly more relaxing day exploring Saratoga this year. My goal was to soak up the atmosphere and spend time really observing. Last year I was so nervous pre-race that I couldn't tell you what happened most of the day up until the Woodward's post time.

So on Thursday I made the short (by my standards, anyway, only about 130 miles) drive up to Saratoga via the Taconic--which was so empty as to be my own personal Autobahn--and then a few hops and skips on Interstate 87. I had no expectations of what or who to see, I just wanted to take it all in and immerse myself in the fresh, horsey air of The Spa.

I wandered, camera and notepad in hand, amidst the picnic tables and large outdoor screens, delighting in the varied and tempting odors that wafted from the little carts and food areas. The jockey's dressing area was a constant beehive of activity as the day went on, I enjoyed seeing them coming and going in their vibrant silks and signing autographs for their young fans after the races. I watched the bettors, listened to their conversations and wagering hunches and laughed inwardly as they dissed this horse or that trainer. It was enjoyable in a totally different way from the frenzied, tension packed manic experience of last year. Sitting, scribbling away, while the breeze stirred the pines and watching one beautiful horse after another being saddled and sent off from the paddock to the track was a singular delight. That good, crisp almost Adirondack air had revitalized me--and I didn't even have to drink any of the water!

The famous Big Red Spring
And it actually got even better...

Rachel Alexandra en route to the saddling area in the paddock
A timely tweet from @francesjkaron clued me in to the fact that Rachel Alexandra would be schooling in the paddock before the 5th race. And at her suggestion, with an assist from @jenmontfort I got myself a good spot by the paddock rail and was able to see her (and her ENTIRE entourage) walk over to the stall. I didn't have a proper camera with me, but my little point-and-shoot did okay with this and I was just happy to see her looking so well and strong.

And like last year, I did come home with a little souvenir...

Rachel Alexandra runs again tomorrow in the Personal Ensign and she'll have her hands full with Life At Ten and with the 1 1/4 mile distance, I suspect. I'll be nervous and will have to listen to the race (at least until I get a feel for how she's running) from the other room, most likely. Such is the price of love. If she doesn't win will I love her any less? Nope, not a chance. As long as she comes out of the race well and sound I'll be a happy camper--and needless to say, relieved. With a little good fortune, the refreshing, pine-scented breezes of Saratoga will be as kind to Rachel Alexandra on Sunday as they were to me. 

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Dying(?) Art of Choosing One's Battles

Before I get to the business at hand, I must say that thus far I owe the much-derided (by me, anyway) month of August a sort of apology. August—unlike its predecessor, July, which was a veritable Vulcan’s forge of heat and humidity—has been almost kind and mostly temperate. There have been deliciously cool evenings and sparkling sunny days…more you cannot hope for from any month, let alone the typically tropical August. I symbolically tip my hat to you, August.

And now for something completely different…

Raise your hands out there if you’re sick and tired of ill-mannered louts, offensive (and usually grammatically challenged) verbal assaults, and the general lack of extant civility in our daily discourse.  Has your last nerve been well and fully trod upon by people who feel it not only appropriate but their god-given right to be rude, ill informed, and needlessly destructive or divisive? Or maybe you’ve witnessed an online conversation where it quickly dissolved into name calling and personal attacks. Threatening and bullying and harassment, oh my! Sound all too familiar?

Well it resonates strongly for me. Mind you, I’m not talking about silly, gossipy comments about a celebrity hairstyle or poorly chosen red carpet gown…that’s generally good fun and a catty remark now and then is usually in order. I’m also not talking about the good-natured trash talking that often occurs between rival teams and sporting factions. There will always be a fertile rivalry between the fans of certain bands, teams, authors, television shows, politicians, it’s a given. What I’m talking about are the truly mean-spirited comments that denote a profound level of ignorance and tone-deafness. 

I’m not going to even comment about the political nonsense because there are entire websites and organizations devoted to that. What concerns and irks me most, I suppose, are these uncivilized and childish exchanges that I see—usually pertaining to horses or publishing on my personal radar—between people that I expect more from and generally respect(ed). Yeah, past tense. I’ve lost boatloads of respect for many people over things they’ve written in regard to Zenyatta versus Rachel Alexandra alone.

Look, I know it isn’t my place to lecture anyone on this (and yet, you know I'm going to), but I generally try to stay civil and on topic when I’m debating my causes and I’d like to be able to expect this of others as well. There are occasions when we all overstep the bounds of good form, I understand that, but there’s no defense, to my mind, for long-term quasi-abusive behavior. I suppose it is anger fueled, I don’t know, but how about we grow up? There are times to fall on your sword and go down admirably fighting for your cause, but if choosing one’s battles wisely is a dying art (and I think it may very well be), than fighting the good fight with passion and civility is as dead as the Norwegian Blue parrot in a Monty Python sketch. 

I can’t help but I wonder if those who are prone to nasty and cutting comments ever regret them upon further reflection. My grandmother always said that when you were angry you should write it all down in a letter and leave it sit for three days. If you still feel exactly the same way at the end of that time you should mail it. Otherwise, cooler heads will have prevailed and you’ll have saved yourself from a serving of crow. Maybe even reading their virulent nonsense out loud would be of use…if it sounds slightly awkward or off balance when you say it aloud, it’s only going to be worse when read by others. It works well with writing generally, so worth a shot with angry comments, too, perhaps.

We seem to have lost the capability as a nation to disagree without being disagreeable. We’re all entitled to our opinions and biases, but how we defend or promote them says a good deal about us as well as the cause/person/horse/book we’re backing. The fact is, for me at least, a well-argued and sensible approach to whatever subject you’re tackling is likely to win over more folks than an angry tirade. Don’t misunderstand, there is a time and place for a good old-fashioned angry smackdown, but these days it is often sadly misplaced. By all means defend or comment with a well-informed sense of passion, but enough already of ridiculous personal attacks.

That said, a few further salient (I think) points:

1. If you have to denigrate my horse/book/author/team to make yours look better, you’ve lost me immediately.

2. Being informed AND passionate is much more attractive (and winning) than being a loutish hate monger.

3. Take a moment to consider what you’re saying and what the possible ramifications are. Our words have consequences, choosing them wisely isn’t always easy but it is SO worth it in the long run.

4. Instigators do so at their own peril. Some folks love to stir the pot, that’s their MO, and to each his or her own. But when it comes down to it, I think a lot of credibility is lost by the exclamations of the pot-stirring, “sky is falling” set.

5. I’m serious about the “choose your battle wisely” line. Not everything is worth falling on your sword or damaging your reputation for. I learned a while ago, and in the absolute hardest way, that you have to pick and choose what to go to the mattresses over. (Sorry for the Godfather ref, I’ve never seen the movie but I think it’s applicable here…)

6. On a strictly equine note: It is possible to love BOTH Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta. I do, and I know a few others do as well. Why we can’t celebrate these two spectacular horses is beyond me. They behave with far more class and grace than many of those who so staunchly “defend” their respective camps. I think we could take a page from the horse’s book on this one…run your heart out, be gallant, always give 110% and afterward do your most stylish victory dance.

Right, that’s me stepping down off my soapbox and taking a deep, cleansing breath. (Sincere apologies to the Python boys for such gratuitous references, but sometimes only the absurdity of Monty Python fills the bill.)

Monday, August 16, 2010

Celebrating Lawrence or How TE Lawrence Introduced Me to Henry Adams

"All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible. This I did."

The 16th of August is more than just the mid-point of my least favorite month, it is (on a far happier note) the birthday of one of the tortured genius types I'm so drawn to: TE Lawrence. Rather than expound on Lawrence's accomplishments or gush over/trash David Lean's incredible film (and yes, I can argue both sides of the Lawrence of Arabia film debate pretty fairly) I thought I'd wander off in a slightly different direction.

I came to Lawrence in what I expect is the usual way for teenage girls, by way of a VHS tape and Peter O'Toole's azure blue eyes, sun-bleached hair, and aquiline nose. O'Toole's mesmerizing performance sent me to the library to find out all I could about this sphinx-like, desert-loving Englishman.

A more logical and less single minded brain than mine might have tried to learn a little bit more background information on the Arab revolt or Middle Eastern politics of the time, or even read Jeremy Wilson's brilliant biography, but I dove head first into Seven Pillars of Wisdom. (I don't hesitate to say that I'd recommend SPW for *anyone* considering waging a war of any kind in the Middle East. **ahem**) I loved Lawrence's slightly archaic prose and his descriptions of people and places, they spoke to me. While I'm sure some of his military philosophy went right over my head at the time, I knew I was reading a kind of kindred spirit when I learned of his love of reading and all things medieval.

So with my new medievalist mentor as guide, I went in search of a copy of Crusader Castles, the published version of TE's undergraduate thesis for his Oxford B.A. More scholarly than engrossing, it still provided insight into Lawrence's character. The photos he took and sketches he made of Crac de Chevaliers and the other castles/defenses were a revelation to me (remember this is before the Internet of 2010 that we know and love.) And then there were the photos of Mont St Michel and St Malo and his letters home to his mother describing what he'd seen on his bicycle journey around France touring the ruins of medieval fortresses. The architecture of the French Middle Ages absolutely stunned me, and I was smitten. (Yes, I'm a Middle Ages loving cathedral geek--from trefoil or quatrefoil clerestory windows and fan or barrel vaulted ceilings to the elegance of Cistercian Romanesque, I love 'em all.)

My new literary companions, thanks in one way or another to Lawrence, were William Morris and his design and print work with Kelmscott Press and beyond; John Ruskin and his Stones of Venice and Seven Lamps of Architecture; and finally, to my favorite literary traveling companion and virtual uncle, Henry Adams.

Henry Adams' Mont St Michel and Chartres has been my most constant and faithful traveling companion. My well-loved and slightly tattered paperback edition really shows the miles. This volume has accompanied me across the ocean many times (including a trip to London when I told my parents I was going to Chicago...) and been dragged through France, England, Ireland, New York, Boston, Budapest, Vienna and even of all places, Greece. If it would've been possible, I'd have had this book stamped right along with my passport in each country. When I didn't have any other journal with me, it became my travel diary. If I wanted to sketch out a point Adams was making about Le Mont I did so in the margins.  This treasure is highlighted, scribbled in, and annotated within an inch of its life. The interiors of both the front and back covers contain notations and exclamations in every which direction and even some colorful language. It has also been a kind of portfolio for travel postcards, train tickets and other small souvenirs. Sand grains blown in from the beaches around Mont St Michel still escape from the taped binding now and then, triggering a treasured memory of sheep grazing in salt marshes and sea water quickly encroaching on the causeway.

Throughout all my cathedral and non-cathedral visits, Adams was my little non-red Baedecker. I followed in his footsteps on my pilgrimages across Northern France to places like Coutances, Rouen, Amiens, and Chartres. At each stop I'd pull out my trusty little book and make my own notations to add to Adams' astute, if often slightly over the top, observations.

I'm quite certain TE would have approved of my obsession as well as my literary companion. He carried a few of his own favorites with him during his various desert campaigns. In London's National Portrait Gallery there is a stone effigy of Lawrence that portrays him as a recumbent medieval knight. (The other one is at a small church in Moreton, Dorset.) The knight's knees are crossed, but otherwise he is clad in typical Arab robes, and there is a small pile of books sitting next to the shoulder of the fallen hero representing the volumes that accompanied Lawrence over the years--books like Mallory's Le Morte d'Arthur and Doughty's Travels in Arabia Deserta.

TE Lawrence brought me to some of the best and most intriguing of my reading obsessions--in addition to his own life I loved reading about Gertrude Bell and Freya Stark. My family has always been more inclined toward polar exploration, but through the likes of Lawrence, Bell, Stark and Durrell I've developed a lasting fascination with the vast expanses of the Arabian desert and a minor obsession with old Cairo and Alexandria during the first half the last century.

For all the rich study and consuming reading, I thank Lawrence. He'd be unlikely to want any credit for it and it'd be decidedly wrong to drink a toast to his memory, but I'm grateful for all the literary richness and adventurous companions that I met by way of this enigmatic and talented man.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A Fair Warning to August

A quick look at the calendar--not to mention any thermometer--tells us it is, once again, ((((August.)))) Those parentheses, by the way, are meant to denote humidity and a general state of swelter. Stagnant air, oppressive dew points, and ever rising temps do not a happy girl make.

So you can tell I'm not a fan of August, right? Deep, abiding, and august ennui is the only way to describe my attitude toward what I think might actually be the cruelest month, despite what the poets say. But it was not always so...once upon a time I had a much fairer view of the 8th month.

If you would have dropped in on my teenaged life in Minnesota, you'd have found me actually looking forward to August. Back then, a million metaphorical miles from here, I was a city-living 4-H kid and August meant the Olmsted County Fair. The fair was the penultimate moment of summer, only to be outdone by a well-earned trip to the Minnesota State Fair up in St. Paul. The county fair was, for a 4-H kid, the social event of the season. It was where you saw your country friends, where you learned to be wary of the midway and where you shared Tom Thumb mini-donuts or batter-fried cheese curds with your best pals.

The fair was also competition. As I grew older and found my way in the various arenas--thanks fully to my brave parents--I began to formulate increasingly ambitious projects in order to beat out my various nemeses. By the time I was a teenager I knew what I had to make and who I had to beat. I remember very vividly the girls I wanted to outdo with a fabulous Home Environment project or the guys I wanted to one-up with a beautifully built Aerospace project...I was driven, well, kind of.

That "driven" attitude usually appeared in July when I realized that I only had a few weeks (okay, sometimes DAYS) to finish (and/or start) any given project. Understand that I'd signed up for the specific project areas months before and by the time July and August rolled around it was a serious time crunch to complete everything. Sure, quilting or needlework or even a large scale furniture refinishing project sound crazy good and easily done in July, less so. But the competitor in me (and lets face it, the kid in me, too, as there was a monetary value to the ribbons we were awarded) wouldn't let go. That meant having a good lie-about in the sun was replaced with completing an intricate piece of needlework while catching a few rays; it also meant working against the clock--and weather at times--to strip multiple coats of paint from a small side table. (I literally shudder when I think of the chemicals I used to in those days for refinishing!) And my road-trips all those many Julys were 4-H centric as well--I roamed high and low, the entirety of Southeastern Minnesota, in search of the perfect old barn or abandoned farmstead for my photography exhibit. Yes, I trespassed now and then in the interest of "my art," plus ca change, non? 

There was considerable upside to all this, though. Not only in all the skills I learned over the years (or the pretty ribbons I won) but all the great and often terrifying experiences with showing and judging. I loved those manic, frenzied weeks leading up to the fair and then savored the rewards--whether it was a corn dog or a state fair trip--once all the competition was over. There was no time--or need--for my somewhat self-indulgent August ennui back then.

My "projects" are a little different these days, to be sure, and there's no state fair trip or purple Grand Champion ribbon awaiting me at the end of them, but there are other late summer rewards to look forward to...things like post-Labor Day empty beaches or the first cool evenings of early autumn in New England. So I'll endeavor to be patient with you, August, in memory of all the good times we've shared in years gone by...but I warn you, don't trifle with me or try to muscle your way into September, that would be very bad form indeed.