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 honor...it 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 heroics...it'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 monument...it 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

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Car Wash: Labor Day Weekend Redux


Still rinsing...


(then clear coat)

My car--interior and exterior--was in need of a good cleaning. Since Mother Nature hasn't seen fit to grace us with much rain, I had utilize a more conventional route. The textures and colors and water flow are intriguing to me, some images look like wavy watercolors, others like squiggly, soapy abstractions.

A Lolo filter was used on the second image, Helga filter on the fourth image and 1962 on the final image. (Camerabag app for Mac.)

Friday, September 3, 2010

Putting the Labor Back Into Labor Day

It’s Labor Day weekend once again and another summer will soon retreat into the recesses of memory.  In the coming months as the leaves change and the temperature cools I’ll fondly remember balmy days at the beach, quiet Adirondack ponds, and breezy, carefree days at Saratoga. Many of us will transition—albeit gradually, and maybe even grudgingly—from our summer gin and tonics to our autumn and winter martinis. Hot coffee and tea will start to replace their refreshing iced counterparts as Labor Day puts a kind of full stop on the bright, sunny glare of summer.

The first Monday in September should also serve as a reminder to consider the unemployed and the underemployed. I know, I was just up on my soapbox a week or so ago and here I am again, but as one who is in some ways both un- and underemployed, I’d like to remind the world that there are a lot of people out there of my ilk. 

Most everyone I know who is marginally employed wants only to make a comfortable living and be productive; they want to make something, do something, be something. It is no small task, these days, finding a decent job that allows you to share your skills, learn some new ones, and make a contribution to society. And even if you are fortunate enough to find such a work environment, often they are short term or freelance/non-benefitted gigs. Despite what some loose-lipped and addle-brained politicos might have you think, those of us who are underemployed want to do more, not less. We want to be part of the workforce, not a statistic or a wedge in a colorful pie chart. Every time a politician takes a crack at the American worker we lose a little faith in ourselves and begin to wonder where—or if—we fit into the American dream.

Our government representatives have all had a nice, august August recess and I hope they return to Washington with a firm resolve to do something to jumpstart job growth and assist the members of the workforce whom they seem to have, for the most part, utterly abandoned. It would be truly refreshing to see Congress working as zealously for American workers as they do for their own re-election.

Maybe while we’re enjoying our barbecues and cracking open our cold beer this weekend we can all take a moment to ponder the plight of the forgotten members of the workforce for whom Labor Day is less of a holiday and more just another day without work. And then remember them (us) again in November when you cast your vote.