Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Art of Leisure

The ability to find leisure in our lives thins as we grow older. It's not that opportunities don't present themselves, but there seems to be a level of guilt that attaches to down time. We should be doing something...anything. Resting or relaxing is just another form of inactive lack of productivity. Clean the house, check the e-mail, deal with the kids, take out the dog. We find things to take our time.

But leisure, that time we give to ourselves in solitude just to breathe and deflate and maybe explore without planning, helps rejuvenate the mind and body. Giving ourselves a break once in a while centers the mind and detaches us from the treadmill of life. At its best, leisure is a personal journey of self-discovery. Other times, it is an exploration with others, perhaps on a road trip to nowhere in particular. Discoveries and possibilities are endless, but only if we actively make an effort to grasp those opportunities.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Where Is My Mind? Out to Lunch...

There are days that boredom sets in and the mind wanders. It would be nice to have profound thoughts all the time, or at least appear to be that way, much like the imposing journals of Emerson. However, when I get the time to sit and stare into space, I think of old childhood items that somehow were lost along the way. Today, I have been searching for an old Tony the Tiger cereal bowl. At one time, I found it on eBay for 20 bucks, but of course, a level head prevailed, and it was not purchased. Now, the hunt begins again, with what conclusion, I do not know. Maybe tomorrow, it will be a search for Dukes of Hazzard action figure from the early 80's. Ahhh, it's great to have this summertime freedom.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Magical Belmont, Part 3

The morning of the Belmont began an hour later than usual because we did not expect to go to the backside. With all the extra security, it seemed like a fruitless effort, as I did not have a valid visitor's pass anymore, and she wouldn't be able to get photos of the horses galloping due to the closed track.

By this time, there had been so many bold moves on our part that we slowly changed our minds about the backside. What's the worst that could happen, eh? Famous last words that have come back to haunt me many times, but this time, nothing ever did happen. We went through the barns to the track kitchen, The Morning Line, which had nourished us well for the last few days. While rubbing shoulders with the likes of Edgar Prado and D Wayne Lucas, we sat in our newly traditional spot, and gave our order to the smiling waitress, who was used to us by now.

The tone was set for the day. It would be relaxing, at least in the beginning. With all the pressures of the upcoming tasks for Jamie's photo shoot, this quiet morning helped ease some of the anxiety.

By the time we got to the track, it had opened to the public, and thousands of people were already staking claim to spots in the shaded picnic area, as well as on the rail near the finish line. Immediately, I noticed folding chairs at the rail, which meant I would have a spectacular day! Just in case, I always keep a folding chair in the trunk for just such an occasion. So, while Jamie kept my spot, I ran to get the chair. What a start to the day! I would be able to sit after all!

The key to enjoying a day at the rail is to get to know the people around you. Friendliness develops an aura that sticks, even when the heat of the sun pounds for hours on end. Even after someone is drunk by 2 in the afternoon, if there has been an effort to be kind, it's likely that person will stay kind, even if his/her noise level escalates.

To the left of me was a couple connected to the racing secretary for Belmont. To the right of me was a woman attending her 15th Belmont. Both were quieter than normal, but there were enough conversations for us to feel obligated to defend our seats in the event one gets up and some fan attempts to steal the spot.

The day couldn't have been more perfect for weather, though the sun was rather hot on the head. No matter. The breeze was cool, and the fans seemed to be in great spirits. Throughout the day, I watched for Jamie as she moved all over the track taking pictures. At times, she could be seen herding with the group of quirky photographers that had quickly become a tight-nit posse. At times, even on the rail, I missed that action of personalities that I had experienced the previous two days.

Though there were about 8 hours of racing that day, the time went by so fast. Great performances by Munnings, Gabby's Golden Gal, and Fabulous Strike accented the day, and I was very happy to see Benny the Bull make a comeback with a strong second-place performance. Also, the buglers opened the races with excitement with their unique calls to the post. Smiles were abounding all over the track.

The good-natured crowd would creer for the most umlikely of things throughout the day. Of course, they would cheer any time a camera turned to them. "I'm on TV!!" Other times, they would cheer for obscure things, like a truck full of people or the tractor that pulled the gates for the Belmont race. Once, one of Jamie's colleagues, Lauren Pomeroy, had a huge 600mm lens poked into the ground right in front of us. In a moment, the people behind me were snapping pictures of and cheering the lens. Lauren never knew, but I was laughing the whole time.

But everyone was waiting for the big moment. The Belmont. That event that is nearly impossible to comprehend due to its history and status. Secretariat's ghost looms strongly over the track at all moments, and these horses were going to run in his wake once again. How would they fare? Would it be another embarrassing performance in 2:31 with a longshot, or would it be a solid performance for the ages?

Really, it was neither, though it was exciting in all the right ways. The crowd surged at ever moment Mine that Bird passed them. Clearly, he was the favorite in the hearts (and pocketbooks) of the fans.

Waiting with my heart in my chest, the horses loaded right in front of me. When in the gate, the roar of the crown nearly lifted me of my feet, and then in a flash, the horses were out of the gate and down the lane.

We all watched the monitors as the horses galloped down the backside. At this point, the front runner is not usually a factor, but surprisingly, Dunkirk was setting a blistering pace. 23 and 47 for the first two quarters. Though he is a blue blood as they come, I had no belief that he would hold that pace and win.

On the far turn, the crowd began to surge, and fingers pointed at the board. Mine That Bird's number 7 had flashed onto the fourth place spot. There was another surge when he hit the second spot. He was making his move! And then, after all these weeks of his stardom, he did the impossible again...he took the lead. The crowd went wild, jumping up and down and hoping he could keep the lead.

But Dunkirk was not through! After such blistering fractions, he refused to fade away and sped back to challenge for first.

And then, it happened. Summer Bird.
The horse that had a similar running style to Mine That Bird was making his move. He was one of my picks for the Belmont, especially after Bill Nack singled him out, and I had though of putting 20 dollars on him to win just for fun (and for respect of Bill's expertise). I should have done it. In a flash, Summer Bird mowed down the competition and surged to a convincing win.

The 141st Belmont Stakes belonged to a long shot once again at 11-1, but this time, it was a long shot who legitimately had a chance in this field.

Hopes and dreams were born and dashed in the respectful time of 2:27 for the race. Some booed, and some cheered. An inquiry involving the second and fourth place horses subdued the crowd a bit. However, it was exciting all around. Nobody got hurt, and it was a real racehorse race. The drama to all of it, both behind the scenes and on the track made for memories that I will never forget.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Magical Belmont, Part 2

Thursday and Friday brought nonstop rain. At times, it was light and refreshing, but usually it was miserable and soaking. Still, after an hour or so of misery, the mind seems to accept the fate, and by 8am, we didn't really consider the rain to be a hindrance.

Also, it helped to balance the trips to the rail and to the backside with some exciting travels behind the scenes. Up to the Belmont, Jamie had kept in contact with Bill Nack for nearly a year, discussing various news from the racing world. When we got to the track for the races on Thursday, we were able to connect with him, and he was gracious enough to take us to the press room, introducing us to writers from Sports Illustrated, Bloodhorse, NYRA, and more. Jamie made some good contacts for her photography, but more importantly, it was great being able to see another part of the track that is otherwise inaccessible to the general public.

That night, we had dinner at Waterzooi with Bill, Jenny Kellner (from NYRA) and her husband (from the AP). By this time, we were settling in to these experiences that never happen to us, and we had a great time discussing all kinds of topics, from horse racing to Cormac McCarthy. The highlight had to be Bill's recital of the final page of The Great Gatsby. There were no egos at the table, which helped because we were certainly sharing a table with some very accomplished professionals.

The next night, we found ourselves rushing to buy some kind of decent clothes so we could attend the NYRA party at the grand Garden City Hotel. The invitation marked the location as "posh," and upon entering, that felt like an understatement. With new clothes in tow, fitting in visually was not a problem, though all the giants of the industry were there. By the end of the night, I had conversations with Chip Wooley, D Wayne Lucas, a handicapper for the Daily Racing Form, and of course Jenny and Bill. Though we are not party people by nature, the night still brought smiles and often incredulous looks between us..."Look where we are!"

Between our arrival early Thursday morning and that party Friday night, we had experienced more than we ever could have expected from our first Belmont trip, and the crowning event hadn't even occurred yet. The mother of all American races, the test of champions, the Belmont was looming with less than 24 hours before post time.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Magical Belmont, Part 1

The moment Jamie belted out her version of Sinatra's "New York, New York," I knew we were in for an exciting that would begin with enthusiasm and would end in complete exhaustion. However fresh a person is going into a long road trip, the miles on the road will do a good job sucking the energy right down the drain. Add to that early morning trips to the Belmont backside and late night parties with the elite in horse racing, and we could hardly stand up by the time we headed down the long road home. Still, we wouldn't have changed our experiences for any moment of rest, as we accumulated a lifetime of memories in just a few short days.

It seems a trip to the horse track inevitably brings too much rain, cold, heat, or sun. This trip was no different. Rain pelted down for two straight days, yet we trudged from backside to track to backside again, getting wonderful photographs, and talking to some fantastically quirky people.

A trip to the barns and backside is a step back in time. Surrounded by the urban sprawl of Long Island, Belmont's backside is a soft, tree-filled setting of tranquility (note Jamie's photo to the right, from Though few cars pass down the dirt roads next to the barns, horses fill the lanes, frequently grinding foot traffic to a halt as scores travel to the track for workouts. Though busy with vital tasks, riders and trainers are nearly always friendly with visitors, making a point to say "hello" and smile. Of course, it helps to be a girl on path, as that yields a lot more looks and nods.

Photographers also have built a pretty tight community as well. Throughout the trip, beginning with each morning at the barns, jokes and smiles abound as photographers jockey for position like horse paparazzi as some major contender gets a bath or walks the shedrow. It's comical watching them wait patiently for even the slightest of movements from a horse. Sometimes, all it takes is a lick of a tongue from a horse during a bath, and the sound of rapid-fire shutters cuts the air. Photography is serious business for these people, even if there are jokes in between shots.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

New Eyes on Old Landscapes

There are times we let things slide. My wife gave me a shirt that was supposed to be of Nevada...with the buttes of Monument Valley and the Saguaro cactus of the Sonoran desert. It's a typical mistake, like something you would see in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. After a decade of adventures out there, learning about the landscape inside and out, I should put that shirt in the back of my wardrobe, maybe pulling it out for the occasional paint job. However, I wear it proudly because I love her, and she gave it to me before she knew better (probably in that order)...

A while back, I was reading Ted Bishop's book, downing my last bottled beer outside the Cowboy Monkey, just enjoying the laziness of a summer's evening downtown. Then, he started writing about passing through Monument Valley...just outside of Moab. What?!?! I looked back to his map, and he never passed through Monument Valley, which is far from Moab. It was a confirmation that Bishop was not yet getting straight his landscapes for the American West. Add to that his visit to Mesa Verde, the most popular and the most sanitized of protected ruins, a few pages later, and I was scoffing at his beginner's experience.

Riding home, I realized he was expressing another voice for travel, though. I have read all kinds of travel narratives. Some are eco-narratives, where few people are seen, and landscape dominates the thoughts of the narrator. Most, though, center on people met along the way, and they always follow the same structure (a little about the road, and a little about whatever put them on the road in the first place). The latter really branches into many categories, including the old war horse, the beginner, and the re-invigorator. In all cases, it is not usual for the traveller to be clearly aware of the landscape. It is always a passing fascination. If I give Bishop the benefit, he's just trying to grasp the vast West for the first time, and he's mixing it all together. He's the beginner, and as all beginners to the West reveal, keeping straight the many different landscapes, even the famous ones, can be a difficult task.

Back Roads

The side roads have been good to us this trip to the four corners region.

In south-western Colorado, we searched through dirt roads on a large tract of BLM land to find one or more elusive herds of wild horses. After missing a turn-off and driving about 18 miles through endless scrub land, Jamie spotted a group of them. All but one looked completely relaxed, but the stallion kept a close eye on us. It was for good reason, too. Clearly, one of the mares was ready to burst with pregnancy. So, after a few pictures and so loitering in the pleasantly hot sun, we moved on.

Just outside of Flagstaff, there is a Native American ruins site that is in the process of excavation. Though we had just visited Wupatki and all its beautiful ruins just an hour before, we felt lucky to stumble on this pile of mounds that seemed to be bursting with broken artifacts churned to the surface by summer rains. Here, we could see the remains of an ending before too much was done to start a new beginning. Somehow, it felt more intimate this way.

Along highway 4, headed to White Rock, New Mexico, I passed a small sign indicating a prehistoric site. I almost stopped, but decided to wait for Jamie to come along, thinking it was something rather insignificant. So many sites in that area have been marked, and since I could see some of the ruins from the road, I figured it would be less significant than other around the area. It was a great thing I waited for two reasons. First, I headed down to White Rock, pulled alongside the houses until I got a WIFI connection, yanked a trail map for a canyon hike, and hiked a beautiful trail to some rapids along the Rio Grande. Second, Jamie was able to come back to the area with me, and we found an unexcavated cliff dwelling, so well-preserved, plaster still existed on many of the dwellings' interior walls. Above the cliff dwellings, there were unexcavated pueblos, and like our experience in Flagstaff, there were all kinds of beautiful pottery shards churned to the surface from recent storms.

West of Las Vegas, New Mexico, we found a road that cut through the mountains towards Taos. Though short on the map, we spend a glorious afternoon weaving around mountain roads, stopping once for some fresh high mountain clear water raging alongside the road. Now that I had a good water filter, we could enjoy the freshness of mountain water in minutes.

And the back roads in the cities brought us to both familiar and new spots, away from crowds, where we blended in with locals as we did our own thing as we would have back home. Aztec Café in Santa Fe and The Bean in Taos were the most comforting, and the most familiar, and neither showed signs of even one tourist. Both had the best coffee I'd had since Paradiso's strong cups back home, and neither would have been visited at much length had I not needed to use the internet out of obligation to work duties. The required diversion, though first thought as an albatross, turned out to be what opened up to the most conversations with the most people.

Interstates and chains and tourists are comforting when we need them, but the adventure of the back roads is much more satisfying. Yes, it takes longer to get place to place, but isn't that a good thing? After all, the finish line is always going to be home, so side trips and out-of-the way adventures, both exciting and unsettling, seem to prolong the trip, providing some of the best stories in the process. I have so many more from this trip alone, from being chased across a cliff's edge by bighorn sheep to crossing a creek between two waterfalls to get to a mining cabin along a ledge in near zero-visibility fog, from hiking in 105 degree heat to find elusive ruins to requests for rides by odd characters hitching their way to Las Vegas. But those are for another time.

Waking Older

"After thirty a man wakes up sad every morning excepting perhaps five or six until the day of his death." --Ralph Waldo Emerson

I don't know when it happened. Really, I think it started before thirty, but once I hit thirty, there was only looking back. I became older. Yeah, I still like loud music. Yeah, I take chances and have fun and generally live up my life. But there's a depressing feature of my life now. I realize I'm going to die. I'm scared of the day my family members will die. My close friends, too. I feel it now, and I used to just know it. This fear doesn't transfer to full-out depression or real waking sadness, but it is a weight that sits on me from the moment I wake up. We only have so much time in this world...

Before thirty, the world is all ahead. Life is the future, and youth still grips us in all our uncertainties. It's not like there isn't uncertainty after thirty, but it takes a shift, and it starts to feel more like anxiety, like everything should be figured out and is not. Responsibility fights (and usually wins) over the once prevalent reckless abandon of youth. Experience adds cynicism towards those less experienced. And then the light bulb goes on. I'm looking back. I'm no longer idealistic and carefree. I've moved on.

All things considered, it's really not so bad. It's just that I realize all of our days are numbered...that we have to make the most of things. And in my laziness, I don't really make the most of anything. But I think I make more of my life now that the weight of age wakes with me every day. It makes me try least a little. At least I hope.

On relationships

From High Fidelity:

"...what really matters is what you like, not what you are like."

So, they propose "the idea of a questionnaire for prospective partners, a two- or three-page multiple-choice document that covered all the music/film/TV/book bases. It was intended a) to dispense with awkward conversation, and b) to prevent a chap from leaping into bed with someone who might, at a later date, turn out to have every Julio Iglesias record ever made...there was an important and essential truth contained in that idea, and the truth was that these things matter, and it's no good pretending any relationship has a future if your record collections disagree violently, or if your favorite films wouldn't even speak to each other if they met at a party."

Liking people and having a relationship with people are very different things. I like a lot of people, but it's tough developing meaningful relationships/friendships, and I think a root to this difficulty stems from this cultural rift. It's too difficult to develop relationships with people who don't share some of my same interests in the arts, or at least appreciate the arts. I don't understand those who hate to read books, love only blockbuster films (or even worse, look forward all year to movies like Shrek), and have a singular connection to corporate music from the radio or MTV. Without a wide range of the love of the arts, and without that philosophical connection between the arts and humanity/existence, and of course without some connections between actual likes and dislikes, I am usually lost for conversation after a short period of time. I'm sure this is a failing of mine, but I'm guessing I'm not alone here. What we like matters to our relationships and our conversations.