Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veteran's Day 2009

I walked into the school gymnasium and as my eyes scanned the room taking in red, white and blue decorations dripping with glitter, glue and "thank you's" scrawled by chubby hands, I started furiously swallowing the hard lump in my throat that had suddenly appeared. And through teary eyes, I only dimly saw the old men in faded uniforms pinned with once-bright ribbons who held the hands of their white-haired sweethearts. As we all faced the enormous flag on the wall, hands over beating hearts, I managed to utter about every other phrase : "I pledge allegiance . . .and to the republic. . .one nation, under God (really choked here) . . . with liberty . . . for all." And someone could have probably mopped me up off the floor as the preschoolers belted out a surprisingly good "God Bless America." When we were asked to sing on the second round, stronger voices joined the chorus, but mine was not one of them, although I did manage to croak out a few words . . ."my home sweet home." I could not love Miss Pam, the principal, more for getting choked up as she dismissed the children and said thank you to the veterans and had the kids hand out homemade thank you cards to everyone there.

As I surveyed this Rockwellian scene, I couldn't help but think that sixty-some years ago, these men and women, young and fresh, were flung far afield charged with the mission of saving the world. And for all the gratitude I carry in my heart, I couldn't help but wish that we had more to offer by way of thanks than an annual lunch in the gym, some shy thanks, a sweetly-sung song and a teary pledge. But the very nature of the folks dubbed "the greatest generation" dictates that this is enough and it is why as I pulled out of the parking lot, I had tears streaming down my cheeks because a proud white haired man wearing the uniform of II Corps (North Africa unit) waved and smiled at me as I drove away.

Thank you, veterans of World War I. You fought in one of the worst conflicts the world has ever seen and overcame.

Thank you, veterans of World War II. You did nothing less than save the world.

Thank you, veterans of the Korean War. What you sacrificed is not forgotten.

Thank you, veterans of the Vietnam conflict. We ARE proud of you and your service.

Thank you, veterans of Desert Storm. You answered when duty called.

Thank you, veterans of the War on Terror in Afghanistan and Iraq. My children sleep safely in their beds at night because you are not sleeping in yours.

Thank you, veterans of all of the other conflicts -- Bosnia, Grenada, Somalia and the myriad of other places where Americans have been on the ground righting wrongs and fighting evil.

Thank you, families of service men and women. You have lent America your very best.

Never have so many owed so much to so few. You are heroes. God bless.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Reprise: Riders Up!

It's that time of year again when I am distracted by funky names, post assignments, sound conformation and compelling stories and then subject you, dear readers, to it too! Today is the 135th running of the Kentucky Derby and the 25th time that I have reveled in Louisville University's rendition of "My Old Kentucky Home," thrilled to the bugle fanfare, crossed my fingers at the "Riders up!" and held my breath for two minutes minutes as fragile three year old horses and skilled jockeys hurtle themselves down the one and a quarter miles at Churchill Downs.

My favorite aspect of horse racing, aside from the visceral magnificence of the animals themselves, is the moving back stories of either horse, jockey, trainer or owner. It seems every year is a tale from knacker (horse meat man) to track or a 93 year old lady who has dreamed of having a race horse her whole life and finally gets a Derby colt. Call me a softie, but I love those kinds of stories. This year does not disappoint as it offers the combination of an everyman's hero of a horse and his tenacious owner/trainer. So indulge me. It's Derby time!

First of all, you must know that horse racing is big business. It is a commercial enterprise where horses are bred for speed, trained by folks who answer to wealthy owners. Trainers' careers rest on being able to land big purses in the right races creating horses that command even larger stud or brood fees. And if racing is a hobby, it is the pastime of sheiks, not school teachers, since Derby horses are bought and sold for hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars. They are more expensive than the finest cars, not the price of a Taurus. That is the backdrop for our story.

In 1955, a college student hopped a bus, went to his first Kentucky Derby, watched Swaps beat Nashua and a love affair was born. Since 1962 Tom McCarthy has dabbled in racing, a racket he loved, but that never loved him back. Retired as a high school principal since 1990, McCarthy has been racing in obscurity rising at 3 a.m. to go to the track, working his one or two horses, then leaving for school by 7, nobody paying him any attention. In all that time, he never won so much as a stakes race. None of McCarthy's horses have ever been very good and in the nearly half century he has been racing, he has only won a total of $229,020 in purses. That has all changed with General Quarters, the star of McCarthy's barn, the only horse in McCarthy's barn.

McCarthy saw him first in 2007, as a gangly one year old colt at the Keeneland Auction where the most expensive horse of the day went for $3.7 million. McCarthy had to bow out of the bidding when it rose over his ceiling of $20,000 and that was the last he thought of the leggy grey fellow with the white diamond splashed across his face. In fact their paths crossed again at a claims race where the winner could be purchased for the price of the purse. The winner? The grey colt now a little more grown up and dubbed General Quarters. The purse? $20,000. The luck of the Irish was with McCarthy that day because two other claimers wanted him, but McCarthy won the "shake" when his form was drawn. General Quarters was his.

McCarthy, 75, is nothing but patient. He is in no hurry. He is an unglamorous, old fashioned trainer in a fast-paced, glitzy world. He says that as a young trainer he lacked the finesse to be successful. With General Quarters, he was determined to rush nothing. "When he was a 2-year-old, he was very anxious," McCarthy says. "I just had to slow him down and begin to allow him to grow up and get away from all this fast and strenuous work. So I just let him go along and grow. I thought I had something that was fairly nice and I was in no hurry. That's the patience I've learned after so long. ... You've got to take your time, and with this one, I did."

And he still does. McCarthy is the hot walker, stall mucker, groom, masseuse, trainer, owner. He slips his pocket knife out each morning and slices a carrot into General Quarters' feed and an apple into his dinner rations. He is a throwback to the days of Seabiscuit where a small team brought an unlikely horse into the hearts of Depression-weary America. Rival trainers with dozens of horses to keep track of walk by his barn and see a horseman who lavishes attention on his lone colt the way they wish they still could. After the post-position draw, Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott, who's won more races at Churchill Downs than anyone else, introduced himself to McCarthy, looked him in the eye and said, "You're a natural. Good luck."

McCarthy stood there for a moment and took in the scene. Around him, the rich and the powerful milled about in suits and expensive cowboy boots, swapping stories about the vagaries of running operations he could only dream about. McCarthy was still wearing the while polo shirt he had on early in the morning, spotted with flecks of blood and mud as he massaged his horse, filled his own feed buckets and even raked the gravel outside a rented stall. "I've seen this race come and I've seen it go," he said finally, a note of wonderment softening the usual gruff tone. "But I've never been a part of it before."

In a cut-throat industry where trainers have eyes only for their own charges, McCarthy is a sentimental favorite. "Here we all thought it was just some principal who hit the lottery, and it turns out he was training quarterhorses with an uncle at Rillito Park in Tucson before I was even born," Hall of Fame trainer and three-time Derby winner Bob Baffert says. "How cool would it be if he won?"

How cool indeed. In a world where cash is king, McCarthy has been offered millions of dollars for General Quarters. He said he hasn't been tempted."I told one guy, I can't sell my dream," McCarthy said.

So this morning in the cool mists of the Churchill Downs backside, if you were to meander past Barn 37, you might see this: "There's only the hint of a shake in his hands as he pulls the leather straps up from under the belly and buckles them, before turning to the bridle. The colt's blanket lies folded to the side. It's not the typical garment of a Kentucky Derby horse. Worn thin, the orange wrap was red when McCarthy's kids gave it to him years ago. On each side is sewn a rectangular nylon patch to hide the name of a horse that wore it previously. A peek inside reveals the name, Silent Victory." Before this year, those were the only kinds of victories McCarthy knew.

So join me today to root for the longshot because today, millions of dollars worth of thoroughbred horses will go to the post in the 135th Kentucky Derby. And McCarthy will be there, too, with his $20,000 claimer and a million-dollar smile.

Other Derby News:

  • In addition to rooting for General Quarters, I also like Dunkirk. "General Quarters" is the call to battle stations on a US Navy ship and Dunkirk was the site of an epic WWII struggle, so aside from the compelling Cinderella tale, how could I not root for those two?
  • I think Pioneerof the Nile (correct spelling with the "of" not spaced-funky names, remember?) also has a good chance.
  • Friesan Fire out of Eight Belles' stable will be the final Derby entry for trainer Larry Jones. He's had enough and wants to spend time with his grandchildren.
  • There will be a brief memorial time to remember Eight Belles, last year's second place finisher who tragically outran her legs and died on the track.
  • A new bronze memorial to Barbaro will be unveiled.
  • The nineteen horse field is a big one and for that reason, dangerous. Track conditions are expected to be wet, so it could be anybody's race and a real nail biter. Fingers crossed for safe trips for everyone.
  • I Want Revenge, the 3-1 morning line favorite, was scratched just hours before the run for the roses.
  • All this and mint juleps, big hats and gorgeous horses too? And you ask why I love horse racing?

Full disclosure: Under normal circumstances writing on this blog is 100% my own (or credited otherwise). Due to this being my final day of the semester, with a large project due and wanting to post this before the Derby start time, I selected a few quotes from other sources. Since this is not a term paper, they are not cited. And since about five people read this, I don't think anyone will care. If you do, contact me.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Happy Easter

We had a blessed Easter: a moving Easter service, a wonderful meal at my parents' house with family and glorious weather for a little egg hunt.

Bear, Bug and Bean in their Easter finery. . .

Bug loves Cousin M . . .well, after he got over his great surprise at seeing her at OUR church. She met us during the service and when she showed up with me after church to pick him up from his class, he was so surprised that he whimpered and hollered and wouldn't go anywhere near her until we got to my mom's house. What a goof!

Egg hunt!

And yes, I do coordinate the girls' dresses. I never get identical dresses, but ever since Bear was born, I have gotten them Easter dresses that match. This year, El Guapo's boss Lady J gave us Bear's dress and I just adore the colors. (Anyone who knows me in the real world knows I LOVE brown.) So I was just thrilled to find Bean's dress in the identical colors (and on sale).

There must be some eggs around here somewhere!

"Getting dressed up stinks. Just give me my Lightning McQueen shirt and I'll be happy!"

Thursday, April 9, 2009

She's Baaack!!!

So what excuse is there that anyone would care to hear for being absent and neglectful for FIVE MONTHS!?! My fingers were crushed in a horrible farming accident and I couldn't type. I had severe post-election depression and have been institutionalized and over-medicated. I was cultivating a new-found romance with France and all things French. Priorities shift, deadlines loom, creative outlets get pushed to the periphery no matter how dearly they are missed. . .

Spring is a time of new beginnings. It's good to be back . . . .

Ode to Chickens

I have fancied chickens for as long as I can remember. Yes, the cluck, cluck, scratch, scratch variety. Don't ask why because I don't even know myself, but I just love chickens. Who can resist a chicken? Plump and soft, devoted mothers, fierce fathers, attractive hens, magnificent roosters, useful without being used up.

Honey gold Buff Orpington Stalwart Plymouth Rock Classic Americana Rhode Island Red

Old World Barnvelders (Check out the gold lacing pattern on the hen!) Sassy Wyandotte

One of my earliest chicken memories is of sitting in the backseat of my parents' car with my Grandma E, a former chicken farmer. I was about eight or nine and we were discussing all of the vagaries of raising chicks. Well, the discussion was more like a recitation of every chicken detail, fact or tip that I had memorized by checking out and reading every book our library had on chicken husbandry. As I talked about incubation, the specifications of a variety of do-it-yourself brooders, the correct height for the lightbulb used to keep new hatchlings at an optimum temperature (and how to tell), what to feed them and how to prevent them from drowning in their water AFTER you have dipped their baby beaks in to teach them how to drink, my grandma exclaimed, "I think you know more about chickens than I do!" What a compliment! I must have glowed for hours.

About an hour away is a world-renowned museum featuring a chick exhibit with incubated eggs at different stages so that every day, every hour, there are chicks hatching that people can watch. As a child and now as a parent with my own children, I have watched those chicks shake and quiver and struggle then rest and then shake and quiver and struggle some more to break free of their eggshell prisons. If you visit, your eyes will lock on one mini-struggle for life and if you have any sort of soul, you will not be able to walk away until you have seen "your" little fellow through his birthing ordeal. And if you are like me, a tear might slip down your cheek as you realize that watching something, anything, being born is one of the few true everyday miracles.

So you might think that with this great chicken love-fest going on here, Mustard Seed House must be home to a flock of chickens, real or otherwise. I wish I could report that I have a happy klatsch of ladies in my backyard, but alas, city ordinances being as unprogressive as they are, backyard flocks are banned. (If I ever run for local office, it will be on a chicken platform -- "A chicken in every yard!") But that is not to say that I have not dreamed of clandestine coops and fantasy flocks (if guys can have fantasy leagues, why can't I?!). My gals even have names: Selma, Matilda, Frieda, Bertha, Erna, Dorothy and Gertrude in honor of my grandmothers' and great-grandmothers' first and middle names. I envision misty mornings, going out to release my girls from their coop where they have cozily roosted all night, scattering some feed at my feet as they jostle their plump feathery bodies to scratch and cluck and hunt for bugs, gathering warm eggs in a rainbow of dusky colors and creating simple, yet divine, egg-based dishes that friends and family clamor for. Oh the life!

While this may sound crazy to some (or MOST -- including El Guapo!), I have found a chicken-loving soulmate in a co-worker, Divine Miss M. DMM is further along in her chicken dream than I since on the Tuesday after Easter (this is in just five days!!), 50 hatchlings will be arriving at her parents' house in the country and she is going to be in charge of their egg and meat production. I am experiencing the thrill vicariously and am almost as excited as she is for Tuesday to arrive! I'll keep you posted. I have already been saving egg cartons galore; this has not been a problem since we go through several dozen eggs a week. (If El Guapo's blood tests come back showing high cholesterol, I guess we'll know why!)

And before anyone starts anonymously sending chicken brick-a-brack, knick-knacks or other paraphernalia, our decor is not chicken-coop-chic; it is more late-millennial Salvation Army in neutral colors with accents of hand-me-downs. I don't actually collect anything since I have discovered that for myself anyway, collections breed discontent. Even when you add a new piece, you are always on the hunt for one more thing, always wanting more, always pining for something you can't have. So no collecting (I do have a book addiction problem I can write about some other time, though!). But I do have a couple of chicken-related items that bring me great pleasure.

This is a salt and pepper set from my Grandma D. They are filled with antique grime and impossible to clean without possibly damaging the painting, but I love their whimsical design.

This is one of my favorite things, one of those everyday items that brings me unexplainable pleasure and joy every time I look at it. I agonized over buying him at the Kriskindle Market one winter. He is German hand-cast, hand-painted pewter and could be used as a pin or brooch. We passed the stall several times, but it was at a time when the budget was really tight, so even though he didn't cost that much, it was hard to spend the money. I am so glad we did. About a week after I brought him home and hung him near my kitchen sink, I was listening to the radio while putzing around the kitchen, and I heard a most amazing tidbit that has forever enshrined chickens in my heart (as if they weren't already!).

In Jesus' time and in the times of the Early Church (the 2-3 centuries after Christ), believers would etch the icthus (fish) symbol on their doorposts as a subtle symbol to other believers -- kind of like hobo codes letting fellow travelers and pilgrims know they would be welcomed with hospitality. As persecution increased and officials became more hostile to Christianity, believers had to forgo the icthus symbol as it was like a signpost saying, "Come beat this door down and feed me to lions." They used a different symbol, rich in meaning. The rooster. As in the cock that crowed after Peter denied Christ three times on the night of Jesus' arrest and trial. As in every time we look at this rooster, let's remember to never deny our Lord or who we are. Even today in countries where Christians are tracked down, hunted, tortured, killed for their faith, the rooster is a vibrant symbol identifying like-minded souls to each other and admonishing them to take courage. So I love my colorful fellow who keeps me company as I wash dishes, wipe counters, prepare meals. He is a reminder to me: Brothers and sisters live in chains -- pray for them. Peter denied Christ, but was forgiven -- forgive others. Peter denied Christ, but was redeemed -- there is hope for me. Peter denied Christ, but others have not -- take courage and live boldly. Happy Easter.