Writing From the Right Side of the Stall

Carefully curated musings (um, okay, rants) about the writing life, horses, bitterness and crushing career disappointment. Fun, right?

Lost Souls

sunnybrook bank barnFor those of us whose hearts belong to critters, this has been a very sad spring.  I’m still stinging from the loss of Trixie, whose absence makes itself known in strange, small ways as I navigate my weeks.  Several friends have lost long-time companions — dogs, cats, a sheep with a personality bigger than she was. 

And then came utterly tragic news in the early morning hours of Victoria Day (May 21).  This time my grief is shared with thousands of others, because as well as I knew the horses who perished, they were also loved by half of Toronto.

You might know where I’m going with this.  It made national, even international headlines (in fact, the friend who first alerted me, did so from Germany).  

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Sunnybrook Stables, a place where I taught beginner riders a couple of days a week, in a park in the heart of Toronto, burnt to the ground early that morning, trapping 16 of my good friends inside with no hope of escape.  

Here’s what I wrote for The Rider, an Ontario-based equine newspaper.  

HISTORIC TORONTO STABLE BURNS IN VICTORIA DAY FIRE

In the 21st century, horses and urban humans don’t often mix.  But Toronto’s Sunnybrook Stables, located in the lush Sunnybrook Park at Leslie and Eglinton, gave inner-city kids (and adults) a chance to interact with horses and learn to ride.  Along with its sister facility, the Riding Academy, located at Exhibition Place near the Lake Ontario waterfront, Sunnybrook offered a unique opportunity to Toronto’s urbanites:  stables that can be reached by mass transit.
The two-alarm fire that destroyed Sunnybrook’s historic bank barn in the wee hours of Victoria Day, May 21st, 2018, made international news.  Quick action by Toronto firefighters and police, who were summoned after an observer in a nearby apartment complex saw the flames, saved the newer barn which adjoins Sunnybrook’s indoor arena, and the 13 horses inside.  The Toronto Police Mounted Unit swiftly mobilized their own trailers to relocate the survivors to the stables at the Horse Palace.  Sixteen school horses, however, lost their lives in the fire, which totally consumed the bank barn.
The barn, which was built around 1910 as part of the estate of Major Joseph Kilgour, and was donated to the city of Toronto in 1928, became part of Sunnybrook Park, an urban oasis of trees, trails, picnic grounds, soccer fields … and a riding school. 
Walter Shanly founded Sunnybrook Stables Ltd. in 1979, leasing the facility from the city.  Shanly passed away in September 2017, and his widow, Jacquelynn, now operates the school.
The cause of the fire has yet to be determined.  It is not considered to have been suspicious, despite the rumoured presence of individuals setting off fireworks in the park that evening.
At this time, with future plans for rebuilding uncertain, Sunnybrook Stables has asked that fund-raising be put on hold.  If you wish to make a contribution, they suggest Greenhawk gift cards, which can be used towards replacing the lost tack for the surviving horses.  A permanent memorial for the horses, in the park, is in the planning stages. 

 

Axel Sampson SandyWhen a privately-owned horse passes away, those closest to that animal grieve, of course.  But the school horses at Sunnybrook were known, and loved, by literally thousands of Torontonians, each with their own special memories of a favourite horse or pony.  Some of the Sunnybrook mounts had been resident in the park for upwards of 20 years.  The outpouring of sorrow on social media has been overwhelming, as have been the offers of funds, supplies, and green field time for the survivors. 

I only had 1000 words to work with for the story, and I included a very brief description of each of the schoolies who were my work partners and my friends.  I could easily have written a thousand words on each of them.  So here, where no-one’s policing my wordcount, I thought I’d say a little more, so that they are not forgotten.schoolies

Sugar – one of Sunnybrook’s beginner specialists, Sugar was a red roan mare with a dished face and a big blaze.  Her history as a Western pleasure mount gave her a super-slow trot and a rocking-chair canter, perfect for nervous riders.  She had a sensitive mouth, which taught her young charges an important element of empathy.  

Axel – a chestnut paint gelding, narrow and long-backed.  A legendary grouch in the barn, Axel had to be caught in his stall by the staff, as he’d turn his butt and threaten to kick kids who entered his stall.  But he was a surprisingly willing partner for Sunnybrook’s intermediate riders in the arena, giving them just enough challenge without ever verging on unsafe.  He really shone over fences.

Sampson – one of the barn’s newer recruits, a cheeky black-and-white large pony who was a little green. He provided a nice challenge for the school’s more advanced riders, as he could get a little on the muscle — a change from the horses they had to kick to get moving.  

Sandy – a little Appaloosa pony mare who was winding down to retirement and only used lightly in the school.  I’ll be honest:  riding Sandy was like a free chiropractic adjustment:  she was that uncomfortable.  But those who loved her, loved her fiercely.  

Sutherland – the absolutely indispensible “Sudsy”, a 20-something gray Percheron/Arab cross, was beginner-friendly but forward, which is a fairly rare combination.  Sutherland had been at Sunnybrook so long that few remembered a time before him.  Low to the ground but sturdy, he carried adults and tiny kids with equal aplomb.  He wouldn’t bother heaving himself into the air over cross-rails and little verticals, preferring just to trot over them.  The jumps had to reach a certain height before he’d make an effort.  I loved him for that.

Hercules – a liver chestnut Welsh cross, Herc could shuffle in slow-motion or turn it up a notch.  He would mess with his small riders by drifting off the rail into the middle of the ring to test their steering skills.  I had to laugh at him.  If you can learn to ride a pony well, you can ride anything.

Poomba – 12 hands of pure cheek! Flaxen chestnut Poomba, much prettier than the Disney warthog, would babysit to a degree, but he could also be a handful.  Over fences, he was on springs, rocketing kids out of the saddle with his exuberance.   He also had a wicked set of brakes.

Blossom – a black-and-white medium pony mare with a kind heart and enough quality to have not been out of place on the A circuit.  She took exceptional care of the kids on her back and seldom displayed much pony-tude.  

Apollo – of Pony of the Americas breeding, freckled Apollo was under 10, but behaved like a much more seasoned pony.  We could always count on his level head — and we instructors thanked gawd for him sometimes.  

Phoenix — one of Sunnybrook’s more recent recruits, Phoenix was a gray Arabian mare who had been there just under a year.  Something of a nervous Nellie in the barn, she was surprisingly well-trained and confident under saddle.  A fun ride for the more advanced kids.

Tess – a bay Quarter Horse mare with a downhill build, Tess played the grumpy mare card but was very well-schooled, with some fancy dressage moves in her repertoire.  I sympathized with her lack of enthusiasm for ham-handed, bratty kids, and tried to make my students appreciate her as a hidden gem.

Misty – a red roan mare of predominantly QH breeding, with one split ear, Misty was goey, sensitive, and a little spooky, not for a beginner.  She knew her stuff over fences, and was a favourite of the instructors as a mount for themselves.

Marty – a dark bay Thoroughbred mare who was a nice junior hunter before arthritic hocks slowed her down, Marty was also for the more advanced students.  She defended her stall space like a barracuda, and gave students a taste of ‘more go than whoa’.

Gifford – Sunnybrook’s mini mascot, reputed to be about 38 years old, was adored by everyone.

Beau – an irreplaceable beginner hero, this big yellow Appaloosa gelding trucked around tiny children and large, awkward adults with equal equanimity.  For a first taste of canter, you couldn’t do better than Beau, who went off instructor voice commands.  On the list of horses who should be nominated for sainthood, Beau was near the top of the list.

Mr. T – another stalwart who had been at Sunnybrook almost longer than anyone could remember.  T was an almost-black Clyde cross, with a dignified Roman nose and the kindest eyes you could imagine.  The extra white hairs sprinkled around those eyes spoke to his long years of service.  Thanks to his size, T was another kind soul who got riders both large and small hoisted on his back, and he was our go-to for anyone who was special-needs, because we could trust him to the ends of the earth.  T never got grumpy about his lot as an uber-dependable beginner mount, and viewed the world with quiet bemusement.   I will miss him most of all.

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Rabbit Hole

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There’s one serving less of beet pulp soaking in the yellow bucket this morning.  An empty halter, and an abandoned rainsheet, on a straw bale in the barn.  Her absence is everywhere.

(That ought to be enough foreshadowing to induce you to stop here, gentle reader, if you don’t like stories that don’t end well.)

Trixie came to me as a freebie yearling, from a very nice, knowledgeable small breeder of Thoroughbreds.  She was not destined for a racing career, so needed a home.  She was nicely put together, and a lovely mover, but there were three strikes against her right from the start.  One, she was congenitally swaybacked.  Two, her dam — through no fault of her own, from what I could tell — had produced two or three other offspring who IMG_20150823_094449hadn’t made it to the races.  (That usually makes buyers at a yearling sale hesitant to take a chance, especially on a filly with, um, unusual conformation, despite the fact that there have been several very successful racehorses who were swaybacked.)

And three, she was a chestnut Thoroughbred mare.  That’s not a curse from a racing point of view, but certainly something of a hindrance in the sport horse world, where there’s a widespread belief that chestnut mares are … well, legendarily squirrelly.

With then-two-year-old Parker on stall rest with a hind ankle injury, I was looking for a project.  I was thinking of a three- or four-year-old off the track, but when Trixie came along, I thought, well, a yearling is a clean slate, and that could be a very good thing.  I did do my research on swaybacks before I agreed to take her:  though it’s a saddle-fitting challenge, it’s not actually an unsoundness, and most congenitally swaybacked horses are just as sound and capable as those whose vertebrae are more conventionally designed.  Plus, I admit, I thought she might grow out of some of it;  they don’t call them ‘yaklings’ for nothing, and many an ugly duckling at 15 months turns out to be a stunning specimen later.  (She didn’t grow out of it, but that was okay.)

The chestnut mare thing didn’t scare me particularly either.  My horse of a lifetime was a copper chestnut with chrome.  I’ve worked with a lot of chestnut mares, and I like their feistiness.  But in all honesty, Trixie turned out to be every bad cliché of a chestnut Thoroughbred mare, ever, temperament-wise.  That assumption has to come from somewhere, after all.

Trixie was a skittish little thing when she first came home to me, but I initially chalked that up to her having not had a lot of handling;  when it became clear she wasn’t a candidate for the fall yearling sale, she stayed out in the field while her compatriots were brought in and given a crash course on being haltered, groomed, led, and otherwise fondled and harassed by humans.  I started to work a little at a time on her ground manners.  It took months before I could safely pick up her hind feet, and I never did get her to cross-tie reliably.  Unfortunately, the flightiness she exhibited as a yearling never really went IMG_20160805_193854away.  It was progress by centimetres with her, with just about everything; she was quick to panic, and when her fearfulness took over, her brain shut down.  She did learn new skills, but because her panic button was so hair-trigger, it seemed to take her far longer  than average to assimilate information, and she had more trouble retaining that information than most, too.  The typical horse, after some time off, picks up right where she left off in her training, but Trixie always regressed to square one, so I would have to repeat the same lessons over and over.  I wonder now whether she didn’t have a bona fide learning disability.  She behaved in some ways like a horse who had been abused, but I knew for a fact that she never had been.

But when she wasn’t a hazard to herself and others because she was freaking out, Trixie could be a terribly sweet soul.  There was no malice in her; she never meant to hurt anyone, and if she was feeling confident she would be the first to approach you, lick your hand, and ask for wither scritches.   My student, Sarah Bernath, who’s in the photos above, fell in love with her gentle side, and was the first person on her back — a development which took far longer than usual for a young horse, given the amount of time it took for Trixie to accept wearing a saddle and bridle, and learn to longe without resembling a 1200 lb. orange marlin on a hook.  In Trixie’s universe, there were lions, tigers, and bears in every corner, and a pole on the ground was cause for hysteria…. every. Single. Time.

IMG_20170116_114318And then, of course, there was the challenge of fitting her saddle.  That took some experimentation.  She not only was swaybacked but also had massive shoulder-blades, so she was a seriously weird shape.  I tried a number of ways of filling in the hollow in the middle of her back to prevent a saddle from bridging, finally settling on some customization of an EcoGold half-pad that I was lucky enough to win in a little Facebook contest.  When I received the pad in the mail, I noticed that it had openings on each side, with velcro closures; that meant that you could remove, replace, and move around the foam inserts inside.  I contacted the company to ask whether they had other thicknesses of foam for the pad, and they very kindly sent me, without charge, all of the other inserts available for that shape of pad.  With a bit of fiddling, I came up with a pad which was thinnest near the withers, thickest in the middle, and sort-of-medium thickness under the cantle.  The saddle sat rather high on top of the resulting pad, but it sat level, and it seemed to work.  (Many thanks again to EcoGold.)

Essentially, Trixie’s problem was not her back … it was what was between her ears.  Though we did get her started under saddle, progress was always one step forward, five steps back; she remained volatile, untrustworthy, and uber-sensitive.  She would stand to be mounted but lose her shit when a rider’s right leg touched her side in search of the stirrup.  I’m a bit old and creaky to be ploughed into the ground repeatedly, so I relied on brave volunteers to get on her … and if they could ride out the first 90 seconds, then usually Trixie would take a breath and become willing to be piloted after that.  We got as far as cantering her under saddle, a couple of times.  But I gave up all hope of her ever becoming an event horse; she was simply too fearful.  Athletically, she was more than capable — hell, she was by far the nicest mover of my gang of six.  Mentally, however, she just didn’t have the tools.  I decided I would be happy just to make her a productive citizen of any kind. 

So I kept chipping away at her, in hopes that things would improve with maturity, despite the urging of my boyfriend to stop putting effort and energy into her.  “What am I going to do, just relegate her to pasture potato and feed her till she’s 30?”, I said.

IMG_20160120_003444Some horses just seem to be born under a black cloud.  In addition to all of her other challenges, Trixie’s tendency to shut her brain off at the slightest hint of stress, resulted in this (left), the winter before last.  I had hung a new feed bucket on the fenceline of her field, since she was now turned out with her BFF, Vivian (a bay OTTB filly a year Trixie’s junior).  I belatedly realized I had not taped the handles of said bucket, which all good Pony Clubbers know you must do to avoid horses getting their halters snagged on the bucket and panicking. 

The electrical tape was up at the house.  I went up to get it.  20 minutes is all it took.  She got hooked on the bucket, freaked out, went through two fencelines, sliced the shit out of the front of her knee, and galloped in blind hysteria all over the property, leaving a trail of blood in the snow.  The bucket eventually surrendered, and even more eventually Trixie was caught along with her BFF, but the knee needed stitching, and after that it was three weeks of frankly hellish stall rest, with her leg trussed up like a Christmas goose in an attempt to keep her from popping the stitching.  Medicating her was a daily nightmare, and every-other-day bandage changes required sedation that didn’t always work.  It healed beautifully in the end, but the whole event was kind of Trixie in a nutshell.

So I wasn’t surprised when, this past November, Trixie developed a persistent, but otherwise minor-looking, snotty nose.  Just the one nostril.  She’d had a similar bout of respiratory infection the previous fall, and it had cleared up on its own.  This one didn’t.  And while she was otherwise healthy, it began to influence her energy level; she just seemed a little subdued (which, given that it was Trixie, wasn’t an entirely unwelcome thing and I was loathe to mess with it at first, I admit!).  Knowing what a gawdawful patient she was, I hesitated to consult my vet because I knew antibiotics would likely be prescribed.  By January, though, I caved, and my worst fears were realized:  the Rx was two weeks of twice-daily sulfa pills, which had to be dissolved in boiling water, mixed with baby food, and syringed into her mouth.  Suffice to say it was a battle (Every.  Single.  Time.) and occasionally I lost.

So we went through 250 pills or so, some of which actually got into her (some is still decorating the walls of her stall), and still had a sinus infection.  At this point, my vet recommended more aggressive treatment.  Which is when we went down the rabbit hole.  I should not have been surprised.

I don’t have any photos of my heavily-sedated Trixie with two holes drilled into her skull.  It was fairly awful and I held her head, but had to look fixedly at the stall wall, lest I get tunnel vision.  We irrigated the sinus directly with a pump and hose inserted into the holes.  Water and crud and blood splattered everywhere and began to freeze to the stall floor.  My vet introduced antibiotic into the sinus cavity, and we put her back on the sulfa as well.  And a week later, we repeated the irrigation with a device that was not unlike a pressure washer.  More crud came out, but the radiographs showed more had stayed in. We tried a second, long-acting injectable antibiotic.  Couldn’t seem to get ahead of the infection.  I think we irrigated it three times in total, each episode a little more miserable than the last.  She would perk up for a day or two, and then the discharge would return.  Somehow, the simple snotty nose had become something life-threatening.  (And of course, the bill was starting to add up, too …)

IMG_20160224_122648And then the culture came back from the lab, showing that the infection in her sinus was fungal.  Which meant that there was nothing more, medicinally, that we could throw at it.

The only other treatment option, at that point, was an invasive bone flap surgery which would have had to have been performed at the University of Guelph’s large animal hospital:  open up a much larger hole in her skull to scrape out all the infectious material from her sinus.  It would have been invasive, would require weeks of hospitalization, and would likely cost me $4000 to $6000.

If it had been any of my other horses, I would have found the money somehow.  But any of my other horses would have tolerated the hospitalization and the treatment.  I couldn’t see how Trixie was going to.  Hell, I hadn’t even been able to successfully get her on a trailer, so even getting her to Guelph was a fantasy.  And the kicker, according to my vet, was that when the infection was fungal, the success rate on this surgery wasn’t great.  Often, the fungus found a way to come back.  

So I cried.  A fair bit.  I had often joked that I needed a way out for this sweet, frustrating, troubled mare, that I could accept with a clear conscience.  I didn’t really mean it.  With all of her quirks, I still was very fond of her.  And she was only seven, with years and years ahead of her.  But there were no good answers at the bottom of the rabbit hole.IMG_0303_1 trixie july 2017 (1)On Trixie’s last day, towards the end of February, I did all the expected things:  carrots, cookies, grooming, fussing.  Took a chunk of hair from her tail.  But Trixie wanted to hang with her BFF, out in the field, more than anything — she had spent a lot of time confined to her stall during treatment — so mostly I left her alone so she could do that. 

She went down with better grace than she had done most things, and quietly breathed her last while I shivered, standing watch.  My vet was fantastically kind in making the arrangements.  

And it’s taken me till now to complete this blog post about Trixie, because she broke my heart a little.  I’ve had to put three horses down, now, in the seven years I’ve been at this farm, and that is just too fucking many.   And to some extent I squirm at all the animal memorials all over social media; I didn’t want to inflict my sadness on everyone.  But at the same time, I don’t want the life of this horse to have been absolutely unacknowledged.  Only a handful of people met her, and even fewer loved her — just me, and Sarah, really (and Vivian, who is soldiering on).  She was a hard mare to love.  But she was here, and she was real, if only for an ill-fated few years.  

I gave her her registered name, which was Mexican Wine, after the Fountains of Wayne song.  It’s a fatalistic little tune.  

 

So I Did A Podcast …

on air… for Emma Van Wyngarden’s The Horse Cure:

 

I hope I don’t sound like an idiot.  Emma was great — many thanks to her!  Go listen to her other podcasts, and share that shit around, after you listen to this one.  

Groundhog Day Grumblings

Not gonna lie.  karma fairy.jpgWe had it easy here in Ontario last winter:  no significant amount of snowfall until after Christmas, and temperatures that dropped below -15 C only for a couple of days, really.  We didn’t even have what I dread the most, which is freezing rain (one of the few weather scenarios from which I rescue my True Canadian-bred beasties from the nasty, foul outdoors).  And we had quite a few scattered thaws throughout the season to beat back the accumulated snow to a (mostly) manageable level.

But karma, as they say, is a bitch.  And she is slapping us repeatedly, upside the head.  So I beg your indulgence, gentle readers:  forgive me the following rant.  By the first week of January — barely a quarter of the way through this year’s edition of the seventh circle of hell — I was fucking exhausted.  And vitamin D-deprived, which, you know, doesn’t exactly make you a sunbeam for Jesus.

We had three significant snowfalls in November.  That’s just not fair.  Anything after December 1st is fair game, but November??  No-one in Ontario is cognitively prepared for that, and it leads to a lot of bad driving and really bad decisions, among other things.  Coming home from Toronto one evening mid-November, I drove straight into a wall o’ snow, the likes of which I have not encountered in years.  It was a total white-out on a stretch of highway that runs 17 km between exits — so basically, there’s no escape.  My tires were sketchy, my windshield wipers were crusted over and barely managing, the visibility was essentially zero, and if I hadn’t had four-wheel drive and the tail-lights of a Purolator truck to follow, my odds of staying on the actual road would not have been worth calculating.  (May all the deities favour you and bring you salted caramel brownies, Purolator person.)  By the time I did reach my exit, I was vibrating.  Had to pull over at the first gas station and quietly hyperventilate for about 15 minutes.   The gas station attendant, ensconced as he was in his little oasis of calm, looked at me like I had lost the plot.  Which I totally had.

groundhog winter

So then that little episode of joy was immediately followed by about three years of absolutely-fucking-inhuman temperatures in December.  I mean, I’m Canadian.  I get that it gets cold in winter, and I have the gear to deal with it, but (honestly) two and a half weeks of temperatures unrelentingly below -22 Celsius, without respite … it’s a lot.  Water hydrants which have never frozen before, did.  The barn doors froze shut.  My truck refused to start even though it had had the block heater plugged in all night.  My slow-feeder nets for the round bales froze in interesting sculptural free-form shapes, but couldn’t be removed from the ground.  The air hurt my face.  And I couldn’t do much about mucking the stalls because pretty much everything had welded itself to the floors.  The horses toughed it out (remarkably well, considering they are Thoroughbreds), but zero riding happened during the Christmas break — it was too freaking cold to even contemplate it.  

horses are fedAnd then there was the Night of the Freezing Rain, which, see above.  That meant bedding down stalls, running hoses all over hell’s half-acre in order to fill water buckets (because all the convenient ones are uncooperatively seized by ice) and angsting over whether I had enough small bales of hay to see them through the night and following day, being as those bales are in short supply this year.  I did get everyone (headcount is currently seven, btw) cosily inside for the night, and the freezing rain turned out to me mostly the non-freezing kind, and thus not full-scale Ice Storm (though trust me, we’ve had those too), but naturally everything seized up again — gate fastenings, every single fucking leadshank snap and halter snap on the property, my windshield wipers, my truck’s door locks, the automatic windows, the lock on my front door — when the temps dropped again 24 hours later.  Plus, my horses don’t deal especially well with incarceration, and were absolutely psycho to turn out again when I decided it was safe to do so. These are the days when you think wistfully about how super-awfully nice it would be to have a little help around here…

But hey, it’s February now, so there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.  Wiarton Willie this

wiarton willie

Wiarton mayor Janice Jackson with Wiarton Willie, earlier. Photo credit: Hannah Yoon, Canadian Press. (Because I always acknowledge the work of my fellow journos.)

morning predicted six more weeks of winter, but really, that’s a given for Ontario.  When have we not had six more weeks of winter after February 2nd?  Six weeks would be a bloody miracle around here.  I’d sacrifice a goat with a stapler if I thought it would guarantee us signs of spring by mid-March.Some people find February the most depressing month, but for me it at least means this wretchedness is more than half over.  It’s a short month, as well, so there’s that.  Plus I usually get a little cash infusion in February, from the Public Lending Rights Commission, which gives authors a little something-something if their books are found (on a random sampling) in Canadian libraries.  It’s nice to be Canadian.  Even if you fucking hate the weather.

love my horse

 

Larger Than Life

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In 2007 and 2008, I was the communications coordinator for harness racing at the Woodbine Entertainment Group in Toronto.  I was on the front lines of the upper echelons of the sport, attending some of the richest stakes races in North America, and it was through that lens that I got to witness a truly extraordinary equine athlete — an Ontario-bred pacing colt named Somebeachsomewhere.

If you have any sort of Standardbred background, the name (however unwieldy — it came from a country song, I’m told) needs no introduction.  If you don’t, let me put it in perspective for you:  this horse was harness racing’s answer to Secretariat.  Not just the horse of a generation, but of a lifetime — and owned by a small collective of car dealership owners and assorted friends from tiny Truro, Nova Scotia.  Gawd, it wrote itself.

I watched this colt burst on the scene in Ontario as a two-year-old, winning the Metro Pace like a tornado.  Even then, he was a bruiser, almost twice the size and bulk of his juvenile competitors, and his gait was effortless.  There was a sense of enormous power that just rippled off this horse. 

I watched him win the Pepsi North America Cup, then a $1.5 million dollar mile, the following June.  I interviewed his trainer and part-owner, Brent MacGrath, and his driver, Paul MacDonell, a couple of dozen times at least, and wrote about the horse almost weekly, either for WEG (which was riding the wave of his career with everything it could muster, given that Mohawk — WEG’s “summer” track just west of Toronto — was more-or-less Beach’s home oval) or for other publications like the Canadian Sportsman, Trot, or Hoof Beats, the US Trotting Association’s magazine.   

If you click on either of the links above, you’ll get a complete synopsis of the horse’s career.  (There was tons in the Sportsman, too, of course, but that archive, alas, is no longer with us.)  He lost only one race — the $1 million Meadowlands Pace — to Art Official, but the effort was so valiant that it only enhanced his reputation.  Towards the end of his three-year-old year, MacGrath sent Somebeachsomewhere to Kentucky to the Red Mile — renowned for being the fastest track in North America, if not the world — specifically to chase the world record.  Watch how effortlessly Beach paces a 1:46.4 mile to smash the record for three-year-old pacing colts and equal the world record for any horse of any age:

Now, a horse like this almost never gets to race beyond his three-year-old year.  He was simply too valuable to risk breaking down on the racetrack.  So off went Somebeachsomewhere to stand at stud in the United States.  Click on that link for stats and video of some of the more prominent of his progeny.  None have dominated the sport quite so completely as their sire, but many have been damned impressive (one son, Captaintreacherous, captured the 2013 NA Cup), and as far as we knew, the best was yet to come.

Unfortunately, the news came on Sunday, January 14th, that The Beach had been euthanized thanks to the discovery of large cell lymphoma in his intestine.  The stallion was 13, and there had been only a brief mention of health issues in the news prior to this, back in November.  To say his death was unexpected is an understatement.

The photos at the top of this post have never seen the light of day before … they’re shots I took of Beach and his trainer and biggest fan and promoter, Brent MacGrath, warming up on the track at Mohawk in the late afternoon, before the 2008 North America Cup.  Hard to believe that’s a three-year-old.  

Most years, one or two horses emerge in the ranks of three-year-old trotters and pacers to dominate to some degree.  But we’re not going to see the likes of Somebeachsomewhere again.  I’m grateful I got to be a small part of that ride, which I’ll always consider to be one of the highlights of my media career.

A few more photos I found in my archives, from spring, 2008.  The other colt with Somebeachsomewhere is Deweycheatumnhowe, who was just as dominant that year on the trotting side of things.  I think I was one of only two photographers to get some shots of the two of them in close proximity.  It really was an extraordinary season.  

So I Wrote a Guest Post ….

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… for Sarah Cuthbertson and Ashley Tomaszewski’s blog, Eat Sleep Ride Repeat.  

9 Really Good Reasons Why Endurance Riders Need To Embrace Dressage

Go have a look, and cruise around the rest of their blog, which focuses on long-distance riding but has lots of interesting tangents, too!  (Oh, and if you like the logo, they have lots of lovely merch available.  Happy Winter-Celebration-Of-Your-Choosing!)

I Stare At Dicks

Yup.  That’s my new job.anime stare

I do a lot of staring at dicks these days.  Not so much vulvas, because those are covered by tails as a rule until such time as a mare decides to lift said appendage and squat.

I stare at the dicks of geldings and colts, and the general nether regions of fillies and mares, because I am now a Test Inspector (if there were truth in advertising, I’d be more honestly designated a Pee Catcher) at Woodbine racetrack.  And you do need to catch the pee, every time.

Equine body language is something you need to be familiar with, if you’re going to work in the Test Barn.  In particular the very specific body language which says, “I’m about to pee”, but also the body language which might telegraph that you’re about to get kicked or savaged by a horse for whom urinating is the last thing on his mind.  (That has actually happened very rarely thus far, because I am working with Standardbreds, who for the most part are nice horses to work with, and the handlers generally warn me if that’s not the case.  I hear the risk factor with the Thoroughbreds is higher.)

penisesSo, yeah, the staring part is something of a necessity.  It’s not perving, though of course with a topic like this I am going to take every opportunity to insert (sorry) tasteless and juvenile JPGs throughout the text … honestly, I kind of have to, because the Test Barn is a security area, so I can’t actually take pictures of what goes on there.  Or consume beverages.  Or bring in my purse.  I start every shift by taking a breathalyzer test, because the results of the drug testing are quite serious and all of the interested parties would like all the Test Inspectors to be Not Shitfaced, Thanks Very Much.

But let’s back up a bit, and explain the OCD approach to urine.  All three varieties of horse racing (Thoroughbred, Standardbred, Quarter Horse) in Ontario are very tightly controlled when it comes to substance abuse.  It’s never really a level playing field because there are always some chemists out there who stay one step ahead of the folks developing tests for every new noxious brew that someone comes up with to enhance a racehorse’s performance … but the regulations are strict enough, and the penalties for a positive test serious enough, that it discourages the majority of players from trying (or at least that’s the hope).  It’s not just a matter of making wagering fair for the bettors; it’s also a matter of health and welfare for the horses.  The illegal performance-enhancing stuff has the potential to take its toll on the equine athletes who aren’t given a vote as to whether to be under its influence. 

Take EPO (erythropoietin), for example — a drug also rather famously abused by long-distance cyclists in the 1990s (oh, Lance, where have all our heroes gone?) —  which forces the body to massively increase its output of lancered blood cells.  That can have a short-term performance-enhancing effect, but it also turns the blood to sludge, which can have lethal consequences, especially for horses on the diuretic Lasix (furosemide).  It can also backfire into severe anemia since the immune system starts to recognize and destroy EPO-laden blood.  EPO is difficult to detect, and a test for its presence in horses wasn’t developed till around 2004, by which point several sudden deaths were suspected, but never proven, to have been caused by it. Once the test became available, EPO more or less disappeared from the backstretch.  (Though let’s not kid ourselves, it was probably just replaced by something newer and even tougher to detect.)

So the nuts and bolts of the drug testing program at Woodbine are this:  at the conclusion of every race, the winner, and one other horse chosen more-or-less at random by the paddock judges, are sent to the Test Barn, which occupies the far end of the Standardbred paddock to which all the horses ship in each afternoon prior to the start of the evening race card.  There, the horse’s handlers are informed of their rights by friendly people like me.  (There’s a little speech we have to recite.)  If the horse has had Lasix administered before the race (that’s another tightly controlled program, and every horse on Lasix has to be so declared in the racing program so it’s transparent to the bettors), then the vet tech on duty does a three-tube blood draw minutes after the race, in order to verify that the amount of the diuretic in the horse’s system is commensurate with the amount that was officially administered (otherwise, some people would be tempted to top up, to the detriment of the horse).   I act as a witness/helper for the blood draw, recording the horse’s freezemark tattoo from the right side of the neck, putting coded stickers on the blood vials, getting signatures from everyone, and packaging up the total sample to send off to a central lab for testing.

Then the handlers are allowed to finish stripping off harness, bathe their horses, give them water, and walk them cool if they choose.  They can’t leave the Test Barn, however, without providing a sample.  So at some point after horses and handlers go walkies, they enter a stall, under my supervision, and then we let the staring commence.  Along with whistling.  Most racehorses are trained to associate a continuous, repetitive whistle from their handlers horse to peewith camping out to pee (or at least that’s what we hope as we’re standing there looking expectant with our cups and sticks). 

The whistling’s kind of annoying, frankly, and I think the horses largely just roll their eyes at it, but it’s part of the drill.

Some horses oblige almost immediately when they’re provided with bedding in which to take a leak (most horses dislike peeing on a hard surface like the wash rack, because they tend to splash their legs).  Some have to have a roll in the bedding first.  Some fidget and paw.  Some walk in circles.  Some lick the walls.  Some eat the bedding.  Some fall asleep.  The routines vary quite a lot.  But the gist is that they have an hour, from the time they check in, to produce enough urine to fill my little cup half-way.  If that doesn’t happen, then the vet tech gets called back in and another blood draw is done.  These horses are used to being pincushions, so the blood draw isn’t that big a deal, but it does mean that the handler has by that point been stuck with my charming company for a solid hour and would probably like very much either to a) get back to whatever other horses she has to handle that night, or b) load up and go home already.  So peeing is always the preference.  

Catching the pee is, in itself, something of an art form.  A surprising number of horses are shy, and will shut down if you make a big move towards them. So you have to sort of sidle up against their flank and sneak-attack them rather than brandish your stick like a scimitar aimed at their tender bits.  Mares have a talent for flourishing their tails in exactly the right way to totally obscure your view of the pee-stream, while reacting very badly to your touching their tails to get them out of the way.  (Mares, of course, are divas and easily insulted.) The other night I had a gelding who had ‘run down’ on his hind ankles and was basically hamburger.  He clearly thought that squatting was gonna be a bad idea, so he did everything in his power to avoid Assuming The Position while trying valiantly to relieve himself. 

We’re not supposed to editorialize as to the condition or soundness of the horses we’re sampling, but I admit, sometimes it’s hard to keep one’s mouth shut (especially when the handler is royally pissed off at the trainer about it and is looking for someone with whom to commiserate).  One of the more common things we can sorta make the handlers aware of, though, is when we get a urine sample that’s very dark:  that usually means the horse has ‘tied up’ to some degree.  

To cut down on the mystery a bit, each horse hasA veterinarian takes a urine sample during the demonstration of a doping test for horses in a stable in Riesenbeck, Germany, 09 January 2013. The German National Anti-Soping Agency (NADA) and the German Olympic Committee for Equestrian Sport (DOKR) demons a card on file in a big, old-school desktop filing cabinet, describing in intricate hieroglyphics his or her past performance in the pee department.  I’m still learning to decipher the codes from the other Test Inspectors, so sometimes they’re not much help … but they do at least give you an idea of whether the horse is a superstar who’ll whizz up a storm for you within two minutes, or whether it’s gonna be a long fucking night, and whether he prefers shavings or straw, being held or being let loose, Bach or Bartok.  We pull the cards as soon as we hear from the paddock judges which horses are going to be sent our way, and add new apocryphal notations afterwards. 

So once I’ve got a sample, it’s a matter of labeling it, sealing it up (the cups are persnickety and tend to leak so you have to put the lids on just so, and I still struggle with dribbles), stripping off your nitrile gloves, getting a bunch more signatures, and filing the horse’s card.  Everything gets triple-checked, and then checked again at the end of the night before the samples are tucked into their coolers to be overnighted to the lab, and one lucky TI each night has to stay after school to do that.  I suspect that newbies get that duty disproportionately often, based on current evidence, but fair enough, I guess.

So, you know, as jobs go, I’ve done worse.  It’s less hard on the body than shoveling shit, and the evening hours suit my screwed-up circadian rhythms.  I’m still fucking up little details here and there, but as it gets to be more routine my comfort zone is improving.  And it might just tide me over, financially, this winter as my teaching gigs start to dry up (either because my students have no indoor arena, have an indoor but are wimping out anyway, or are buggering off to warmer climes for the duration).  Gawd knows the writing biz isn’t showing any signs of rebounding.  So here I am, pee-catching a couple nights a week.  And it’s okay.

Second Class Citizen, or, Why I Wasn’t at the Royal Winter Fair This Year

citizenSo there’s this big indoor horse show in Toronto every November (for the past 95 years, anyway).  I haven’t been covering it for the past 95 years, obviously, but every year from somewhere around 1989 or 1990, I’ve been there with my media accreditation, providing coverage of the Royal Winter Fair for one (or more) magazine or newspaper or website or another.

That’s a long time to feel like a second class citizen, but every year, this giant, hulking dinosaur that is the culmination of the horse show season manages to find a way to do that to the media faithful which, frankly, bust their asses to drive ticket sales to this monolith.

I think I’ve mentioned before that we swamp-dwelling freelancers don’t expect an avalanche of perks when we attend an event. We’re sure as hell not in it for the swag, and our expectations are exceedingly modest.  I can’t speak for everyone, but in recent years I’ve been attending events like this with the knowledge that I’m more than likely going to lose money on the whole deal, what with assignments having become as common as unicorns farting rainbows, and pay rates plummeting to the level of “exposure” or “we’ll pay you if your article gets shared more than 10000 times”.

We expect — in the case of the Royal Winter Fair, anyway — that we will drive insane distances, several nights in a row, in Toronto rush-hour traffic (second only to Los Angeles on the list of hellish rush-hour scenarios in North America, we’re ever so proud to say), fight tooth and nail for a parking spot, brutalize our feet hiking across kilometres of concrete, get our shins bashed by entitled breeders with double-wide strollers the size of a ’53 Buick Skylark, endure endless line-ups for overpriced food, be harassed by security every time we try to access or leave our designated media seating to line up for the washrooms, and file our stories well past midnight in a room yonks away from the show ring which doesn’t really have any work stations set up to accommodate us (and that’s if some bright spark hasn’t locked the frigging place up while we were getting our quotes in the after-class press conference).

But we at least hope to come away with something worth writing about, and a modicum of respect and appreciation for what we do.

Unfortunately, of all the horse shows I have covered over the past few decades — and there have been a few — I can recall none which treats the media with such utter contempt as does the Royal.  Overall, the show has gotten progressively meaner, cheaper, and less and less welcoming to the public over the past 20-odd years, enough so that most of us who’ve been around that long can wax nostalgic about the good old days, when there used to be comfy couches and (gasp) coffee and snacks in the media centre, when there were tables in the media seating at the show so we could write without having to hunch over laptops on our laps, when there was a media coordinator assigned to assist us in lining up interviews, not obstruct us and treat us as if we were constantly trying to rip off the show.

Of course, those were also the days when there used to be a hella good party going on at the end of most of the show evenings, sometimes with a live band, or at least a pretty good DJ — and since this was the pre-internet age, we generally didn’t have to file on the same night, so we had the luxury of staying for a drink and a dance.  I have partied with some pretty Big Name Riders at the Royal.  A friend of mine once hit Nick Skelton in the eye with a champagne cork.  And I even (ahem) did the Walk of Shame across the lobby of the Harbour Castle Westin early one morning, feeling like a total cliche, after an encounter with a yummy French showjumper.  There, the secret’s out.  (It was many, many years ago, folks …)

Once upon a time, the Royal used to kick off with a media breakfast, wherein we penniless scribes would gather for omelets and mimosas and a little preview of what to expect from the fair that year.  It was all very pleasant and civilized.  These days we can’t even get a cup of coffee … not that I drink the stuff, but sheesh.  (Full disclosure:  I think there might have been a few bottles of water in the media centre, hidden under a table, at one point — be still, my heart.  Not that I was offered any.) 

One of my perpetual pet peeves over the years has been the total lack of regard for the media’s struggles with parking.  There’s an underground parking garage at the Exhibition grounds, which for the duration of the fair has a large designated VIP area which is typically three-quarters empty.  Yet the Powers That Be on the RWF board can’t find it in their parsimonious hearts to offer up half a dozen lousy parking spaces for the media??  I have brought this up on a number of occasions, and have been told every time that it was out of the question.  Instead we fork out $17 (last I was there — it’s probably more now) each night for the privilege of going round and round the outer reaches of the garage, sucking in carbon monoxide and searching in vain for a safe place to leave the truck.  More than once I have ended up missing the class I was supposed to cover.  

ain't nobodyLast year, my fed-up-ness all came to a head.  The previous media coordinator for the horse show, a lovely woman who is a friend of mine and did all she could to accommodate my needs, within the constraints (shackles?) applied by the fair board, was let go under somewhat mysterious circumstances, possibly to do with an excess of honesty … and replaced with a woman who has her own public relations agency and clearly was more interested in advancing her own agenda than the show’s.  We’ve known each other for a couple of decades, at least, and she’s well aware that I freelance for many different outlets.  Yet she re-structured the media accreditation procedures so that, in essence, you had to re-apply for it every evening of the show, with no guarantee that it would be granted, nor that anyone would actually be available to hand it to you when you arrived.  (I spent well over an hour and a half chasing people around the trade fair outside the horse show coliseum on the first night I attended last year, in order to finally secure my pass 40 minutes after the class I was there to cover had concluded.  Fanfuckingtastic.)   In addition to just being a giant pain in the ass, this has the effect of making it very difficult to promise an editor you’re going to be able to deliver anything.

In addition to that, she sent me an email, three days after the show began, to inform me that she had ‘checked’ and that I actually didn’t work for the Chronicle of the Horse, the magazine for which I was writing last year, and that as a result my accreditation had been summarily revoked.

I stared at this email for a while, I admit, before I fired off an indignant reply that said, “Um, you do understand what a FREELANCER does?”  Of course I don’t work for the fucking Chronicle.  I never have.  Frankly, I was absolutely furious:  my entire raison d’etre last year was to find stories the Chronicle thought were worth publishing, and instead of facilitating that, they were playing insulting head games with an established journalist who had been helping get bums in seats for literally decades.  Are. You.  Fucking.  Kidding me??

Eventually they backed down — and at the close of the press conference for the big World Cup class that night, one of the Royal’s minions slunk up to me and asked, semi-apologetically, “We all okay?”  Well, that’s a big honking NO, honey.  We are not.

And here’s the rub:  I didn’t actually find anything last year, in the end, that the Chronicle wanted to publish … because the Royal has become massively irrelevant.  Where once they wanted reports on at least all the major showjumping classes (two Grands Prix, the now-defunct Nations’ Cup and Puissance classes, the Canadian showjumping championship, and various and sundry Table As and Table Cs), the dressage night (once a World Cup qualifier, now nothing more than an invitational demo night for local riders), and the indoor eventing, the interest on the part of American editors has shriveled down to a request for a short (600 words, max) report on just the Wednesday night Grand Prix (which McLain Ward tends to win with frightening frequency) in 2015, and nothing whatsoever on the final night Big Ben Grand Prix or anything else.  In 2016, I was told that the ‘timing wasn’t right’ (the Chronicle is a weekly) but that they would like me to attend and see what sort of feature stories might come out of the fair.  Okay, it was enough of an excuse for me to show up on a couple of nights.

But the thing is:  there really wasn’t much with which to titillate my editor.  I sent her three ideas, and was told: meh, meh, and ‘interesting but we just did something similar to that’.  And that has been more or less the response of all of the other editors, whether Canadian, American, or European, with whom I’ve been in contact over the past couple of years:  the Royal is irrelevant.  

And no wonder, given the choices the fair board continues to make.  For instance, here’s one of the big features of the fair this year:  Goat Yoga.  

FFS.  Really?

Last year, it was bunny jumping.  As in, little courses of verticals and oxers that children (mostly unsuccessfully) tried to persuade their pet rabbits to hop over.  Christ on a cracker.

If there’s something good happening at the Royal, you can pretty much guarantee that the fair board will squash it in favour of something monumentally stupid.  It’s a pattern I’ve observed for over 20 years.  The ‘fair’ portion of the show — you know, the agricultural part, the “once a year, country comes to the city” part, where you give prizes for sheafs of wheat, homemade preserves, butter tarts, and the fanciest Red Island Rock

butter turkey

This is a turkey sculpted from butter.  Pretty much says it all about the Royal.

hen?  Now relegated to a forlorn, far-off corner somewhere near Scarborough, and consisting basically of two misshapen giant pumpkins and an extra-long corn stalk.  The butter sculptures done every year by students from the Ontario College of Art and Design?  Tucked away in a temperature-controlled trailer somewhere beyond the cattle barn where few fear to tread.  They don’t display prize-winning sides of beef or lamb anymore, either — city peeps be squeamish about that sort of thing.  But hey, you can get six fake pashmina scarves for $45 in the trade fair, not to mention an idiotic wooden walking stick with a Psalm burnt into it, (ideal for whacking your fellow pedestrians in the shins) from some insipid, ever-present gang of proselytizing pseudo-Christians.  

Oh, and apple dumplings and potato rosti, which I do legitimately miss.

On the whole, the show is a shadow of its former self.  So much so that the ‘mink and manure’ set doesn’t much bother with the formal wear that used to be de rigueur for the evening classes.  (I think I was one of the only members of the media left who made some effort to observe the ‘black tie’ requirement for the press in the evenings — mostly because it’s a novelty for me to be able to break out the girl clothes and the sparkly heels.  My feet always regretted it acutely, but I do like swishing around in taffeta every now and again.  The few journos from the Toronto dailies who still show up tend to settle for scruffy cords and pilled sweaters.)  

royal people

Royal people.  One of the little joys was always watching for the fashion gaffes … of which there were many.

 

Most telling, however, is the fact that this year, the Royal Winter Fair was scheduled at the same time as the National Horse Show in the US (once held in New York, but moved a few years ago to Lexington, Kentucky).  Back in the day, there was an end-of-season indoor circuit, starting with the International show in Washington, DC, then the National, and culminating with the Royal — and all three had Nations’ Cup classes, which made it attractive for European showjumping teams to fly over and do the three shows.  In 2017, the Royal is such an anachronism that even the American riders (never mind Europeans) don’t care about it enough to schedule around it.  That has to have a serious impact on entries, and not only in the jumper divisions.

The end result is that none of my former markets have any interest in coverage of the

Something about these lumpy pumpkins is stressing this kid out to the point where he/she is undressing ...

Something about these lumpy pumpkins is so profoundly disturbing that children are disrobing.  I don’t profess to understand it.

Royal Winter Fair anymore.  And that makes my attendance there not worth my while, given that (contrary to the belief of the fair’s Powers That Be, which continue to insist I am ripping them off by my mere presence) I stopped having fun at the fair about 15 years ago.  Apart from bargain turn-out halters from the trade fair (which I can now get just as easily on-line, without coughing up $50 in gas, $17 in parking and $27.50 for admission, if I were to pay admission without a press pass), there’s little incentive … and to be treated as dismissively and insultingly as I was last year was the icing on the sagging cake.  

So no thanks to the Royal.  It can circle the drain without me.

 

 

 

 

 

Scream It Until Their Ears Bleed: Pay the Fucking Writers

dont-work-for-free.jpgAnother delightful rant on the subject of writing for free, especially for the Huffington Post, courtesy of Chuck Wendig’s “terribleminds” blog.  Recommended, especially for some of the insults.

Excerpt:  “The lie is this: writing is not work, it is not fundamental, it is a freedom in which you would partake anyway, and here some chucklefuck would say, haw haw haw, you blog at your blog and nobody pays you, you post updates on Twitter and nobody pays you, you speak words into the mighty air and you do it for free, free, free. And Huffington Post floats overhead in their bloated dirigible and they yell down at you, WE BROADCAST TO MILLIONS and DON’T YOU WANT TO REACH MILLIONS WITH YOUR MEAGER VOICE and THIS IS AN OPPORTUNITY FOR YOU.

“…HuffPo would have you believe that not paying means that somehow, the integrity of the information remains intact. What it misunderstands is that, if HuffPo isn’t paying, then who is? Someone is always paying. Or, at the very least, someone is always selling something.”

Scream It Until Their Ears Bleed:  Pay the Fucking Writers.

Death and Dissatisfaction

after

Funerals (and most other religious rituals) baffle the shit out of me.

I attended one last Saturday morning, for a friend of a friend — a woman whom I had met a number of times, but couldn’t say I knew well.  She had had the misfortune of being diagnosed with liver cancer.  Three months, start to finish.  It was quite tragic.

I believe in showing support to the living in such circumstances, so I tend to show up to the services if I can … but honestly, what anyone gets out of these rituals is beyond me.

A few thousand years of civilization, and we don’t seem to have moved an inch beyond slaughtering a goat on an altar. a fuck I dont give

Now, I confess (before I go any further) that I’ve pretty much always had a jaded view of religion, so if you’re deeply offended by the opinions of anyone who doesn’t buy into your exact version of sky fairy, then you might want to leave this page forthwith and go play Candy Crush now.  Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that I’m unlikely to change your mind.

It’s the last taboo, isn’t it?  Never say anything critical about religious beliefs, lest you offend.  So no matter how idiotic those beliefs are, no matter how much they fly in the face of logic and science and basic common sense and decency, we should never utter a word in defiance of it, because the believers have delicate sensibilities and don’t want their bubbles burst.  Well, fuck that.  Sorry.  It’s way past time we started to challenge this nonsense.  It’s been choking the planet for millenia.

This particular service was of the Catholic persuasion, which is a whole special kind of bizarre.  I guess if you’re brought up in that culture, it could potentially … well, not make sense, exactly, but be comfortingly familiar, if you don’t examine it too closely.  (Luckily, most organized religions teach not examining it too closely as part of the catechism.  Faith means not asking any fucking questions, Emily, dammit.)  But to an outsider … well, fuck me, it’s strange.

hand grenadeI’m a certified heathen (given the above paragraphs, that likely isn’t news), so what little exposure I’ve had to Catholic worship practices has been at weddings and funerals, which is perhaps not completely representative.   But my instincts suggest that the everyday Sunday services are in large part the same deal, because it’s the sameness of it that people seem to like.

I arrived just as the service was getting started, and ended up sitting in the choir loft as the pews downstairs were pretty much full.  So it was me and a half-dozen wizened little octogenarians, who began to sing in wobbly voices as I tiptoed up the stairs.  I’m actually a trained soprano, and frankly, they could have used my help, but the hymns were lame and I didn’t know them anyway, so I let their lead vocalist struggle along as best she could.  I’m sure gawd gives brownie points for effort.

Scanned around the church below me.  (Choir lofts are reasonably good for unrestrained gawking.  I’ve sung at a number of my friends’ weddings over the years, and I vastly prefer being up in the choir loft to being downstairs in a strapless lilac taffeta bridesmaid’s gown, its ill-fittingness on display to all and sundry.  You can misbehave a little up there, or at least smirk at the more idiotic parts of the ceremony.)  I’d been told this little local church had lovely stained glass, but from what I could see they were pretty unimaginative.  Ordered from a catalogue.  Is there a Catholic Catalogue?  You know, where you can order jfca basic chalice in simulated gold plate, and get a better price if you order three or more?  Choose incense replacement cones in six deity-approved scents?  Is there a Lee Valley sort of catalogue where the chalice has clever hidden features in it (maybe a nail file and a USB hub for those 15-verse hymns)?   And where do the priests and clerics and such order their imitation-gold-thread trim for their robes, and the little sashes that proclaim them holier than thou?  Inquiring minds want to know.  Oh, look, Sister Eugene Immaculata, the spring House of God catalogue is here.  What’s new in resurrection accessories then?

So yeah, okay, it didn’t take long for my mind to start to wander.

About halfway in on this service, the guy in the gold rick-rack trim invited practicing Catholics, and anyone who just enjoyed the hell out of a dry rice cracker, to come up to the altar and eat the body of Christ, starting with the choir, who apparently get to be first in line for their service.  I guess I must have been obviously clueless as to the rituals of the Catholic church, because as the choir filed past in front of my pew, one tiny blue-haired lady patted me on the hand, leaned in, and whispered conspiratorially, “Communion time!”.  Like she was going downstairs for a chocolate chip cookie or something.  I’m guessing it’s the highlight of every funeral for her?

As I watched people line up for their not-a-chocolate-chip-cookie-at-all, I tried to wrap my head around the rituals I’d been observing, and just how little sense they make.  The whole service was just a series of repetitive motions that have long since lost their meaning.  Well, if they ever had any in the first place.  You wipe out the chalice with the ritual cloth, pour in a quantity of whatever liquid passes for wine these days, place the Blessed Square of Cardboard over top (presumably, to dissuade the consecrated flies in the church?), and when you come to that point in the ceremony, you remove the cardboard, hold the cup aloft (so gawd can see it better), and someone rings a little bell three times.

So, say, if the bell only rang twice, would the sky fairy be offended?  If you have a brain fart and forget part of the ritual, do you have to start all over again? (There does seem to be infinite potential for do-overs in the Catholic faith.)  Is gawd going to turn his virtual back on you if you do it wrong?  Stand up when you should be kneeling, sit when you should be standing?  Not knowing the secret handshake?  And what, exactly, determined that this particular set of actions is what will most appeal to hisself and keep you from getting whacked with a lightning bolt?

Imagine the sheer cacophony of recited prayers and tinkling bells and munching wafers coming from a hundred thousand funerals, happening simultaneously on a Saturday no heavenmorning on every corner of the planet, all emanating up to heaven to the ears of a waiting deity who (apparently) wants things done Just So.  Which souls does he select for the big golden key to eternity out of that noise?  And does having a Philistine in the chapel thinking these heretical thoughts, just shoot the whole process of crossing all those T’s and dotting those I’s, in the proverbial divine foot?   Nope, sorry, unbeliever in your midst, applying logic and demonstrating a shocking lack of acceptance of stuff that makes no sense.  Push the buzzer, open the hatch, you lose.

Seriously, we have evolved not at all.  It’s every inch as barbaric and primitive and bizarre as throwing babies down a well 2500 years ago.  Or mummifying your cats to go on the journey to the afterlife with you.  Appease the gods or you don’t get the imaginary gifts we’ve promised each other that he/she/it/they bestow.

In my teens, I had aspirations of acting in musicals.  Tried out for a number of community productions, but while I could certainly belt out a show tune, and I think I was a passable actor, I failed to be the triple-threat because I just couldn’t seem to learn the dance steps in a few minutes like the other hopefuls at the auditions.  Worship?  I suspect if I were to try, I would pretty much always be doing it wrong.

And the worst of this service was, there was almost nothing in it about the actual deceased.  As I mentioned, this was not a woman I knew particularly well.  I would have liked to have heard some stories about her, from those who were closer to her.  (Maybe that happened at the reception, which I couldn’t attend.)  I would have liked to have power of prayerknown more about her — because now that she’s dead, the memories of who she was and what she did with her life, are the only things keeping her from evaporating completely.  We all like to think we have some small impact on the earth in the cosmic blip of time we’re here, but apart from passed-down stories and perhaps a headstone that lasts, at most, 100 years in Canadian weather, let’s face it:  we are inconsequential and our names will not resonate for more than a generation or two.

We funeral-goers got the ritual song and dance (and really, you have to wonder about the level of job satisfaction for the priest), but there was no substance at all.  Nothing whatsoever about this woman’s words or deeds or accomplishments.  Just platitudes about her being our “sister” and being welcomed into the gates of heaven because some 60 years ago, someone had dripped water on her then-tiny forehead.  A prerequisite.  Her passport was valid, evidently.  But if I’d been her husband, sitting there in the front row, I would have found the whole deal intensely unsatisfying.

As much as it befuddles me that any all-powerful being would need a bunch of barely-sentient critters on its planet to constantly grovel and praise it/him/her/ohfuckwhatever … or what, exactly, the enduring appeal is of being told you are filthy and sinful and not worthy and that you need to remove yourself from all pleasure and fun and live your life according to a litany of arcane (and cherry-picked) rules corrupted down through the ages … this stuff clearly does provide some comfort for some people.  Admittedly, the ones coming to the front of the church for communion looked to be newly returned from their snowbird condos in Sarasota,  as indicated by their tans and their cruise-wear, so perhaps they’ll soon be extinct and we will finally reach a planetary age where we can begin to leave this nonsense behind.  (Can you imagine living in the Middle Ages and having every single fricking thought and action dictated to you by the Church?  I’d have gone postal and taken out a cooperage or a pigsty or something.)

Because the sheer cognitive disconnect you need to employ just to buy into any of it?   To never, ever have a moment where your brain says, “Um, now wait a minute, that doesn’t really sound quite right to me …”?

Must be utterly exhausting.  And it really can’t be anything but destructive to go through life that fundamentally (sorry) deluded as to reality.  Witness the current US Republican race.  Ugh.

Suppose I really can’t finish this off without the obligatory Life of Brian sequence, can I.

 

 

 

 

 

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