Writing From the Right Side of the Stall

Mucking stalls. Freelance writing. How do they differ? I discuss.

Archive for the month “October, 2011”

A Blessing and a Curse

I’ve been accused of being contrary at the best of times. But fall is when I’m most conflicted.

Two weeks of steady rain and cloud cover have finally — and briefly, according to The Weather Network — given way to a crisp and sunny Sunday today. There’s still quite a bit of colour in the trees, though there are more bare branches than there were a week ago and I know they’ll all be naked soon. Which always depresses me (got nothing against nudity when it’s integral to the plot, but winters tend to drag on here in Ontario and nekkid trees just remind me what a long haul we’re heading into).

It has taken a couple of days for nature to catch on that I’ve filled the bird feeders and hung some suet … but I now have a swirl of cheeky chickadees, a couple of belligerent bluejays, and an occasional nuthatch braving my back porch to partake. I haven’t seen the chipmunk today, but that’s only a matter of time … he and/or she broke the code on the supposedly-squirrel-proof feeder almost immediately and has been stashing sunflower seeds somewhere nearby, judging by the frequency of his/her trips.

There’s also a pair of red squirrels who have been industriously nest-building in the alcove between my covered porch and the roof of my little house. They’ve been going back and forth all week with mouthfuls of nesting material. The sheer volume suggests this is going to be a 37-room monster home with a six-car garage and a home theatre wing. But as long as they’re not chewing through the roof tiles, I figure they’re welcome, and they might provide some entertainment on the more miserable winter days ahead. I don’t think they hibernate fully, though I’m sure someone will correct me if I’m wrong.  Squirrels are not my species of specialty.

So the view from my kitchen table (and current laptop station) is okay today, even if the house is a bit chilly because I refuse to turn on the furnace and start racking up heating bills. Suspect I will not hold out much longer on that one.

For me, fall also represents work. Early November brings the Royal Winter Fair in Toronto, a show I have covered for one publication or another (sometimes several) for the past 20 years or so. The Royal is 10 days of noise, exhaustion, blistered feet, frustration, freezing, frying, dodging the Stroller People pushing those damn things around like they’re eighteen-wheelers taking up three lanes of traffic, chasing riders through the cavernous (and o-so-historic) barns of the Horse Palace in search of quotes, struggling to establish internet access and find media seating (which is far too often unpoliced and purloined by wannabes), and hiking to the far ends of the earth to stand in endless lineups for greasy, overpriced food you really can’t afford, all the while fretting that you’re missing the class you have to cover and submit a story on in about an hour and a half.

Can you tell I have something of a love/hate relationship with the Royal, with an increasing emphasis on the hate?

I will take partial responsibility for the blistered feet. Historically, the Royal’s media personages were expected to turn up in something approaching black tie, and that, of course, means heels for those of us of an estrogen persuasion. The coliseum floors are concrete (and the warm-up ring where you often end up interviewing riders post-class is, well, arena footing, which does delightful things to a pair of suede peep-toe pumps, let me tell you). In recent years, the RWF dress code seems to have slipped quite a bit, and I COULD likely show up in a pilled sweater, cords, and running shoes (like some of my colleagues, who shall remain nameless!) and not get turfed out on my ear … but maybe because I like to honour that tradition, maybe because I like to look professional, and maybe because, let’s face it, I rarely have any OTHER opportunity to wear my extensive collection of fanciful and utterly impractical footwear (most shows I cover requiring something more along the lines of Blunnies and an oilskin coat), I voluntarily cripple myself every year at this show.

I can certainly lay blame elsewhere for some of my other Royal pet peeves, however. Like the parking. 20 years I’ve been in unarmed combat with downtown Toronto traffic to get to this show, which is right down in the heart of the city at Exhibition Place (by the shore of Lake Ontario). Rush-hour traffic, I might add, since the important classes are almost invariably in the evening.

Factoid for non-Torontonians: Toronto is the second-most congested city in North America. Only LA is reputed to have worse traffic snarls.

About 10 years ago they built an underground parking garage under the new coliseum building, which at least means you don’t have to brave a possibly icy, slick, wet parking lot in the dark (in your heels) to get to the show. But seriously, would it kill the management to provide half a dozen parking spaces for the media who so diligently promote their show locally, nationally, and internationally every year? $13 per night times 10 is a big chunk out of the paltry pay I’m getting from the Nag Mags to cover the show … and meanwhile, there’s a nearly-empty VIP section of the garage which rots my SOCKS. And let’s not even talk about the number of nights when I might spend half an hour or more going up and down and up and down (and UP and DOWN) the rows, getting carbon monoxide poisoning and looking for a place to leave my truck … and then hiking in to the show (still in heels!) from, essentially, Scarborough.

Yes, the Royal does have some perks. Occasionally, a class is actually entertaining. I have watched SO much showjumping in my lifetime that I will confess it often bores me silly. Oh, look, it’s the usual suspects, jumping the usual jumps in different configurations, with the same announcer doing his same schtick every night. (I may be alone in this, but I don’t miss the Nations’ Cup which was eliminated from the Royal roster a few years ago. If you think regular showjumping is a snooze, try watching everyone jump exactly the same course TWICE.) But the Royal does make an effort to bring in new stuff every year, at least on the exhibition side, and I still get a kick out of the dressage freestyle night and the indoor eventing. The trade fair would also have considerable appeal if I weren’t perpetually cash-strapped. Sigh. And unlike some of the other shows I cover, the Royal features indoor plumbing. All of these are good.

So, conflict. Which is only heightened this year by discovering that I have only minimal assignments for the Royal. After an appallingly sour experience last year, covering the show for a magazine for which I’ve worked diligently for 20 years or more, I swore I would never put pen to paper for them again. Then the American magazine for whom I’ve been sending Royal coverage for at least the last four or five years, handed the assignment to a pushy out-of-towner who, to my knowledge, has never before expressed any interest in coming to Toronto. I had e-mailed their assignment editor, as per usual, weeks ahead and gotten no response … when I followed up with the features editor, she said, “Oh, I wish I’d known you were interested. We would have been happy to have had you cover it, but we handed it off to (Colleague X).”

Wish she’d known?

That just leaves me with dribs and drabs in terms of assignments … enough to get me a press pass but not enough to require me to show up there more than a night or two out of the 10. In some ways, this is what I’ve been praying for, for years. Please Assignment Fairy, let me NOT have to do the Royal this year. I hate it, hate it, hate it, hate it.

Well, TWINK went the Assignment Fairy with her magic wand, and now I don’t know what to feel. The loss of income is significant (though offset by the considerable expense of getting down there to cover the show — and in case you’re unfamiliar with the Wonderful World of Freelancing, let me assure you I am on NO-ONE’s expense account and have never in my wildest fantasies been compensated for gas, mileage, parking, food, accommodations, or critter-sitting). But the relief is palpable.

Then again, where the hell else am I going to wear all my formal wear and my gorgeous, but brutally punishing bronze Anne Klein slingbacks with the little rhinestone buckles?

Stupid fall.

Disease of the Week

I write a column on equine health for the Canadian Sportsman, a harness-racing magazine with a relatively storied history (it claims to be the oldest continuously-published magazine in the Great White North, though its mandate, as the name indicates, may have veered slightly from the original concept).

Following the example of the Sportsman, my column has run continuously over the last 286 issues. It would have been more except prior to that (um, 1998?) no-one had asked me.

The Sportsman used to publish on a biweekly schedule; a couple of years ago, it throttled back to every three weeks. Still, that’s a fair number of issues. I know, because I’ve lugged the archives along with me every time I’ve moved, which has been fairly frequently over the past five or six years.

Oh, for an intern who could scan all of these colourfully oversized magazines and save my columns as PDFs on one nice, neat external drive …

Anyway. One of the issues (publishing pun, sorry) with writing an equine health column for nearly 300 editions is that you start to worry about running out of Diseases of the Week to write about. Go ahead, ask me. Colic? Did it. Laminitis? Oh yes. Salmonella, equine protozoal myelitis, rhodococcus pneumonia, equine herpes virus, rabies, palmar foot pain (ex-navicular syndrome), equine polysaccharide storage myopathy, sarcoids, botulism, alopecia …. uh-huh.

The only ones I can’t write about are the ones that are unlikely ever to affect racehorses, which are of course the Sportsman‘s focus. So maladies of draft horses and minis are, sadly, excluded. Awww.

If my latest column strikes you as scraping the bottom of the barrel with “cholangiohepatitis”, well, there might be some small truth to that. But it’s a real disease. Was even in the news this past spring. Look it up. (Hint: Search “Uncle Mo“.)

Fortunately, horses are endlessly self-destructive critters, so there’s almost always something new and weird coming down the pike. Or artery. Or colon. Whatever.

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