Writing From the Right Side of the Stall

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

Archive for the tag “Toronto”

Ten Things About the Toronto Pan Am Games

panam-horses-asideNow that it’s all over except for the continuing self-congratulatory smugness (Toronto’s, I mean, which might or might not be justified — the actual numbers rating its success have not yet been released) … I figured I’d better recount my experience at the 2015 Pan American Games for posterity.  This may, in fact, be practically the only place in which I do so, assignments from magazines and newspapers having been discouragingly thin on the ground.  So much for home court advantage.

Watch this space for some separate blog posts on each of the equestrian disciplines (dressage, eventing, and showjumping), which are the only three sports I got to see in the three-week run of the Games.  Yup.  Despite my best efforts, I completely failed to get to any of the other venues for which I had media access, much less any of the concerts and other entertainments.  The last Pan Am Games I attended was Winnipeg, in 1999, and I had a blast going to free concerts, jazz clubs, and outdoor theatre performances in the evenings while I was there (and favourably revised my opinion of Winnipeg in the process).  I guess the difference this time was that I was trying to fit the Pan Ams around all the regular demands of my life — teaching riding lessons, getting my own horses fed and worked, doctor’s appointments, truck breakdowns, and so forth.  Somehow, the hassle of making it all the way into downtown Toronto from my home base in the boonies, never quite seemed feasible.  I am bummed about having missed Colin James though.

Anyway.  For what it’s worth, here are some random bits of snark about the Toronto Pan Am Games.  In no particular order.

argentine boots-06851. OVERBLING:  The medal for sheer overbling has to go to the South American dressage riders, especially the women.  If there was a location where they could legally place Swarovski crystals, they did so, unreservedly.  From their hair bows to their helmets to the tops of their shiny black patent boots, to their gloves, their horses’ braids and flyveils and browbands and, yep, even the cantles of their saddles, there was really no such thing as too much bling.  The places where the press were allowed to photograph were too far from the ring to tell for sure, but I strongly suspect that those who had experience with Rio-style carnival makeup may even have had bling on their eyelids.  In general, the South Americans put the Northern hemisphere riders to shame in the stylin’ department — the Argentinian eventers, for example, had the most drool-worthy boots (or maybe they were half-chaps) in their flag’s sky-blue-and-white colours.  (They also had way better music for their dressage freestyles.)

(Thought I might as well share the Spanish version!)

2. EMBRACING THE CLICHES:  I had to love the Puerto Rican dressage rider who rode his freestyle to selections from “West Side Story”.  I confess, I can never hear an announcer say the words “Puerto Rico” without a little echo of Rita Moreno in my head … but you have to figure that they’re sick to death of it in the actual country.  Took chutzpah, then (or cojones) to say, fukkit, I’m not going to cringe about it … I’m just going to go there, goddammit.  

Also, there was a Venezuelan showjumper named La Bamba.

beavers-0694Canada, however, was not to be outdone when it came to cliches.  From the moment I heard that the cross-country course for the eventing competition was going to feature, um, Canadiana … and that it was going to be built by Americans and shipped up on flatbeds from South Carolina … I dreaded the outcome.  The end result was not quite as bad as I’d feared, but it did have carved beavers, Canada geese, something that was supposed to be a keg of maple syrup, and a water jump that seemed to be a mishmash of every overworked Canuck icon the designers could toss together in a single obstacle.  It had one jump bristling with lobster pots, another with a stylized Toronto skyline on it, and a rather regrettable wooden grizzly with a salmon in its mouth … positioned at the base of a water trickle that I was reliably informed was supposed to represent Niagara grizzly-0691Falls.  WTF? doesn’t really cover it …

And then there was the showjumping course, which was slightly less horrifying, cliche-wise, though there was a plank jump emblazoned with an image of Mounties galloping straight at the observer with their lances in attack mode, something adorned with oversized cowboy boots and saloon doors (presumably representing Calgary), and another which mimicked a mountain pass in the Rockies with a railroad bridge spanning it.  The blocks on the top were little rail cars, so I guess when the blocks were knocked down (which was only a couple of times), it was (groan) a trainwreck.

3. THE MUSKOKA CHAIR DEBATE:  One of the more popular bits of decor in the showjumping ring was a pair of giant green Muskoka chairs, which every rider and groom on Facebook apparently felt compelled to climb up into for a selfie.  The Amalonso valdez PER muskoka chairs-2272ericans, however, kept erroneously referring to them as “Adirondack chairs”, and couldn’t figure out what was supposed to be Canadian about them.  Sources on the infallible interwebz disagree, of course, on the provenance of the Muskoka chair vs. the Adirondack, but at least some of them will tell you that the Muskoka chair is subtly different in its design and the curve of its back.  But both of them are bloody difficult to lever yourself out of, fuglyparticularly the eight-foot kind.

4. FUGLY:  Is it just me, or is this sculpture, which was squatting in the Caledon Equestrian Park, fugly as hell?  Maybe not, since people seemed compelled to pose in front of it on a daily basis for even more selfies.

Much more egregious were the outfits inflicted upon the hapless presenters-of-medals-and-stuffed-toys.  Can you say, “shapeless beach cover-up”?  I think back to the presenters at the Beijing Olympics, who looked utterly stunning, and I try to imagine what the Pan Am people were thinking when they approved these horrid, droopy, waist-less, sweatpants-gray monstrosities.  Seriously, who looks good in this fabric?  One out of 10,000 supermodels, that’s who.  And to top it off, each dress was cut at exactly the right length to flatter no-one in this universe.  These girls were fugly dresses-9907putting on a brave face, but personally I would have been mortified to have turned up in public in one of these.  Hashtag fashion fugliness.

5. FAILURE TO COMMUNICATE:  By most ratings, Canada is not a Third World country.  But we do have an alarming predilection for re-inventing perfectly good wheels.  In the instance of the Pan Am Games, that meant that procedures which have been in place for major sports events around the world for years or even decades, were not necessarily in place here in Toronto.  Felt a little like we were either deliberately trying to represent as a provincial backwater, or we were stuck in some wormhole taking us back to 1985.

The official broadcaster for the Pan Am Games was the venerable CBC, which has long been of the opinion that showjumping is the only equestrian sport with any merit whatsoever.  (It’s a bit of a circular argument:  if North American spectators never get to see eventing or dressage or combined driving, how is it supposed to develop a following?  Numbers for broadcasts of Badminton or Burghley, in the UK, would seem to suggest there’s massive untapped appeal.  Ugh.)  So in its infinite wisdom, the Ceeb — which had sewn up exclusive video rights to absolutely everything — declined to show up for most of the equestrian events.  Which meant that we didn’t even have a video feed in the press tent, thus rendering the luxurious air conditioning in there useless because we had to be outside in order to see what was going on.  There was also no live scoring for the dressage, something that has been available for yonks at most major venues and should have been a no-brainer.

There were also all the usual communications fuck-ups that go with most major Games.  Nothing disastrous, just a lot of Orwellian, “you were allowed to walk past the warm-up rings yesterday, but today you were never allowed to do that and whoever told you that you were didn’t have the authority to do so and you should have known that” type stuff.  The rules for the media seemed to change on a daily basis, which inevitably led to a lot of bitching and frustration from those of us who were trying like hell to comply but couldn’t tell which rules were the real ones.  I’m willing to bet it was the same for the riders and grooms and assorted Team hangers-on from the various nations.

There was a concerted effort made to make these Games more accessible to various types of ‘new’ media (podcasters, bloggers, vloggers, web publications, and basically anyone who wasn’t the host broadcaster) and we were all told in no uncertain terms that we should not fuck it up because Toronto was being closely watched and that it would set a precedent for next year’s Rio Olympics and beyond.  But a lot of the attempts to make media access to the athletes more ‘casual’ just didn’t work.  At the Caledon Equestrian Park, they decided to forego the standard end-of-day press conferences with the top three riders, in favour of just having everyone swarm the poor souls in a noisy corner of the tent.  Later, when that turned out to be unsatisfactory, they tried to set up the athletes in the press seating at one end of the stands — next to the VIP seating, which at the end of each day was cranking up for another deafening party.  Most of what I got on my digital tape recorder was unintelligible, even when I had managed to elbow my way near the front.  But at least the poor riders had chairs to sit in.  Note to the Pan Am organizers:  if it ain’t broke …

6. PECULIAR PORCUPINE:  How a stylized porcupine in a baseball cap came to be the mascot of the Toronto Pan Am Games is another one of those inexplicable Dafuq? decisions.  If I were selecting a species of wildlife to represent Toronto, I’d think the obvious choice would be a raccoon.  (For the uninitiated, Toronto is overrun with urban raccoons, who hang out on people’s fire escapes and can finagle their way into any variety of garbage can ever pachi-2033designed by humans.  They are fearless, intimidatingly intelligent, and absolutely huge.)  I also have no idea where the name “Pachi” for the mascot originated.  I’d like to think perhaps it’s Ojibwe for porcupine or something, but that’s not bloody likely.  In any event, I was told that the strangely multi-coloured pointy bits on Pachi’s back numbered 41, to represent each of the countries involved in the Pan Am Games (is that countries eligible to compete, or actual number of countries which sent at least an athlete or two?  No clue there either).  Certainly there were fewer than 41 ‘quills’ on the little stuffed-toy versions of the mascot that medal-winning athletes were given in lieu of flowers.  (The looks on the faces of some of the South American guys who received them was priceless, though.)

7. JOURNALISTS BEHAVING BADLY:  As noted above, the CBC was the only body officially allowed to take video of the ‘field of play’ (ie. athletes actually competing in anything).  Other media outlets could take video interviews of athletes in the ‘mixed zone’ or outside the venue, and they could send out still photos of the action with a 30-minute embargo, but that was it.  At the beginning of the Games, that meant there were volunteers patrolling the stands trying to confiscate people’s iPads — though eventually that was given up as a lost cause.  The more people were told they couldn’t take video, the more affronted everyone got when it became apparent that the CBC had zero intention of even providing livestreaming or posting anything on-line after the fact.  YouTube became the place to go …

Still, I was unimpressed when I heard that two of the accredited Canadian journalists in our midst were blatantly taking video and posting it on their magazine’s website.  I can understand when paying spectators want to preserve a video clip of their nation’s representative(s) for their own enjoyment, but this was another deal entirely. Guess they missed that little (mandatory with your accreditation) lecture about spoiling it for the rest of us?  They very nearly got their accreditations yanked, and I would not have been the only one to tell them not to let the door hit them in the ass on the way out.

8. ALL THE FAKENESS:  These giant mutant daisy things sprouted like triffids all over the dressage arena at the triffid-9051Caledon Equestrian Park.  They were at least five feet tall.  I told a couple of American journalists who asked that they were trilliums, the provincial flower of Ontario.  (There was actually a rather nice showjump which had real representations of trilliums; it showed up later.)

Another headscratcher:  the cross-country course, at nearby Will O’ Wind Farm, was decorated throughout with huge volumes of fake, plastic flowers.  And they looked really …. fake.  I dunno, you’re in Ontario, in July, in the middle of some of the richest waylon trilliums-1649farmland in North America … you couldn’t scare up some real flowers and foliage maybe?

9. THE SOUND OF SILENCE:  Did no-one tell the American fans that Canada is right next door?  As in, within driving distance for many?  At most events of this size, Canadian cheering sections are accustomed to being drowned out by loud and persistent, “USA! USA! USA!” chants and lots of screaming.  The American brand of patriotism can be a little oppressive, to be sure, but you have to admire their enthusiasm.  Maybe the Pan Am Games are just not on the American radar (though any event in which Murkans have this good a shot at lots of gold medals, you’d think would be very popular)?  Speculation aside, the Canadian riders were greeted by roars from the crowd and lots of flag-waving (it’s worth fans in stands-0281noting that the vast majority of the Canadian competitors, in all three disciplines, live within an hour of the Caledon Equestrian Park — it’s a very horsey neighbourhood).  But the Americans got mostly crickets, or polite smatterings of applause at best, and it was actually kinda sad.  They must have felt rather lost without their usual wall of noise.

10. KICKSTARTER?:  The next Pan Am Games is in Lima, Peru, in 2019.  Always wanted to go to Peru.  Send money, please?

(Please note:  pretty much all the images in this post, and the next few, are Copyright (c) Karen Briggs, 2015. pachi finish-2288 Using them anywhere else without my express permission, and fair payment, will quite possibly result in my hunting you down like a dog and making your life squeamishly unpleasant.  Thank you.)

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The Yearling Whisperer

The search phrase that apparently brought someone to this blog last week was, “What is Karen Briggs doing now?”cheshire-cat-300x240

I can take a hint.

It’s possible, of course, that the searcher was desperately seeking info on my doppelgänger Karen Briggs, a jazz violinist of colour who toured with (yeek) Yanni.  Or perhaps Karen Briggs, the British judo champion who won numerous European championships in the 1990s.  All three of us were born in 1963, which probably multiplies the potential for Google to scramble us, and who knows how many others — my own occasional self-Googling, undertaken in a now-mostly-futile attempt to keep a lid on my copyrighted material, also turns up an uber-religious American military wife whose interests include crochet and semi-automatic weapons, the drug addict daughter of British actor Johnny Briggs (of Coronation Street fame), and a math professor at the University of Northern Georgia, and that’s just the first couple of search engine pages.  If you want to find me as opposed to them, the best approach is to add the word “horse” to my name, et voila.

2014-yearling-saleLast week, you could also have found me down at the back end of the backstretch of Toronto’s Woodbine racetrack, in the barns adjoining the sales pavilion, where I was working the Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Society’s annual yearling sale.  It’s a once-a-year opportunity to put a little extra cash in one’s pocket, if one doesn’t mind 16 hour days that start at 3:30 in the morning, being barked at and condescended to, and being bashed against the walls by huge, hulking, terrified, and often testosterone-addled yearling Thoroughbreds.  By which I mean, it’s not for everyone.

This was not my first rodeo — I’d worked the sale previously for the well-regarded Park Stud, before I made a random, semi-complimentary remark about former Woodbine Entertainment Group CEO, David Willmot, which evidently rendered me persona non grata with the boss lady.  Teach me to say nice things about people.  Never mind — I hated their forest-green-and-pink polo shirts anyway.  Terrible colours on me.

This year, I’d been recruited, via the Interwebz, by a smaller operation called Willow Ridge Farm, which had 12 youngsters entered in the sale, half of whom they’d raised themselves, and half of whom they had prepped and were selling on behalf of other owners.  Five had been deemed worthy, by virtue of their pedigrees and conformation, of being included in Tuesday’s Select Sale, while the other seven entered the auction ring the following evening in the Open Sale session.  (Select Sale yearlings generally fetch higher prices, though that’s not always the case — two of Willow Ridge’s Open entries went for just about as much as the two Select yearlings they’d pinned their hopes on.)

The drill with working a yearling sale is this:  the horses ship in to the sales facility several days ahead of the actual auction.  Buyers, some serious, some tire-kickers, catalogues in hand (the catalogues having been published weeks in advance, which means the yearlings have been entered into the sale months ago), cruise up and down the shedrows behind the sales pavilion during those preview days and ask to view the babies whose pedigrees they like.  Farms consigning yearlings generally hire on extra hands to help show those yearlings to their best advantage.  The job description includes:

* enough confidence in horse-handling that you are not intimidated by surprisingly large, totally spun baby horses with raging hormones and tenuous (if any) manners

* the ability to muck a straw-bedded stall with ruthless efficiency in the pitch black of pre-dawn, onto a tarp which you then drag the length of the shedrow and tie up in a neat bow (which, depending on the age of the tarp and how torn the corners are, can be an art form in itself)

* an extensive knowledge of making horses pretty with hot towels, brushes, scissors, hoofpicks, sponges, peroxide, and enough silicon hairspray to lube an entire Pride parade

* really long arms, with which to gently but insistently insert Chifney bits (brass rings with halter clips, used for extra control) into the mouths This be a young horse wearing a chifney.  Getting one in said young horse's mouth is a Special Skill.of the afore-mentioned, neck-craning, spun babies, often dozens of times per day (a casual indifference towards having your thumbs chomped helps here too)

* a tolerant stomach which can function on greasy peameal sandwiches and bad tea for five days straight

* steel-toed boots and quick reflexes, the better not to get stepped on, kicked, bitten, squished, dragged, or otherwise humiliated

* a talent for cleaning up tolerably well — the standard uniform for showing yearlings being a polo shirt representing the farm or agency, and stupidly impractical khaki pants, which you change into after you’ve done all the before-dawn dirty work (this was not the first time I’ve used a mane comb to pull the tangles out of my own hair)

* the ability to run on three hours’ sleep for extended periods of time and stay polite about it

* and of course, the proverbial patience of the saints.

The consignors and agents at the sale have a lot at stake — for many of them, the proceeds from the annual yearling sale represent their whole year’s earnings, or nearly so.  (There are two other sales, a Winter Mixed Sale closer to Xmas which offers weanlings, broodmares, stallions, and horses of racing age, and another in the spring for two-year-olds in training, but for most the yearlings are the money-makers.)  Therefore, they are stressed-out, even more so because the racing industry in Ontario took such a kick in the teeth from the provincial government back in 2012 and the last few sales have been, frankly, bloodbaths.  Hence, they are demanding, short-tempered, and also not paying anywhere near what they used to for the labours of the extra hands.  Once upon a time, or so I’ve been led to believe, $250 a day was the usual rate, with bonuses given to the handlers of any horse who sold for a particularly good price.  Hotel rooms close to the track were generally offered as well (not that that has ever been useful to me — since I have horses of my own at home to care for, too, I’ve always had to do the 60 minute drive back and forth).  This year, I was lucky to get $15 an hour, and the number of hours I expected to work, versus what I was actually offered, worked out to about half the earnings I was hoping for.  But in my current state of employment beggars cannot be choosers.

One of the toughest things for me personally at the yearling sale is the condescension.  I have more than 40 years of experience handling horses.  Old ones, young ones, baby ones, studdy ones, rude ones, dangerous ones.  I feel fairly confident in saying that I know my shit.  Now, I get that the Thoroughbred racing world is just slightly off-centre from the world of performance horses, showing and eventing, and I get that everyone has their own preferred way of doing things, from how to spray the Showsheen into a tail to how to attach a leadshank.  But I have played in the Thoroughbred sandbox as well as the Standardbred (ahem, not that that gets me any respect with the TB racing folks, but that’s another stupid story).  And I daresay I’ve made more horses pretty for show than the average backstretch worker.  So being treated as if I’m a newbie who doesn’t have a clue … it chaps my ass, a bit.  Why should I bother wearing khakis that are only going to get filthy, if you’re going to hide me in the back of the shedrow and not let me show the horses?  But hey.  For the space of five days I can bite my tongue and find another tangle-less tail to comb out.  Again.  Even though the poor beleaguered baby horse is just begging to be LEFT ALONE FOR FIVE MINUTES FOR THE LOVE OF GAWD.

"Hey Denise.  Look.  Humans coming.  Lots of them." "Oh, relax, Lorraine.  I'm sure it's fine.  They probably just want to feed us."The thing about the yearling sale is that I really, really feel sorry for the poor baby horses, so my priority is making their lives just a little bit less hellish, if I can, for the period of time that they are trapped in a stall in an unfamiliar environment, being poked and prodded and stressed to the max even before they enter the actual sales pavilion, which is noisy and crowded and a whole ‘nuther level of utterly terrifying, ulcer-inducing hell for them.  There are deep and abiding levels of stupid here in the way Thoroughbred yearlings are traditionally shown and sold, levels that make me think there must be a better way.  A couple of months ago, these poor kids were minding their own business in grassy fields somewhere.  Other than having been taught to lead and (sometimes) pick up their feet politely for the farrier, the demands made on them had been minimal, post-weaning.  Then suddenly they get whisked into the barn, confined for long periods of time, groomed and grained and transformed from semi-wild yaklings into some semblance of presentable … and after a few weeks of that, they’re all stuffed into trailers (almost invariably for the first time ever) and hauled into an urban environment where low-flying planes howl overhead about every 90 seconds (Woodbine being about a minute and a half from Toronto’s yearlings2Pearson International Airport and right on the flight path for take-off and landing).  Tragically, it only gets weirder and scarier for them after they leave the sales barn, post-auction.  They’ll move to somewhere new, with a whole host of unfamiliar people, and most will shortly begin their training in earnest:  girths and bits and someone on their backs well before they’ve turned two.

I am emphatically not one of those horsepeople who bemoans the cruelty of the racing industry.  I’m well aware of the economic necessity of things being done the way they are, that the performance horse industry in Ontario only exists in what health it does because the racing industry is there to anchor it, and that the majority of people involved in racing are compassionate horsepeople who love their animals and want to do right by them.  Furthermore, racing is a fantastic proving ground for the horses I myself want to buy and compete.  If they have survived the track with legs and brains intact, they are wonderful prospects for what I want to do.

But still.  For a yearling, it’s a lot.

Even the culture of showing the babies is a bit stupid.  The more popular yearlings in the catalogue might be dragged out of their stalls to be shown to potential buyers dozens of times a day.  Granted, they only have to walk up and down and stand quietly for inspection (the odds of either actually happening varying wildly depending on the colt or filly, what other stupid things might be happening in the vicinity at the time — like, say, an ill-timed garbage truck dumping its load 50 metres away — and the patience of the handler), but there’s this culture that says if you’ve requested to see a horse, you get to stare it on your own, and anyone else who might be interested has to wait his or her turn.  What harm it does to examine the horse at the same time as someone else who’s presumably making his/her own notes in his/her own catalogue, I can’t imagine, but it is somehow important to put the horse through more stress in order to cater to this fuckery.  It’s even worse when you’re asked to “show all” — which for me this year, meant dragging all 12 yearlings out of their stalls in order of their assigned hip numbers (and bloody quickly, too, doesn’t do to keep the client waiting), and then potentially doing it all over again three minutes after I’d finished.  Seems to me you could schedule shows of all the horses you’re offering at particular times, like, you know, a tour at the Ontario Science Centre:  viewings at 12:30, 3:00, and 5:30, and it’s show up then, or be SOL.  Not that the ideas of a lowly stall-mucker are likely to be given any currency.

Some of the yearlings handle it remarkably well.  Some, not so much.  The horses Willow Ridge had raised themselves were, for the most part, well-behaved, though a couple of the colts were typically testosterone-riddled, nippy and rude and one would be unwise to turn one’s back on either of them.  Par for the course.  One filly was sunshine and roses one minute, an ears-pinned banshee when she’d had enough of humanity; she was the one who crowded me up against the wall and tried to drill me in the head, only as I say, not my first rodeo and I got out from under her, amateur that she was.   Another elegant little chestnut filly I’d been warned about, turned out to be a sweetheart as long as you did everything in slow motion with her … a third, dark bay with chrome, just wanted to be cuddled and reassured, and out of the 12 was the one I’d have wanted to take home with me.

The consigned horses who came from elsewhere were all over the map, too.  There was a filly who’d received practically no handling, but plenty of sedatives, most of her life up till that point.  Sadly, she had to remain on chemical assistance during her time at the sale because she started to melt down in withdrawal otherwise; I hope whoever bought her gives her some downtime in a field to get clean before her education begins.  On the other end of the spectrum was a big, burly colt who clearly had been beautifully brought up.  He had lovely manners for his age, wasn’t aggressive in the slightest, took everything in stride, and was quickly nicknamed “the Dude”.  He might not be able to run his way out of a wet paper bag, but he’ll make an outstanding riding horse for someone someday.

Photo by Dave Landry.

Photo by Dave Landry.

Some youngsters learn fast in the pre-sale and sale environment, becoming more and more comfortable with the routine as the days pass, and easier to handle.  Others get, well, fried.  By the time the actual auction rolls around, the professionals take over to get them in the sales ring.  I found out a few years ago that there are actually professional handlers who do nothing but go from sale to sale, being hired to grapple with yearlings in the sales ring and make it look easy.  I had no idea, until then, that this was a thing, and I’m not enthusiastic enough about life on the road to do it myself, but if you like hotel rooms and being jerked around, then I gather you can make decent money doing it …

In the end, a couple of Willow Ridge’s horses sold for the kind of money they’d been hoping for, a few went for disappointingly less, two were pleasant surprises, and three who had reserves placed on them didn’t sell at all.  Overall, however, the sale was up about 50% from last year, which is outstanding news for the industry, even if no-one exactly feels like it can trust the provincial government’s current short-term commitment to the Ontario breeding program.  Once you’ve had the rug pulled out from you once, it’s rather difficult to expect the footing to remain stable ever again …

As for me?  Helped a couple of the new owners load their purchases onto trailers, wished all of the babies good homes and good luck and tried not to think too hard about the alternative — even after five days, I get invested (though it’s difficult to follow their careers when none of them exhausted-by-stupid-peoplehave names yet).  Pocketed my cheque, and staggered home to wash the khakis and sleep for a day and a half.  And I’ll probably do it again next year, because I’m told it’s kinda like childbirth:  if you really remembered what it was like, you’d never do it again, but a year from now the exhaustion and the abuse will have faded from my memory.  It’s possible.

 

 

 

 

This is Why Faith is a Bad Thing …

Back in February of this year, I blogged about a PWAC (Professional Writers Association of Canada), Toronto chapter, seminar I’d attended, about journalistic opportunities in “new media“.

Among the speakers was Wilf Dinnick, who presented to a room full of freelancers in various stages of bewilderment, desperation, and angst about the state of their careers, a strong and irrepressibly optimistic case for embracing markets such as OpenFile, which he founded and edited.

In late September, OpenFile ceased publication.  (If you click the above link, you’ll see the most recent stories were posted September 28, at least as of the moment I posted this.)

And guess what?  A whole bunch of freelancers haven’t been paid, and Wilf has stopped communicating with them.

I wonder if it’s too late to apprentice as a ditch-digger or something.

Here are the gory details, including  the open letter written to OpenFile by six Montreal-based contributors who would really like some answers, please:

http://www.thestoryboard.ca/openfile-freelancers-post-open-letter-to-wilf-dinnick/

http://journomel.com/2012/11/12/freelancers-write-open-letter-to-openfile-for-payment-dinnick-responds/

http://reopenfile.tumblr.com/

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Images of Odysseo

For the past six weeks or so, I’ve been lucky enough to work with Cavalia’s new show, Odysseo, as it has prepared to open in Toronto.  I’m the local ‘equestrian coordinator’, which means I’m the one who knows where all the local tack shops and riding schools are, which BNR (Big Name Riders) to connect with, and which associations might enthusiastically help us promote the show.  It’s been a combo pack of marketing, schmoozing, copywriting, and media relations, and one of the perks has been being able to invite several media friends to the gala opening night last night (Tuesday, May 15).  More on that in a future post …

I’ve also been in attendance at the three media previews, the most recent of which offered a condensed ‘sneak peek’ of Odysseo’s unique melding of horses, acrobats, and aerialists, and let those of us with cameras have at it.  (Cameras are prohibited for the actual performances, so this was our only shot at getting the shots!)

I knew my equipment was going to be underpowered for the challenging light conditions inside the Big Top theatre.  My lenses aren’t the fastest and my old Nikon camera body has serious limits on its ISO.  But experience has also taught me that shooting under these limitations can sometimes give really pleasing results.  Some of my favourite images from the opening ceremonies of the 2010 World Equestrian Games, for example, are blurred and ethereal shots I got after dark, with the horses captured in coloured spotlights.

Herewith a selected few images from Odysseo.  It’s not poor photography, people; it’s art!  (Say that with conviction and you can almost buy into it.)

If you’d like to see some actual in-focus images, check out my friend Shawn Hamilton’s gallery here.

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I Am (Briefly) the One Per Cent

I’ve dabbled in a number of different forms of journalism over the years.  I’ve covered advances in veterinary medicine, described how to shop for a manure spreader, written how-to’s and op-eds, provided blow-by-blow event coverage, and even poked a few hornet’s nests.  But unless you count Big Name Trainers (BNT in horsey chatboard vernacular), I can’t say celebrity profiles have ever been much on my radar.

I do, however, now know where to go should I ever hanker to veer in that direction.

A few months ago, I won a little contest.  It was the sort of web-based form you fill out when you’re procrastinating about finishing an article that bores you to desperation.  You know — name, address, age, e-mail address so that We May Spam You Unmercifully in the Future.  That I have won a small handful of these contests over the last few years is probably an indication that I am devoting way too much time and energy to this particular variety of procrastination.

My prizes, in this case, seemed to have been tossed together in an effort to clear out some 18th floor closet at the Toronto Star (not that I’m complaining, they just didn’t appear to have much coherence).  I received two $50 Visa gift cards, which I used to buy feed for the beasties.  There were also two tickets to a play called The Blue Dragon (love me a night at the theatre, so that was much appreciated).  And there was a huge and unwieldy “wine package” which, when I finally got it all unwrapped, contained decanters, glasses, several corkscrews each more elaborate than the last, a massive coffee-table book about grapey beverages … but no actual wine, which struck me as a bit peculiar…

The piece de resistance, however, was a one-night stay at one of Toronto’s ’boutique’ hotels, the Windsor Arms, in an uber-swanky corner suite equipped with (no foolin’) a grand piano.  I may have mentioned before that I am not generally in the habit of booking boutique hotels, being generally destitute and all.  I like a bit of luxury as much as the next person … okay, given that absence makes the heart grow fonder, I probably like a bit of luxury more than some people do.  But throughout most of my adult life, my budget has been rather more Motel 6 than Relais & Chateaux.

So this sounded potentially amusing.

I’m only an hour north of Toronto, so it’s not that the destination was exotic for me, but since perks, relaxation, and pampering have all been in shockingly short supply thus far this year, I decided I’d book the hotel stay for the weekend immediately following my birthday, and pretty much wallow in it as fully, completely, and decadently as I could.

This was after I determined I couldn’t exchange the prize for its cash value — which, let’s be honest, could have paid my rent for the month, covered at least two of my overdue vet bills, or flown me to Europe.

The thing about Motel 6 and its ilk is that it’s pretty anonymous.  Some bored employee takes your credit card imprint, hands you a key, and then pretty much ceases to care whether you exist unless you call the front desk 15 minutes later to complain that the wi-fi secret code isn’t working.  You can come and go at any hour of the day or night without anyone even looking up from his/her video game.  But the Windsor Arms is a different sort of critter, as the squeeze and I realized when we pulled up for the valet parking (the only option offered, at $35 a night, not included with the package).   Hello, welcome, how wonderful that you’ve come, may I help you with your bags, is this your first time staying with us?  (Um, yes, and almost certainly the last, given my station in life.)

The squeeze and I immediately realized that we had neglected to factor in the sheer number of people here who would have their hands out expecting gratuities.  Eeek.  And me with $6 in my wallet.

We got a very gracious tour of the place anyway, courtesy of Sal.  Herewith some not-very-fabulous pix which are the product of my little point-and-shoot rather than the decent camera (I was trying fruitlessly to travel light).

Strangely enough, they did not grab me by the scruff of the neck and turf me out onto the street, which is what I always expect to happen when I step into this sort of foreign environment.  The squeeze and I kind of poked around all the vastness and tastefulness for an hour, feeling staggeringly silly about it all.  We were careful not to lay hands on the not-at-all-complimentary contents of the mini-bar, or the snack basket in the ‘family room’.  The latter included, rather mysteriously, along with the Pringles and M&Ms, an “intimacy kit” for $12… this was a discreetly plastic-sealed black box with neat lettering and absolutely no indication of what it contained, which of course led to about 20 minutes of fatuous speculation, cuz that’s what we do. (Breath mint?  Edible undies?  KY?  Pamphlet from Birthright?)

We admired the opulent bathroom (oh, for an expansive jacuzzi tub in my day-to-day life) and the fact that every room in the place was equipped with a TV.  We noted with some befuddlement the phones hanging by each toilet (really, that call just couldn’t wait?), and I was mildly affronted by the quality of the paper products (standard-issue scratchy hotel loo roll — I have to say I expected better) but impressed with the big fluffy towels and the terry robes and slippers.

Took a dip in the (deserted) salt-water pool, but decided to forego the exercise room in the end because, as the squeeze observed, “When you come to a place like this, you don’t come to sweat.”  Watched some TV, had a soak in the big tub, goofed around with programmable bossa-nova beats on the fake piano, and had a very pleasant sleep followed by a complimentary buffet breakfast downstairs (the breakfast was actually fairly meh, as well — what, no waffles? — but free is free and they did toast my bagel to perfection).

And that was pretty much that.  The equivalent of $1750, blown in one rather over-the-top evening.  It provided a lot of amusement value, and a bit of decompression, but didn’t really make either of us angst for what we’d been missing … at least, not on the hotel side.

As we checked out, the reporter in me kicked in, as it inevitably does.  I felt compelled to ask the front desk staff who their regular clientele were — since, clearly, it was not me.  “Some international business travellers, but mostly A-list celebrities,” admitted the woman printing up our bill for the valet parking.  I had rather figured as much, knowing that the hotel is very close to the centre of activities during the Toronto International Film Festival, colloquially known as TIFF ’round these parts.  But the stream of actors, directors, producers, and other entertainment types isn’t limited to September, apparently.  “I’ve been here two months,” one of them confessed, “and I’m amazed at the celebrities I’ve seen here already” — though of course she was far too well-trained to name names, and I really wasn’t paparazzi-ish enough to prod her.  (Good to know that Toronto’s film industry isn’t dead, though.)

Given that the suite had two rooms equipped with sliding, frosted-glass doors, I had an immediate vision of Hugh Grant.  Remember that scene in Notting Hill where he walks into the middle of a media scrum in Julia Roberts’s hotel suite, and has to fake being a reporter in order to talk to her?

Remember how he claims to be a correspondent for Horse and Hound?

Well, I’m the genuine article.

And the front desk staff strongly implied that, should I ever desire to ambush and interview a celebrity, that hanging around the lobby of the Windsor Arms just might be a way to do that.

If they try to kick me out, I’ll just tell them Sal said it was okay.

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Professional Development Day

I’ve never been much of a joiner.

Mostly because when money’s tight, the association memberships are the first things to go.  So I am currently not a member of PWAC, which used to stand for “Periodical Writers Association of Canada” and now stands for “Professional Writers Association of Canada” (presumably, because the writing biz these days is almost more about online content than it is magazines and newspapers).

But I do keep tabs on what the Toronto chapter of PWAC is up to, and when the opportunity presents itself I try to attend some of their evening or weekend seminars, which they kindly open up to non-members who are willing to produce a $20 bill at the door.

It’s mostly about the networking for me.  Living in the boonies as I do, I’m disconnected from the urban writer’s community (where everybody knows your byline) and certainly disconnected from their reputed $1-a-word planet.  (There’s that Holy Grail AGAIN … and I notice it gets mentioned at least once in every PWAC seminar, like you are doing the world a disservice, or at least are remarkably stupid or can’t possibly be any good, if you write for less …)

Other than that, though, they’re generally positive experiences and an opportunity for me to play Urban Grown-Up and wear the nice shoes for a few hours.

Last night’s topic was “Digital Journalism for Pay”, and it was mildly encouraging.  There were three panelists:  Wilf Dinnick, of OpenFile , Bert Archer of Yonge Street Media (for you out-of-towners, Yonge St. is Toronto’s iconic main drag, as well as the world’s longest non-highway street — it goes up to Hudson Bay or something), and Navneet Alang, of the Toronto Standard.  All of these are paying, online-only markets.

Dinnick’s enthusiasm, in particular, was infectious; he insists that people not only want and expect solid, well-written journalism on the Interwebz, but that there are markets which are willing to pay for it.  OpenFile’s numbers would seem to bear that out; according to Dinnick, they have quadrupled their audience in the last three months, and the metrics are still going nuts.  What’s even more encouraging is OpenFile’s model.  While it uses a certain amount of the dreaded UGC (user-generated content, aka ‘citizen journalism’, aka the stuff that’s putting me out of business), what it does mostly is solicit story ideas from the public, then (and I will italicize this because it’s mildly mind-blowing) assign actual professional, paid journalists to write articles based on those story ideas.

In case you don’t know what the fuck I’m on about in this regard — the vast majority of online ‘news’ markets these days get their content from unpaid, unprofessional journalists whose content is usually worth exactly what they are paid for it.  See Huffington Post et al.  (And no, I’m not giving you a link to HuffPo, because I refuse to give it any gratuitous hits. Find it yourself if you must.)

Now, OpenFile isn’t Grailworthy … from what I understand, they pay a flat rate of $200 for stories.  But most of us are grateful for such crumbs these days.  And they aren’t even grabbing rights; they ask exclusivity of the content for a mere 48 hours, after which you are free to do what you will with your work (re-sell it, make giclee prints of it, give a copy to your mother).

A reasonably fair deal for writers?  In this day and age?  Well.  Whatever would Arianna Huffington say to that?

Archer backed up Dinnick, saying that journalism hasn’t really changed; if you have the chops, you’ll do just as well or better in the digital age, than you did selling to traditional print markets.   Furthermore, he thinks good journalists will

Thanks to Patrick Blower of the Telegraph, who would have been consulted had I been able to track him down.

be valued for those skills — if not now, then when the dust starts to settle on the whole changing-face-of-writing thing, in three to five years (est.) — and shouldn’t need to re-invent themselves as podcasters, videographers, and/or code-writers.

Hope that part’s true, because I really can’t afford to invest in video equipment and my hair looks funny on-camera.  Also, I hate the sound of my voice.  Dammit, I knew I should have taken that broadcast class in undergrad ….

All three agreed, “there’s never been a more exciting time to be a journalist”.  I presume they mean in that uber-fun, “please be the first to bungee off this bridge into the gorge … it hasn’t been tested but we’re sure it’s perfectly safe” way.  They’re certainly astute in pointing out that the ‘traditional’ print markets — venerable institutions like the Toronto Star, the Wall Street Journal, and Atlantic Monthly — have not yet really come to grips with the possibilities and pitfalls of online journalism.  “They’re casting about at the moment,” Archer said.  “They don’t really know what they’re doing.”

And when money starts to get tight, publications like this don’t respond by selling the printing press.  Nope.  They fire reporters.  That, says Dinnick, is an almost limitless talent pool that online markets can tap into.  True enough.  We’re here and we’re hungry.  And we’re in no position to hold out for $1 a word.

More than ever, it pays to be nimble.  It’s fatal to have all your eggs in one editorial basket these days.  Got to hustle, got to diversify.  Ten times $250 blurbs = one $2500 feature back in the day.  But here was where something of an elephant strolled into the room … when our three esteemed panellists were asked to think of some other online news outlets which paid (other than the three they themselves represented), well … they could only come up with one (The Tyee, a Vancouver-based and -focused online newspaper).

Not such a positive close to the session.

I’m sure it’s all going to sort itself out over the next few years … I’m just not confident I’m not going to starve to death waiting for it to happen.

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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.

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