Friday, June 27, 2014

Our New Normal (wherein I anthropomorphize to my heart's content)

Summer is here. As I write this, Sugie is beside me, curled into a fold of the softly worn green blanket that has covered this swing for eight summers now. During the school year, when things get so crazy with early hours, papers to grade, parents to call and impossible time schedules, this is what I daydream about. This is what keeps me putting one foot in front of the other, shuffling one more graded essay to the bottom of the stack, these long blissful moments of swing-sitting with this little chunk of a cat… and writing slowly, leisurely, thinking through my word choices as the ice cubes twirl slowly in my glass of sweet tea.

This is heaven for both of us. For me it’s the writing. For Sug it’s having her mom home so she can spend hours outside on the patio if she so desires (as long as I am out here with her).

This summer, of course, our routine is just a wee bit altered. Sug now shares me with annoying little sister Purrrl and the world’s most quirky dog, Sgt. Thomas Tibbs. So far, things are working out just fine.

In previous summers, when I’ve done my annual pilgrimage to Missouri, Sug has been left with various housesitters. I have always returned to find her somewhat emotionally shut down, always clingy and anxious for many days after my return. (And if you think I’m simply projecting or anthropomorphizing here, take a moment to read this piece in today’s Los Angeles Times by Amy Hubbard.) Even those closest to me have never fully understood that my deep anxiety in leaving her stems not from worry about her physical well-being but about how her psyche will fare while I’m gone. I am the center of her daily routine, her source not only of food but of safety and security. My absence means subjecting her to her own ‘worries,’ primal as they may be. Keep in mind, this is a sentient being I have cared for and loved for eight years. I know the difference in her response when I’ve been gone for an hour compared with an absence of twelve hours. It’s not about the food; she does truly ‘miss’me.

To help Sug feel slightly less alone when I travel—or when I’m gone from the house for a grueling early-morning-to-work-plus-parent-meeting-plus-grocery-shopping day—I brought little Purrrl into our lives last fall. And this year, when I returned from Missouri, Sug had not shut down. Well at least, not to the extent she usually does. Yes, I’m sure there were some moments of anxiety—my housesitter, with whom Sug is acquainted, invited people over a few times, so the house was noisy and there were strangers. But when the girls get anxious, they dive under the bed and huddle up together. They don’t cuddle, but I have no doubt that being near each other during a potentially scary experience helps them both to cope and offers them the comfort of familiarity.

All of that is preamble to say that, where my late summer mornings used to consist of yawning, stretching, and strolling outside to the patio with Sug, there is a bit more to it now. Now when I wake I have to move cautiously around a sleepy gray kitten who hogs the middle of the bed (Sug and I relegated to the left side, always) and who will lash out with cranky claws if her beauty sleep is disturbed. But ten minutes later, I will hear the girls chasing each other through the house. Because apparently cats do not need one or two cups of tea before they can officially begin to wake up; they seem to be able to go from I’m-still-sleeping-Mom! to I-got-you!/I-got-you-back! in about thirty seconds.

And after everyone is fed—except for me, though I am allowed one cup of tea to drink while I dispense fresh water, pick up rawhide chew remnants from the floor, start the sprinklers and put my shoes on—there follows a long, luxurious walk with my boy, Thomas, who is quite the happy dog these days. (Update on the good boy in an upcoming post.) Later in the morning, Sug will let me know it’s time to stop cleaning or folding laundry or goofing off on Facebook, and we will wander outside together to this very spot. This routine is what keeps me sane, and I am grateful to the Universe that the sanity it brings will last me for ten months when school starts again.

Today’s blog post is dedicated to my dear friend and faithful reader Barbara Tinsley, who gave me just the nudge I needed at just the right time.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Why I'm worried about that little horse running in the Belmont tomorrow

Photo courtesy of

You may have been so wrapped up in the Donald Sterling scandal or the NBA playoffs or the NHL playoffs or all of them combined that you haven't had a moment in recent weeks to read the remainder of the sports page. So let me update you quickly on something important that happened in horse racing. Last month, a little horse from California won the Kentucky Derby. Then he won the Preakness. The horse's name is California Chrome.

These are big races, and the reason this is important is that, in horse racing, if a horse wins the Derby, the Preakness and then Belmont Stakes, it's known as the Triple Crown, and winning the TC turns a horse into a rock star (in the horse world) overnight. Winning the Derby is like finally getting that long awaited invitation to Madison Square Garden to perform, if you're a real rock star. Winning the Triple Crown is like being invited to perform at the Garden plus having an album go platinum plus being asked to perform on the Grammys. So, if you don't follow horse racing, you should now have some idea how important winning the TC is. You should also know that no horse has been able to achieve this feat since 1978.

One reason, of course, is that the Belmont track, at a mile and a half, is longer than Churchill Downs (where the Derby is run) or Pimlico (where the Preakness is run). Another glaring reason is that after the first two races, many horses are simply too broken to win the Belmont.

Now, I don't want to go all PETA here (though the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals do have accurate and substantial information on their website about horse racing), and I certainly don't want to jinx our brave little stallion from California, but I have to confess that it has become difficult to get excited about watching horses try for the TC when we've seen such equine tragedy in recent years.

You may remember hearing of a horse called Barbaro, a truly valiant steed who won the Derby in 2006, then lost the Preakness—because he fractured three bones in his right hind leg, probably at the start of the race (but of course he galloped around the track with the rest of the herd as horses will do). When he pulled up at the finish, he was holding that hind leg high, barely able to stand. Emergency surgery was performed the next day, and for months his owners tried everything to fix him, to no avail. He was eventually euthanized.

Then there was that little filly I fell so in love with named Eight Belles. In 2008, she finished second to the now famous Big Brown (the last horse to win both the Derby and the Preakness) in the Kentucky Derby—and immediately after crossing the finish line, she collapsed. Both front legs had sustained fractures as she ran, and she was so broken they couldn't even remove her from the track. She was euthanized while all those ladies in their pretty Derby hats looked on in horror. I would have needed to immediately down four or five mint juleps had I been present that day. As it was, I was watching the race on television and dissolved in tears when I realized what had happened. She, too, was a valiant steed. But there was a lot of pressure on her jockey to get her across that finish line ahead of Big Brown, and her jockey had whipped her repeatedly down the stretch because she wasn't running at her usual speed—no doubt because her legs were breaking.

Why? Because horses with long, slender pasterns (that space between the fetlock or ankle and the hoof) win races, so in the last twenty years or so of racing, thoroughbred owners have followed bloodlines with that particular trait, breeding horses with thinner and thinner pasterns. It makes the horse more flexible as a runner, but also compromises the horse's leg strength, for obvious reasons.

And then there's the doping that goes on in the business of horse racing at a rate that would make Lance Armstrong look like a novice at bait and switch and concealment. Horses are given pain killers so that, if they are injured or just not feeling well, they'll still run hell bent for leather, as we say in the horsie world. Just as Eight Belles did. (I make no accusation in regard to whether she'd been given pain killers. I simply note that she ran her heart out despite her pain, as did Barbaro.)

Because of Eight Belles, I could not bring myself to watch another Derby, though I had watched the race every year since I was twelve or thirteen. But last month, having done some reading on California Chrome and his owners, I settled myself on the couch, took deep breaths and watched him win the Derby. (I did not see the Preakness as I could not arrange to be at home.)

This amazing little horse might win the Belmont Stakes tomorrow. If he does, he will be immediately retired from racing and made comfortable on a stud farm where he will live out his days trotting around in a large pasture (when he isn't busy getting it on with every pretty filly who can afford his stud fee). The perfect life, I'd say, for a stallion. That is, if his legs hold out. I'll be praying as I watch the race.