Category: photography

Scratched

This race has just started, on the turf infield, at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, Del Mar, California.

This race has just started, on the turf infield, at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, Del Mar, California.

Britt Layton was a rising star in the world of horse racing back in the 1950s. He even dabbled in show business. He played the part of the “Jockey”, in the 1950 movie “Riding High”, which starred Bing Crosby, Colleen Gray, and Charles Bickford. But enough with the name-dropping. This is about a different story. A story I call Beauty and the Beast.

The beauty is the spectacle of horse racing. The beast is its dark underbelly. But I love horse racing. No sport has more beauty than these muscular equines barreling down the racetrack at breakneck gallop. My adrenalin runs wild. My heart soars. I love seeing the wildness and freedom of tons of horseflesh vying and stretching for the finish line. It’s absolutely beautiful.

But with any beauty comes a beast.

Britt met the jaws of the beast on a racetrack in Canada. A multi-horse pileup sent him to the hospital. He never fully recovered and was forced to retire from racing. No one knows if he began drinking before this accident or after. But if before, it’s certain that he increased his alcoholic consumption post-career.

A turf finish. Turf races are often reserved for older horses, and horses with soreness from racing too frequently. The grass is easier on their hooves and legs.

A turf finish. Turf races are often reserved for older horses, and horses with soreness from racing too frequently. The grass is easier on their hooves and legs.

My mother met him in an alcohol rehabilitation center, where she worked. They fell in love in a whirlwind romance, and married two months later. I was eleven years old, and excited about this new stepfather. He was fun. And unlike my previous stepfather, he was not abusive.

He owned a riding stable, and introduced us to the world of equestrian life. And he stayed sober.

For three months.

One day he took us to the Del Mar racetrack, in Del Mar, California. That’s the place in the Bing Crosby song, where The Turf Meets the Surf. You could get in free in those days, and that’s all we could afford. We were railbirds (couldn’t afford seats). But the rails is where you get the best glimpse of the beauties, anyway, as they sail past.

Britt was animated as he taught us all about the thoroughbreds and the behind-the-scenes aspects of racing. That’s when I learned that horses were often doped.

“It’s illegal,” he said, “but they do it anyway.” And then he added with a heavy, sad voice, “You’d be shocked with what they get away with here.” Of course I was eager to know all the details, but he shut up after that. A little while later I smelled vodka on his breath. The beast had him again.

A scattered field is finishing this race. The guy on the tower at the right is finishing line judge.

A scattered field is finishing this race. The guy on the tower at the right is the finishing line judge.

Three months after the wedding, Britt returned to his former habits of a stumbling-down, sleep-in-the-gutter drunk. He lost the riding stable. We had to move into an old house way out on a dirt road, with no utilities. He and my mother fought. It was pathetic to see this erstwhile successful, fun man reduced to such a helpless slave of the bottle. My mother annulled the marriage before their first anniversary. She scratched him out of her life. A few years later he was scratched again, when he died a broken, drunken man, in his mid-40’s.

Finishes can be pretty exciting. Especially when the horse you bet on wins.

Finishes can be pretty exciting. Especially when the horse you bet on wins.

But he inspired a love for horses in my older sister. She could see the beauty, and she held onto it. In fact she made a career of working in the equine industry. Today she owns a large ranch, and specializes in training gaited trail horses. This is such a highly specialized niche that she has practically cornered the market on it in Southern California, and has become well-known and highly reputed in the local horse world.

She has a few friends in the horse racing business, who follow the racing circuit. This time of year you’ll find some of them working behind the scenes at Del Mar. In fact, last year around this time, one of them gave my sister a “backstage” tour, and she actually got to meet American Pharoah, the Triple Crown Winner. My sister says it was one of the most exciting days in her life.

I think this was a photo finish. I hope the horses remembered to smile.

I think this was a photo finish. I hope the horses remembered to smile.

A few days ago I treated her to a day at the races. We met at the Del Mar Fairgrounds. We watched the thoroughbred beauties roar past us like hurricanes, sometimes observing from the rail, and sometimes watching from the seats. And we recounted that palmy day when Britt took us to this very track when we were kids.

Then she got on her cell phone to call one of her racing friends. We were hoping for another backstage tour.

“He’s too busy,” she announced with sadness in her voice, as she set down the phone. “He says there have been two euthanizations, and he has to assist with the necropsies.”

“Wow! Two?” what’s going on, I asked incredulously.

“He said two is about what they average per day,” my sister glumly answered. “He said they often die of overdoses. Illegal drugs.”

The beast.

I mentioned that some people say that horse racing is cruelty to animals. My sister agreed with that. And it certainly seemed so to me.

But then a pack of thoroughbreds rounded the far turn and flew down the stretch. Everyone stood and shouted and urged the horses on. Including me. I felt that same old, familiar thrill. An electric frisson raced up and down my spine. I tell you, there’s nothing more beautiful and awe-inspiring than these magnificent horses at a full-tilt run.

I have to believe the horses also feel a thrill. How great it must be for them to be out of their paddocks and free to stretch their legs as fast as they can, with a herd of their own kind. Is it really cruelty to animals? Aren’t they doing what comes naturally to them, and with a release of pent-up wild gusto?

The close races are the most exciting.

The close races are the most exciting.

I studied my racing program, to make my picks for horses in upcoming races. I noticed that a few had been scratched. I wondered, were some of these the ones who were devoured by the beast today?

A name caught my eye. Sid the Squid. What a name! I have a highly sophisticated betting scheme. I bet on the name that best strikes my fancy. And Sid the Squid was ready to race. He had not been scratched.

Yet.

I headed down to the wicket, with two bucks in hand.

“Two dollars on Sid the Squid.”

“To Win, Place, or Show?” the man behind the counter growled.

“No, just to not be scratched.”

“We don’t take bets on that.”

“Well, I just want him to show up.”

“All right, to Show then,” and he took my money.

He ran seventh in a field of eight. And lived. That was showing enough for me. It was a good race.

Because in the case of Sid the Squid, beauty was not scratched by the beast.

Sid the Squid.

Sid the Squid.

The Hoodoos of Bryce

Black Birch Canyon.

Bryce Canyon is actually many canyons. Or they can be more accurately described as natural amphitheaters. This is a view of Black Birch Canyon.

Our next stop for my wife and me in our road trip through Utah this month, was Bryce Canyon National Park. The chief attraction at Bryce is tall columns of orange rock. These columns resemble petrified unicorn horns to me, but they’re actually called hoodoos. I guess they looked like hoodoo dolls to whoever named them.

Black Birch Canyon.

Another view of Black Birch Canyon. The many natural amphitheaters can be viewed by driving an 18-mile long road through the national park, and stopping at viewpoints. There are also several hiking trails.

Hoodoo dolls are a wicked fantasy. It’s a dark dream we all share at some time or another, to make those who’ve caused us suffering feel the same pain we feel. Throughout our lives we’ve been dealt a host of harms, both real and imagined, from a bunch of assholes. And sometimes we sure would love to pay them back.

Bristlecone Trail.

A view from Bristlecone Trail. The Bristlecone Trail is over 9,000 feet up, at the very end of the road. Most of the park is over 8,000 feet in elevation. (That’s 2,400 meters, for you Canucks.)

Wouldn’t it be nice to raise your abusive parents, and make them suffer at your mercy? Or how about blasting your loud, rap-music neighbors with 150 decibels of Slim Whitman hits? Or what if you could force TSA agents to work barefoot and without belts?

Bristlecone Trail.

View from the Bristlecone Trail. The Paiute Indians thought the hoodoos were the Legend People who, according to mythology, were turned to stone by the mythological character Coyote. Now there’s some ancient revenge for you. The Paiute term for hoodoos was Anka-ku-was-a-wits, which means “red painted faces.” This rhymes with Manischewitz, which is a sweet red beverage that can also get you stoned.

Revenge has a sweet taste. But Gandhi said that if we practice an eye-for-an-eye, the whole world will go blind. Darn you Gandhi for spoiling all the fun, with your great wisdom! If I could only come up with some wise retort for you, you’d know how I feel right now.

Bristlecone Trail.

Yet another view from the Bristlecone Trail. I managed to hike this one-mile path. The extreme altitude left me almost as breathless as the views.

Empathy is what peaceniks recommend over things like hoodoo dolls. It ain’t easy to practice, and it ain’t always pretty, but the sad truth is that it does redound in better long-term results. For instance, feeling the pain that drives the assholes of our lives to harm us, helps us to understand our enemies. And as a smart strategist once recommended, “Know your enemy.”

Natural Bridge.

This natural bridge reminds us of the connections we can form with our enemies when we stop relying on hoodoo magic.

The Buddha spoke of the Simile of the Saw. He taught that if some mean dudes are holding you down while sawing off your limbs, it is best not to think ill of them. Instead, wish them to be well, peaceful, and happy.

Natural Bridge.

Bryce Canyon is named after the Mormon settler, Ebenezer Bryce, who briefly homesteaded here. He tried to raise cattle, but the livestock kept getting lost amongst the hoodoos. After this and other difficulties, he moved away in 1880. I would have stayed and found a new vocation.

Well, peaceful, and happy?! Bullshit, right? Instead, you might rather flip them off, if only you had fingers left to do so. But just think, if these droogs were peaceful they wouldn’t be sawing your limbs off in the first place. And then you wouldn’t mind if they were well and happy.

Rainbow Point.

View from Rainbow Point, at 9,105 feet.

The hoodoos of Bryce are beautiful to admire. But be careful of their allure. Avoid the steep cliffs at their base. Revenge is a treacherous precipice, with ineluctable gravity. It only pulls you down.

Rainbow Point.

Another stunning vista from Rainbow Point.

So we gave the hoodoos a wide berth, and observed them from a distance. We avoided the edge and kept our feet on solid ground. And the temptations of the hoodoos were supervened by this one wish:

Yovimpa Point.

View from Yovimpa Point. Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument can be seen in the distance, below.

That all living beings would be well, peaceful, and happy.

A Little Piece of Heaven

My wife and I went unicorn hunting a few weeks ago. That is, we went on a 7-day road trip. We motored through the scenic wonderland of the great states of Utah and Arizona. It was a successful hunt, as we captured a number of those elusive one-horned critters along the way.

View of Zion Canyon, from Weeping Rock. Yep, plenty of unicorns to be found here.

View of Zion Canyon, from Weeping Rock. Yep, plenty of unicorns to be found here.

Our first stop was Zion National Park. Zion was originally named Mukuntuweep National Monument. Mukuntuweep is a Paiute Indian word meaning “straight-up land” or “straight arrow”, or straight something or other. We were lucky, as we were not shot by any straight arrows as we toured the region.

Looking straight up the canyon walls, near the River trail.

Looking straight up the canyon walls, near the River trail.

A Mormon rancher, who apparently couldn’t speak Paiute, renamed the area Little Zion, with the idea that it resembled a little piece of heaven. This got me wondering what heaven really is.

I passed at least one kidney stone last week. For me, heaven is not having kidney stones. Or better yet, heaven is having good health in general.

Court of the Patriarchs. From left to right, these peaks are called Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They all suffered from kidney stones, and therefore had these rocks named after them.

Court of the Patriarchs. From left to right, these peaks are called Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They all suffered from kidney stones, and therefore had these rocks named after them.

The Virgin River passes through Zion National Park, and some say that heaven is having 72 virgins. But I say, how long will they remain virgins? Heaven for these men is very short-lived, unless they suffer from erectile dysfunction. Besides, virgins make lousy lovers. They’re bashful, and you have to show them how to do everything.

The Virgin River. This river is renowned as a favorite swimming spot for young ladies and old maids.

The Virgin River. This river is renowned as a favorite swimming spot for young ladies and old maids.

For me, heaven is having one lover, and one only. Lovers can cause headaches, you know. Just one is enough for me. And a lover who you can communicate and work well with can be very useful in a unicorn hunt. But just try coordinating a hunt with 72 giggling girls. It can never work.

A closer view of the Virgin River, looking as pure and innocent as ever. But I'm skeptical. When I got real close I spotted some tadpoles.

A closer view of the Virgin River, looking as pure and innocent as ever. But I’m skeptical. When I got real close I spotted some tadpoles.

For the Mormon that named this area, heaven was beautiful scenery. I’ll go along with that. My wife and I love the beauty of Zion National Park. In fact, this was our fourth visit.

Our first visit was brief, as we just drove through it like a Mukuntuweep straight arrow. My wife was behind the wheel, and she was so impressed by the scenery that she would stop in the middle of the highway and back up traffic. She had a hard time keeping her eyes on the road, and at times I feared she would drive off a cliff. For her, the beautiful scenery was heaven. For me it was a living hell.

Checkerboard Mesa. Wouldn't this be the perfect spot to build a Senior Citizen Center?

Checkerboard Mesa. Wouldn’t this be the perfect spot to build a Senior Citizen Center?

We’ve since learned to enjoy Zion in safer ways. And our memories of this unique canyon are the unicorns we captured. Too bad we couldn’t remain in this little piece of heaven. But there were more unicorns waiting down the road . . .

Haunting the Huntington

A bench at the Rose Garden, Huntington Library. There are many benches adorning the pleasance, for those of us who enjoy a periodic nap.

A bench at the Rose Garden, Huntington Library. There are many benches adorning this pleasance, for those of us who enjoy a periodic nap.

My wife and I haunted the Huntington a few days ago. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens was founded in San Marino, California in 1919 by Henry Huntington.

The famous paintings, Blue Boy and Pinkie are ensconced at the Huntington. Blue Boy was painted in 1770 by Thomas Gainsborough. My wife, who was once an art student, tells me that the bright colors of this painting were unusual for the day. Many considered it ostentatious and even pornographic, and some wanted to tar and feather the poor artist. If only those prudes could be around these days to surf some of the "art" you can find on the internet.

The famous paintings, Blue Boy and Pinkie, are ensconced at the Huntington. Blue Boy was painted in 1770 by Thomas Gainsborough. My wife, who was once an art student, tells me that the bright colors of this painting were unusual for the day. Many considered it ostentatious and even pornographic, and some wanted to tar and feather the poor artist. If only those prigs could be around these days to surf some of the “art” you can find on the internet.

He was a business tycoon who married his widowed aunt in 1913. In those days, incest was perfectly acceptable amongst the gentry, as long as they kept it in the family.

Pinkie was painted in 1794 by Thomas Lawrence. My wife, the art student, had always thought the painter was the same fellow who limned Blue Boy. Ha! Pinkie was renamed by the Huntington, "Sarah Barret Moulton: Pinkie" after the young lady who posed for this portrait. She died one year later, at the age of 12. Poor Pinkie. And by the way, she never got to meet Blue Boy. Her niece was the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Pinkie was painted in 1794 by Thomas Lawrence. My wife, the art student, had always thought the painter was the same fellow who limned Blue Boy. Ha! Shows how much she knows. Pinkie was renamed by the Huntington, “Sarah Barret Moulton: Pinkie” after the young lady who posed for this portrait. She died one year later, at the age of 12. Poor Pinkie. And by the way, she never got to meet Blue Boy. Her niece was the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Together, he and his antewife auntie collected rare books, masterpieces of art, and botanical exotics.

Speaking of Pinkie, these bright pink flowers nearly blinded me, in the Desert Garden.

Speaking of Pinkie, these bright pink flowers nearly blinded me, in the Desert Garden.

They placed it all in a trust in 1919, so that the hoi polloi, including my wife and me, could come on down, give it a gander, and be awesomely inspired.

"A Breezy Day" was painted in 1887 by Charles Courtney Curran. Perhaps not a good day for a picnic, or whatever these ladies are up to.

“A Breezy Day” was painted in 1887 by Charles Courtney Curran. Perhaps not a good day for a picnic, or whatever these ladies are up to.

Today the Huntington Library hosts more than a half million guests a year.

A bloom on a Eucalyptus tree, in the Australian Garden.

A bloom on a Eucalyptus tree, in the Australian Garden. The bee loved the pollen. My sinuses weren’t so appreciative.

About 1,700 scholars from around the world conduct advanced humanities research every year, at the Huntington. Some have included Nobel Laureates, Pulitzer Prize winners, and even Oscar winners such as Katharine Hepburn. Hey, no one gives a damn about those other folks, but Katharine Hepburn? Wow!

A sculpture in the Chinese Garden. Very mysterious meaning here.

A sculpture in the Chinese Garden. Very mysterious meaning here.

There are eleven different gardens at the Huntington, featuring plants from various climates and regions. I noticed that the Chinese Garden had many Chinese visitors, and the neighboring Japanese Garden had many Japanese guests. But not many Chinese seemed to be visiting the Japanese Garden, or vice-versa. Centuries-old suspicions seem to persist, even on American soil.

A camellia in the Japanese Garden.

A camellia in the Japanese Garden.

There are three different art galleries. One is devoted to European Art (Huntington Art Gallery), one is devoted to American Art (Scott Art Galleries), and the other is just for any old art, I guess (Boone Gallery).

I can't remember the name of this painting, or the artist. I like to call it, "Smoking Boys" by Philip Morris.

I can’t remember the name of this painting, or the artist. I like to call it, “Smoking Boys” by Philip Morris.

My wife and I were in the Huntington Art Gallery, admiring fine portraits of ancient aristocrats. We were milling about with dozens of other quiet and reflective admirers. One man thought he was alone, and let a big fart while gazing pensively at a George Romney masterpiece. He didn’t notice my wife standing behind him. She finished his flatulent statement by saying “. . . goes the weasel!” He slinked away, looking embarrassed. Too bad. There’s no need to feel embarrassed about being artsy-fartsy.

My wife, the art student, informed me in whispered, hushed, respectful tones, that the name of this sculpture is "Penis Lady".

My wife, the art student, informed me in whispered, hushed, respectful tones, that the name of this sculpture is “Penis Lady”. Frankly, I don’t see it.