Racing Rosie

Two weeks before the 2014 Kentucky Derby, Rosalie, my youngest granddaughter turned seven. Since her wish involved horses our family decided to celebrate her birthday at Keeneland. A sunny spring Saturday with a record throng of 35,000. The dress code was decidedly eclectic: yuppie sportcoats and button-down shirts, jeans and t-shirts, high heels, flip-flops, and too many overdone girly hats.

In my group were two daughters, a son-in-law, two granddaughters, one grandson, my buddy grandpa with wife, and even my second ex-wife, grandma to the little ones. (Time grudgingly heals all wounds.)

At our gathering point just off the parade ring, I casually asked Rosie if she wanted to place a bet. I explained the rules and we scanned the program together with the intensity of a last-chance loser playing with rent money. She picked Bellarmine, because its colors, orange, matched my shirt. We braved the long lines and, on my urging, bet $2 across the board. Our deal: grandpa fronts the bet, Rosie keeps any winnings. Happy birthday.

We re-gathered with the clan and watched in shock as Bellarmine won going away. When Rosie looked at her ticket she suddenly realized it was money. The payoff: $12.20.

On Race 5, Rosie decided to bet again. This time, following another careful examination of the racing form, she picked Canny Nanny because its colors, yellow, matched her sandals. Another trip through the line, Rosie in my arms, and at the window she watched intently as I relayed our bet to the cashier. My ticket immediately passed into Rosie’s grimy little paws. Her ticket.

On the way back to our group I explained what gambling meant, what odds were, and why losing was far more likely than winning, especially given the predominant influence of color on our betting strategy. Then, with our eyes glued to the Teletron, we all watched in awe as Canny Nanny found the outside to win by a length. Paid $20.20.

We were dumbfounded at Rosie’s maiden luck.

Orange and yellow. We decided to leave after the seventh race to beat the crowd, but Rosie tugged on my sleeve and asked to bet one last time. I made the obligatory wise grandfather speech about not getting greedy, to leave a winner. But no dice. So her mom obligingly read down the list on the racing form and as soon as she hit “Ageless” Rosie and I both shouted “that’s it.” Said it reminded her of me, and when I told her the stable colors — gray — she just pointed to my hair.

Despite the long odds, our horse was fate. One last trip through the line, and this time at the window, with my prompting, she announced the bet herself: “Race 7, $2 across, number 11.”

Back at the gathering place we all watched the Teletron as the fillies broke from the gate and Ageless made it clear she had forgotten her namesake. Last one out, maybe even a stumble, and the poor gal hopelessly trailed the field. With the outcome decided I explained to Rosie how to be a good loser. Then in the final turn, almost as if Ageless heard my admission of defeat, the beast exploded, as if shot out of a cannon, and closed on the field, one by one. Grandpa and Rosie lost control as Ageless came from dead last and won by a nose.

I don’t know what I was screaming, but I’m sure it wasn’t PG. We all were caught up in a rush of drama that couldn’t have been scripted in Hollywood. Same ticket window, same cashier, same bettor with his granddaughter, and the cashier beamed as he processed the winning ticket: $33.60.

Once the excitement subsided, Rosie realized that I had fronted the bet money and insisted that I take $5 for bankrolling her, and pocked $61. On the way back to our gathering point, Rosie clutched her greenbacks, fanning them like a shameless rookie at Vegas. It had been an exciting, tiring day, and as we waded through the crowd she laid her head on my shoulder.

And I thought: sometimes life brings us unexpected pleasures and unpredictable, unforgettable moments.

Read more here: http://www.kentucky.com/2014/05/15/3243087/rosies-bet-a-little-girls-joyful.html?sp=%2F99%2F349%2F589%2F#storylink=cpy

Rabbit Ears on Ice

February 2008 was freezing in Kentucky. It was also a time when I rediscovered some moldy scraps of feelings that had been lying dormant for years, held in check by those pesky everyday realities of ambition, stress, and anxiety…those things that appear to be important in our journey, but really aren’t. I rediscovered how great it feels to do something to help others who will never know what I did.

One of my daughters, in addition to being a newly minted college graduate and veterinary technician, was also a bartender-waiter-manager at Mellow Mushroom. She and some of her friends there, being carefree, adventurous, and possessing the “careless abandon of youth”, had decided to participate in the Polar Bear Plunge to help raise money for Special Olympics.

Naturally I cautioned her about the foolishness of plunging into an icy pool in the middle of winter, although secretly I was proud of her commitment and her willingness to be bold. Then two days before the event, several teammates got cold feet and, for some totally illogical reason…I offered to plunge with them.

Their costume theme was Alice in Wonderland, and I did possess a floppy rabbit-ear hat from a previous Easter skit at church. So I became was the Rabbit. A 60-year old rabbit.

To help raise a little money I turned to my large email address book at work in a desperate attempt to beg for pledges. Surely one plaintive plea for money, sent to 300 recipients would exponentially increase the chances of getting a few token contributions from sympathetic friends and associates. Then the surprise came.

Within 24 hours, by plunge day, our team had accumulated over $1,800 in checks, cash, and pledges. Most of the 11th hour contributors were old friends and business associates I had not seen in a few years, and they all were intrigued at the image of a grown man jumping into an icy pool with rabbit ears. Many responded with some cute comment, most insisted on pictures, and all opened up their wallets to the Special Olympics.

I learned a valuable lesson. If you ask people for something you get one result, but when you get people emotionally invested in the same goal, you get something entirely different. I became involved by plunging, and they became involved by contributing.

The Saturday plunge turned out to be fun. At zero hour, temperatures were in the mid-20’s, sky overcast, wind blowing…perfect conditions for hypothermia. 20 large blocks of ice stacked imposingly next to the above-ground pool at Applebee’s Park made us rethink the sensibility of the cause. But just before the plunge, standing in line next to Beetlejuice, Superman, and other year-around Halloween fans, I was proud of us all. And I treasured the time I got to spend with my daughter, doing something goofy, irresponsible, and memorable.

We got TV and newspaper coverage, but the real victory was in the event and the reasons for it, to raise money for Special Olympians, and the way we all, plungers and payers, did our respective parts. I told my contributors that even though the Special Olympians would never know who the money came from, they would. It’s gratifying what we can accomplish when we don’t worry about who gets the credit.

Eventually our team raised almost $2,500 for the Kids. It’s all over now, and I go back to being a non-rabbit. I didn’t perish in the ice water. I didn’t even catch a cold as my 90-year-old Mom promised.

But the spirit of the Special Olympics emphasized to all of us “normal” sports fans what competition is really all about. The object is to participate. And winning, while a natural and worthwhile objective, is not the only one. There is a quote on the Special Olympics Kentucky website:  “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

So I’m guessing this is why my teammates and the other 275 plungers did what we did. We wanted to participate in this short event called life. We didn’t care about the humiliation. We didn’t care about winning. We didn’t require any compensation. And we would not have traded the opportunity for anything.

Life is not a dress rehearsal.


Sebring, Venison, & Dilly-Dally

Last March, while visiting friends in Florida, I dropped in on an over-sized yard party disguised as a car race.

Held every year since 1953, the “12-Hours-of-Sebring” is technically America’s oldest sports car endurance race. In reality, it’s an exhaust-flavored Woodstock without the hippies. Lots of blue-collar buds and gals, hanging out for three days with their favorite adult beverages, grilling and chilling, while brightly-colored, corporate-sponsored, turbocharged, fuel-guzzling death machines, engines wound tighter that Pamela Anderson’s bikini, speed around a track at 130 mph.

Don’t mistake it for anything NASCAR, though. Instead of a symmetrical oval, the course is a drunkenly-inspired, 3.7 mile track snaking its way through 17 hairpin turns. But the point here is that it wasn’t so much about the cars, or even who won the race, but the underlying subplot, an ultra-casual block party, stuffed wall-to-wall with several-thousand RV’s, three times that many tents, hundreds of grilles and smokers, plus a cast of some 107,000 happy souls, all satisfied to lay back and cruise on their own tiny tract of scrub for three days, with no responsibilities but to eat, drink, play music, sling BS, and generally just take a breather from life.

This is something I have trouble doing. It defies my sense of order, my need to justify how much I accomplish during each hour of my spare time, something I call “casual productivity”. But this weekend, I was determined to abandon my orderly lifestyle and “waste” a weekend.  So off I went with my friends, who over the years had already learned to successfully navigate the road of sloth.

We quickly stumbled onto one party of typical die-hard Sebring-ites.  One RV, 5 tents, assorted canopies, four LP-cooking units, and enough supplies to fill three shopping carts at Publix.  Oh, and numerous characters.  Steve, the cook, held court in his tank top and Mardi gras beads.  He was engaging and eager to offer samples of his venison steak filets.  When I gushed about his efforts, he slipped me some of his “secret stash” of special-battered shrimp.  Catching on quickly, the more I bragged, the more he shared.  Before the weekend was over he and his buddy, Dallas, a former butcher, insisted that I try some of their venison jerky. And the coupe-duh-grass:  Dallas’s homemade venison-garlic-onion sausages, grilled on a warm bun, flavored ever-so-slightly with the essence of diesel fumes.

Dallas turned out to be a character in his own right.  A certified fire-inspector in Georgia, Dallas also answers to his professional name:  Dilly-Dally the Clown, a proud member of the Georgia Firefighters’ Clown Society, specializing in balloon animals and magic.  And, like me, more interested in how cold the beer was than in the race.

Later during a random walk through RV city, beverage in hand, I encountered others worth remembering.  The three “liquidly-enhanced” amigos in Chick-fil-a Cow costumes; one burly fellow lumbering through the 80-degree day in Viking horns and hides; a chap riding a motorized beer cooler.  I observed dozens of the obligatory cornhole games, two pole-dancing stands (G-rated), hundreds of lawn chair lawyers, at least two professional BBQ cooking teams with sophisticated grille rigs with sinks, one generator-powered 96” TV, and a life-sized female inflatable doll, swimming with her “date” in a kiddy pool.  But no troublemakers.  Just a lot of “individuals” making a good case for relaxation.

Oh, and there were those pesky cars, zipping around the track, fans parked in lawn chairs at strategic dangerous turns hoping a driver that might down-shift too slowly and lose some minor accessories, like, oh, say tires, or transmissions.  The constant decibel level at these track-side viewing areas was intense, something I liken to a high-pitched chain saw revving full throttle a foot from my ear.

But when the weekend was finally over Saturday evening, and the hundreds of thousands began to pack up and orderly stream out, I realized that even though I had not actually “accomplished” anything, I did have a surprising sense of mental well being.  My stress level was abnormally low.  And in retrospect I recognized that Steve, Dallas, the Cow Boys, and even the professional racers and pit crew, all had one thing in common.  They had all taken a break and taken part in something that filled some unnamed void, whether it registered on the value meter or not.

Not sure if I will make another Sebring, but I made some new friends and gathered some new memories and maybe learned how to slow down a little bit, even if no goals were met.  Maybe between now and next year I can learn to do balloon animals.  That would make Dilly-Dally proud.


Father’s Day @ 9,000 Feet

Terry Wilson and I are not related, share no common blood, friends, life skills, or job interests. We do share the fact that we were once married to the same woman (not at the same time)…and one other critical thing. We share, along with Mary Beth, an uncommonly common bond.

We share daughters.

It came to light as I contemplated the lunacy of jumping 9,000 feet to my certain death.  Well, not actually certain death…the previous hundreds before me that attempted skydiving had never discovered that sudden, breath-taking impact. They all survived. And so would I, I concluded, while I waited in the terminal (inappropriate choice of words I think) for my time to come…my first skydive. A gift from my daughter and step-daughters for Father’s Day.

What happened to the time-worn tradition of a gaudy tie and a hug? Or maybe just a casual dinner with goofy cards?  I encouraged them to be creative but this was outside the lines.

Layne is my birth daughter. Tiffany and Hailey are Terry’s birth daughters, who became my step-daughters by marriage. We all know the differences, yet the heart forgets and takes it own course. All three girls became full sisters in heart and mind, and remain so today.

So today, here we all were, blood and not, celebrating Father’s Day with Terry and Ray. We shared the father-feast with Elmer, Tiffany’s husband, and granddaughters Lily and Rosalie. And with Tom, Hailey’s soon-to-be hubby who would later father grandson Finn.

It was a good excuse to gather. My eventual plunge headfirst into open air from 9,000 feet, dropping like a rock toward the patchwork of verdant fields below, was literally a leap of faith. It defies the natural senses to look down, see nothing but a mile and a half of open air…and then step out anyway. The knowledge that I was plummeting toward the earth at 62.4 feet-per-second was exhilarating. Then at 6,000 feet, feeling the reassuring “catch” of the parachute as it responded to my tug on the rip cord… that was exhilarating. And as Mike (my tandem coach) and I glided down, using the guide lines to perform several 360’s, challenging my stomach to keep the faith, the thrill of the gentle descent through clean country air at dusk was part peaceful and part exhilaration as well.

But as I glided closer and closer to the landing zone, my extended family waiting and cheering and laughing and videotaping every goofy move, I found a strange exhilaration that was un-related to physics or gravity or the environment, but rather of the pure joy of the moment.

My skydive was without a doubt a “high” point in my life.  Certainly part of it was the actual plunge from a perfectly good airplane.  But most of my emotional high originated and ended at ground zero, as I realized how my daughters had planned, organized, coordinated, participated in, and paid for such a luxury.  The thought was original and a little bizarre, the picnic spread impeccably planned, and the cumulative party one for my mental highlight reels.

But I measured the success of the entire day as I quietly observed the entire group, gathering, hugging, laughing, sharing, living the moment. It was quite spellbinding. I watched an un-choreographed dynamics of beautiful daughters, step-daughters, grand-daughters, amazingly original sons-in-law, even ex-husbands of ex-wives, all bonding in one mass of laughter and joy, forsaking all parts past for the joy of parts present and the promise of parts future.

I know the day was not entirely mine.  I caught Terry several times beaming with paternal pride. And Elmer’s shared joy, with two perfect daughters of his own, was clearly equal to ours.  But I did realize a virtual “high” on this day I may never be able to adequately describe.

And the skydive was pretty cool, too.


McMansions and the Meaning of Life

One Sunday afternoon a few years back, some friends and I attended an open house for a local McMansion in a gated community in Central Kentucky, a 15,000 square foot, $3-million beauty. As an admirer of good architecture, I expected to see a fine home, and it was a specimen. Strangely, though, at the end of the afternoon I left the tour, and my friends, with a poignant sense of gratitude.

The house itself was a treat.  I have not seen as much marble, cherry paneling, and upscale architectural detail in a residence since my last flip-trip through a dog-eared copy of Architectural Digest in my doctor’s office.  The talented use of ceramic tile, walnut hardwood flooring, designer wallpaper, and mega-piece crown molding was enough to make us all dizzy.

As I drifted off alone out into the sprawling backyard, past the super-sized swimming pool and guest house with the teak bar, I was drawn to the sound of water, a pristine creek that ran the length of this 9-acre tract, bounded Walden-like on both banks by lush, verdant woods.  Strolling along the bank, I noticed a couple of young boys, seining for minnows and laughing.  Probably not as financially secure as the family that lived in this mansion, but having a fine time on a Sunday afternoon and enjoying God’s bounty.  And a thought began to grow.

I’m guessing the various family members that lived here had, from time to time, made this same stroll, either together or alone in reflection, and I wondered if their lives had been as joyful as those two boys, playing in the creek, unconcerned with how little they possessed. Without a doubt I respected the earned wealth that had bought all the elaborate materials and expensive artwork in the mansion, as well as the hard work and creative ingenuity that spawned it, and I hoped it had contributed to their happiness.

I could not help myself when the “fantasy” switch in my brain clicked on and I played that game of transference to which most of us never admit, substituting myself for the owners of this fine home, walking this shaded trail.  Then it struck me at that moment like a forgotten anniversary, that all of the expensive artwork, the layers of elegant building materials, and endless pieces of designer furniture that was making all those house-tourists like me back in the McMansion gawk and fawn, would not have made my life any more fulfilling than it was before I came.

True to the spirit of the TV unreality shows I threw off the constraints of rational thinking and played out my fantasy. If I had been the owner of this house, I surely could have hosted endless pool parties, staged elaborate dinner affairs under giant, multi-colored tents, probably even kicked in with a frequent beer blast or two with burgers and dogs.  I could have been party central, Mr. Entertainment, and I know all of my friends would have come, not to mention friends of friends, and their friends as well.  But would they have come to enjoy life with me and listen to me regale them with lame jokes and bawdy limericks…or to see my teak bar and crown molding and to marvel at my cut stone veranda and three family rooms?  Would the party-goers have talked fondly of me when they left or would they speak of my indulgences?  Would their after-party conversations be tainted with jealousy or with love?

Actually, I know my true friends, in my fantasy as in real life, would come to my get-togethers, not because of my wealth, but in spite of it, because they are just that – friends. And I supposed that was the case for the current residents. So it came to me, in that moment, with the creek running wild and clear, and the sunlight glittering through millions of slits in the leafy branches, that despite the excesses and toys wealth can buy, it wouldn’t, by itself, improve my real friendships nor increase their number. And I realized, if that’s the case, why envy it at all.

You may say that I am missing the point, with all those amenities to enjoy for myself, to admire with pride as I throw my chest out and walk through my mansion day after day in my brocade smoking jacket, Chevas Regal in hand, marveling at the sheer talent and dollars it took to produce them all, would be a serious measure of bliss.  But as I strolled in real time back through that mansion that Sunday, observing the expensive furniture, each carefully-selected piece of art, all the elegant materials – seemingly endless excesses of beauty – it made me a little wistful to wonder how much those material things would contribute to my happiness.

And it became clear.  As much as I admire fine things, it’s not the worth of the wood nor the mass of the marble that instills a glow of contentment in me, but the feeling I get when a daughter or grandchild hugs me, or a good friend or an acquaintance at work smiles back, or laughs at a really bad joke, or one of us proffers a thank you for a small gesture.  Happy comes when I create a picture, a paragraph, or a poem, even if it is not good.  Happy comes when I laugh out loud at a funny movie – or cry at a sad one.  Happy comes when I actually touch that part of me, deep inside, that says I am alive.  And Happy comes when I share that with others.  And only then.

So I left the tour, being duly impressed with the grand home and all that went into it’s planning and construction, but also being okay knowing it wasn’t mine.  I was happy to spend time with my friends, to share the day’s adventure with them and hear them laugh and for me to laugh in return.  I was happy when we stopped by the lemonade stand of some friends’ grandchildren on the way out of the neighborhood and dickered with them over why lemonade was a dollar a glass, and a small glass at that, and then shared a smile with them.  And on the way home I was totally fine with it all, when I realized how few pieces of marble it really takes to make me happy.