Friday, March 27, 2009

Overheard Conversations #43 and #44

They both looked Southern California. But here they were in downtown Portland having one of those conversations that exemplify how women disclose far more easily than men. The blonde was slightly younger and slightly better looking. The auburn head's eyes wandered more and even caught mine for an instant. Normally I wouldn't listen but what followed caught me off guard.
"He's not like the other guys I've introduced my mother to, I mean he's actually a little overweight and bald, but fiercely intelligent and so different to be around."
Her friend concurred. In a few minutes they were on to other things; vacations in Mexico, career choices, restaurants.
At the Saturday Portland Farmers Market :

"Run Sarah Beth run." Rain pounded, children pounced on mud puddles, toothpicks in dried cherries, walnut-topped oatmeal, Hood River pears and honey crisp apples a dollar a pound.
Native American salmon sellers on cell phones.
"I was told, there would be no potatoes this week."
There were; beautiful, gold and purple, from Joseph, Oregon, earthy and wet.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

People's Horse

His name was John Henry. Yup, the same as the famous American folk-hero, the steel drivin' man. Both became folk-heroes. For a good while John Henry, the horse, held the record for most purse money won. But inflation being what it is, that record was bound to fall. It's possible for a 3-year-old colt to earn what John made these days given a couple of Triple Crown victories and perhaps a good showing in the Breeder's Cup Classic.
But John was never about the money. By the way, it's OK to call him John, that's what his trainer, Ron MacAnally, and exercise rider Lewis Cenicola and the Rubins, his owners all called him. To say that John Henry had personality is to suggest that the economy could be better. He'd come out on the track before a workout and stop every now and again, look over his surroundings, listen, make sure everyone equine and human alike were impressed and then go about his business. All he did was win races. Sometimes in the last possible second. John knew many of the great ones. Shoemaker and McCarron were among his favorites. Hall of Famers are a close-knit group.
One week-day afternoon, just about 25 years ago, I got these pictures of John Henry. He was spending a quiet afternoon a few days before his win in the Golden Gate Handicap, and decided to be social. All the press and his curious admirers were all gone for the day. The backstretch was quiet. I thought I'd tempt fate and this time I won. John was a gentleman and very gracious to me. We spoke a while and then I decide not to wear out my welcome.
Like Seabiscuit, John Henry was a "people's horse." Everybody loved him, his humble beginnings, his huge heart, and his massive talent. We really need another folk-hero right now. We can't go back, just admire horses like John and hope we have the good fortune to see another one in the same league. All the ingredients are there, the need, the climate, the fear. As we go into the upcoming major Kentucky Derby preps most folks will be thinking about a Triple Crown winner. I'll be thinking about John Henry.

Monday, March 23, 2009

End of an Error

A friend of mine is dying. Sometimes that's not such a bad thing. If it were a person, there might be more sadness. But I'm not talking about a person. A friend nonetheless. Someone who's always there, offers non-judgmental support, and inspires hope, ingenuity, creativity, and my best efforts. Like a true friend, this one comes with issues, too. Complete frustration, aggravation, anger, despair. But resilience, redemption, affirmation, optimism. Like me, my friend has contradictions. In fact, my friend is a mirror, a metaphor, an omen, an art form.
Some would call my friend a sport, others a curse. No matter, for many, like me, it's a passion. It's also a sub-culture, an alternate universe, and occasionally an indulgence. But it's dying. My friend is Horse Racing.
Tell you what I'm not gonna do...I'm not gonna bemoan the loss. I'm not gonna drone on about the good old days. I'm not gonna play the blame game. Death is life. The game is changing.
It's changing and dying like the newspaper, the book, and the television. Doesn't mean we have to like it, and doesn't even mean it's inevitable. Here's a case in point, the book. I'm one of those people who will never use a Kindle. Oh I know never say never, but I said it and I'll say it again, I'll never use a Kindle. It's a lock, take it to the bank, go to the window, bet the farm.
I heard today that some manufacturers are even considering a tattered leather cover and "book smell" for the Kindle. I think books, just like newspapers and horse racing, are worth saving. If we are concerned about our ecological and environmental legacy, then we ought to be concerned about our cultural legacy.
Horse racing is not just gambling. It's history. It's an industry that employs hundreds of thousands, it's an aesthetically pleasing sport, it's mentally challenging, it's an escape, it's fun. I'm one of those folks who would follow the sport and attend the races if there were no gambling. But people don't go anymore, that's part of the problem. They watch on cable channels, on their computers, or at off track simulcast sites. In their infinite wisdom, the leaders of the thoroughbred industry don't get how to market their sport. They don't get that so many of the reasons it could become as popular as it used to be have very little to do with gambling. They, like Wall St. executives, insurance executives, real estate brokers, and the worst kind of speculators are often only motivated by greed, power, or narcissism. Exceptions exist, of course, but for the most part they are disconnected from the lives and values of most folks.
Enter the Animal Planet reality series "Jockeys." Sure it's a bit contrived, it focuses on the dark side like spills, injuries, and hardship a bit too much, (It is television, after all) and anyone with even basic knowledge of the sport can see right through the fake race calls and manipulation of the time it takes to go from the saddling paddock to the starting gate. But it does present real people; gives a face and set of emotions to the players, and most importantly of all, demonstrates the love of the horse.
The elevation of the horse is the key. We who love the sport know this. It's the answer, and it's always been right in front of us the whole time. Simple as that is, what isn't simple is the convergence of several factors, all at once, that still might not forestall the demise of racing. Technology and economics, to be sure. But the recent rash of breakdowns in high profile races, along with steroid use that coincides with other major sports leaves not only a bad taste in potential fan's mouths, it does something even more damaging. It reinforces and inflates all the stereotypes hovering on the horizon. All the misinformation and bizarre notions the detractors of the sport depend on to lay it in the grave.
I believe in he myth of the eternal return. This is not the time to define that powerful truth. Let me just say that my friend will not die. My friend will be on life support for a while yet, but death will yield to re-invention. More to follow.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Bye the Bay Meadows

While straightening up a dresser drawer the other day I found a small metal money clip with the Bay Meadows logo on it. The shiny little gold colored artifact joins a Tee shirt I have, a few press guides and handouts in colorful file folders, and a few photos. That's what's left of the San Mateo thoroughbred track for me. That, and many recollections locked away in the starting gate of memory.
I've been carrying the money clip with a few bucks tucked in my front pocket these days. It reminds me of something I saw or experienced there every now and then. It can be difficult to say good-bye to a race track, even though the old guy was dying for quite a few years now. I'm not sure when my last visit to Bay Meadows was, maybe 4 or 5 years ago. I didn't know it was the last time I'd ever see the distinctive art deco facility. Probably better that way.
When I was covering stakes races for The Blood-Horse magazine there were some mighty long days at Bay Meadows. Sometimes on rainy evenings, after being on the wrong end of a photo finish and facing a 24 hr. deadline, Bay Meadows could be a stubborn friend. Sailing over the San Francisco skyline in my cozy Honda at sunset with a pocketful of money and a dozen great quotes from the likes of trainers like Ron McAnally, or D.Wayne Lukas, Richard Mandella, Bob Baffert, or Jerry Hollendorfer was particularly sweet. Even local trainers like Leonard Shoemaker or Jim Hilling easily made my day. Seeing and then talking to my favorite jockeys, like Gary Stevens, Chris McCarron and Laffit Pincay was never routine. Kent Desormeaux was unusually articulate. Russell Baze and Tom Chapman, two of Northern California's best stakes riders were always thoughtful, courteous, and available. Once in a while, another legend would come to town. Sure was glad when I remembered to talk to Lester Piggot in the correct ear, the one that wasn't deaf. And then there was The Shoe.
One Christmas I asked for and received a wonderful book called 100 Greatest Sports Heroes. I read and re-read the pages about Willie Shoemaker. Now 30 years and thousands of races later I was seeing and talking to Bill Shoemaker. One time at Golden Gate Fields, Shoe came north to ride Miswaki in a stakes race. He took a mount in the race right before the feature and came thundering down the lane to get up in the last jump. The crowd roared approval. I watched this race on the track apron near the winner's circle because it's very close to the walking ring and I wanted to begin taking notes for the upcoming big race as soon as the horses were brought to the saddling paddock. All the jockeys from the preceding race had weighed in and were walking back to the jock's room when Shoemaker arrived with the winner, dismounted, and walked to the scale. After weighing in, getting the OK from the clerk of the scales, he looked up and our eyes met.
"Easy game, huh?" Shoe said.
"Yeah," I replied dumfounded.
His smile said it all.
The last time I saw Shoe ride was at Bay Meadows a couple of years later. As luck would have it, Leonard Shoemaker (no relation) a friend was the sub-trainer. Out of the descending twilight both Shoemakers walked to the paddock. I needed to finish up something with another trainer, but quickly gave my camera to a friend of mine and said get this picture for me. I call it "A pair of Shoes."
A couple of years later Bill Shoemaker was permanently paralyzed in a car accident. After a brief career as a trainer, he died a few years later. Leonard Shoemaker fell on hard times too and retired as a trainer. But Bay Meadows gave me that wonderful gift: an unforgettable pair of Shoes.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Reel to Reel

Sometimes I wonder what I'd do if something happened to my laptop. But then I know the answer. I'd get another...quickly. While it burns me that it has become such a big part of my life, I know that social change is inevitable and that technology is a huge part of that equation.
We were warned early on during the last quarter of the 20th century. We knew that computers would impact everything we would do from going to the bank to sending mail; from reading books to paying bills. Going into education, even back then, we knew that the film projector, the record player, and the typewriter were only momentary. When I observe one of my student teachers today, everything emanates from the laptop. All video material is inserted and on DVD. Sound bytes, overhead visual aids, grades, attendance, comes from the little white techno-giant consuming less than one square foot. A few schools have and use dry erase boards, and fewer still use chalkboards. I still say black boards, and while I don't miss the chalk dust (dustless chalk wasn't really dustless) I do miss writing on the board. It's still so useful. Even in my 45 min. stint the other day, I found myself looking over my shoulder, checking for board space, and feeling at a loss for very little.
I know the increased use of technology is wonderful and I wouldn't trade it, ever, there are some things that are vastly overrated. PowerPoint continues to disappoint. There is something intrinsically nonhuman about it. It often sacrifices colorful graphics for substance and that's a very dangerous thing. Images flying at you from all angles and directions have to add up to something. They have to say something. Often they don't.
For some reason, butcher paper and classrooms are still doing well together. We seem to like the notion of colorful scrawling on cumbersome slices of moveable paper. Maybe it gives us a feeling of accomplishment. But butcher paper posters are ephemeral. They disappear after residing in corners or being stepped on once too many times.
A final thought: If you can remember when having a film in class was a big thing, you might appreciate this. Sure, the projector was often too loud, the film spliced too many times so that jerky effect with everything from sound out of sync to instant endings for some scenes, but a movie was not an everyday occurrence, and certainly no something easily obtainable.
Today, the impact of showing a film can be minimal. Black and white is no longer viewed as an art form, it's a disappointment.
Times change. People change. Even computers change...rapidly.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Can You Spare a Song?

Every era has its own music, just as every decade has one particular tune that succinctly puts the zeitgeist of that time into perspective. For the Great depression, it was simply known as "The Song" "Brother Can you Spare a Dime," by Yip Harburg says it all.
For our current malaise, I offer one of Bob Dylan's lesser known gems: "Everything Is Broken"

Broken lines, broken strings,
Broken threads, broken springs,
Broken idols, broken heads,
People sleeping in broken beds.
Ain't no use jiving
Ain't no use joking
Everything is broken.

Item: A tent city has recently appeared in Sacramento, California. So many newly unemployed are finding their way to this free campground. It resembles the scene 70 years ago when the Great Depression forced so many into shanty towns and hobo jungles. Let's see, if it was called Hooverville back then, what would an appropriate name for this city of the dispossessed be?

Broken bottles, broken plates,
Broken switches, broken gates,
Broken dishes, broken parts,
Streets are filled with broken hearts.
Broken words never meant to be spoken,
Everything is broken.

Item: Bernie Madoff will plead guilty and probably get life in prison. Where did these billions actually go? Show us the money? Follow the money. It's got to be somewhere, doesn't it?

Seem like every time you stop and turn around
Something else just hit the ground

Item: Yesterday a man in Alabama shot and killed 11 people at 4 different locations; last Sunday, in Maryville, Illinois, a man shot and killed his pastor in the middle of a sermon. Onlookers reported one bullet shattered his Bible like confetti. The American death toll in Iraq approaches 5000. For Iraqis it is measured in hundreds of thousands.
Broken cutters, broken saws,
Broken buckles, broken laws,
Broken bodies, broken bones,
Broken voices on broken phones.
Take a deep breath, feel like you're chokin',
Everything is broken.

Item: Arctic ice is rapidly disappearing, and the region may have its first completely ice-free summer by 2040 or earlier. Polar bears and indigenous cultures are already suffering from the sea-ice loss.

• Glaciers and mountain snows are rapidly melting—for example, Montana's Glacier National Park now has only 27 glaciers, versus 150 in 1910. In the Northern Hemisphere, thaws also come a week earlier in spring and freezes begin a week later.

Every time you leave and go off someplace
Things fall to pieces in my face

Sunday, March 8, 2009


There it was in print. Unhappy...according to some sort of unofficial research from Business Week, Portland, Oregon was crowned the most unhappy city in the country. Shhh...don't tell anyone the truth. Portlanders are lots of things, but unhappy hardly fits the bill. Keep it on the QT will you, we don't need any more people up here.
If the rest of the country wants to believe the residents of Stumptown go around in depressed funks with frowns on their faces, I'm OK with that. It's just that it is laughable; so untrue.
I read that the study used some suicide and crime statistics that were five years old. It also based the designation on some sort of quantified Depression rate as well as the weather. Yes, we do have lots of rain. Most folks here can easily handle that. They obviously wouldn't live here or stay here if they couldn't. Besides, we know that the rain gives us the stunning green mountains forests, the clear streams and rivers, the pristine lakes we enjoy all summer and fall.
So what are Portlanders? They are friendly, definitely more patient than Californians, and, dare I say, rather contented. If you come from a city with a population of more than 750,000, you'll notice the And then there is the pub scene.vibe right away. People smile more here, they take their time, grocery clerks go slower, talk to each shopper, share ideas.
Portland is one city where you can always get a good cup of coffee. I'm not talking about Starbucks either. Stumptown Coffee Roasters rivals anything anywhere. If that's not your cup of choice, remember Portland's other nickname: Beervana. Aside from the better known brewers like Widmer, Deschutes, Bridgeport, and Amnesia, there are scores of neighborhood pubs in every corner of the city. True, Portland is not San Francisco, L.A. or New York. It doesn't have the climate of Phoenix, San Diego, or Miami. The Trailblazers of the NBA are the only major team in town. No major league baseball, football, or soccer (yet). The economic downturn is certainly in evidence here, with some merchants cutting store hours and many school districts considering 4 day weeks. This is not one of the better cities to find yourself homeless. The generousity is warm, but the temperature often is not. People on the street get wet. Often.
But unhappy? Unhappiest city of all? Business Week, you make me smile.

Sunday, March 1, 2009


His name was Doug Ostrom. At 5'10" and 150 lbs. he wasn't the most intimidating basketball player, but he didn't need to be. He was quick and could shoot a sweet jump shot from anywhere on the court. He could pass, too. The starting guard on my high school basketball team, Doug Ostrom was getting looks from college scouts in his senior year. Though much lighter and smaller, Ostrom could easily be compared to Jason Kidd. I saw Kidd play when he was in high school. It's a fair comparison.
I loved watching Doug Ostrom play because the guy really enjoyed himself. Even 4 decades later, I can easily see his grin, those knobby knees and the arc of his jumper.
Because I played class B basketball in high school, in the off season, I was programed into period 7 P.E. with coach Burton. In tose days, there were 4 leagues, 4 classifications based on age and size. Freshman and sophs played "C" or "B" basketball; juniors and seniors played JV or Varsity. Occasionally, someone like Ostrom would go from "B" to Varsity; he was that good.
But this day, I was in a pick-up game during P.E. We were all mixed in, all levels and playing outside on the blacktop before the Varsity went inside to the Gym and we underlinings remained outside. So here I was trying to hang with the big boys. Scared, excited, but loving the opportunity. Ostrom was on the other side, but at least I didn't have to guard him. He'd constantly comment on the game like a built in announcer. But his descriptions were filled with joy, praising, defining, questioning, and moving, always moving.
Someone hit me with a pass after I got open on the left side. I hit a 10 foot jumper and acted like I belonged. You know, gave it the Barney Fife sniff of the nose. When it happened again a minute later, Ostrom began his commentary.
"What's that guys name," he asked someone.
"Greene," came the reply.
"Green," Ostrom said, "OK, Sihugo Green."
I knew the name. Sihugo Green was an NBA star in the early years of the league. He'd been a top college player in the mid-50s at Duquesne, and then drafted by Rochester of the NBA. He later went on to play for the old St. Louis Hawks. Sihugo Green was so talented he was actually drafted ahead of Bill Russell. (It was a very good year)
I hit a few more shots in that little game and each time Ostrom would call out, "Si Hugo Green from outside." or Si...Hugo...Green..." Those outside basketball courts had chain nets and the nothing but net "swish" sounded more metallic. But it was a lovely sound, full and rich and solid.
Doug Ostrom went on to a First Team All League season and I actually got my letter that year playing the role of 6th man, much better on defense. I watched Ostrom from the bleachers throughout his Polytechnic High School career. By the time we both graduated, I heard he was playing at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. He'd kicked around for a while but was beginning to draw attention again.
Soon after, a good friend of mine was killed in Vietnam, and I did most of my basketball watching at UCLA. One day I read in a local paper that Doug Ostrom was killed in a car accident while driving back home on Highway 101.
Like Sihugo, he just vanished.