Out of the Bell Jar and into the Mason Jar: Considering a Literary Classic and my Teenage Years

“That’s the most depressing book.”

A tall, swim-suit sporting man shouted at me as he sauntered over to the pool’s towel stand. He clearly cross-fitted. #ThoseAbs. I paused and looked up from the book in question which was Syliva Plath’s “The Bell Jar.”

“It is. I clearly have terrible taste in pool-side reads.”

This is one thing I love about California: you don’t need to have a “Sports Illustrated” swimsuit model body to get attention at the pool (that’s because, thanks to cross-fit, botox, and boob jobs, everyone has a SI swimsuit model body). No, to stand out at the pool, you just need some socially progressive modernist literature.

He winked. Suggested I switch to something like Cosmo, and was off before I had a chance to exchange room numbers (it’s entirely possible that the toddler toddling behind him was, in fact his, but then again, at hotel pools it’s so hard to tell which parent belongs to which child… oh, well.)

My pool-side view in Silicon Valley. A little 20th century feminist lit didn't make light reading

My pool-side view in Silicon Valley. A little 20th century feminist lit didn’t make light reading

I had committed to reading such heavy literature at the pool side for two simple reasons: 1. I don’t do fluffy chick-lit, and 2. It was research for the gender-identity/femininity exhibition I’m in the process of curating.

For those that haven’t read Sylvia Plath’s one canonical novel, it was to the 1960s what Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” was to the 1890s. If you’ve never read “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and have no idea what I’m talking about, “The Bell Jar” reads a lot like “Catcher in the Rye.” If you’ve never read “Catcher in the Rye,” well, shame on you and your grade school English teacher.

Here’s the mega abbreviated cliff’s notes run down: Esther Greenwood is a successful and attractive 19 year old college girl who lands a great summer internship at a mega lady’s magazine in New York City. But just when the future looks bright and full of possibilities, Esther hits a wall. She breaks down, crashes, and bottoms out.

The story is dark. The writing, superb.

But as much as I was engrossed in and enjoying such wonderfully, honestly crafted prose, I’m glad I didn’t read it was I was 19. I think it would have felt too familiar… even more familiar than it already does…

Digging around my bedroom this weekend, I found a notebook with the jottings of a frustrated young story writer. Most of the scribbling came from ages 16-20, and they all raged with a kind of loneliness and angst. I think I felt that stories about breakdowns and being misunderstood where what you were supposed to be writing about if you wanted to be considered a good writer. Melodrama seemed to be a prerequisite for the Pulitzer or for making the American English classroom curricula. I don’t think any of what I was writing was reflective of what I felt or of my mental state because I never got very far with them (try like, 3 pages, max.) But then again, I don’t really remember how I felt about life or school at 16. I was just kind of doing rather than feeling. Feeling came in college.

But I did find one piece of writing that was troubling to me, because it was the one piece that wasn’t an attempt at fiction. It was an attempted personal essay and the only thing in the book that was typed, with blue-ink edits.

In it, I rattled off my string of accomplishments, concluding with “I was considered mature and well-round, well cultured and intellectual. Yet something was missing.”

The punchline, of course, because I was 18, was that I needed a boyfriend. Reading it, while I admired her self-awareness and vulnerability, I hated that teenage version of myself for defining happiness in terms of being attached to someone else. I couldn’t go to college without being someone’s girlfriend! I wrote. “The fact I had never been kissed seemed small in comparison.”

Flash to Esther:

“Instead of the world being divided up into Catholics and Protestants or Republicans and Democrats or white men and black men or even men and women, I saw the world divided into people who had slept with somebody and people who hadn’t, and this seemed the only really significant difference between one person and another.

I thought a spectacular change would come over me the day I crossed the boundary line.” 

This was how I saw the world — a simple division between lovers and loners. Reading on, I saw that 18 year old me hated me for feeling that way too. What a relief. As I got older, while the idea of a companion was and is always intoxicatingly appealing, there was another feeling I had — a fear of being tied down.

Flash back to Esther:

“That’s one of the reasons I never wanted to get married. The last thing I wanted was infinite security and to be the place an arrow shoots off from. I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself, like the colored around from a fourth of July rocket. “

There’s a lot of vignettes in the “Bell Jar” I could relate to at 19 and even now. Ones that are in many ways more meaningful to me than the ones about men, about the double standards for the sexes, about marriage. Esther has a moment when she compares her moment in life to standing under a fig tree. Each fig represents a possible path — marriage and a family, Olympics, famous writer, famous editor, and so on. But she can only pick one, and once she does, all the other will fall, spoiled. The tree of possibility can get you down — knowing you have so many options but can’t really have them all. I remember sitting alone on my university quad one cold late autumn night while I was grad student, feeling overwhelmed by possibilities and crying a bit at a fear of achieving non of them, of mucking it all up. But unlike Esther, I didn’t let the fear of failure or indecision win. I learned that with a little cunning, and fast feet, you can grab as many fruit as you can before they all go rotten. Maybe you won’t get them all, but you’ll get enough to make a decent pie… sharing optional.

In life, you can have your pies and eat them too.

In life, you can have your pies and eat them too.

Changing Decades: I’m OK with not Turning 29 Again

“Are you terrified of turning 30?” my lovable Gallery Coordinator asked me when she realized by birthday was a few days away.

“Terrified! Try ecstatic!” I replied with a little skip. “I mean, you only get to change decades once every 10 years…”

It’s my birthday. My 30th birthday. And while many of my friends have found it difficult, nay, painful to leave behind their 20s, I’m stoked.

So, this is 30...

So, this is 30…

Birthdays, are often a time of reflection, and as I look forward to the new decade ahead, I can’t help but notice how much things have changed…

When you’re turning 20, a night out with your best girl friend involved your highest, most uncomfortable heels, perfectly coiffed hair, high hemlines and low necklines, and at least one bar you can’t afford and two you can. Your important question of the night: Are we cabbing or taking the subway?

When you’re turning 30, a night out with your best girl friend, is most likely a night in, at her place… making soup. You know you’re not going anywhere where anyone is going to see you, so you don’t even bother with mascara. Your most important question of the night: Can you find your pasta maker, or should I bring mine?

When you’re turning 20, your social media feed is littered with your friends uploads from parties, semesters abroad, backpacking trips, weekend campus hops, house parties, and dive bars. You think: Oh, god! Everyone is having so much fun! I’m having fun. Wait. Let me take a selfie.

Let me take a selfei

Let me take a selfie

When you’re turning 30, your social media feed oscillates between wedding news/pictures and baby-bump shots. You think: Oh, God. That guy I had a crush on when I was 20 looks so hot in that gray suit… too bad he’s the groom. And gee whiz! Didn’t anyone read that “Your Body, Your Birth Control” pamphlet in the GP’s office? Seriously. I get it. You’re “preggers.” All your BFF’s are “preggers.” You’re all one, big, happy “preggers” family. But do I really have to watch this for 9 more months. Oh! Look! A “hide” feature on my timeline! Thanks, Facebook.

Hide.

When you’re turning 20, you celebrate your birthday by lining up as many (semi-illegal) shots are you can stomach, and you keep the party going as far past sun up as you can. Two days later, you’re still wearing the same dose of mascara, expect now it’s eyeliner, and you think the valet still has your car... where did you park your car???

When you’re turning 30, you decide you’ll invite your friends to brunch. Not since spring break 200X were you all able to day drink, and Brunch is classy day-drinking… because, you’re real adults now, and real adults do classy things, like brunch. Plus, all your married-with-children friends prefer brunch because they can get home in time to put Junior to bed and you can get home in time to binge-watch season 3 of “House of Cards” on Netflix… and still make your 10PM bedtime, without fear of a hangover the next morning.

When you’re turning 20, you order $5 margaritas at happy hour, when they don’t card, because that’s all you can afford.

When you’re turning 30, you’ve figured out how to get someone else to pay for your $15 top-shelf martini, with a twist.

When you’re turning 20, everyone asks what you’re going to do when you’re done with college/grad school/your internship. You have some kind of lofty, made-up answer because you only half know.

When you’re turning 30, you get to lead with a business card. You’ve had a promotion, or two, and while you still may not know where you’re going, at least you know where you are and where you’ve been. You’re still a little green, but you’ve earned some color round the edges. You were smart. Now you’re savvy.

When you’re turning 20, your heart gets broken by a “player” and your best friend says: don’t worry! You’ve got plenty of time to find someone else. Players gonna play.

When you’re turning 30, your heart get broken by a “player” and your best friend says: Players gonna play, but you’re getting too old for this. Have you ever thought of trying Match.com? I hear that’s where all the serious guys go.

When you’re turning 20, your idea of “dressing to seduce” involves showings as much skin as is legally permitted. Hemlines go up, necklines go down. Your crop-top barely covers your nipples and when you bend over the whole world can see the top of your very tiny panties.

When you’re turning 30, your idea of “dressing to seduce” is still “less is more,” except your less is, less skin, and your more is “more designer labels” and “more butt coverage.”

How Crop Tops look in different decades...

How Crop Tops look in different decades…

(Note: Summer 2015 is the summer of the crop top. Of the 6 shirts I brought with me to my birthday celebrations in Napa Valley, 4 are very tiny….)

Turning 30 can be scary, because it’s crossing a threshold. You have to leave behind excuses of youth and naivety and take responsibility. You’re accountable to something — to a boss, to a dog, to a spouse, to a family member. You’ve hit significant milestones and most of your first are behind you. It’s exciting because it’s the start of your prime.

29 was awesome — a memorable year with magazine covers and mega successes. An exclamation point to a well-enjoyed decade. Now, I get the fun of starting something new.

30 is the new 20, anyway.

Nuff said

Nuff said

One Dress, Two Women: Or One Size Doesn’t Fit All (Actually and Metaphorically)

My best friend Liz and I wear the same dress size. I won’t tell you what that size is, but we wear it well. Take the same slightly fitted shift dress, hand it to each of us and this is what happens…

IMG_20150614_184223

Liz and I are physical opposites. My bra is like the equivalent of pasties on her, while her bikini bottom becomes a thong on on me. She has long lean legs, while my lower body turns every dress into a Hevre Leger bandage dress. She’d spend the whole night checking her neckline to make sure “the girls” were in check. I’d probably go braless, but spend most of the night checking the hemline to make sure my butt cheeks were still under wrap.

In short, Liz and I could wear exactly the same dress, but it wouldn’t look like the same dress. We’d wear that same dress entirely differently.

Now, I’m gonna go ahead and make a philosophical and metaphorical leap here…

Just as no two women wear exactly the same dress on the hanger in the exactly the same way, no two women wear the dress of womanhood in exactly the same way. Life presents us with experiences that are ours and ours alone, that shape our individual identities. And yet, as women, there are experiences universal to the Sisterhood.

We’ve all gotten our periods at the most inopportune moment — like on the morning of a big athletic event, or when we’re wearing white, or when we’re on our first sleep-over with the new plus one. We’ve all faced some kind of gender based discrimination at some level — whether it’s in little league (girls can’t pitch!) or in the corporate office (women make $0.70 for every dollar a man makes.) Big girls don’t cry. We’ve all sat on the couch with a friend, and talked trash about the man or woman who most recently broken our heart. Etc.

Some of these shared experiences transcend “Woman” and are universally “human” — like broken hearts, feelings of inadequacy, moments of joy, the euphoria of love, etc, but some are ours and ours alone as women.

While we all wear the dress of womanhood differently, we’ve been growing into it and altering it as our custom piece of couture from the day we were born.

Elinor Burkett was making a similar point in her NYTimes opinion piece “What Makes a Woman?” — it takes a lifetime living as a woman to really BE a woman, because womanhood isn’t just about biology (and that is part of it.) Being a woman is about sets of shared and individual experiences.

About a year and a half ago, I started work on an exhibition about feminine identity. My driving thesis is that femininity, and gender generally, is one big performance art piece — a sort of play within and against socially constructed norms and personas. A battle between self-definition and societal-definition.

I am most certainly a product of a generation raised on the doctrine of inclusivity, to acknowledge and embrace differences. To understand that the world doesn’t exist in simple binaries — straight or gay, black or white, etc. And yet, I am also the product of a society that is built on a system of binaries — us or them, male or female.

Language is surprisingly limited.

In the sandbox on the playground and into the sandbox of my adult life, the Battle of the Sexes was always simple — us vs. them: Girls rule! Boys drool!

So while I’m embracing of the transgender community, and everyone’s right to live as he or she chooses, I can’t help but feel a bit uncomfortable with the idea that a born man can, with the help of medicine and performance, transition to a woman and get to be a She in the same way that I am She.

The Monday after Burkett’s piece ran in the Times, I had a meeting with women leaders from my community to discuss how we’re partnering on this exhibition. We talked about the Caitlyn Jenner Vanity Fair cover and Burkett’s op-ed feature. One of the woman shared an apt analogy:

“If your 4 year old child came up to you and said, ‘Today I am an adult!,’ would you accept that at her word? Or would you tell her she still needs some experience? That she has some growing up to do?”

Caitlyn Jenner is a she, but she wears the dress of womanhood differently than a 65-year-old born woman wears it. Ms. Jenner metaphorically walked into the store, tried on the dress, and bought it. I was handed that dress in the womb… and so was every other born woman. We didn’t get to chose the dress. We’ve spent our lives breaking it in, figuring out which angle is the most flattering, where it should be nipped or tucked so it fits like a glove, patched the holes we’ve picked up along the way…

Ms. Jenner can wear the dress too. That’s okay, and welcome to the club! But I’m not sure it fits her yet, not just yet.

Trying on dresses with the gal pals... we're not sure this one fits Caitlyn.. but it will, eventually.

Trying on dresses with the gal pals… we’re not sure this one fits Caitlyn.. but it will, eventually.

Revealing in 15 minutes of Fame

andy-warhol-quotes-31“Excuse me Miss,” the barista at the coffee counter at Whole Foods paused from making a cappuccino to ask my mother a question: “Is that your daughter in that magazine?”

My mother wasn’t sure if she wanted to confirm that yes, I was officially a cover girl…

“He had a lot of piercings. And those earrings that just make huge holes in your ear lobes. I mean, he’s a skinny white kid, not a tribe leader. What is he is doing? I didn’t want him to ask you out…”

But being the proud mother that she is, the urge to say “Yes! My daughter has a full page spread in a glossy!” won.

“In the future, everyone will be world famous for 15 minutes.” 

– Andy Warhol (maybe… allegedly… potentially… most likely) 

Well, you know you’re living your 15 minutes when everyone working at the grocery store recognizes you as the girl from the magazine or the girl on the news.

Back in February, I found out I had been selected as a 914INC Wunderkind. 914INC is a regional business-focused quarterly magazine. And a wunderkind, (insert condescending tone here) for those not familiar with German, is a person who receives success at a relatively young age. In this case, the magazine highlights a handful of young professionals under the age of 30 who are making waves within their respective industries.

When you make a magazine cover, it's hard to stay under cover.

When you make a magazine cover, it’s hard to stay under cover.

I was honored to make the cut (and lucky… the cut-off for eligibility was one month before I change decades. Wootwoot!)

When you’re young, you’re full of big ideas, but are not often presented with avenues to set those ideas in motion. It’s a rare opportunity when you find yourself in a job where you can make a difference, either within your company or within the community… and even rarer when you get recognized for it in such a public forum. I’m pretty lucky.

But I was also nonplussed.

Growing up in a circle of regular overachievers had tinted my view on my own success. When you’re competitive, you always want to win, but when everyone around you is also competitive, no good result is ever really good enough.

When I met a goal, it was great, but I always knew there was someone next to me who had done just that much better. It didn’t make me jealous or envious, it just meant that I never saw an achievement as something to get overly excited about. For example, I qualified for NCAA Championships 3 out of 4 years as a Division 1 college athlete. I was pissed because I only qualified 3 times. And when I made All-American, I shrugged it off because it wasn’t First Team. When you’re training with Olympians, with aspirations that match theirs regardless of your results, you play down your own personal successes, because they don’t really feel like success. Years later, I realize what a big deal my 3 trips to NCAAs was. Some kids never get a chance to compete in college, let alone qualify once in their 4 years.

The Wunderkind recognition came with a cocktail party, a crystal plaque, a proclamation from a State Senator, and a magazine spread. I got a lot of face time in the issue — a little Missoni dress goes a long way — and I’m overly grateful for finally having a few photos of myself that make me feel beautiful, and not chubby or slubby.

When I shared the news on social media, the photo and online profile got tons of likes. My inbox was flooded with congratulatory notes and kind words. Someone sent me flowers. Someone else, a bottle of wine. Hell, even my ex-boyfriend, who I haven’t seen in a year, called to say congrats, so well-deserved and he wished he could come to the party, but he was going to be in Bogota…

All that loving and genuine praise felt good.

So.

Good.

I have a better view on personal success than I did when I was in college. When you’re getting recognized for doing a good job, enjoy it. Reveal in it. There aren’t many times in your life when someone is going to give you a plaque for doing your thing. I’m rolling on the crest of a good wave right now, and I know that can’t last forever. So I’m going to ride it… as humbly as possible.

Now that everyone in my family has a copy of the magazine, the feature has been shared on all my social media platforms (this one is the last!), and the recognition party has happened, my 15 minutes is quietly ending. Perhaps, though, since 914INC is a quarterly, maybe my 15 minutes will be more like 15.5.

She’s not a “Pretty Little Liar,” but Emma Sulkowicz is not an Innocent: When Performance Distracts from the Real Issues

Art’s greatest power is that it gives a voice to the voiceless. There is no singular language through which we can express ourselves, and sometimes, we lose our words — art can give us back those words. It can give us a language to share our hurt, our triumph, our distress, our distrust, our glory. It can give us the power to connect on a raw, human level; to be seen for who we are and what we stand for when people previously refuse to look and listen. Images are powerful things.

The image of Emma Sulkowicz standing on stage at the Columbia Commencement with her mattress is a powerful image.

And like everything about “Carry That Weight,” it’s a problematic one.

I had seen Ms. Sulkowicz on Columbia’s campus about 2 or 3 months ago at a public event. I was there as a supportive Columbia alumni, and looked around to see if her “weight” was with her. She was hard to miss with her blue hair (how very school spirit!) standing with a group of friends, laughing. I couldn’t see her mattress — I even looked in the stands, outside the doors and it wasn’t anywhere that was visible. I remember those awful twin XL monstrosities in their clinical navy blue plasticized cases. They’re hard to miss in public places. Perhaps if I had seen it, and perhaps it was there somewhere, I would have been more supportive of her decision to carry it at graduation.

I felt a tinge of hypocrisy and a need for personal attention. And I feel bad that I feel that way.

Ms. Sulkowicz chose to walk at her graduation from a University she feels mistreated her. That’s where I’m confused. To me, the more powerful act of protest would have been to NOT be there. To not walk and stand outside the campus with her mattress would have spoken volumes. That’s a snub to the administration — HER refusal to shake its hand and partake in its ceremonies. Instead, she’s walking away with an Ivy League degree and a photo opt. That seems like an all around win for Ms. Sulkowicz… but not necessarily a win for the cause.

The media all gravitated to President Bollinger’s “snub” — there was no handshake for Ms. Sulkowicz as she crossed the stage. There are those horrid “Pretty Little Liar” posters plastered around Morningside Heights. It’s all just sickening. Did Prez Bo snub her? Or was he advised not to shake her hand by lawyers because of the implication that he supported the “trial by media” her performance waged against her accused assailant?

I don’t know… and the problem is, I’m starting not to care.

Well, I mean, I’m starting not to care about Emma Sulkowicz.

Ms. Sulkowicz is becoming a distraction. Where once she was the rallying voice against a broken system, she has come to undermine the cause. It’s become an Emma vs. Paul, Emma vs. Columbia, Paul vs. Columbia tale. Somewhere along the way, we lost the real issue — that the rate of sexual and gender-based assaults on college campuses are painfully high and that administrations are handling them badly.

Can we please refocus on finding a solution for that, and stop talking about a mattress and student work of art?

When I was a freshman at Columbia, two men in my immediate circles were accused of sexually assaulting women. Both were told to leave for a semester. Neither graduated from Columbia. I don’t know how the proceedings went, but what I do know, is that both cases created major factions within the community. Most of the men’s friends, male and female, took their sides, while the victim was completely ostracized. Black-balled socially. How ridiculous, but also, I’m not unsympathetic.

But here’s the problem with “Carry That Weight,” now that Nessinger has had a chance to be interviewed and is filing a not unjustified lawsuit..

Ms. Sulkowicz has unintentionally erased any chance at true justice in her case.

Why? Ms. Sulkowitz felt violated, and the university and public justice systems failed her. What is justice now for her? Her performance targeted an individual while it raised awareness about a larger issue. In doing so, it vilified her alleged assailant, in what became an international venue. What is justice for him? A settlement, which is likely to happen, won’t absolve him of anything.

A pretty tragic cycle.

Lessons My Mother Taught Me (In Brief… Because there are, Like, A Lot)

There's no doubt my hair and love of patterns are inherited from my mother...

There’s no doubt my hair and love of patterns are inherited from my mother…

The 2003 Land Rover Discovery sitting in the driveway has nearly 300,000 miles on it. My mother and I accumulated most of these as we traveled around the country to fencing tournaments… and to Bob Dylan concerts, and to the Canadian Rockies… but mostly to fencing tournaments. If you add those 300,000 miles to all the airline miles racked up going to World Cups in places like Cuba, France, and Slovakia, and the road trips that followed… like that one from Prague to Barcelona… then we’ve probably traveled about 1 Million miles together.

That’s a lot of miles.

The good news is, that after all this time spent together in close quarters, we not only still love each other, we really LIKE each other.

She’s pretty clever.

I’ve learned lots of things from my mother starting with a simple outlook:

Life is a grand adventure.

AND if you can do it in a 4-star way, do it, because money only has value while you’re alive to spend it.

And do it in good shoes.

She showed me that real education doesn’t come from a book. Real education is in the experiences you get to have when you open your eyes and to the world. Every tournament became an excuse to see something new. In 3 years, I visited over 70 museums — an set of sites I take with me every day to work.

In 2011, I started working and my mother and I officially switched roles as athletes — she because the world class fencer and I became the sporting parent. She’s made 8 Veteran World Championship teams… and that’s after having 2 full hip replacements.

Last year, two weeks before National Championships and the final qualifying tournament for the World team, my mother broke her hand at practice. She was told not to fence. But my mother is a charmer, when she wants to be, so she convinced her doctor to give her a clean bill of health and convinced the cast-maker to develop something she could wear while competing.

The day before the tournament, she walked around the venue with her team jacket draped over her hand to hide the full cast so no one would know she was injured.

Let me tell you — those Veteran fencers are like sharks. If they smell blood in the water, you’re lunchmeat.

She fenced. Medalled. And qualified for the team.

My mother taught me that broken bones and broken hearts heal. A dead end, a “no,” an injury, those aren’t ends. Those are just excuses to find another, a better way to get where you’re going. We’ve been lost a lot — in Italy, in New Foundland, in Bulgaria, in the Bronx. But in life, so far, I’ve never been really lost because she’s given me, and keeps giving me, a road map to follow through it all.

Happy Mother’s Day to the greatest Mother there is!

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Betting on the Ponies

I lost $45 on the Kentucky Derby this weekend. In comparison to more seasoned gamblers, this sum was a mere pittance, but to me, that’s some lost dough worth crying over (it’s also an excellent bottle of Cakebread Chardonnay I won’t be indulging in this month.)

My money had been on Upstart (the owners are family friends) and Materiality (I didn’t mind the odds). I played it safe and only waged on them to show. You can see the results… they did at least show up. Never bet in a show of loyalty/camaraderie. That was this weekend’s sports-betting lesson.

I always wanted a pony, and though I (thankfully) didn't get one, I did ride every weekend.

I always wanted a pony, and though I (thankfully) didn’t get one, I did ride every weekend.

While I partially grew up around horses, I’ve never been good at “picking a horse.” My mother claims she can spot a winner by looking at its hooves. I can look at stats, hooves, tails, stable colors, trainer history, jockey results, and champion names and I still rarely, if ever pick a winner (contrary to your expectations, I’m going to go ahead and refrain from extending this to a personal life metaphor.)

Allow me to pause and quote Truman Capote’s Holly Golighty:

“There are so few things men can talk about. If a man doesn’t like baseball, then he must like horses, and if he don’t like either of them, well, I’m in trouble anyway: he don’t like girls.”

Two summers ago, my mother and I drove up to Elora, Canada, to spend some time with my great Aunt and Uncle Bob. We’d started in Columbus, Ohio, where we had been fencing in the National Championships. We were several hours delayed in leaving for the Great White North because I was stuck in the medic’s tent at the venue. Making a touch to bring a come-from-behind bout to 14-14, I went down. On-strip diagnosis was that I had just torn two ligaments in my knee. I was being numbed with ice, bandaged, and loaded-up with anti-inflammatories.

It was my birthday…

We swung by an area pan-Asian restaurant for road food as we began our beeline out of Ohio. My mother bought me two bottles of sake to drink (“Mom, isn’t it, like, ILLEGAL to be drinking in a car?” “You’re not driving. Happy Birthday!) Immobilized, in pain, and now slightly inebriated, it was hard to know what kind of company I’d be as we made our rounds in rural Ontario.

A snapshot from my day at the races

A snapshot from my day at the races

Aunt Winn and Uncle Bob treated us to a night at Grand River Raceway, a casino and harness-racing track to which they had a membership. In the final years of his life, Uncle Bob had lost most of his vision. He walked with a cane and was in pain most days. But my great uncle was one of the most vibrant, fun-loving sorts you could ever experience. Settled in the restaurant overlooking the track, Uncle Bob had me read aloud the listing of the horses, their records, and the odds. Then he’d hand me a $5 or $20 bill and tell me who to place his bet on.

I’d mull over the listing and announce my picks.

“I’m putting $10 on Curator.”

“What are his odds?”

“I don’t know. But that name — it’s a sign.”

At some point, as the sun was beginning to set, I mustered up enough grit to walk outside and down 2 flights of concrete steps, down to the track. My knee was throbbing. But god, those animals! I leaned against the rails and watched them trot by. Pacing their gates. They all looked like a good bet to me.

Like most little girls, I had a pony and horse obsession, which meant I spent every Saturday in my single-digit years at the stable, and every family vacation usually had to include one ride — whether it was along a beach in Mexico or through the Irish countryside. My parents were wonderfully tolerant. I wanted to have my own dude ranch out west, or own a stable attached to an inn in upstate New York.

It’s an interesting fascination, this “Mummy! Daddy! I want a pony!” instinct that young girls seem to have. Horses are not cute animals. They’re regal companions who can take you anywhere you want to go. At the same time, they have a mind of their own (I’ve been on more than a few runaway steeds in my lifetime…)

At the end of our night at the raceway, Uncle Bob was up by about $80. Me on the other hand, even with his guidance and example to follow, well, I was down by $40 (can you tell I have a loss limit?)

Picking race horses isn’t my thing. That’s clear, as my dude ranch retirement goals have been replaced by an affinity for mint juleps and flamboyant hats. The Derby is one of my favorite sporting events of the summer, but don’t come to me for your betting advice… I will however point you in the direction of some excellent milliners.

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