Monday, May 19, 2014

California Dreamin'...or, Chrome Sweet Chrome

File:California Chrome at 2014 Kentucky Derby.jpg
California Chrome, Kentucky Derby,
courtesy Wikipedia Creative Commons
May-June was absolutely excruciating to endure when I was in my early teens.

This had zero to do with things such as school dances or exams and everything to do with the Triple Crown races.

It was the season when my equally horse-mad friend M. and I attached ourselves to one horse for the duration and counted the days til post times for the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont, and filled the time in between with scouring newspapers for articles about the horses and driving adults crazy with our speculations and frettings.

We couldn't believe our spectacular luck in seeing three Triple Crown winners emerge after a drought of 25 years: first Secretariat in 1973, then Seattle Slew in 1977, and finally Affirmed in 1978.

And now, 36 years later, California Chrome has his chance to sweep the classics, following in the hoofsteps of a dozen horses who've won the first two races, from Spectacular Bid in 1979 to I'll Have Another in 2012.

This horse I have a particular affinity for, because he shares my birthday, February 18. (We have a lot in common, actually: We both have names that start with the letter C. We both have white socks. We both like sugar, carrots, apples, and oats. We're both mammals. OK, that's about all we have in common.)

Secretariat winning Belmont by 31 lengths
I stopped following horse racing after Affirmed's sweep of the Triple Crown, once I was off to college and a career, partly due to lack of time and partly due to the lack of a television set and a newspaper subscription during my college and early working days (remember, kiddies, this was before home computers and the Internet).

Now I am the horse-racing version of the kind of parishioner our fierce pastor at my childhood church condemned, the sort that showed up only on Christmas and Easter: I drop in for the Triple Crown and am largely absent the rest of the year.

It's fun, though, to recall how the sport kept me on tenterhooks in my teens. My parents indulged this fascination as best they could, taking me to the races at Belmont Park now and then and, best of all, to Breakfast at Belmont, which allowed one entry to the track at 6 a.m. to watch horses work out. We'd wander the beautiful grounds of the park, where experts would hold chats in the saddling paddock and by an old starting gate.

And, oh, the swag! Manna from heaven to a horse-crazy girl: a satchel packed with booklets, buttons, and photos of horses, including a supersized paperback about Secretariat that I still have and a comic book about a day in the life of a racehorse.

My father, ever the mathematician, became fascinated with handicapping, so he enjoyed these jaunts, as did my grandfather, an Irish immigrant who had fond memories of seeing horses work out on the Curragh and attending races at Leopardstown outside Dublin. And M. and I wiled away many a summer afternoon drawing horses and inventing racing silks and pedigrees for them.

Next time I'm down at the stable, I'll ask the Resident Ex-Racehorse, Avi, what he thinks of California Chrome's Triple Crown chances. After all, they have a great-grandfather in common (Mr. Prospector), a great-great grandpa (Danzig), and a great-great grandma (Gold Digger). Nothing better than getting insider information straight from the horse's mouth.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

What Was Your Favorite Childhood Book?

It is Children's Book Week (as I realized on, oh, about Tuesday) so before it slips away I thought I ought to at least make an attempt to celebrate it here.

I don't recall that my school celebrated Children's Book Week when I was a child, but I do remember that every week ended in children's books: Friday was the day that my father would drive out to the big Huntington Library after dinner, and I nearly always went with him.

He'd set me free in the children's department (back then nobody thought twice of leaving a youngster unattended while they were on a different floor of the library...but back then people were also supposed to be quiet in the library, too). A big stuffed bulldog--an actual bulldog, prepared by a taxidermist--stood guard over the shelves.

On the way home, I'd read all the titles of the books out loud to my dad. He nodded approvingly at each one. I thought he'd read them all and was indicating that he remembered their plots well.

We also had plenty of books at home, and I still have some of them today: the Tintin books that provided endless hours of entertainment when I was sick in bed, the big Just-So Stories volume with eerie pictures that gave me the shivers, and one of my favorites, the big book about Noah's Ark.

I loved the myth of Noah's Ark, because I loved animals and obviously this story was packed with them. My favorite toy was a Noah's Ark set made by the Marx toy company--the whole thing fit into a container smaller than a shoebox, with animals ranging from olive-sized elephants to dogs so tiny you could kennel them all in a thimble. I played with it so often on the wide blue ocean of the living room carpet that most of the animals, over time, suffered a second natural disaster and disappeared into the tornado of the vacuum.

When my parents asked me what I'd like for getting a good report card in elementary school, I requested a supersized Colorforms Noah's Ark scene.

My favorite picture in the book, of course.
The edition I had as a kid (and still have) was published by Grossest & Dunlap in 1957. It was vibrantly illustrated by Art Seiden (Art! So perfect a name!), who worked in advertising and also illustrated more than 300 books. Some of his animal books have rabbits and bears that remind me of Richard Scarry's creations.

What impresses me is just how beautifully he filled the frame of a page, achieving a wonderful balance and fizz.

Lots of his books were published by Golden Books, Wonder Books, and other imprints that sold books inexpensively in places such as grocery stores and five-and-tens. These books are being newly appreciated for their fabulous illustration and design, and they well deserve it.

I always loved the cutaway view of the ark with all the animals inside and spent many a happy hour drawing cutaway views myself:

Some books of his you might recall if you're a certain age: Never Pat a Bear, A Dragon in a Wagon, Dinosaur Comes to Town, and Where Is the Keeper?

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Treasure Trove of Trilliums

Vivid bouquets of flowers bedazzled this sunny Mother's Day weekend, showing up like unexpected flamenco dancers on the back deck. The chilly, rain-soaked weekend before this one offered a herbaceous banquet of a different sort, filled with native plants and greenery that flourished in soggy settings.

We spent that Saturday dodging downpours, slathered with mud as we dug up ferns on the forested property of friends whose home and gardens will soon be bulldozed to make way for a housing development. They also pointed out a few other dig-worthy plants--rhubarb, raspberries, heavenly bamboo--that it seemed a pity to leave behind. We drove home in a minivan packed with our new fronds (it's not easy to make new friends in a new neighborhood; fronds are quite a bit easier to come by).

The Sunday of that soggy weekend I enjoyed an early Mother's Day gift to myself: a "Tea and Trilliums" talk and tour at Cottage Lake Gardens, which is tucked right behind the library barely five minutes from my home.

Cottage Lake Gardens is perched on the shore of, not surprisingly, Cottage Lake, and is home to all of the world's 48 species of trillium, a lovely genus of wildflower native to North America and parts of Asia. Trilliums are named for their habit of sprouting threesomes: They have three leaves, three sepals (those green bits that surround the base of a flower), and three petals.

Tea, coffee, pastries, and fruit served up on antique Limoges china...I could've stopped right there. That was enough of a break from the daily grind.

Then, fortified with food as well as information about trilliums, we headed out into the rain to wend our way through the forested garden. There the trilliums reposed in groups along a meandering path, sharing the landscape with a wide variety of shade-loving plants.

What I found most fascinating about the trillium is just what a late bloomer it is. Not in terms of the season, mind you--it's one of the earliest bloomers when it comes to springtime (one of its nicknames is "wake-robin," because it's such an early riser it even wakes up the robin who's supposed to be the harbinger of spring). No, its peculiar late-blooming property is that about seven years pass before a trillium seed finally grows up enough to produce a flower.

The bulk of the plant takes the form of an underground, swollen stem called a rhizome. (If you've ever brought home a chunk of ginger from the grocery store, you've purchased a rhizome.)

Shoots from the rhizome poke up from the soil, with each shoot producing three leaves and a flower.

The flowers bloom for a few weeks, set seed, and are done for the season by the time other flowers are just thinking of getting out of bed.

This long adolescence and brief bloom, combined with the leaves' inclination to die back in dormancy during a hot, dry summer, puts an interesting spin on the whole notion of what, exactly, a plant is.

To the aboveground-dwelling human, a plant is leaves, flowers, fruit--the things we can see.

But I'd think a trillium would feel otherwise, if it had feelings. Its real self is a mole-like being that puts up a periscope of a flower and goes on a sunshine-buying spree with its leaves before returning to its underground digs and retiring with a brandy and a nice collection of books for the rest of the year.

First-year shoots (left) and older shoots (right)
It put me in mind of a 17-year cicada, which spends 17 years underground as a nymph, sipping from roots. Finally it bursts from the ground, climbs up a trunk, molts into its adult form, then spends about a month carousing, reproducing, dodging predators, and making a row before dying.

A cicada's short above-ground life seems puzzling to humans, but a trillium would understand it. It's the 17 years of subterranean life that's the real thing, not the brief party in the light of day.

Cicadas don't consort with trilliums, but other insects do. Pollinators of trilliums include beetles and ants. (An East Coast species, the red trillium, attracts these animals with a pungent odor that earns it charming nicknames such as “stinking Benjamin.") The most commonly encountered trillium in the Pacific Northwest, Trillium ovatum, puts on quite a show after it's been pollinated: Its lovely white petals turn increasingly deep shades of pink, transforming into a rich, velvety purple before the flower dies.

Beetle on wild trillium in a Redmond park
The plant offers ants not only protein bars in the form of pollen grains as reimbursement for pollination services, but also oily fast food attached to its seeds. These treats are called elaiosomes and are nutritious, calorific growths on the seeds.

Ants eagerly tote the seeds away from the trillium to share with larvae. The kids gobble up the elaiosomes while their indulgent elders toss the seeds on their own nutrient-rich junk piles outside the nest.

The trillium seeds, in a nice "Br'er Rabbit and the Briar Patch" twist, then happily take root in these middens. Pretty clever for a rhizome!