There’s a very funny movie titled “Throw Momma from the Train”, starring the incomparable Danny DeVito and Billy Crystal.
Momma, played to hideous perfection by Anne Ramsey, is DeVito’s mother. He wants to kill her, and very quickly into the movie, you want to kill her, too.
In the movie, Crystal’s character is a writer struggling to write a murder mystery. He wants the perfect opening sentence to set the stage for his novel, set in New Orleans. (I may be wrong about the city, if so, please tell me).
Throughout the movie, he sifts through the American English language, looking for the perfect word. “Humid” “muggy” ‘sweaty”-none of these words work. (A thesaurus would have solved the problem right from the get-go, but then, you’d have no movie.). He just can’t find that One Perfect Word, the one that captures the essence of New Orleans. It isn’t until near the end of the movie, when Momma (SPOILER ALERT! Don’t read if you don’t want to know.) sneeringly tells Crystal: ‘sultry’. !!! Sultry! That one word evokes it all: the American South, languorous pedestrians listening to jazz, with an undertone of sensuality, the great magnolia trees dripping with lichen and moisture, the cicadas shrilling at night, the overheated atmosphere so thick with moisture one swims rather than breathes: one word-sultry-says it all.
To foreigners trying to learn English, yes, it is a boogerbear to learn. But what a vast, immensely rich language it is, able to conjure up an entire world and culture in one word.
This is what I’ve been working towards.
I’ve been struggling for a while to distill what being a horseman is into a neat little package, a tidy summation of this special madness that we share.
I’m stuck. I’ve been stuck. Writing blogs has improved my writing abilities immensely, but I’ve still been unable to pinpoint inside myself what it IS that makes me touched. If I can’t explain it to myself, I’m not going to be able to elucidate it on paper/website. I know I have several readers who are not horsemen, and I try to infect write for them as well as for those who are horsemen. I’ve been trying to unmuddle this emotional/physical ocean of passion I have for horses, and the waters merely get muddlier. (sic).
While I’ve been unable to find that distillation, I have found a writer who elucidates something similar so well that it reached out and grabbed ME.
Author Hugh Raffles is an anthropology teacher/writer who, like most scientists I know, has gravitated to something completely outside the realm of his ‘chosen’ profession. In Raffles case, it’s insects. (I must admit to some name envy. Raffles, the stallion, ((as any Arabian horse fan can tell you)), had an enormous effect on the breed.)
Raffle’s book, “Insect-opedia” (Pantheon Books, 2010) is not so much about insects as it is about insects and the part they play in human culture.
One of those cultures is the Chinese passion for cricket fighting. Yes, crickets. They pit male crickets against each other like miniature pit bulls. Of course, they bet on the fights.
From August to November, when the crickets are breeding, Chinese cricket fans revel in what they call “happy times”.
I was struck at how alike their ‘happy times’ is to ours. Ours, when horses and riders are working together for a goal, be it the Kentucky Derby, Badminton, Rolex, Tevis, the World Equestrian Games, or any other competition that we enjoy. Ours, when all we are trying to do is perfect our transition from trot to canter and back. Ours, when the horse stops what he is doing and comes over with a nicker and nudge of the nose, looking for carrots. We horsemen have ‘happy times’, too.
To my astonishment, and, I must admit, envy, Raffles pinned it. Please change ‘cricket’ to ‘horses’, and you have what I have been struggling for:
“Even if it ignored the anxieties of what for many was the highlight and sometimes the very purpose of the year, “happy times’ captured those irrefutable delights of cricket culture: the play and camaraderie, the expertise in a world of arcane knowledge, the intimate connection with another species, the willing abandonment to obsession, the security of an erudition reaching back many centuries, and of course, the circulation of money and its possibilities.”
Hugh Raffles, “Insect-opedia”, 2010, pp.87
Raffles got it! “The willing abandonment to obsession’… isn’t this us? Isn’t this US? We are shameless in our passion. We don’t care that someone else may think us nuts, to spend tons of time, money, and effort on an animal? We have our own language: furlongs, founder, fetlock, ergot, cribber, snaffle, eggbutt… Our culture and knowledge base goes back thousands of years. The street culture says it: “If I have to explain it, you wouldn’t understand”.
Raffles summed it all up in one split infinitive.
Raffles has taught me that unfortunately, sometimes, one word cannot encompass an entire world.
So I can let this search go. I can work on the dozen or so other projects I have in mind for my blog.
I wallow in my happy times. Just like you.