Internet link leads to long-lasting friendships

July 17, 2010

When our daughters were young, my wife, Becky, and I thought it would be good to set them up with pen pals — children their age in other English-speaking countries who could give them a sense of the wider world beyond their Atlanta suburb.

We had no idea then that a pen pal would become our younger daughter’s closest friend, or that our families would form a 15-year-old bond that recently came full circle in Lexington.

Mollie and Shannon began by exchanging hand-written letters with sisters about their ages in England — granddaughters of a couple I had met there — but the relationships didn’t last. Then the Internet came along.

While exploring the Web one day, I found a newsgroup for people looking for email pen pals.  Scanning the long list, I saw that an Internet consultant in the southern Australian beach town of Torquay was looking for a pen pal for his 7-year-old daughter.

Shannon and Lisa Currie soon began exchanging emails, dictating them to their parents until they learned to type. As it turned out, the girls were born on the same day — Lisa is a few hours older, thanks to the order of International time zones.

Shannon and Lisa found they had many common interests. The girls became fast online friends, and so did their parents. Mike and Marg Currie were as curious about America as Becky and I were about the land Down Under. We discussed everything from politics to food to television.

The pen pals finally met in the summer (Australia’s winter) of 1999.  We rented a van and the two families spent a week traveling around southeastern Australia. We drove down the Great Ocean Road, watched whales off the coast of Warrnambool, visited a gold rush theme park near Ballarat and learned about everyday Australian life from the Curries’ large and friendly extended family. The only sad note came near the end of our trip, when Marg was hospitalized because of the cancer that would claim her life the next year.

When Shannon and Lisa were about 16, we set up an exchange. Lisa spent a month here, visiting New York City and attending Tates Creek High School. She had wondered if it would be like the American high schools she had seen in movies, complete with cheerleaders and a prom.

Shannon then lived with the Curries for a month, which included a ski trip to the Victorian Alps and studies at the Catholic girls’ school Lisa attended. Shannon borrowed a blue blazer and plaid kilt from another student so she wouldn’t be out of uniform.

With our cyber relationships now bolstered by real ones, we exchanged phone calls each Christmas and, later, video conversations via Skype. Facebook eventually replaced email.

The girls are now young women of 23. Shannon graduated from Centre College last year, and Lisa will soon complete her studies at the University of Melbourne. Shannon is heading to New York to try for a career in the fashion industry. Lisa plans some European travel before beginning a job with a major accounting firm in Melbourne.

Mike, Damien and Lisa Currie with Shannon Eblen at the Kentucky Capitol in Frankfort. Photo by Tom Eblen

With the girls about to begin their adult lives, and Mike turning 60, the Curries decided it was time to visit us. Earlier this month, we took them to Mammoth Cave, the Corvette Museum, the state Capitol and Buffalo Trace Distillery, among other Kentucky attractions. They enjoyed a meal at Outback Steakhouse and got a good laugh from its Crocodile Dundee portrayal of their homeland.

Mike liked touring Shaker Village and Henry Clay’s Ashland estate, and he enjoyed a bicycle ride to Paris. The young people pursued their own adventures, hanging out with Shannon’s friends, some of whom Lisa had known since that high school visit. Lisa’s brother, Damien, 21, especially liked Ramsey’s Diner and McCarthy’s Irish Bar.

Becky and I have always enjoyed travel, and our daughters now share that love. But our relationship with the Curries has shown them that it doesn’t always take time and money to learn about other cultures. The larger world can be as close as your home computer, and your next friend doesn’t have to come from around the corner; he or she could be on the other side of the world.

Kentucky Derby Day: We can’t rest on our roses

May 1, 2010

The Kentucky Derby struts a fine line between the past and the future.

First run in 1875, it is America’s oldest continuous sporting event. It is the most famous horse race, the one every Thoroughbred owner wants to win. Some horsemen have spent careers, and much more than the $2 million purse, trying.

The Derby has become Kentucky’s global identity — second only to Kentucky Fried Chicken. Several years ago, I went to church with friends in a little town on the southern coast of Australia. As we were introduced to the priest on our way out, he asked where we were from. When I replied, “Kentucky,” his face lit up and he said, “Ah, the Kentucky Derby!”

Matt Winn, the P.T. Barnum of early 20th century horse racing, put the Derby on the map. Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson helped keep it there with his alcohol-fueled essay about aspects of the Derby that can be “decadent and depraved.”

As we prepare for the 136th running of this two-minute horse race, it is worth pausing to ponder the Kentucky Derby’s mystique and what will keep it alive.

The Derby is, of course, tied to the fortunes of horse racing, whose popularity has been in decline for a generation. Many blame the industry for focusing too much on gambling revenue and too little on attracting new fans to the sport’s excitement and pageantry.

A few years ago, the public seemed to be losing interest in the Derby itself; television ratings hit bottom in 2000. That was a wakeup call for Churchill Downs, which invested big bucks in new facilities and worked harder to attract celebrities who weren’t already has-beens when today’s young potential racing fans were born.

NBC took over the Derby TV contract from ABC in 2001 and ratings began to climb. Last year, ratings were their best since 1992, making the Derby the second-most watched American sporting event after the Super Bowl. This year, Churchill Downs and NBC are trying to build public excitement with “Road to the Kentucky Derby” telecasts of prep races.

NBC realized that nearly half of the Derby’s TV viewers are women, most of whom wouldn’t know a furlong from a trifecta. NBC and its Bravo network feature Derby content aimed at them: fashion, food and celebrities.

Churchill Downs and NBC now understand that the Derby can’t coast on its reputation. Nothing can. The Derby must constantly be renewed and reinvented. It must preserve tradition while at the same time making Southern charm hip and sophisticated. In short, the Derby must be special.

After all, name another sporting event where tens of thousands of male spectators willingly dress up — in pastels! What other event of any kind gives a woman the excuse to buy and wear a big, bodacious hat?

Beyond Churchill Downs’ gates, Derby Day is to Kentucky what St. Patrick’s Day is to Ireland. It is the one day each year when people who ordinarily couldn’t care less about Kentucky or horses look to see who is running, pick a favorite (probably based on its name) and maybe even place a bet.

It is the day when Kentuckians living elsewhere get homesick and throw a party. They cook burgoo and hot Browns and do something they know is just, plain wrong: they contaminate bourbon with sugar and mint.

Derby Day is about keeping a mostly mythical past alive, the present fresh and fun and the future one where people like that priest I met in Australia can hear the word Kentucky and instinctively say, “Ah, the Kentucky Derby!”