my secret summer life

“A racetrack is a place where windows clean people.” -Danny Thomas

Note: I apologize for the long delay in updating. A few weeks ago I suffered a personal tragedy; unsurprisingly, it’s taken up a lot of my physical and emotional energy. I’m not prepared to write anything meaningful about it yet, but I didn’t want to go any longer without posting. Instead, I’ll write about the other thing that’s been taking up a lot of my time: the start of my sixth season as a pari-mutuel clerk at the Saratoga Race Course. I’m sure I’ll write about the track at least a few more times, so I thought I’d start with a primer for readers who don’t know about my secret summer life.

The summer after I graduated from high school, I was desperate for work. I had spent nearly two years as a professional sweater folder, conning anyone who could hold a pen into opening a GAP charge card. I was done with the GAP, but nobody else wanted me: the economy was bad and I would leave for college in two months. My mother saw an ad in the paper for jobs at the Saratoga Race Course, a place that had been a source of seasonal irritation for my entire life. The population of our small city triples every August, packed with transplanted trainers and grooms and, noisiest and most numerous, tourists. Overdressed women in elaborate hats, men uniformed in polo shirts, khaki shorts, and dock shoes. Friends’ families would rent out their houses and leave town; we’d stay and grumble about the traffic and the jacked up prices. I’d been to the track a couple of times, but save the horse-drawn carriages that clomped past our house every evening, I had never given horses a second thought.

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parables and princesses

“‘Wall·E’ can’t help but send out a powerful and even frightening environmental message. Though G-rated, its dystopian vision of what the perils of consumer excess have in store for the planet is unnerving without trying too hard, bringing to mind the old truism that Walt Disney and his company (Pixar’s parent) have scared more people than Alfred Hitchcock.”       -Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times

Note: Minimal spoilers in this post – not much beyond your standard movie review. But really, you should go out and see “Wall·E” immediately!

There was a group of snarky children sitting behind me in the movie theater the other day. We had come straight from happy hour to “Wall·E,” and I wasn’t in the mood to listen to sullen kids shouting, “Lame!” during the previews. “Wouldn’t it be weird if you grew up watching so much computer animation?” my coworker whispered as we suffered through the fifth trailer for a sub-par movie about talking animals. I thought that if the children behind us were any indication, we’d have incredibly high standards for animated films. Nothing would dazzle us; the bigger and flashier, the better. They whispered loudly through the charming short film that preceded the main feature. But as the screen darkened with the first expanse of outer space and the strains of “Hello, Dolly!,” (“Out there, there’s a world outside of Yonkers”) the kids finally fell silent. 

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left my heart

“East is East, and West is San Francisco.” -O. Henry

The other night I dreamt that San Francisco was on fire, and as I watched a jumbled version of the city’s skyline burn to the ground, the Transamerica Building, that iconic white pyramid, fell like a tree with one swift motion, destroying everything in its path. I woke up tense and confused, and I had trouble sorting out reality from what was one of the most terrifying dreams that I can remember. Half of Northern California is on fire right now; this map shows the dozens of major blazes that currently ring San Francisco, Sacramento, and work their way up to the Oregon border. A state spokeswoman said that there are more than 1,000 individual fires burning, and Bush declared a federal state of emergency at the request of the governor. It’s been hazy here for the past week, and local health officials are urging people to limit their time outdoors.

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you’re not helping

“A little rebellion now and then is a good thing.” – Thomas Jefferson 

A few weeks ago – right around the time that he and Nancy Pelosi ordered superdelegates to rally around Barack Obama – Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid came to speak at the Commonwealth Club. He has a new book out, one that chronicles his journey from a ridiculously impoverished childhood to success on Capitol Hill. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen or heard the senate majority leader; he just might be the most unassuming, mild-mannered (meek) politician in Washington. Plugging his book on “The Daily Show” a few days earlier, the senator was weirdly unresponsive; Jon Stewart had to stop short of waving a hand in front of his face and asking if he was still awake. Basically, you wouldn’t expect him to invoke the vitriol of the far Left. You’d think that they’d save that for one of the Club’s (many) conservative speakers. If that’s the case, maybe you’ve never heard of Code Pink.

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six words can tell a story

“Brevity: a good thing in writing. Exploited by texters, gossip columnists, haikuists. Not associated with the biography genre. But then – why shouldn’t it be? Life expectancies rise; attention spans shrink. Six words can tell a story.”   -Lizzie Widdicombe, “Say It All in Six Words,” The New Yorker 

In the spirit of (shameless) cross- and self-promotion, I’d like to direct your attention to this article I wrote for SMITH on Tuesday, Notes from the Master of the Six-Word Meme. Yes, that’s me. The Master of the Meme. I’m thinking of putting that on my business cards. I guess I have to get business cards first. A meme, as I explain in the article, is the internet’s version of a chain letter. The one I’ve been following for the past four months asked people to take our concept – the six-word memoir – and write their own, tagging five other bloggers with the task. It’s easy, it’s fun, and people seem to love it; googling “six word memoir” and “meme” together yields 109,000 results. I’m not saying I’ve read every single one. But I have seen hundreds, thousands – many – and, for better or for worse, I’ve learned a whole lot about the blogosphere along the way. I’m not going to say anymore here, but please click the link if you’re interested. Summing it all up over at SMITH has  helped me to put the entire experience in perspective.

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timing and taste

“An old racetrack joke reminds you that your program contains all the winners’ names. I stare at my typewriter keys with the same thought.” -Mignon McLaughlin, The Neurotic’s Notebook

Here in San Francisco, fog doesn’t cover or linger; it sweeps across the entire city in a matter of minutes.  I never knew fog could move so quickly, and it’s put me in a weird mood: muddled, chilled, and slightly queasy.  I’ve been wrestling with a few big life questions this past week, like what I’m doing out here, how long I’m going to stay, how to fix my increasingly dire financial situation.  My boss sent me a link to the wikipedia entry on quarter life crises; apparently my constant worries are as natural as they are distressing.  The role of writing – what to do with it, where to put it, how to someday (hopefully) sell it – underscores my overall concerns.  It’s been hard to ignore this past week, when a post about my summer job sparked more interest than all the others combined.

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belmont 2008

“Big Brown had a bad day, but things have could have turned out worse, as we all know. Horses humble men on a regular basis. Here is to the smooth and steady Da’ Tara, the sweet-riding Alan Garcia, and a superb conditioning job by Nick Zito. The beauty of horse racing is overcoming great odds to win, rising out of the dust to prevail in the big race. The Da’ Tara team did just that.” -Sid Gustafson, “Horse Racing Prevails,” The New York Times

In the paddock, the mutuel clerks watched the Belmont Stakes play out on peoples’ faces. They’ve taken most of the televisions out of the bays – a futile attempt to curb employee gambling – so we leaned out our windows and watched the crowds gathered in small groups. There were cheers with the starting bell, but they faded quickly. “Who won?” the clerk next to me shouted, cupping her hands around her mouth and sounding like Rosie Perez. The silence was unnerving, the kind of hush that accompanies a horse’s fall. The race ended without ceremony and people dispersed, muttering and tossing ripped tickets on the asphalt. “It was the six,” someone called out from down the row. We pulled up the odds; the six was a long shot, largely ignored by my customers. “What about Big Brown?” someone else asked. “Last,” a man near the windows announced, grimacing as he flipped through his losing tickets. “Dead last.”

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