Reading Southbound

Well I finally did it.  I was sick this past weekend and as I was laying on the couch I looked up and saw it there sitting on the shelf.  My book.  Southbound had it’s 3rd publication birthday last month and I must admit I’ve been thinking about it more lately.  So i finally read it.   Every so often I get lovely notes from people who read it and sometimes I get questions about certain parts of it.  The two questions I seem to get most often are “was the scene in the Cal Expo chapter real?” and “Who is Maria based on?”

When the book came out I did a bunch of interviews and always kind of used the same answer for most questions.  “The book is fiction and I use my backstory as a kicking off point.  What it really is is a relapse fantasy.  I felt it was safer to play out the relapse fantasy than to actually try the relapse.” sb

That’s all mostly true.  There’s a lot of truth in Southbound but there’s a lot of fiction as well.  I know that’s kinda vague but it is the truth.  As far as those two questions above the answer’s are 1.) Basically true and 2.) She was kind of an amalgamation of two people in the racing business.  Now you can all guess and I won’t tell you who!  But it wasn’t that I was in love with those two people as the character Ryan was with Maria.  It was more I found them compelling and thought they could make a compelling character using features of both.

So back to reading Southbound.  When I say I haven’t read it, I just mean I haven’t read it in book form.  I read the damn thing 500 times during the writing, editing, editing, and editing phase.  I remember thinking all the time during the three years from first word to publishing “It’ll be so cool if someday I get to hold this thing in my hands and read it.”  Then once I finally had it in my hands I never did.  I tried starting it a couple times but I just didn’t want to read it.  So this time I plowed through and found it to be a very interesting and emotional experience.

First of all, I didn’t remember writing a lot of the stuff.  Some sentences I’d finish and think “did I really write that?”  Some sentences I thought were corny or bad.  Some I thought were good.  Some I wished I could go back and edit right there and then.  The parts that were the most emotionally triggering were when Ryan initially leaves on the trip, the panic attack and subsequent showing of his suicide attempt scar to Maria, and the end.  In those three instances I definitely remember having emotions as I wrote them and reading them back I certainly felt the words and the memories of writing them and whatever similarities they may have had to real life.  The one thing I did try and do was put my pain into Ryan.  I think looking back I also wanted to punish him as I felt that I deserved to be punished.

I did spend a lot of yesterday thinking about the psychology of the things I did to that character and some of the bad things he did to other people.  One thing I found interesting is there is very little mention of his father.  Other than noting he’s dead and a story or two about him, there isn’t much.  I thought about that a lot.  And I came to the conclusion that maybe I wanted Ryan to exist in a world where he wasn’t always thinking about his dead father.  Maybe I wanted to give him at least the peace of not dwelling on that.

He also wasn’t very great to women at any point in the book.  I wonder if this was frustration from my own relationships not working out?  I like to be alone and maybe I had him try and push those people away, similar to how I’ve done in my own life in regards to social interactions and relationships?

The book was certainly me processing the gambling, addiction, anxiety, and all that.  But what I still think it is most about is running away.  From responsibilities, from accountability, from family, from friends, from being seen.  There’s a lot of shame in it.  It’s very possible that I might digest the book differently than other readers for obvious reasons.  But that’s what I got from it.

When I finished it I was pretty tired.  There was a lot of feeling going on reading back through it.  I’m still remarkably proud of it.  I’m most proud of just starting and seeing through such a long term and big project.  It was a TON of work.  I’ve never worked at anything in my life as hard as I did on that book.  Three years.  I’m curious to see what happens if I read it three years from now.  Maybe i’ll find it different than I did this past weekend?  Maybe the same?

Emerald Downs: Love, Hate, Love

Saturday is opening night at Emerald Downs and I won’t be there.  Not because I don’t want to be, just cause with the fireworks show and the fact that it’s opening night means that it’ll be packed to the gills and I’ll wait til Sunday to go.  It’s a great time of year.  I’ll never forget Willie the Cat blitzing his rivals on opening night 2004 to set a world record for five and one half furlongs in 1:01.20.  Willie and Slewicide Cruise (who ran 2nd to Willie that night) became two of my favorites that night.  Or Gordy’s Sweet Jordy winning and allowing me and my friend Ben Root to go into the winner’s circle in front of the opening night crowd in 2005.  I’ve been to countless Longacres Miles at Emerald Downs, hit a ton of bets, and lost a ton more.  I had my biggest score there in 2005 when I hogged the whole pick 4 pool one night.  When I worked in the media office there in 2004 I was making $10 an hour.  Emerald used to allow you to cash your checks at the track and one friday payday I cashed my check for $634 and promptly lost it all by the 7th race that evening.  The next day I called my mom to borrow $500 cause I had “an unexpected medical bill” i had to pay.  Thanks mom!

But Emerald is a special place.  This week Scott Hanson wrote about all the people who make it special.  CLICK HERE for that article.  We spent my dad’s last few days on earth at Emerald Downs watching the races while he had his oxygen tank in.  I’ll never forget him saying “You’d think you wouldn’t get pissed about losing a photo at the track cause in a week i’ll be dead.  But I’m really fucking pissed at that little midget.”  He referred to all jockeys as midgets.  As sad as I am he died young, I can’t fathom my dad living in the age of having to be politically correct or respectful.  He’d never survive that.

But after dad died I just kept on going to Emerald Downs.  I spent countless hours there all the time.  It’s where we spent our summers, my friends and I.  It’s where I started practicing announcing and where longtime racecaller Robert Geller helped me to improve at it.  I’ll never forget getting to call my first race there.  It was very emotional.  In my decade as a racecaller I was often asked what my dream job or dream race to call would be.  I always said Emerald Downs and the Longacres Mile.  And I wasn’t even lying.  Ok maybe Santa Anita would be cool too, but Emerald was always the dream.

So fast forward to a Thursday afternoon in Shreveport, Louisiana in early April of 2015.  I open my email and it’s from someone at Emerald Downs.  “The announcing job at Emerald has come open and we’d love to have you come interview for it.”   I drove 2500 miles as fast as I could and on a Friday night walked into the conference room to interview for the job I always wanted.  I was nervous but confident.  The first thing the new GM told me was something to the effect of “We really want to try something new and different and are hoping some young people and/or some women apply for the job as well.”  I sat there knowing I just drove 2500 miles for nothing.  I was stunned.  It was really weird.  It wasn’t even an interview.  They kind of just more asked about the announcing “fraternity” and stuff like that.  Finally the Marketing manager asked some specific questions.  I just ended the interview by saying what I felt was the truth.  “You’re not gonna hire anyone who will have more passion calling these races than me.”

A few weeks later they called me to tell me they were going in another direction.  I knew they were but I was still crushed.  I watched 3 horse races between Mid April and October of that year and all 3 were won by American Pharoah.  I was really bitter about the whole situation.  I was gonna hate whoever they hired so I never even asked who they went with.  I was off social media and kind of just kept to myself for a few months.  I drove Uber full time and watched Mariners games in the evening.

But I learned some things that summer that have honestly served me well.  First of all I learned about entitlement.  I always just assumed I would step into that job at Emerald when Robert left.  For years I was their go to backup.  Everyone there knew I wanted it.  I was gonna get the job and call there for the rest of my career.  And when I didn’t get it I honestly just gave up on announcing.  What was the point?  I responded like any entitled, spoiled asshole would.  I took my ball and went home. Just cause I wanted something doesn’t mean it was owed to me.  I applied for a job and I didn’t get it.  It happens to EVERYONE.

I also learned about bitterness.  It got me nowhere.  I was mopey about not getting my way and bitter about the future and everything.  And my nature isn’t to be bitter.  I’ve always prided myself on not being a jealous type and have always felt genuine happiness when friends or even strangers found success.  So why was I now acting the opposite of that?

So fast forward to last May, 2016.  I was five months into a new job with a new company that had honestly rekindled my passion for racing.  So one day I finally decided to put those old feelings aside and I went and sat at the eighth pole on a picnic bench at Emerald and watched a days races.  It was amazing.  I was happy about being there.  My expectations of it being a bummer were totally wrong.  It was Emerald Downs.  I could still love it.  I listened to the new announcer Matt Dinerman call the races and he did wonderfully.  I thought to myself “If I was 23 and in my first full year of calling at a track, would I be this smooth and composed.”  Hell no.  I honestly felt a sense of pride towards Matt.  He was a young racecaller, as I once was.  He should have my undying support, not my petty bitterness.  Matt has done himself and Emerald EXTREMELY proud with his work there so far.  I can even honestly, no bullshit, no sappy blog writing, say that they made the right decision.

I started going to Emerald each Sunday, parking myself out near the eighth pole away from the crowds.  And each passing week I just enjoyed it more and more.  There’s something remarkably peaceful about watching a race by the head of the stretch by yourself.  When they turn for home and you hear the jockeys screaming, the horses hooves thundering, and nothing else.  It’s my favorite place to watch a race.   So Sunday afternoon, you’ll see a large portly gentleman down at the eighth pole watching.  I’ll be happy.  I promise.

Why I like #BellLetsTalk

I’m an American.  Therefore I don’t know much about “Bell” other than they’re a Canadian company.  A few years ago I noticed the #BellLetsTalk hashtag and that it was an initiative by this company to de-stigmatize talking about mental illness.  Now normally I think Hashtag activism is malarkey and doesn’t accomplish anything but virtue signaling and people arguing with one another.  But this hashtag was raising money and also was bringing attention to something i’m rather passionate about because it’s something I deal with.

I have severe anxiety disorder with panic attacks and depression.  I had my first panic attack at age 21 and they’ve been a part of my life for 15 years now.  In many ways my anxiety has become my life.  It controls everything and I give into much more than I beat it back.  I’ve allowed my anxiety to cost me relationships, opportunities, career advancement, and any real meaningful happiness.  I say “I’ve allowed” because of pride and the fact that I probably want to feel as though I do have some control over the anxiety, which I do.  But let me emphasize the word “some” there.  There are days where no matter what I do to care and cope, the anxiety makes functioning pretty impossible.  Some family members and friends will say “relax” or “stop worrying” not knowing that inside it feels like i’m gonna pass out, or fall over, or drop dead right there.  If it was as simple as ‘just relax” i’d fucking relax.  It’s not that simple.  And when you tell someone with anxiety or depression to “relax” or “cheer up”, you’re clueless.  If only it was that simple.

Back to the hashtag and why I think it’s important.  Even if they didn’t raise any money (which they most certainly do).  Asking for help or support is extremely tough.  That phone weighs about 2000 pounds when you lift it to try and call or text someone to tell them you’re hurting and you need help or just need a friend.  My anxiety and depression goes in ups and downs.  I tend to go stretches where I’m doing well and stretches when I’m not.  I’m currently not.  I spend my days in “safe” places like my car or my room.  I get food in drive thrus or delivered so I don’t have to go into crowded places.  Or I go to the grocery store at 5am before anyone else.  I had a panic episode on my morning walk in the mall a week or so ago and basically got to my car with no breathe left and my legs feeling like they were going out from underneath me the entire time.  I got to my car.  My safe place.  And I did all my breathing techniques and soothing techniques and everything I could think of to calm down.  Later that night I was still anxious.  I sat in my car in an empty parking lot sobbing and whaling and screaming.  I feel so lonely sometimes because I’ve basically withdrawn myself because of the anxiety.

I picked up my phone and scanned thru my phone and desperately wanted to call someone.  I have 163 contacts in my phone and after scanning through all of them I found three people I thought I might be comfortable calling.  I didn’t even want to talk.  I just wanted and needed someone I knew cared about me to be with me for a few minutes, even if it’s just over the phone.  But I couldn’t hit the call button.  The embarrassment was too much.  I have so much shame about my mental illness and I let it define me.  I also probably subscribe too much to the theory that it’s me being weak.  Plus I feel like I’d just be bothering them.  But in those times of pain, many bad thoughts go through my head.  And it’s those times when I really do think that I need to hit that “call” button to those friends.   

That’s why I like the #BellLetsTalk hashtag.  Because maybe someone who is struggling will see a friend who posts that and realizes that they do have people they can turn to in times of struggle.  Maybe they’ll see that many others are dealing with the same things they are.  Finding community and support is so important for all of us.  I need to start finding mine again.  What’s funny about thinking there was only 3 people I could call is that I bet almost all of those 163 people would take my call.  And I’ll bet many more people I know would take that call.  Just gotta realize it’s ok to make that call and talk.

An Open Letter to Open Letters

Dear Open Letters,

First of all, I know you won’t read this, cause nobody open letters are intended for ever read them.  Cause you open letters, are bullshit.  You are a blog.  You are basically a way for us who write them to feel better about ourselves.  To get things off our chest.  To virtue signal.  To show the people who are reading you just how smart I am.

You see the key to you Open Letters, is massive condescension.  I mean is it really an open letter if it’s not extraordinarily condescending?  No it’s not.  You Open Letters are how someone like me who lives in their parents basement can say something to a subject who is always a million times more successful than me and make it seem like i’m way smarter than you.

I will also write from a perspective of hope and optimism for part of the letter so it looks as though when i’m writing you that I really want the intended person to change and be open, when in reality I just want them to think and do what I think is right.  Because after all my opinion and views on things are of course right.

But really Open Letter the key thing i’ll be needing from you is for you to make me sound smart and virtuous enough that I can get retweets from people who think and feel the same way I do about things.  See, screaming into an echo chamber is really all that’s important now, and you Open Letter are the best way to do that.

Thank you,

JB