Of Hope and Horses, Part II, or, The Story of Battle Damage He-Man

California Chrome at Churchill Downs before the 140th Kentucky Derby. He is a very happy horse.

So, California Chrome won the Kentucky Derby. From 1979 (Spectacular Bid) until 2000 (Fusaichi Pegasus) no favorite won the Derby, so it still feels a little miraculous to me. It shouldn’t, given that Smarty Jones, Street Sense, and Orb all won as the favorite recently. Barbaro was a close second favorite in the betting, so he almost counts, too.

The last time I wanted a horse to win the Derby with all my heart was Smarty Jones. I’ll never forget rooting him down the stretch with my sister Becky. It was a glorious. It was also 2004 and I was in a different phase of life. I’d just moved to South Carolina, gotten married, was unemployed. Life wasn’t easy, it was a big shift from LA, but I had a lot of hopes and dreams.

Here is the part of the blog post where I compare a horse to Jesus Christ. (Seriously. This is about to happen.)

When I first saw California Chrome, I believed. Like the Apostles who saw the burial cloths and no body. That part of the resurrection story has always baffled me. I always think, “I’m pretty sure if I saw the burial cloths and a missing body, I’d believe somebody stole the body.” But back to the horse. I saw him and I believed. Even though he’s just a horse, there is a religious aspect to this experience. Watching him run in one race, I could not know that he would hold his form, that he’d overcome the monster challenge of the Derby, that he was sound, that he would run well outside of California. I could not know any of these things. I could not have certainty. Instead, I had faith that this would be so. The last time I had such an experience was when I saw Rachel Alexandra’s first race.

Rachel, even more than Smarty, was a horse who carried my hopes and dreams with every race she ran. That year I’d written a novel, found an agent, and I was filled to the brim with excitement for the future. I poured a lot of that energy into Rachel. I’d be practically vibrating with anxiety as they loaded her into the gate, I wanted her to win so badly. She never let me down in 2009. She ran a perfect season and won Horse of the Year.

California Chrome was different. Even though I saw and believed, as the Derby got closer I listened to reports that he wasn’t settling well, that his gallops weren’t strong at Churchill Downs. Later, after the Derby, I saw some video of his first day at Churchill and those negative reports were greatly exaggerated. He walked off the track with a beautifully relaxed, swinging walk, and if the walk is swinging, then everything’s good.

Maybe if I’d seen footage, instead of just reading about his time at Churchill, I wouldn’t have lost faith in the horse. But I did. Or rather, I transferred my hopes onto my sister’s account. My sister Becky boldly predicted he’d win by open lengths. She never lost hope or her enthusiasm. So I took to thinking, “I hope he wins for Becky.” I wanted her faith to be rewarded.

Perhaps the most admirable thing about my sister, and certainly her most magical quality, is her capacity for hope. She’s experienced challenges in life, like everybody else on earth, but unlike a lot of people, unlike myself, she can still throw her heart into something without reservation. I wish I was like that, too.

A few months ago, I was out with a couple of comedy friends, including a fellow named Camilo Potes. Camilo was 23 at the time, so it seemed reasonable to ask him what his hopes and dreams were for the future. He said he wanted to be a comedy writer, which didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me was when he asked me the same question. I demurred, not wanting to answer. He kept asking, saying, “You’re one of the most ambitious people I know, surely you have hopes and dreams.” Little did my good buddy Camilo know, I was about a half a second away from losing it. My hope and dream bank is pretty empty these days.

It seems strange, even to me. In this last year, my wildest hopes and dreams from 2009 came true. I’ve had a great time doing stand-up. I’m working on about a million projects that I enjoy immensely. I have more freedom in my day-to-day life than anybody else I know and I enjoy that freedom A LOT. I like living alone A LOT. I am blessed with a bevy of wonderful friends and a great family. But my life is a life lived firmly in the present. I do not think about the future. AT ALL. I do not fantasize about things I hope will happen. I do not imagine what my life might look like tomorrow, let alone years down the road.

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Battle Damage He-Man. Three levels of damage, one action figure!

When I was a kid, I loved He-Man. I had a huge He-Man collection, including Castle Grayskull and Snake Mountain. (Again, God bless my parents for letting me be me.) The one thing I didn’t have was the real He-Man. You couldn’t find the original version at toy stories. Instead, I had Battle Damage He-Man. He wore a breastplate and if you turned his arm dents would appear. More and more dents for every turn of the arm. I loved my He-Man figures so much, but I didn’t like Battle Damage He-Man. I wanted clean, pristine, undamaged iconic He-Man.

So, here’s the thing. I’ve written a lot about my divorce on this blog, largely in positive terms. Certainly, my life post-divorce is much better than it was pre-divorce. Evan and I have gone through this process as kindly as possible. We are still friends, and without a doubt, living in honesty is a million times better than living in the anxiety of falsehood.
But divorce – and perhaps more specifically still, all that leads up to divorce – constitutes a lot of turns of the arm, to use the parlance of Battle Damage He-Man. I have a lot of dents, my friends, a lot of dents. But it’s okay. You all do, too. We all have dents. Lots and lots of dents.

That said, I do think it’s hard for a lot of people to wrap their mind around. I do not think I appear particularly dented and there are a lot of ways in which I’m doing great. I mean, hey, just check out my Facebook wall. Nothing but glorious victories, you guys. But that is Facebook. And this is my blog, where ish gets real and the reality is far more complex.

I believe the problem is not the dents themselves, but rather, the temptation to believe that the dents disqualify us from that which we most need. They do not. I know the people who read this blog. I know you to be beautiful people who both love and are worthy of being loved. Just as you are. Dents and all.

Saturday

Today is Saturday. Specifically, the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter.

I had no appreciation for this date until I started going to The Good Shepherd, where a huge emphasis was placed on the Easter Vigil. It was drilled into my head that Easter Vigil was far more important than Easter Mass, an idea I accepted unquestioningly. The Good Shepherd is in Beverly Hills. There’s a lot of money there, and at Easter the entire sanctuary would be festooned in flowers. It looked like something out of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and smelled like heaven. I had mixed feelings about this – it felt like a waste of resources, but at the same time – it was so lovely, and so lovely to experience, it was hard to resent it too much. Easter Vigil was a dark, quiet affair, lasting until midnight. There was a lot I liked about the service. It wasn’t comfortable. It wasn’t meant to be comfortable. It was long. It required patience and reflection. At the very end, we each received a lit candle – a reward for our long, dark wait.  Those little lights in the vast darkness felt like hope. And so they were – a flickering promise of Easter morning.

Here’s the thing.

So many of us spend our life living this Saturday wait.

There are our Good Fridays – days where we experience trauma and loss – and then there are our Easter mornings – days of celebration, days where our impossible hopes are made real in the world. But for many of us, our lives are spent in Saturday, coping with the fallout from Good Friday, never reaching Easter morning.

Personally, I believe we reach Easter morning by surrendering to God’s plan for us, whatever that might be. By going with the current of His will, instead of swimming against it with our own plans. Very often, what God wants for us is to be bigger, braver, bolder than what we are. We swim against the current by making ourselves smaller, by surrendering to fear, by not having faith in the idea that we were all wonderfully made. One of my favorite verses is in Matthew: Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

Here’s the other thing.

I have spent a lot of my life living the Saturday wait. I don’t have life figured out – not by a long shot – but I will say I’m not waiting anymore. The difference is profound. To be fair, it would be massively hypocritical for me to claim any credit for the change. The turning points in my life were wholly outside of my control (my divorce, the sell of my book), and even though I recognized those turning points as opportunities, I still struggle to embrace the freedom I have to live my life fully realized. Nobody understood this curious desire to succumb to the darkness of the Saturday wait better than Dostoyevsky, who wrote, “Man is tormented by no greater anxiety than to find someone quickly to whom he can hand over that great gift of freedom with which the ill-fated creature is born.” What can I say? Change is hard. Tossing aside our crutches is hard. Keeping the faith is hard. It’s hard work to live as our authentic selves. But it’s worth it to be brave, let go, and let God.

Happy Easter and peace be with all of you.

Of Hope and Horses

The photo that started it all. Rachel Alexandra in the Martha Washington Stakes.

In 2009, I saw a photo of a horse. Her name was Rachel Alexandra. She was beautiful and had unusual markings, but that wasn’t what caught my eye. What made me take notice was the explosive energy contained in the photo. Rachel’s stride was so powerful, her entire forehand was launched into the air, almost as if she was rearing. That sometimes happens in the first quarter of a race. What made this so remarkable is that the photo was snapped as Rachel turned for home, when most horses are tiring. I instantly thought something, conjured up a word that I’ve never thought before or since – Secretariat. I watched the race that the still photo was taken from. I got goosebumps. Here is the Martha Washington Stakes.

Comparing a horse to Secretariat is the kiss of death. There will never be another one like him. Certainly Rachel wasn’t. She was, in my humble opinion, something even better – she was Rachel Alexandra. Not possessed of the same superpowers as Big Red, perhaps, but possessed of superpowers all her own. The great sportswriter Bill Nack once said of Secretariat, “We expected so much from him, and then he exceeded our expectations.”

That quote has lived with me in a powerful way. Firstly, it is the perfect summation of Secretariat, who became a superstar in 1973, something pure and decent that a cynical and embittered nation, dealing with Nixon, could hang their hat upon. The country expected so much of him, and then he delivered the 1973 Belmont, a supernatural performance. Secondarily, that quote sums up something important about life. How often does it happen that we allow ourselves to hope as big as we can imagine, and then reality replies, “No, dream bigger.”

A good friend of mine, who we horsey folk call Wooster, is my comrade-in-arms in horse racing fandom. Together, we rooted on Smarty Jones, at every turn saying, “Of course, because I love him, he will inevitably break my heart.” Which he did. Smarty’s Belmont was the most heartbreaking loss I’ve ever seen. But that was after taking us on an improbable fairy tale ride through the Triple Crown season.

Secretariat. There will never be another stride like that one.

I loved Smarty Jones and jumped on the bandwagon fairly quickly, but all the way I had my doubts. I was hopeful, but not fully committed to the cause. I worried about his ability to get the distance, his ability to settle, etc.

The moment I saw that still photo of Rachel, I was a believer. She made me hope as big as I could hope – but the reality was, I needed to dream even bigger. I came to expect so much from her, and then she exceeded my expectations. She was my own Secretariat.

Throughout 2009, Rachel was unbeaten. Some of her races took tremendous heart – she did not like the surface at Pimlico, had to go fast early, but still won the Preakness Stakes, becoming the first filly to do so since 1924. Her final race of the year, the Woodward, against older males, was no fun for me to watch. It took everything she had to win that race. Afterwards, she was exhausted, leg weary. She had made history in that race – no three year old filly had ever beaten older males in top competition in New York – but it broke her. During her time off between the 2009 and 2010 seasons, I started to hear rather terrifying reports of how her new trainer Steve Asmussen was handling her. Basically, she was just on stall rest. For months. Not injured. But they were so paranoid something would happen to her, she got no turn out. A hard horse to handle in the best of times, she was hand walked drugged out of mind on ACE. I stopped hoping for more miracles out of Rachel. Not because the horse was any less miraculous, but because her owner, Jess Jackson, was a crazy person and her trainer, Steve Asmussen, is the worst. Always has been, always will be. If Jess Jackson had kept her with her original trainer, the not-at-all-famous but genuinely great horseman Hal Wiggins, I have no doubt Rachel would have put together two sterling seasons. Wow. That was 2009, and I’m still angry.

I’m going to keep ranting, though. Her original owner, Dolphus Morrison, sold her the day she won the Kentucky Oaks. Here’s something I’ll never understand. You’re an old, rich man. Your horse does this, WINNING THE OAKS BY 21 LENGTHS, and then crazy person Jess Jackson comes up and says, “Hey, rich old man. Do you want more millions of dollars? I’d like the horse you named after your granddaughter.” And Dolphus apparently said, “You know what, with those millions of dollars, I bet I could buy an amazing life experience! Maybe I could buy an incredible racehorse or something like that.” If you’re already a millionaire and you’re not that long for the world, why do you need MORE money? What could you possibly buy that’s better than what you already have? Also, if you want to give it to your grandkids, here’s a tip – they can make their own cash and the most important thing you can pass on is the idea that there are things more valuable than money.

You know who knows that lesson? The owners of California Chrome, this year’s favorite for the Kentucky Derby. They’ve already turned down $6 million for him. They’re not rich people. They’re working class folks who bought a cheap mare, bred her to a cheap stallion, and BOOM! their first horse ever – California Chrome. The name of their racing stable is DAP Racing, which stands for Dumb Ass Partners. Apparently, the groom who took care of the cheap mare told them, “Anyone who buys this mare is a dumb ass.” They decided she needed to be with some people who would appreciate her. The mare, Love the Chase, has richly rewarded their good faith.

California Chrome pricks his ears forward as he wins a race. A sign of a smart horse who loves his job.

Two days before Love the Chase had her foal, her owner had a dream that she would have a coppery chestnut colt with a ton of white markings. Lots of white is referred to as “chrome” in the horse world, so the man came up with the name, “California Chrome” before the colt was even born. When he was still very young, they wrote to Art Sherman, a 77 year old veteran trainer and said, “We have your Derby horse.” Art thought their enthusiasm was adorable in a sarcastic sort of way, but was still willing to take their money. As it turns out, the Dumb Ass Partners knew what they were talking about. They always believed in Junior, as they call him.

The first time I saw California Chrome was much like the first time I saw Rachel. I watched him run and it was an unqualified yes. Yes, this horse was special. Yes, he could get a distance. Yes, he had the mind, the athleticism, and the heart. It’s so, so rare for all of these things to come together. I’ve been following horse racing my entire life and those special horses don’t even take up one hand.

When he first appeared on the scene, Wooster and I compared notes. We had both fallen in love with California Chrome. We agreed that this would inevitably lead to disappointment, because that’s what we always say.

Here’s the thing about great horses – they force you to hope anyway. Even jaded ol’ racetrackers like Wooster and myself, who have been let down a million times over. They force you to hope, to dream big. Once in a blue moon, they come back and say, “You’re not dreaming big enough.” That’s what California Chrome said in the Santa Anita Derby, where I expected him to regress after destroying four races in a row. Instead of regressing, he did this.

This June I will be at the Belmont Stakes with my family. It’s the first time any of us have ever been to a Triple Crown race. We bought tickets before I had ever watched California Chrome race. The Kentucky Derby hasn’t even been run yet, but this horse is making me hope anyway. Sometimes, as with Rachel’s perfect season, what is inevitable is a dream come true.

****

For no real reason, I want to share some pictures of Secretariat’s stride. Because it is freakish and supernatural and mind blowing. All of these pics are from the Preakness, where he set yet another new record, but the clock malfunctioned and he didn’t get credit for it.

LOOK HOW FAR ABOVE THE GROUND HE IS. HE IS FLYING. IT'S NOT NATURAL.

***

LOOK AT THE EXTENSION. THAT IS INSANE.

***

IT'S LIKE HE'S REARING. IT'S CRAZY.

Ruthless Reality Check

You know what this is? This is you, at the beach, reading Ruthless, one year from now.

Earlier today, I caught up with a blog I haven’t read in some time. It’s an author’s blog, one I used to read religiously back in the day. “Back in the day” is code for, before I sold a book, before I got an agent, before I’d finished my first novel. It’s a popular blog – a lot of aspiring writers follow it. Today, the author wrote about the struggles of being a writer. Although she did not use these words, the message was that the reality of being a writer can be a bitter pill to swallow. She wrote about making very little money, about how it’s very rare to sell to one of the Big 5 publishing houses, so on and so forth.

As I read the blog, I felt a sinking sensation. Namely, I have not spent enough time in gratitude for my good fortune. It’s not that I wasn’t grateful right off the bat, but I have a “now onto the next” personality. I’m always looking toward the horizon. Not a bad thing, necessarily – I think it lends itself toward getting a good bit done – but it can also lead to a shallowness of appreciation.

Just in case I missed the point, I sent an email to my editor, letting him know I’d be in NYC starting June 4th. He wrote back saying he couldn’t meet with me that day, because he would be busy promoting my book at Summer ’15 Launch, but that he’d love to meet with me the following day. Here’s the honest truth – I am egotistical and vain enough that the idea of people promoting my book, without me even being there, is, like, the coolest thing ever. I mean, HOW FUN IS THAT? HOW LUCKY AM I? Answers: Amazingly fun, amazingly lucky.

Then, I went on a walk in the woods with my dogs. It’s the first hot day of 2014. That means summer is almost here. That means my book comes out a year from now. Maybe a year and some change, but essentially, one year from now, and all of this will become very real indeed. It’s time to start promoting RUTHLESS, which will be an interesting learning curve for me, given it’s something I’ve never done before. I suspect it shall be tremendous fun, given my love of promoting projects. Granted, I am used to promoting shows, other comics, parties; always under the heading, “You should do this because it’s so fun!” RUTHLESS is far more personal and I don’t know if “Fun!” would be its leading descriptor. It is a fo’ real thriller, though, so – close enough to fun? Anyway, I’m sure I’ll figure it out.

In any case, I can’t wait to learn my publishing date, because I am going to be throwing the biggest party I’ve ever thrown – and all y’all are invited.

The Falcon, The Bridge & The Return of Ben LeRoy

There’s this guy I know named Nick Shaheen. Nick is a stand-up comedian. He’s the kinda guy who collects nicknames. The Godfather, The Falcon, Game of Shaheen, Nick of Thrones. Sometimes he wears a Members Only jacket. Sometimes there is a sleeve of Fireball mini bottles in the interior pocket of that Members Only jacket. The last time he hosted and I performed was on Valentine’s Day. After my set, he told the crowd that I was easy and they should buy me shots at the bar. It was funny because Nick knows I’m not and also because I got two free shots at the bar.

Nick Shaheen at Tent City. Antonio chooses to live up here instead of down below. It is quieter, safer, more protected.

Nick is also the guy who reached out to  the comedy community when Moo-Moo got leukemia, arranged a hospital visit and stay connected. So it didn’t surprise me when The Falcon suggested we put on a benefit for Greenville’s Tent City, or, as the residents refer to it, “Under the Bridge.” Along with our friend Tom, we threw out ideas as to how a comedy benefit might work, but it was a busy time for everybody and the conversation stayed just that.

A couple of weeks later, on March 3rd, I got an email out of nowhere from the inimitable Ben LeRoy. The subject line was sort of Pink Floydian (Are you out there?) but once I opened it, things took a turn for the Liam Neeson (Where are you?). (Answer: I was in my parents’ house filming exit interviews for a reality show. You know, typical Monday afternoon.) A few minutes later, Ben called and told me about Be Local Everywhere. Over the course of 2014, Ben is volunteering in all 50 states. He said, “You’re in charge of South Carolina. So, what are we doing?”

I paused, Ben mentioned an emphasis on homelessness, and BOOM! The Falcon’s idea returned to me. I pitched the under the bridge benefit to Ben, he loved it, and we were set for March 30th – the day Ben would be in South Carolina.

With only 27 days to organize, Shaheen and I hit the ground running. So far, we’ve been incredibly fortunate with how things have come together. Jason Fletcher, who owns High Street Hospitality, donated the use of a beautiful venue, The Loft at Falls Park. (South Carolina people, may I encourage you to go feast at The Green Room, Sip or Ford’s Oyster House?) Jason’s event coordinator, Candy, is volunteering her time to help us set up. The bartender, too, is a volunteer.

We needed comics who could commit to the date on the spot, and we were lucky to get a great line-up, with Tom Emmons, Shivani Nadarajah and Cary Goff. For the purposes of this event, we are claiming North Carolinian Cary as one of our own. (Asheville, Greenville, all ends in Ville…close enough, right? Much more importantly, Cary is a great comic who was on board with the mission.)

Yesterday, Shaheen and I paid a visit to Tent City to get a lay of the land. I spent most of my time talking to a man named Antonio. He lives in a wood shelter, maybe eight by three, kept neat and clean. He was reading when we got there and books lined the walls. Soft-spoken, articulate, intelligent, Antonio answered my questions about Tent City with candor. I wanted to ask him, “How did you end up here?” and “Why have you been here so long?” But I kept the conversation pragmatic.

The majority of the people live on the level ground beneath the bridge.

Nick, who had been taking photos, wandered back our way. After a little more conversation, Antonio asked Nick if he’d like to take pictures of his place. It was obvious he very much wanted his place photographed, but the question was quiet, hesitant, a request from a man used to disappointment. Nick told him he didn’t have a flash and therefore couldn’t capture the interior, but quickly added, “I can take pictures of you, though.” This pleased Antonio. When Nick raised his camera to take the shot, Antonio posed, lifting his open book and gazing upon the pages.

Antonio wanted the photo to be of him reading.

What better way to lay claim to his dignity as a human being than to be seen reading a book? Antonio is a smart man. A smart man who loves books. I want to help him and the other people who live under the bridge. I hope you do, too.

Join us Sunday, March 30th, 7:30pm at The Loft at Falls Park. Tickets are $25. To purchase tickets or make a donation go to: www.UnderTheBridgeBenefit.com