"Racetrack Meditation" works quite well as a stand alone short story, though it's taken from Peter Weissman's second metamemoir, Digging Deeper: A Memoir of the Seventies. In this self-deprecating, humorous piece on what goes on inside the racetrack bettor's mind (or at least in one racetrack bettor's mind) we see a mind tapping into its Jewish mystical roots and hippie-era magical thinking, while simultaneously attempting to empty his mind along Buddhist sensibilities, all in an effort to win the bet, to pick the right horse, to walk away from the racetrack richer. So, does tapping into his eclectic philosophy's mantras induce him to make the winning pick? Regardless, the story is a winning metaphor on just how damn difficult it is to make important decisions sometimes ...
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"RACETRACK MEDITATION" by Peter Weissman
click on the image to buy the book
"RACETRACK MEDITATION" by Peter Weissman
On Check Day, after delivering the ghetto routes, I’d drive the half-ton truck away from those streets, looking for a deserted spot where I wouldn’t be bothered while eating lunch. Beneath a leafy tree would have been nice, but finding one in the flatlands wasn’t easy, so I’d usually settle for a slant of shade cast by a warehouse near the docks, eat my sandwich in the truck, and peruse the bulk mail left in the tray, mainly the distinctive fund-raising appeals from Reverend Ike and his ilk: Sleep with this piece of prayer shawl and cure hives, blisters, warts, and otherwise blemished skin. “From Reverend Broom, Palace of the Swept Clean, Odessa, Texas; and Pastor Love, Oklahoma City Chapel of Hope; and Giddings Birdsong, Locator, Healer, Fortune Teller: Place this piece of blessed cloth under your pillow, sleep on your faith, and your loved one will surely stop drinking, whoring, philandering, stealing … Bind this bracelet to your wrist and ward off arthritis, rheumatism, and impure thoughts … “
With well-planned precision, these inducements to God always arrived on the same day as the checks: “Don’t waste that money on drugs and demon liquor; send it here!” And having purposely put those bundles aside, I would later sneak them into my car, take them home, and, no matter how hot it was, burn them in the fireplace, which otherwise went unused. It hardly made the job tolerable, but at least, once a month, I felt socially redeemed.
Yet I had something in common with the flock I rescued from charlatan appeals, for I was looking for answers too. It had gotten to the point that I’d become my own holy roller, believing that horses, of all things, might rescue me from the job I hated. Like many of my carrier colleagues, I’d rush to the track to catch the last three races after work—admission free, courtesy of the racetrack management—the blue-gray uniforms entitling us to special respect. Only this was my day off, and here I was again, bent on outwitting the hoi polloi, the other pie-in-the-sky plungers (whose checks I might have saved from Reverend Ike), to turn gambling into a sure thing, make a bundle, and not have to work like a draft horse anymore.
In truth, my detour to the track only made my life less profitable. After losing a modest sum—for in truth I was more cautious than the typical full-fledged gambler—I’d finger the anonymous bills left in my pocket when I got home, loath to take them out and look at the revealing denominations. Knowing I’d lost, again, I wanted to believe I’d done no worse than breaking even. And when I eventually did take out the singles and fives, which had been tens and twenties when I left work, I’d crumple the bills beyond easy recognition while tossing them on the dresser, then quickly turn away to do more significant things, the specifics of which eluded me in retrospect.
Thus, out of desire and self-delusion, did my racetrack meditations begin.
That, and the benign astrological aspect of planets that happened to bring me a downtown route one day and a bookstore bin where I came upon an esoteric work, a primer titled How to Win at the Track. Curious, I purchased it, and that night encountered the following in the very first chapter:
Count your money before you get to the track and again when
you leave. Don’t shove those crinkled bills into a drawer. Spread
them out on the bureau and take a good look. Face facts.
Imagine my amazement. A spiritual guide written, published, and discarded in a bin—three for a buck—with me in mind. It seemed divine intervention.
Following its counsel, I faced up to what I’d secretly known all along, and thus attracted further truths I’d avoided: that I wasn’t superior to the racetrack bunglers I’d thought to outwit. My losses, clearly seen, told me I was as benighted as everyone else.
Thus humbled, I found myself capable of picking an occasional winner.
I don’t recall the name of that first winning horse, perhaps because it instantly became the vehicle to a greater reward, having kept me alive in the daily double. But I recall the second winner, Bold Venture, thundering down the homestretch, fairly flying like Pegasus over the dirt track, leaving the field farther behind with each enormous stride, crossing the finish line a good five lengths in front, securing a $67.60 double.
If before I’d been lost, wandering the track after work, ineffectual, overwhelmed by the certainties of bettors I overheard citing pedigree and weight, jockey and distance; unable to locate an internal logic of my own, betting wildly with the odds or against them, resorting to astrology and omen, at one point finding myself scouring the cement infield for impossible, discarded winning tickets, like the lowest of the low in the racetrack pecking order, now that I actually calculated the results when I got home, I held a valid claim to win. And even when I lost, felt bigger, if not better.
Having thus done the prep work of accepting monetary reality for what it was, I embarked on a deeper, meditative path: to observe myself while handicapping the horses; in order to make money, of course, while at the same time achieving spiritual transcendence.
If you find equating gambling with self-knowledge sacrilegious, what can I say? God is everywhere; in location, method, and revelation. On a picturesque ocean shoreline, in the recesses of a pristine forest, even in a traffic jam on the freeway. (Pastor Love used a version of this line of thinking before trotting out his list of miraculous cures.) You can stare at a spot on a wall to lose your identity; visualize a topaz sky overlooking pastoral green meadows to affect a mood, while breathing deeply; chant a Sanskrit phrase until your head swims in similitude of what some consider transcendence. Or meld your mind with appearance, situation, and circumstance, and abstract the numerical properties of an animal in confronting the Golgotha that is the fifth race.
Why the fifth? Because puffy clouds mass in the pale sky over the Berkeley Hills in the distance, and it seems that a palpable penates of the track hovers nearby, perhaps in response to my modest success so far. Which is to say that at the moment, I’m breaking even, coasting on the ebb and flow of things, feeling optimistic but not euphoric. I’m in balance.
And why not the fifth? One race is pretty much like any other, when you get right down to it.
Ten horses are listed: one out of competition too long, two slated to run an unfamiliar distance, three hopelessly beaten their last few times out, four that can conceivably win today. I’ve come to this conclusion after studying past performances in the Racing Form, applying certain mathematical principles from How to Win at the Track, and weighing these facts, figures, and a set of assumptions with the arbiter of common sense, which bears careful scrutiny, lest it mislead with extraneous influences.
A few grandstand seats away, a disheveled character seemingly roughed up by fate sits with a pink tout sheet in hand. Seeing me glance at him, he grins, revealing discolored teeth, and says, “The four horse is the class of this race, right?” while gesturing at the dirt oval.
A question hidden in an assertion. A wishful statement seeking confirmation.
The usual crushing feeling of inadequacy in proximity to craven neediness courses through me. What can I say to alleviate his suffering? I don’t know which horse will win this race … though I now suspect that the four horse won’t.
I look at my Racing Form, notice that it’s among my four possibilities, and boldly delete it.
Which leaves three horses. Two are front-runners, and one prefers to storm from well off the pace with the kind of finishing kick that brings the crowd—and me—to its feet in a screaming pitch.
And therein lies what seems my greatest meditative obstacle in this race: the clash between cool, unsentimental analysis, which doesn't bog down in style configurations; and personal inclination, which does.
It’s difficult to see the indiscriminate nature of our personal affections. Books, movies, and music that make an impression; familiar language and mannerism; particular people, places, and recollected ambience that render certain moments memorable, and then influential; habits, predilections, convictions, opinions. Were I as indifferent to the past as the unlikely buddha who’d come to a racetrack on his day off to parlay enlightenment with a modest bet, I would have no such attachments. Indeed, I try to be this blank slate, and at times even succeed. But more often nostalgia and sentiment color my thoughts, and all I can do to prevent them from attaching me to a Rorschach horse is observe the cloying influences, in order to set them firmly aside.
So now I study my three possible winners, and focusing first on the one I know I'd like to see win, disclaim personal interest in Attachment, the horse who comes from behind. Is this ostentatious disclaimer a trick of the mind, a pirouette around the long held belief that my intelligence and abilities were for so long misunderstood? And is the rejection thus as much of an attachment as embracing the animal would be? That is, has it led me to oppose a horse out of the same biases that attract me to it? Have I actually disengaged, seen this horse (and myself) for what it is, or through overcompensation short-shrifted the animal?
I’m not sure …
Stick to facts, I tell myself, while noting the colt’s unimpressive pedigree—its mother an honest slogger, its father a hardworking claimer—and trying not to commiserate with its prodigal history: it won its first race eight months ago, after dropping into low claiming company following several dismal performances (not unlike me in junior high school), then showed flashes of brilliance, hit the board in a couple of races and climbed into somewhat respectable company, where it finds itself today.
This Attachment intrigues me; I can’t deny it. But I also know that were I to bet it over a more likely winner, and were he to lose, my choice would taunt me afterward, and might even prove they were right to drop me into my own lowly company in the middle school cauldron of assessment.
It’s a roundelay of attraction and repulsion that leads nowhere … and squanders energy. Yes, it helps to remember that. We are what we eat—a hot dog at the track always leaves me dull, with a nitrate hangover, and not thinking clearly—but we’re also the disbursement of our thoughts, which, overdone, can induce dullness as well. And from this realization—about the need to husband my energy—comes the sword-stroke question that cuts through subjective confusion: Can this Attachment kick hard enough in the final furlong to pass the front-runners and win the race? That’s the point here, after all, since I’m looking to make a few bucks.
I stare at the mass of notations I’ve made on the newsprint page. The answer is as obvious as it ever gets: No.
Well, I think, probably not, and decide to more closely examine the other two before reconsidering this one I am all but certain will not win.
The pace-setting horses are a toss-up, so far as I can see. One likes to lead the field, the other to stalk the leader, and there’s nothing significant to separate them … until, looking up at the animals that have been led onto the oval by their jockeys, I see the stalker prance on its toes, head high, ears perked … and looking directly at me, which triggers a primitive connection. With the harmonic fluidity of elements I like to think are parts of a whole, his name jumps off the page when I glance down: Imtheone.
Undoubtedly. With sudden, absolute assurance, I cross off the other front-runner, Candoo; no, not today you can’t. I have my horse.
(Note, however, that I have not yet boldly slashed the come-from-behind Attachment from the page with similar certainty.)
Out of habit, I continue to handicap for a while, calculating, making notes, factoring in the imponderables of track condition and jockey; double-checking. And meanwhile another factor enters, which shouldn’t matter now that I have my choice, but in fact does: Time. There is always too much or too little of it.
I first came upon this inexorable reality after the initial charm of the track dissipated, in concurrence with my losses. It was a period during which I could find nothing attractive about the place, and wondered how I ever had. Between the high rollers who arrived at the clubhouse entrance in limousines, and the more obviously depraved losers who rooted about the littered infield after the last race, looking for redeemable tickets; between such equally meaningless extremes and the dungeon innards of the grandstand, where feverish last minute calculation and unwarranted hopefulness fermented before each race—it seemed something spiritual had to be at play. For God was supposed to be everywhere, even a place as awful as this.
I realized then, as I pondered the figures in the Racing Form, the track condition, jockeys, trainers, odds, and all the rest, that it was impossible to gather every last, conclusive bit of information before making a choice. There wasn’t enough time. A corollary presented itself, a back door to the spirituality I was seeking: to grasp the essentials in time to act, all distraction in the twenty or so minutes between each race had to be eliminated, or at least ignored. One had to suspend time as long as possible, had to be in the moment, every moment; a paradoxical eternity, existing in Time as if timeless, before sidling up to the betting window to cash in, so to speak, on the fruits of this meditation.
And now this invisible colossus was there with me as I stood on line beneath the grandstand, waiting to place my bet. Time. It was silent at the moment, but right there, beside me. Keep it in mind.
A tote board suspended from the high ceiling is visible from every spot in the concrete interior. There are totes, in fact, throughout the track, winking and flirting with the would-be-wise bettor; every bet relayed to a central computer and fed back to the crowd; a state-of-the-art polling operation, never more than two minutes out of sync, reflecting the perfect democracy, making this one 5-2, that one 8-1, as bettors vote with their money. Exact opinion results on every horse; yet one is prone to believe more, because we live in essential uncertainty, and when enough people express an opinion, the average, totemic, all-too-human individual posits a false god of cumulative prediction. That’s why Kierkegaard railed against public opinion, believing we’d all be better off not knowing what everyone thinks they believe. Yet, as one among the all-too-human, I was capable of being influenced by the tote as well, even now, with my carefully chosen fifth-race horse.
There’s too much time, you see. I should have eschewed my habitual double-checking after reaching a conclusion and gone to the betting window right away.
Beneath the grandstand, waiting on line, bills clutched in my hand, I peruse the odds on one of the ubiquitous tote boards … and see that Imtheone is 4-1, a respectable price, and Attachment 7-1, a longer shot—as it should be, I remind myself. Curious (while killing time), I check the Form again, review my scrawled calculations, stare fixedly at the stats for Imtheone in order to recapture that moment of absolute clarity in which I’d made my choice. Of course no bells ring this time. They only ring once; after that you’re on your own.
Time is beginning to undo me. Things are not as clear as they once were.
Someone in the next line over says to someone else: “The price is kinda high on this one that comes off the pace. He gets a good start, maybe he can do it … “
A detail I’ve long since considered, reconsidered, and rejected. The come-from-behind horse never gets a good start; that’s why he has to come from behind. But now, as the line creeps toward the window, too slowly, I wonder if perhaps this time he might finally get a decent start, and whether I might not have rejected the come-from-behind horse too quickly. Did I underestimate him by overreacting to my innate bias in his favor? The thought had occurred to me earlier …
Again I check the Form, with prissy care (which is not like me at all), as if nothing I concluded before can be trusted. But in truth I’m being less careful now, inhibiting the usual, discursive way I operate in order to examine minutiae with the concentration of a scholar, which I never was, even when I wanted to be. And a bad scholar at that, seeking his preconceptions in the text. And still I can’t find the pilpul in my talmudic analysis to justify switching from my rational choice to my sentimental one.
Close to the window now, I notice through the smoky gloom that Imtheone is down to 3-1, Attachment up to 8-1, a set of figures I can’t shrug off in my time-weakened state. I’m losing it; no question.
To hold back the chaos of Doubt, and the seduction of his cousin, Expectation, my old hippie self falls back on magical thinking; legacy of the dark days when I was consumed by wishfulness. In present circumstances it takes the form of gematria, the kabbalistic numerology of the Middle Ages, which I’ve read a bit about, which inform me that a winning ten-dollar bet on my rational choice, Imtheone, at 3-1, will put me forty bucks ahead, and, with four races left in the day, guarantee that I’ll break even.
On the other hand, a win on Attachment, at 8-1, will put me up ninety bucks and guarantee that I’ll leave the track with at least fifty dollars in my pocket, no matter what happens in the remaining races.
Yet even as the greater payoff entices me, my recent calculations that a bet guaranteeing break-even accord with the proper tao for this midpoint race: that the race upon which my karmic day hinges should have no gain-loss result better than, more perfect than, zero.
This hippie gibberish comforts me somewhat, ameliorates me to a choice I made for a much better reason long ago. With one bettor now between me and the window, I’ve managed to steel myself against the come-from-behind prodigal colt, the novelist who begins writing late in life and breaks through nonetheless, the artist who works as a bank teller and becomes Gauguin. I’ve gotten myself to the point of making the right bet; to pick the actual, present-day winner. Once more I’m sure of it.
And then I’m at the window, staring at a clerk behind scuffed plexiglass. His nose is bulbous and red; no doubt from ruptured, alcoholic capillaries. I know guys like him in the post office—they develop deadline ulcers, drink too much, too often get heart attacks. This clerk’s face is fleshy, gray, stubbled, with tired eyes. The unlit stump of a cigar protrudes from the side of his mouth, the continual demands of the job keeping his hands too busy to relight it.
In an instant every obstacle I’ve encountered up till now was nothing compared to this guy’s sorry, overworked puss. And from far away I hear a hopeful voice intoning the logic of the long shot. It’s the voice of a congregant of the Reverend Broom, who would sweep us clean; of a time-clock worker who hates his job.
It’s my voice, and it’s saying: “Ten to win on Attachment.”