Writing From the Right Side of the Stall

Carefully curated musings (um, okay, rants) about the writing life, horses, bitterness and crushing career disappointment. Fun, right?

Archive for the category “careers”

I Stare At Dicks

Yup.  That’s my new job.anime stare

I do a lot of staring at dicks these days.  Not so much vulvas, because those are covered by tails as a rule until such time as a mare decides to lift said appendage and squat.

I stare at the dicks of geldings and colts, and the general nether regions of fillies and mares, because I am now a Test Inspector (if there were truth in advertising, I’d be more honestly designated a Pee Catcher) at Woodbine racetrack.  And you do need to catch the pee, every time.

Equine body language is something you need to be familiar with, if you’re going to work in the Test Barn.  In particular the very specific body language which says, “I’m about to pee”, but also the body language which might telegraph that you’re about to get kicked or savaged by a horse for whom urinating is the last thing on his mind.  (That has actually happened very rarely thus far, because I am working with Standardbreds, who for the most part are nice horses to work with, and the handlers generally warn me if that’s not the case.  I hear the risk factor with the Thoroughbreds is higher.)

penisesSo, yeah, the staring part is something of a necessity.  It’s not perving, though of course with a topic like this I am going to take every opportunity to insert (sorry) tasteless and juvenile JPGs throughout the text … honestly, I kind of have to, because the Test Barn is a security area, so I can’t actually take pictures of what goes on there.  Or consume beverages.  Or bring in my purse.  I start every shift by taking a breathalyzer test, because the results of the drug testing are quite serious and all of the interested parties would like all the Test Inspectors to be Not Shitfaced, Thanks Very Much.

But let’s back up a bit, and explain the OCD approach to urine.  All three varieties of horse racing (Thoroughbred, Standardbred, Quarter Horse) in Ontario are very tightly controlled when it comes to substance abuse.  It’s never really a level playing field because there are always some chemists out there who stay one step ahead of the folks developing tests for every new noxious brew that someone comes up with to enhance a racehorse’s performance … but the regulations are strict enough, and the penalties for a positive test serious enough, that it discourages the majority of players from trying (or at least that’s the hope).  It’s not just a matter of making wagering fair for the bettors; it’s also a matter of health and welfare for the horses.  The illegal performance-enhancing stuff has the potential to take its toll on the equine athletes who aren’t given a vote as to whether to be under its influence. 

Take EPO (erythropoietin), for example — a drug also rather famously abused by long-distance cyclists in the 1990s (oh, Lance, where have all our heroes gone?) —  which forces the body to massively increase its output of lancered blood cells.  That can have a short-term performance-enhancing effect, but it also turns the blood to sludge, which can have lethal consequences, especially for horses on the diuretic Lasix (furosemide).  It can also backfire into severe anemia since the immune system starts to recognize and destroy EPO-laden blood.  EPO is difficult to detect, and a test for its presence in horses wasn’t developed till around 2004, by which point several sudden deaths were suspected, but never proven, to have been caused by it. Once the test became available, EPO more or less disappeared from the backstretch.  (Though let’s not kid ourselves, it was probably just replaced by something newer and even tougher to detect.)

So the nuts and bolts of the drug testing program at Woodbine are this:  at the conclusion of every race, the winner, and one other horse chosen more-or-less at random by the paddock judges, are sent to the Test Barn, which occupies the far end of the Standardbred paddock to which all the horses ship in each afternoon prior to the start of the evening race card.  There, the horse’s handlers are informed of their rights by friendly people like me.  (There’s a little speech we have to recite.)  If the horse has had Lasix administered before the race (that’s another tightly controlled program, and every horse on Lasix has to be so declared in the racing program so it’s transparent to the bettors), then the vet tech on duty does a three-tube blood draw minutes after the race, in order to verify that the amount of the diuretic in the horse’s system is commensurate with the amount that was officially administered (otherwise, some people would be tempted to top up, to the detriment of the horse).   I act as a witness/helper for the blood draw, recording the horse’s freezemark tattoo from the right side of the neck, putting coded stickers on the blood vials, getting signatures from everyone, and packaging up the total sample to send off to a central lab for testing.

Then the handlers are allowed to finish stripping off harness, bathe their horses, give them water, and walk them cool if they choose.  They can’t leave the Test Barn, however, without providing a sample.  So at some point after horses and handlers go walkies, they enter a stall, under my supervision, and then we let the staring commence.  Along with whistling.  Most racehorses are trained to associate a continuous, repetitive whistle from their handlers horse to peewith camping out to pee (or at least that’s what we hope as we’re standing there looking expectant with our cups and sticks). 

The whistling’s kind of annoying, frankly, and I think the horses largely just roll their eyes at it, but it’s part of the drill.

Some horses oblige almost immediately when they’re provided with bedding in which to take a leak (most horses dislike peeing on a hard surface like the wash rack, because they tend to splash their legs).  Some have to have a roll in the bedding first.  Some fidget and paw.  Some walk in circles.  Some lick the walls.  Some eat the bedding.  Some fall asleep.  The routines vary quite a lot.  But the gist is that they have an hour, from the time they check in, to produce enough urine to fill my little cup half-way.  If that doesn’t happen, then the vet tech gets called back in and another blood draw is done.  These horses are used to being pincushions, so the blood draw isn’t that big a deal, but it does mean that the handler has by that point been stuck with my charming company for a solid hour and would probably like very much either to a) get back to whatever other horses she has to handle that night, or b) load up and go home already.  So peeing is always the preference.  

Catching the pee is, in itself, something of an art form.  A surprising number of horses are shy, and will shut down if you make a big move towards them. So you have to sort of sidle up against their flank and sneak-attack them rather than brandish your stick like a scimitar aimed at their tender bits.  Mares have a talent for flourishing their tails in exactly the right way to totally obscure your view of the pee-stream, while reacting very badly to your touching their tails to get them out of the way.  (Mares, of course, are divas and easily insulted.) The other night I had a gelding who had ‘run down’ on his hind ankles and was basically hamburger.  He clearly thought that squatting was gonna be a bad idea, so he did everything in his power to avoid Assuming The Position while trying valiantly to relieve himself. 

We’re not supposed to editorialize as to the condition or soundness of the horses we’re sampling, but I admit, sometimes it’s hard to keep one’s mouth shut (especially when the handler is royally pissed off at the trainer about it and is looking for someone with whom to commiserate).  One of the more common things we can sorta make the handlers aware of, though, is when we get a urine sample that’s very dark:  that usually means the horse has ‘tied up’ to some degree.  

To cut down on the mystery a bit, each horse hasA veterinarian takes a urine sample during the demonstration of a doping test for horses in a stable in Riesenbeck, Germany, 09 January 2013. The German National Anti-Soping Agency (NADA) and the German Olympic Committee for Equestrian Sport (DOKR) demons a card on file in a big, old-school desktop filing cabinet, describing in intricate hieroglyphics his or her past performance in the pee department.  I’m still learning to decipher the codes from the other Test Inspectors, so sometimes they’re not much help … but they do at least give you an idea of whether the horse is a superstar who’ll whizz up a storm for you within two minutes, or whether it’s gonna be a long fucking night, and whether he prefers shavings or straw, being held or being let loose, Bach or Bartok.  We pull the cards as soon as we hear from the paddock judges which horses are going to be sent our way, and add new apocryphal notations afterwards. 

So once I’ve got a sample, it’s a matter of labeling it, sealing it up (the cups are persnickety and tend to leak so you have to put the lids on just so, and I still struggle with dribbles), stripping off your nitrile gloves, getting a bunch more signatures, and filing the horse’s card.  Everything gets triple-checked, and then checked again at the end of the night before the samples are tucked into their coolers to be overnighted to the lab, and one lucky TI each night has to stay after school to do that.  I suspect that newbies get that duty disproportionately often, based on current evidence, but fair enough, I guess.

So, you know, as jobs go, I’ve done worse.  It’s less hard on the body than shoveling shit, and the evening hours suit my screwed-up circadian rhythms.  I’m still fucking up little details here and there, but as it gets to be more routine my comfort zone is improving.  And it might just tide me over, financially, this winter as my teaching gigs start to dry up (either because my students have no indoor arena, have an indoor but are wimping out anyway, or are buggering off to warmer climes for the duration).  Gawd knows the writing biz isn’t showing any signs of rebounding.  So here I am, pee-catching a couple nights a week.  And it’s okay.

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Bermudaful

DSC_6672I really had forgotten how much I love the place.

I’ve been lucky enough to have travelled to two places necessitating air travel this year — which is more than I’ve done in ages.  (The flying itself isn’t the lucky part, I hasten to add.  I hate airports as much as I ever did.  Foul, officious, inefficient, sterile, vexing places.)  Thanks to a contest win, I got to rat around Paris for a week back in April, poking my nose into every museum I could navigate to and subsisting on street crepes and croissants (which is a fine form of subsistence if you ask me) before returning to my ridiculously posh hotel room every evening.  I did all the de rigueur stuff: the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, Versailles, a tour boat up the Seine, stealing votive candles from Notre Dame (the ultimately ironic souvenir for an avowed atheist who nonetheless appreciates dramatic architecture, good acoustics, and gargoyles.  OMFG I love gargoyles).

You could send me back to Paris in a heartbeat.  I’m sure I could spend weeks more exploring the city and never get bored.

But there are some places that just get under your skin and worm their way into your soul in a way that even Paris can’t do for me.

A week ago I made my way back to Bermuda for the first time in a decade, a wedding invite clutched in my paw.  Bermuda and I go back a ways … in 1995, between jobs and feeling impoverished and aimless, I took a Bermudian acquaintance up on an offer to manage a little riding school on the island for a year.

Lee Bow Equestrian Centre is (was) in Devonshire, in the middle of the island, not far from the capitol city, Hamilton.  It had a 12-stall barn DSC_7020 john smiths bayand 16 school horses, a tack room full of cardboard-y World War II era pony saddles in which it was impossible for any child to establish a balanced position, a sand ring with a few jumps, and a clientele which was 80% local kids and 20% obese American tourists who all wanted to go out on trail rides and gallop on the beach.  (Bubble burster:  no horses allowed on the beaches in Bermuda.  Sorry, cowboys, Bermudians like their beaches pristine and manure-free.)

My boss was an asshole of staggering proportions (that’s a whole other blog post), the humidity in July and August was purgatorial (and here I thought I came from a humid part of the world), the roaches were the size of a Buick (funny, not a whisper about those in Fodor’s), I was allergic to some sort of mould in the tack room and my eyes swelled shut for two weeks, and I completely fell in love with Bermuda.

Because it’s stunning.

It’s not just the colours, though they’re saturated to the point of almost painful intensity.  Anyone who thinks pastels are kind of a weak, milque-toasty version of reality should spend a day or two tooling around Bermuda on a bike (moped), taking in the hillside groupings of houses in coral, bubblegum pink, turquoise, mint green, and lemon yellow, all with tiered white roofs (which serve as rainwater collectors, since there’s no fresh water on the island).  I’ve often thought that if Canadians took a similar approach, winter might not be so fucking depressing here.

Add to that an array of tropical plants — hibiscus so vigourous they chop it into bloody hedges (while I can barely keep one alive on my windowsill here in the Great White North), intensely poisonous but beautiful oleander bushes in various shades of cerise and white, poinciana trees aflame in the spring, jacaranda and jasmine, banana trees and rosemary that runs wild on the roadsides — and the smell of the ocean … well, hell, it’s sensory overload.

And of course the beaches are legendary.  I never was a ‘beach person’ before Bermuda, but I discovered that’s because Great Lakes beaches are ugly and the water’s cold and filthy.  Who knew.  A Bermuda beach, in contrast, is all silky pink sand, limestone rock formations, and an impossibly aquamarine sea.  Devoid of filth (and hoof prints) because they actually sweep the beaches on a daily basis.  And you’re never more than half a mile away from one.  Sweet.

Beaches alone don’t tend to hold my interest indefinitely, but fortunately Bermuda’s also pretty fascinating from a historical perspective.  With a colonization history dating back to the mid-1500s (initially, the Portuguese; the island was uninhabited prior to their arrival, so no indigenous peoples to squash and/or subjugate), and a number of very hysterical buildings several centuries old, there’s a fair bit to explore.  Also, forts.  Lots of ’em, all built at various times to defend the island’s strategic position out there on its own in the Atlantic, and well-preserved because, as it turns out, none of them were ever shot upon.

I could go on.  Suffice to say that some of the things I learned to love about Bermuda were:

* a summer that actually lasts long enough for you to settle in and get comfortable in it.  Canadians are a bit frantic about summer.  We have to try to cram all our summer stuff into eight short weekends, and so all the good stuff ends up in scheduling conflicts and we never really feel like we got our money’s worth.  In Bermuda, the temps are still warm and lazy in October, you can still stretch out on the beach and fry yourself, and socks aren’t really required till Christmas.

* zipping around the island on a bike — which is what the vast majority of people do.  Yes, there are cars (for locals only), taxis, buses, and small lorries of various configurations, but most of the traffic is of the two-wheeled persuasion.  The roads are narrow, winding, and sometimes steep, the speed limit is 40km/h, and while the tourist bikes are gutless 50cc pieces of shit, they are still way fun and make me hanker for a Vespa every time I come home.

* being out on the reef.  The first time I ever went snorkeling was in Bermuda, which is completely ringed by coral reef, not to mention about 800 shipwrecks resulting from people not navigating those reefs all that well.  (To be fair, the navigation remains bloody tricky.)   I was about 2 km offshore and the water was barely 10 metres deep … I remember ducking under the surface and thinking, “Whoa.  Fuck horses.  I’m just gonna spend the rest of my life with my face in the water and my ass in the air, looking at corals and pretty fish.”  Again, my native Great Lakes, by comparison, suck:  gimme a rainbow parrot fish over a lamprey or a diseased perch, any day.

* tree frogs.  These are petite little amphibians, not a lot bigger than your thumbnail, who peep incessantly all night.  Tourists find them distracting.  It’s possible I did too, the first week I was in Bermuda.  Every time I’ve returned, they have put me to sleep with a stupid smirk on my face.

* gombeys.  Because they’re weird.

DSC_6877 gombeys5The great thing?  All that stuff is still there.  With a few exceptions (the loss of that most venerable of Bermuda department stores, Trimingham’s, among them), the whole island has apparently been in a time warp since I was last there in 2003.  Of course I already knew that very little gets wiped out in Bermuda thanks to hurricanes — it’s not that the hurricanes don’t hit, because they bloody well do, but Bermudians figured out centuries ago that houses made of limestone (or, these days, cement blocks) generally don’t go anywhere even in gale-force winds.  Still, I was surprised how many of my favourite restaurants and little haunts were unchanged apart from the prices.

I only had five days on the island this time.  It wasn’t nearly enough.  But I figure I’m going to start lobbying my connections at the Bermuda Equestrian Federation to bring me down there next year as a schooling show judge.  There’s no way I’m leaving it another decade.

Age Before Beauty

Or is it pearls before swine?

My squeeze, who like me is one of those self-employed creative types who’d kind of like some steady employment that he doesn’t loathe to his very core, is convinced that we are both of an age where employers are no longer going to give us the time of day.

“We are doomed to beg for minimum wage grunt jobs for the rest of our miserable lives,” quoth he.  Or words to that effect.

And yeah, I have a tendency to detect a whiff of rampant ageism each time I find myself not even getting an interview for a job I’m ridiculously well-qualified for.  The whole resume thing is a bit of a Catch-22, of course … fresh out of school, you barely have enough experience in anything to fill up one page, and you end up having to fabricate shit, or at least try to put a fatuously important spin on inconsequential experiences such as pulling dandelions (entrepreneurship!), babysitting (leadership skills!), or finally passing organic chemistry (perseverance, follow-through, um … team-building?).  By the time you’ve reached my advanced state of decrepitude, the challenge is in paring it down to the essentials, cutting out the career detours and dead-ends, and keeping the damn thing to two pages, max.  (Though opinions differ on whether that is still a Rule.)

Is there an optimum zone for resumes?  Say, 33-35 years old, with some mileage under your belt but not so much that you have to take a machete to the CV just yet?  Probably, but at that age I wasn’t worried about my resume, because I was actually making an okay living as a freelancer and wasn’t all that attracted to the cube farm lifestyle.  Opportunity lost.

My current resume, on the advice of a 20-year-old career counselor at the local employment assistance centre, has had most of the dates erased.  It lists most of my significant jobs more-or-less in chronological order of their occurrence, but it doesn’t say when I was there or for how long.  This is a strategy which either cleverly conceals my age, or renders me a flake who can’t hold down a position for two minutes.  Jury’s out on that one.

The ageism thing is on my mind a) because it’s January, and I get maudlin like that, and b) because I had an extended chat with a headhunter … er, recruiter … the other day.  I explained some of my job search frustrations, and he was quick to assure me that I am, in fact, of a very attractive age for employers.  According to him, I am blossoming with experience, wisdom, and dependability, am still young enough to be adaptable, and have more freedom than my less-crinkled competition because my kids are now grown and have been thumped out of the nest.  (I didn’t bother to correct him on the kid thing, which has never been an issue for me.  Likely the only major life error I never made was having kids.)

Sounded really encouraging, but implausible.  I asked him how many HR managers share his rarefied point of view.  He dodged the question.

Of course, the same guy also told me that my three years of unemployment have been the result of willful sloth.  “There are thousands of jobs out there.  You are unemployed by choice,” sayeth the sage.

Well, yes, to some extent … In this supposedly civilized and advanced First World country, I am still expressing a stubborn preference for work that I’m actually qualified for and good at.  Call me a pig-headed beyatch.

But here’s the thing:  even the jobs for which I was so qualified your head should be spinning like Linda Blair on a bad day, didn’t even fetch me an interview this past year.  Hell, there were two I could have done post-cremation and still rocked the damn place.  Neither application netted me so much as an acknowledgement of the carefully tailored and individualized resume accompanied by erudite and entertaining cover letter stuffed to the gills with whatever I guessed were the likely keywords being picked up by whatever automated software scanned it and promptly round-filed it.

Given that, what odds do I have for being interviewed for a position for which I’m less qualified, anyway?

My friendly headhunter disabused me of a number of apparent misconceptions about the current job market, including the ‘functional vs. chronological’ resume thing:  “Functional resumes are for people who don’t have good tenure.  A person like you with good tenure, you should be doing a chronological resume.”

Do I have good ‘tenure’?  I have more than 25 years of experience in various forms of communication and media.  But some of it has been editing.  Some writing.  Some public relations.  Some media relations.  A little marketing.  And at least half of it has been as a self-employed freelancer, which many would just call a spotty employment history.  A chronological tango up the ranks from intern to staff writer to assignment editor, features editor, managing editor, publisher, and empress of the realm, it has not been.

It’s a little late for do-overs.  But clearly I have not been experiencing rampant success selling my somewhat convoluted career path to the ‘customers’, as Mr. Recruiter referred to employers.  This, he diagnosed, is because I’m becoming negative and frustrated.  Well.  That always goes over well with me.  (See my previous ruminations on negativity here if you’re so inclined.)

I’d been going along with his patent-medicine prognostics up to this point because the guy had, in fact, taken the time to call me back, and because I had been referred to him by a friend.  I put up with him telling me I was overly extroverted and saw everything in black and white and that he, personally, wouldn’t hire me because of my attitude.  (All of these insightful conclusions having been arrived at via a phone conversation, by the by.)   But you might as well insert the sound of screeching brakes when someone tells me I have to exercise positive thinking to make things happen.

You’d have been proud of me, though.  I politely refrained from tearing him a new one.  I just asked, “What about the definition of stupidity?”  As in, doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.  Absolutely, I’m beginning to resent spending a solid day each time I apply for a position, tailoring resumes and grinding out cover letters no human ever reads, and getting absolutely no response.  Is that resentment reflected in my prose?  Nope, I can say with black-and-white confidence.  (Well.  Except if you count this blog.)

Mr. Recruiter replied, “You are doing something different.  You’re reaching out to me.”  Okay then.  Sky’s the limit for 2013, folks.  Get outta my way.

(The video below really has little to do with any of this, except that if you watch it to the very end there’s some helpful advice on not getting killed by an Australian train, which came to mind when I was pondering screeching brakes.  Plus it’s disturbingly adorable.)

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