Zak Nelson is a Racehorse

I see you shine in your way:
Go on, go on, go on!
— “Giving Up The Gun,”
Vampire Weekend

Yep, I’m a racehorse.

No, not Mine That Bird or Lookin At Lucky or Drosselmeyer, though I have a fondness for the latter, given its namesake’s artistic pedigree.

Early last May when I was interviewing for the job I was to get at the local Convention and Visitor Bureau, the CEO called all my references—then called me back in for a second interview. She had spoken to Malcolm, she said, referring to Malcolm Margolin, leader and founder of Heyday, a nonprofit book publisher and chronicler of California cultures and first peoples, where I was the marketing director from 2003 to 2006. I still believe people who get to meet or know Malcolm are lucky. He and Heyday are a natural resource for California, and I only lament now that there isn’t a Heyday for Washington, or a Malcolm for all of us. Everyone in the Bay Area, and possibly all of California, knows him. Whenever I picked up the phone to introduce myself to someone new—a book review editor, an events coordinator at a bookstore or library, or a reporter at the Los Angeles Times—I would say I was calling from Heyday right off the bat. The response was invariably the same. “Say hi to Malcolm for me!”

Galdalfian in presence, with a white beard of biblical proportions and lean but not soft, he wears wire rim glasses over squinty, alive-looking eyes that simply look as though they could size you up and read your soul like a book. He favors simple cotton twill short-sleeve shirts and blue khaki pants over flowing wizards robes, but you get the feeling that he could summon eagles and vanquish hordes of orcs if the mood struck him. Usually it doesn’t. But Malcolm is prone to speaking in parables. A natural storyteller in the finest Jewish tradition, he will in conversation raise his eyes, puff his mustache out slightly, tilt his head back slightly as though remembering, and then in his stentorian Bostonian baritone will share some anecdote from his past that perfectly illustrates whatever is being discussed at present. When lacking for suitable anecdote, he’s always quick with a creative analogy. I know where they come from—on rare occasion I am blessed with these spontaneous notions, the sudden synthesis of a new correlation, a new idea, a clever quip—but for Malcolm they seem to be available on command.

I hadn’t called Malcolm beforehand to ask him to be a reference…I know, an oversight on my part, a no-no in traditional job-hunting. But I knew that if anyone could extemporize, it was he.

He apparently left quite an impression on my new soon-to-be-boss. She was beaming at me when she said she had a little chat with my old friend Malcolm (and I can totally hear him saying “old friend”). He’s quite fond of you, she told me. He says I would be foolish not to hire you—that you are a marketing wizard.

I blushed at the heaping load of unexpected praise—not because it came from Malcolm, so much as the fact that this person to whom I had been supplicating was now showing her hand, and doing it while oozing delight. But then I stopped blushing, for she went on: “He says to be careful with you though,” she was still smiling at me, but her smile had suddenly become mysterious. “He says you’re a racehorse, and not a workhorse.”

Huh. Okay.

I took a moment to digest the meaning. This was clearly the most honest and direct evaluation of my work habits—a crisp summation of my entire career, if not my work ethic, thus far—coming from a man who clearly was demonstrating an entire relationship in a single phrase. Here there was love and respect from a mentor toward one of his fleeting acolytes, but here there is also the hint of conflict, a finger pointing at the reason for my (amicable) departure from Heyday. It was also a key not just for the interviewer, but for the interviewer. He was giving me, by way of this third person (and new employer, as it would turn out), a hint at how to present myself, honestly and directly. It’s a way of highlighting my strengths and weaknesses instantly, without evasion or euphemism.

I am a racehorse and not a workhorse. The notion of either one is morally neutral. Neither is better than the other, inherently. They are each just used for very different purposes. And there are different tricks to job of caring for such a creature. And therein was another embedded suggestion: that an employer wasn’t responsible simple for a generic care and feeding of her employees, but was responsible as well for their proper care and feeding. It was as much the responsibility of the horse to get the job done—something that, in this analogy, seemed a moot point (of course a horse will get the job done; that’s what they do; horses—whether the work kind or the race kind—are seldom lazy in this context)—as it was for the employer to ensure the proper circumstances in which the horse could function at top capacity.

A workhorse trudges a lot. Can carry huge loads over long distances. I picture mud-caked legs, dusty coats the hide burly shoulder muscles. Simple-minded, solid in temperament, uncomplaining, reliable. Boring…

A racehorse on the other hand! Sure, it’s fickle, fiery, and aggressive. Difficult to train, perhaps. But it’s fast, and it’s glorious. It gets the job done, too: it does it with style. It does it with passion. It draws acclaim. It wins adoration. It will make you a winner. Just don’t for a minute think you can put her on the farm, hauling equipment or sacks of feed, and expect her to last longer than half a lap.

Of course, that’s just what some employers do. They love the idea of a racehorse, they idea that something innate in the creature will make the team win. It will naturally race, and win. But they put him on crappy fields, strewn with rocks and mud. They saddle him with a six-foot tall jockey and all of his luggage, they crack the whip and instruct the racehorse to pull this load fast, because that’s what they understand racehorses to do. The notion is that an employer can take a racehorse out of the race environment and put them in the field and expect that racehorsey-ness to come through. Well it does, in that it kicks and rears, snarls and thrashes. It makes a mess of things. My boss made that mistake. She equated “racehorse” with simple speed. She probably understood “short distances” too as part of the equation. But there was no effort at providing me with a proper racetrack. It’s my responsibility too, to not accept a job that doesn’t offer optimal conditions for me to perform, and I accept that the mistake was equally mine. It was deep in the throes of the Great Recession, I had been jobless for half a year without unemployment benefits, getting desperate for a paycheck, and frustrated at my inability to find work in book publishing. For this new employer, as for myself, we both bought the illusion and accepted the compromise.

I had been down on myself so long, thinking of myself as a barely competent worker who was paralyzed by a wild imagination and incessant (and difficult-to-control) creative impulses. I have to shelve my modesty now for a moment and say that it’s a testament to raw willpower and muscle that, as a racehorse, I’ve actually been able to shoulder such large burdens and carry them such long distances. It’s amazing, but I’ve actually been able to demonstrate practical results—in the case of the job with the convention and visitor bureau, I had in one short year built solid working relationships with a lot of important media contacts, and these had begun to yield a fair bit of important media tourism exposure for our region. I somehow managed to function as a workhorse while maintaining some of a independence and creative output of a racehorse. Of course, this was never sustainable in that environment, where everyone was a workhorse. They all said they admired the qualities of a racehorse, but they just didn’t know what to do with one once they had one. They couldn’t. It was the wrong field. It was a doomed premise.

In the end, I do not know why I was laid off. I have to accept at face value the explanation given to me: that my job had originally been conceived as two separate part-time positions—one for public relations, another for web marketing—and that when I came along with skills in both areas, their eyes got bigger than their stomachs. Plus, I had that whole desperation thing going on, and was willing to work for far less than I was worth. Again: unsustainable. But something in their reasoning seems elusive or shifty. The company had just doubled its operating budget, and would be hiring on new staff, moving to new offices on a higher floor, taking on more projects. They needed my services more than ever. So maybe it acme down to a recognition of the simple fact that we had both goofed, that it was not a sustainable relationship, and they had just chosen to express this in the way they were trained: giving me a sudden and unceremonious boot out the door, to fed for myself, try to find a new owner, or else head to the nearest glue factory.

I still find myself getting angry at them. The way in which my termination was handled—to say nothing of the environment they had kept, the stable they had provided, the nagging of other horses—boils my blood. And I’ve finally reached a point where I can acknowledge my own shortcomings while still having the self-esteem to acknowledge the depth and breadth of my own powers. And the balls to say, “No, this was not my shortcoming that led to this—other than my own poor decision to accept that job. It was a betrayal by my employer, someone whom I had respected, and who I looked to for guidance and reassurance.”

Yes, I knew by the end that my job was untenable, and that I had to leave. I was doing my best work toward the end though: in the face of adversity, I surpassed my own expectations. I was getting better at jettisoning unnecessary baggage, shaping my department into something a bit leaner and using my time more effectively. I was not just overcoming adversity, but harnessing it to accomplish tasks that I was not meant to accomplish. It wasn’t work I enjoyed—I was doing the work of a workhorse—but I was getting better at it.

I don’t fault my employer for laying me off. I fault her for the way in which she did it, with no room for dignity, and no room for appreciation or bigness of spirit. I believe we are both at fault for entering into that relationship in spite of Malcolm’s words of caution. They were there for us to heed, but only experience could shed light on the reach of their meaning. I feel now like we were playing out some fable, some morality tale that ought to be committed to text (perhaps better than I’m doing now), for future generations to learn from.

It’s not an either/or proposition: I don’t presume that everyone in life is either a racehorse OR a workhorse. It comes down to those words inscribed in the Temple of Apollo at Delphi: Know thyself.

Polonius later expounded to his son Laertes: “This above all: to thine own self be true / And it must follow, as the night the day, / Thou canst not then be false to any man.” From Hamlet, of course.

I remember walking down the street in Berkeley once, leaving Caffe Nefeli—the Greek cafe where I alternately worked and idled, and had some of my best days—and having a revelation. This must have been in the summer of 2003. I was having a splendid time at Nefeli, being part of a crowd of patrons and fellow baristas that all congregated there, talking trash and smoking cigarettes and playing backgammon sand drinking well-made cappuccinos with Illy espresso. I had my friends from the student co-ops. I had friends from my new job at Heyday Books, I was in publishing intern now. I wasn’t skinny, but I was the leanest I had ever been. I had a girlfriend, the first woman I can reasonably say I loved.

I was enjoying myself. My star was shining.

No, really: that was the revelation. I walked down Euclid Avenue toward the Berkeley campus, age twenty-five, vaguely aware of a murky future and a murky past, but neither mattered. I felt my center of gravity very specifically in the form of a glowing ball of light in the center of my lower abdomen, bouncing along with me as I walked. I knew exactly where it was, and it followed me as I commanded it. People talk about being centered, about being present—both are notions of location, or thereness. One of the most fundamental spiritual ideas I’ve ever encountered is a physical idea. And here I was, experiencing contentment viscerally as I bobbed down the street.

I’ve periodically reminded myself to keep that glowing ball of light and to always know where it was. I’ve forgotten sometimes. A lot of times maybe.

But I can tell you one thing: I’ve accomplished a lot of writing in the past two months since being laid off. I’m getting faster. I’m getting better. I’m craving it more. Life is coming into focus again. The ball of light is right there where I left it. It’s a blazing furnace. A fusion reactor providing me with untold energy. I recognize you, old friend.

Getting laid off was just a starting gun. I’m racing now.


When writing this I found myself listening to one particular song that I repeated ad nauseum. It’s “Giving Up The Gun” by Vampire Weekend (here some will roll their eyes, others will cheer, and I remain unfazed as I try to make my point), from their new album Contra. The catchiness is what hooked me initially. Then I found the video online, smart and elliptical, with appearances from three disparate celebrities (Joe Jonas of the Jonas Brothers, actor Jake Gyllenhall, RZA of Wu Tang Clan, and rapper Lil Jon). Again: file under catchy. But as I strive to know the meaning of songs that seem ellusive, which hint at layers cleverly hidden beneath pop sensibilities, I started paying attention to the lyrics.

Your sword’s grown old and rusty, burnt beneath the rising sun
It’s locked up like a trophy, forgetting all the things it’s done
And though it’s been a long time, you’re right back where you started from
I see it in your eyes that now you’re giving up the gun

At first (and, admittedly, at second) I assumed the song was about someone looking back at past glories, wishing to relive them, but ultimately retiring despite the narrator’s acknowledgment and encouragement at the end: “I see you shine in your way, go on, go on, go on.”

But I kept puzzling over a few of the songs obscure references. Like a good puzzle, one obviously obscure reference can help you identify less-obvious references, equally shouldering hidden meanings, albeit less visible. You have to unlock the first to unlock the others.

Giving up the gun: I assumed it meant something like “giving up the ghost,” i.e, to die. Or more simply put, to give up (on life, for example). Or maybe it had a meaning rooted in the Old West. As in, “Shoot, Luke, or give up the gun.” Meaning, “shit or get off the pot.”

I see you shine in your way
Go on, go on, go on

But with every reading, an interpretation of “give up on life” or “hurry up/get on with it” seemed more and more implausible. Why would the narrator encourage this (“Go on, go on, go on”)? Why would the protagonist of the song give up after seemingly reclaiming forgotten achievements, or a lost glory?

I heard you play guitar down at a seedy bar where skinheads used to fight
Your Tokugawa smile and your garbage style used to save the night
You felt the coming wave, told me we’d all be brave, you said you wouldn’t flinch
But in the years that passed since I saw you last, you haven’t moved an inch

There’s a reference to Tokugawa. I vaguely recalled something about Japan and samurai. I googled it: Yup, the Tokugawa shogunate. Started by the great leader Tokugawa Ieyasu, it lasted more than 250 years, from 1608 to 1868. They accomplished this in large part by expelling foreigners, cutting off international trade, and willfully abandoning the gun in favor of the more primitive sword as the reigning technology. An excellent way to limit the depth and scope of civil insurrection, no? Yeah, and also, I found this out by reading the introduction of a book that also came up during my google search. Written by Noel Perrin (1980), it’s called Giving Up The Gun: Japan’s Reversion to the Sword, 1543-1879.And of course the “rising sun” reference now seems obvious.

When I was 17, I had wrists like steel and I felt complete
And now my body fades behind a brass charade and I’m obsolete
But if the chance remains to see those better days, I’d cut the cannons down
My ears are blown to bits from all the rifle hits, but still I crave that sound

Vampire Weekend is giving us a book review, but also perhaps synthesizing it (no pun intended, though the song is the album’s most snyth-heavy track) into a modern morality tale: put down the clunky new tools, and remember the grace and effectiveness of your historic weapon. After awkward “garbage-style” wrestling with new weapons—here read as either implements of any given art form—the protagonist is rediscovering the beauty of his original tool of choice.

I see it in your eyes that now you’re giving up the gun.

Anyway, there’s a certain glee in that rediscovery. Like how I found my little ball of light again: I’m picking up where I left off, before I got derailed and my career started me down a path I didn’t want to be on. I’m remembering my sword, and my Tokugawa smile.