Ida’s Place Book Two—Revival

October 22nd, 2014

idas2-cover-sm

(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser October 2014)

“Every existence in nature, every existence in the human world, every cultural work that we create, is something which was given, or is being given to us, relatively speaking. But as everything is originally one, we are, in actuality, giving out everything. Moment after moment we are creating something, and this is the joy of our life.” Shunryu Suzuki

I am pleased to announce the publication of the coil-bound photocopy edition (the only edition there is) of Ida’s Place Book Two: Revival, the second volume of what I intend to be at least a three-volume saga set in the mythical town of Big River on the far north coast of California. I brought out Ida’s Place Book One: Return ten months ago and have sold seventy-one copies to date. This is particularly good news because I broke even on design and production costs when I sold copy number sixty-six. Copies of the Ida’s Place volumes are signed and lavishly numbered by the author and are only available from me via my web site or by bumping into me at the post office or thereabouts.

As a creative adventure, the writing of a multi-volume work of fiction has been endlessly surprising and liberating for me, and many of my rules and limitations developed over forty years of writing single volume novels, certainly those pertaining to structure and pace, have given way to a spaciousness that is thrilling, mysterious and tricky.

Spinning a complicated yarn within a vastly expanded time-and-space frame reminds me of the revolution that transpired in the recording industry with the advent of LP’s, long-playing records, in the early 1950’s. Without the extreme time limitations imposed by short-playing 78’s, musicians and composers, especially jazz players, were suddenly free to record much longer pieces, and contemporary music, both recorded and live, was changed forever. Such works as Miles Davis’s Kinda Blue and Sketches of Spain or the long organ solo on the Doors’ “Light my Fire” would never have been possible without the advent of long-playing records.

Working with so much novelistic space also reminds me of an artist I knew who lived for decades in a tiny apartment and used his kitchen table as his studio. Everything he created—sculptures, paintings, and drawings—was small. In late middle age, he married a woman with a big house who gave him her high-ceilinged two-car garage to use as his studio, and after an initial transition period, everything he made was big. He told me he felt incredibly liberated in a spatial sense, though he was largely unpracticed in making large things. As he put it, “I am a beginner again in many ways, though a highly skilled beginner.”

Shunryu Suzuki was forever reminding his students about the importance of maintaining beginner’s mind, a non-judgmental openness, lest we become stuck in dogma and thought patterns that obscure the infinite possibilities inherent in every moment. I often think of beginner’s mind as I work on the Ida’s Place saga, and how the newness and unpredictability of the multi-volume form has rejuvenated my practice. To quote Shunryu Suzuki, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.”

After selling and mailing out the first thirty copies of Ida’s Place Book One: Return, I waited impatiently to hear what people thought of the book. When two weeks went by without a peep from anyone, my old crotchety inner critic began to whisper, “Maybe your ego played a trick on you. Maybe you wrote a dud.”

Then I heard from Alex MacBride, a person and writer I greatly admire, and I was relieved to learn that his experience of reading Ida’s Place echoed my experience of writing it. Alex wrote, “I had forgotten what it’s like to enjoy a book so purely and unambiguously and happily and want nothing more than to keep reading. I love it. It gave me a kind of reading-joy I haven’t had much since I was thirteen and fourteen, a tingling sort of excited comfort—moving along eagerly but resting at the same time, happy to be in the book’s world.”

Over the next several weeks I got more responses, including one from the poet D.R. Wagner who wrote, “I devoured the book in a day. I feel it is the most perfect love story by you yet. I was left breathless.” Another note came from Clare Bokulich, the Mendocino-born musicologist and baker, who effused, “Such a good read! I loved it. But now I am very anxious for Book Two. When will it be finished?”

Thus I was emboldened to dive whole-heartedly into writing Book Two. Now that Ida’s Place Book Two: Revival is done and copies are rolling off the copy machine at Zo, Mendocino finest and only copy shop, Book Three has begun to speak to me. And I am so eager to know what happens next to this large cast of fascinating characters, I am certain I will write the third volume whether anyone likes Book Two or not. As a dear friend once said to me, “Thank goodness we are our own biggest fans or we might never create anything.”

If you would like to read the first three chapters of Ida’s Place Book One, please visit my web site UnderTheTableBooks.com. On the Home page click on the facsimile of the book cover for Ida’s Place Book One and you will be taken to the appropriate page. I have not, however, posted the first three chapters of Book Two because I don’t want to spoil the many surprises for those readers who were good enough to purchase Book One and have been asking for Book Two.

In simultaneous news, my latest CD of solo piano improvisations nature of love has just arrived from the manufacturer and I am hopeful many ears will be pleased by the new tunes.

Waiting For Disaster

October 15th, 2014

water tank

(This article appeared in the drought October 2014)

“There cannot be a crisis next week. My schedule is already full.” Henry Kissinger

As the drought continues and a weakening El Niño lessens the chance of a good wet winter in California, we are having a second water tank installed to give us five thousand gallons of storage capacity. So far, knock on redwood, our well continues to provide us with sufficient water for our basic needs. Sadly, more and more of our neighbors are experiencing water shortages, and if we have another dry winter or two or three, even the most draconian conservation measures won’t keep our well from running dry for at least part of the year.

Thus we want that greater storage capacity for several reasons.

First, the water delivery companies in the Mendocino-Fort Bragg area deliver with trucks carrying 3500 gallons, and if you have less than a 3500-gallon storage capacity they still charge you for the entire 3500 gallons. Should we need to buy water, we want to be able to receive the full load.

Second, five thousand gallons provides us with two months of water for our minimalist needs, and those two months might carry us through the driest months of the year to a resurgence of our well.

Third, we will be more emboldened to plant a larger vegetable garden and water the orchard more generously if we know we have sufficient water for our basic needs and plenty more for our vegetables and fruit trees. We can monitor our supply, and when the well gives signs of waning, we can curtail water to the plants. This year, not having that extra capacity, we reigned in the size of our garden and were perhaps too sparing in watering the fruit trees we inherited and the five new apple trees we’ve planted since moving onto this property two years ago.

“


Failing to plan is planning to fail.” Alan Lakein

When our new storage tank arrived (it has yet to be coupled with our old tank) several neighbors inquired about what we were doing. Lively discussions ensued, and every single neighbor I spoke to said either, “We should get another tank, too,” or “We don’t even have a storage tank and really should get one.”

When I encouraged them to do so as soon as possible, they all acted somewhat sheepish (ashamed?) because they probably aren’t going to get a storage tank or a second tank until their wells run completely dry and they are forced by dire necessity to get those tanks—their body language saying, “Why spend the money when we might have a wet winter?”

Buckminster Fuller wrote that human evolution and human history are essentially records of people reacting to crises. His hope was that the vast stores of information made available to everyone on earth via computers would usher in an era of humans taking actions to avert disasters before such disasters engulfed them. Alas, his hope has not been realized. Humans, it turns out, are hard-wired creatures of crisis and rarely take sufficient pre-emptive actions to avoid disasters.

 “Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom.” George Washington Carver

Speaking of thinking ahead, higher education in Germany is once again absolutely free throughout that socialist country, and that goes for international students, too. “We got rid of tuition fees because we do not want a higher education system dependent on the wealth of the parents,” said Gabrielle Heinen-Kjajic, the minister for science and culture in Lower Saxony.

“Tuition fees are unjust,” said Hamburg’s senator for science Dorothee Stapelfeldt. “They discourage young people who do not have a traditional academic family background from taking up study. It is a core task of politics to ensure that young women and men can study with a high quality standard free of charge in Germany.”

Wow. Imagine if ensuring free higher education and excellent lower education were core tasks of politics in America, along with ensuring excellent free healthcare for all? For a fraction of the annual military budget we could have all three. But that is not going to happen because the American people are now thoroughly entrained to believe we are not a collective of people working for the greater good, but a vast list of individuals, each with the inalienable right to have piles of stuff we never have to share with anyone else if we don’t want to. And we don’t want to share our stuff because sharing is…yucky.

However, deep in our genetic memories is the fundamental truth of our evolution, which is that we would never have survived as a species had we not developed the ability to form and maintain highly cooperative groups of individuals living and working for the good of the entire group. This is why during crises, large populations of theretofore selfish, separate, disconnected individuals often become highly cooperative in order to enhance everyone’s chances of survival.

One of our neighbors came to take a look at our new water tank and said with a twinkle in her eye, “I know where I’m coming when I run out of water.”

And it occurs to me that we ought not only be outfitting our separate homes with more water tanks, we should be looking into creating a community water storage capacity, and a community solar electric system, and a community ride sharing system, and…hold that thought, my favorite television show is about to start and we’ve got enough water and food and stuff for at least another week, so I’ll talk to you later.

What Shall We Do?

October 8th, 2014

wildgardener2

The Wild Gardener painting by Todd

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser October 2014)

“Life is full of obstacle illusions.” Grant Frazier

Congress has just voted to cut nine billion dollars in food stamps for poor Americans while voting to spend an initial sum of twenty billion dollars to bomb people in Syria and Iraq. That’s twenty billion on top of the trillion dollars Congress gives the Pentagon every year to, you know, bomb people all over the world.

Is there anything we the people can do about this insanity? Hypothetically, yes. We can engage in massive protests and strikes, say fifty million of us, demanding more money for the American people, an emergency national conversion to renewable energy sources and drastic cuts to the Pentagon budget. And we could organize and carry out a super effective boycott of Chevron. But none of that is going to happen because the vast majority of Americans are so busy scrabbling to make ends meet or scrabbling to buy the latest iPhone and other neato stuff we don’t need or sitting on our asses watching television, that from a political perspective we the people are irrelevant. From an economic perspective, we the people are a source of trillions of dollars of income for multinational earth-plundering corporations; such plundering funded by we the people buying neato stuff and overpriced medications and inadequate health insurance.

So what shall we do, you and I, in the face of what we know to be true about what is happening to the earth and to our society, and also knowing that the ruling elite can watch half a million people march in Manhattan to protest global warming and not give even a tiny hoot?

It is never too late to be who you might have been.” George Eliot

Here are some ideas about what you and I can do.

Idea #1: Give money to poor people. I know there is a strong sentiment that giving money to poor people only encourages them to stay poor, but that is untrue, cynical, and verges on the insane. So let us give money to poor people. If you don’t feel you have much to spare, just give a little.

Idea #2: Let us not buy a neato thing we were going to buy. We just won’t buy it. We’ll make do with other neato things we already have. Remember: long before that neato thing you want existed, you were getting along okay. Not buying that neato thing will free up cash for food and giving money to poor people.

I know we shouldn’t have to give money to poor people. Our country is so incredibly wealthy there need not be any poor people, not a single one, but the ruling elite have rigged the game and conquered our brethren with neato things and television and car-centric everything so equality and sharing the wealth is not going to happen in America any time soon. So let us not think of giving money to poor people as something we should do but as something we want to do to help counter the gross social and political imbalance the stupid meanies have created and we have acquiesced to.

Idea #3: Be kind to everyone we meet. Sometimes I make a fool of myself being kind to people, but most of the time the person or people I’m kind to appreciate my kindness and respond in kind. Today, for instance, I was buying a half pound of ground beef to go on the pizza we’re making tonight, and I was kind to our usually taciturn butcher, and though he resisted at first, eventually he smiled and even laughed a little when I said perfecto because he guessed to within a fraction of an ounce the amount of beef to put on the scale to make a half a pound.

Being kind to everyone we encounter makes it impossible to maintain attitudes of disdain and fear. I think disdain and fear are not only closely related emotions, but are two of the fundamental factors causing people (and they are just people) in Congress and in the huge voracious corporations destroying the earth to do the horrible things they are doing to our society and the earth.

From a Buddhist perspective, disdainful and fearful rulers and insanely rich people and people mindlessly watching television and compulsively buying neato things are mirrors for us. Their actions and attitudes are reflections of our own actions and attitudes, and we would do well to stop denying this and explore ways to change our own actions and attitudes. Who and what are we disdainful of? What are we afraid of? Why are we disdainful? Why are we afraid? What can we do to stop being disdainful and fearful?

“In their property was a portion dedicated to the beggar and the disinherited.” The Qur’an

Some years ago in San Francisco I was with two fellow artists, a man and a woman, on our way to a Chinese restaurant known for excellent food and wonderfully low prices; and even at those wonderful prices going out to supper was a serious splurge for me. The city was teeming with poor people and I had long since given away my spare change and one-dollar bills.

We were just about to enter the Chinese restaurant when we encountered a frighteningly gaunt man who said, “Hate to bother you folks, but I am starving to death. Can you help me?”

I reached for my wallet and my male friend grabbed my wrist and said, “Don’t. He’ll just use it for drugs.”

“No, I won’t,” said the gaunt man. “I need food.”

I gently disengaged from my friend, took out my wallet, and found I only had a twenty-dollar bill therein. If I gave the gaunt man my twenty I would not have money for supper. Meanwhile, my female friend had opened her purse and given the gaunt man a dollar. This so outraged our male friend that he threw up his hands and cried, “Don’t be fools!”

Then I said to the gaunt man, “We’re going into this Chinese restaurant. If you come in with us, I will pay for you to have some food.”

The gaunt man nodded and followed us into the restaurant where he ordered rice and vegetables—costing me seven dollars—and sat apart from us at a small table, wolfing down his food and drinking many glasses of water and dozens of cups of the complimentary tea. My two friends and I had a wonderful meal and laughed until we cried about something I can’t remember.

National Pentagon Radio

October 1st, 2014

claim

News Report pen and ink by Todd

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser October 2014)

“He knows nothing; and he thinks he knows everything. That points clearly to a political career.” George Bernard Shaw

Say what you will about NPR, National Public Radio, when it comes to reporting on American foreign policy, i.e. using drones and missiles and fighter jets to bomb adversaries, real and imagined, who have no air force or any way to defend themselves against those bombs and missiles, NPR is the great legitimizer of the military-corporate strategy of endless war.

Most recently, NPR assembled a group of so-called journalists and politicians to respond to President Obama’s speech about launching a multi-year campaign (with no end in sight) to bomb the ten thousand fighters of the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Obama, who really does sound crazy these days when he reads speeches written to instill fear in the minds of his infantile listeners, proclaimed he has the right (because he said so) to bomb Syria, Iraq and pretty much anywhere else his advisors think the Islamic State fighters need to be bombed.

Oh, wait. The CIA just announced there are not ten thousand Islamic State fighters, but thirty thousand of them. Isn’t that something? The day after Obama’s here-come-the-terrorists speech, the CIA (renowned for accuracy and truth) just happened to find twenty thousand more of those horrible guys, which means the threat is much worse than Obama told us it was. Eek!

Made up facts aside (dutifully reported as gospel by NPR) the so-called journalists agreed that Obama’s speech was clear and decisive and good. Never mind that his speech was vague and ridiculous and predicated entirely on the public being incapable of remembering anything from last week, let alone last year. For obvious reasons, no one on NPR ever brings up the sad truth that America’s invasions and bloody occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan are the primary causes of the rise of tens of thousands of lunatic fighters now threatening the oil refineries and oil pipelines in Iraq, which threat is the only reason the corporate puppeteers have commanded Obama to unleash the jets and missiles against those annoying killers who would never have arisen en masse in an intact and functional Iraqi society.

“If you talk to God, you are praying; if God talks to you, you have schizophrenia.” Thomas Szasz

Why won’t NPR allow Noam Chomsky or Robert Fisk on their airwaves? Or how about Julian Assange? Can you imagine Julian Assange on NPR’s silly news show Almost Nothing Considered? That will never happen because NPR is the official mouthpiece of the Pentagon and America’s imperialist foreign policy. Chomsky and Fisk and Assange and countless others who actually know what they’re talking about would quickly put the lie to the whole shooting match, as it were, by taking us step-by-step through the events leading up to the latest chapter in the redundant saga of protecting the pipelines and refineries at usurious cost to the American public and for the profit of major funders of NPR and both political parties.

By the way, did you know that KZYX, our local public radio station, is one of the only public radio stations in America that airs both NPR’s Almost Nothing Considered and Democracy Now! I find this fascinating in light of Democracy Now! contradicting virtually everything reported on NPR and vice-versa. Democracy Now! presents in-depth news and interviews, while NPR regurgitates Pentagon propaganda. What a weird combo.

“Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.” Theodore Roosevelt

In related news, the NFL, the National Football League, has been rocked recently by the arrests of three star players for assaulting their wives or partners, one superstar arrested for physically abusing his four-year-old son, and another superstar for assaulting his partner and his infant son. I conflate this news with America’s foreign policy because in my opinion, football, as it is packaged and presented on television, legitimizes and glorifies violence in much the same way that video clips of sleek jets bombing desert targets legitimize and glorify violence. Hundreds of millions of American men are violence junkies, with war footage, football, and hyper-violent movies keeping them constantly juiced and wanting more.

“In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” George Orwell

Imagine President Obama holding a press conference and saying, “I just want to let the American people know we will continue to use our incredible military might to keep the oil flowing so our corporations can reap obscene profits, we can remain dependent on fossil fuels, and gas prices will stay below five dollars a gallon. We don’t really give a hoot about human life or democracy or any of that nonsense. Everything we do is about maintaining the status quo, even if that means burning the earth to a cinder. Thank you and God bless.”

Now imagine the NPR analysts commenting on Obama’s speech. “Well, Bob, I think the President laid things out pretty clearly. The reference to burning the earth to a cinder was particularly cogent and timely given the latest global warming data that suggests there might be a link between the burning of fossil fuels and global warming.”

“I agree, Joan, and by saying we don’t really give a hoot about human life and democracy or any of that nonsense lends a down-to-earth honesty to the ongoing carnage that I, for one, find refreshing and inspiring.”

“Exactly, Bob. Coming up, a look at an obscure rock band in Minnesota that has a hit on their hands with their song and accompanying YouTube video Kill Everything, featuring five cute little children shooting caged ducks with assault rifles and then posting pictures of the slaughter on Facebook. Just hilarious. Stay tuned for that.”

Bochy Dreams

September 24th, 2014

Bruce+Bochy+San+Francisco+Giants+v+Colorado+OcgjG0IbLmcl

(This short story appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2014)

Bruce Bochy, a pleasant slow moving man, is the longtime manager of the San Francisco Giants. A former catcher known for his gruffness rather than the poetry of his speech, Bruce seems much older than his fifty-nine years—his gray hair turning white and his reactions to exciting moments during games oddly delayed, as if he requires a few extra moments to come back into his body before responding to a great catch or a home run or a game-winning strikeout.

Though many pundits and fans find Bruce dull and often a batter too late in removing exhausted pitchers, he has won two World Series and been continuously employed as a major league manager for nineteen seasons. Because his after-game press conferences are invariably wooden and uninformative, few people are aware of Bruce’s two great talents: he is a master at instilling confidence in men who lack confidence, and his dreams frequently provide him with information he uses during games.

Only Bruce knows of this latter talent, for he has never revealed his baseball dreams to anyone, not even his beloved wife of thirty-five years or his best friend Dave Righetti, the Giants’ pitching coach.

The first time Bruce used dream information to make a managerial decision came during his second month as a major league manager when he stunned San Diego Padres fans and players by pinch-hitting for Andy Ashby who had thrown seven dominant shutout innings, exhibited no signs of tiring, and had a one-to-nothing lead over the slumping Phillies. At the post game press conference, Bruce explained, “I took Andy out because his pitch count was high, the bullpen has been real good lately, and I wanted to get that run in from second.”

What Bruce did not share with the public was that the night before the game in question, he dreamt that Phil Plantier, pinch-hitting for the aforementioned Ashby, beat out a slow grounder and set the table for Brad Ausmus to follow with a three-run blast, which is exactly what transpired in the actual game.

Bruce was no fool and knew better than to reveal the source of his inspiration to a society wholly unprepared for such nonsense. Indeed, Bruce ignored his dream visions for many years because he didn’t believe such metaphysical hoo ha could possibly prove true, and he probably would have continued to ignore his dreams had not curiosity gotten the better of him.

Today, nineteen years after that fateful game against Philadelphia, Bruce routinely uses dream data to help him make decisions in much the same way he uses baseball statistics. His dreams by no means guarantee victory, but they do suggest possible strategies and substitutions Bruce might not otherwise consider. Thus he now trusts his dreams in much the same way he trusts his sense of when a pitcher is tiring or when a player needs a good talking to.

But the greatest value of Bruce’s dreams is not so much strategic as emotional, for his relationships with his players in his dreams are much richer and more complicated and enjoyable than his relationships with those same players in real life, and these dreamtime relationships greatly amplify Bruce’s fondness and respect for his players when he is awake.

Brandon Crawford, the Giants acrobatic shortstop, once said of Bruce, “It’s hard to explain, but I feel like he really knows me. Not just how I play, but who I am. You know what I mean? I know that sounds quasi-mystical, but that’s how I feel sometimes, like he knows me better than I know myself.”

In last night’s dream, Bruce inserted Juan Perez, recently up from Triple A, into a game as a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the eighth inning, and Perez proceeded to foul off several pitches before hitting an inside-the-park home run. What makes this dream especially interesting to Bruce is that he hasn’t given Perez many chances to pinch-hit because he prefers to use him as a pinch-runner late in games. And though the dream does not necessarily presage Perez hitting a home run, or even getting a chance to bat in today’s game, Bruce knows the dream is telling him something important, so he will definitely keep the dream data about Perez in mind as the game unfolds.

Hensley Filemon Acasio “Bam Bam” Meulens, the Giants graceful multi-lingual batting coach, a former outfielder from Curacao who often appears in Bruce’s dreams wearing a tuxedo, leans into Bruce’s office and croons, “Buenos, Bruce. Good batting practice for Blanco and Pence today. They’re both seeing the ball much better now since they had those hypnotherapy sessions, and Crawford’s bat speed is finally picking up now that he’s attending aerobic yoga classes.”

“How about Perez?” asks Bruce, recalling Perez’s dreamtime smash into triples alley—Perez a blur rounding the bases.

“He needs to get into a game,” says Hensley, doing an impromptu cha cha. “He’s struggling with self-doubt from lack of playing time and the existential stress of going back and forth from the minors to the majors. His swing looks good. Level. Smooth. Quick hands. But he’s definitely getting a little sour sitting on the bench.”

“Might let him pinch-hit today,” says Bruce, smiling at Hensley’s dance. “Give him a start tomorrow.”

“Superb,” says Hensley, miming the swing of a bat. “Feels right, Bruce. He’ll be so happy.”

Bruce laughs drily. “Yeah, might let Perez pinch-hit today and start him tomorrow.”

“Love to see that kid run,” says Hensley, dancing away. “Kid can fly.”

And four hours later Perez does, indeed, fly around the bases, his inside-the-park home run the game winner.

When asked by reporters after the game about his decision to use Perez as the pinch hitter instead of Ishikawa who is hitting better than .350 in pinch-hit situations, Bruce shrugs and says, “We liked what we saw from Juan during batting practice and he’s been needing playing time, so…just a hunch.”

Curve Again

September 17th, 2014

San Francisco Giants v Los Angeles Dodgers

(This short story appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2014)

Madison Bumgarner, the Giants’ formidable leftie known as Mad Bum or simply Bum, stands tall atop the mound on a cool Friday night in September—the famous San Francisco fog not yet manifest, a soft breeze blowing in from McCovey Cove, the yard packed with zealous fans, the Dodgers in town battling to keep the Giants from overtaking them in the division race—both teams destined for the playoffs.

Having put down the first nine Dodgers in order, five by strikeouts, Bum walks Dodger leadoff hitter Dee Gordon to start the fourth inning and thereby forfeits his chance to throw a perfect game. Prior to the walk, Bum’s control was superb, scary the word muttered by seven of the first nine Dodgers to face him.

Bum takes a deep breath and glances up at the sky. Why did I walk their leadoff man? Why do I so often walk the leadoff man when everything is going so well? Don’t think about it. Stay out of your head. Relax. Life goes on.

The next batter strides to the plate, makes a big show of settling into the batter’s box, and crowds the plate. This is Yasiel Puig, a big powerful right-handed outfielder with a weakness for sliders away and fastballs up. Puig is hitting .293 for the year and has been an absolute terror against the Giants this season. Bum struck out Puig on three pitches in the first inning and made him look bad—two fastballs and a slider in the dirt.

He’ll be waiting on my fastball.

Buster Posey, the Giants’ catcher, flashes the sign for a curve and sets up low on the outer half of the plate. Bum nods, glances at the speedy Gordon inching away from First, and pitches.

Let it be told throughout the land and the myriad dimensions known and yet to be discovered, that this particular pitch is the most exquisite curve Bum has ever thrown, the ball arcing so high and faraway from the straight line to the plate that Puig gives up on the ball the moment it leaves Bum’s hand. But at the end of its trajectory the ball hooks back over the plate just above Puig’s knees and smacks the very center of Posey’s unmoving glove. Alas, the umpire is as flummoxed as Puig and calls the exquisite strike a ball.

Bum winces as if someone slapped him in the face—the crowd groaning and booing to echo his outrage. Anger and despair rise from the depths of Bum’s being, emotions he knows he must control if he wishes to remain in the good graces of the umpire, though the effort to suppress his feelings makes him shudder.

Sensing Bum’s distress, Posey trots to the mound to have a chat with his pitcher. Posey is a youthful twenty-seven and five years into what many predict will be a Hall of Fame career. Bum is a seasoned veteran at twenty-five, his stuff so good that when he’s on his game he is virtually unhittable. His eternal challenge, however, is that he can fall off his game in a twinkling when something goes awry, something like an umpire calling a brilliant strike a ball.

Posey looks Bum in the eye and says, “That was zenith, man. Best curve ball I’ve ever been privileged to catch. You not only fooled Puig, you fooled the ump.”

“How could he call that a ball?” cries Bum, glowering over Posey’s head at the umpire. “Is he myopic? And if so, how did he get this job?”

“You surprised him,” says Posey, winking at Bum. “Don’t worry about it. Your stuff is stellar tonight. Primo. They’ll be lucky to get one out of the infield if they ever manage to hit one.”

“Okay,” says Bum, reaching his arms high above his head to release the tautness in his back. “Let’s get him.”

Posey trots back to home plate and fiddles with his mask before going into his crouch and flashing the sign for a fastball.

Bum shakes his head, a response that comes as a surprise to Bum for three reasons. First, a fastball seems like an excellent idea coming after a curve ball with the runner on First likely to steal. Second, Bum almost never shakes off Posey because Posey calls excellent games and they almost always agree on the pitch to be thrown. Third, Bum wants to throw a fastball because he is still furious with the umpire for calling his perfect strike a ball.

Yet he rejected Buster’s call for a fastball, which tells Bum that his unconscious mind has taken control of the situation. But did my unconscious mind shake off the fastball as an act of self-sabotage or as an act of intuitive genius? In either case, Bum nods his approval of Posey’s second suggestion: another curve.

Curve again thinks Bum as he checks the speedy Gordon at First Base and intuits he’ll be taking off with the pitch. Of course. Because my first curve was perfect. Who cares if the umpire missed the call? So what if Puig guesses curve and hits the ball out of the park? Buster wants to see that beauty again, and so do I. Yes, I do.

So Bum coils and releases the pitch. The runner goes. The ball arcs so high and faraway from the straight line to the plate that Puig starts to give up on the pitch but now he remembers the perfection of the previous pitch that should have been called a strike and maybe this time the pitch will be called a strike so he swings late and gets just enough of the ball to drive a soft liner to Ishikawa standing a few feet off First Base.

Catching the easy floater, Ishikawa grins like a kid in a candy shop and ambles over to the bag to complete the double play—Gordon hung out to dry between First and Second.

Bum covers the bottom half of his face with his glove to hide his grin as he watches the celebratory slinging of the ball around the infield and takes the congratulatory toss from Crawford, the Giants nonpareil shortstop. Now Bum climbs the backside of the mound, toes the pitching slab, grips the ball, gazes in at Posey and nods Yes to Posey’s signal for a high fastball so I can let off some steam.

Stealing

September 10th, 2014

Giants Mendo Hardware

(This short story appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2014)

Angel Pagan, the switch-hitting leadoff batter for the Giants, one of the swiftest outfielders in the game, takes a short lead off first base and tries to ignore his inner dialogue about base stealing while keeping his focus on the pitcher. Angel has reached first base with one out in the bottom of the seventh inning by beating out a slow roller to third. The Giants are trailing the Padres one to nothing. This would be, as everyone in the ballpark knows, the ideal time for Angel to steal a bag and get into scoring position. However, despite his blazing speed, Angel has had little success as a stealer of bases.

Quackenbush, the Padres relief pitcher, a hefty right-hander with a decent pickoff move, hates throwing to first because it messes with his mechanics. Angel knows of Quackenbush’s aversion to throwing to first because Roberto Kelly, the Giants’ first base coach, just reminded Angel of said aversion while Angel was taking off his batting gloves after safely reaching first. Thus informed, Angel widens his lead, though not enough to tempt the reluctant Quackenbush.

Quackenbush’s first pitch to Joe Panik, the Giants second baseman, is an eighty-mile-an-hour slider right down the middle, Joe taking all the way to give Angel a chance to steal. But Angel isn’t going anywhere. Strike one.

Angel returns to first base, toes the bag, and waits for Roberto to give him a sign or a bit of advice. But Roberto keeps his distance and barely makes eye contact, which Angel interprets as Roberto implying If I’d had your speed when I was playing I would have stolen a hundred bags a year, though that is not at all the sort of thing Roberto would say.

Angel takes his lead again, and Gyorko, the Padres’ first baseman, positions himself at the bag in readiness to take a throw from Quackenbush. Gyorko taps his glove and smirks at Angel as if to say Go on. Stretch out that lead. Quack’s got a better pickoff move than you think.

During batting practice, none other than the legendary Willie Mays approached Angel and said, “I got a bet with Cepeda says you steal twenty more bags this year once you get your timing down.”

Timing thinks Angel, unaware that he is slowly shaking his head as he watches Quackenbush come set. It’s not about timing. It’s about trusting my instincts.

Panik, having failed miserably as a switch-hitter in high school, only bats from the left side and rarely hits for power. He is, however, an excellent contact hitter and against a finesse pitcher like Quackenbush looks to pull the ball. Having double checked with Giants third base coach Tim Flannery that he has permission to swing away, Panik turns his full attention to the pitcher and tells himself not to swing at anything except something off-speed on the inner half of the plate. Panik has no problem with Angel staying put at first because Angel is so fast he can score from first on a deep single and trot home if Panik hits one to the wall.

Angel takes his role as leadoff man very seriously, some might say too seriously. In practice, he steals bases with ease, whether the pitcher and catcher know he’s going to steal or not. But in games, doubt makes him tentative and devours those precious tenths of seconds that make the difference between Safe and Out. For Angel there is nothing more humiliating than being tagged out while trying to steal.

In the dugout, Bruce Bochy, the Giants skipper, scratches the gray stubble on his spacious chin and ponders whether or not to signal Roberto to signal Angel to steal, knowing that commanding Angel to steal always makes Angel give away his intention by rising onto his toes and holding his hands out to the sides like a kid pretending to fly. So Bruce decides not to command anyone to do anything and just hope Panik knocks a single or better.

Meanwhile, from his seat eleven rows up behind first base, eighty-one-year-old Willie Mays, one of the greatest base stealers of all time, gazes intently at Angel and suddenly realizes why Angel has so much trouble deciding whether and when to go. He’s trying to figure things out with his head instead of letting the momentum of the game carry him.

And in the split second after Quackenbush checks Angel and begins his pitching motion, Angel takes off, the pitch way too high for Panik to swing at, Angel beating the throw with ease and springing up from his slide to stand atop the second base bag like he’s king of the mountain.

What was that? wonders Angel. How did I suddenly know? 

August Fable

August 20th, 2014

August Fable

Water Lilies by Max Greenstreet

When I was in my early thirties, I lived on a monthly disability check from the state: two hundred and sixty-eight dollars. My rent for a small room in a boarding house in a scary neighborhood in downtown Sacramento was one hundred and forty dollars. That left me one hundred and twenty-eight dollars for food and not much else. And I was sure the woman I loved—Maria Escobido—wanted a man with a good job, and I didn’t have any job so I rarely spoke to her except to say hello and thanks.

I would go into Maria’s little grocery store and buy a carton of milk or a beer or anything just to be close to her. I wanted to ask her to have coffee with me, but I never asked because I was afraid she might say Yes and I would have to tell her I had nothing.

My recurring fantasy was that I saved a wealthy man’s life and he hired me to be his chauffer and live above his fancy cars in an elegant apartment with a view of majestic trees and a curving drive. With my ample pay, I bought fine clothes and went into the little grocery store and said, “Maria. I have a good job now and live in an elegant apartment over my employer’s Rolls Royce. Would you like to go out to dinner with me?” And she would say Yes and we would become lovers and live happily ever after.

That was how I started my days, lying alone in my bed dreaming about Maria inviting me with her beautiful eyes to kiss her. Then I’d get up, grab my towel and razor and go down the hall to the bathroom. We had a system on our floor. I was in first since I got up the earliest. When I was done I’d rap on Larry’s door and when he was done he’d knock on Shirley’s door and then Shirley would knock on Sheldon’s. One day I woke up so sick I couldn’t move and Larry didn’t get up until eleven because he was waiting for me to knock and Shirley and Sheldon both slept in, too.

Sheldon was a cartoonist, Shirley worked at the Lesbian Crisis Center, and Larry collected books about astrology, tarot and the I Ching. They were as poor as I was, but they were happy, whereas I was miserable because I was a failed writer and didn’t believe Maria Escobido would ever want to be with me unless I could get a decent a job or save somebody’s life and then get a decent job. And, of course, I would have to stop smoking pot because Maria was definitely not a pot smoker. However, whenever I stopped smoking dope I wanted to die.

I told myself I had to buy something before I could speak to Maria so she wouldn’t think I was a dead beat. She was always nice to me, sometimes effusively so, and one day we talked for a long time about our favorite movies and she gave me a smile that seemed to say I like you. I like the way you think.

I came out of her store after our movie conversation feeling elated and hopeful and sure she would say Yes if I asked her to have coffee with me. But when I got back to my little room and looked in the mirror I thought No. She only spoke to me because I bought something. Why would such a marvelous full-of-life woman want to have anything to do with a loser like me?

I’ll never forget the time—a broiling hot day in August—I decided to splurge on a beer and went into her little store and she was on her tiptoes reaching up to get a case of Heineken and she was wearing a sleeveless T-shirt and the case started to fall and the next thing I knew I was beside her bringing down the case and her breasts brushed my arm and she blushed and said Thank you in the sweetest way and I lived for weeks in a frenzy of love for her.

So…every day I would shower and shave, put on a clean shirt and jeans and running shoes, eat a couple bananas and hustle over to Plaza Park to see if anybody wanted me to make a dope delivery. I was a presentable person, and because I would deliver lids in exchange for joints, dealers liked using me.

One spring day Marcus asked me to deliver three lids to someone in the capitol building. I said, “Marcus, I love you, man, and I greatly admire the quality of your product, but three lids is a large felony. What say I deliver a bag at a time? Then it’s only a misdemeanor if I get caught, which I will gladly chance for my usual fee.”

“Talkin’ hazard pay,” said Marcus, a colossus with a deep rumbling voice. “Hundred bucks and you just come and get it for a month. Sound good?”

“A hundred bucks and I just come and get it for a month?” I echoed, loving the thought of Marcus keeping me in fat joints for an entire month—no need to run dope to get dope.

So I combed my hair, made sure my fly was up, and took possession of those three baggies of glistening bud hidden in a hollowed out law book. Then I merged with a crowd of drones swarming into the capitol building, and nobody thought I was anything but a casually dressed servant of the state as I hurried past the Governor’s office and caught an elevator to the third floor where legions of ambitious men and women hurried to and fro with piles of folders and steaming cups of coffee—the perfect moment to deliver dope.

I located the appointed suite, told the receptionist I had something for her boss, and a moment later he emerged from his office—a boyishly handsome man in a snazzy gray suit—one of the most powerful politicos in California.

He came close and said, “Hey. How are you?”

“Fine,” I said, wondering how he could be so calm with his career in the hands of some stranger off the street who might be a narc. “Here’s that volume you requested. Hope this does the trick.”

“Saved,” he said, taking the book from me and hugging it like a long lost friend. “Just in the nick of time.”

Riding down in the elevator I thought What a joke. The ultimate loser bringing weed to the guy who rules the world—both of us wanting to get high, him in his mansion and me in my hole.

For delivering that weed to a head of state, Marcus gave me sixty bucks and a bag of rag and I did not complain. Life went on. I bought my food at Maria’s little grocery store and went to movie matinees a couple times a month and saw three or four movies for the price of one, sneaking around when the ushers were looking the other way. I bought a six-pack of Heineken every month when my benefit check arrived and shared my beer with Larry and Sheldon and Shirley. I lived that way for five years and saw no way out but suicide.

For my thirty-fifth birthday Sheldon and Larry and Shirley bought me a tarot reading from Larry’s friend Diedre, and when I looked at the gift certificate I decided that after the reading I would put an end to things.

Larry had assured me that Diedre was a gifted seer, but he hadn’t mentioned she was as beautiful as Maria Escobido. Diedre’s skin was white alabaster, her eyes emerald green, her long brown hair in a pony tail tied with a green scarf, her blue silk blouse embroidered with shimmering silver fish, turquoise rings on her fingers, her voice songful and free of doubt.

We sat facing each other across a small round table, the room lit with candles. She asked me to shuffle the deck and hold the cards and think about my life. So I shuffled the cards and closed my eyes and there was Maria Escobido smiling at me. And I realized it wasn’t true I had to buy something if I wanted to talk to her. Maria liked me whether I bought anything or not. I had invented that lie to defeat myself.

I handed the cards to Diedre and said, “Thank you. The revelations are coming fast and furious.”

She nodded graciously, turned over the top card and said, “This is you.”

“I always wondered who I was,” I said, reading the words on the card—The Magician. “Nice robe. Is he a chemist?”

“Alchemist,” said Diedre, searching my face with her brilliant green eyes. “You possess great power, but your power is unavailable to you because you don’t realize who you are.”

She turned over the next card—The Lovers—started to say something, shook her head and turned over the next card—The Tower. She frowned at the image of a burning castle, touched The Magician, touched The Lovers, touched The Tower and said, “You need to take immediate action or you will lose everything. This is definite. You can’t wait another day. You must act.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” I said, wondering if she knew I was planning to kill myself. “Take action. How?”

“Live your dreams,” she said, tapping The Magician. “Take a chance.”

I got back to my scary part of town at dusk—fog cloaking the streets. Benefit checks were late that month, people angry and desperate. I passed a shiny new Cadillac parked in front of a vacant lot, nothing unusual about such a car being parked in my neighborhood, a drug dealer’s car, no doubt.

And though I knew never to look into parked cars because men with guns did bad things in parked cars in my neighborhood, something made me look and I saw a man sticking a needle into the arm of a girl with her mouth taped shut, her arms tied behind her back—and my rage erupted in a scream and I yanked the door open and the man fumbled for his gun and I kicked him in the face before he could shoot and kicked him again as the driver’s door swung open and somebody huge got out to kill me and I ran away screaming bloody murder and people came rushing out of their houses and swarmed over the car and caught the two men and got the girl out and she was Maria Escobido’s sister.

****

That was thirty years ago. I live far away from Sacramento now in a blue house on the outskirts of a coastal town. I own the village bookstore and my wife Sierra is a chef in the finest restaurant for many miles around.

I would love to tell you that Maria Escobido and I became lovers after I saved her sister, but that didn’t happen. I ran back to my room, stuffed a few precious things into my knapsack, and left a note for Sheldon and Larry and Shirley thanking them for being my friends and explaining if I stayed I would surely be killed. Then I caught a bus to the edge of the city and from there hitchhiked eight hundred miles to the north and got a job as a dishwasher in a café. The owners liked me and eventually gave me a job as a waiter.

One day I charmed a customer who owned a gourmet restaurant and he asked me to come work for him, which I did. A year later he promoted me to maître d’ and I kept that job for many years until I saved enough money to open my bookstore and buy our house.

Sometimes when I’m standing at the bookstore counter reading or writing and the bell over the door jingles, I look up expecting to see Maria Escobido.

In my fantasy, she does a double take, smiles her radiant smile and says, “Oh my God, it’s you.”

And I say to her what she always said to me when I would enter her store after a long absence. “Where have you been hiding, mi amigo? I missed you.” Only I will use the word amiga.

Failure

July 30th, 2014

redemption song nolan winkler

Redemption Song painting by Nolan Winkler

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser July 2014)

“Genius is the ability to renew one’s emotions in daily experience.” Paul Cezanne

Last night I attended the Mendocino Music Festival’s third orchestral concert of this year’s festival, my wife a cellist in the most excellent orchestra. The second half of the program was Symphony No. 2 in E minor by Sergei Rachmaninoff, a massive work that lasted more than an hour. The third movement of the four-movement symphony was especially moving to me—the glorious music swamping my psyche and catalyzing several epiphanies about the novel I’m currently writing.

In the program notes written by Marcia Lotter, a fine local violinist, she wrote that the failure of Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony was so depressing to Rachmaninoff that he was unable to compose anything for ten years, and it was only after successful hypnosis, during which the hypnotherapist implanted positive thoughts about composing in Rachmaninoff’s subconscious, that the great genius was able to resume composing.

“The secret of genius is to carry the spirit of the child into old age, which means never losing your enthusiasm.” Aldous Huxley

When I lived in Berkeley a decade ago, I was, among other things, a babysitter specializing in taking care of children from two in the afternoon until their parents got home from work after five. Favorite babysitting activities included gardening, drawing, taking walks, making fruit smoothies, reading, story telling and playing the piano.

I frequently oversaw two five-year-old boys who were close friends, and one of our favorite things to do was take turns playing my piano for each other and responding with our playing to what we had just heard the other person play. Our music was entirely improvised; atonality and redundancy perfectly okay, with banging the only thing we agreed to keep at a minimum.

These two boys and I enacted our round robin piano concerts fifty times over the course of a year, and one of the boys prefaced every single one of his turns at the piano by saying, “I’m not very good.”

No matter how many times I and the other boy responded to this child’s music with genuine appreciation and applause, he would begin his every turn at the piano with, “I’m not very good.”

One evening I was having supper with this boy and his parents, two smart, funny upbeat people, and after the meal the boy’s mother requested I play a few tunes for them on their piano. I did so, and then the boy’s father said to the boy’s mother, “Play something, honey. How about that Bach you’ve been working on.”

She went to the piano, sat down on the bench, and before playing said, “I’m not very good.”

“I would suspect that the hardest thing for you to accept is your own beauty. Your own worth. Your own dignity. Your own calling to learn to love and allow yourself to be loved to the utmost.” Alan Jones

Most American artists and writers, even famous successful ones, struggle with feelings of failure and inadequacy. The universality of this struggle speaks volumes about our punitive and hierarchical society and the endemic antipathy to original self-expression, not to mention the lack of understanding of art as a practice that is not inherently about the creation of commercial artifacts.

“The purpose of human life is to serve, and to show compassion and the will to help others.” Albert Schweitzer

Long ago, before the advent of personal computers and PDFs and Word documents attached to emails, I spent three of my fifteen years in Sacramento writing an epic poem in the form of a novel entitled Two Rivers. When I finished typing the final version, I made a dozen photocopies of the giant thing, gave them to friends and began work on my next novel. Over the course of the next few years, two valiant literary agents tried and nearly succeeded in selling the book, but ultimately Two Rivers was never published.

A decade after completing Two Rivers, having moved to Berkeley, I went to visit old friends in Sacramento and ran into a photographer I admired but did not know very well, and he asked with some urgency if I would accompany him to his studio. We went to a part of town that in former times had been an industrial area but had long been abandoned by the time I moved to Sacramento in 1980 and remained so until I moved away in 1995. Now the area was a thriving enclave of artists and entrepreneurs, with once derelict warehouses refurbished into studios and galleries and cafés and performances spaces. On a huge lot at the heart of the new mecca was the photographer’s spectacular two-story studio and gallery.

“I bought this place nine years ago right at the start of the renaissance around here,” he explained, walking me through the gallery space and out onto a brick terrazzo surrounding a large fountain burbling away in the bright sunlight. “I couldn’t afford to buy this place now in a million years, but it cost me next to nothing nine years ago.”

“Fantastic,” I said, dazzled by the sight of two red and green parrots perched on a towering cactus.

“I decided to buy this place after I read Two Rivers.” He turned to me and smiled. “I got the manuscript nine years ago from a friend of a friend of your friend Bob. I read it twice without stopping and I’ve read it two more times since. I keep waiting for it to get published but…”

“Never will,” I said, remembering little about the book. “Too dark, too crazy.”

“Yeah, but that’s what helped me get down to my shit, down to what I’d been afraid of my whole fucking life. There I was. You wrote me, man. When Carlo jumped into the river and was drowning and Madman saved him, I swear to God it felt like he was saving me. And when Carlo crawled out of the river, I was changed. Bought this place the next day, stopped taking pictures of dog food and office products and never looked back.”

Heaven and Hell

July 23rd, 2014

Little Sparrow Nolan Winkler

Little Sparrow Nolan Winkler

(This short story from Buddha In A Teacup appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser July 2014)

On their way to a matinee of the San Francisco Ballet, Roger and Susan must stand for the entire journey in a crowded subway car. They are wearing heavy coats on this chilly November day, though inside the slow moving train it is a veritable sauna—the air conditioning having failed.

Susan is twenty-six, a fetching brunette, and Roger is forty-nine, a strikingly beautiful former ballet dancer turned fashion designer. They have known each other for exactly one year, Susan and her two young children having moved from homelessness into the collective household where Roger and his lover Paul have been mainstays for more than a decade.

Paul and Roger were friendly and cordial with Susan for the first few months after she moved in, but they did not become close friends with her until they undertook their annual production of the community musical and Susan became their indefatigable assistant—Paul directing, Roger the choreographer and costume designer.

Rehearsals for the play—Guys and Dolls—proceeded splendidly until a week before opening night when the lead actress—with three big songs and two extravagant dance numbers—fell seriously ill. Paul was about to cancel the show when Susan shyly suggested she could play the part.

“I was a pom-pom girl in high school,” she told them, blushing at her confession. “Back in Tennessee? And I’ve been singing since I was a little kid. Mostly in the shower. But I can sing on key, and I know all the lines, so…”

To their great relief and astonishment, Susan was not only good in the part, she was fantastic. The play, which traditionally ran for two weekends, played to sold out houses for five weekends, and Susan became both a local star and the apple of Roger’s show business eye.

Susan was not as awed by her success as Roger and Paul were, and she returned without complaint to being a breakfast waitress in a nearby café and a mom afternoons and evenings.

Roger, however, was eager for Susan to pursue a show business career, for he saw her as a modern hero triumphing against all odds—with talent worthy of the professional stage.

Paul cautioned Roger about transferring his own frustrated ambition onto Susan, but Roger waved the warning aside, saying, “Oh, I’m just having fun. I just want her to see things so she can get a feel for the magic of it all.”

A voice crackles over the train’s public address system. “We apologize for the delay. We will be traveling at half-speed due to construction work. The air conditioning outage is due to an electrical problem. We apologize for the crowding. Two trains ahead of us went out of service unexpectedly. Thank you for your patience. Have a nice day.”

Roger, sweating profusely, shakes his head in dismay. “And they want to encourage the use of public transportation? Ha! This is a farce.”

Susan takes off her coat revealing her newly created dress, a svelte blue sheath designed and sewn by Roger. The train screeches to a halt and Susan is thrown against a burly man in a gray business suit. “Sorry about that,” she says, righting herself. “Did I hurt you? I’m so sorry.”

“Not at all.” The man smiles wearily and wipes his brow with a white handkerchief. “This is insane.”

“I’ve never been on the subway before.” She grins at him. “I think it’s wonderful.”

“This is not wonderful,” says Roger, running a hand through his perfectly coifed silver hair. “This is hell.”

“At least we’re moving again,” says Susan, nodding hopefully as the train lurches forward. “I’m not at work. And I don’t have the kids, much as I love them. And it’s my birthday. I’m going to the ballet. What could be better than that?”

“We could be sitting in an air conditioned train going fast.” Roger closes his eyes. “This is a nightmare.”

 *

They detrain an hour later in downtown San Francisco, Susan following Roger through the bustling throng to an escalator blockaded with a big Out Of Order sign.

“This is too much,” says Roger, starting up the stairs. “A four-story climb after sweating like pigs for an hour? This is criminal.”

“Yeah, but we’re here!” Susan tugs at his coattails. “I’m so excited, Roger. This is just so great.”

The automatic turnstile won’t let Susan exit the underground. So while Roger waits impatiently on the other side of the barrier, Susan approaches the station attendant in the big glass cubicle to find out why her ticket has been rejected. The attendant—a woman with sad brown eyes and silver fingernails—is talking on her mobile phone, oblivious to Susan.

Roger shouts, “Hurry up! We’ll miss the opening piece!”

The attendant doodles on a notepad and says into her phone, “No, baby, we went there yesterday. I’m tired of Chinese. Let‘s do Mexican today. Chile rellenos sound real good to me right about now.”

“Excuse me.” Susan nods politely to the attendant. “I’m late for a ballet show and my ticket…”

The attendant snatches the card from Susan and sticks it into a slot on her computer console. “Not Maria’s,” she says, continuing her phone conversation. “Let’s go to Cha Cha’s. Better margaritas. Hold on.” She hands the card back to Susan. “There’s no credit on this. You need to add three dollars and seventy cents at the Add Credit machine.”

“But I paid ten dollars in Berkeley,” says Susan, her eyes filling with tears. “And I don’t have any more money with me.”

“Sorry,” says the attendant, yawning. “Machine says that card is dead.”

“Jesus!” cries Roger, waving his arms at Susan. “What the hell’s going on?”

Susan shrugs helplessly. “She says my ticket doesn’t have any credit. And I didn’t bring any more money.”

Roger storms up to the cubicle and shouts through the glass. “Now wait just a god damn minute. We put ten dollars on that card in Berkeley. Our train was a half hour late, the air conditioning didn’t work, the escalators are broken, and now…”

“You want to talk to my supervisor?” The attendant glares out at Roger. “You want to file a complaint?”

“No, ma’am,” says Susan, speaking softly. “None of this is your fault. We know that. But the thing is, it’s my birthday and Roger is taking me to my first ballet. I just love to dance. And he was a ballet dancer. And we’re awful late, so…”

“Okay, go on,” says the attendant, buzzing open the gate. “And teach your friend some manners.”

 *

They race along the crowded sidewalks, arriving at the theater just as the performance is about to begin, and despite Roger’s anguished protests, they are compelled to wait in the lobby until the first piece is completed.

Roger falls onto a sofa and buries his face in his hands. “But this was the piece we wanted you to see. This is the main reason we came. This dance is about you, about your life.”

Susan sits beside him and puts her arms around him. “Roger. It’s okay, honey. There’s four more dances after this one. And this is the most beautiful theater I’ve ever seen. Look at those stairways and those chandeliers. Isn’t this amazing?”

He looks up at her, his cheeks streaked with tears. “But we wanted so much for you to see this piece. Paul will be crushed. We wanted this day to be perfect for you.”

“It is,” she says, smiling at the usher, a grim little man in a gray uniform barring their way to seats in the seventh row. “It is perfect. I love everything about it.”

The door behind the usher opens a crack and a wizened face appears, its twinkling eyes meeting Susan’s, its lips communicating something that causes the usher to beckon to Susan and Roger.

“Come in,” says the usher. “There’s been a slight delay. You have just enough time to get to your seats.”