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All At Once

All At Once

Spring Display photo by Todd

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser April 2015)

“Love exists in itself, not relying on owning or being owned.” Sharon Salzberg

Last year, handguns killed forty-eight people in Japan, eight in Great Britain, fifty-two in Canada, twenty-one in Sweden, and 10,728 in the United States. I was listening to the Giants sweep the Dodgers and feeling euphoric and glad when I received the email with those handgun death statistics, and I was reminded of a dharma talk I attended many years ago in Berkeley.

After her prepared talk, the Buddhist teacher took questions from the audience. A woman asked, “How can we be happy when there is so much suffering in the world, so much violence and cruelty and inequity, and so much of it unnecessary?”

The teacher replied, “If we immerse ourselves in news of suffering and violence, it is very difficult to be happy. Life is full of sorrow and joy. Sometimes we feel great and have wonderful experiences, sometimes we are sick and miserable. That’s the nature of life. Buddha said nothing about striving to be happy. He did suggest we make a conscious effort to be kind to each other and to ourselves. Kindness is now the heart of my practice.”

Speaking of sick and miserable, I recently suffered through a bad case of food poisoning that rendered two days entirely void of happiness for me. And yet, during those same two days, the lettuce doubled in size, the apple trees burst forth with hundreds of lovely blossoms, and Marcia was full of her usual vim and vigor and love of life.

“There are good and bad tastes, good and bad feelings, agreeable and disagreeable ideas. It is our attachment to them that creates suffering.” Shunryu Suzuki

This morning we discovered our thirteen-year-old cat Django has not yet retired from hunting, though we thought he had. A decapitated, eviscerated little rabbit greeted us as we opened the door to the laundry room where Django has his bed. I scooped the carcass up with my shovel and flung the body into the forest where all the atoms of that formerly cute furry animal will soon be scattered around the cosmos.

Speaking of the cosmos, the news lately is full of reports of planets just a hop skip and jump away, if only we could travel faster than the speed of light, that might be loaded with water, might be conducive to life as we know it, and might already have life fermenting thereon. I read these reports and can’t help wondering if they are another ploy to distract us from our collective annihilation of the planet we currently occupy.

Yet another collection of eminent climate scientists have come out with a declaration that unless humans reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2050, there is little chance the biosphere will remain habitable for children and other living things. Meanwhile, carbon emissions are increasing every year and the powers that be spend trillions of dollars on weaponry that might be spent switching us from fossil fuels to renewables.

Speaking of renewables, did you know the state of Washington is experiencing a historic drought? We knew California was dry as a bone with a snow pack less than ten per cent of normal, but Washington’s snow pack is not much better. This is bad news for salmon and kayakers, but really bad news for apple lovers because Washington grows seventy per cent of all the apples in America and commercial apple farming uses lots of water.

“When you are walking, there is no foot ahead or behind.” Shunryu Suzuki

Everything is happening all at once. My brother’s good friend was just struck and killed by a bicyclist. A young couple we know is about to have a baby. Our government is about to pass so-called Free Trade Agreements that will give corporations supremacy over state and national laws. Rain is drumming on the roof and I have the hiccoughs.

Meanwhile, the Giants are up two to nothing against the Colorado Rockies behind our good young pitcher Chris Heston who comes to us courtesy of injuries to several of our other pitchers not half as good as he. Who knew? Playing at mile-high stadium in Denver where the thinner air favors the hitters will be a big test for the young hurler.

Then there are the resurgent redwood roots. I’ve been gardening in redwood root country now for nine years and am fast approaching the point of surrender. Now the Rockies have tied the game. And now we’ve gone ahead of the Rockies, but now they’re threatening again. Life is threatening and lovely and I just cancelled the manure run for tomorrow because it’s raining hard and Kathy’s corral will be a quagmire. Now the Rockies have tied the game. Nothing is certain.

A recent exhaustive study of the most recent American election, referenced by Noam Chomsky, reveals the level of voter participation today is equivalent what it was in the early nineteenth century when only landed white men were allowed to vote. No wonder our government is so entirely out of synch with the wishes of the American populace. To make matters worse, the Rockies have now gone ahead of the Giants five to four.

Should I live so long, I will be a hundred-and-one-years-old in 2050, though given my tendency to eat questionable foods and hurt myself, the chances of that are not good. Besides if we don’t reduce carbon emissions to zero long before then, nobody will be alive in 2050. But we never know what might happen. This is not wishful thinking but an acknowledgment that life is unpredictable. There may come a moment when everything happening all at once precipitates a sudden cessation of carbon emissions.

In the meantime, the Rockies are now up six to four as we head into the seventh inning. The rain has abated, the lettuce seems delighted by this April shower and as my Uncle Howard was fond of saying, “We’ll see what develops.”

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Play Ball

 play ball

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser April 2015)

“When they start the game, they don’t yell, ‘Work ball.’ They say, ‘Play ball.’” Willie Stargell

The day before Opening Day of Baseball Season 2015, Lon Simmons died at the age of ninety-one. Lon and his broadcasting partner Russ Hodges were the San Francisco Giants radio announcers when I was a boy and a teenager, and Lon’s voice and laconic style are etched in my memory as deeply as the voice of any close relative.

Opening Day 2015 was five days ago as I write this, and in the first game of the new season the Giants eked out a victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks in our usual nail-biting fashion. Our super hero starter Madison Bumgarner pitched seven dominant innings and left the game with a four-run lead courtesy of our boys hitting singles and doubles in bunches. Our bullpen promptly gave up three runs in the bottom of the eighth and we went to the bottom of the ninth clinging to a one-run lead.

Then our closer, Santiago Casilla, struck out slugger Paul Goldschmidt to end the game and we were undefeated in 2015. Until the next night when Bruce Bochy revealed his biggest flaw as a manager—leaving pitchers in games when those pitchers clearly have nothing left in the tank.

“Baseball is ninety percent mental and the other half is physical.” Yogi Berra

From 1979 until 1996, with a two-year break from 87-89, Hank Greenwald was the incomparable radio play-by-play guy for the Giants. He was laid back and funny and a wonderful storyteller, and when his long stint as the Voice of the Giants ended, I seriously doubted there would ever be anyone good enough to fill Hank’s shoes.

But a year later the magnificent Jon Miller took the radio reins along with former Giants infielder Duane Kuiper, and five years after Jon took over, David B. Flemming, a young upstart, now approaching middle age, joined the team. Excellent game-callers all, Miller is the top bard and comedian of the bunch and a brilliant imitator of other famous baseball announcers. When the Giants play the hated Dodgers, Jon always does an ear-perfect Vin Scully and makes me glad we have Jon and Duane and Dave announcing our games and not the venerable and uninteresting Scully. That’s a Giants fan talking. In Los Angeles, Vin is God.

“Baseball is like church. Many attend, few understand.” Leo Durocher

I listen to games on a little silver Sony transistor radio. I take it to the garden, set it on the counter while I’m doing dishes, stand it in the cup holder in our ancient pickup, and frequently take the little thing to bed when games run past my bedtime.

To celebrate the season opener, I empowered my trusty radio with two new batteries and listened to the game under the influence of a miserable cold. As bad as I felt, I was happy listening to the game, and even happier when we won.

With the world going up in flames, the state suffering from catastrophic drought, lunatics and criminals running our government, and over-population synergizing with global warming to spawn more and bigger disasters, why do I care if a man on the radio describes how one team of baseball players prevails over another team of baseball players? I care because I am hard-wired to care, and I did the wiring myself.

I was nine when the Giants came to San Francisco in 1958. Having teethed on Seals games, I was a rabid Giants fan from Day One. I memorized batting averages and earned run averages and home run numbers, and I listened to every single game. Indeed, the ongoing challenge of my childhood was how to listen to night games broadcast after my bedtime.

Transistor radios were not widely available until the 1960’s, and the radio I listened to in the 1950’s was the size of a shoebox, made of steel, and full of tubes that got so hot when activated by electricity that the radio was too hot to touch. Many a night I fell asleep listening to Lon Simmons preaching on that hot box hidden under my covers, the volume so low it was only audible to my ear resting an inch from the hot metal, and therefore inaudible to my mother and father who believed sports were stupid and bad and would keep me out of medical school should I live so long. And on a few occasions, as I drifted off to dreamland, my ear would touch the hot metal and I’d wake with a start, yelping in pain.

“Now there’s three things you can do in a baseball game. You can win or you can lose or it can rain.” Casey Stengel

The Giants, as you probably know, have won the World Series three times in the last five years after not winning a World Series since the Pleistocene. Now that we have won again and again and again, my fellow tribe members and I expect to go to the World Series and win the trophy every year. How could we so quickly forget more than half a century of losing? Must be genetic.

I listen to Jon and Dave and Duane describing nine men playing a game against nine other men and I see the game vividly in my mind’s eye. In fact, the game I imagine while listening to Jon Miller paint word pictures is far more complicated and beautiful and emotionally fulfilling than games I see on television.

Marcia and I don’t have a television. If we had one, I would watch baseball, football, basketball, tennis, volleyball, golf, bowling, and documentaries about tree sloths, though not hockey or car racing. I wired myself to listen to baseball games on the radio, but humans are born wired to watch television. Having figured this out a long time ago, I realized if I wanted to do anything with my life other than watch television, it would behoove me not to have one in my house. Fortunately, Marcia is of the same mind, and she digs listening to baseball games on the radio, too.

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Curve Again

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.