Friday, December 30, 2016

Some thoughts on Lycanthropy.

Well, it's very nearly the end of the year and I've spent a day floating in the azure waters of the Sea of California, just south of Mazatlan, Sinaloa, Mexico. 

I've had a bit of time, time off the grid, time away from the frenzy of work, time away from the pings and bings and beeps and peeps and chimes and vibrations that are our overlords in our too-connected world.

I read somewhere, I forget where and when, that when a human walks for too long on concrete--when he is too long civilized and conformed and compressed and compacted and contracted and compelled and coerced and cajoled and calendared and conferenced and capacitied and checked and cheapened and chiefed, and you get the idea--he loses his sense of humanity, he becomes, in effect, in-human.

There is of course, and you've seen movies to this effect, a very old and very real psychological torment called lycanthropy.

This is a psychological delusion that manifests itself in a person who believes he has been transformed into a non-human animal, usually a wolf.

Nebuchadnezzar's behavior in Daniel 4 is an early manifestation, according to psychologists, of clinical lycanthropy. And, it's said that King Tiridates III of Armenia suffered from the disorder. When he was cured by Gregory the Illuminator in 301AD, he was so grateful he proclaimed Christianity the state religion, making Armenia the first of the Christian states.

Some millennia earlier, Odysseus' crew may have be afflicted by the ailment at the hands of Circe. I believe they turned into pigs.

I have never quite felt like I was turning into a wolf (but I shave every day just to be on the safe side) and, as a Jew, turning into something non-kosher would certainly offend my sensibilities, not to mention those of my wife, Uncle Slappy and Aunt Sylvie.

That said, as I have said so often, at work and at life, "The world is too much with us..."

So, that's my end of year look back and my beginning of the year look forward.

To be more away from wolves and more at home with myself. Even if I am at work and among the work I have to do.

Because even if the world is too much with us, as Wordsworth wrote almost 211 years ago, we don't have to be too much with the world.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

We travel west again.

My wife and I were up early, as usual, and had breakfast with Teresa. While my wife helped her with the dishes and straightened out our room, I hustled our luggage out to our rental Ford Fusion and loaded the bags in the trunk.

I ran down to the general store and found four large cold bottles of Topo Chico Agua Mineral and placed a bottle in each of the Ford's four cupholders. If you're a connoisseur of sparkling water--or seltzer--as I am, you will likely rate Topo-Chico at the top of your list. It's clean tangy taste and assertive carbonation is one of the many things I look forward to when I travel south of the border.

Then I went inside the house to say goodbye, for now, to Teresa and usher my wife outside.

I am an abrupt leaver. I hate the pain of saying goodbye, so like someone who rips a band-aid quickly off, I make short work of any formalities. My wife, naturally, is the opposite. There's always one more thing she has forgotten to say that or one last chore she must do. The act of leaving, for her, often lasts longer than the fact of staying. 

That said, after about twenty lachrymal minutes we hugged and kissed and cried and cried and kissed and hugged and said it's been too long and it can't be this long again and we must all be together soon because it's been too long and it can't be this long again.

I hustled my wife out to the car, we fastened ourselves in and circled by Gulliermo Sisto's house, honking twice before we headed to route 40D, West from Saltillo. We traveled eight hours through Matamoros, through Torreon (where we played against the Vaqueros Laguna) through the 5,000-foot peaks of Durango and onto the former fishing village, now tourist mecca of Mazatlan, Sinaloa.

In the indigenous Nahuatl language, Mazatlan means "place of deer." And it was for my dear, my wife, that I consented to spending a week doing nothing but laying on a beach in the sun and reading.

We had found an expensive hotel with an ocean view and, once the roar of the air-conditioner was silenced, within ear-shot of the waves of the Pacific.

We work hard at work all year. For the next six days or so, we will be working hard at rest.

I will be writing intermittently. That is if I don't sleep the entire week.

And I'll be recovering from a world that is often too much with us.

As for now, I leave you with this, Wordsworth, which was running through my head as I was running west through Mexico.

I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud

  I wandered lonely as a cloud 
  That floats on high o'er vales and hills, 
  When all at once I saw a crowd, 
  A host, of golden daffodils; 
  Beside the lake, beneath the trees, 
  Fluttering and dancing in the breeze. 

  Continuous as the stars that shine 
  And twinkle on the milky way, 
  They stretched in never-ending line 
  Along the margin of a bay: 
  Ten thousand saw I at a glance, 
  Tossing their heads in sprightly dance. 

  The waves beside them danced; but they 
  Out-did the sparkling waves in glee: 
  A poet could not but be gay, 
  In such a jocund company: 
  I gazed—and gazed—but little thought 
  What wealth the show to me had brought: 

  For oft, when on my couch I lie 
  In vacant or in pensive mood, 
  They flash upon that inward eye 
  Which is the bliss of solitude; 
  And then my heart with pleasure fills,
  And dances with the daffodils. 

Monday, December 26, 2016

A night at Tino's.

At the end of a long day with Teresa and Sisto and, of course, my wife, a long day of laughing, and eating, and drinking, then laughing some more, the four of us piled into my rental car, a Ford Fusion, and drove to Tino's, just about two miles from Teresa's and around the block from Estadio Francesco I. Madura.

We parked the car on the gravel and the four of us slowly got out of the upholstery. We had all seen better days and, I'll admit, it took us no short amount of time to navigate the 12 or 18 feet from the parking lot, up to the porch and into the restaurant.

Further, as so often happens after I fly, my back is "out." Meaning I can do nothing, absolutely nothing, not even throwing coins at an old enameled saucepan without more than my fair share of pain. The worst of the pain comes from getting up and sitting down, and so, getting out of the Ford was a bit of a trial.

The four of us walked slowly past the Christmas decorations to the right of Tino's front door and we quickly found a booth that was just right for us.

Tino came out from behind the counter, took off his apron and, after kissing Teresa and Gulliermo, and hugging me and my wife, brought over a straight back chair and sat with us as one of his grand-daughters brought over a pitcher of beer and five glasses.

Tino ordered five chicken dinners--approximately enough food for the entire Mexican army, and in short order, the heaping plates of chicken and rice and vegetables and hot sauce and who knows what else was placed in front of us and we began, like Ferdinand de Lesseps in Panama, digging a trench in our victuals, hoping to make it to the other end.

The laughter and the drinking and the eating continued, with Tino summoning more beer and presiding over the gathering of old friends with a deep well of stories that brought up laughter from places inside us we no longer knew we had.

He recalled, specifically, the time when I was playing and the Saraperos were once again mired in a long slump.

"You had lost, I think five games in a row, and to hear Hector tell it, the worst part was you were all picking on each other, making each other worse, not better."

"I do not remember," Sisto said. 

"I remember, it was from before you joined the club. Arufe attacked Buentello. Garibay had Adame in a headlock and Hector, well he just lost it."

Tino continued. "Ibarra said something about Batista's madre and Hector went loco. He picked up, in front of all the fans at Estadio, the first thing he could find and began swatting at Ibarra,"

"Never one of Hector's favorites," Sisto added, "He was traded to Torreon the next season."

"He swatted at Ibarra with a five pound bag of sunflower seeds that we used to eat in the dugout.

"All at once, the bag broke and 100,000 seeds flew all over home plate."

"That is when he called us all chicken fuckers," I said.

We laughed and laughed and drank and drank and dug our way through our meals.

We finished at midnight.

For four hours, my back didn't hurt.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Gulliermo Sisto arrives for the day.

Some years ago, as Hector Quesadilla and Gulliermo Sisto neared their 70s--their playing and coaching days were long over--they decided that having spent their lives together on various teams in various cities in various leagues throughout Mexico, that maybe they should spend their waning days together, too.

So Sisto, who never made a lot of money either playing or coaching, scraped together what he had and found he had had enough to buy a small stone house, just three houses away from the larger, more modern concrete block home Hector and Teresa had bought in Saltillo when Hector's playing days had definitively come to a rose-colored close.

Saltillo was a quiet town before the Chrysler plant went in, more like I imagine America in the 1950s. It had a small-town feel, I'm told, with neighbors hanging out on stoops, church picnics and even a soda fountain or two within walking distance.

The Chrysler plant brought noise and dust and dirt and smoke and grime, and yes, crime too. Then, later, drugs came in and almost broke Saltillo, like they broke so many cities. Once, long after my playing days, a gang gun fight broke out in Estadio Francesco I. Maduro, during a game, with rival gangs shooting at each other from across the infield and various Saraperos, and whoever the Saraperos were playing that day, hitting the dust and crawling for cover into the relative safety of the nearest dugout.

But towns, like polluted rivers and lakes, and dirty air and even tarnished friendships, have ways, it seems of repairing themselves, given time and tide, and Saltillo today, is a better place than it's been. It's streets once again quiet save for the jingle of money in the pants pockets of its people.

After breakfast, Sisto, still spry at 87 walked down the lane that separated his small home from Teresa's and he let himself in through the unlocked front door. 

There was coffee on the stove, and Sisto poured himself a large mugful and scooped in sugar like he was operating a backhoe.

We hugged. We hugged the hug of Odysseus seeing Penelope after 20 years. A hug of love and wonder and, yes, a hug of loss and lost years. 

I reintroduced Gulliermo to my wife, and they too hugged, but a more semantic embrace than the hug of the decades that we enjoyed.

What if, I thought, what if I had never returned to a life of convention. What if my year in the Mexican League, playing alongside Sisto, managed by Hector, loved by Karmen and cared for by Teresa, hadn't give way to the suburban pull of expectation and conformity?

What if, I thought, I had played a second season and a third. And then more. What if I woke up one morning at 30 and had played for almost 15 seasons in the Mexican League with a tidy stone house two doors down from Hector and Teresa and a fat pregnant wife who was happy to see me when the games were over.

What if, instead of college and a career and life of chasing after more and more money and accomplishment, I had settled instead on a front porch in Saltillo where, in the warm winter air, I had now with Sisto and drank coffee.

Sisto had placed one of Teresa's enameled saucepans on the front lawn. We sat on a pair of red rocking chairs and we each took ten or twenty coins from our pockets. Sisto's Mexican pesos, mine a combination of American coins and Mexican from my morning trip to the small store up the block.

We drank our coffee, and as we had done so many times before, we rocked in our chairs and tossed our coins at the distant saucepan.

Every so often, one of us would land a quarter or a peso or a bottle cap in the pan, and would slowly get up and collect all the coins that had missed.

"Over there," one of us would yell. "By the rock there are two."

That was our game, and we would play until one of us had all the coins, or long into the night, talking the whole day, and going to bed with roughly the same number of coins with which we had started so many hours before.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Day one in Saltillo.

I'll admit, I've been sleep deprived for the better part of my 59 years. And frankly, as we live and work in increasing insecure and impecunious times, my deprivation has gotten more, not less, egregious.

There are weeks, no, months, on end where I feel like I do little but go to work and return from work, then once I return home only go back to work again.

I had gone to sleep late the night before we arrived at Teresa's and we were up early--at 3:45AM to be precise--for a 5:50AM flight from LaGuardia to Houston, then Houston to Monterrey. Then it was six hours of hard driving through the desert.

I was tired. Tired like a hamster on a wheel. Tired like an old Jew whose soul has grown deep like a river.

We stayed up with Teresa, and had some beers and ate some of her surpassing arroz con pollo--the same recipe that I had had so many times that summer almost 42 years ago. 

When I was done eating, and had cleared the table and washed the dishes, like the good son I was, I said in Spanish as I had said so many evenings so many summers ago: "Es hora de que me golpee el heno." It is time for me to hit the hay.

So, leaving my wife, who is, literally indefatigable, up to spend some time with Teresa, I repaired to the little bedroom I had shared with my summer's inamorata, Karmen Rodriguez. It is never comfortable, I found, sleeping in a room full of memory, especially when you are over-tired and maybe you ate too much arroz con pollo and certainly drank too many cervezas.

I pulled the covers off my side of the bed. I never sleep with covers and folded the blankets and sheets onto my wife's half. The bed was short and my feet stuck out from between the slats of the footboard, but in moments I was in a deep slumber, only unable to fall asleep for two or three hours when my wife came in after midnight and woke me with her attempts at quiet.

I fell asleep for good, finally, around three in the morning, and slept a deep dreamless sleep like a Mexican night, black and soft with a gentle breeze and full of stars and the chirp of a trillion sombrero-wearing crickets.

I woke at five, which is what I do, and walked down the street to a small market and bought a dozen oranges, using American dollars, and a cup of black coffee and some milk, just in case, then went home to Teresa's and hand-squeezed some orange juice for the three of us.

I drank my coffee slowly. It was thick and bitter and good, and I read "El Diario de Coahuila." which arrived with a thud on Teresa's doorstep. Then, having read all the paper I could manage with my Spanish rusty from lack of use and from 40 years of speaking primarily New York Spanglish, I turned on my mac, checked my mail, of course, and ready the gloomy news from the Times.

By then it was seven, and Teresa was awake. And she was ready to make her son some huevos.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

A drive through the desert.

Perhaps my favorite six or seven hour stretch on this not-so-green earth is the lonely, quiet ride from Corpus Christi, Texas to Saltillo, Coahuila, Mexico.

This trip, however, my wife insisted that we try a less circuitous route to Saltillo. So, we flew to Monterrey, rented a Ford Fusion, and drove an hour and a half through the mountains and the desert to the small concrete block home I lived in so many decades ago, belonging to Teresa Quesadilla.

The first thing I did upon entering the car was hook up my iPhone to the Ford's sound system. I found in my music library the song above, 'Tampico,' by the unsurpassed Beverly Kenney and I proceeded to listen to it ten or twelve times through as we covered the dusty distance southwest.

My wife, I must say, was a trouper through all this. After playing 'Tampico' two or three times, she gave me her look. But having been married almost 33 years, I have learned to ignore her occasional termagant tendencies, as she has certainly learned to ignore both the worst and the best of my moods and behaviors.

Nevertheless, enjoying Kenney as I do, I played 'Tampico' over and again. I can think of virtually no song better to listen to as I sped through the desert at 100 mph, about all the Ford could handle.

"You know, there are other songs," my wife stated laconically. "Even other songs about Mexico. Assuming you actually believe this song is about Mexico."

"It ain't exactly 'La Cucaracha,'" I answered. "But it is a song I listened to with Hector and Teresa and Guillermo Sisto so many years ago."

My wife stared at the window at the arid scenery. If she were the spitting type, she would have rolled down the window and let one go. Instead, she did what she does so well. What so many who know me do so well. She stared into her phone and ignored me completely.

Looking to assuage her bruised musical sensibilities, I threw my iPhone into shuffle, and quickly some Puccini or Rossini or Verdi or Wagner came on and as the opera began, our opera was over. We drove the rest of the way in more than a little silence.

It all seemed so familiar. The dry earth. The half-built and abandoned cinder-block homes, the faded billboards--first one for Coke, then for Pepsi. First one for the PRI--the Institutional Revolutionary Party, then one screaming in giant letters PRD, Party of the Democratic Revolution. 

Either one, like Coke and Pepsi, would rot your teeth and steal your soul, but those were the choices, like the choices you're given just about everywhere in life. A dull and deadly choice of death by a thousand cuts, or death by 999.

The ever-expanding pollution surrounding Saltillo was upon us now. Like Homer's rosy-fingered dawn. Only it wasn't rosy and it wasn't dawn. It was a sulfurous rusty red and you could fairly smell the smoke. 

Clumps of suburbs were here and there, with clumps of American big box stores like Home Depot and Walmart. I took an early exit off of highway 40, and swung around into route 57, skirted Santa Monica Industrial Park near where Chrysler had built their giant assembly plant for minivans. Then I took some backroads around Estadio Francesco I. Maduro, showing the old ballpark to my wife with some quiet words like, "there she is."

From the stadium, I found Teresa's house, pulling into the short driveway just as I had hoped, before six, before dinner time.

Teresa came slowly down the walk, wearing a yellow dress and looking younger than her 86 years. We hugged and kissed and introduced her to my wife. They walked into the small house while I gathered our luggage from the trunk.

Inside, there was a pitcher of lemonade on the table and four glasses.

Barbara Kenney was on the stereo.

Singing, as I imagined, 'Tampico.' 

Monday, December 19, 2016

Back to Saltillo.

Forty-two years ago when I headed to Saltillo, Mexico, I first took the New Haven Rail Road down to Grand Central Terminal, then I walked crosstown, with my army-fatigue green canvas duffle slung over my shoulder, to Port Authority.

I had two-hundred dollars with me, $50 in my wallet, and $150 taped inside my canvas sneakers. I had some ratty old clothes, a couple of paperback books, and a letter from my baseball coach, Mr. Babich, as a means of introducing me to however many managers it would take for me to land a job playing ball.

I hustled past Bryant Square park and its legion of heroin addicts. I swung my bag like David his sling, lest some muggers run at me with knives or box cutters. I made it past the porno theatres and the peep shows and finally into the urine-sodden bus terminal. I headed straightaway to the filthy scratched-up bullet-proof plexiglass guarding the indolent ticket-sellers at the Greyhound counter.

My knocking finally roused an old man who was sitting on his stool smoking a cigarette.

“One-way to Corpus Christi.”

“Corpus Christi, Texas?”

“Is there another one?”

“One-way, $37.75. Gate 149. 2:30.”

I paid him the fare, with two twenties, counted my $2.25’s change and looked at my watch. I had two hours to kill before my bus, so I headed to the Orange Julius on the main flight of the terminal for two franks and an orange drink. That killed about 12 minutes and left me with a ten dollar bill of the $50 I had had in my wallet.

On the mezzanine level, I found a small bookstore and I browsed for 30 minutes through the fiction, buying a .75-cent paperback edition of Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward, Angel.” I opened my duffle and squeezed it in among my wrinkled clothing, my Rawlings “Finest in the Field” Brooks Robinson-model infielder’s glove and my Riddell black-leather baseball spikes.

Next-door, I found a liquor store and furtively walked along the aisles until I found a bottle of Early Times bourbon—a two-pint bottle that I could carry in the back pocket of my blue jeans. I avoided making eye-contact with the frown behind the counter; I was only 17 and it was illegal for me to buy liquor, but he took my ten without a word and shoved seven dollars and some change back my way, along with the small bottle in a bottle-sized brown-paper bag.

I left the store with an hour still to kill before my bus. I found a bench unoccupied by drunks or creeps and opened the variously-folded map they had given me of my route to Corpus Christi.

The trip was to take 45 hours in all, 29 stops including transfers in Richmond, Atlanta, Mobile and Houston. I’d be going through places I’d never heard of before, through a world I’d never seen before. Away.

I cracked open my Thomas Wolfe and my Early Times and had a go at each. The bourbon burned as I drank it down, and so did the opening lines of Wolfe. Wolfe always hurt, which is why, even at 17, I loved him.

. . . a stone, a leaf, an unfound door; of a stone, a leaf, a door.
And of all the forgotten faces.

Naked and alone we came into exile.  In her dark womb we did not
know our mother's face; from the prison of her flesh have we come
into the unspeakable and incommunicable prison of this earth.

Which of us has known his brother?  Which of us has looked into his
father's heart?  Which of us has not remained forever prison-pent?
Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone?

O waste of loss, in the hot mazes, lost, among bright stars on this
most weary unbright cinder, lost!  Remembering speechlessly we seek
the great forgotten language, the lost lane-end into heaven, a
stone, a leaf, an unfound door.  Where?  When?

O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.

I walked finally to gate 149 and waited there in line breathing the diesel soot and the summer smell of a billion passengers, passengers going nowhere, passengers going away, passengers like me, running away from homes they never had. I swigged a swig and recited the map I had memorized.

Newark, Newark, DE, Richmond, Raleigh, Charlotte, Spartanburg, Duncan. Greenville, Anderson, Gainesville, Norcross, Atlanta, Columbus, Opelika, Montgomery, Evergreen, Mobile, Baton Rouge, Beaumont Vidor, Houston, Rosenberg. Wharton, El Campo, Victoria, Refugio, Odem Sinton. Corpus Christi. And from there, to Saltillo.

I swigged another swig and found a row near the front with no one next to me. I rested my head against the greasy dust of the window and stared out at the grime as the bus began to roll. And roll. And roll.
Now, it is almost 42 years after my baseball Odyssey and I am returning, once again, wife in tow, to Saltillo. We are flying non-stop to Monterrey—roughly a five-hour flight—then renting a car and driving about an hour to Saltillo. We should be at Teresa’s house, lord willing, by dinnertime.

I tried to persuade my wife to take with me the bus instead of flying. She gave me a look—a look only a man’s wife could give him. And I promptly folded my bus-proffering tent.

We take off in about ten minutes.