Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Zorba the Drink

My favorite books of all time?  That compilation changes faster than New York Times Bestsellers, but there are always a few constants, a few books so great they're always on my list with one book is so wonderful it never leaves my Top Three - Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis.

The book has been a favorite of mine for as long as I can remember having favorite books.  Zorba is one of those characters - created by a writer, never flesh and blood except on the page - who is more fervently real than most of the people I meet every day.  That's why he gets this month's drink in our newsletter.

"What's happening today, this minute, that's what I care about.  I say:  'What are you doing at this moment, Zorba?'  'I'm sleeping.'  'Well, sleep well.'  'What are you doing at this moment, Zorba?'  'I'm working.'  'Well, work well.'  'What are you doing at this moment, Zorba?'  'I'm kissing a woman.'  'Well, kiss her well, Zorba!  And forget all the rest while you're doing it; there's nothing else on earth, only you and her!  Get on with it!'"

Karen gave me a leather-bound journal on Valentine's Day, 1986, and that quote was one of the first I entered.  I'd read books, or articles, or attend a lecture, and if something jumped out at me - into the Journal it went.  Books usually got only one entry, and so that was the first entry from Zorba that resonated - then.  But then...

...but then, in 1989, I went to Greece for the first time.  And took Zorba with me.  And we traveled through Greece together, Zorba and I.  But reading Zorba?  In Greece?  It was no longer a passage that resonated - pages resonated.  I was overwhelmed.

Happy is the man, I thought, who, before dying, has the good fortune to sail the Aegean Sea.


'The idea's everything,' he said.


Zorba sees everything every day as if for the first time.


It is a great pleasure to enter a Cretan peasant's home....The house appears empty, but it contains everything needful, so few in reality are the true necessities of man.

My Journal, for a time, was taken over by Zorba the Greek.  So many of the passages weren't merely a mirror held up to life - they were Life.  My Life.  That entry about a Cretan peasant's home?  My cousin, Geó̱rgios, living in a horio (village) in Crete, owned so few things - but I've not met many men who were happier than he.

My memories of Geó̱rgios:  the glee with which he showed me the baby owl nesting in the small courtyard outside his house.  He spread its wings wide before returning it to safety.


Katina, his wife, bringing out the tray of Ouzo for the men to share.  I dutifully took the shot glass she offered and - having learned during those summer months that the easiest way to drink the Ouzo thus offered was to shoot it, quick - I shot it, quick.

But - when the liquor hit the back of my throat I knew this wasn't Ouzo.  It was a strong home brew, Raki, or Cretan Tsikoudia - the Greek version of White Lightning.  And Geó̱rgios and the rest of the men gathered there in Kaina, that village in Crete, looked at the crazy young American as he swallowed the undiluted drink - while they merely wet their upper lip with the booze before tossing the rest of the shot onto a dead bush crinkled brown near where the owl nested.

Geó̱rgios would give me a flask of my own when I left - with the admonition that even though I liked it so much, I had to promise to cut it with water.  To cut it with a lot of water. 

He leaped into the air and his feet and arms seemed to sprout wings.  As he threw himself straight in the air against that background of sea and sky, he looked like an old archangel in rebellion.  For Zorba's dance was full of defiance and obstinacy.  He seemed to be shouting to the sky:  "What can you do to me, Almighty?  You can do nothing to me except kill me.  Well, kill me, I don't care!  I've vented my spleen, I've said all I want to say, I've had time to dance....and I don't need you anymore!


Faces change, crumble, return to earth; but others rise to take their place.  There is only one dancer, but he has a thousand masks.  He is always twenty.  He is immortal.

I was about twenty, then, immortal then.  Dancing then - lots of dancing, then, with my Theo Niko.  My Theo Niko singing - drinking and singing and dancing.

My Theo Yanni - knocking on my door at five in the morning after I left my cousins at three, knocking because I said I'd go with him and milk his goats and check on his olives and water the few crops he had growing all over the island.  Little patches of land, some not much bigger than your living room, enough to keep one goat tethered - and so we drove and fed them and milked them and he'd make cheese, later, with this fresh milk.

Or he'd turn on a spigot, in a different area, above a different patch of ground, and the water would run down the small rows where he'd grow feed for his goats, and we'd talk in the cool of the morning and then Theo Yanni would kick a few pebbles with his scuffed boot and the water would change course.  The few rocks he dislodged would change the course of this trickle we were following and it would feed another row, and he'd do that - as the water wet the earth - he'd kick a few more rocks, taking his time.  There's no rushing in Greece.  Everyone takes their time - at least they do on the islands.

And later as the sun rose we came across one goat, just a kid - a runt - and it had been attacked by a billy goat and Theo Yanni knew the kid was in trouble so he threw it into the back of his truck with me, and after we finished our rounds he put it in the cool shed where the milk would ferment.  Soon after, though, his son - my cousin, Taki - went in to see how the kid was doing...

And then Taki shot out of the shed screaming, Afto pethane!  It's died!  It's died!

Theo Yanni ran in and grabbed the kid and tied its back legs together and threw the rope over a beam and hung that goat high, by its legs, before slitting its throat - because, he explained to me while the blade sliced the goat's neck, he had to bleed the goat out.  The meat would be useless to him unless he did this - and a waste like that couldn't easily be borne.

Except the goat had died and so its heart had stopped pumping - so no blood pulsed from its slit neck.  So my Theo cut the goat down, fast - here was a time to rush, finally a time to rush on the island of Skyros - and Theo Yanni grabbed a bicycle pump from somewhere close, and he stuck the business end of the pump into the main artery of the goat's thigh and looked up at me and at his son, Taki, and at my cousin, Peter - Peter, like me, from California.  Taki just screamed some more - Oxi!  No!  No! - and I looked at my Theo, confused, and so it was left to Peter who understood what needed doing.

And what needed doing was pumping the pump.  The pump with its needle stuck into the artery of the dead goat at his feet.  Pump pump pump - and suddenly the dirt next to my Theo's patio was awash with blood, the blood rhythmically pumping out of the goat as if by its own beating heart, when instead it gushed because of the maniacal up and down pumping being done by a man from Stockton.

Did Peter smile for the camera, for his cousin, Nick?  He did.  Was the meat of the goat wasted?  It was not - it became souvlaki that night.

Back home?  In the States?  The story is met with horror, revulsion.  But in Greece?  On the island?  On Skyros it made perfect sense.

To Zorba it would have made perfect sense.

After visiting my family on Crete - the General and his brother, Giorgios, their brother, Andoni - the only other thing I needed to do was visit the grave of Nikos Kazantzakis.  He's buried on the outskirts of Heraklion because the Greek Orthodox Church wouldn't let him be buried in holy ground.

No cemetery, then, for Nikos Kazantzakis - for the author of The Last Temptation of Christ.

Anyone would be struck by the simplicity of his resting place.  There's no name - no stone that reads—

Nikos Kazantzakis
Born 18 February 1883
Died 26 October 1957

—but there is a cross, wooden and tall.  And a headstone, yes, but instead of his name and when he was born, when he died, it has three lines from his work, The Saviors of God.  Just those lines, and nothing more.

Δεν ελπίζω τίποτα.  (I hope for nothing.)
Δε φοβούμαι τίποτα.  (I fear nothing.)
Είμαι λέφτερος.  (I'm free.)

I sat there, warm in the Cretan sun, and thought about those words, and Zorba.  And my family, near and far.  I thought about my mom, who traveled to Greece with me - the first time she'd been back since she left Skyros in 1961.  I thought about her reunion with her own mother.  Joyous.  Thought about the fact that I'd purchased a ring for Karen in Thessaloniki because I was having a wonderful time in Greece - but it would have been infinitely better with her, and so I would ask her when I returned to Berkeley from Greece, I would ask her to marry me.

So could I, too, say that I hoped for nothing when I hoped for so much?

Once more there sounded within me....the terrible warning that there is only one life for all men, that there is no other, and that all that can be enjoyed must be enjoyed here.  In eternity no other chance will be given to us.
A mind hearing this pitiless warning - a warning which, at the same time, is so compassionate - would decide to conquer its weakness and meanness, its laziness and vain hopes and cling with all its power to every second which flies away forever.

Funny thing about Zorba the Greek - the book.  The book that I love.  When Simon & Schuster published it in the United States for the first time, they didn't actually publish a translation of the Greek.  They instead published a French translation of the Greek into English.

Greek to French to English.

I'm sure it made sense - but, the problem with that is this:  Kazantzakis is a son of his country, and as a son of Greece he reveled in the idiosyncrasies of the Greek language.  And Cretan Greek is different from Skyrian Greek is different from Athenian Greek.  I can't imagine getting the sort of wonderful detail down on the page that Kazantzakis strove for by doing the Greek/French/English thing.

Thankfully, this month, Simon & Schuster is remedying that by publishing a new translation of Zorba the Greek - their first since the book came out in 1953.  I found out about it because Wendy Sheanin looks out for me - she's the Director of Marketing for Simon & Schuster, and yes, it's good to have friends in high places.  So there's Wendy in New York, there's their amazing rep, Cheri Hickman, keeping me up to speed on this coast - Book People, we take care of each other.

To say thanks, I mixed up a little something I originally called the Hot Zorba.  I wanted it to have rum, because that's the drink the young Greek intellectual shares with Alexis Zorba at the beginning of the novel.  Our smart friend wanted to drink sage tea, but Zorba scoffed at that.

"Sage?" he uttered with contempt.  "Over here, waiter!  Rum!"

In addition to Zorba's preference - the rum - I would have liked to add Tsikoudia.  Ouzo, though, is more readily available and I want you to try this - so Ouzo.

At first I called this a Hot Zorba because it's very close to a Toddy.  But after tasting it I realized that what I had in my hands was, of course, Zorba the Drink.  Please, read the book, drink the drink - and then we'll talk about it.

Yia sou!

Zorba the Drink:

.5 oz dark rum
.5 oz ouzo
.5 oz lemon juice

.5 oz honey
3 - 5 oz tea

Mix all ingredients - except tea - in a warm mug.  Top off with tea.  Garnish with a cinnamon stick, lemon peel and a sage leaf.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Richard Ford is going to be Frank with you

Frank Bascombe, from Richard Ford's prize winning trilogy (The Sportswriter, Independence Day, and The Lay of the Land), is back in a collection of four Ford novellas, Let Me Be Frank With You.

In the first tale, I'm Here, Frank, the (now) old realtor views the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy.  The unlucky soul he sold his own house to - that house now lying on its side - wants Frank's opinion on what he should now do.  On his way to this uncomfortable meeting, Frank thinks about age, about getting old - wondering why it is that the elderly always break something when they fall.  Has the distance you fall somehow grown greater as people age?

Frank here ruminates - a lot.  And something that recurs during these ruminations is the sonnet, Ozymandias.  And while my Egyptian history needs brushing up, I do know that the star of that poem, the pharaoh Ramesses II, enjoyed wine.  I also know that a very common sweetener in old Egypt was honey - so I wanted to begin with those ingredients.

One of the images that will stick with readers is Frank - surveying the wrecked neighborhood that used to be his - now full of hardworking men trying to lay claim to the land, again.  He can hear snippets of their conversation - mostly Spanish - and that led me to think about drinks these men would enjoy.

Also, I was thirsty for Sangria, so I decided to recast it, this time using mezcal instead of brandy to complement the wine.  And instead of tossing a lot of chopped fruit into the drink - as, yes, you should do with Sangria - I opted to just using fruit as a garnish.  So in the end, I've got Shelley's Ozymandias coming at you by way of Spain.  Enjoy.


3 oz. red wine
1 oz mezcal
.5 oz honey syrup
Club soda

Stir all - except the soda - with ice.  Strain into a rocks-filled glass.  Top with soda and garnish with orange and cherry.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Game Four - Clinching at 30,000 Feet

It's the last day in our quick Chicago trip - Tuesday, October 7th - and Karen is attending the second day of her conference.  Before that, though, we're going to head to the American Girl store.  My Chicago friend Stacey was worried - she thought we had our own girls with us and warned that a visit to AG with the kids could have been disastrously expensive.  Since it was just Karen and me, though, she figured we could do some damage but still make it out alive.

With daughters in tow?  A different outcome entirely.  As it was - Venimus, emimus, viximus.

If I was keeping score - our hotel (check), the Billy Goat Tavern (check), an American Girl emporium (check), all on Chicago's Magnificent Mile?  Not bad, Windy City.  Not bad.

On our way back to the hotel, some of Chicago's finest stared at us, peering out from the Water Works.

Karen went to finish up at her Conference while I made my way to the Art Institute.  During such a short trip we ended up doing about one percent of the things we wanted to do, but the Art Institute, for me?  Part of the one percent.

Getting there took me past some of those singular Chicago buildings I floated by the day before, like the corn cobs of Marina City on State Street.

When I got to the Art Institute, I ended up with about an hour to spend there - which is like giving yourself sixty minutes to learn Greek.

Two great exhibits that I ran through:  Magritte, the Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926 - 1938 and Heaven and Earth, Art of Byzantium.

Just phenomenal, both.  To see Magritte's painting, This is Not a Pipe?  That image I've seen hundreds of times?  But to see it in person?  How beautifully it's rendered?  The colors that no reproduction can capture?

Or the pieces in the Greek collection?  So many stunning works - like one of the icons deep in the exhibit.  It shows Christ on the Cross with the Virgin Mary on one side and a second figure on the other.  It's so large - and gorgeous in gold.  But at some point after the fall of Constantinople, the icon was disfigured - the faces of the three figures gouged out, possibly with the tip of a sword.  This kind of defacement was common, and when I told my mom about it, she made the sign of the cross and muttered something under her breath.

And honestly?  I shared her disgust - the defacement of art or icon is small minded.  Stupid.


Of course, then I told my mom about the gorgeous Head of Aphrodite that begins the show.  A wonderful marble bust from the First Century - the curls in Aphrodite's hair?  How it's seemingly cinched in the back?  Incredible.

But what really draws your attention in this amazing display of the sculptor's art is the cross crudely carved into her forehead.  Just hacked into her (once) smooth skin.  Also begging for your attention is the fact that her eyes have been attacked, as if the madman had tried to blind her.  And the clumsy chiseling on her mouth in an attempt to, what?  Silence her?  But those rough strikes like those elsewhere on her face - perpetrated in this case not by a Turk conqueror of the Byzantine Empire, but by an early Christian wreaking the same kind of havoc on a symbol of a religion not his own.

We've been doing the same thing for thousands of years, with no end in sight.

Aren't we precious.

But all this art can't keep us away from the Giants.  Try as it might, Chicago can't keep us away from the men in orange and black - the Giants who were trying to clinch the Division Series against the Washington Nationals.

The Nats were the pride of the league and were picked by most every pundit to win this Series.  With some ease.

So we left Chicago - flew out of Midway International - had been in the air for some while before the game began.  By then I had made friends with two guys - Monty and Nick - in the aisle across from ours.  They were returning to the Bay Area after attending a convention for Wendy's franchise owners.

Why are Wendy's hamburgers square? Nick asked.

I sipped my Diet Coke, thought about it, but then finally shrugged.

Because we don't cut corners! he said, and he and Monty gave each other a high five.

Not only were these two cracking wise, they also had a tablet that they fired up mid-flight to catch the Game.  I strained my neck trying to follow the action until Nick turned the tablet all the way around so that he was straining his neck and I was watching comfortably.

That's totally unnecessary, I said, not sounding even remotely convincing.

No, it's fine, Nick said.  I can watch it easy, no problem - and his solution was to put it practically in his wife's lap.  She had the window seat and was a real trooper who let her husband inconvenience her so that I could watch the game.

Right?  A round of applause is in order.

I got a little loud early when the Giants scored a ridiculous run in the second on a bases-loaded walk, and got even louder when they scored again immediately on a Joe Panik ground-out.  Karen told me to pipe down, which was understandable.  The lights on the plane were low, some people were trying to rest - but in my defense, your Honor, the Giants were battling for the Series victory, and they had just scored the first run by dint of a walk when the bases were drunk.

The play of the game, another one that made me get loud and that made Karen remind me that we were on a plane and not in the stands at AT&T, was when herky-jerky Hunter Pence threw his body into the wall in deep right field as he stole extra bases from Jason Werth.  Slammed his body into that wall, fell to the ground, but kept control of the ball the entire time.  Just a long - though violent - out.

In the seventh, after our plane had long since began its descent, all electronic equipment had to be turned off.  As soon as Nick's tablet was turned back on, we learned that Bryce Harper had again crushed another home run - tying the game.

The jerk - he's really good, but still - had a lot to say in the dugout after clouting his homer.  Thankfully, his grin was short-lived as the Giants scored once in the bottom half of that same seventh inning.  On a wild pitch.  With the bases loaded.

That's worse than a bases-loaded walk, which we'd already seen.

Karen and I caught this action on a tv at a bar in the very quiet Oakland airport.  Very quiet until that walk when it got a little bit loud - this time, Karen didn't bother telling me to keep it down.  She whooped it up a bit herself.

Did I mention that you do not throw a wild pitch with the bases loaded when the score is tied in an elimination game and you're the one in danger of being eliminated?  Alas, Aaron Barrett did just that and almost gave another run away when, on an intentional walk to Pablo Sandoval - the panda who had induced the wild pitch - Barrett threw the ball to the backstop.  While trying to intentionally walk the batter.

You don't see that kind of meltdown from a professional ballplayer in the postseason - and yet you did.  Fortunately for Barrett, Buster Posey was thrown out trying to score on that wild pitch.  Unfortunately for Barrett, the run he gave away was the deciding run, and the Giants would hold on to win 3-2 and take the Series from the deadly Nationals.

The Giants were not supposed to win this Series.  The Nats had the best record in the National League.  The Giants were a wild Wild-Card team.  An afterthought.

Before the series began, though, you'll remember that Tim Hudson, a southern man pitching for the Giants, had said that talent can take you only so far.  That the Giants had a little something extra between their legs that he thought would keep them in good stead.

The insinuation did not play well in Washington, D.C.  Did Mr. Hudson mean that the Giants had something the Nationals were lacking?

Tim Hudson has 16 years of major league experience to draw from, and he saw something in the Giants that many overlooked.  Was he a little bit crude in how he expressed himself?  Sure.  But polite doesn't win games.

And the Giants were not supposed to win these games.

And yet - no doubt helped by Karen and me getting away from Chicago and the Curse of the Billy Goat, the Curse that had felled the Giants, by association, the evening before - the Giants did win these games.  The Giants won.

The Giants won.

On to St. Louis.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Game Three - John Belushi & Michael Jordan in Mudvillle, Illinois

I warned you about the Curse of the Goat - about Billy Sianis hexing the 1945 Chicago Cubs, a hex so strong that the Cubbies haven't been back to the World Series since.  And there I was, heading into the belly of the beast - going to meet my goddaughter at Murphy's Bleachers, a bar in the shadow of Wrigley Field, going there to watch the San Francisco Giants try and close out their National League Division Series against the Washington Nationals.

Would the bad luck of the Cubs rub off on the Giants since Sara and I were in Chicago?  A superstitious person would say yes.

I said yes.

Still, we did everything we could.  Earlier, I had gone and paid obeisance to Mr. Sianis by visiting his Billy Goat Tavern.

As soon as I walked down the steps into the Billy Goat, the woman behind the counter yelled out to me, Double Cheeborger the best!  No fries, chips!  No Pepsi, Coke!  Whatdya want?

And of course I'm thinking that the ghost of John Belushi is hovering just out of sight, nodding his appreciation that the more things change, the more they stay the same - and that the Billy Goat Tavern hadn't changed since he lived in Chicago and so he was happy, very, to see that the welcome I received was the welcome he used to receive.

Naturally, I ordered the Double Cheeborger.  I asked for Pepsi just for fun, and I got looked at like I was an idiot.  No Pepsi, Coke! she yelled at me again, so I went with Diet Coke, right?

Then I ordered a Metaxa, and tipped Bobby-Behind-The-Bar very well.  I asked him if he believed in the Curse.

He asked me if the Cubs had been to the Series lately.


I asked him if the Curse could transfer to the Giants - was Chicago like Ebola, infecting others by direct contact?

He asked me if I'd like another Metaxa.

I wasn't sure if that was a yes or a no - Greeks, we can be mysterious.

After the Billy Goat, my goddaughter hit me up on Facebook.  Sara had read what I wrote about the Curse, had read that Karen and I would be in Chicago - and she wanted to know if we were still in Chicago because she had moved there two days before.

My mom would say the Lord works in mysterious ways - or the Greek version of that, but it doesn't translate well - and so while Karen was off speaking at her Conference, Sara and Joel - her boyfriend - and I met at the bar in Michael Jordan's Steakhouse.  When we texted one another, it turned out that Sara and Joel happened to be just a few blocks away from our hotel, and since Mr. Jordan had conveniently opened a restaurant in that hotel, we'd meet there.

That was a happy reunion, and the Ernest Hemingway Daiquiri the bar offered was divine, and we decided that it was good luck, right?  That we were both there in Chicago at the same time?  We made plans to watch the Game together in a few hours - maybe at a bar near Wrigley.  Of course they lived just a few blocks from Wrigley - I mean, of course.

In the meantime, I'd hit the Art Institute - only, as I headed down that away, a barker caught my ear and said the Architectural Boat Tour was leaving in five minutes.  I'd just make it if I ran, he said - and since numerous folks had said it wasn't to be missed, first among them my brother, George, I went.  What the heck.

The two most important things I learned, while nursing a Revolution Ale aboard the boat:  1. Chicago has more than thirty bridges that cross its rivers, and the very first one?  Way back when?  It was built to provide access to the bar on the other side.  2. The dark green and gold Carbide and Carbon Building was designed to resemble a champagne bottle.  Both of these facts made me love Chicago.  A lot.

Karen wasn't up for watching the game - she'd been fighting a cold, and while she had rallied to speak at her Conference, she was going to try and rest for a few hours, so I went ahead and met Sara and Joel at Murphy's Bleachers, a bar just feet from Wrigley Field.

The game, alas, did not go well.  In one of the few instances of an October misplay by the Giants, Madison Bumgarner would hurry a throw to third base - when there was no play to be made at third - and that errant throw would dart past Pablo Sandoval covering the bag, and when the dust settled, two runs had scored.  To say that the error was uncharacteristic for the Giants - the Giants who had begun to solidify the myth of Invincibility that surrounds them in October - again, to say the play was out of character would be a phenomenal understatement.

But it happened and the boys in Orange and Black would have to rally.

While we were wishing this would happen, Sara suddenly grabbed my arm - beer sloshed out of my glass while Sara pointed to the tv above our heads.  That's Elene! she shouted.

And sure enough, our cousin and her boyfriend, Tim, were right there, no longer only in San Francisco cheering on their team - our team - but there with me and Sara in a bar in Chicago.

Stolen from Elene's page

It had been a good omen when I spotted Richie and Aaron on the television during Game One, right?  There they were, these two whom I'd spent many a Spring Training with - and Game One had turned out brilliantly, hadn't it?

Stolen from Richard's page

Would it work again?  Would glimpsing our cousin help to keep the bad mojo at bay?  Did we really believe that by being in this cursed baseball town we were somehow bedeviling our Giants?

Sara may not have thought so, but I did.  That Greek Curse was powerful magic - Mr. Bumgarner throwing away that ball...

Sadly, seeing Elene and Tim was not enough to turn bad luck into good.  The Giants' streak of ten Postseason victories in a row came to end on Monday night.

Sure, Sara and I had a great time catching up in this most improbable of Chicago meetings - I'd never been to the city before, and she'd been there for all of 48 hours.  Sure, it was a pleasure meeting Joel, and his dog, Otis - Otis who made more friends at the bar than I did.

But - the Giants lost.

The Giants lost.

I'd head back to the hotel, find Karen up and about - checking her email.  She swore she felt a little better - that we should strike out and go find some of that famous deep dish Chicago pizza everyone always talks about.

Back home in Alameda, having Zachary's pizza was part of the ritual during the Giants' October runs in 2010 and 2012.  Zachary's is deep dish - what if, could it be?  Why hadn't I thought of that earlier?  What if getting some original deep dish was good luck?

Giordano's was within walking distance - and the pie was indeed good.  And on the walls behind the tables, names of famous Chicagoans had been stenciled.  Mike Ditka, Oprah Winfrey - and there, directly behind Karen?  John Belushi.  If you look closely, you can see his name.

A superstitious man might take that as a sign - that in the very place where we were trying to dispel the bad, John Belushi's good name should appear.  The name of the man who had made the Billy Goat Tavern even more famous than it already was.

Could Mr. Belushi have made this appearance to let us know that he approved?

Or is that just silly?

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Game Two - Success and Failure, in Baseball, in Life

It's just baseball, right?  Just a game.  But this time, it got personal.

Game Number One for the Giants, in this Best-of-Five Division Series (you know, if you're keeping score), went swimmingly for the boys from 'Frisco.  They went up by three, early, and then fended off a couple of bases-empty home runs (one a No-Doubter off the bat of the 21-year-old Bryce Harper - and yes, I do have socks older than he is).

Then on Saturday, Game Two was interrupted by our 30th High School Reunion - held at the venerable Minnie's on McHenry Avenue, and even if you didn't grow up in Modesto, you know McHenry if you've ever seen American Graffiti, George Lucas' paean to being a teenager in Modesto in the 1950's.  McHenry is where most of the Car-Action took place.

So Minnie's, and it was a reunion for Karen and for me because we both graduated from Davis High in 1984.  We met at Davis - US History with Mr. Thompson, freshman year - had lockers right next to each other, but didn't start dating until I hit a growth spurt in the summer of '82.  So we knew lots of people, and had the advantage over many of the other couples - because if someone there didn't know Karen from High School, they may have known me.  Doubled our chances right there.

We drank and mingled with lots of people we hadn't seen in 30 years - all while the Giants were playing a hard Nine Innings of ball in our Nation's Capital.

This group? Together from elementary school through high school.

The reunion was good - mostly - but really, 30 years?  How did that happen?

Lots of hellos, how you doing, how many kids?  How old?  What do you do?

Lots of people going up to Karen, telling her how she was the nicest person they ever knew (in all seriousness) and how the heck did she stay so tangled up with me (in some seriousness).

Paul Zoodsma laughing, jokingly rubbing it in that he was Prom King to Karen's Prom Queen.  Karen had been there with me, though, so I had that going for me - which is nice.

And through it all there was that pesky game, against the indomitable Nationals - with both pitchers throwing incredible games.  Unfortunately for the Giants, Jordan Zimmermann for the Nats was throwing a game just a little bit better than the Giants own Tim Hudson - and while Mr. Hudson had only given up one run, in the third inning, one was looking like it was going to be enough.  In the fourth, still 1-0 in favor of the Nationals.  Same in the fifth, sixth and all the way to the ninth.  And in that ninth, first there was one out, and then there were two.

That's a wrap, right?  Considering the way Mr. Zimmerman was tossing the ball.  Except a funny thing happened on the way to a National's victory - Mr. Zimmerman gave up a walk in that ninth inning, and that brought out the manager for the Nationals.  In a move that will be debated for a long time, Mr. Matt Williams removed his pitcher, a man who had been toying with the Giants all night long, and brought in his closer - who promptly gave up a few hits, allowing a run to score.

Suddenly, it was 1-1, and after the completion of the inning, that's where the game stood.  Nine innings in the books, and it was all tied.

At this point, the Reunion was in full swing, and I'm still drinking Maker's on the rocks and Karen is catching up with old friends and I'm getting kissed on the cheek by Paul Zoodsma - which caused me to spill some of that precious Maker's, and then I'm donning oversized sunglasses and a pink, feather boa - just a regular Saturday night in Modesto.

Lots of people are sneaking off to the bar to catch up on the game - the tv's there are blazing.  Other graduates are checking their phones with great regularity.  10th inning?  1-1.  11th?  1-1.  12th?  More of the same.  Lot of baseball, lot of not scoring for both teams.

Then we found ourselves in the lucky 13th, and that's when things got a little personal.

It got personal after I was pulled aside by a classmate from 30 years ago - just a light touch on my arm and a nod to follow her a few steps to the bar where she leans in and wonders out loud if she can ask me a personal question.  Sure, I say, just half listening, wondering if anyone is showing signs of scoring a run - when I talked to my mom after the game, she told me she knew it was going to take a home run to end this contest.

My classmate looks at me, all kind of serious, and she says, Does it bother you being here since you're not successful?

And I do a double-take - but yes, she did just ask that, and before I can answer she says, It's just that in High School you were such a success, you'd been in all those Gifted programs like me, all that stuff you did competing in Speech.  You gave the commencement address at our graduation, so many people liked you - but now...

And she let those words trail off into nothing.

I'm thinking a lot of things - a lot of things come rushing in right then - and I try to answer.  I'm trying to be polite, when what I really want to say is something that the Maker's could easily fuel - but instead I say, Well, I guess that depends on your definition of success.  I guess it would be easy to say that Karen is a success, going with your yardstick, because your yardstick seems to only involve, what?  A high-powered job?  Is that your yardstick?  So yes, then, Karen is very successful - in that way but in lots of others, too.

And I'm starting, now.  Right?  The music's loud - something way past 1984, Guns n Roses - and the whiskey has had plenty of time to settle.

But if that's it for me - then no, I'm not a success.  But I guess I measure things a little bit differently than you.  Or, well, more fully?  First, I'd consider how good a father I am to my kids.  Then I'd consider how good a husband.  How good a son, and brother.  How good a friend.  And in all of those things I could be better, Lord knows I could be better.  But overall?  In those catergories?  Pretty successful.

You know what comes next? and I'm getting a little loud, competing with Axl Rose.  Next is what I do with my words.  With my writing.  I try.  Quite hard.  Not as hard as I should, but sometimes?  I hit that pitch out of the park, and when I do that, I'm happy.  And successful.

My job, though, because I guess you're mainly wondering about my job.  I sell books, but you must know that or else why would you have asked me your question.  Books?  I'm pretty passionate about books.  About ideas being disseminated.  About talking to people about what they like to read, and what I like to recommend.  I feel that bookstores - yes, even my little bookstore in Alameda - I feel that bookstores can be important vital parts of a community.  And that's something that people in our internet age are quick to forget.  But bookstores have done a lot of things to make sure that words remain free - kind of silly to be so dramatic, right?  But there you go.

Am I successful, then?  I don't know.  You'll have to tell me.  What do you think?

And that question, my question, met with a lot of silence - unless you consider the void that John Mellencamp was filling with his tale of Jack and Diane, those two American kids living in the heartland.  So let it rock, right?  Let it roll.

Tell you what, though, I said.  I think I need another drink.  So if you'll excuse me?

And that question met with the same silence so I walked past her and up to the bar where Paul was asking what the hell I was doing without a glass.

Just rectifying that, I said.  And I looked at the bartender and she said, Another Maker's for you?

Indeed, yes.  Another Maker's.

In happier news, the Giants and the Nationals had continued putting up zeroes, until the 18th inning, until the teams had played another complete game after the first complete game they had played.  And in that 18th, Brandon Belt for the Giants did just what my mom said had to happen - he hit a home run, and the Giants went up 2-1, and then held off the Nationals in the bottom of the 18th.

After having played the longest game in postseason history in Major League Baseball at six hours and twenty-three minutes.

A successful night for the Giants?  Well, I guess it depends.  It did take them an awfully long time to win, to go up two games to none on the Nationals.

So - what kind of yardstick do you use?

Really, let me know.  What kind?

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Never insult a baseball-loving Greek and his Goat

Baseball and superstition go hand in hand.  Many will point to the Curse of the Bambino as the most well known - but for my money, you gotta go with the curse that still stands, and that involves a Greek and his goat.

Billy Sianis - who must be a cousin of mine because all Greeks are related - Cousin Billy owned the Lincoln Tavern right across the street from Chicago Stadium.  He bought the place soon after the repeal of Prohibition, and soon after that, my cousin finds a goat.  Or rather, a baby Billy Goat found him.  The little thing apparently fell off the back of a truck and limped into the Lincoln Tavern.

It was love at first sight, and Cousin Billy nursed the wooly guy back to health and then he and the goat became fast friends.  My cousin loved that damn goat - so much so that he renamed his bar the Billy Goat Tavern.

After that, my cousin and that goat became pretty famous in the Windy City - he'd sneak it into all sorts of public events, though how one sneaks a goat anywhere is open to debate.  Me?  I think people let my cousin and his goat visit anywhere they wanted - why the heck not?  Good publicity for the Billy Goat Tavern, good times livening up whatever public function they attended - win win, am I right?

And no, I'm not making this up.

So tomorrow?  After Game Two tonight - the Giants against the Nationals - Karen and I are heading to Chicago and I'm going to go looking for that bar.

But Cousin Billy - way back when, let's not forget Cousin Billy - Cousin Billy was having such fun that he started donning a goatee and calling himself Billy Goat.  No one alerted the authorities - this was just a crazy, publicity seeking Greek.  Not dry like toast, though, not at all.  The white people - and there are a lot of you in Chicago - they thought it was cute.

I already said that Billy and his Goat stared making the rounds in public, right?  Good publicity for the Billy Goat Tavern, I mentioned that, yes?  Everybody was having a good ol' time - but then the World Series had to intervene and all good things came to an end.

You ready?  One crazy Greek, his beloved goat, maybe a little booze (that goat loved to drink) - and the Chicago Cubs.

It's 1945, it's October, and the Cubbies are in the World Series playing the Detroit Tigers.  My cousin bought two tickets for Game Four - Box Seats, no less! at more than seven bucks a pop - one for himself, one for the goat.  They're both having a fine time - heck, before the game started, they "snuck" onto the field and paraded up and down with a sign pinned to a blanket hanging from his little buddy's back:  We Got Detroit's Goat!  (See what he did there?)

A facsimile of the ticket on display at the Billy Goat Tavern.

Everybody's enjoying the hijinks until Wrigley Field Security removed them from the field - so they promptly took refuge in their box seats.  Some people didn't like having to share expensive seats with a goat, but Cousin Billy had that extra ticket, after all - so everything was going ok until the fourth inning when it began to rain just a little bit.


Rain + Goat = 1 Wet Goat.

I don't know exactly what a wet goat smells like, but I'm pretty sure it smells something like a wet goat, and so the complaints started anew until another security guard - Cousin Billy was seeing a lot of Security Guards that day - informed my cousin that he had to leave.

Why? Cousin Billy asked.

We're getting complaints, the guard told him.  Specifically, he went on, complaints about how your goat smells.

What are you saying? Cousin Billy asked.

Your goat stinks, the guard said, and Mr. Wrigley says you have to go.

Mr. Wrigley? Cousin Billy said.  Mr Wrigley himself should insult my goat?

(In case you're wondering, it's not a good idea to insult a Greek's goat, am I right?)

As he's being escorted out of Wrigley Field, Cousin Billy raised his fist in the air and then spit on the ground.  "You will never win another World Series!" my cousin yelled, and then he spit again just as a lighting bolt flashed and thunder boomed.

Ok, I made that up about the thunder and lightning, but when a Greek spits?  He means business.

Cousin Billy left Wrigley Field muttering in Greek and scratching his little Billy Goat between the ears.  He promptly flew to Greece - to heck with Chicago, at least for the time being.  He'd go back to the Homeland, drink a little retsina, a little ouzo.

The Cubs, by the way, they lost that Game Four, and then would lose the Series in Game Seven - and this would allow my cousin to write a letter from Greece to Mr. Wrigley, the great man himself.

Who stinks now? my cousin wrote.  Who Stinks now?

My cousin would return to the States, of course, and he continued to be a prosperous tavern owner, the greatest Innkeeper in Chicago, some called him.  Cousin Billy would gain even greater posthumous fame when John Belushi cooked up a skit in homage to the Billy Goat Tavern - Cheeborger, Cheeborger, Cheeborger!  No Pepsi, Coke!

All good fun, right?  The Curse, though, the Curse had been made - and so the Cubs?

Check the box score - you'll find that they ain't playing October Ball this year, and they ain't won the Series in the almost seventy years since Cousin Billy cursed the Club.

So again, the Curse of the Bambino is one thing - but the Red Sox have won the Series multiple times now.  Just last year, am I right?  But the Cubs?  No, not the Cubs.  Not in 1945, not since.

The story just shows how much of a superstitious lot Baseball fans are, especially in the Post Season.  I watched the Giants' game on Wednesday, a do or die affair - watched it with my oldest daughter, Elizabeth, while Karen stayed home with our sick youngest.  Elizabeth and I watched it at Natasha and Harry's house - and naturally there was warm Zachary's pizza being consumed because that's what we did in 2010 and 2012 when the Giants won.  We also saluted their victory with Honey Jack Daniels (at least Natasha, Harry and I did) because that's now part of the ritual, and we're not going to mess with Ritual.

My hair?  My hair was a mess - I was going to get it cut because Karen and I are off to our 30th High School Reunion tonight (Go Spartans!) - see there?  Even our High School was Greek - but when I went for the cut, my barber told me it was going to be a four hour wait.  Who does that?  Not me.  So I stole a shot of bourbon from their shelf and left.

But that meant that I looked like the Shaggy DA on Wednesday.  When my hair gets this long, I have to tame it with a bunch of product.  But I didn't have any on Wednesday - and now, since the Giants won that game, and won again last night, I'm stuck with the Hair.  Like Samson.  The shaggy has to stay.

Why?  Because Superstition - like Little Stevie sings, when you believe in things you don't understand, am I right?

Harry says I look like John Stamos - which is a slur to Stamos, but oh well.  It's not like he insulted my goat.

On my way to Natasha and Harry's last night to watch the highlights of the Giants stirring victory against the favored Washington Nationals - the most complete team in the playoffs, according to every pundit in the land, the team with the best record in the National League - I had to listen to a recap of the day's results.  Two minutes spent talking about the Greatness of the Cardinals and how they showed Amazing Resolve in beating the Strong Dodgers.  Two minutes!  And then two more describing how the Orioles again rallied brilliantly to fend off the Tigers - two more minutes!

Then this sentence, encapsulating the Giants unbelievable victory:

"And the Giants stole Game One from the Nationals.  Up next - the weekend in Football!"

The Giants had done nothing less than travel into enemy territory to battle the best team in the League, to go up against the best pitcher on a team with the best pitching staff in the Bigs - and what?  They snuck off with a win?  Stole it, like Jean Valjean stealing a loaf of bread?

It was like that all night - the other winners showed Resilience!  Tenacity!  Strength!  The Giants?  According to Thomas Boswell, a columnist for the Washington Post, the Giants beat the Nationals to death with wet noodles.

That's ok.  We'll take the slings and arrows.  Harry will keep scouring the press for remarkable articles like that one.  My family will watch more games with Natasha and Harry and their four sons.  We'll eat Zach's pizza, shoot some Honey Jack.  Keeping to the Rituals, paying obeisance to the superstitions.

And my hair?  Mom - forgive me for my hair. 

Friday, October 3, 2014

October Baseball, 2014 Style

Part of baseball's allure for me has always been the stories.  Always.  Did Babe Ruth really call his home run in the 1932 World Series?  People swear he did, people swear he didn't - either way, it makes for a great story.

Did Willie Mays really tell Juan Marichal on July 2nd, 1963 - as Mr. Marichal dueled Warren Spahn over 15 scoreless innings - that Mr. Marichal needn't worry, that he'd win the game for the Giants with a home run in the 16th?

Doesn't matter, it's a great story - especially since Mr. Mays hit that home run in the bottom of the 16th.

And now it's October baseball again, and the Giants are in the mix, again - and the stories have already begun.

Before their first postseason game, on Wednesday - a terrifically anticipated match-up between the Giants and the hottest team in baseball, the Pittsburgh Pirates - Madison Bumgarner entered the Giants clubhouse and had a few words for a group of relief pitchers who had gathered round.  What did the Giants' starter want to tell his relievers?  Nothing much - just that they didn't have to worry about getting loose during the game because he was planning on pitching the entire contest himself.

In a wonderful bit of understatement, and with tongue firmly in cheek, one of the Giants' relievers, Jeremy Affeldt, said, "He just wanted to let us know.  He was being courteous."

Were Mr. Bumgarner's words just bluster from a pitcher who'd only ever thrown 6 complete games in his career?  It's not bluster when the pitcher goes out and does it, which of course is what Mr. Bumgarner did on Wednesday, becoming only the third pitcher in postseason history to hurl a shutout and strike out at least ten in a winner-take-all opportunity.  The first person to do that?  Sandy Koufax.

I'm liking the makings of this story.

Mr. Bumgarner then celebrated his victory by chugging four beers - at once - during the post game celebration.

Getty Images

Now I'm really liking the makings of this story.

The only other story I know resembling that one - the shut-out, not the beer - stars Satchel Paige.  Mr. Paige was known for sometimes motioning his teammates to sit down on the field behind him - to sit down because their help wouldn't be needed.  And then Mr. Paige would go on and strike out the side.

Again, it's not bragging if you can do it, and Mr. Paige could do it.

What other great stories have already happened with October not even three days old?  Another Giants' pitcher, Tim Hudson, is the author of most of them.  What did he have to say about Mr. Bumgarner's performance?  "He don't come with a lot of flair," Mr. Hudson said, "but he goes out there and sticks it right up your butt."

Poetic?  No, not at all - but it's got the makings of another great story.  One that Mr. Hudson himself added to when he commented on the grand slam that Brandon Crawford hit in the fourth inning of Wednesday's game.  "After that ball went over the fence, game over,” Hudson said. “You’ve got Bum out there with a four-run lead. The way he was throwing the ball, I didn’t give a damn. We were going to spray some Champagne."

Spraying champagne, of course, is what ball clubs do after they win important games.  The Giants just bring a lot of beer to those parties, too.

Hudson is no stranger to bravura, so he just went ahead and said this about the team they would face next:  "Obviously, they have a talented group over there, there’s no question.  They have some great pitching.  But come playoff time, talent can take you a long ways, but what do you have between your legs?  That’s going to take you real far.  And I think we’ve got a group in here that really has some of that.”

Some of that?  The Giants have it between the legs, and what - the Washington Nationals (who the Giants are facing right now, as I type, the Washington Nationals, with the best record in the National League) the Nationals don't?

Where I grew up, we'd call that a shot across the bow - directed at the team in this season's Postseason who has the strongest lineup of pitchers of any of the eight teams left playing ball.

With a game like the one the Giants penned on Wednesday - they'd win 8-0 - confidence also takes a step forward - witness Mr. Hudson's statement.  Confidence wins games, and confident men are known to make jokes, and so the Giants' first baseman, Brandon Belt, would say that he was disappointed in Mr. Bumgarner's shut-out performance because his pitcher didn't do anything at the plate.  "I was looking for a home-run out of him," Mr. Belt said.  "Step it up.  Step it up."


At one point in Wednesday's game, both Brandon's (Belt and Crawford) were responsible for all the scoring that had happened, allowing someone to tweet:

Brandons:  7

Pirates:  0

October is just starting, but the Giants' have already given us some great stories.  That grand slam Mr. Crawford hit in the fourth inning?  The one that caused champagne corks to pop?  It was the first grand slam by a shortstop in the history of Major League baseball.  With the long and rich tradition that Baseball has, it's hard to do anything for the first time, so something like that?  Just adds to the story.

With some luck, the Giants will give us a lot more.  I'm going to go turn up my dad's Philco radio and listen to the game with my youngest who's home sick from schoool today.  Batter up.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

A Fire Bird for Sheriff Longmire

I've associated Autumn with short stories ever since I can remember reading Salinger's For Esmé—with Love and Squalor on the campus at UOP with Fall leaves all around.  I don't know if I was there during a Speech tournament or just visiting my Thea Maria who lived nearby, but when I think Short Stories I think Esmé and Esmé means Fall.

And now Craig Johnson's collection of stories, Wait for Signs, will be out this month - giving me another opportunity to associate another terrific selection of stories with this time of year.

Which leads us to this month's newsletter where I introduced the Fire Bird - named for one of the stories in Mr. Johnson's latest.  In it, Sheriff Longmire smells smoke - figuratively - and makes a startling conclusion - literally.

The genesis of the drink was the wonderfully quirky book, The Cocktail Lab - Unraveling the Mysteries of Flavor and Aroma in Drink by Tony Conigliaro.  Mr. Conigliaro is a boozy mad scientist, and in his book I found the recipe for making Gunpowder Tincture.  It's easy, really - you just have to vacuum seal 16 grams of Gunpowder Tea with 6 oz. of straight alcohol - hello, Everclear - and then cook it in a bain-marie at 140 degrees for 30 minutes.  Simple, right?

Still - that Gunpowder Tincture beguiled me, the idea of it like tinder, waiting for the right spark - and the Fire Bird was it.

Since the star lighting up Mr. Johnson's pages is a sheriff, I'd begin with that Gunpowder Tincture.  Nothing could be more obvious, right?  I needed a good bourbon to showcase the smokiness of the tincture, so I went with Breaking and Entering by my good friends at St. George Spirits.  Sheriff Longmire would approve of the bourbon, if not its name, but he wouldn't approve of the fact that the bourbon is no longer being made.  I managed to score a few bottles before they faded away, so I'm ok for a little bit - but not too long.

The Gunpowder Tincture adds a terrific smoky note to the bourbon - and where there's smoke, there's fire (like the title of our story) so I added a dash of Tabasco.  If you want to discover what all this smoke and fire tastes like, maybe head over to the bookstore on Monday, October 27th, when Mr. Johnson himself visits Alameda to talk about Wait for Signs.  I plan on mixing up a Fire Bird for him - so maybe one for you, too.

Fire Bird

2 oz. Breaking and Entering Bourbon  
.5 oz  Gunpowder Tincture
.25 oz. simple syrup
2 dashes Tabasco

Combine all and stir with ice.  Strain into a chilled canning jar and garnish with an orange twist.

Monday, September 1, 2014

A Captain Marlow for David Mitchell and The Bone Clocks

Photo by Tom Galleguillos
The New York Times has sources everywhere, and maybe things aren't as secure around Books Inc. International Headquarters as they could be - regardless, the Times got wind of the fact that in the bookstore's September newsletter, David Mitchell would be getting his own drink to celebrate the wildly anticipated publication of his newest novel, The Bone Clocks.

Learning this, the Grey Lady decided to give Mr. Mitchell the entire cover of yesterday's Book Review.  Either that, or they chose to review the book so prominently because it's another example of the prowess of Mr. Mitchell's audacious storytelling.

I mean, it could be that.

Please, tomorrow, when the book is available?  Go buy it, go read it - then we'll talk about it over drinks.

Speaking of drinks.  I'll mix you up a Captain Marlow - named for the pub where you'll find the teenage Holly Sykes at the beginning of The Bone Clocks.  Holly isn't trying to sneak a sip of beer - her parents own the pub.  We'll follow Holly from the moment in 1984 when she runs away from the Marlow - leaving behind the Talking Heads on her record player, her parents, her brothers and sister - and runs into her future, all the way into the middle of the 21st Century.

Mr. Mitchell again weaves disparate story-lines containing a cornucopia of characters.  Some of these you'll want to drink with, some you'll want to throw your drink at - like Hugo Lamb, an upper-crusty Brit who has something of the vampire in him.  A thieving vampire who wears great clothes.

For Mr. Mitchell's drink, I started with a good Irish whiskey as a nod to Holly's Irish grandmother.  There's a lot of posh in the Bone Clocks, though, and I'm certain that Hugo would wrongly look down his nose at the whiskey, so I added to bit of port to make him look up.  We'll drink this one after dinner, so I added a splash of Grand Marnier.  Maple Bitters echo the flavors of both the whiskey and the port.  A little lemon, some ice - and it's good to go.

So tuck yourself into The Bone Clocks.  When you're good and ready to talk about it, I'll be good and ready to mix you a drink.

Captain Marlow:

2 oz. Knappogue Castle 12-year-old Irish whiskey
1 oz. Warre's Otima 10-year-old tawny port
.25 oz. Grand Marnier
10 drops Urban Moonshine Maple Bitters
1 tsp. lemon juice

Stir all with ice.  Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.  Garnish with an orange twist.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki Toddy

It's been two weeks since Haruki Murakami's new novel came out stateside.  That's given you plenty of time to have read Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage - so if you haven't, get cracking.  Murakami has created the exceptional in the guise of a conventional novel, when of course it's anything but.  Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is now my favorite of his, so did I say get cracking? 

In Tsukuru Tazaki's freshman year of high school, he's lucky enough to connect with four other students.  These five become that rare thing, the best of friends.  Truly.  Two girls, three boys, as inseparable as the sides of a pentagon.

Tsukuru feels a bit left out, though, because the other four all have a color in their last names - red pine, blue sea, white root and black field.  "Soon, the other four friends began to use nicknames:  the boys were called Aka (red) and Ao (blue); and the girls were Shiro (white) and Kuro (black).  But he just remained Tsukuru.  How great it would be, he often thought, if I had a color in my name too.  Then everything would be perfect."

The almost perfect is too good to be true, and a cataclysm - precipitated by his move to Tokyo for college - cuts Tsukuru off from his friends, setting him on his years of pilgrimage.  The first changes are physical.  After months of barely eating, his soft looks are replaced - his cheekbones appear to have been chiseled by a trowel:

"In any case, the boy named Tsukuru Tazaki had died.  In the savage darkness he'd breathed his last and was buried in a small clearing in the forest.  Quietly, secretly, in the predawn while everyone was still fast asleep.  There was no grave marker.  And what stood here now, breathing, was a brand-new Tsukuru Tazaki, one whose substance had been totally replaced.  But he was the only one who knew this.  And he didn't plan to tell."

I wish I could read that passage in Japanese.  It's such a brilliant echo of Dante's journey out of his own dark wood - and like Dante, Tsukuru has a guide.  It's not Virgil, but the seductive Sara.  They meet after Tsukuru's years of pilgrimage when he's in his late thirties, and he'll tell her parts of his story that he's told no one before.

Their story begins, like so many stories do, over drinks.  Sara's drinking a mojito, Tsukuru a highball - though he only finishes half of it.  Half of a highball?  Who does that?  Tsukuru does because he isn't a big drinker - but at one point, he wishes this weren't true.  "At a time like this it would be nice if I could drink more, he thought.  At this point most men would find a bar and get drunk."

Sara's the catalyst for Tsukuru's revelations, and you'll follow him into the past as he retraces the steps that led him out of that dark wood.  I followed, greedily, relishing his story, delighting in Murakami's prose - the musical elements are there, as they so often are, as is the ennui, the melancholy - but the pulse of the script is always carrying you forward...

...to the drink, already!

Although Tsukuru doesn't drink often, he knows how to enjoy himself when he does.  Near the novel's end, we receive this glimpse:

"Tsukuru drank the Cutty Sark, savoring the fragrance.  His stomach grew faintly warm.  From the summer of his sophomore year in college until the following winter, when every day brought thoughts of dying and nothing else, he'd had one small glass of whiskey at night like this."

The warmth of the whiskey is palpable here, so I thought Tsukuru would enjoy a toddy on his contemplative nights.  But the toddy needed to be colorless, like our hero, so instead of whiskey we'd use shōchū - Japanese white liquor.  Yokaichi Mugi - a brand of shōchū - is sweeter than some, but like using brandy instead of whiskey, it makes for a perfect toddy.

Instead of lemon, I used juice from the yuzu fruit.  This citrus is popular in Japan, and though it's hard to find, it's well worth the search.  It's a little bit grapefruit, a little bit mandarin, and all good.  Grapefruit bitters highlight the yuzu, and a little bit of sugar rounds everything out.

It would be perfect, of course, if my copy of Murakami's novel were signed, but that would be like wishing for a color in my last name - so I'll make do with a good drink.

You should, too - while reading.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki Toddy

1.5 oz. Yokaichi Mugi
.75 oz. yuzu juice
.5 oz simple syrup
10 drops Bittermans Hopped Grapefruit Bitters
2 oz. boiling water

Add all to a warmed mug and stir well.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Memories of Mr. Williams

The funniest hour I ever spent was at San Francisco's Holy City Zoo in witness to Robin Williams - furiously unscripted.  What made the night so special was that it was just me and six shitty comics in the audience.

Excluding my pal, Sean Murphy.  Sean's a funny guy.  Always was, always will be.  Still.  Just us and a handful of unfunny souls.

In my mind, Open Mic nights at the Zoo were early in the week, so it was an unremarkable Monday or Tuesday night in San Francisco.  The Zoo - long since shuttered - was the smallest comedy club I've ever been in, but it was also the most important.  Back then, when comedy clubs were relevant, anyone of note went through the Zoo, tiny though it was.  Heck, maybe that's why they did it.

That day, Sean had called and said he'd be heading out to the Richmond to take advantage of the free stage-time at the Zoo.  Did I want to join him?

It didn't (doesn't) take much nudging to get me to head into the city, so I went.  It was the middle of a cold San Francisco summer night, though, so no one else had come out.  Usually, the comics who take the stage have friends in tow and they're jockeying with all the other Funnies who want to take part in an Open Mic, making for a loud crowd.

That night?  Only Sean had let his fingers do the walking, so the audience was just the comics and me - each of them taking the stage to perform in front of catty rivals (even a bad comic can be funny if he's not on stage but in the crowd making fun of the comic actually trying to be funny).

So Sean performed - his sarcastic, bitchy best - and then another guy in grey tried to follow.  As soon as he was done, Mr. Grey asked if anyone had a light.  He, instead of even pretending to support the others who had gathered that night, needed his nicotine.

I always have a Zippo in my pocket, so I volunteered to head out onto Clement Street with Mr. Grey.  I sparked my lighter, he started puffing, and when I look up, Robin Williams is heading right for us.  Mr. Williams and a handler, or a friend - or some star-struck schmuck like me leaching onto the Star as he walks down the street.

Since I'm star-struck, I want Robin Williams' autograph - bad - but the only thing I've got on hand for him to sign is a manual on black-and-white photography.  It's in my bag, in the club, so I exit stage left to grab it.

When I come back out, Mr. Williams is chatting with the smoker, Mr. Grey.  Or being chatted to.  Mr. Williams seems uncomfortable with the attention being heaped on him by this up-and-not-comer, and here I am, about to ask for his autograph.

Which I do.

I've never been asked to sign a photo manual before, Mr. Williams says - still uncomfortable.

But he politely signs, and the handler or friend or schmuck-like-me grabs my book out of his hand and says, I'm signing, too.  And I say, Sure.  Go ahead.

Then I try to make some witty platitude.

Have you ever tried to make a witty platitude to Robin Williams?  Maybe you'd be better at it.  Me?  I sound like an idiot.

Hard to imagine, I know.

But Mr. Williams was kind.  Courteous and polite and kind.  How many times in his life had he been approached by an up-and-not-comer?  Or by a grabby fan who wanted a piece of him?  And yet that night, quiet in the cool, June fog of San Francisco, Mr. Williams cordially signed my book.

Then made pleasantries.  And then excused himself before he popped into the club.

Can you believe that? Mr. Grey said as he looked down at the hand that had shaken the hand of one of the most famous comedians in the world.  I can't believe it, he said.

Believe it, the handler/friend/schmuck said.  And stick around.  You ain't seen nothin' yet.

He was right.  Mr. Williams had just popped into the club to see if there was any room left on the bill for him.  During an Open Mic at the Holy City Zoo.  On an unremarkable weekday night in San Francisco.

I still enjoy picturing that conversation.  Especially tonight.  Especially right now.  I like to imagine Mr. Williams tapping the emcee's shoulder (Dan? Don?) and asking, Is it ok if I add my name to the list?  Do you have seven minutes for me?

I walked back into the club as Mr. Williams was walking out.  I found Sean in the second row of seats in that tiniest of comedy clubs with the smallest of audiences - and Sean looked at me and said, I already heard.

A little intimidating, I said.

Are you kidding? Sean said.  I've already gone on so I don't have to follow him - and my resume is about to get a whole lot better.

How do you figure, I said.

Now I can say I've opened for Robin Williams, Sean said.

The Zoo's emcee also figured no one wanted to follow Mr. Williams, so Mork would take the stage last - and he wouldn't be watching the other comics.  Sean told me that some had accused Mr. Williams of ripping off their acts so he'd made it his practice not to watch others perform. If he didn't watch you, he couldn't steal from you.

I don't know whether those allegations were true, but I know this.  Anyone who ever saw that mad genius on stage, with his brain erupting like fireworks on the Guy Fawkes Night, knows that when he went off on stage, he went off on stage.  Observations leading to one-liners leading to white-hot jokes leading to scorching thoughts on everything.


So what if, in the midst of that mayhem, in the midst of his flailing stream-of-consciousness hilarity, Mr. Williams included a quip that he might have overheard from your lips in some smoky club in 1979?

Really?  How adorable.


When he did take the stage.  When Mr. Williams took the stage at the Holy City Zoo.

In front of me, a few comics, and the emcee.

What happened next -

What followed -

Like I said, I think comics usually signed up for seven minutes on Open Mic nights.  That time could be extended if it was slow.  So that night?  They let Robin Williams have some extra time and what we witnessed was the funniest half-hour I've ever seen on stage.  Or screen.  Mr. Williams - uncut and unchecked.

Trying to wrap my head around the fact that this was the same soft-spoken man I had talked with earlier - out on the street pestering him for his autograph.  That quiet man bore no relation to the sharp, frenetic, loud and acerbic whirling-dervish who entertained us.  Mic in hand.  Mic on stand.  Comedian on stage.  Comedian in crowd.  Prowling back and forth, standing stock still - but the quips never stopping.  The observations and accusations and pyrotechnics never fading.

I've never seen anything like it in my life, I said that, right?  And he did it all for this rag-tag group of souls who had come in out of the cold to be funny for a few minutes on stage.  And then he lit the place on fire and it burned and burned - and after?

Really, there was nothing left.


I wish I could tell you what he riffed on that night - but the takes were so fast that you couldn't hold on to the last thing because you were already laughing at the next thing.

Damn, he was a funny man.

I'm remembering him tonight because my friend Phil let me know the news.  Let me know just a few hours after I delivered ice cream to my daughters on Main Street, U.S.A., in Disneyland - strawberry for Elizabeth, cookies-and-cream for Kristina.  Just a few hours after they sat on a curb, ice cream dripping from their waffle cones as they watched the Disneyland Parade angle down Main Street here in Anaheim.  And in the midst of that merry parade, in the midst of Marry Poppins and Bert on their carousel horses, Anna and Elsa on their frozen float, and Ariel waving her tail high above us all, one of the largest cheers erupting from the crowd was for The Genie.

Daddy! a little girl on her father's shoulders yelled, Look! Genie! and she waved frantically, trying to get The Genie's attention.

Would she have screamed so hard if not for the life that Mr. Williams breathed so terrifically into that character?

And then, just an hour or two later, Phil let me know the news via a tag on Facebook.

Phil and I worked together at Books Inc. on Chestnut Street more than ten years ago.  During our working time together, Phil and I helped Mr. Williams more than once when he came into the store to shop.

My God, the size of the stacks of books he would bring to the counter, with some of the obscure graphic novels he was interested in?  And his kids were as nice as he was - nice and courteous and always so polite.

So there he was - a quiet, kind, nice guy.  Just like the man I had met years before outside that comedy club in another part of the city.  It was like he kept that furious intellect on hold for the stage, or for the movies - that if he let it seep out, it would start to pour and then burst, so maybe he needed to keep it in check to prevent himself from drowning.

Except that one time when he was on Chestnut Street headed to Books Inc. and he poked his head into E'Angelo Italian Restaurant and hollered out, Arafat! Party of six thousand!

How many times like those?

That was more how it was hanging out with Sean and some of the comedians he performed with, like Will Durst and Johnny Steele.  Those guys were on fire all the time.  I didn't try and keep up because I couldn't.

And no one could keep up with Mr. Williams when he was aflame.

Depression is brutal.  Brutal, arrogant, corrosive - pick your poison.  It's all of those, and worse.  So I'm sorry to read the reports I'm reading tonight.  Sorry to hear that Mr. Williams lost his battle.  That he couldn't keep the bleakness in check anymore.  That it burst.  That it finally made him drown.

I'm just - sorry.

Damn, he was a funny man.