Todd Walton: Ball Bear Cat Piano


Photo by Marcia Sloane

From TODD WALTON
UnderTheTable.com
Mendocino

“A hot dog at the ballgame beats roast beef at the Ritz.” Humphrey Bogart

Jon Miller, my favorite bard of baseball, recently used the words egregious, preposterous, cerulean, prodigious, and greensward whilst painting verbal pictures of our San Francisco Giants sweeping the Rockies and the Snakes, and making history as they did so. Jon revealed today during a lopsided loss to the Cubs, that no team in the long history of baseball had ever won six home games in a row in which they scored less than four runs in any of those six games. I agree that isn’t nearly as important as the ongoing meltdowns of the Fukushima nuclear power plants, but it does prove we have some mighty impressive pitching.

Sometimes Jon will quote the Bard (Shakespeare) himself. Fair is foul, and foul is fair:
 Hover through the fog…” might have been written expressly for baseball in San Francisco in July, except those prescient lines were written in England five hundred years ago. Yes, a baseball game announced by a gifted raconteur is an entirely different game than the same game seen on television. How can this be? Because television leaves nothing to the imagination, whereas visualizing a game while listening to an artfully improvised run of words is a prodigious imaginative feat; and every listener’s imagining of the game is unique.

Another wonderful thing about listening to intelligent, witty, insightful people (with great swaths of time to fill when nothing much is actually going on) is that they often say amazing and thought provoking things. Case in point: did you know that though the average major league baseball game takes roughly three hours to play, the action of the game—everything that actually happens other than the pitcher pitching and batters swinging or not swinging—takes only about six minutes of those three hours?

Here’s something else amazing that Jon recently imparted to us in his mellifluous voice. (Yes, I’ve heard Jon use the word mellifluous, too.) “From the time the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand, it only takes the ball a quarter of a second to reach home plate. A quarter of a second. That’s how much time a batter has to decide whether to swing at the pitch or not.” Heck, I can’t snap my fingers in a quarter of a second, let alone swing a big old bat accurately enough to strike a nearly invisible little orb hurtling toward me at ninety-five miles an hour. Hence the famous quotation from Ted Williams, the last player to hit over .400 in a season (1941): “Baseball is the only field of endeavor where a man can succeed three times out of ten and be considered a good performer.”

So a few days ago I was listening to the Giants battle the Arizona Diamondbacks (the Snakes) when my phone rang and it was my neighbor Cindy calling to say there was a bear in their front yard finishing up some leftovers in the garbage can they hadn’t gotten back inside the bear-proof shed quite soon enough. This news interested me more than the game (that particular game at that particular moment) because I’ve lived in this house on this land adjoining a remote part of Big River State Park for six years and had yet to encounter one of our local bears. I had frequently seen the aftermaths of their visits—bear scat, flattened deer fences, broken boughs in apple trees where bruins had climbed in pursuit of apples—but I had yet to actually see a bear.

“How big is he, or she?” I asked, thinking I might tip toe through the huckleberries to get a peek at the bear.

“He’s sitting down,” said Cindy, “and his head and shoulders are visible over the front end of the overturned garbage can. One of those very big cans. What’s that? About three feet?”

Three feet to the shoulders while sitting down? Hmm. I decided not to go have a look, recalling a frightening documentary about bears in which it was said they can outrun humans, no problem. Or what if this was a sow with cubs lurking in the huckleberries? So I turned the game back on just as Cody Ross smacked a double—nice to have Cody getting his stroke back—and the phone rang again, Cindy telling me the bear was now heading my way on the footpath through the rhododendrons.

I went to the window at the west end of our living room and looked down the gravel driveway toward our woodpile, but my pickup truck was blocking the view of where the aforementioned footpath meets our driveway. I was certainly hoping to see a bear, but I wasn’t expecting to see such a big bear. This guy (I have good reason to believe the bear was male) was huge. And when he came around the nose of the pickup truck and went up onto his hind legs and looked in the passenger window of the truck, I gasped, because this bear was much taller than my truck. Indeed, this bear seemed to be roughly the same size as the truck. Of course he wasn’t really as big as the truck, but let us say that had he been human, he would have needed a bigger truck.

Seeing or smelling nothing worth eating in the diminutive vehicle, the bear dropped back down on all fours and continued into our front yard—a small meadow ringed by rhododendrons in glorious bloom and huckleberry bushes laden with blossoms presaging another abundant late summer harvest. I expected see the bear traverse the meadow and disappear into…

The bear came directly to the bottom of our front stairs. I know this because I was standing at the front door, the sliding glass variety, looking out at the bear looking up at me from six stairs down. That’s how many stairs there are: six. Then the bear rose up onto his hind legs again, perhaps to show me how big he was, or to reveal his gender, or to get a better look at me. In any case, he stayed upright for a long moment and then went back down on all fours and started up the stairs.

Two things struck me in that moment. Well, more than two things struck me, but two things struck me harder than the other things that were striking me. 1. For some reason I was not particularly frightened, though I thought I should be. 2. The bear looked goofy. He did not look anything like the bears I saw eons ago in Yosemite, nor did he look like the bears I’ve seen in National Geographics, the magazine or the documentary films. This bear looked goofy. He had lopsided floppy ears, and one rheumy eye noticeably larger than the other rheumy eye, and flies buzzing around his goofy face, which made me think he might be a very old bear with failing eyesight, which would explain why he was wandering around during the day instead of being appropriately nocturnal.

In any case, when he placed his enormous paw on the second step from the bottom, I banged on the glass, made what I hoped was a frightening face, and I growled. Roared, actually. To which that huge goofy bear responded by turning tail, so to speak, and hurrying away.

“Good pitching will beat good hitting any time, and vice versa.” Bob Veale

Relieved to have so easily vanquished the bear, I turned the radio back on just as Andres Torres smacked a double down the right field line—so nice to have Torres back in the leadoff spot—and I noticed our cats Hootie (slender and black) and Django (fat and gray) were nonchalantly sprawled on the sofa as if nothing untoward had just happened. Important factoid: Hootie and Django are cats who run and hide when I, the person who feeds them and pets them and calls them silly names, makes too sudden a movement or raises my voice much past a whisper. Hootie and Django will catch a whiff of something (a passing mountain lion?) and thereafter refuse to leave the house for days on end. These are cats who scurry under the bathtub when people they’ve met seventy times come to visit. Yet these scaredy cats seemed utterly clueless that a gigantic bear had just been moments away from breaking down the front door, ransacking the house, and eating them! Why were the cats so unmoved by the bear?

Because maybe the bear wasn’t a bear. Maybe the bear was a spirit being disguised as a bear. Wouldn’t that explain the goofy face and floppy ears? Maybe the bear was the embodiment of some old terror of mine, some old unfinished business that was now finished because I banged on the glass and made a terrible face and growled. I had become the bear. I had become my fear and thereby released the fear to be carried away into another dimension by the spirit bear being. Or maybe the cats knew this bear, knew he was goofy and harmless, and so were not afraid.

“A baseball game is simply a nervous breakdown divided into nine innings.” Earl Wilson

So…after the Giants won a nail biter on Cody Ross’s walk off single in the bottom of the ninth, I sat down at the piano and played for a while. And as I played, one of my favorite things happened. Hootie hopped up beside me on the piano bench and listened to me play. Or maybe he wasn’t listening, maybe he was just hanging out and enjoying the vibe of the person who feeds him enjoying playing the piano.

I don’t play written down music. I improvise on themes and patterns and inventions I’ve found over forty years of playing every day for an hour or two or three. And on that day the bear came to visit, I played with the bear in mind, the music changing from somber to funny to nostalgic to grandiloquent to sweet—our little black cat sitting beside me the whole time.

(This article first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser May 2011)

Todd’s new CD of piano improvisations Ceremonies is available from underthetablebooks.com and downloadable from iTunes, Amazon, and CD Baby.
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