Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The United Republic of Fubar

Dry Creek Road After the Rain, Feb. 2007
When I was 17 years old I discovered that Lee Hays, a member of the famed folk group The Weavers was living one town over from me. Being the daughter of what I like to call "Greenwich Village Liberals," Hays was sort of a hero of mine - a fine musician and a brave activist.

We had a good, if not particularly strong radio station at my high school and I managed to arrange an interview with him and edited into a special interview. I have the tapes somewhere but they are on reel-to-reel and I’ve yet to have them transferred. But when I do, I’ll have it transcribed.

Hays was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, the son of a Methodist Preacher and became a union activist in the 1930s, finding his way to New York City where he met, performed and befriended Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Huddie (Leadbelly) Ledbetter, Josh White and Burl Ives. He wrote a number of important pro-union songs, including "Which Side Are You On," and later, co-wrote (with the Weavers) songs like "Kisses Sweeter than Wine" and "If I Had a Hammer." The group was blacklisted during the McCarthy era.

Hays lived in Croton-on-Hudson in a small house at the end of a long, narrow dusty road. I didn’t drive yet and my Mom dropped me off at his house and left me there at his front door. I knocked and heard this bellowing voice from inside telling me to come in.

In the Weavers’ old publicity shots, Hays stands out prominently. He was a big guy with the thick-rimmed glasses, more football player than folk singer who probably resembled in appearance anyway, the union-busting thugs that he and his fellow “agitators” faced off against when they were fighting for workers’ rights.

By the time I met him, he was in his late 60s and in failing health, still an impressive bear of men despite having lost both legs to a long battle with diabetes.

When I walked into that tiny, stuffy one-room house, Hays was still in bed, using his massive arms to grasp the metal bar hanging from the ceiling and pull himself into a wheelchair. We got situated, sitting outside on his small porch, which faced a wooded area. It was a beautiful spot but not so great for making a tape recording - the sound of birds and a barking dog in the background can be heard clearly on the tape, sometimes loud enough to where you couldn’t hear us talking.

The conversation covered his history as an activist and the music and politics, of course. I was already a believer. I grew up in a household where the heroes were people like Richard Wright, Pete Seeger and Martin Luther King, Edward R. Murrow, Adlai Stevenson, George McGovern, and blacklisted writers like Paddy Cheyevsky.

I felt like I was bridging a gap to an forgotten American history, to a place and people who had been bludgeoned under the pressure of the young and oh-so eager young Reagan Republicans who were in the process of turning the word “liberal” into a dirty word.

It was spring of 1981, right before Reagan was shot outside the Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C., when Alexander Haig stepped all over the Constitutional chain of power to claim he was in “control” of the White House.

That summer, I was working as a counselor in a summer camp in Connecticut and I was corresponding with Hays. He sent me a postcard about Haig that I’ve kept all these years, “Such men would be funny if they weren’t so ominous,” he wrote.

He never got to see how it all turned out. A few weeks after he wrote to me, Hays died. I don’t know what the cause was but the local newspaper wrote that he had taken several local kids under his wing and one he was particularly close to, who had just gone off to college in Florida, had been killed in a motorcycle accident. The implication was he died of a broken heart.

I’ve thought a lot about Hays since, more so than ever after 9/11 and did not have to wonder how he would have reacted to the way our nation responded to it. He would have been disappointed. He would have wondered how America could have gone so far backward so fast.

I did not support this war with Iraq. I had many reasons, some of which were romantic notions, I admit. I didn’t know that the Bush Administration was lying about WMD, though it was clear from what I was reading, however, that they made up the link between Saddam and the 9/11 hijackers and later, that Saddam had tried to buy uranium in Niger.

I’m not a complete pacifist. I knew what Saddam Hussein was and that he needed to be ousted. But I read about the NeoCons and checked out their manifesto and I just didn't share their opinion of the world. It didn't seem rational to me.

I never made the connection between Al Qaeda and invading Iraq. Afghanistan, now that was a different matter altogether. That I got.

I wanted Osama Bin Laden to be brought to justice, his organization destroyed. Once that was accomplished, I wanted to see our nation ask the hard questions about how we had arrived at this point in history where we were so hated. I wanted to see a policy where we would find a way to reach the moderates in the Arab world, to find a bridge, a shared humanity.

I was called a traitor by my Republican “friends” who accused me of being soft, of not understanding the threat of not seeing that there were no “moderate” Arabs, that they all wanted us dead. They are, interestingly enough, not lining up to apologize for how wrong they were and how right I was. They are, interestingly enough, being very quiet these days.

I never doubted my point of view, in part because the people who seemed to share it were big thinkers who I respected, people like Joe Conason, Sidney Blumenthal, Seymour Hersh, Frank Rich and others. People who looked beyond the spin, the rhetoric, the blindly nationalistic post-9/11 call for blood, and asked difficult questions, shined a light on the truth.

The war progressed, mistake after mistake after mistake was made, lies were brought out into the open, the whole thing turned into a major political, military and geopolitical disaster, it occurred to me that we so-called weak, uninformed, unpatriotic, traitorous liberals were right after all.

The best book on Iraq I’ve read so far (and I’m going through them all) is “The Assassin’s Gate” by George Packer. It’s so brilliant on a number of levels, not the least of which because it is starkly honest, unflinchingly objective, searing and insightful.

Packer supported the invasion, if for different reasons than the Bush Administration. He spoke with American and foreign officials, military leaders and soldiers, American Iraqis, exiles and those who had lived under Saddam’s harsh rule. His book lays out in painful detail the manner in which the Bush Administration fucked up the war out of fundamentalist views, plain arrogance and outrageous negligence.

The errors the Administration made in the planning and handling of the war, and the post-war reconstruction efforts are horrendous all by themselves, but reading about them first hand, seeing the mistakes as they made them side-by-side with the obviousness of those errors, well it’s enough to make you sick to your stomach.

This isn’t, as some Administration supporters have argued, the result of unavoidable mistakes or bad luck or the residue of conditions and/or events that were unforeseen. They had all the information. They just ignored it. It's a clear example of a kind of hubris of historic proportions, the kind that has brought whole civilizations crashing to their knees.

And the beat goes on, unfettered, apparently.

A couple of weeks ago, there was this exchange at the White House press briefing as reported by Tim Grieve at

Reporter: Slides from a prewar briefing show that by this point, the U.S. expected that the Iraqi army would be able to stabilize the country and there would be as few as 5,000 U.S. troops there. What went wrong?

Tony Snow: I'm not sure anything went wrong. At the beginning of the Civil War, people thought it would all be over at Manassas. It is very difficult -- no, Jessica, the fact is, a war is a big, complex thing. And what you're talking about is a 2002 assessment. We're now in the year 2007, and it is well known by anybody who has studied any war that war plans immediately become moot upon the first contact with the enemy. For instance, a lot of people did not think that we would have the success we had moving swiftly into Baghdad. All I'm saying is that -- what happens is, you're looking at a prewar assessment, and there have been constant assessments ever since. A war is not a situation where you can sit down and neatly predict what exactly is going to happen. You make your best estimates, but you also understand that there are going to continue to be challenges, there are going to be things that you don't anticipate, there are going to be things that the enemy doesn't anticipate. And the most important task, frankly, is to continue to try to assess near-term and midterm to figure out how best to address the situation.

Reporter: But this estimate was monumentally wrong. So would the president, knowing what he knows today, still have decided to go into Iraq?

Snow: Yes. The president believes that we did the right thing in going into Iraq. The question is, should you saddle any military planner with an expectation that they're going to have perfect insight into what happens five years later? And the answer is, of course not. And I think if you talk to military planners, they do their very best under a situation. As you know, many reporters who were in the field then probably had different views about how things might be today. The fact is, the war is -- I know it's becoming a cliché, but it's true -- it's a highly complex enterprise. What you end up doing is you make your best guesses going in. It turns out, for instance, their assessment that they would be able to move swiftly into Baghdad was absolutely right. But you have -- it is pretty clear that some of the other assessments were wrong, and you deal with it.

We didn’t know. Things change. These are circular arguments that Bush officials throw out after anything goes wrong over there. Sure, it’s occasionally correct, but as Packer makes clear again and again in the pages of “The Assassin’s Gate,” the Administration rejected post-war planning, intelligence assessments, historical realities and expert analysis that didn’t conform to what they knew was going to happen. Worse, any little shred of evidence that supported their point of view, was given more weight then it deserved. It was a whole organization of sycophants.

This isn’t just policy errors that have damaged the United States’ reputation both with our friends and enemies, there are real world implications from the Iraq debacle.

- Iraq has descended into a civil war and become a breeding ground for terrorism.

- Al Qaeda, which was severely crippled in the military actions on Afghanistan after 9/11, has reportedly regrouped and encamped somewhere in the vast regions of Pakistan.

- Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s stubborn refusal to first send enough troops into Iraq and then later, when his own military and civilian authorities in Iraq were pleading for more troops, refusing to increase the numbers, damaged the military’s efforts at securing Iraq and, in part, led to the success of the insurgency.

- The Administration’s refusal to believe that guerilla war was possible, even though it was learned shortly into the war that this was exactly what Saddam had planned from the start, led to an unprepared military and, consequently, to the deaths of Americans.

- The Administration’s arrogant distaste for so-called ‘nation building” planning because it was favored by the Clinton Administration, led to a series of tragic blunders by post-war planning authorities, all of them either a direct result of Administration policy objectives that had no basis in reality, or from lack of good intelligence or analysis, most of which had gone unheeded or unread by key officials.

Packer makes a very strong case that the Iraq invasion was winnable had so many blunders not been committed by people more concerned with their view of the world, then with doing right by America and Iraq.

There is no question when looking at the overall picture of this war and what and who led us into it, that it was handled as badly as could be imagined. Some of this was just pure incompetence but most of this can only be attributed to a group of people in power who subscribed to a point of view with the kind of religious zeal that we’ve seen from the very people we are fighting.

The NeoCons wanted to spread Democracy throughout the Middle East, wanted them to be more like us. What they have wrought only make us seem more like them.

Like Lee Hays said so many years ago, it would be funny if it wasn’t so ominous.

Saturday, February 24, 2007


Center Street, Healdsburg, Ca. 2007
S.O.L. is hit or miss with the Oscars.

The low-tide mark for S.OL. in the annals of the Little Golden Man came in 1997 when the insipidly shallow "Titanic" won for best picture, beating out one perfect film and a near-perfect one. We don't doubt the appeal of "Titanic" but calling this sappy, poorly written, sugary-sweet pile of poop culture a "great" film is like saying Dan Brown is a great religious philosopher. S.O.L. continues to have faith, however, that just as history will throw George W. Bush onto the top of the heap of worst presidents, so will "Titanic" eventually get drop-kicked out of contention on the lists of the best films ever made.

The fact that S.O.L. is apparently in a small minority of people who hate this movie served as further proof that perhaps the Oscars are just not for her.

As a writer, too, S.O.L. has found the festivities -- like the rest of the Hollywood machine -- giving depressingly short-shrift to the people who in our view have the toughest job of any of the thousands of people who contribute to a single film. Go ahead and stack 120 blank sheets of paper on the table in front of you. Imagine filling every one of those 120 pages with words. Imagine those words telling a complete story that's imaginative and compelling enough for someone to pay a large sum of money for the opportunity to make it into a motion picture. Got it? Now wipe the sweat off your brow.

While we've been tuning in more often in recent years, we're still very much underwhelmed by the whole thing which has become in S.O.L.'s view, just another glossy, toothless commercial in our overly commercialized culture.

This year's nominees did nothing to change our view. While we are a big fan of Will Smith, his nomination for the pleasantly diverting "The Pursuit of Happyness" is just plain wrong. We also do not see how "The Departed" was better than "The Last King of Scotland," or even "Blood Diamond" for that matter. Further, how does "United 93" get nominated for direction but not as best picture -- not that we think it deserved either.

The biggest fuck up by the Academy this year is the snub of Alec Baldwin who stole not one, not two but three films this year by S.O.L.'s count. In fact, for once we are not alone in our assessment. We defer to Stephanie Zacharek over at who we think correctly points out that Baldwin stole "Running with Scissors" from itself, so much so that once he is gone from the film (about halfway through) it deadens the effect of the rest of the movie.

When we think back to the films we saw this year, the ones that really stuck with us are "The Queen," "The Last King of Scotland," and the twin-bill by Clint Eastwood, who we have come to believe is now in his second great life as an artist. The first was as an actor. The current, as a director. We know he's pushing 80, but we would be not at all surprised when he starts his third movie life, though we're happy as long as he's practicing his current job.

We think the combo of "Flags of Our Fathers," (screenplay by William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis based on the book by James Bradley and Ron Powers) and "Letters from Iwo Jima" (Iris Yamashita based on a story by Iris Yamashita and Paul Haggis ) is epic filmmaking on the kind of grand scale that the Oscars used to celebrate, for better or worse. It is almost unfair, we suppose, for the Academy to have nominated both films as Best Picture (only "Iwo" got the nod) but we think they are not only equally deserving but when watched as one, single film (as we think they should be viewed) stand side-by-side with the greatest anti-war war pictures ever, and perhaps even the best films of all time.

S.O.L. was chagrined at how much she loved "Apacalypto" (in direct relation to how much she dislikes Mel Gibson) and she could not help but be impressed by the man as filmmaker, even as she is so thoroughly underwhelmed by the man as a,um, human being. However even this accomplished film does not hold a candle to the depth, grace, intelligence, insight, art, vision and humanity of Eastwood's two epics. The sign of great movie making, in S.O.L.'s oh so humble opinion, is the layers of a work that upon repeated viewings make the piece grow in meaning and definition. It is also the ability of to inspire without the seemingly knee-jerk compulsion of many recent directors to load their film's with two-by-fours over ideas.

S.O.L. does not think that Spielberg is as good a director as he gets credit for but we also don't think he's as bad as his critics claim either. However, his flaws as a whole filmmaker become clearer when comparing two of his most ambitious films ("Saving Private Ryan" and "Schindler's List") to these two new movies by Eastwood. All you have to do is watch and see where Spielberg falls back on familiarity of image and act (the girl in the red dress in Schindler's List; the bookends in "Ryan"), and then Eastwood pushes out to unexplored emotional territory - like the doomed Japanese service men in "Iwo."

Eastwood lets the people of his films guide the narrative. He lets the ideas and emotions speak through them and not at us. And in doing so he tells a remarkably moving, harrowing and boldly authentic tale about the realities of war and the ultimate cost paid by those who wage it, on both sides, and all the reasons, pro and con, given for its inevitability on the landscape of man.

Frankly, in this post-9/11 world, there just isn't any more important discussion to be had. Who would have thought that "Dirty Harry" would lead the way?

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Sneak Peak Part I

Cotton Clouds, Healdsburg, Ca. 2007
S.O.L. is a published novelist but it's been a couple years since her last one hit the ol' Borders. In fact, both of her well-received tomes are currently O.O.P. (out of print). Do not fret, my people, for a new S.O.L. novel is in our future.

Here is the first of what will be several excerpts featuring a new character, L.A.P.D.'s Percival "Perc" Baldwin. You can read it here first and exclusively, but please note that this material (including the name "Percival "Perc" Baldwin") is copyrighted by and soley owned by the author and is not permitted to be used for any other purpose under any circumstances. Ever.)

August 1986

Sherman Oaks, California

He watched him from afar. Always. A small part of him knew this was wrong but it was better that way. Safer. For everybody.

He didn’t know a lot about people but he knew who he was, he knew enough about himself to know that he was better off staying back. Too much of him was too much for most people. Hell, it was too much for anybody, himself included. Keep your distance and you leave people guessing, leave ‘em wondering what made you tick. Like the goddamned Sphinx. That’s what he was. A fucking Sphinx.

So he sat in his car, perfectly still, hearing the static of the radio turned low but not really understanding the words. Around him another Los Angeles summer was getting beat to death, the winds out of the Valley bringing a heat made bearable by the fact that the days were getting shorter. Before long, he’d be watching him in the dark. It was a thought that gave him comfort.

Later he would only feel like an idiot. A stupid, gutless idiot.

Then, then he just felt something else. Pride? Sure, he’d admit to that one. You just had to look at the kid to know he was his. Not the features. Thank God, he got his from her. It was the way he carried himself. It was all his side, generations of his people supported by those six-year-old shoulders. Freaking amazing how you could see it. Even from here, 100 yards away through a dirty windshield.

It was funny how much he cared about something he didn’t want. Funny how it changed him, how it made him realize he didn’t have any answers. It made him realize how careful he needed to be. He couldn’t let it affect him, not on the job. He had to be sharp. Always sharp. That’s why he had to do it this way. Stay in the background.

He wondered if eventually it would wear him down. If he’d have to give in to it, be that other guy. Live up to something bigger than himself. He remembers thinking on that day that there were moments in a man’s life that change everything, that maybe he was staring at the thing that was going to change him. Like that saying about it being the first day of the rest of your life.

It sure changed him all right. That very fucking day everything changed. Forever. But it wasn’t the first day of anything. It was the last. The last fucking day of his miserable life. He should have eaten a bullet right in that car. Put his brains on the side window. Let them find him afterward. Save everybody the trouble.

He couldn’t do it. Not because he wasn't brave or anything. He couldn’t do it because it would be too awful not knowing. And he had to know. He had to. He would keep going, every step he’d ever take would be like climbing the steepest mountain on the hottest day in bare, blistered feet. He would do it. For him. For the knowing. For the answers.

That’s all he would ask of God on that terrible day. That’s all he would ever ask, before or after. One single question would burn a hole through his brain from the moment he woke up in the morning ‘til he shut his eyes to the coming nightmares. One question would haunt him, would be his Holy Grail. One damn question to which he would never get an answer.

Who stole his boy?

(to be continued...)

Thursday Thoughts on Sports

Oak Tree at Sundown

S.O.L. was upset to hear about the news that Wimbledon is finally, finally going to start paying women tennis players the same money that the men get. Well, it’s a little late for S.O.L. and her devastating forehand, isn’t it?

Truth be told, the differences in pay are small -- the ladies' finals winner got 95 percent of the men's champ last year -- but surely principle is worth five percent.

Still, we think this is fair as the women draw just as much (perhaps more) fans to the tour than the men do. They deserve an equal cut of the proceeds. The fun detail of this story is that Wimbledon officials have been under pressure for years and years to make this change and perhaps the final tipping point came from what some might see as an unlikely source.

Two years ago, on the eve of her finals match against Lindsay Davenport, Venus Williams went with the WTA's Larry Scott to a meeting of Grand Slam officials and "made her point in very articulate fashion," Scott told the New York Times in an article that's to run in tomorrow's issue. It's already on line at (There's that word again, UMB. :-D)

It's a beautiful thing to see the Williams' sisters changing tennis off the court as much as on.

Trade Winds

The NBA trade deadline passed with a whimper this afternoon with a handful of small deals being done – and none involving any of the big names who were said to be on the block. Still in the same unis are Vince Carter, Jason Kidd and Mike Bibby.

What did happen was the lowly Portland Trailblazers sending Juan Dixon to the rising Raptors for Fred Jones – both backup guards. Yawn.

Most of the trade talk circled around New Jersey star PG Jason Kidd going to Los Angeles to play with All-Star MVP Kobe Bryant. The general consensus was that it would be a great deal for the Lakers, as long as they didn’t give up too much for him.

As it was, though, the Nets weren’t going to just give them Kidd, even if it would help them with cap room space so they could go after a marquee free agent in time for the opening of their new arena after next season. Speculation has they were offered Chris Mihm, Kwame Brown (both of whom are on the injured list, Mihm out for the entire year) and Jordan Farmar, with Farmar being the star of that deal. But they wanted either Lamar Odom or the young center Andrew Bynum and the Lakers balked.

We thought the best analysis of this trade came from an unlikely source, ESPN broadcaster and Hall of Famer Bill Walton. Walton is a smart guy but he tends to be too emotional – on both sides of the spectrum. Either he kisses serious ass or he hates you. There is no middle ground with Bill, it seems. In the interest of fair disclosure, S.O.L. once lent her cassette tape (this was back in the day, folks) of one of Bob Dylan's recent blues albums (we're talking early 90s) and he never returned it. So we've been a bit down about the Red Head.

At any rate, we like his take on the Kidd/Kobe combo which is that their styles of play are just not compatible. Kobe likes to handle the ball and create his own offense (and at least this season, try to involve his teammates). Kidd is a distributor who can score if he needs to but would rather pass first. Kidd needs the ball 12/48 and while he's no Steve Nash, he's a pretty good pure point. Neither one of these guys, Walton argues, move all that well without the ball. I think the way he put it was that they'd be standing around watching the other guy dribble. We have to agree with Bill in that we can’t see how this combo would make the Lakers better.

Which is not to say the Lakers do not need to get better. In recent weeks, the most overrated team in the league this season, has come down to earth. For the first time in Philip’s career, he has lost six games in a row. Yes, S.O.L. is a Kobe hater but would someone please defend his play at the end of the last few games? You know when he takes a ridiculously long three-pointer with plenty of time left on the shot clock instead of trying to work the ball around for a better look? Sure, he does make those crazy ass shots but he doesn’t always make them, and he doesn’t have to, what with four other guys on the court with him.

He has a learned behavior at the end of games which has given him a rep of being a tremendous clutch player. But I would make the argument that for every one of those Hail Mary’s that go in, a whole lot of them don’t. For every time he makes a last-gasp, buzzer-beater to win or tie a game, that same stupid shot costs his team a chance to stay in games late, games (like last night in Portland or twice recently against the Cavs or at home against the Knicks) that became losses but should be wins.

Following this to its logical conclusion, S.O.L. believes that while Kobe is extremely smart and a very skilled player, he is not gifted with the same sort of basketball I.Q. that would place him in the category of the great players of our era, with whom he is constantly being compared.

The the jury’s out on Lebron’s bball I.Q. because there’s just not a big enough sample yet but if you watch how Steve Nash, Dwayne Wade, Tim Duncan, and perhaps Kevin Garnett play basketball, you will see players who seem to adjust within the flow of the game in a way that doesn’t make you wonder if they know there are four other guys on the floor.

In recent weeks, too, Kobe has added a new dimension to his game – not playing defense. And yet another, which is driving to the hoop hard, not getting a foul called and dropping out of the play while the rest of his team races back to defend his T.O. He even took a bunch of boneheaded shots in the All-Star game – just because he was rewarded with the MVP, doesn’t mean he plays the game right. Just ask any hold ‘em player about losing his AK to a seven deuce off-suit.

Sad News

Speaking of great players, S.O.L. has just learned while writing this the sad, sad, sad news (as reported by friend and former colleague Ric Bucher at that Celtics legend Dennis Johnson has died suddenly, at the age of 52.

Johnson was the MVP of the 1979 NBA finals which saw the SuperSonics beat the Washington Bullets. Later, he teamed with Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish for the Celtics 1984 and ’86 NBA Championships.

S.O.L. met the man they called DJ when she was in Los Angeles and he was an assistant coach for the Clippers (he actually filled in as their head coach when they fired Alvin Gentry with 24 games to go in the 2003 season). He was a great guy. Smart, funny and S.O.L. thinks would have been a great, great head coach. At the time of his death he was the head coach of the Celtics D-league squad, and it remains a mystery to S.O.L. why he was never offered a head-coaching job in the NBA.

R.I.P. DJ.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007


Bend in the Road, Healdsburg, CA 2007

If you haven’t been paying attention to the Scooter Libby trial, you’re a little late to the party. But if you love your country, you might want to tune in.

Bring your barf bag.

Cause you'll be getting a pretty good glimpse into the damage our government is doing to our nation's soul.

S.O.L. takes what she can get but is personally not happy about this trial's reason for being. It's not big enough for us. It’s like watching Barry Bonds batting against Little Leaguers.

We did not follow our mother’s advice and go to law school so we're not really clear on why one of Bush’s minions is on trial for lying to the F.B.I., when there is the unresolved question of outing Valerie Plame and breaking a major big deal federal law. What we’d rather see, what this country deserves, is someone’s head on a stick. We do not consider it asking to much for that special someone to be Dick Cheney.

You see, this is why it’s just so damn hard to believe in God.

If we’ve learned anything in the last few weeks it’s that the Bush White House is a breeding ground for liars and cowards and one-issue nincompoops and (mostly) guys who just don’t have any use for the truth, much less that quaint little ol' thing we call the Constitution.

If you’re a Republican and you support these guys, you are part of the problem. Normally, S.O.L. is happy to give people the benefit of their beliefs. We know a lot of smart people who happen to disagree. But come on now people, there is a mountain of evidence testifying to how fucked up these people are and how little they care about pesky things like laws or human decency or even human life. You can say it’s just business as usual in Washington but we would like to be the first to disabuse you of that notion. These guys make dirty pool seem classy. These things happen somewhere else and we're the first to scream about justice. Happens here and it's just politics as usual.

Everything you need to know has been spelled out for you during Libby’s trial, and for once without the Karl Rove/Fox News spin doctors during their usual number on the facts. It’s as if we live in a world now where facts don’t even matter and all we have left is the spin. (In the world of Fox News, there aren’t facts. There is only “versions” of the facts or “two sides to the story”. Well, we say this without irony and with absolutely no sense of superiority, but we think that anyone who still buys into Bush’s bullshit is either blindly loyal or blindly stupid. That’s a fact, too.)

The reason there is even a trial at all is because the Bushies were trying to cover their asses, most notably the Don himself (Cheney) who is permanent chair of the Department of CYA. S.O.L. knows he’s our vice president and we’re suppose to show him respect but using his title but we think respect ought to be earned. We would like to show him the inside of a jail cell.

One of the numerous, bald-faced lies that the White House was shilling in trying to sell the American public on going to war in Iraq, was that Saddam Hussein’s government had tried to buy yellow cake uranium in Niger as recently as 2002. This claim was said many times by Cheney and other Bush officials, and the President repeated it in those famous 23 words in his State of the Union Address in January 2003.

Well, it's not their fault. Intelligence gathering is an art, not a science. We've been wrong before. Shit just happens, right? No problem really, except these fuckers were telling us that Saddam was getting ready to nuke the shit out of every woman, child and puppy in the entire United States, even though they knew it was a lie. And you thought George Washington’s was a whopper.

How did they know? Because back in 2002, former ambassador and current Republican Joseph C. Wilson, went to Niger, discovered the story was bogus and told them. You know, he actually put it in writing. Six months later, this was what Bush said in the State of the Union:

"The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

Administration supporters (like this "columnist") have cited sources that claim that Bush & Co. had reason to believe the statement above was true (even though the White House eventually admitted it shouldn't have included those words in the speech). But while some sources said the yellowcake story might have merit, numerous others did not buy it. This included the CIA director, Wilson and intelligence officials.

The real fun is how the other thing unraveled.

It was, in fact, Cheney himself who supplied the rope that is about to hang his trusty lapdog from a post, twisting alone in the wind (until Bush pardons him).

Cheney was so certain that the Niger yellowcake story was true, that his office asked the C.I.A. to investigate its validity. That's how Joseph Wilson got sent to Niger. Oops. Lucky for us it's all part of the public record, thanks to Scooter Libby's trial.

Sidney Blumenthal, reporting from the trial at** today, wrote this about the prosecution's closing argument (emphasis added by S.O.L.):

Vice President Dick Cheney, who was angered at Wilson's public revelations concerning the falsehoods about the justification for the invasion of Iraq, a CIA mission put in motion by Cheney's own inquiries, which particularly enraged him. Cheney tasked Libby to learn about Wilson's wife, the CIA operative, so that Wilson's trip to Niger could be traced to her and not to Cheney's initial request to dig up information about Saddam Hussein's seeking yellowcake uranium for nuclear weapons.

You know damn well it gets better.

The prosecution went on to argue that Libby was doing Cheney's bidding in trying to find a way to discredit Wilson. S.O.L. wants to pause here for a general inquiry: let's agree that there is nothing unusual in politics about attacking one's enemy. But what kind of person attacks the enemy by sending his boy to do the dirty work for him, and then what can we say about this person when he orders said synchophant to go after his enemy's spouse?

Apparently, that would be one Dick Cheney.

Not only a liar. But a cowardly, heartless bastard willing to chuck one of his most trusted confidante's into the pit of hell. Well, I suppose coming from a man who shot his friend in the face, this is behavior that's to be expected.

But wait, there's more. From the Washington Post from August 11, 2005:

The 2002 mission grew out of a request by Vice President Cheney on Feb. 12 for more information about a Defense Intelligence Agency report he had received that day, according to a 2004 report of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. An aide to Cheney would later say he did not realize at the time that this request would generate such a trip.

Libby went to State and the CIA to try to dig up anything he could find on Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, according to trial witnesses (the very officials he hit up for dirt). Libby, with Cheney's blessing, constructed a lie out of it that they hoped would cover up the real reasons for the Niger trip, and tried to sell this bill of goods to several different journalists, including the New York Times' Judith Miller who was already buying every other lie the Bushies were telling about Iraq.

As a former journalist who took pride in being actually fair no matter what side of an issue she was on, S.O.L. has only ice in her heart for Miller who is a stain on the face of journalism.

Moving, on ... the fact that their own stoolie didn't write about the Valerie Plame/Joseph Wilson connection was a pretty good indication how transparent their story was but did that stop them? By God, no!

Good thing the Prince of Darkness was ready to come to their rescue. Libby and Cheney discovered what S.O.L. has known for years -- there is always an ass-kisser waiting in the background to kiss ass. They are like cock roaches. No matter how many you kill, there is always another one lurking under the Formica.

How much are we outraged? Let us count the ways.

Robert Novak, the so-called journalist who revealed Plame's name in his column, is still working and not in prison.

Scooter Libby is on trial and not Dick Cheney and Scooter Libby.

And no one's on trial for breaking a federal law by revealing the name of a covert operative for the CIA just to get back at her husband for -- stop me if you've heard this before -- telling the freaking truth. Really and truly, fuck me.

** You may need to sign up for to view this and their other great content. Don't be cheap. Support fair and balanced online journalism.

Monday, February 19, 2007

S.O.L. Enters World, Part II

Near Mammoth Mountain, 1999

As we return again to that fateful day in February 1990...

Right after the docs at the hospital decided to admit me, the ER nurse came in to take some information. One thing she wanted to know: why’d I wait so long to come in and see someone? I’d been sick, she figured, for weeks. She wasn’t judging me – she was just curious. Hell, she has no idea that S.O.L, is a glutton for pain and agony but still, it was an excellent question.

I explained that I had been to see a doctor at this very hospital, twice and he sent me home both times. Her look said everything.

I like doctors. I have to like doctors. My brother is a doctor. Without them, I wouldn’t be here today. But I continue to be astounded at how many times I have been shrugged off in ERs. I have heard similar stories from other people -- 100 percent of them women. Its a small sample yes, but I believe many doctors (particularly men) have a bias towards women. They think we’re making more of something then we should or we’re bring overly sensitive or my all-time favorite – it’s a “female” problem that’s no big deal. Again, it’s not every doctor (my brother sure isn’t like that) but my advise to my sisters” If you don’t feel well, and they keep telling you you’re fine, find a doctor who will listen to you. It may save your life.

Back to me in the ER. Would you believe it but as the nurse is taking my 411, the lights suddenly go out. I should say here that this was a small hospital near Fairfax, Virginia, a satellite to a larger facility. The big stuff goes to the main hospital down the road.

On that night, the weather was up, we were having a wind and rain storm and apparently it had knocked out the power all over the area. But was I thinking that? No way.

Its my fault, I said, starting to cry. Its my bad luck.

That nurse, whose name I’ve carelessly lost to time and distance, was such a comfort to me at that moment that even describing it warms my heart. While I can’t remember her name, I’ll never forget what she did for me.

The lights did go back on and I got sent up to a room and had a fitful, nervous sleep, happy at least to know what was ailing me. I figured the worst was over. Little did I know.

The first thing I did that morning was call my parents. Only a year earlier, they had sold our house in New York and retired to Florida. My Mother didn’t wait for the details, “Were coming to get you,” she said. And they did. Left within an hour of that call, which was a good thing I guess, cause the bad news hadn’t come yet and wondering if your child is going to die is not a good kind of companion on a 14-hour drive.

What we didn’t know (and for which I’ll always be eternally grateful for) was that they’re snap decision was incredibly prescient (to be fair, though, they’d been thinking of coming up in the two weeks I was sick). They left Sarasota for that 1,000-mile trip – and they only stopped for gas and the bathroom. Straight through. That’s my parents.

Seriously, how can you not love them?

Somewhere as they were driving north, a doctor who I didn’t know, came in to my room and started asking me a bunch of questions. Questions that raised my journalist’s antennae to a point where I had to stop him and ask why he cared whether I was having emotional problems, was short of breath or if my heart raced.

Big breath here, like he’s deciding how to word his next thought. And really, it doesn’t matter because whatever he’s about to say is bad. I can see it in his face, scribbled across it like a neon sign.

“There’s a shadow on your x-ray,” he says, finally, as matter-of-fact as if he was telling me there was a zit on my face.

Me processing: shadow on my x-ray. What does that mean?

He answers: Shadow that’s probably a tumor, he says. Its in my right lung. Yes, I have lung (can we even think the word?) CANCER. Whoa. What the fuck?

You can’t imagine what this moment is like unless you’ve gone through it yourself but its akin to talking to someone underwater, next to a waterfall. The world around you slows down to a crawl and there’s this rushing sound in your ears, your own personal white noise. And your life sort of passes before your eyes, everything you’ve done, every bad thing you’ve ever done and everything you wished you’d done but didn’t. Of course when you’re 26 years old, when you’ve just turned 26, its a pretty short film, your life.

And then you remember to breathe. And you form the words, which you never remember exactly, but which go something like, Will I survive? or How long do I have? or What the fuck did you just say?

And, if you’re like me and certain that the night earlier you caused the hospital’s power to go out, then before he gives any answers, your doctor’s beeper goes off and he excuses himself.

He leaves the room.

Let me repeat: The biggest moment in your life to that point and the fucker leaves the room.

I’m am so not lying. The guy left me hanging with “you have a cancer” and ... nothing. Dude wasn’t my doctor for very long.

But he finally does return and tells me I have a good chance of surviving this. That’s the thing about getting Cancer. The first conversation is always about the probabilities of it not killing you.

He says they can’t know for sure until they find out if its malignant, how big it is and all sorts of medical shit you don’t want to know about. Or you don’t hear. You’re having trouble getting past the part where you’re being told you might have only five years to live. Holy fucking shit, you think, is this it? Twenty-six is the end of the road? In the history of cosmic jokes, this one takes the cake.

Believe it or not, hearing this is not the worst moment of my life. That was telling my parents I had Cancer. Don’t believe me – you try it.

They arrived in Virginia late that afternoon pretty much record time. I remember my mother, especially, how she was standing when I calmly said the words. I’m in the hospital bed, worn down by the mono, feeling it’s the end of the world and I’m concentrating on not crying. Even voice, I’m telling myself. Don’t upset them. Weird what you think of in times like that. My dad sort of looked stunned there for a second but my mom, she literally lost her legs. She sank back into the only chair in the room, one arm lashing out for some purchase and her mouth parted in an O. It was hard, the hardest thing I’ve done my whole life, but I didn’t cry when I told them. I’ve held onto that for years and I’m not sure why, but whenever I think about that moment, I feel good about myself.

There was a lot of waiting and hoping and fear the next month and a half starting with the biopsy (by the way the surgeon who did it and who said that he’d make the cut right on the bikini line, was full of shit. Its the worst scar from the four I have from the operations).

It was malignant, a slow-growing, Carcinoid tumor and it wasn’t the primary (there was another mass near my bronchial tube). We eventually left podunk for New York City and Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital.

The doctor there, the wonderful Dr. Patricia McCormack, did the surgery. Dr. McCormack was a force, not only one of the country’s finest surgeons, but she’s like six-feet with legs like a tree trunk and absolutely no sense of humor (she did laugh at my jokes though). A trained Jesuit nun who left the order to marry a Jesuit priest, she graduated from Georgetown Medical School. And oh yeah, if you needed major chest surgery back then, she was one of only a handful of doctors to go to. Thanks to my bro for finding her.

I owe my life to this woman, who has since retired and lives way out at the end of Long Island near the water, a nice place for a saint to live out her days. Listen, even she’s impressed I’m still around. I tracked her down a couple years ago because I needed some medical information. She came to the phone and I explained to her who I was and there was this pregnant pause on the other end of the phone. Later she told me she doesn’t get many calls from former lung cancer patients, not 15 years after the diagnosis. I’m glad I found her because I dedicated my first novel to her and wanted her to see it. I sent both of them to her and she read them and sent me the kindest note – I felt like school kid looking for approval from the toughest teacher in the room. I was beaming for a week after that note.

She’s the one who brought home the seriousness of my condition. “You may have only five years to live,” she said. “I want you to be prepared.”

I didn’t take it as badly as I thought I would, not as well either but shit, that’s not something I dwell on anymore. It was a long month of tests and more tests of poking and prodding and giving enough blood to start my own Red Cross, but you know how it ended up if you’re reading this.

On April 2, 1990, right around the time Duke was getting pounded into submission by UNLV’s Runnin’ Rebels in the National Championship game, I came out of surgery, minus my right lung.

The recovery wasn’t a cakewalk but it could have been a lot worse. No radiation treatments and I was back on my feet in less than a week and within two months, started exercising again. I had a set back two years later that required another operation, but Big Bad C didn’t return. Still hasn’t. Knock on wood.

I was lucky. I know I was lucky. Fuck yeah. Once in my life, too. I’ll take it.

A lot of people ask me how it changed me, having Cancer, facing the prospect dying before my 30th birthday. It did change me, but how is still sort of unclear to me, or at best, changes from year-to-year, even sometimes week-to-week.

It’s sobering to be let into “you’re really going to die some day” club when you’re too young to have those kind of thoughts. Motivation? Sure, but something more, something I’m not quite sure I can articulate. I try but it never, ever comes out right.

I’ll say this, you walk through the world differently. You get that veil of confidence that you’ve gone through the fire, to paraphrase Bukowski. Not everyone takes it, and many don’t make it. Whatever got you through, even if you’re sure it’s just luck, it’s something to hold on to. And you do, you hold on tight and you never let go.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

More NBA All-Star stuff

Dinner was just okay. We were a little disappointed but it's the thought that counts, right? Well, maybe that's the wrong Hallmark quotation. We'll have to work on that.

Charles Barkley's race against 67-year-old NBA referee Dick Bavetta was pretty anti-climatic except that the Rounder Mound of Rebound won pretty easily. It's one of those crazy stunt things that was more fun in the leading up to period. We heard you could get odds on the race in Vegas and judging from the crowd at the arena last night, we're sure the money wasn't being laid on Charles. Seriously, if you're putting your hard-earned coin on a silly stunt for charity, you need help. Call these people. Now.

The three-point challenge was fun for like five minutes. We felt sorry for Damon Jones, the journeyman who favors loud attire, because he lobbied hard to get into the contest. He might have done okay if he didn't run around his shooting racks, wasting precious seconds each time. It's possible his bulb is not very bright, though it's just our wild guess. The defending champ -- a 7-footer -- acquited himself well in making the finals as did the NBA's newest hot shot, the man they call Agent Zero. But the night belonged to little-known Jason Kapono, who looked like an NBA wash out after only his second season until he found a home in Miami. Not bad, even for a kid from UCLA.

The slam-dunk competition was a lot more to our liking, mostly because we love Nate Robinson, the little guy with a big leap and an even bigger smile. Alas, he did not repeat as champ -- that title went to high school-to-pros player Gerald Green, who showed a lot of style and forethought in coming up with his array of dunks (we LOVED the Nate Robinson cut-out - very, very clever), the last of which -- a running leap over a table -- scored him the night's only perfect score of 50.

You can read all about that here.

S.O.L. wants to talk about how Dwight Howard got robbed and jobbed and gypped. S.O.L. loves Michael -- we share the same birthday (happy birthday to both of us!) -- but we are just flabbergasted at his (and the rest of the dunk contest judges') refusal to see the beauty, style and creativity in this dunk. Dude caught a ball thrown to him by his teammate and then slapped the backboard, putting a sticker he had in his palm on it, and then flushed the ball through the hoop. That's an ohmygod dunk if ever we've seen one.

The man is tall. I give you that (6-11 to be sure) -- the tallest man to ever enter the contest. But he put a sticker of his own smiling face at almost the top of the backboard. That is like 13 or 14 feet above the ground. A seven-footer has to reach to a length almost twice his height, which the judges ought to have taken into account when they favored the 5-foot-9 Robinson over Howard. And it's fucking clever people and stylish. It has serious game. Go to and watch that dunk and his first one too, and come tell S.O.L. you don't think he was jobbed. We accept all comers.

S.O.L. is not alone in her assessment as the TNT guys seemed to agree. Here's what Charles Barkley said in reaction to Howard's "sticker" jam.

"Michael has lost his damn mind. He really is the Russian judge."

"You could put three Nate Robinson's together and he might not be [as] high [as where Howard placed the sticker].

That's S.O.L.'s take. More tomorrow....

NBA All-Star stuff

I know S.O.L. promised a live blog today but what can she say? It's her birthday and she's enjoying the beautiful 70 degree weather here in Wine Country.

We did catch the two skills competitions. We noticed that Scottie Pippen looks mighty good -- and he played well too, taking part for Team Chicago in the Shooting Stars competition. Nice stroke on the three there, Scottie. Maybe there is a comeback in your future. As a rule, S.O.L. roots for 40-somethings. Too bad the Chicago team was D.Q.'d. Bummer.

We salivated over the lineup for the individual skills competition - Lebron, Kobe, DWade and youngin' Chris Paul, who is the real deal. Lebron loafed it, we thought, though nice kicks, baby! We loved the new gold Lebrons. I wish I had a pic to show you all but I couldn't find one. Finals pitted Kobe vs. DWade and poor, poor, poor Kobe couldn't make a pass.

Seriously, who says irony is dead? Maybe it's just not in his DNA.

S.O.L. is signing off now. Dinner tonight at a very nice little Italian joint in Geyserville called Santi with the husband, who presented us with a lovely silver necklace for her big day. S.O.L. cannot tell a lie -- it wasn't the gift she wanted but it's still a keeper.

Coming soon: Charles Barkley vs. the senior citizen ref in a foot race. We've Tivo'd it and can't wait to watch it with desert.

S.O.L. Enters World, Part I

Photo caption: Sunset, Healdsburg, Ca.
Today is Michael Jordan’s birthday. You’ll probably hear that a lot if you tune into today’s NBA All-Star Game coverage. We got the Slam Dunk Contest (which has lost it's luster but was kinda fun last year because a normal-sized guy won it), where MJ will sit on the judging panel, and the Three-Point Shootout (which was interesting last year because a big guy won it) and some various and sundry other events that TNT is sure to over-hype. Tune in later and I’ll be blogging live for some of the coverage.

Today also happens to be my birthday, too. Yay, me.

So I thought I’d take this opportunity to explain the origin of my blog title, Shyonelung, to those of you who don’t know the story.

Interestingly, I don’t tell this often anymore and I’ve never written it down for reasons that are hard to articulate. I think mainly it has to do with going through something intense and then never quite finding a way to match that intensity with words. Some things are like that for some writers, this is mine.

So we go back in time to February 1990. I have a brand new job – I’m not in even three months in yet – and it’s covering the retail biz for The Washington Times. It’s not the best gig for me – stuck on the business desk writing about shit I couldn’t care any less about (Bloomies Going Bankrupt! Nordstrom Lets a Customer Return a Tire) but it’s work writing and at an almost-major daily in a big-time market and in a city I love where I can dream about being one of the boys on the bus. So what if it’s in the shadow of the cross-town rival paper that took down a sitting President. Big whoop that it's owned by a guy whose politics give me night sweats.

I’m in New York City covering the Toy Fair. It’s been two days of walking between the different venues. One is as cold as the February winter outside. The other is like a steam bath. By the time I get back to my hotel, the little nagging tiredness I feel is now a full-blown cold, at least that’s what I think it is. My head hurts, I’m running a fever and my throat feels two sizes too big. And I’m literally having those night sweats.

I’m staying at the Empire Hotel in New York, which is right near the Lincoln Center but all I want right now is a Duane Reade. So I throw on some sweats and shuffle out of my room to the elevator and downstairs. It’s late, maybe 10 or 11 p.m. and I have one single thought in my head – to get some cold meds and go back to my room and sleep for a year.

Only when the elevator doors open and I step out into the lobby, I am surrounded by people in black tie and gowns. My first thought is I’m hallucinating and that I’m much sicker than I think, a thought reinforced when I realize I’m looking right at Benny Carter. I mean I think it’s Benny Carter and he’s staring at me with a look that says I’m a bit underdressed. I grin and shrug as I slink away almost running into ... was that Lena Horne? And fuck me if that’s not Tony Bennett across the room. And wait, did I just catch Pearl Bailey and Louie Bellson?

There was a brief moment there when I had to consider that I wasn’t sick at all but actually dead and this was heaven. The only thing was that as far as I knew, all these people are actually still alive. Whew, scared myself there for a second.

I did finally slink away, got to the drug store and bought some meds before doing my best to sneak by the party-goers on the way. Still, I thought I saw New York City Mayor David Dinkins there and Stan Getz and Joe Williams and even David Sanborn. My memory, you can understand, remains sketchy.

What I didn’t know until later was that the Empire was hosting the after-show party for something called “Hearts for Ella,” a concert benefiting the American Heart Association that was held that evening (February 12, 1990) at Avery Fisher Hall (the New York Times has a preview of this concert in their archives). Ella was supposed to be at the party but she was too sick to attend, even though newspaper accounts and one biography about Ella recalled she did an impressive version of Gershwin’s “Lady Be Good” as the finale for the evening. I imagine despite her frailty (she was 73 then) watching her do that syncopated scat she made her trademark, transforming that legendary voice into another remarkable instrument on that stage.

The next day I was on Amtrak heading back to Washington – and sick as a dog. I was now having night sweats during the day and a woman in my compartment came over to ask how I was doing. That woman was Pearl Bailey and she was riding the train back to Washington, D.C. She was so kind and sweet to me, it almost makes me cry to think about it. Later I found out she had an extra reason for empathy (not that she needed it from what I hear she had a big heart) -- she was sick that day, too, and would be dead by that August. I wanted to attend her funeral but I was far away from where it was held in Philly. But I've been to her gravesite in West Chester, Pa., just to say thanks.

I wasn’t getting any better myself. I made three trips to the emergency room in the next two weeks. The first two lasted maybe a half hour, total. The ER doctor – the same guy both times – first time he diagnosed me with strep throat and put me on antibiotics. Within a day of taking the meds, I broke out in a terrible rash and so I went back to the same ER and saw the same doctor. He saw me for a minute maybe before sending me off for an over-the-counter anti-itch cream

After two weeks of waiting to get better and celebrating my birthday alone with my two cats and bad cable t.v., I had had enough. I clearly remember talking to my mother a night or two after my birthday and saying, “Well, Mom, I guess it can’t get any worse.”

The fates, I am now sure, heard me too.

That night, I woke up to go to the bathroom, feeling as miserable as a person can feel without being dead and when I looked in the mirror, the face staring back at me had yellow eyes. Not pale yellow or light yellow but bright, dark freaking scary as hell yellow.

I got in my car, vaguely remembering to stop for gas (five bucks worth) and drove the short way to the hospital. A new ER doctor greeted me and it took him about a nanosecond to diagnose me with a bad case of mononucleosis. The yellow in my eyes, he said, was Hepatitis (not the contagious kind). “You’re staying here tonight,” he told me before having me ushered downstairs to x-ray.

Two things here: one, a bad reaction to penicillin is apparently a crude diagnosis for Mono. It’s medicine 101 I’m told although I’m not a doctor so I wouldn’t know. Second, when you have mono, it’s usually a good idea to get x-rays because sometimes it can affect your organs, especially if it’s left untreated for as long as mine was.

Well, taking those x-rays probably saved my life.

To be continued ...

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Coming out of the Locker Room Redux

Ally and Sylvia, Palm Springs, California 2006
The other shoe dropped today. Interestingly, the response to ex-NBA baller John Amaechi coming out as a gay man last weekend has been pretty tame. One player said he didn't want to be exposed to a teammate's "gayness", another said the media was making too big of a deal about it and a couple others said it wouldn't be easy to have a gay teammate.

But the biggest criticism so far as been that Amaechi didn't come out soon enough.

We're still waiting for the first gay man to admit to being gay while he's actually an employed professional athlete. And yes, do not check your calendars -- it is still the 21st Century. Well, I'm not waiting for that day but rather the day when admitting your gay is as shocking as admitting you break the speed limit.

But the real hate parade has apparently only just begun. Ex-NBA point guard Tim Hardaway said this during an appearance Wednesday on Dan Le Batard's sports talk radio show, Sports Talk 790 in Miami:

"You know, I hate gay people, so I let it be known," Hardaway said. "I don't like gay people and I don't like to be around gay people. I am homophobic. I don't like it. It shouldn't be in the world or in the United States."

His remarks were not provoked by Le Batard, who simply asked him what he would do if he found out one of his teammates was gay. His first response was that he'd want the guy off the team and that being in the locker room with him would make him "uncomfortable."

Is it any wonder why gay athletes stay in the closet?

I've said it here before but to me being homophobic is the last bastion of bigotry in America. Here in NoCal, I heard a local sports talk guy rail on about how Hardaway's remarks are going to bring him a world of hurt. And even Hardaway apologized later Wednesday and an interview broadcast on a Fox Sports TV affiliate, but I'm betting nothing happens to him, nothing that affects his future in or around basketball. A lot of people think gay people are not normal or dangerous or sinners.

My friends will tell you that I'm uncomfortable around sex talk and it's true -- I like the idea of privacy and I think it's important in a world where people admit their most humiliating secrets on national television, to honor everyone's private life. Whatever you do as two consenting adults is your business -- just don't give me the gory details, you know?

But that's not good enough in America. America has been overrun by what I believe to be a minority group of extremely religious people who say they are doing God's will but are only spreading hate. I don't have to list the main culprits here, but the fact is homophobia is imprinted on to our cultural DNA to a point where one man's sexual orientation is a threat to another man, even if the subject never comes up.

Seems to me we've got a whole lot of very insecure guys out there.

I heard someone say recently -- someone who I consider smart, who's been around the block a time or two -- that she would worry if one of her son's elementary teachers was gay. She didn't want her son exposed to the lifestyle at such a young age. It doesn't matter to her that a gay man would normally never be interested in a child (that would make him a pedophile which is like calling a butcher a serial killer) and it doesn't matter that any teacher that brought his or her private sexual life in front of elementary school students would be out of a job before the bell for the next class.

It's okay to be ignorant and stupid about gay people because so many of the falsehoods (like they want to rape our sons) repeated about them are so widely believed. You would think that we would've have gotten past this by now, but there's just too many people in our country who refuse to let facts muddy their beliefs.

Interesting, in Le Batard's column based on Hardaway's comments, that runs in today's Miami Herald, Amaechi said that he was glad someone finally came out and said what they really feel about having a gay teammate.

``Finally, someone who is honest," he tells Le Batard. "It is ridiculous, absurd, petty, bigoted and shows a lack of empathy that is gargantuan and unfathomable. But it is honest. And it illustrates the problem better than any of the fuzzy language other people have used so far.''

In Amaechi's view, this kind of talk will only open up more dialogue on the subject, which is what he was after in deciding to tell his secret to the world in the first place. I guess.

The choice to come out of the closet shouldn't be a political one. It should be a personal, private decision for the person making it -- and no one else. Having said that, I'm rooting for a big time athlete to come out loud and proud -- while he's still actively playing his sport. The bigger his star, the better. When that happens (and it most surely will some day) then maybe we can do away with all these silly, ignorant myths -- and get onto something more important.

That's right, sports fans, this week is pitchers and catchers!

EDITED TO ADD: The news that Timmy H. has been banned from his appearances at the All-Star Weekend in Vegas, which means that S.O.L. is wrong, quite happily so. I watched TNT's post game last night (after Lebron out-Kobe'd the Lakers, who lost their fifth in a row) and liked what the guys had to say there. Especially Charles Barkley who came with the (and I'm paraphrasing not quoting him here) "if you think you've never played with a gay man on your team sometime in your life, you're crazy" take.

NBA Commish David Stern had this to say in a statement released after banning Hardaway from making appearances at NBA-sanctioned events this weekend:

NBA commissioner David Stern, upon learning of the remarks Wednesday, banished Hardaway from All-Star weekend in Las Vegas.

"It is inappropriate for him to be representing us given the disparity between his views and ours," Stern said.

I'm sure we'll see how big a disparity it really is. Stay tuned, sports fans.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Walkin' Girl

photo caption: My Road

I walked today.

Outside. In the fresh air.

It wasn't far. Took me a little more than a half hour, but it's a start. S.O.L.'s had a rough go of it the last couple of years and she's let herself go. This would be a bummer for most people, but for S.O.L., it is a tragedy.

But, as with anything else I try out, I'm starting small. We have a 2.5 mile, single-lane mostly dirt road between us and the rest of the world and my husband, who is usually very diligent about working out every day, is using it for his gym. It's a good substitute for the gym, minus the spandex and the small towels in the locker room and people waiting to use your machine. And you can't beat the view. He usually goes for an hour, which is like 20 minutes down the hill and the rest of the time climbing back up.

I've been thinking about joining him. I don't know why I haven't gone yet, except for the million excuses I've collected inside that part of my brain that would rather sit in the same spot forever than move.

I'm so out of shape that when I rushed my dog to the vet hospital recently and had to carry his 26-pound self up a small flight of stairs, I thought I was going to have a heart attack. I made it to the elevator, got in with the poor pooch who I gently placed on the floor and then I bent over like a drunk at the end of a long night, sure I was going to puke on the floor. For an hour afterward, my heart kept pounding in my chest, more from panic than the output of energy. Can we all say "last straw"?

Those of you who know me, understand how important staying in shape is. The name S.O.L. was not chosen out of thin air (no pun intended) and we'll we talking about that in future posts. Suffice it to say that S.O.L. has survived a lot of shit to get here and it is not a stretch to say she's lucky to even be alive. Every day I abuse my body is diminishing the journey it took to get here, and if that sounds like guilt, well you won't get an argument from me.

It's been raining for a week and today when I woke up, the sun was out, so S.O.L. got on her (very) cool silver Nikes and got out the iPod and set out down the road. It was an easy trip down to the neighbor's house, which is maybe a quarter mile.

This part of the road is lined on one side by thick woods and on the other -- through a wire fence -- by a sprawling view of neighboring vineyards. The rain, after a very dry (and very beautiful) winter so far, has turned a browning landscape into a sea of bright greens -- spring is here early in Wine Country. The smell is of wet mud and damp wood, and angry skunks and that singular scent of growing things pushing up through the moist ground.

Halfway down the first hill, I spot a dog through the fence. He's big -- a smaller version of a Great Dane with the colors of a Doberman, like he's been put together by a mad scientist. His head is too big, his legs to thin, but he's staring at me with a look of faint bemusement. At least that is what I imagine. I stare back as I walk by and suddenly he breaks into a sort of half-run and this ungainly animal cuts the most graceful gait you can imagine -- like a gazelle. It almost freezes time as I stop and watch him run. And then just as suddenly he turns for the rows of grapevines and is gone. The whole experience is so magical, so unexpected, that you're thankful to be here in the presence of the beauty of the outdoors. There is, you realize with a sudden taste of humility, a whole other world outside of the cozy confines of your house, the car and the town's coffee shop.

Ah, but there's that walk back up the hill that returns you to reality.

I did make it home, it was a slow walk, more like a trudge.

But trudge I did and tomorrow I will set out again. And the day after and the day after that.

It's time.

Saturday, February 10, 2007


In response to those of you who wrote in to say S.O.L.'s blog was difficult to read, I've changed the layout to one I think is easier on the eyes. S.O.L. is not one to kowtow to just any old request of her, but in this case, she is happy to please the seven people who take the time to actually read this.

S.O.L. Stories No. 1

photo caption: Blue Branches

When I was in high school, I had to read a James Baldwin short story, "Sonny's Blues," and I knew right then and there that one day I was going to be a writer. You can find it in the excellent collection of short stories, "Go Tell It On the Mountain."

I fell for Baldwin's style especially, for his unique (at the time) way of writing that conveyed so much more than the places and people he wrote about. His language was so real, so striking and beautiful and yet his work had the feel of journalism in its urgency, but its style never out-gunned his substance. He was the first author whose work I felt spoke to me in a way no one else's had and I read (more like devoured) everything he wrote.

Years later as I continue to find my voice as a writer, it's Baldwin's that I hear most often. And in some ways, I've been trying to write my own "Sonny's Blues." This story is the one that I felt came the closest.

It is an unabashed homage to what has remained my most favorite of all the short stories I've ever read.

"Mountain," Baldwin is quoted on the Penquin Classic's book jacket, "is the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else." Well in my small way, my story "Voices in the Cracks," was what I had to write first before I could move onto the book that would become my first novel. It's a little rough for my tastes now, but where can you go but up, right? So, here it be:

PLEASE NOTE: This is copyrighted material that is the sole property of the author. Reproduction or any other use of said material without the express written consent of the author is strictly prohibited. In other words, my lawyers are bigger than yours.

Voices in the Cracks

Max's head was screaming but for the first time, he couldn't understand the voices. He was hunched over the bar at the Dresden Room, gulping his drink and absorbing the darkness around him. Truth be told, he was waiting for it to swallow him up.

Around him, young girls in lingerie and boys with pony tails and tattoos, drank and laughed and smoked too much. They should have been filled with exuberance, the freshness of youth, but they were more like him, pale and scarred and carrying the weight of their futures and pasts all at once, as if they could play them out in one evening. As if it would make any difference if they could.

We're all lost, he thought. The only difference was he knew it and they didn't.

Max didn't care. Knowing he was drowning didn't make a damn bit a difference. He knew he couldn't stop it if he tried.

He fidgeted in his chair, one hand wrapped around the edge of the bar as if he was afraid he'd fall off, the other around the glass. His dark eyes -- Lelia said they were brooding -- surveyed slowly, covering just enough space so he didn't have to turn his head. He was mostly tracing the scuffs and scratches on the bar top, but occasionally he'd glance up at the mirror behind the bar, its dirty, pool-like depths tracing dim outlines of the kids around him. Max was there in the middle, the eyes obliterated in the darkness, the fine, sloped nose, the small mouth and orderly mess of kinky, graying hair atop his head.

Under the sounds of muddled, angry voices around him, Max could hear ``Backwater Blues” filtering through his ears and pouring over his insides. At the moment, the music was his only anchor in space and time, more real to him than the wooden bar stool below him.

It wasn't just Bessie Smith calling back his childhood from the darkness, it was what any music did to him. The way it swelled inside him, starting somewhere gut-level and rushing to his head with a purpose. It was like being high.

The sounds gave him focus, but the din around him kept rising every few minutes to drown the music out, giving way to the haphazard electricity that bounced around in his head. Then he'd remember again how he'd lost track of what it was supposed to mean to him.

It was like staring at the sun and closing your eyes and trying to count the spots. They never kept still.

A slight woman, a girl really, squeezed in beside Max, greeting his brief glance with a thin smile. He returned to his drink.

“I'll have a Lite,” he heard her tell the bartender, then: “What's playing? Sounds like something my old man listened to.”

When Max looked up again, she was making a face.

“It's the blues, girl,” the bartender teased. “Ain't you ever had the blues?”

“Not this bad,” she seemed proud of that remark and took an impossibly long sip of her beer like a dare. Right out of the bottle.

“You never heard of Bessie Smith,” he said, his tired voice surprising him, like he didn't use it much. She slammed the nearly empty bottle on the bar.

“You ever heard of Madonna?” She laughed back at him, the shrillness echoing in his head as she disappeared back into the darkness. He tried again to focus on just one thing, a thought, a song, a note, but nothing came. He emptied his glass instead, motioning silently for another.

It hadn't always been this way. The voices had been good to Max; they had given him religion.

It started when he was just a kid, home sick from school and messing with his Dad's brand new radio. He was turning the dial to station after station. The sounds amazed him and he tried to imagine the beautiful people behind the voices.

Suddenly the music blurted out; some country blues thing that was mixed up with something he'd heard in church. All bitterness and hope and craziness thrown in with a kind of faith he'd been told existed, but had never known.

Max had never heard anything like it, it froze him and something small began to rise in his gut. It started to shiver but the strangest thing is that he wasn’t only hearing the music, he was seeing it. The song was like a paint-by-numbers. Max could see every note in his head though he'd never seen a sheet of music before. And with every note, the voices spoke to him. It was a sign from God.

But it was more. Like reaching into a box with no bottom. The music kept coming. Nat King Cole, Bessie Smith, Merle Haggard, The Weavers. Then later Monk and Bird and a thousand other anonymous cats that came through his town, who thought they were playing for money or Thunderbirds, but were really playing for their lives.

Max listened to it all -- and played. At first it was an old harmonica, then a guitar and finally that saxophone.

It was playing the horn where he learned about the edge, about how close he came every time he played to falling over it. When he was younger, he knew it -- Jesus the voices told him -- but he was fearless, they all were. Just like the kids in the bar. They weren't scared because they didn't know what they didn't know, what Max knew. They just hadn't lived long enough yet.

But Max got scared. Every time he got on stage to play, he felt it. It was his secret, this uncontrollable urge to lose control, to let the music and the voices make him crazy. Most times, he'd feel the rhythm, set his jaw and give his life to the horn again. But that was the problem, wasn't it? It was his life, the breadth of his experiences that made that God damned horn sing.

But he felt somehow it went deeper than that. That the need went farther back even then him and Lelia, before his parents and their parents and their parents' parents. He was caught in a circle of fire and he was the one in flames.

The only way he could stop it was to play, the only way he could play was to get burned.

He tried to tell this to the others, but if they wanted to hear it and truth is they didn’t, it came out of his mouth as gibberish. Cats all had their own weights to carry and they didn't care what made you play as long as you came in on the right beat.

Sometimes the playing would free him. But when it was over, the fear would return. He'd try to get it back another way. Women, drugs, drinking, but as high as he'd get, it was never as good as playing. It never came close. It just sunk his eyes, softened his stomach and made his hands shake. Sometimes when Max was so far gone, he'd forget to be scared. And then he was back dancing with the flames.

It was heaven until he came back down again.

The voices had him by the balls now. He'd been doing a gig in New York when they took over. In the middle of a jam, he stopped playing. Just stopped. Perry looked at him coolly, than oddly from behind his bass and signaled to the young piano player, a new guy Max didn't know real well, to take 'em home. Max just stared at the horn like he'd never seen it before, stealing glances at the audience in the dark club who, he realized suddenly, had no idea something was wrong.

Afterward, Perry found him in the men's room.

``What the fuck happened?” He pushed a tall glass of something strong at Max. He wasn’t mad. You could always tell what Perry was thinking. Max was leaning over the sink feeling sick. He glanced over at Perry, a huge, dark man with almond eyes and full cheeks, and reached without looking for the glass, back to staring at himself in the bathroom mirror.

``I'm going crazy,” Max said finally. The drink, now up to his lips. He gulped half of it, the scotch burning the back of his throat and rushing through him like fire.

``Get in line, baby,” Perry said. ``That's why we're here.”

Max set the glass down on the sloped edge of the sink counter, allowing his fingers to hover over it until the glass seemed to find a perch. They both watched it rattle for a minute.

``No, man,” Max said, still looking at his reflection. Perry could've been on another planet. ``Something's wrong with my head.” He was pointing at his temple, plugging the dike.

``Tell me somethin' I don't know,” Perry's hearty laugh filled the small bathroom, bouncing off the walls and scaring the shit out of Max. He jumped, accidentally knocked the glass over. It shattered on the tile floor, the yellow of the last drop of scotch making the broken pieces sparkle like stained glass.

``Jesus, Max,” Perry's hand was on his shoulder now, his tone more somber. ``You're shakin' like Hell, man. What you on?”

Max just stared at the floor, shaking his head.

``Is it Lelia?” The big man had a way of talking sometimes softer than the wind, like the barely audible twung-twung of his instrument.

Again Max shook his head. His wife and he had been apart for months. He saw her when he was in town, but it was difficult. She understood, she just couldn't handle it. Max figured at the least she was being honest. She had always had a way of knowing he was headed for a fall before he had even arranged the thought in his own mind.

``Well, shit,” suddenly and unbelievably Perry's tone got even lower, laced with a seriousness Max hadn't heard since somebody told them their old piano player had been shot in the head. ``You losin' it.”

The last words carried some serious weight and they both knew. ``You don't got it no more.” The big man was in his face, close enough to smell the liquor on his breath, see the fine rosin left on his cheek from his fingers.

Max suddenly choked up. He couldn't speak. Instead he tried to form a song in his head, a note, anything. Nothing came in but the screaming. He grabbed the sides of his head, turned toward the sink and vomited. The force dropped him to his knees, the shattered shards of glass tearing through his dress black pants, tiny bits of blood dripping on the white tile.

A voice bellowed in the distance and into Max's vacuum.

The bathroom door swung open, hard, banging against the wall like thunder. It was Frankie, the red-headed drummer, his pale skin making him almost invisible against the white walls. Behind him was the new piano player. They stopped short when they saw Max on the floor, the big bass player bending over him.

``Can't hold yer liquor,” Frankie said in his Hillbilly voice. He was from some shit hole town in West Virginia or something. He once showed Max pictures of the house he grew up in. It wasn’t much bigger than an outhouse. The lightness to his voice faded when he got a steady gaze from Perry. Max didn't see it, but he knew that was the only thing could shut that boy up.

Perry got up and talked quietly to the two musicians. He shooed them out and all Max could hear was ``Get the hell outta here. Don’t tell nobody what you seen. Frankie, what’s the name of that horn player you know from Detroit?” until the voice faded.

Max might have felt sick from the obvious pity in the man's voice, but he was incapable of feeling anything at the moment, except the burning in his throat and the pain in his head.

He didn't remember how he got home that night or who he'd gone home with, but somewhere he lost his horn. Perry figured somebody at the club knew who lifted it, but even the force of his imposing personality couldn't convince the unknown thief to fess up. So they left New York without it.

A musician's instrument is like a tennis player's favorite racket. He may have more than one, but the others don't have the same sweet spot.

In some ways, losing that horn was harder on Max than losing Lelia, though he was sure he'd know what to do with Lelia if she came back, but not so that old brass horn.

Perry would've let him go back home early, but he needed the money and they were raking it in again, taking advantage of the latest popularity of the blues or whatever they called it out there. He convinced Perry to hold off on Mr. Detroit and used his backup horn.

The playing went nearly back to normal. He'd only lost it twice in the six weeks since New York, but he knew it could happen at any time. It made even waking up a chore. Walking onto the dark stage was like death row. Just thinking about it, could set off an attack, which is what Perry started calling it.

It had become a morbid joke. Each man understood how close he was to being where Max was and even mentioning it at all meant that it could happen to them tomorrow.

Nobody said it, but to a man, they would rather be hit by a truck.

They stayed away from him like he was diseased and he didn't blame them. He'd have done the same if it was one of them. Everyone except that new piano player, a northerner that Max learned was named Roy. He was cocky, but he didn’t make a big deal about it. Shit, he had decent chops. He was like the rest of 'em, born to play, though they all knew he was better than most. The boys wondered what kept him around a bunch of has-beens.

He seemed to think he was immune from Max's ailment. If he didn't, Max figured he got some kind of special thrill hanging with an old, used-up jazz musician losin' his shit with each passing minute.

“This seat taken?”

He was pulled back to the present when he vaguely noticed a man taking a seat beside him and a voice he knew ordering a bottle of scotch.

“This ain’t the old west, pal,” the bartender told him.

``Hey old man. Knew you'd be here,” it was Roy. ``You'd think nobody ordered a bottle anymore. Everything's going down hill.”

“You know this son of a bitch?”

Max nodded.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” the bartender said, opening a new bottle of scotch. “Max actually has a friend. Fuck me.”

Max didn't feel like talking, but he smirked at the bartender.

``How would you know,” he said to Roy, his voice still low and scratchy. He cleared his throat. ``You're a step out of the cradle.”

``Yeah,” Roy laughed, a high-pitched sound that seemed to come from his forehead, ``and you're a step from the grave old man.” It came in gulps now, a young man's devil-may-care laughter that would have been silly on someone older. Max had always liked it. It seemed free.

He mumbled a ``Fuck off,” but held his drink out to be refilled by the bottle of scotch brought over by the bartender, who was hovering a little and eyeing Roy like he was trouble. Max's voices were dimming, the liquor was setting in and Roy's mood seemed to be catching. He managed a weak smile.

``Don't worry,” he told the bartender. ``He's okay. No more trouble, no less.”

``I should kick you both out then,” the bartender's eyes shared the joke between them. Roy lifted the bottle toward him, a kind of peace offering. The bartender grabbed a glass from beneath the bar and Roy poured it for him.

``You're O.K.,” he said to Roy and moved down to take another order.

``Nice guy,” Roy was checking out the place. ``Lousy bar. The music's right though.” He winked at Max. `Ain't a soul in this room know what they listenin' too.”

Max shrugged. The two sat in silence. Max fighting his demons, Roy working hard on the scotch. A couple of women walked up to Roy, trying for some action, but he waved them off.

Max said, “You like guys or what?”

“Ain’t nothing here worth picking up,” he said. “I got standards.”

``You must be sick, boy,” Max egged him. ``I never seen you turn a woman down before.”

“I’m on vacation.”

Max smiled. A new face in the mirror.

After another couple of drinks and a long silence, Roy looked over at Max, set his jaw like he'd come to say something important.

``Somebody die?” Max asked finally.

Roy shook his head. More silence. Max figured the kid would talk when he was ready.

``I heard you play once,” Roy's voice startled Max. It was quiet, like Perry's, only when Max looked, there was an earnestness in his eyes. Perry's had been tinged with fear.

Max knew that look in the kids who thought of him as some kind of legend. He didn't want to hear it. Not anymore, anyway -- and not here.

“In Gator Brown's, in the Keys,” Roy was down his road. ``We were on spring break, you know a bunch of college kids tearin' up the place. A buddy of mine had this white girlfriend. We all liked her a lot. Sang in our band. Well a bunch of guys down there the U. of G. didn't take to us hanging out with her. Or her hanging out with us or whatever. We ran into them in a bar, all of us drunker 'en shit, I mean long gone.”

He stopped to take a long sip and to fill up Max's glass again.

“So anyway, they chased us out of that place, or at least some of us,” he laughed nervously. “Like we discussed, I’m no fighter, and, you know, my fingers,” the last word with emphasis. “I need 'em. I just hauled ass out of that joint. Ended outside Gator's, smoking in the alley when I heard it; it was magic, man. Something deep and hot, but, man, different somehow. I swear it sounded like it was coming from a guy who knew he was going to hell and was just trying to make the ride worth it, trying to leave something of himself behind. Really sad, you know?”

He stopped again. He was starting to feel the liquor. Max stared into his drink, trying to keep the voices down. In the background, somebody was wailing something about pig feet. The bartender nodded at him. He knew what he wanted to hear.

“So anyway, I went in and the place was packed. I had to stand off to the side. I knew right then I had to play with you.”

He took another drink, refilled his glass and raised it.

“To the greatest sax player it was ever my pleasure to hear.”

Max was embarrassed by the other man's admiration, and touched. He held his head down.

“You'll get over this,” Roy said suddenly, almost pleading. “You gotta. There ain't nothin' else for you to do.”

"Right, I'm just gonna slick my heels together, I guess," but Max's voice didn't have the cynicism of his words. He knew he'd looked up at the kid too fast, knew that Roy's words were hanging in the air like lightening.

Something he always knew, but had never formed into words. You weren't supposed to. Roy sensed his alarm.

``Ain't nothin' any one of us can do but play, man,” he said, the pain Max felt now suddenly appearing at the corners of Roy's eyes, in the twitch of his lips. It had already started, he thought; this kid was long gone.

“It's why God put us here,” he said. “Most folks die without knowing.”

“Knowin' it can kill you too,” Max said.

“If it wasn't like that, we'd make it that way,” Max was seeing in Roy a wisdom he'd thought beyond this kid's experience. “Nobody wants it easy. Oh sure they say they do, but it’s bullshit. We’re all fucking coin flips. On the edge, man. That’s why we do it. Like guys who jump out of planes for fun. It ain't no macho thing. They do it cause they have to. Something inside is telling ‘em to do it. It ain't no more complicated than that.”

He lapsed into his street speak to emphasize his point and Max realized suddenly how special this kid was. He'd heard his own voices and now he was trying to ease Max's.

“You know” he said after taking another drink. Max hadn't touched his in a while. He was listening. “I heard you tell Perry about your voices.”

Max looked up -- he didn't want this kid's pity.

“I started playing when I was three years old. It always came kind of easy for me. A boy genius, I guess,” he said, the voice different somehow, out where he hadn't gone before.

“Sometimes when we're jammin' and I'm layin' it on, it feels like I'm floating over my piano. It's like somebody else is playing. Something inside me keeps screaming at me, telling me to stop. Stop or I'll lose it, you know, go insane. But I can't stop, my hands are on their own doing their own thing. It's out of my control.

"I know I sound like a lunatic, but it's like the damn piano is playing itself."

He stared at Max, his eyes betraying a little fear, a little embarrassment, a wayward tear. He wiped it away.

“I never told this to anybody before,” he said. “But that moment, when all that shit is happening, well, you can't match it. It's like being high and crazy, but free. When I'm there, I know I'll be all right, but at the same time, I'm scared cause I know it'll end and I wonder if I'll ever get back there again. Or if I'd even remember how.”

Max felt the tears running down his face and into his drink. Roy fell silent, his confession out now. They drank in silence, the sounds of a few stragglers still in the bar, another blues tune on the juke box. Max was thinking of Lelia's face, her soft lips and hard cheek bones, the darker-than-night eyes. He was thinking of his folks and Perry and Frankie and Clarence the dead piano player and all the others that peopled his troubled dreams.

The pain and anguish, the tragedy and euphoria, how it all melded into one when he was up there blowing his lungs out thinking so many times of blowing his brains out instead.

Roy clinked the bottle on the bar. Put the top in and tucked it under his arm. He left a fifty next to his glass. Max heard him leave something else on the bar, but couldn't yet look the kid in the face. He felt a hand squeeze his shoulder and wondered again how someone so young could know so much.

He didn't even turn to see him leave, just stared down at the drink, letting the tears flow. When he finally looked up again, he was nearly alone in the bar, the bartender on the other end counting his receipts, giving him room.

He fumbled in his pocket, but the bartender stopped him. “Your friend paid your fare,” he said from the corner. “A good kid.”

"Plays a mean piano, too," Max said, wiping his nose on his sleeve.

Max nodded, pulled himself off the stool and leaned on the bar for support, the volume in his head relaxed. A little. Then he saw it, there on the bar.

Max's lost saxophone, the beat-up black case, his name stenciled on one side, was laying on the bar.

He flipped open the case to examine the dulled, scratched brass horn, resting his hand on it, feeling his pulse jump. For the second time, he felt the tears in his eyes again.

He shut them now and blindly closed the case, the solid metallic click echoing like a slap. The sound stumbled around his head the whole, long walk to Lelia's place.

He could feel an old tune he couldn't name, just a phrase tickling the inside of his lips, a few bars pausing for release in his cheeks. He tried to whistle. It began awkwardly in time with the beats he couldn't quite shake, but he kept searching until he found the notes and sprung it to life.

There was still other noises in his head, the late-night traffic, a far-off siren, the flat hum of the phone wires above and the wail of a lost alley cat.

But they were secondary, fading with everything else in his brain where the name of the tune was. He'd never be able to call it up on demand, but he'd always know it was there.

He actually smiled at this as he walked up Lelia's back stairs, but the song he left hanging in the night was long and sad and mournful.

It had a purpose for Max, a kind of cleansing for whatever demons he'd still have come daylight. Max thought he could hear it drift away, carried on the thick air, traveling its own path through the half-lit darkness. It would come to rest, he was sure, in the now-blackened room, on the bar top where he'd left the saxophone.

Los Angeles, 1994.