I tried to make five loaves of tomato-basil sourdough. Instead I made ten. The recipe that I quintupled was for two loaves. I ran out of good flour and went to the okay flour. Other than that, I followed the recipe. Except I didn’t have paprika, so used cayenne instead. Oh and some experimental precut fridge proofing. Other than that, though, to a tee. They all turned out fine. I’ve been getting pretty good at bread. It’s simple: follow the recipe. Like really follow it. With a scale and everything. Exact measurements. Put aside the notion that you are talented and have an innate skill for bread, because you don’t, not at first. Humble yourself and submit to the instructions of the recipe-maker. And — this part’s important — read the whole thing first, so you don’t end up with more dough than your oven can handle and ten loaves of too-spicy bread.
When the final loaves were cooling on the stove, Seth and I went to play basketball. We’ve been getting pretty good at it. Or so we thought. And we tricked some strangers into thinking so too, because they invited us to play three-on-three. They needed a sixth. Seth and I swapped in. That’s how we learned that we’re still terrible. We had transported into a new universe with creatures that were more basketball than human. Their hands, feet, torsos were all an extension of the ball at play. They were each in five places at once. They were flying through the air and made of the earth. They were sturdy as mountains and fluid as rivers. They scored nine times before our team scored once.
Humiliated, we fled to New York. Do you ever feel like you are good at being alive, then go to New York City and realize you’re wrong? It used to be like that with me. The city that’s somehow too hot and too cold at the same time, with urine everywhere but nowhere to pee, with too much of everything except the thing you need. But I’m better now. I’m getting pretty good at enjoying New York. The trick is to spend time in Jersey instead, for the view. We learned that Frank Sinatra sang “it’s up to you, New York” when he was sitting in Hoboken eating a roast beef sandwich and giving up on life. But then he decided to go and be Frank Sinatra. Don’t you wish you could do that?
But we didn’t spend all our New York time in Jersey. We ran ten miles to Coney Island, where everything was closed except one hot dog place with milkshakes. We drank the milkshake first so we could end lunch on a warm stomach. It was cold anyway. Fifty degrees and windy. We shivered as we watched seagulls play keep-away with each other. One would find a piece of trash in the water, grab it, and the others would clamor over his treasure; he would scare them off and hoard this trash, picking at it as if each peck might transform into something delicious. Then he would leave it alone, pretending he didn’t care, letting another seagull become the new God of Plastic, for just a moment before he took it back.
We also went to four art galleries. One was closed, one was empty, one was a gift shop, one was fine (so we didn’t go inside). The empty one was more like a synagogue. A large open room leading to a grassy area with a bench. A single bench in the entire place that was making a statement about benches. When we left, we walked by the greeter, who said “Good evening, everyone.” It was just me and Seth. The place must be filled with his feelings and visions. I thought I was pretty good at being creative, but I’m nothing compared to this sole greeter in an empty gallery saying hello to the hundreds of people who aren’t there.
James Brown’s bassist is still alive and can sing and play like he dreams it; we saw him with our eyes. We met a baby who was unimpressed with silly faces. There was a kid singing “God is good, god is great” while riding an e-scooter. There are people who are so self-assured it makes me feel empty inside. Couldn’t I be that way? Not that way, My Way.
And there were hundreds of people playing basketball. Mostly kids in playgrounds. Seth and I told each other we could totally take them, but we stayed humbly on the sidelines. I kept thinking about how, when we played basketball with the gods, I almost scored once. It bounced off the rim. It went slow as syrup through the air, and one of the gods shouted: “Short.” Not me. The ball. The shot was too short. But it almost went in. It would have if I’d put a little more chutzpah into it. And I dream of it. I imagine it going in. I imagine these giants looking at each other with their hands daintily over their mouths, like a scandalized operagoer in Anna Karenina, discussing the latest gossip, saying, “Oh, my!” That didn’t happen. But it almost did, and my dream keeps me going.
Every so often I feel my head blow up like a balloon with happiness, and every so often I feel the humility of a piece of plastic. To a Brooklyn seagull, plastic is worth fighting over. James Brown’s bassist is still talented but seems to recognize that it’s time to step back; when it was riff time, he kept quiet and let his bandmates shine. Humility is the thread connecting all this. Because we’re all just individual people pushing through a sidewalk crowded with other individual people with their own weird hobbies and dreams and downfalls. I want to be as talented as James Brown’s bassist fifty years ago and I want to know when to step back and let the bread baker pick up the paprika. I want to be humble. The humblest. All I can do is try.
PS: Publication alert! I hope you enjoy reading the short story Centralia in the Sky, published in Gulf Coast Journal.