2015 Top 10

I posted next to nothing here in the second half of last year, so here’s making up for lost time: here is a list of a few notable things I ran across over that period. I can’t resist stealing the format Greil Marcus uses for his monthly Real Life Rock Top 10 column, especially since he just published a book collecting all the columns he’s written over the years. Something to strive for.

1. Laurie Anderson, Heart of a Dog. In a year of decent-to-good memoirs by good-to-great musicians, this 80-minute meditation on memory, time, and loss was more powerful than the rest of them put together. There is a lot to say about this multilayered film, but two pieces in particular, one in the middle and one at the end, and neither one about dogs, truly blew me away. It would ruin the movie to give them away, but in the first, “A Story About a Story,” the artist, who’s been telling personal stories in one form or another for forty years, is brave enough to unpack and expose all the assumptions and poses behind the whole genre. And in the second, “The Lake,” she gives you a take on parent-child dynamics that my wife and I are still arguing about. Anderson’s work is always artistic and creative, but this film has an emotional rawness and a directness that feels like a brand new direction more than a summation. She was kind enough to stop by to chat at the screening that I attended, and I asked her if the “story about a story” episode in the middle of the film was indicative of a new outlook on storytelling as a whole. She said yes, in a way that made me think she was still figuring out the consequences, and that they would flow into her work for years to come. I can’t wait.

2. Mourning Sun, at the West End Theatre, NYC. Directed by my friend Ari Laura Kreith, this is a play about the fallout from the cycle of child marriage, rape, and pregnancy in Africa. You worry that an issue play might be didactic or artless, but there is a lot here that is artful, especially a scene late in the first act that brings the issue home in the most devastating terms.

You see a stark set on an almost bare stage, you see a young woman getting on a bus. The bus driver notices she smells like a bathroom, the woman explains it away: she just encountered someone incontinent, she says. She moves, unsteadily, to the back of the bus. The passengers around her rise up in disgust, the driver kicks her off the bus. She tries to get on another bus, and the cycle repeats. The woman has an obstetric fistula, a hole in her bladder, from when she was raped as a child bride, became pregnant, and went into prolonged labor that her body wasn’t mature enough to handle. Now she can’t stop peeing. She tries to get on a third bus, repeating the same painful dialogue, and by then you’re squirming in your seat, so uncomfortable that you think you might actually smell the urine in the theater.

3. Richard Thompson, “Fergus Lang.” I saw Richard Thompson play a great solo acoustic show at NJPAC in Newark in April, and the one new song that stayed with me was this caustic takedown of a not-at-all disguised Donald Trump figure. It was springtime then, months before Trump announced for president, and Thompson’s satire played mostly for laughs. “Fergus Lang (the Trump stand-in) has a fine head of hair,” Thompson sang in the chorus, “when the wind’s in the right direction.” In the moment, the song seemed totally over the top — but something changed later in the year, as Trump became the 2015 king of all media and the frontrunner for the Republican nomination. When you hear “Fergus Lang” now, all you can do is shake your head that it doesn’t go nearly far enough. Thompson may have a rich artistic imagination, but the real Fergus Lang has managed to imagine a kind of politics that even Thompson couldn’t dream up. If art is the expression of imagination, as Henry Moore said, then is Donald Trump also the frontrunner for the Grammy for New Artist of the Year?

4. Golden State Warriors and Kansas City Royals. Sports stories don’t have to be inspirational, and the good guys don’t always end up on top. But when the teams that play with the most joy end up winning it all, it’s beautiful to watch.

5. The Red Iguana, Salt Lake City, UT. Mexican is my comfort food, and this unassuming place in Salt Lake City had the best mole sauces, and probably the best Mexican food, that I’ve ever eaten. When you first come in, they give you a sample of eight moles, and you can have your meal made with any of them. I had a chile relleno with a combination of two sauces, and I still feel like I can taste them months later. I can’t imagine anything hitting the spot more after a long day’s drive across Utah.


6. The Mekons, “Heaven and Back,” Bowery Ballroom, NYC. After a recent documentary expanded their cultural presence from hundreds of fans to possibly thousands, the Mekons toured this summer to larger crowds than usual, and on this night in July, the Bowery was packed. The band responded with fierce intensity, cutting out much of the usual banter between songs, and reminding you that no matter what you knew or thought you knew about them, they were a great rock and roll band first. They even brought out the high leg kicks for “Heaven and Back”… and then Rico fell backwards into Jon’s guitar amp, some of the sound went out, and the song disintegrated into three minutes of archetypal inter-Mekon insults, sarcasm, and laughter. Hard as they may try, they can’t escape being hilarious. Then everybody picked themselves up and tore into the next number. It was as perfectly Mekonic as you can get.

7. Sleater-Kinney, “Was it a Lie,” Kings Theatre, NYC. The opening notes echoed the better-known “Jumpers,” S-K’s other death-themed song, which the band had ripped through near the beginning of the set. But while “Jumpers” stands in direct opposition to its subject matter, as perhaps the most life-affirming song you’ll ever hear, “Was it a Lie” is a lot harder to pin down. It is complex, and subtle, and what makes it work is the astonishing delicacy and empathy of Corin Tucker’s vocal. This one is for everyone who makes the mistake of thinking of Tucker mainly as a screamer.

8. Sleater-Kinney, “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight),” Kings Theater, NYC. One of the band’s few false moves on this December night was a rushed rendition of one of their early statement cuts, “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone.” It didn’t ring true because it came across like a standard rock number, without any of the mystery, emotion, and slow self-discovery of the original version. The otherworldly shrieks that began the chorus were reduced to simple yells, the band calling happily to their audience, no longer the involuntary sounds of a woman alone in a room, discovering, step by step, the power of her voice. The song didn’t seem relevant for the band anymore.

Then, when the band came back out for their encore, Carrie announced, “We know it’s Hanukkah,” (and indeed a menorah rested on top of her amp), “but we’re going to play a Christmas song.”

What came next turned out to be a slightly obscure mid-period piece by those same Ramones. If you’ve never heard it, that’s because it’s not that notable: the original is hedged, campy, and plays largely for laughs. But S-K changed the terms of the song. Carrie put down her guitar, caressed the mic and slithered over the stage just like Joey Ramone used to, but with a seriousness of purpose that was all Sleater-Kinney. When she wished you “Merry, merry, MERRY Christmas,” she held you by the scruff of your neck; when she called out, “I don’t want to fight tonight!” her voice was filled with desperation, but also a keen awareness of her own capability. It was crystal clear, in that moment, why “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone” had sounded obsolete earlier: the band was already your Joey Ramone, and much, much more.

Meanwhile, alone in a small town basement somewhere, a thin, quiet, completely straight-eyed 14-year old was trying out voices that she might use to let you know how much she wanted to be your Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein, and Janet Fucking Weiss. Shoulders of giants.

9. Mad Max: Fury Road and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Two sequels to beloved sci-fi trilogies from the late 70’s and early 80’s with more than a few parallels. Both series were known for a grimier than usual picture of the universe, for one thing, and in both cases the second film in the trilogy was clearly the best and the third was relatively weak, for another. (In one case there was also a set of prequels that nobody wants to talk about, so I won’t either.) Seeing the Star Wars film was like seeing a band you used to like as a kid getting back together after twenty years and delivering a crowd-pleasing show of their hits, all the old formulas working as well as ever. Which might seem like enough, until you see Sleater-Kinney, or Fury Road.

10. Lou Reed, “Turning Time Around.”A late 90’s composition by Laurie Anderson’s late husband, played over the closing credits of Heart of a Dog, fitting the moment so perfectly that you couldn’t believe it wasn’t written specifically for the movie. Weren’t Lou and Laurie in the studio together working on it, going over sounds and timing and exactly how the credits would roll over the track?


How to Count

The other day I saw a math question disguised as a baseball trivia question. Here it is:

How many states don’t have major league baseball teams?

Let’s see: there’s Alaska, Arkansas,… Sure, it might be hard to list them all, but why am I calling this a math question?

Well, it doesn’t ask us to list all the states without baseball teams, it asks us to count them. Of course you can count things directly, by listing every one, but that’s not always as easy as it might seem. Maybe you can list all 50 states off the top of your head, and keep track as you go along of which ones don’t have teams, but I’m pretty sure I’ll overlook a few states. (I thought I could organize the states alphabetically, but I ended up giving up once I thought I got through the A’s, and I forgot Alabama!)

So how do you count things indirectly, without listing them? For a start, let’s reframe the question:

How many states DO have major league baseball teams?

If we can answer one question, we can answer the other: if, say, 20 states out of 50 have teams, then 30 don’t. But doesn’t the question feel a little easier when you ask it this second way? Pause here with me for just a moment: why is that?

One reason is that relatively few states have teams, and the ones that do are likely to be the better known ones, so if you were going to try to count by listing, listing the states that have teams is probably easier than listing the ones that don’t. But the real reason the alternate formulation helps is that you don’t have to count by listing — at least not by listing states. You could count by listing teams.

The Red Sox play in Massachusetts — that’s one state. The Yankees play in New York — that’s a second. The Giants play in California — a third. The A’s play in California too, but we already counted that. And so on.

We can make this process a little more organized if we use the structure of the baseball leagues. There are 30 major league baseball teams and they are currently divided evenly into two leagues: 15 in the American League, 15 in the National. Each league has 3 divisions — East, Central, and West — and each division has 5 teams. In other words: 30 teams broken up into 6 divisions of 5.

Doesn’t it feel a lot easier to go through 6 divisions of 5 than to go through 50 states? Let’s do it. I write this off the top of my head, in real time:

AL East: Boston Red Sox (MA, 1), New York Yankees (NY, 2), Baltimore Orioles (MD, 3), Toronto Blue Jays (Canada, not a state), Tampa Bay Rays (FL,4)

AL Central: Kansas City Royals (MO, 5), Detroit Tigers (MI, 6), Cleveland Indians (OH, 7), Minnesota Twins (MN, 8), Chicago White Sox (IL, 9)

AL West: Oakland A’s (CA, 10), Houston Astros (TX, 11), Texas Rangers (TX, repeat state), California Angels (CA, repeat state), Seattle Mariners (WA, 12)

NL East: Washington Nationals (DC, not a state), New York Mets (NY, repeat state), Philadelphia Phillies (PA, 13), Miami Marlins (FL, repeat state), Atlanta Braves (GA, 14)

NL Central: St. Louis Cardinals (MO, repeat state), Pittsburgh Pirates (PA, repeat state), Milwaukee Brewers (WI, 15), Cincinnati Reds (OH, repeat state), Chicago Cubs (IL, repeat state)

NL West: Arizona Diamondbacks (AZ, 16), Colorado Rockies (CO, 17), San Diego Padres (CA, repeat state), Los Angeles Dodgers (CA, repeat state), San Francisco Giants (CA, repeat state)

And there you have it: 17 distinct states with teams, so 33 states without. And while this problem isn’t winning anybody the Fields Medal, it does illustrate two very important principles of counting, and math in general:

1. Find and use correspondences. When we asked which states have teams, we set up an implicit correspondence between states and teams. A way to make that correspondence more explicit is to reframe the question yet again, this time in terms of team-state pairs:

How many pairs (S, T) are there, where S is a state, T is a team that plays in that state, and no state is repeated more than once?

This might sound needlessly complicated, but math people actually like to talk this way! (Remember the definition of relations and functions the first time you saw it? Your eyes probably glazed over; mine sure did.) We use this language because it brings to the surface the duality inherent in the set-up: states and teams are paired. When you have pairs, you get to choose how to enumerate them: over the first entry, or over the second. And in this case, the second is the way to go, because…

2. More structure is better. The set of states seems sort of amorphous. You can try to break it up into regions (New England, Mid-Atlantic, Midwest,…), but it’s not totally clear how to do it. Whereas the set of baseball teams has a very clear structure: six by five. I lied in one place when I told you I was listing baseball teams in real time. When I got to the NL Central, I put down three of the five teams, and then spaced on what the other two were. But I knew there had to be five, and I knew about where they should be geographically. I remembered the other two within a minute.

Counting has a rich and noble history. Also a fancier name: combinatorics. And while the subject, perhaps like much of math, might seem like a bag of tricks when you first encounter it, it has some clear guiding principles. Look for structures, and try to transform your problem so you can make use of those structures. These principles are at work all over, so keep an eye out for them!

First Day of Spring

Don’t look for the start of spring in the calendar. You can’t predict ahead of time when it’ll come, yet you always know it on the day, when something makes you rush outside without bundling up first, and once you’re out, you start inventing reasons to stay out longer, not reasons to come back in.

This year the start of spring came on a Sunday, about a week after the official date. The snow had mostly melted a couple weeks earlier, and the temperature was rising steadily through the early afternoon. My sons and I decided we needed to give the local ball field a try. It can’t be that muddy, can it? We took our baseball things — bat, gloves, and balls — and headed over.

It wasn’t muddy at all, and more than warm enough to play. We tossed a ball around to warm up, then took our regular spots — me pitching, one boy batting, the other catching. Despite the winter layoff, they remembered what to do, where to stand, how to swing. Within a few minutes they were as comfortable with their new metal bat as they had been with a wiffle bat by the end of last summer. They swung and missed often, but got their share of hits too, a few balls going past the infield, boys running happily around the bases when they made contact. It must have looked fun, because pretty soon other kids started wandering over to play. A friend from the school bus, two chatty third graders we didn’t know but who soon seemed like old friends, one quiet boy who knew to take over catching when my sons wanted to go out in the field, still another who was too shy to ask but looked like he really wanted to play.

A batting order was formed. After a couple cycles through it, my younger son announced he wanted to pitch. I was skeptical — but OK, sure, give it a shot. We agreed on how far he should stand from the plate, and he started firing balls in. I stood over to the side and watched. He was no worse at getting the ball over the plate than I had been, and the batting rotation went on — swings, misses, balls hit up the middle, balls hit straight up in the air. Everyone knew to run when they hit the ball. Boys who weren’t up to bat stood out in the field, chased balls, tried to throw to each other, to tag the runner — without much grace, for now. Out here, in the developmental leagues of Montclair, NJ, it’s very much a hitter’s world.

No longer needed in the game, I could look around, taking in the whole park — the field, the pond to my right, the playground to my left. We have been regulars since we moved to town, almost seven years ago now, when the first boy was just a year old and the second was just a plan. How many times have we celebrated the first day of spring here? Around this time two years ago, my older son was in kindergarten, and we came out on a sunny day to find that all his friends from school were at the park too. The kids ran off to play, the parents stood and chatted, everyone happy to see each other, and suddenly my embarrassing suburban fantasy, of a real community and life lived at a sustainable pace, crystallized into something real and true. And then last year, we came here on a similar day, expecting more of the same, only the kids got bored at the playground after half an hour, and went off to join another set of kids playing baseball on the field. They’d never played before, didn’t know what to do, couldn’t hit the ball, and left in frustration, which led directly to a summer’s baseball education through backyard wiffle ball games. And now here we were a year later, starting up a game of our own, pulling in other kids. Oh what Proust could have done with a playground and a ball field.

In the actual day, time passed in a more humdrum manner. First one kid got called home by his parents, then another, and finally it was just the three of us on the field again. I went back to pitching. More time went by, and we all started to drag a bit. I would miss the plate more often than not, and when I did get the ball over, the boys didn’t put level swings on it, and hardly connected any more. Time to go.

We walked over toward the car. I carried the bat, the boys carried gloves and balls. We bumped fists, patted shoulders and backs, complimented each other, and meant it: Good game. And as we walked, I went back even further in time, to pre-parent days, evening endings to long afternoon frisbee games when I was still a student, walking off the field with friends, sweaty and exhausted, arms and legs sore, barely able to see in the approaching darkness. Good game. My sons and I walked off the ball field together, side by side, and it felt like the first day, not just of spring, but of something else too.


Before winter comes, one more baseball note, a Red Sox fan’s perspective on Bumgarner:

The most imposing pitching performance I saw before this week was Pedro Martinez against the Indians in the deciding game of the 1999 AL Division Series. Pedro got hurt in the first game of the series, done for the year, we feared. The Red Sox lost the first two games, then won the next two to tie it. Instead of a classic for the last game, we appeared to get a farce, wiffle ball in the back yard, 8-8 already after 3½ innings. And all of a sudden Pedro was there, coming in from the bullpen unexpectedly in the bottom of the 4th. He looked fragile at first, feeling around for pitches, but got an out, then another and another. A second scoreless inning, then a third: still 8-8 after 6, a completely different game. Pedro wasn’t the usual kind of overpowering, just magical: the Indians could not touch him. Troy O’Leary put the Sox up with a three run homer in the top of the 7th. Pedro finished the game, six hitless innings in relief, Sox win. A classic after all.

And now Bumgarner. Not injured, but pitching in Game 7 on two days’ rest after a complete game shutout in Game 5. He came into the game in the 5th inning with the Giants having just gone up 3-2: two parts Pedro, one part Derek Lowe (who won Game 7 in 2004 for the Sox against the Yankees on two days rest: 6 innings, 1 run, the Yanks’ bats totally lifeless). Pedro had dazzled the Indians, Lowe somehow smothered the Yanks, Bumgarner was doing both at once to the marvelous Royals. He made a simple change to the terms of the game: you had been allowed to hit balls hard before, and now you weren’t. When he finished the game, having walked that 3-2 tightrope, in full stride, for the last five innings, the official scorers didn’t know what to do with him. Should he get the win, or the save? How about both? And his daddy loves him.

I love my boys too. I took the older one to his first game last year, Red Sox-Royals at Fenway Park. Buying tickets that spring, I didn’t know it would be the first game back after the marathon bombing, or what the two teams would have in store for us over the next two years. My son fell in love with the Royals’ blue uniforms, and wasn’t happy at all when Nava hit a home run to win the game for the Sox in the bottom of the 8th, and the park roared. By last fall, he had warmed to the Red Sox. This year they were all about backyard wiffle ball, in full role play mode, the older one Ortiz, the younger one Pedroia. My younger son got to his first major league game this year, A’s-Angels out on the west coast, and we learned that the boys look great in A’s hats. We came back east at the end of the summer with new terms for our backyard games: they would be the A’s, I would be the Red Sox. Then the playoffs began, and now the boys were the Royals, Gordon and Cain. Watching the last game of the Series, with my older son cheering loudly for Kansas City, and the younger one for both teams, I couldn’t wait to see who they’ll be when we play wiffle ball in the yard next year.

Think Like A Math Person I: Door 53

Which is easier to analyze: 3 things or 100 things? Hang on, don’t answer yet.

The Monty Hall problem is a probability puzzle that’s notorious for messing with people’s intuition. If you haven’t heard it before, it goes like this. On the TV game show Let’s Make a Deal, a contestant is trying to win a car, which is hidden behind one of three closed doors. The contestant picks a door. Then the host of the show, Monty Hall, gives her one chance to switch to another door. He doesn’t tell her whether or not the car is behind the door she picked, but he does narrow down her choice by revealing what’s behind one of the doors she didn’t pick — not the one with the car, of course. For example:

Contestant picks Door 2.

Monty opens Door 1, showing the car isn’t there.

Monty asks: Do you want to keep Door 2, or switch to Door 3?

Think about it for a little while if you haven’t heard it before. OK, a little longer. Assuming the game always works this way (Monty always gives you the choice to switch doors, and he always narrows your choice down to just two doors after you’ve picked an initial one), would you stay with your original door or switch?

The simplest intuition is that it doesn’t matter: two identical doors left, there’s no information to help you decide where the car is, it’s 50-50. This is wrong, but it’s very powerful. It’s hard to find the flaw in the logic, and really hard to explain the flaw in a way that convinces somebody else.

But now let’s play the game with 100 doors instead of three. Same basic rules: you pick a door, and Monty gives you an option to switch after narrowing the number of choices down to two. For example:

You pick Door 12 (let’s say), because your oldest kid just turned 12.

Monty starts opening doors, one by one. He opens Door 1, no car. Door 2, no car. He keeps opening doors, no car behind any of them. He skips Door 12, because that’s the one you picked. Door 13, no car. Door 14, no car. On and on: Door 51, no car. Door 52, no car. Door 54, no car. (Yes, he did skip Door 53, didn’t he.) 55, no car. He opens the remaining doors, all the way through Door 100, all empty.

So now we’re down to Door 12, which you picked as a 1-in-100 shot, and Door 53, which Monty just happened to skip when he was opening every other door. Still think it’s 50-50?

Meanwhile, in the next studio over, a MontyClone™ is running the show, and your friend Bob is playing the same game. Bob picks Door 77 out of 100, because his mother is 77. MontyClone starts opening doors in order: 1, 2, 3, all the way up through 67. He skips Door 68. Then he opens 69, 70, all the way through 100 (he skips 77 because that’s the door that Bob picked). Then he asks Bob to choose between the mysteriously skipped 68, and the original choice, 77. Again: do you really think it’s 50-50?

And in yet another studio… But you get the point.

What’s a little clearer in the 100-door version, I hope, is that the two doors — the one you picked and the one Monty skipped — aren’t symmetric. Because, unless your 1-in-100 shot at Door 12 was right to begin with, Monty always has to skip the door with the car behind it when he’s opening all the other doors. If the car is behind Door 53, he skips 53. If it’s behind 68, he skips 68. Put another way, you end up choosing between two doors at the end: yours and Monty’s. You picked yours at random, a 1-in-100 shot. But unless your door was right, i.e., 99 times out of 100, Monty’s door isn’t random at all. He knows where the car is, and by the rules of the game, he points you right to it. You just have to take the hint.

It’s the same with just three doors, just a little harder to see. Put aside the door you picked and focus on the single additional door that Monty skips. Unless your initial guess was right (a 1-in-3 chance), the skipped door is the one with the car. If you can keep your door and Monty’s door separate in your head, then the 50-50 intuition might go away. But things are a lot clearer with 100 doors than with just three.

The approach here — replacing a small example with a larger one, and finding it actually simplifies things — may seem like a trick, but it’s actually a very common thing to do in math and physics. Look at the behavior in the large limit.

Here’s a more down to earth example. I started to follow the Giants when I lived in the Bay Area as a student, and I’ve been rooting for them in the World Series. My seven year old son is rooting for the Royals, because he saw them in person last year and likes their uniforms. Family conflict! But I’ve found it really relaxing to watch the Series together: someone will be happy no matter who wins! At first I was skeptical that I really felt this way: I’ve suffered through a lot of painful Red Sox defeats, and I figured it would hurt if my team lost, even if my kid was happy that his team won. But then I thought about the large limit. If I had 30 kids, one rooting for each major league team, then someone would be happy after every game, and I’d always have one really happy kid at the end of the season. Which actually sounds great! Looking at the large limit was the thing that convinced me. Financial theory tells you to diversify your investments; in my family, we’re diversifying our rooting interests as well.


Watching Game 5 of the Giants-Cardinals series. Top of the first, Cards have runners on first and second, one out. The atter hits a line drive to third base. Giants’ third baseman Pablo Sandoval leaps up, catches the ball (the batter’s out), throws quickly to second. Looks like the ball gets there just a hair before the runner on second can dive back in. Umpire calls the runner out at second — double play! Here comes the Cards’ manager to argue with the ump.

Except that this year, baseball uses instant replay. Here’s how it works: a manager has the right to challenge most plays, asking for an umpire’s call to be overturned based on a review of the replay. The caveat is that if you lose a challenge (meaning that after a review of the replay, the call on the field is upheld), you also lose the right to challenge for the rest of the game. So when you challenge, especially early in the game, you better be sure that the umpire’s wrong.

The Cards’ manager speaks briefly with the umpire. Meanwhile, someone on the Cards’ side is reviewing the replay. They must decide that the umpire’s probably right (they don’t challenge and risk losing the right to challenge in the future), because the manager returns to the dugout. It all takes less than a minute.

When replay was introduced, the worry was that managers challenging calls all the time would slow down the game. Only here it feels like it’s actually sped up the game. If you’ve watched enough baseball, you’ve seen many long arguments, frustrated managers venting endlessly to umps who never had any mechanism to change their mind. But with the new rule, the manager has (1) a lot more control, and (2) a strong incentive to be correct. The Cards’ manager gets to make a decision, he decides the call against his team was right, and we quickly move on.

Empowering people, based on the right incentives, can go a long way.

Suspense as Suspension of Time

I figured the ballgame would be over by the time I needed to head out. I was going over to Tierney’s Tavern in Montclair, NJ (I hope your town has a place like this) to see my kids’ awesome music teacher Myrna play a solo set on guitar. The Giants-Nationals playoff game I had been keeping tabs on was winding down (1-0 Nats after 8 innings), apparently in plenty of time for me to get to the show. But then the visiting Giants (my favorite National League team, going back to my Bay Area days) tied it up on a two-out double in the top of the 9th. The game was well into the 10th inning, with no sign of ending, when I drove off to the tavern.

At Tierney’s, I found a cozy stool with a good view of the stage, the bar, and — importantly — the TV over the bar. Myrna was playing some seriously hard-edged rock and roll, and the Giants looked like they might take it in the 12th when they got a man to third with one out. But the rally died (popout, groundout). Yusmeiro Petit came on to pitch for SF, Myrna wrapped up, and Thee Volatiles took the stage at Tierney’s. Petit, a second line starter who didn’t quite make it into the shorter playoff rotation, seemed shaky at the beginning, then settled in. He looked like he could pitch for a while. Thee Volatiles were tight from the first chord, filling the room with the kind of garage rock I used to hear all over Boston, and could never resist, in the 80’s. (These guys are from New Jersey, but once you know a certain kind of sound, you recognize it anywhere.) Petit pumped in strikes, the Nats’ pitchers kept pace, and Thee Volatiles banged out chords: a symphony of forward momentum.

Songs and innings raced by. Thee Volatiles finished up. Most of the crowd had come to see them, and now began to drift out of the room. I wondered how many people were left at the ballpark. The night’s last act, Karyn Kuhl (say her name out loud to realize how great it is) took the stage. She had an electric guitar and a small rhythm section: bass, drums. Within five minutes, I was transfixed: I had been expecting a local stalwart, and here instead was the second coming of PJ Harvey, just arrived in Jersey to play a private gig for 30 people. The music left the garage, headed out into vast spaces. The room appeared emptier but wasn’t, really; the sound pulsed, flowed, filled every space it could find, mocked everyone who had left early. Things didn’t feel so linear anymore: was it the 15th inning now? The 16th?

In an instant, the game comes back in sharp focus. Brandon Belt, up for the Giants, starts his swing — smooth, controlled, deliberate — and the other players on the field fade away. Somehow the ball is on a tee, and then it’s headed for the upper deck in right field, a line that turns into a parabola, gravity’s rainbow at the ballpark. 2-1 Giants. Suddenly we are back on the clock, starting to count down: midnight approaching, three outs left for the Nats. The visitors celebrate, wearily but defiantly, in their dugout. This game has made everyone old.

We head to the bottom of the inning, the Nats’ last ups. Turns out it is the 18th: we have played nine innings and then nine more, an impromptu doubleheader. Petit, who has carried a starter’s workload (six innings) after all in this unscheduled nightcap, is out of the game, rookie Hunter Strickland in to pitch for the Giants. I saw Strickland give up two towering homers to the Nats the day before, so I am more than a little terrified.

Strickland gets one out, then faces Nat leadoff hitter Denard Span, a .300 hitter up for the eighth time. Two quick strikes, then three balls. Now one foul ball after another: straight down, off to the side. The count is already full, but the at bat has infinite capacity, getting fuller still with every pitch. Karyn is singing about ghosts leaving. The music swirls, builds. Song and at bat go on, pitcher and batter take their time, another ball is fouled off, jagged notes twist in the air. The suspense, on stage and on TV, is killing me. At that moment, hearing the music, seeing the game, I realize I’m so tense not just because I don’t know what will happen, but also because I don’t know when. There’s so much suspense because time is suspended. Suspense, suspended, pend, meaning hang. Time hangs, and everything is uncertain.

Eventually the clock starts back up again, as it must. Span hits an ordinary grounder to first base, the second out of the inning. Karyn pivots into the Ramones’ “I Just Wanna Have Something to Do,” dedicates it to Thee Volatiles because it is straight ahead punk rock, forward momentum again. At some point midnight comes. One more song, one more out (a fly ball to right field), and it’s over, in Montclair, NJ and in Washington, DC. Sometimes you don’t know if you can explain what you’ve just seen and heard, but you know you have to try.