A Safe Place to Play

A game meant for languid summer afternoons and balmy starlit evenings. Cold beer in plastic cups and crackling peanut shells and kids with dripping ice cream cones. A game that has changed very little in the last hundred years. A game of skill and finesse that can be excruciatingly slow (Ah, yes, only 27 more outs to go…) and whip-crack fast when the bat and ball find their sweet spot or a flawless double play ends an inning like a door slammed shut.

Independent league baseball is a kinder, gentler version of the major league game and in recent years has become popular in mid-sized communities like the one where I live, the stadiums often serving as a centerpiece for resurging downtowns. 

These are not farm team stepping stones to the big leagues but usually the last stop for a career that either never happened or is on its downward trajectory. Players take to the field with a kind of earnest and subtle desperation, well aware that this may be as good as it gets for them.

Stadiums are small but comfortable and easily accessed. No mile-long treks from distant parking lots. Affordable prices allow families to have a good time without breaking the bank on twenty-dollar hamburgers. Representatives of local charities often man the concession stands, schlepping hot dogs and pouring beers to raise funds for their organization. Norman Rockwell could set up his easel and feel at home here until he sees the giant electronic screen and the bowed heads of fans staring at their phones.

Baseball at this level is a throwback to a simpler, more innocent time. Between innings, kids run the bases dressed in fruit-of the-loom costumes. People launch beach balls into giant inflatable toilets sponsored by a drain-cleaning company or guess how much a can of pineapple costs at the local supermarket. You end up talking to the person sitting next to you whether you know them or not. A hairy team mascot cavorts on top of the dug-outs along with fresh-faced teenaged cheerleaders dressed in polo shirts and shorts. There is still a manual scoreboard changed by disembodied heads occasionally peering through the squares. No angry words are hurled except between umpires and managers and from the occasional disgruntled fan.

Last weekend we attended what turned out to be the final game in the league championship, the world series at this level. The Star-Spangled Banner was sung by a local tenor while a platoon of Boy Scouts carried an enormous flag onto the field. Everyone stood and continued to stand until the Boy Scouts had retreated from the field. That felt good. I was afraid I was going to see something else happen but it didn’t.

It was a tight game, but the local team pulled it out in the end. League champs for the third time in eleven years. There was a ceremonial unfurling of the banner and presentation of the trophy and everyone except the opposing team went home happy. A great night. A safe place to play.

When I got up Monday morning and heard about Las Vegas, I couldn’t help thinking about the contrast between our baseball game and the experience for those concert-goers. The innocence and the horror. And I wonder, are we no longer allowed a safe place to play?

Our movie theaters and nightclubs, ball fields, and concert venues, even our church gathering areas—all places we go to socialize and dance and be entertained and cheer for the team and learn about the Bible and watch our favorite actors–places we go to experience the simple and exquisite joys of life are now turned into potential death-traps. And even if most of us never have to face the tragedy of a mass shooting, it is the fear, the constant underlying worry that paralyzes us and poisons the experience of what should be something wonderful.

Can we walk into any kind of public venue now without thinking, “What if?” and doing a cursory check for the nearest exits? Can we watch a major sporting event on television, see the thousands packed into a stadium bowl and not have a part of us hold our breath, waiting for that first firecracker sound? No matter how many purses and backpacks are inspected at the turnstile, no matter that we must walk through metal detectors or be wanded by a gloved attendant when entering a public arena, someone keeps finding a way to kill. An individual brought what amounted to an armory of weapons into a Las Vegas hotel over the course of several days, and no one batted an eye.

The footage from the concert showed people enjoying a country music festival on another balmy starlit evening thousands of miles from the baseball game. Did they feel like we did in our cozy little stadium– safe and secure in that valley created by the glittering mountains of Las Vegas hotels? That it was worth the airfare, the cost of the hotel and the tickets? Worth it to be able to say, “Hey, we’re in Vegas and all’s right with the world.”? Pour another drink, flick the lighter and sway to the music. Until the shots ring out and there is nowhere to run.

I don’t have any answers, and I’m not about to engage in the rhetoric surrounding possible solutions. We must live our lives; buy the tickets and take the trip and go to the game and the concert. We can’t cower in our homes. We can’t let the bastards steal our joy. But each of us deserves that baseball game I attended. We have a right to see our team win or hear our favorite singer in concert or simply go to a movie or a Bible study without worrying about being the next breaking story on CNN. We all deserve a safe place to play.

The Gym

“Oh my God, are you Gussie’s daughter??” The teacher looks at me with a pained expression. “Wow. Who would have thought it?”

High school gym class. Ninth grade. Klutzy incompetent me whose spine was just beginning to twist itself into what would be spectacular scoliosis forced to shoot basketball drills with nary a swish through the hoop. Back in the days before self-esteem was a revered educational buzzword. So humiliated I can still remember the incident forty years later.

I just came back from another work-out with Randell. He is a tall, strapping black man who encourages my sixty-year old body (now supported by a spine fused with metal rods and screws) to plank and press and lunge and row. I do it because I am so damned thankful to have a pain-free, somewhat straightened back. I do it because Randell is kind and funny and doesn’t make me feel terrible about my athletic ineptitude. I do it because Randell likes to show me off, pitting my plank-holding prowess against some of the big-gun athletes at the gym. I usually win. Imagine. Me. Having something to show off in a gym.

My mother was a health and physical education teacher. Five foot nine and 120 lbs. A rail. Her movements were lithe and flowing and she could play any game, hit any ball and before she became depressed and alcoholic, was the epitome of the word vivacious. She often substituted at the local high school so all the staff members knew her. Hence the shocking revelation that there appeared to be no genetic connection between her and her clumsy, slightly overweight daughter once the doors of the gym slammed shut.

Five years ago, I screwed up my courage and walked into the big corporate chain gym near my home. I went to the training desk, shoved copies of my x-rays toward the young man behind the counter and said, “This is what my back looks like. I can’t twist, I can’t lift weight lying on my stomach and I can’t run or do anything with hard impact. Other than that, I’m good.  Can you help me?”

He looked at the x-rays and then back up at me and said, “I have to tell you I have never seen anything like this before, but I think there are some things we can do.” His name was Jesse. He was a beautifully muscled soft-spoken physical education major who couldn’t find a teaching job. Jesse wanted to work with elementary children but he got me instead. Not all that different.

We started with the treadmill and planks, the simplest floor exercises. One day upper body, the next day lower body. I learned a new vocabulary—cardio, abs, core muscles. Chest press and shoulder press and pec fly. Jesse helped me maneuver myself onto the machines. Legs awkwardly positioned. Hands flailing at pull cables. He gently suggested I might want to find some new attire after I showed up the first few times wearing those long shiny track-suit type pants. Uh, ok. Oops. Never shopped for clothing with the linked u and a symbols before. Do they make those in my size? They do.

I kept going. Jesse moved away with his girlfriend and I got Trip as my new trainer. Heard he was tough. One of my friends said he had her crying one day. Trip did push harder, but he got me to a stronger place. He used to pull out a deck of cards and assign an exercise to each suit. I would have to do as many reps of the exercise as the number on the card and get through as many cards as possible. Face cards and jokers were wild and exhausting.

Trip introduced me to the “bosu ball,” a torturous half cylinder on which you balance yourself and then do squats and presses and well, whatever you can manage teetering there like a trained seal. No matter how many times Trip showed me how to do it, I could never get off that thing without having to grab onto him, both of us laughing.

My husband and I now work with Randell. Brian has 18 per cent body fat, the metabolism of a twenty-year-old and a nasty history of stroke in his family. His cholesterol numbers continue to improve, he hits a golf ball further and has gained weight from building muscle. Brian plays a gigantic tuba in a drum corps and Randell had him lunge around the gym with it one day to learn the best way to support the instrument without injuring his back. Randell accepts you for who you are and where you are in physical ability and offers a way to live better.

I wish I could say I am one of the “before and after” pictures featured at the training desk as an inspiration for new clients, but my appetite and metabolism continue their long-standing argument and appetite always gets the last word. And to be honest, I am unwilling to punish myself with seven-inch dinner plates and steamed kale just to come down a size or two. I still have chubby arms and too much belly fat but considering my mother was already dead two years at the age I am now, I can live with my middle-aged flab.

Here’s what I’ve learned at the gym. I have learned not to feel intimidated by the spandex queens in their skin-tight tanks and perfectly made-up faces. (Although, really, you’re going to sweat for God’s sake.) I have learned not to make eye contact with the elderly gentleman whose gym shorts are the closest thing to a speedo I have ever seen outside of a swimming pool. I have learned to admire the man in a wheelchair who comes in with his caregiver and works his upper body like an Olympian. He makes me want to fall on my knees and weep with gratitude for what I have.

I’ve learned I need the security and anonymity of working individually with a trainer or on my own. Groups of women Zumba-ing and stepping and spinning scare me right back to high school. Early damage sets in hard, like concrete. I have learned it’s humbling to do things you’re not particularly good at and things you don’t necessarily enjoy and it doesn’t always have to be a big win. Sometimes just chugging along week after week and then hearing a doctor say, “Hmm, your bone density has gotten better,” is enough.

I will always be far happier in a comfy chair with a good book than pedaling away on a machine. I will never be thin and I will most certainly never be an athlete but the last five years have taught me that I too have a place in the gym. I have a favorite locker and I know how to work most of the machines. Some of those clothes I bought with the u and a insignia on them are starting to wear out as are my sneakers. I can structure my own work-out with a balance of cardio and strength training. Occasionally I show someone new how to start the treadmill.

Jesse and Trip and especially Randell have slowly, slowly coaxed that long-ago broken adolescent out of her hiding place and onto the mat and the rower and even the bosu ball. They have convinced her that she is capable and strong. That her body despite its imperfections is powerful and worthy of care.

I am Gussie’s daughter and my current record for holding a plank is four minutes. Wow. Who would have thought it?

Not Today

Sometimes “not today” are the most comforting words you can hear. When you’re dealing with a situation that eventually is going to end in heartbreak, just knowing that it won’t be today is good enough. Having a little more time to keep on keeping on is all you can ask for.

We are pet parents and have somehow always found ourselves blessed with wonderful animals who have serious medical conditions. Currently we have two dogs, one of whom is younger with a metabolic disorder diagnosed when she was a puppy. Stella will require a lifetime of monthly injections and daily pills, but if we do that, she’s fine. Living the good life and a delightful pet.

Our other dog, Vinnie, is a rescue who came to us a little over four years ago with a pristine bill of health. He now has an incurable liver condition that requires a great deal of medication and frequent trips to a veterinary specialist. His body, for some unknown reason, is intent on destroying his liver and is well on its way to succeeding, despite our best efforts. Today, after some bloodwork came back with concerning numbers, he was at the vet’s for another ultrasound and additional testing. News isn’t good, but it’s slightly more positive than negative. We’ll take it, because today he’s eating and playing and chasing squirrels and driving us crazy with his barking. He doesn’t know his liver is dying. Something to be said for that.

Is not today just an island in the sea of denial? Probably. But sometimes I think we need those islands. We need to haul ourselves up on the sand, catch our breath, and tamp down the constant anticipation of the worst, which right now for us, is that final trip to the vet’s which we have experienced all too often in recent years. We need frequent stops on those not today islands to build up our stamina, to lay in supplies for rough seas ahead. And for those of us anxiety-driven souls, who are always thinking about the next wave, not today allows us to stop, have a cocktail, and enjoy the beautiful beach in front of us right now.

We know that someday we’re going to lose our parent or spouse or partner or best friend but in the meantime, we go to work and then out for dinner and a movie. It’s when the tidal wave starts to shimmer on the horizon, surging ever closer to us, when the ground begins to quiver under our feet, when the birds and animals head for the hills—that’s when not todays become our shelters. They become warm blankets on a comfortable bed where we can curl up and hold that person or creature we love so much as tightly as we can for as long as we can.

I remember not todays in the last months of my dad’s life, when bedridden became the new normal for him. There were still jokes with the nurses and watching the Food Network in the evenings and occasionally even enjoying a milkshake from the drugstore around the corner. (Yes, it was one that still had a lunch counter.) Not today meant reading prayers together at bedtime and planning for the logistics of selling a family home and his treasured collection of railroad memorabilia and not today meant he was still coherent enough to help me with that. Not todays are a precious gift to those of us in long-term battles we know we’re going to lose.

We’re at the beach right now with our dogs. The vet called again with depressing results from yet another test. We start a new medication when we get home that may have some unpleasant side effects. I gather it’s our last hope in managing this condition. Meanwhile, I watch Vinnie gobble his food and beg for more, play with his Kong toy and snuggle with those he loves. God, I hope I do the same when my liver is failing. I know that probably sooner than later, we’re going to lose this dog. But not today.


Too Old for Target

Sometimes I think I’m too old to shop here, that I should be turned away at the door because I’m so far past decorating a dorm room or first apartment. I imagine signs like those at amusement park rides except these say, “No admittance after age 50 unless accompanied by a grandchild.” I feel eons away from the young hipster moms in their skinny jeans and expensive boots, filling carts with Kind bars and organic coconut water. I relate more to the Hush Puppy Basset Hound than I do to that slightly sinister white dog with the red circles around his eye. I question if I or anyone else really needs a package of 16 precious gluten-free, fair-trade-produced quinoa wafers.

Admittedly, Target lures me with its siren song of coupons for items I recently purchased. “We know who you are and we know what you buy, so come back to us.” And I do go back and buy household detritus– cotton balls and cat food, paper plates and laundry detergent, a huge bag of fragrant oranges. I shop here because I get bored with the grocery store and that it’s somehow politically correct, (even Michelle Obama escaped to Target one day) and that I’m failing at something if my medicine chest doesn’t contain “Up and Up” band-aids. The store is cleaner and brighter and feels less oppressive than its famous competitor a few miles away. At the check-out, a surly young man scans my items, silently thrusts a gift card toward me, a reward magically earned for one of my purchases. Nearby a child’s late afternoon whiney-ness dissolves into a full-blown tantrum while his mother stares at her phone.

My generation cut our retail teeth shopping at 5 and 10’s smelling like plastic and popcorn and slightly fetid water from the fish and turtle tank at the back of the store. Instead of sipping a latte from the Starbuck’s kiosk, we popped a balloon dangling over the lunch counter to see if we had won a free cherry coke to go with our grilled cheese, oozing orange Velveeta onto a thick green plate.

Our stores had sloping hardwood floors with no caution signs to warn shoppers and their attorneys of a potential fall risk. Aisles were jammed with packs of pink foam hair curlers, transistor radios and Big Ben alarm clocks, coloring books (for children only) and the latest 45 records. Clerks wearing smocks with their name stitched over the breast pocket rang up each item on curve-bellied cash registers, the total appearing in wide-eyed black and white numerals at the top of the machine. Hands touched as we paid with cash.

When we needed more than basics, we shopped at locally owned department stores in nearby downtowns. There were no carts and centralized check-outs. Uniformed attendants piloted grate-covered elevators. Sales persons, mostly middle-aged women, presided over each individual department and helped us find our dad’s shirt size or the correct accessories for a First Communion dress.

We bought our share of crap in those days, too. My family’s first crèche set came from Woolworth’s where it was on display amongst the shiny aluminum Christmas trees and flammable tinsel. The cardboard stable finally fell apart and one or two lambs are amputees but I still set the figures out every year. Mary and Joseph have faded price tags on the bottom that say 29 cents.

Maybe because we had fewer choices, what we bought seemed more special. Few of us had the money that many of us do now so what we bought, even the incidentals, meant something. Our keeping up with the Jones’ was just that—did we have the same color tv as the neighbors? Not did we have the tv recommended by our Facebook friends. We were not sent into paroxysms of indecision by endless inventory– too many choices all vetted by our phones with the most up to the minute reviews and information. Brick and mortar stores have become giant dressing rooms, feel and touch and try on for size and then order it from the computer in our pocket. Thanks, but no thanks.

I think as the days of my life become ever more fleeting, I am less interested in surrounding myself with things that are fleeting, the latest and greatest widget that morphs into rummage sale fodder in a few short years. Things that are “so-o-o cute” as my close friend’s daughter, a young mom, gushes. The brightly colored throw pillows and futon covers and metallic wall hangings belong to the freshly minted adult, innocent and optimistic, reveling in their immortality. I leave the woven storage baskets and chemical-free sippy cups to the thirty-somethings, rapt with the blush of first home ownership and beginning parenthood.

The late comedian George Carlin said, “A house is just a place to hold your shit while you’re out buying more shit,” and I’m still there. My husband and I have not yet reached that prelude to nursing home-hood, downsizing, but it lurks in the not too distant future. So, I want the good stuff— comforters with the print on both sides, corkscrews that last more than a year and tops with sleeves to cover my post-menopausal arms. I want to shop where clerks make eye contact and talk to me, proud of what they sell. I want stuff that will not all be sent to Goodwill when the executors come to clean out the house.

Several years ago, my friend’s daughter bought me Christmas tree ornaments from Target. One is an eggplant-shaped globe and the others are large teal and olive colored glass balls. I dutifully hang them on my tree each year because I love this young woman and they were purchased with the first dollars she earned as an independent adult. But I would never decorate my tree in colors of purple and teal and olive. They are meant for a tree adorned with cute little feathers and swathed in filmy fabric instead of one covered with 50-year-old ornaments and possibly even a few strands of flammable tinsel. They don’t even belong in the same room as my three-legged lambs.

As I stare down the barrel of 60, a part of me envies those just starting out, excited by all that Target and life has to offer. I don’t begrudge them the American dream of decorating the nursery and equipping the kitchen and buying cupcake wrappers for classroom birthday treats. I say good luck and God bless you because in the end none of it matters but in the meantime, go enjoy it for all it’s worth. But a greater part of me savors being freed from chasing all that is trendy and chic in the giant red emporium. I find it soothing to be slightly removed from the frenzy of acquisition, exhilarated by choosing things to accompany me on this part of the journey regardless of their perceived coolness. I love the confidence and joyful arrogance, the utter been-there-done-that-ness which comes with age.

Second Act Stories

I think of writing as my second act. After a first act as a public-school music educator, I have raised the curtain on a writer who has been patiently waiting backstage for a long time. She is cautiously stepping into the spotlight, well aware that there may be a few flubbed lines and miscues, but she’s excited to finally be on stage.

Writing has always been trying to get my attention, but I got (happily) side-tracked into music. I spent 34 years teaching strings in a wonderful school system in south central Pennsylvania where I’ve lived my entire life. I’m still a musician, teach one day a week at an urban charter school and love choral singing. But now, at last, it’s time to write.

My topics will be random and written from the perspective of someone who’s never been this old before, so there may be a touch of nostalgia. I want to capture some of the things that drift by us on a daily basis and hold them fast for a moment. I hope to make you think and make you smile and say, “Oh, yeah, me too.”

I will probably write about my husband, my pets and my church, all driving forces in my life. There may be an occasional rant but I’m not here to promote any political agendas, although my left-leaning tendencies may peep through from time to time. I have no special skills to share. I won’t tell you how to dress or lose weight or when to plant your tomatoes. I just want to learn to write well and these blogs, to use a musical analogy, are the scales and etudes, the groundwork needed before attempting a concerto.

You, my readers, are my teachers and I invite your feedback, positive and otherwise. Curtain up. Welcome to Second Act Stories.