Seeking sanctuary

This morning, my heart heavy after days of scouring news reports for mentions of hundreds dead in Haiti while trying to not absorb inescapable home-spun hatred, I did something odd.

I went to church.

I used to do this fairly often, though of course one’s choices as a child are limited. I was full-immersion baptized at New Prospect Baptist Church at around age 7 or 8, and for a few years, I tried to live up to this thing I’d signed up for but didn’t really understand. I shopped at the Precious Moments store at the mall and turned my judgmental pre-teen nose up at friends who scurried off to Spencer’s. I remember being horrified at the Ozzy cassette I found in my brother’s car.

Looking back, this was a bad path, and it hit a speed bump when I was a teenager listening to a Sunday School teacher rail against the evils of dance and drink (he was kind of a hard-liner, even for us Baptists). He told the class that if one of us was out carousing on Saturday night, he didn’t want to see that person on Sunday morning.

I didn’t do much carousing, not in any organized, official sense, living out in the sticks and largely being a reading, writing introvert. Still, I didn’t much like his tone, so I didn’t go back.

I’d drive to Church, otherwise known as Preaching, to meet Daddy and have a peppermint in the balcony. I didn’t just keep going out of rote. It still meant something – something hard to define but that stirred in my heart when the notes of hymns I remember my grandmother loving played.

As I got older, my attendance ledger suffered. College and young adulting are just so self-importantly busy, you know. But that wasn’t the only reason Sundays changed.

I don’t necessarily want to get into the abduction of Christianity by the religious right, and the complicit silence in which those of us to whom its message is abhorrent have sat. I don’t want to get into the issues that said right has claimed as Christian cornerstones but which Jesus never spoke of, and how so much of its rhetoric blatantly contradicts words he did speak. I’ll just say that the process of distancing myself from all that has been necessary but sometimes painful. Even as I talk to God each night with no need of an interpreter, or find him as strongly present in the woods or at the ocean as in a four-walled building, part of me misses the stained glass and the Doxology.

It’s true that these are, on some level, the symbols of which I spoke derisively in a recent blog. They are also more.

This morning’s sermon, delivered by a young, fresh-faced woman who radiated joy, focused on the story of Jesus healing the 10 lepers. Ostracized by society, these 10 were driven by the human need for companionship to make their own community, she said.

Yes, I thought. That need is undeniable, but it is complex.

It is not my nature to willingly enter into a situation where I will be compelled to smile at strangers, to chit-chat with them, to field questions such as “And where is home for you?” when I don’t rightly know the answer to that. And yet multiple days of speaking mainly to my cat – excellent conversationalist though he is – have left me itchy, antsy, questioning the self-sought solitude of baseball and wine on the comfortable couch even as I revel in it.

The lepers are made clean when they follow Jesus’ instructions to present themselves to the priest. One of them – just one – comes back to thank him and receives an additional blessing.

Did this really happen? I don’t know. But that’s not the point. Hearing the story with sunlight streaming through a color-saturated depiction of Jesus’ baptism gave me an additional blessing.

I listened to a message of gratitude and contributed to a reconciliation offering explained in an insert that addressed intolerance and violence, as well as a love that casts out fear. After chatting with the minister and several congregants, I headed for my car, smiling a little at its Human Rights Campaign bumper sticker. It didn’t look out of place here.

On the way home, I turned up “Hell’s Bells,” because it’s a good song, and thought about contradictions.

Yes, I still read my weathered Precious Moments Bible with the deeply creased cover. Yes, I think that a lot of what I read there is allegorical, lessons translated by men from language to language in varying political climates. I still try to learn from it, understanding it as a helpful source, not a billy club.

Yes, I am the self-described pinko commie liberal among most of my family and some friends. Yes, I believe that love is a human right, and that concern for children should extend past birth (and that women's lives count for a little something, too), and that all lives matter completely misses the point of all men being created equal. And yes, I am a Christian, a word that has gotten harder and harder to say in a sea of self-righteous bullshit.

As I drove, I passed a steady line of traffic headed the other way on the interstate, Gamecock flags flying from the SUVs of church folk hurrying to today’s weather-delayed football game. I love God and I love football, too. It just feels like the way I love them sometimes is so different as to be discounted.

Be Reconciled, the insert in the bulletin says. God knows, I’m trying.

I’ve got about four or five people to reconcile into the person I’m becoming now. I’m still a journalist, though no longer the sportswriter whose work defined my identity for so long. I love my family, in all its forms, but in ways that life has dictated must change and evolve. I think I’m still the quick-witted smartass who wouldn’t take much shit, even as my sharp edges have been ground down by the inevitable crap that beats you up if you live long enough and try enough things.

Maybe the question, on this sunny Sunday with a bit of fall on the breeze, is not so much who I am as whose. This I know, and have known. The devil, to be sure, is in the details, but my footsteps are firm – and sometimes they even darken the doorway of a church.

Sweet sorrow

My relationship with reality is … fluid. I am skilled in putting things I don’t want to deal with out of my mind (even as I simultaneously worry insignificant details to bloody bits). If something dancing in front of my face is too painful to acknowledge, I can tunnel through my brain until I excavate a place of relative safety, a place where I can cue up an old memory or one of the characters I’ve created throughout the years who wait patiently to entertain me, a place where I can pull layers of protective neurons and nerve fibers over my head.

I have lots of these hidey-holes. But none of them are deep enough to block out this reality: On Oct. 2, I will hear Vin Scully call a baseball game for the last time.

A born-and-bred East Coaster, I can’t claim that Vin’s voice has been an ever-present comfort, casting colors over my childhood and shepherding me into a semblance of adulthood. As a lifelong Dodgers fan, I of course held him in venerated respect, but it took the gifts of MLB At-Bat and MLB.TV to bring him into my life on a nightly basis. For the past few years, I’ve listened to Vin call games while absorbing impromptu history lessons and details about players’ lives.

Just this week, I’ve witnessed him showing off his lip-reading skills while providing the highly entertaining play-by-play of the latest dust-up between Yasiel Puig and Madison Bumgarner, heard his description of Angel Pagan’s belt buckle as a shovel after Pagan’s head-first slide into first, and chuckled over his lament of the rather pedestrian story behind manager Dave Roberts’ nickname of Doc (his initials are DR). He’s exulted in a jaw-dropping throw by Puig from right field to home plate, shared the smattering of Japanese he speaks and explained how he’s said goodbye to the Braves in three cities – Boston, Milwaukee and Atlanta.

Last night, and the night before that, I fell asleep to his voice, waking up sometime in the middle of the night to fumble to turn off my iPhone.

I can’t write eloquently about legendary calls I didn’t hear, or share goosebump-inducing stories of meeting the man in person. I’ve never even been to Dodger Stadium – or to California, for that matter.

What I have been is lonely, and sad, and unwilling to cede the midnight solace of Vin’s voice to the uncertain light of the next morning. Just as this baseball season geared up, my life blew up. Gone were things I thought were forever, faces I cherished, promises I clung to.

In the muffled chaos of a new house, a new job, a new cat, Vin is my constant. He is not the antithesis of change, but rather the graceful embodiment of it. In 67 years as the voice of the Dodgers, he has seen things and met people and had conversations that many seamheads would give their eyeteeth to have been a part of, but while he obviously is fond of that past, he does not carry a torch for it. He indulges each night, before the top of the sixth inning, in a bit of cheery nostalgia that sounds the way memory should – evocative, light-hearted, some humor sprinkled over wry wisdom.

He does not pine for what's gone before. Our pining at his going, all the fuss being made, no doubt bemuses him.

Vin’s last game at Dodger Stadium is Sunday, and his last will be in the lair of the hated Giants a week after that. I can’t wait until then to write something, because I won’t be able to write anything.

I do not know what I will do without him. I am not sure how to have a very pleasant good evening if there is no chance of Vin describing the sunset behind the San Gabriel mountains. 

So I just won’t think about it while I dig another tunnel. Reality, I've often found, is overrated anyway. 

Tackling time

The night before my birthday 10 years ago, I sat in the press box at FedEx Field, covering the Washington Redskins’ Monday Night Football game against the Minnesota Vikings.

I wore a gray-and-blue pinstripe pantsuit that seemed professionally fashionable at the time, with the stack-heel, buckle-strap gray heels I climbed stadium steps in until they fell apart.

I worked with nervous focus as sports luminaries chatted around me. (A few weeks into the season, at Dallas, I sat beside Sally Jenkins. I couldn’t say anything, but it was A Moment.)

Somewhere in the building, Redskins owner Dan Snyder was showing TomKat (Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes) around.

The crowd was loud. The stadium was ugly. The Redskins lost, 19-16. (I had to look up the score.)

There was, as always, the low hum of deadline adrenaline, the rush for quotes, the blur of trying to meld stats and words into grammatically correct, narrative-advancing sentences.

There was the unfamiliar navigation back to the parking lot, the three-and-a-half-hour drive home, the exhausted energy that worked its way through my muscles as I waited for sleep.

On the morning I turned 33, there was my byline, on a MNF story about the team whose burgundy-and-gold colors clad my childhood heroes and shrouded my earliest sports memories.

Things have changed in 10 years. I’m back in the city of my college degree, and my journalism advisor, Henry Price, would give a mighty snort at that statement, which he would derisively tag as “November Sierra.” No shit, things have changed in 10 years.

That change has been for the better, the worse and both. Having just wrapped up a wonderful week of birthday celebrations that included secretive plotting by people who love me and a trip to a beautifully blue coast I’d never seen before, I find it hard to wish things could be as they once were.

What I wish, I think, is for parts of things. I wish I could point to this day, that person, this house, that sky, all of that laughter, and cobble everything into a magic room I could keep in a closet, like Hermione kept entire apartments in her purse. I wish I could open the door whenever I needed to.

The assembled pieces would make little linear sense.

One of the walls would have blue-and-yellow stripes. A fat orange cat would be on the couch. A game of Uno would be going on at a table with a lazy Susan in the middle.

Another wall would face the ocean, and there would be a small ledge littered with quarters. An orange cone would mark a parking space in the distance. A sweet haze of cigarette smoke would drift on the wind, chasing a voice I try to remember.

 Another wall would open onto the skyline of a city best seen from the steps of an art museum, its famous steps indistinct shadows. A montage would play across the darkening sky: cheesesteaks and baseballs and beers that taste like Fruity Pebbles. Red velvet cookies and life-sized Tiddlywinks pieces and smiles on faces I love.

The fourth wall would open onto a small screened-in porch and a napping man with a salt-and-pepper beard, fingernails dirty after a morning of cleaning out gutters and raking leaves. Around the corner, an unseen gardener would be planting lilies, ever hopeful that I might learn to grow something.

As I walked into this odd, day-and-night room, I’d put on an Eagles jersey, with duct tape on the back covering the traded quarterback’s name and spelling out mine. The jersey would match those worn by two other people in the room, one several sizes smaller.

There are sharp edges that want to intrude on this picture, poking at my mind with other details that threaten this scene with reality.  If I shake my head to clear it, the NFL game currently on my television comes into focus.

My relationship with sports, with this sport in particular, is also full of fond memories and nagging details. My love for this game, born and bred and nurtured on Sunday afternoons at my granny’s house, runs deep. People have not understood it, questioned it, mocked it. I have been one of them.

People who play this game get sick and die, far earlier than they should and with alarming regularity. A study released last October showed that 87 of 91 former NFL players who donated their brains to science tested positive for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a disease thought to be caused by repeated blows to the head. 87 of 91.

Sufferers have trouble remembering things and communicating. They often behave oddly, erratically. Sometimes they solve the worsening problem with a gun. Sometimes they take others with them.

When Junior Seau shot himself – in the chest, so his brain could be studied - in 2012, he was 43. As of Monday, I am 43.

The NFL has other problems, some also potentially fatal. Players beat wives, girlfriends, strangers. Not all players, to be sure. But enough, and too many repeat offenders. Teams extort money from loyal fans and taxpayers to build shiny new palaces not, apparently, financed by ever-growing ticket, parking and concession prices. The overall product has become packaged to within an inch of its life, pay-for-patriotism stuffed down fans’ throats and endless replays, live look-ins and offense-first rules leeching all rhythm from a game that is beautiful in my memory.

So many things are beautiful in my memory. Is that how they were, or how I want them to be? Are they worth revisiting, reinvesting, or will too much handling turn them to dust? Is remembering - is nostalgia - an inherently selfish indulgence? 

Still I watch, feeling vestiges of an old love stir. I would build a collage from this sport-specific love for one of the walls in my magic room. Its pictures would be of the Hogs, of Darrell Green with a Tootsie Roll in his sock, of John Riggins bowling over defenders, of Art Monk going across the middle. There would be smaller inset shots of Dwight Clark, Ronnie Lott, Earl Campbell, Mike Singletary's eyes, Jim Kelly, Shannon Sharpe, Peyton Manning, Richard Sherman. Baggage enough in that top-of-my-head list, sadness and scandal, but also abiding affection.

I am not sure how much of that love has survived or will survive time, or how much is supposed to.

But still, I watch.



Stand up, sit down, fight, fight, fight

Let’s remember, for a moment, Rae Carruth.

Or, more to the point, let’s remember Cherica Adams.  

Adams was young, and beautiful, and excited to become a mother. Carruth, the father of her baby, was a mercurial wide receiver for the Carolina Panthers and uninterested in adding to his child support ledger.

On the night of Nov. 16, 1999, Adams was following Carruth home from the movies when he braked to a sudden stop in front of her car. Another car pulled up beside Adams, and its driver fired five shots. Four hit the 24-year-old woman, and the other vehicles drove away.

Adams managed to call 911, her voice strangled in her own blood.

“I was following my baby’s daddy, Rae Carruth, the football player,” she told the operator. “ … He just left. I think he did it.”

Adams’ baby, Chancellor, was born 10 weeks early, with cerebral palsy and permanent brain damage. But he lived. His mother even got to hold him - sort of - when the newborn was placed on her chest as she lay comatose in a hospital bed before she died in December.

Carruth fled and was captured in a car trunk in Tennessee, accompanied by bottles of his own urine. He was convicted of conspiring to have Adams murdered and sentenced to almost 19 years in prison.

He is scheduled to be released on Oct. 22, 2018.

Carruth’s name made the news again this week, when a writer for Bleacher Report spoke to seven anonymous NFL executives, one of whom said that Colin Kaepernick has become the target of the most “collective dislike” since Carruth.

Wow, one might think. What crime did this Kaepernick fellow commit?

He exercised his constitutional right to free speech.

Kaepernick, a quarterback – backup these days, three seasons removed from starting Super Bowl XLVII – for the San Francisco 49ers, has drawn the focused, furious ire of a nation for refusing to stand during the national anthem in two preseason games. He says he is protesting racial injustice and police brutality in America – not disrespecting his country – and has pledged to donate $1 million to groups working to combat those issues.

Kaepernick sat during the national anthem on Aug. 26 and knelt during the song on Thursday to a chorus of boos.

One thing I think I have written consistently about is the importance of our right, as American citizens, to freedom of speech. As a journalist, it's sacrosanct. I have defended it even in cases such as ex-L.A. Clippers owner and repugnant racist Donald Sterling, who I did not think should have been fined for expressing his beliefs, nauseating as they were, about black people.

I have also waxed quite – well, prolifically, if not always eloquently – about how that right is so misunderstood. It does not mean, I have said, freedom of consequences from that speech. Sterling would have been punished by people not buying tickets to see his team and enjoyed no protection from that, I recall writing. Phil Robertson is free to opine about how gays is evil while marrying off his teenage daughter to a well-hung duck, I may have thought - and free to watch ratings for his TV show tank in response.

I don’t change that opinion when the exerciser of said speech is the bearer of a less revolting message, one more in line with my liberal sensibilities. (While I love my country and support those who fight for it, as George Carlin said, symbols are best left to the symbol-minded. But I digress.) Kaepernick no doubt knew going into this that his would be an unpopular opinion, and if it plays a role in teams not signing him if he’s cut by the 49ers (which was looking likely before this brouhaha), then he has no constitutional protection against that consequence.

But let’s get this straight. Colin Kaepernick is not Rae Carruth.

If you find his actions disrespectful, fine. If you think he’s insulting America’s military, fine. (I think America insults its military by sending soldiers to war and turning its back on them when they return broken – if they return – but that’s my opinion). But if you think what he’s doing is on par with arranging to have his pregnant girlfriend murdered, you’re part of the problem.

The NFL, and the America of which it is both microcosm and macro-representative, can manufacture schmaltz on a dime. It can turn up the tear-jerker dial with the best of them, showcasing surprise reunions with returning veterans and painting its dog-and-pony show the prettiest shades of red, white and blue you ever did see.

But patriotism, like everything else in Roger Goodell’s fiefdom, comes with a price tag – a $5.4 million one, to be exact. That’s how much the Department of Defense paid 14 different NFL teams from 2011-2014 in exchange for game-day patriotic hoopla, according to a report by

Talk about the American way.

In the NFL, you can beat up your girlfriend or kill someone while driving drunk or in a nightclub brawl and it will usually blow over in a multi-game suspension. What you can’t do, without widespread and reverberating condemnation, is express an unpopular opinion, go off-script, “become a distraction.”

That is patently un-American. In this country, you can take a stand – or a seat, or a knee. Others don’t have to like it. But they don’t have the right to insist that you do things their way.

I remember one afternoon in an honors English class during my freshman year of high school. I forget what was being discussed, but the teacher was exploring different viewpoints. Students were asked to move to a side of the room in response to questions. At one point, she asked everyone in favor of the death penalty to move to the right side.

I stood in my orange Benetton sweater and white prairie skirt that touched the top of my brown lace-up ankle boots, watching every other person in that room walk away. I needed no help in those days, when anxiety lurked down darkened hallways and laughter was an unpleasant sound because it was often aimed at me, feeling self-conscious. I considered joining the right-side exodus. I considered it seriously.

I stood where I was. By myself.

This is not to make myself sound heroic, or to say that I think Kaepernick is – though I do agree that this country has problems, and to keep insisting that we don’t, that if we just sing loud enough and stare unblinkingly ahead, everything will be fine, is asinine.

It’s just to say that I had the right to stand there. And he has a right to sit.

If you must manufacture some outrage – if children going hungry, or homeless people being killed by falling trees in hurricanes, or the astronomical suicide rates among veterans, or convicted rapists serving three months in jail just doesn’t do it for you – try this.

Rae Carruth will be a free man in little more than two years. Get mad about that.

Closing ceremony

It does not seem possible that I have just watched the last sporting event of the 2016 Olympics. All that’s left is the Closing Ceremony, which always feels like the day after Christmas.

I have admitted many times to being a Games geek. I love the pageantry (while acknowledging extravagant spending in countries that can ill afford it); the compelling human stories on display at every turn (though the ceaseless ‘packaging’ of a sometimes tone-deaf network did grow wearisome); the class displayed over and over by winners and fourth-place finishers and athletes who were truly just happy to be there. It’s true the Olympics have problems – corruption, doping, Ryan Lochte – but I reject the argument that the event is a past-its-prime celebration of out-dated nationalism.

That’s not to say the Olympics don’t suffer from a problematic dichotomy that is hard to deny, especially when it comes to the women who excelled on sports’ biggest stage. Simone Manuel smashed stereotypes, becoming the first African-American woman to win a gold medal in an individual swimming event when she tied for first in the 100-meter freestyle, though there was precious little aforementioned packaging of her story – the sort of stuff you’d expect NBC to eat up. It got worse, though. The San Jose Mercury News celebrated her singular achievement with this headline: “Michael Phelps shares historic night with African-American.”

Another swimmer, Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu, decimated the world record in the demanding 400-meter individual medley. As she celebrated, NBC cameras focused on her husband and coach, Shane Tusup, while announcer Dan Hicks called Tusup “the man responsible” for Hosszu’s performance – going on to say, cringe-inducingly, that Hicks had turned Hosszu “into a tiger in the pool.”

The U.S. women’s gymnastics team dazzled while it dominated, but even in the midst of lauding these amazing athletes, social media found the time, incentive and ability to tear one down.

Allyson Felix became the most decorated U.S. woman in track and field history by earning her seventh medal, then was asked about childhood nicknames that made fun of her legs. (As a woman who’s been told to smile more since elementary school, I recognized the flash of gritted teeth behind Felix’s. She may well have not been bothered by that question, but I doubt she found it as funny as Dan Patrick.)

Helen Maroulis pulled off a feat on par with Rulon Gardner’s 2000 miracle, winning the USA’s first Olympic gold medal in women’s wrestling by stunning Japan’s Saori Yoshida, a three-time Olympic champion. You may have missed the glancing reference to it, though, in NBC prime-time coverage saturated with riveting footage of Swimmers Gone (Slightly) Wild.

Maroulis was unfazed, saying in a news conference: “If they covered Ryan Lochte over my match, well, I think that’s a poor decision on their part, but I’m not running the show. My job is to be a wrestler, and I stepped on the mat and did what I needed to do.”

Other women doing what they needed to do at these Olympics whose names may not be as familiar as Katie Ledecky or Simone Biles or the U.S. women’s basketball team, which won its sixth straight gold medal: Gwen Jorgensen, triathlon gold; Michelle Carter, shot put gold; Claressa Shields, boxing gold; and the U.S. women’s rowing eight, which won its third consecutive gold medal and 11th straight world title – an international streak of excellence bested only by the Soviet hockey team’s 14 consecutive crowns from 1963-1976.

And, in another notable moment, Helen Richardson-Walsh and Katie Richardson-Walsh, field hockey players for Great Britain, became the first gay married couple to compete at the same Olympics, and they won gold medals to boot. Yet Caster Semenya, the South African gold medalist in the 800 meters, still faces scientifically uncalled-for questions about her gender.  

As a journalist for more than 20 years, I know that never, in recorded history, has everyone been perfectly satisfied with media coverage. I am familiar with the challenges and limitations in covering everyday sporting events. I can only imagine that those are magnified millions of times for an event like the Olympics. NBC also has roughly a million more resources, though, and the 2016 Olympic viewers, in some instances, deserved better.

That said, I still watched, every night and most days.

These Olympics have kept me company, on my new couch with my new cat in my new life. They’ve been an on-time date (albeit with some of their best moments already known and/or annoyingly stretched out) for the last two weeks, familiar voices and friendly faces, a bevy of talent and grace and ambition putting on a nightly show. They’ve lived in the app on my phone and the earbuds at my desk and in my conversations and thoughts, creating memories to store in the sizable sports-themed chambers of my brain.

I watched a 74-year-old great grandma and track coach, Anna Botha, celebrate her pupil’s gold medal – and world record – in a sport in which Wayde van Niekerk’s mother also excelled during a time when apartheid crushed her dreams. I watched two strangers collide on the track and then urge each other across the finish line, despite obvious pain. (A note: American 5,000 meter runner Abbey D’Agostino, after helping New Zealand’s Nikki Hamblin to her feet, finished the race – even though she’d torn the anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus and strained the medial collateral ligament in her right knee. I have heard football players scream in pain and seen them carried off the field after sustaining one of those injuries. She ran almost a mile with all three.)

I watched athletes I’ve covered contribute to a strong U.S. showing on the track, including Francena McCorory and LaShawn Merritt. I watched a friend of mine, Amber Campbell, finish sixth in the world in the women’s hammer throw –the best-ever Olympic result by an American. I saw the power of bronze, as the U.S. men’s and women’s volleyball teams, beach volleyball players Kerri Jennings-Walsh and April Ross, and diver David Boudia fully celebrated accomplishments few can dream of. So did Egyptian weightlifter Sara Ahmed, whose bronze medal was the first won by a woman from an Arab country.

On the subject of diving, I had a brief moment of personal cyberspace glory. A tweet about Malaysian diver Nur Dhabitah Sabri’s indefatigable smile went, my new Malaysian followers tell me, viral. It has been, as of now, retweeted 1,611 times and liked 678. For someone with 302 followers – now 389 – this is a big deal.

And now it’s over. Tomorrow will just be another Monday – well, almost. It will also be my stepdaughter’s first day of 12th grade. I have taken the first-day-of-school picture since seventh grade (with a memorable sixth-grade picture day shot also in the photographic mix). The last four have been in front of The Picture Tree, capturing the nervous energy on her face and the pride on her father’s as the South Florida sun unfurled behind them.

As she sets off into her senior year, she – and I – would be well-served to take to heart Maroulis’ advice, demonstrated so capably by so many women during the last two weeks: Focus on your job, and do what you need to do.