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I’m trying to find some Christmas spirit.

I started by trying to put up my tree, a little fiber-optic number I’ve had since my Myrtle Beach days, purchased at Target by my mother, whose old cross-stitched ornaments have adorned its branches for 10-plus years.

That plan was thwarted when I realized the box that plugs the spinny light CD in the stand into the wall apparently wasn’t ready to leave Florida yet.

 I did succeed in getting holiday-themed placemats and the pretty purple-and-gold runner my previous boss gave me on the dining room table.

Then I gave up and decided to have a glass of wine with Dave Pirner at noon.

I opened the three windows in the house that will shut and lock again to let the December air in to keep me company.

Tomorrow I start yet another new thing in a year that has had quite enough of those for my taste. This, I hope and think, is a good one. But more unknown territory. It’s OK. That’s starting to feel familiar.

Seems like I should be getting somewhere/Somehow I’m neither here nor there

I spent a few minutes on Facebook this morning before retreating in abject fear.

I wish all days were filled with wall-to-wall football. I understand football. Well, except for targeting, and exactly what a catch is.

My ESPN app is a safe haven. The news it brings me doesn’t seize my stomach muscles and tighten my throat. Baseball hot stove heating up. College hoops injury updates. A John Saunders article, which is sad, but not in a humanity-is-damned kind of way.

Syracuse and UConn tip off at 7 p.m. Oh, right, that’s kind of an ACC game.  I wonder if I’ll ever get used to that. Probably not, as I still think Seattle is an AFC team and the Brewers are in the AL.

Speaking of Seattle, the Seahawks won big last night, though Earl Thomas was carried off the field and started tweeting about retirement, which kind of sucked. The aerial shots of a city I’ve now seen for myself made me smile, and vow to return for a game next year. I want to take my friend, who showed me that lovely place and to whom the universe owes a bit of peace.

Peace was the subject of yesterday’s sermon at church, though it wasn’t really a sermon – not in a Southern Baptist way. As I sat in the pew, joined by another friend, the minister spoke of God’s peace, which was not to be viewed as snowy white doves and Christmas carols. God’s peace, she said, is division – taking intentional steps to disrupt what is conventional and comfortable and rearranging the pieces of what was familiar into something more powerful for more people.

Now my phone, on shuffle because decisions are difficult, is playing All This Could Have Been Yours. It’s a mournful, reflective tune from a 2010 album called Black Ribbons by Shooter Jennings (Waylon’s son) and band Hierophant. It’s strange and category-defying and post-apocalyptic and sometimes just perfect.

Maybe it’s better not to have a tree. Less work all around. I’ll go to my friend’s annual holiday party – such an event that it has its own Twitter account – and then drive down to the beach to listen to the waves and winds with my mother.

And now we’re back to the Runaway Train that started all this surprise afternoon introspection. Random does nothing to decrease the chances of repeating yourself.

As the music shifts to the well-worn comfort of Lucinda's glorious gravel voice, I remember there's also Monday Night Football. Not what it was, but what is, and it's something.

And I'll leave you with, as I'm so often left to, My Own Devices. Happy holidays. Let your dim light shine indeed. 

Elective ignorance

I worked for more than 20 years in a male-dominated profession. I was often the only girl in the room, if not the building, and I learned early how to hold my own.

Laugh at the bawdy jokes. Throw back the beers. Never, ever show it if something bothered you, because that exposed your soft underbelly for targeted attack.

 I was very fortunate. Most of the men I got to work with were, and are, truly great people. They provided me with support and guidance and friendship and, with very rare exceptions, never questioned whether I belonged on the sports desk or in the locker room.

Most of the time, I thought the jokes were funny. I told more than a few of my own. Occasionally, someone would try to run something racy by me, as though my uterus acted as some sort of female offense barometer. I would usually tell the questioner that I was probably the wrong girl to ask.

Sometimes, upon learning I was a sportswriter, people’s eyes would light up and they’d ask, with an odd sort of eagerness, what that was like – not in a way that seemed genuinely interested, but rather as though they were digging for dirt, and maybe mining for pain. I had to disappoint those people. Truth is, the hard work – and I’m certain it was harder than I can appreciate – had been done decades before me. My sports career, with respect to scandalous or sexist treatment, was most uneventful.

There was the one SID (sports information director) who announced that, because it was senior day, the school was going to open the locker rooms immediately after a football game, rather than observing the traditional cooling-off period during which the coach and requested players answered questions in the interview room (or corridor, as the case may have been). Fine. He went on to tell me and the other female beat writer that we’d be allowed in 10 minutes later. Before my brain could process that, she swiftly informed him that we’d have the same access as everyone else, thanks, and that was that.

There was another SID who would loudly announce my presence as we filed into the post-cooling off period basketball locker room – “Female in the locker room!” – in a booming voice that I suspect was timed to reverberate in my ear drum. Thanks, Sparky. Pretty sure these college-educated kids could have figured that out on their own.

These things were minor irritations. Were there people who weren’t nice to me because I was a woman? I’m sure. Did some resent me? For certain. But I had a job to do. Any such issues were blips on my much bigger radar.

I say all that to tell you this: I am not a thin-skinned, whiny girl, prone to emotional outbursts and susceptible to the vapors. If you do hurt me, odds are you will never know it – and you’ll also never know me. I do my own work, clear my own path, earn my own rewards and sit at a table I set my damn self.

These past two days have been harder than I may have words to express, but I’m going to try. Yes, my candidate lost an election. But I, and many others, lost a lot more than that.

I lost the last wisps of the caul of naïve optimism that covered my eyes. I knew pockets of racism, sexism, xenophobia and downright meanness lurked in my country, my state, my office, my circle of friends and my own family. I didn’t know it was so pervasive that it would elect its image to the presidency. I did not believe, in my bones, that eight years after celebrating our first black president, we would be mere months away from inaugurating one endorsed by the KKK.

Many of my friends of color were not surprised. Flatly unsurprised, and a little bemused at the depth of my white liberal shock. Welcome to our world, their reactions said.

I cannot claim anything but a sliver of that world, but I think I finally feel that sliver in a way I didn’t before the morning I woke up to a country that elected a sexual predator president, a country that no longer represented me. I wanted nothing more than to hunker down under the covers, but I had to get up and go out the door into a world that felt suddenly alien.

The men I passed on the street or in the hallway, the ones I had to call and ask questions, the ones who came into my house to fix my heat, held my attention in a way they hadn’t before. Did you vote for him? I wondered, knowing that, according to the data, more than half the time, the answer had to be yes. Do you see me the way he does? Do you think I am something to be objectified, rated, grabbed?

My newfound suspicion, profound heartbreak and overriding anger are not just reserved for men. There’s plenty for my sisters who could overlook the repugnant remarks, the rape charge, the self-admitted criminal behavior. There’s plenty more for the reported 47 percent of my fellow citizens who didn’t feel sufficiently motivated by a man who assaults women, insults minorities and mocks the disabled to go fucking vote.

I understand some of those people felt there was no good alternative in this election – nevermind that sexual assault should really be enough to clear up any lingering doubt. I won’t get into the credentials of one of the most qualified presidential candidates in U.S. history, or how none of that mattered to the people who, however they want to spin it, voted against the one thing they couldn’t get past on that remarkable resume. I’ll just say that part again: Admitting to repeatedly sexually assaulting women should be enough to disqualify someone from being president of the United States.

The fact that it didn’t leaves me shaken in a way I never was walking into an unfamiliar locker room or elbowing my way into a crowd or laughing off flirtatious overtures. This is what my country thinks of me. It thinks I’m property.

So I don’t want to be told to breathe (which seems, to me, thinly veiled code for that male standard, “Calm down.”) I don’t want to be told that now we must unite behind our president – and especially not by those who never showed any interest in that sentiment or action in the last eight years. I don’t want to hear how everything will be OK and just be kind and it’s not that big of a deal.

It is a big deal.

I completely support and welcoming differing opinions. I do not support and will not tolerate hate.

Maybe the saddest thing is that this is how my friend Lisa, my friend Issac, my friend Joey and on and on and on have felt all along. This is what they’ve been told until I can’t fathom how they kept their tempers in check and their hands unbloodied. This is what they’ve been trying to tell us.

I thought I was listening, but I wasn’t understanding.

As a 43-year-old white woman, I have less to fear than some. I have less to fear than my 17-year-old stepdaughter, who should face a world with unlimited, not curtailed, choices. I have less to fear than those for whom this man’s very face is a trigger. I have less to fear than the Issacs and Lisas and Joeys of the world, who see their sons in Trayvon Martin’s face and who hear ignorant coworkers justify this shit every single day. I have less to fear than my friends Sam and Jenny, whose January wedding was one of the most joyous things I have ever been privileged to witness.

If you’re not afraid, bully for you. But you don’t get to invalidate my fear, or anyone else's. I will deal with it. I will give money, when I can, to Planned Parenthood and LGBT groups in my community, and I will offer my time and talents. I will say what I think, now more than ever (you have been warned.) I will give this president a chance, because what choice do I have, but I will fight tooth, nail and XX chromosomes against any attempt to limit the freedoms we’ve fought too hard to attain.

We are greater than one man or one election. This fear, this band of dread squeezing my heart, will lessen, because America, weeping warts and all, IS great.

I’ll feel better, but I’ll never be the same. It'll never be as easy to be the only girl in the room. 

 

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.