St. Simon's Island, Georgia, beach at sunrise

Island Vibes

Like I tell everyone who asks if I’m Southern: Florida is in the South, but it isn’t Southern.

I really identify more as an islander – a hippie one at that. I love slurping down smoothies, wearing floral bell sleeves and sandals that strap up past my ankles, and, of course, being outside. Especially being on the beach.Driftwood Beach, Jekyll Island, GeorgiaSt. Simon's Island, Georgia, beach at sunrise

So, not shockingly, our annual family beach vacation to St. Simon’s Island is one my favorite times of the year. Like, it might beat Christmas. (Except that Hallmark doesn’t celebrate it with a full arsenal of movies, which is highly disappointing. I plan on going into screenwriting just to create a summer Hallmark movie that takes place on St. Simon’s Island.)

bw7St. Simon's Island beach, GeorgiaEvery morning, I wake up at daybreak and run down to the beach. I think that “daybreak” is the perfect word to describe that time. It’s like watching the sky split open, blazing with all the excitement it bottled up overnight.

Driftwood Beach, Jekyll Island, Georgiac2

If some of the black-and-white photos seem a little grainy…it’s because they are. Literally. The salt coalesced on my camera lens. Does salty air make for high-quality photos? No. But it makes for some pretty high-quality memories.

(That will be an iconic line in my summer Hallmark movie.)

Driftwood Beach, Jekyll Island, Georgiac1

Hope you enjoyed! If you want more pictures or to stay updated on my Hallmark screenwriting ambitions, type your email into the “Stick Around” widget on the top right of the screen.

goldfish

A Fish Named Nellie Bly

Nellie was my first goldfish.

Not my first fish; I had a lot of fish growing up. And I named them all “Cat,” as part of my oh-so-subtle plan to convince my parents to adopt a kitty. (Took seven years, but it worked. Subtle and steady wins the race.)

Anyway. Our story starts on April 21, 2016. My sophomore year of college.

To raise money for a local philanthropy, a campus club decided to sponsor the “Fishy 500,” a fish race. Participants paid a fee, squirted fish with tiny water guns to spur them to swim through a 10-foot track, then got to walk away with the satisfaction of having helped abused children as well as the subjects of their mild waterboarding.

Which is how I ended up paying $10 for a fish that costs 34 cents at PetSmart.

I named her after Nellie Bly, who pioneered investigative journalism, but is now mostly remembered for her “stunt work,” most famously traveling around the world in 72 days, beating the fictious record set in the book Around the World in 80 Days.

I had no idea how ironic all of this would be.

I’ll be the first to admit – Nellie (the fish) had it rough. For one thing, being a broke college kid, I never wanted to spend the money on a fishbowl. Plus, none ever seemed to be the right size; I wanted something big enough so she didn’t feel confined but small enough that she didn’t feel lost in an endless sea of isolation. (Sorry for the pun, I really tried to avoid it.)

So, I bought a large piece of Tupperware from Dollar Tree, and that was Nellie’s home, except for a few short stints in a Mason jar, pickle jar, and salsa container.

You think that’s rough? Just wait.

Between my sophomore and junior year, I lived in three different states. Ergo, so did Nellie.

That summer, we packed our bags (and Nellie’s Tupperware container) and scampered between Tennessee (where I went to college), Florida (where my family lives), and Alabama (where I interned). As we toodled across state lines, Nellie bobbed along in a pink cup sandwiched between me, singing along to some Broadway soundtrack for x hours, and a passenger seat littered with mostly empty water bottles, my shoes, purse, and who even knows what else. Over the course of many trips, she had a few tumbles but always survived. She was basically the aquatic version of Jason Bourne.

The journalist Nellie Bly once feigned insanity to write an expose about the brutality and neglect of mental institution. I’m sure my Nellie longed for the sanity of an 1887 loony bin.

Anyway, when summer ended, the traveling ground to a halt as I slogged through the fall semester of junior year. Then we hit December. As a single fish parent, this posed a dilemma.

I always flew back to Florida for Christmas break. At the time, I was not well-versed in the TSA policy on fish. After diving into parts of the TSA website that no one who wasn’t planning a low-scale terrorist attack has ever looked before, I concluded that I could probably bring Nellie. But I wasn’t sure, and I didn’t want to take any chances with my little golden-scaled traveling buddy.

When I flew home, I always parked my car at a family friend’s house in Nashville to avoid spending a small fortune for airport parking. So, rather than run the risk of some dour muscle in a bulletproof vest confiscating Nellie, I asked my friends to keep her.

The mom was very nervous, but I remember promising, “Nothing will ever kill this fish.”

[Phantom of the Opera overture]

That poor woman prayed over Nellie every single day, and on January 2, 2017, when my plane finally landed at the Nashville airport – after a five-hour delay – and I lugged my duffel bag off the suitcase carousel, my car and Nellie were both shiny and sleek and ready to go.

By the end of the night, we would all be in varying degrees of ragged.

My plane took off late because of foul weather in Nashville. As I navigated the roads to Jackson, Tennessee, it was still raining steadily. To make things worse, there are no lights along I-40. But I had a podcasting class the next day, so I zipped through the dark, listening to the Hairspray soundtrack.

About an hour later, I felt the wheel turning itself to the left. Before I could react, my car smashed into the guardrail. Then it bounced off and veered to the right like a tiny metal ball in a pinball machine, slamming into guardrail on the other side.

I screamed. (Honestly, though, I think a part of me was less scared of dying than embarrassed that the last sound I ever heard would be Zac Efron singing “Ladies Choice.” That’s a swan dive onto rock bottom you never get to recover from.)

Anyway, after bashing both sides of the car, I managed to get control and pulled over to the side of the road. Turning on the emergency lights, I yanked open the car door. My bare feet sunk into the mud, rain sopped my clothes. I stood back and tried to assess the damage, but I couldn’t make anything out through the rain. Cold and wet, I crawled back into the car and called the police.

When I hung up, it hit me – where’s Nellie?

Her cup had rolled under the passenger seat.

My car was totaled.

We never found Nellie’s body.

Every time I tell this story people are like, “That’s the funniest and saddest story I ever heard.” And it’s true. And even though it hurt in the moment, looking back, I have to say, I couldn’t imagine Nellie dying any other way.

So, why write about this now, more than a year and a half later?

Grieving is a process, and it took me time to work through it. For the last nineteen months, I’ve wondered if I have the capacity to give a goldfish the care it needs and deserves.

A couple weeks ago, after writing about how Nellie weirdly helped me get my job, I decided it was time to move on. I was ready to open my heart again.

Life happens. Fish die, cars wreck, screws fall out. The world is an imperfect place.

After a week of research and visiting pet stores, I screwed up the courage to buy another goldfish.

Sometimes, you just have to get back on the horse. Or put another fish in the bowl.

Or the cupholder of my car, which is where my new fish ended up the very next Saturday afternoon as I drove from my apartment to my parents’ house, an hour away.

Amazing how, in spite of all our best intentions, we end up making the same mistakes.

Well, hopefully not all of them.

If anyone was wondering, I named my new fish “Nora” after Nora Ephron, who co-wrote and directed my favorite movie, You’ve Got Mail. So, I’m naming my fish after women writers now. Cliché? Maybe. But at least I’m not using them as a mini SPCA commercial.

In memory of Nellie. I hope that Heaven is a full-sized aquarium full of friends, where you can traverse the entire galaxy without the constraints of a Tupperware container.

If you’re reading this and not completely repulsed by my negligent fish ownership, type your email into the “Stick Around” widget on the top right of the screen.

Why I Will Never Have a Wedding

Premise: Weddings are freaking nightmares.

Yes, we’ve seen all the movies. My Big Fat Greek Wedding taught us that true love can withstand even a tightknit family. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers taught us that the best way to get a woman is to kidnap her and cause an avalanche so she would have nowhere to go if she did escape. The Princess Bride gave us the most iconic line in the history of romantic cinema: “Mawwiage is what bwings us togewah today,” which is such a great line because you can use it for any occasion – graduations, birthdays, funerals… But whether it takes standing outside the girl’s window blasting a boombox or riding into the a sunset on a lawnmower, they always get their happily-ever-after.

I’m talking about real-life weddings in the late 2010s.

Point 1: Dresses are expensive.

In high school, I bought all of my formal dresses at one of two places: Goodwill or Salvation Army. I think the most expensive one set me (read: my mom) back $40. (That may seem tacky, but to be fair, the only dance I ever went to was the Governor’s Ball hosted by a statewide government club and held inside the Tallahassee Antique Car Museum. Every year, I took a photo next to the Batmobile and a display case of pocketknives.) In college, on the rare occasion I attended some fancy soiree, I usually borrowed a dress from one of my sorority sisters.

Well, now, I’ve graduated college. I’m a 22-year-old working as a corporate communications coordinator in St. Petersburg, Florida, so the odds that I will invited to the Met Ball Gala – or any gala, ball, promenade, sock hop, or disco, for that matter – is extremely slim.

Some would say nonexistent, but I’m still holding out hope that I will one day run into Dan Stevens, and he will realize that we are meant to be together.

But unless – or until (Simon Sinek says positive thinking is the only way to achieve your goals) – that happy day comes, I will never have an excuse to wear a fancy ball gown again in my life, ever.

So not only does that mean that I already have two floor-length dresses that cost upwards of $250 hanging up in a closet in my parents’ house, but, if I were ever to have a wedding, I would (easily) be spending upwards of $1,000 on a dress designed for me to wear only once in my entire life.

Call me a Goodwill-hunting pack rat, but I honestly cannot wrap my head around that.

Point 2: Pre-wedding hoopla is insane.

The first time I was a bridesmaid, I twisted the combination of my school mailbox, opened the metal door (probably on the third try), and invitations to five wedding showers fell out. Five. For the same girl.

Now, I don’t think she reads this blog, but in case she ever does, I want her to know that I don’t judge her; I know that she didn’t plan them. And, to be fair, she had just graduated college and was working at Starbucks until her wedding. But as an introvert with a full-time job, I can’t imagine doing a bunch of pre-wedding shindigs.

And it’s not just the showers. Proposals have to be such an elaborate affair – emotional and intimate (but with a photographer close enough to capture everything) – plus a surprise engagement party with family, friends, balloons, cake, and a photo booth (pics or it didn’t happen). It is such sentimental rigmarole. Whatever happened to the days where a man just offered the girl’s father a goat? When did we decide we needed to bring pageantry and romance into this transaction?

And it isn’t just the future bride who gets proposed to anymore. Now there’s “bridesposing.” This is when the bride-to-be woos her friends into being her bridesmaids by presenting them with a small gift, typically jewelry.

Literally. It’s proposing to your friends.

(Although, as a bridesmaid, I realize I probably shouldn’t complain about this.)

Point 3: Lingerie showers.

Listen, we lived together three years, I never learned what type of underwear you like, and I don’t want to know now.

Point 4: The ceremony is just a freak sideshow in the social media circus.

I already mentioned the engagement brouhaha. So, let’s talk about the big day.

It takes a least three Facebook albums to capture the average wedding day: the pre-wedding primping, the family/bridal party/groomsmen/couple pictures, and the ceremony (which, honestly, are the least exciting pics). Not to mention all the wedding countdown photos (I know one girl who started post 400 days before her wedding – you read that right, a four followed by two zeroes. That is over a year!), the “I said yes to the dress” picture, the snapshot when you get the marriage license, the wedding hashtag, the bachelor/bachelorette party pictures, the wedding video, the anniversary video…

Conclusion: Let’s just get away.

Beneath all the Pinterest-inspired table settings, when photos are sucking at every gigabyte of phone memory and the send-off sparklers are nothing but ashy metal sticks, the important part of the wedding is that two people have vowed to love, honor, and cherish each other for the rest of their lives. I understand that it’s an important day, but in the grand scheme of things, it is one day.

Plus, I know a lot of people who say they don’t even remember the wedding. I recently had dinner with a friend who told me the only thing she remembers from her wedding is that one of the guests ripped his vasectomy from dancing. (I’m working on selling that story to Hallmark.)

All that to say, I’d rather save money for the honeymoon, so we can go somewhere exotic and start our life together with amazing memories and peeling, sunburned shoulders.

So if I ever get married, I’m going to elope. But not in an unplanned, harum-scarum, run-baby-run, kinda way. (Hello, it’s me.) We will be organized and logical about this. We’ll make travel reservations and toodle down to the courthouse on a pre-arranged date.

Heck. Maybe it’ll even be an excuse to wear one of those bridesmaid dresses again.

Sounds like happily-ever-after to me.

Do you hate weddings? Does emotion make you snarky? I think we’ll get along just fine. Click the “Follow Me” button or type your email address into the widget on the top right of the screen!

Smith Corona typewriter

Moving In

It wasn’t anything dramatic, I just didn’t know where to put my keys.

“I’m going to try not to be sad,” Mom had told me about an hour ago. And to her credit, Dad did not have to physically pry her clinging arms off me and lead her away like he did when they dropped me off at college for the first time. We hugged, said goodbye, and then I left.

As I backed out of our driveway, the sun crept down toward the Alafia river. I had planned to leave earlier, but the rain delayed me.

This was my first time moving into an apartment all by myself. No family, no roommates, not even a pet. (Unless you count my Baby Groot chia pet, whose little clay tree trunk head had yet to see the outside of the box. I’d been waiting to plant him until I had found a place to live and settled in.)

The next day, I would start my first post-grad job as communications coordinator at a product solutions company.

The sky shone pale yellow, tires kicked up clouds of pale of daffodil-colored mist as I drove to my new apartment.

It was only an hour from home; no big deal, I told myself. Until I unlocked my apartment door and walked in, keys jangling as they swung from the fob around my wrist, and I realized I didn’t know where to put them.

It’s one of those small, daily rituals, so routine you don’t even think about it until you walk into a new apartment, walls smooth and blank as an eggshell, and realize that you don’t know where to put your keys, hang up your purse, or plug in your phone, and there’s no one to tell you.

I didn’t have to beat away a bramble of clothes to reach to my bed, no dishes in the sink “soaking.” (I.e., hanging out until either I give in or they develop their own ecosystem.)

There was only one familiar item within 400 square feet: my bed.

I’ve had the same bed for as long as I can remember: a full-size with a white coverlet embroidered with a floral pattern. When I was in elementary school, the bed ran diagonal to the far right corner of my room, meaning the headboard and two sides of the yellow walls formed a triangle just the right size for an 8-year-old kid. I used to drop behind the headboard and write on it with my “spy pen.” You couldn’t see the ink unless you cast the purple light on the other side of the pen over it.

I like to imagine that the ink is still there, that if I bought a blacklight and shone it on the smooth white boards, childish scribblings would appear, glowing pale purple, like futuristic hieroglyphics.

I used to like leaving words around. I can’t remember how, but I somehow managed to chisel the word “detectiev” (“detective” – I could never remember how to spell it) into my desk in fine, pointed letters. “Cat” was penciled onto the baseboards.

And I guess I still like to leave words all over the place…although now I generally use pens or my laptop and leave the furniture alone.

On the walls of my college dorm, I hung prints of our college magazine layouts – the cover of my first magazine as editor-in-chief, stories I wrote, dummy copies with mistakes circled in pink pen. Growing up, I never hung pictures of pop stars or movie posters in my room. They always seemed confrontational – hands on hips, looking flamboyantly into the distance against obtrusive gusts of wind. They never invited me to get to know them. They never offered to tell me a story.

Realizing I couldn’t just stand in my kitchen all night, I stuck my keys in my purse, which I hung from the bedpost, next to my invisible scrawls.

The next morning, I covered the walls with magazine pages. And I planted my Baby Groot chia pet.

The Dates of Christmas

A lot of my friends got coal for Christmas.

And by that, I mean coal that was squeezed and whittled until the dark ash morphed into a sparkling oval, which was then welded onto a rose gold band and nestled onto a velvet cushion.

I don’t know why spring is considered the most romantic season, but I’m here to tell you it isn’t.

It’s the holiday season.

No joke, Christmas cookies are as aphrodisiac-ful as oysters. (Also, they look, smell, and taste a lot better, so I vote we make those a Valentine’s Day tradition.)

And don’t get me started on the made-for-TV Christmas movies.

So predictable. So cheesy.

The plot line is always some cute blonde girl locked in a struggle between her work and heart. In the last 15 minutes of the 90-minute movie, she realizes that she loves the small-town baker who spends his weekends making treats for the local animal shelter and that her fiancée, the big shot corporate lawyer who has spent more time kissing up to his bosses and clients than romancing her, is a jerk. And despite only knowing each other three days, the last five minutes feature an engagement so that the sweet guy can flash a black velvet box emblazoned with the Kay logo for the viewers at home.

Christmas was invented by jewelers. It’s all a mistletoe-driven crock.

Scoff, scoff, scoff. Bah humbug.

I’m not trying to be the Grinch. I only sound like that because I’m grouchy and bitter and my heart is five sizes too small.

(I’m kidding. It’s only three sizes too small.)

Ok. Confession: I love those movies. My mom and I spend December 1st-26th curled underneath fleece blankets watching Hallmark.

But the holidays did feel a little weird this year.

This Christmas, my little sister left us for a few hours to spend time with her boy and meet his family. All my cousins brought their significant others over (except one, because his girlfriend was in North Carolina). At Thanksgiving, even my 16-year-old cousin had her boyfriend over.

It does make sense that there’s such a hoopla about love this time of year…after all, the holidays are a time to spend with the people you love. Which makes it a little jarring when those people find other people to love, like a new cover of a song you’ve loved for years. Like Bruce Springsteen singing “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Not unpleasant exactly, but it takes a minute to get used to.

It really hit me this year that we’re getting to the point where I’ll have to share my family. They already have other families to spend holidays and play card games and take pictures of themselves in matching pajamas with.

It’s like nothing is sacred.

Especially since Christmas leans so heavily on traditions: frosting cut-out cookies, decorating the tree, screaming at each other over a game of Spicy Uno. We do the same things with the same people and it feels cozy and warm and familiar. We’re already in a time of our lives when so much is changing; it’s sad to see these traditions slip away too.

Maybe that’s the real charm of those stupid Hallmark movies. Maybe we like them because there aren’t any crazy plot twists, surprise endings, or gripping dialogue. No matter how many “new movies” come out, you can count on them to stick to the same cheesy, heartwarming plot, year after year.

And you get to enjoy them with the people you love, even if new people are added or people leave for a while.

Hope you and your family had a very merry Christmas and a wonderful New Year, surrounded by people you love. And if you want to give yourself a little gift, enter your email in the “Stick Around” widget on the right side of the screen to subscribe!

From the Mountain to the Ocean

SSIIt started on the top of a mountain.

I was a metal-mouthed middle schooler who highlighted her already-blonde hair. The chemicals gave my strands a distinctly yellow look, which really accentuated the cheeky splash of rose-colored acne. (This isn’t particularly relevant to the story, but it’s something I’m still working through.)

I went for a hike with my dad, uncle, and two male cousins, but left the testosterone-dominated group far behind me the entire time, moving swiftly over the rocky, uphill path, like a balletic leopard. (I imagine. This can neither be confirmed nor denied because everyone else was too far behind.) At the top, my dad captured my moment of triumph with a photograph of me standing with legs apart, one hand on my hip, gazing victoriously over the tops of trees and mountains, far above everything for miles. That was when my parents decided to sign me up for cross country.

 

I wake up before my alarm and silently slither down the bunk bed, trying not to step on my sister or our cousin Katie. I step into the bathroom, change my clothes, secure my hair in high ponytail, and slip out the door.

The walk is short, but slightly painful as bumpy asphalt slap the bottom of my feet until I reach the long, wooden dock that leads to the beach. Approaching the water, I adjust my earphones, set my alarm for 20 minutes, and take off down the shore.

My bare feet noiselessly pound the coarse sand, rubbing the balls of my feet and the tip of my toes. My feet massage the shore like it’s one of those balls people grip to relieve stress. The muscles of my right calf clench as they prepare to launch me, relax for a split second as I am airborne, then my left heel sinks into the damp ground.  As the rest of my foot comes down, I shift my weight to my toes and lift off the ground again.

It’s just before 6 o’clock in the morning and the sun is only a glimmer of light above the gray waves. I always start running toward the east, watching the sun timidly peek over the horizon. Shocked by its beautiful reflection in the waves, it serenely floats to the top of the sky in a self-content blaze of pink and golden glory.

As a college student, I’m always surprised by the sheer number of people (which is, maybe, 15) that wake up at dawn to walk their dogs or simply walk toward the new day.

When my alarm rings, I turn my back toward the sun, set it for another 40 minutes, and keep going. Typically, I run over six miles in an hour. However, running on sand requires about 1.5 times more energy than my usual runs on pavement, so I’m not quite sure how far I’ve gone. As an extremely competitive person who takes great satisfaction in the unsung victory of beating her own personal best, I usually monitor my runs religiously, noting distance and time. But somehow, that doesn’t matter today. In fact, it seems almost sacrilegious to run past the shattered mosaic of shells, my iPod drowning the joyous chorus of clapping waves with Broadway music.

When my alarm goes off and I turn around again, the sun is a golden flame. The hot, thick air has teased my thin, straight hair into the frightening texture of a Miss America contestant after a hard night’s sleep. My ponytail hangs down my back in a damp curls, fly away hairs form rakish rings around my head. I can feel the grit of salt on my face, but I’m not sure if it’s from sweat or the ocean air.

I purposely ran 20 minutes past the entrance to the beach, so my cooldown is a long, leisurely walk back to the house. Somehow, shuffling my bare feet along the shoreline gives me the same feeling as reaching the top of that mountain – unconquerable and on top of the whole, beautiful world.

Get Lost…or Not…

My cross country coach delighted in misdirection.

Three days a week, she rounded us up at the crack of dawn for a workout at the Dover Horse Trails, a network of paths leading through woodland, field, and Florida scrub at different stages. (If you don’t know what Florida scrub is, I’m sorry, but I won’t try to explain it.) I had to wear two pairs of socks and wrap my feet in bandages to prevent the dew from soaking through my shoes and socks and leaving gaping blisters on my feet.

Getting lost on those dew-soaked, godforsaken trails was practically a rite of passage for the cross country team. It brought Coach Laura a certain level of sadistic satisfaction. She said that when we got lost, she got to see how far we could really run. (Because, for some reason, no wrong turn led to a shorter route. It was just endless miles of scrub…which you can Google, if you’re so curious.)

Well, I just finished my second week of living in Birmingham. I moved into my apartment on Monday, May 30. And on Tuesday, June 1, I started my summer internship, working as a full time reporter.

Suddenly, not only was I living in a strange city – a strange state, actually – I had to write about a city that consists of five different regions, find my way around it/them for stories, interviews, and photos.

Let me tell you – I have gotten lost a lot in the past week.

I have missed turns, taken wrongs turns…made more mistakes I won’t talk about because the people who pay for my car insurance read this blog…

And as I miserably blundered my way through Birmingham traffic for so long I heard the same song play on the radio three times, I could not help but dolefully reflect on the philosophical implications of getting lost.

It is easy to have a devil-may-care attitude about getting lost when you have a safety net. Namely, Madam GPS. I apologize to her when I miss turns after she has patiently informed me that my turn is one mile…three quarters of a mile…half a mile…a quarter of a mile…900 feet…500 feet…250 feet…100 feet in back of you and two lanes away, you bumbling idiot.

Actually, she has extraordinary patience. (Which is why I wish all people were like phones: calm and easy to put away. There’s never any drama with a phone.) But it also makes it easier for me; I know that if I make a mistake, she will almost instantly compensate for it and steer me onto the right path.

I know that we grow by making mistakes (which is probably what Coach Laura was getting at, in addition to her perverse thrill) but we shouldn’t be careless about it. Mistakes happen so that we can learn how to not make that mistake again.

And yet, I still turn when she says I have 800 more feet to go because I’m not actually paying attention to the street signs.

Which is probably the bigger lesson here: take advantage of the resources you have to prevent yourself from making that stupid mistake.

Heurism is an effective teaching method, but it’s also a dangerous one. Mistakes don’t just affect us. It’s a miracle I haven’t killed someone abruptly turning without my signal or screeching across multiple lanes to get to my exit.

And we should be grateful when we have directions.

Right now, my directions end at the edge of a stage, clutching a diploma – an empty roadmap that assures the world I am qualified to set out on my own, but doesn’t give a single hint about which way I should go. I don’t know if I’ll step left or right or keep going straight. I’ll probably just take a swan dive and land on my face.

But my feet will hit the ground, too, eventually.

I guess we if we use our heads and stop blindly following a robotic voice, we’ll all emerge stronger from our time wandering in the Florida scrub. (Seriously, look it up.)

Where Spring Begins

baseballWe paid ten dollars to the lady wearing a Home Depot apron and neon traffic vest for the honor of parking at the Good Earth Crematory, right next to Bradenton Propane, across the street from Top Gun Towing. We piled out of the car and followed one of the golf carts driven by a security member (as denoted by his red collared shirt with the yellow “P” embroidered over his heart) to the oasis of tall palm trees poking out from the surrounding yards of rusty chain-link fence.

This was my last night in Florida. The next day, I would fly back to Jackson, Tennessee. The day I left, it was 48-degrees with fierce winds blowing across a landscape of brown grass and gray skies. Growing up in the Sunshine State, I struggle to understand why it still feels like the dead of winter in March, but that isn’t what prevented it from feeling like spring; it was the sense of not honoring one of our beloved traditions: spring training.

Outside McKechnie Field, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ spring training field, one man holds up helmets with Pirates’ and Tampa Bay Rays’ logos, calling out, “Ten dollars! Ten dollars!” Two men hold fistfuls of tickets in the air and cry with raspy voices, “Tickets! Tickets! Tickets!” They stare us down with dollar signs dancing in their vulture-like eyes even though we’re holding our large, pre-printed entry passes to scare them off.

It’s only 15 minutes until game time and a sizable crowd is meandering into the stadium, a mob of black and yellow Pirate jerseys, blue and white Rays jerseys, and gaudy Hawaiian prints. The crowd narrows into four lines, passing by security guards who scan passes and glance into bags for contraband (weapons, drugs, and opened water bottles).

We finally squeeze through. Even though I’ve been coming to ballparks for as long as I can remember, I am still hopelessly incapable of finding seats. Trusting my dad’s confident stride, I follow my parents around the back of the grandstand.

The tops of palm trees reach higher than any of the bleachers. Green, perfectly manicured grass grows around the trunks of the trees, like small squares of the perfectly manicured lawns of the expensive houses by the bay. People recline in plastic lawn chairs, sipping large cups of lemonade in the shade.

Fried foods, grilled onions and peppers, hotdogs, and ketchup scent the open-air stadium. Smoke rises from some of the food vendor stalls, not black smoke, but a delicate, whitish smoke that promises something delicious and fattening is about to come off the grill. Although the food vendors wear black caps with yellow “P” on them, branding them for Pittsburgh, their tanned arms and easy-going smiles have a distinctly Floridian vibe.

I used to have a system for eating at the ballpark. After the third inning, while the groundkeepers tidied the field, I would get a foot-long hot dog, ketchup oozing over the meat and a thin line of mustard down one side. I never added mustard when I ate a hot dog at home, but the baseball diamond seemed to require a special touch, like trying to dress up an old t-shirt with a statement necklace. After the sixth inning, when the groundkeepers again magically re-emerged, pulling their rakes, I would slowly consume a pretzel larger than my fist, cholesterol levels flaring as I bit into the chewy dough wrapped in a chrysalis of salt. My gluten allergy and health consciousness (read: calorie counting) prevent me from eating those foods now, but the smell still makes my mouth water and heart beat a little faster.

It’s almost 6 p.m. on the last Saturday of March and the Florida sun, while not oppressive, shines brightly. My dad and I are wearing shorts and a Rays shirt, but Mom wore jeans, an elbow-length Tampa Bay Lightning shirt over a camisole, and a baseball cap with the logo of the company my dad works for.

“I didn’t realize we were playing the Pirates,” she says regretfully, adjusting the black and yellow hat. Dad reminds her that this is their stadium.

Mom removes the Lightning shirt soon after sitting down. I pull down the brim of my hot pink Rays cap just over my eyebrows so I could see home base without squinting. Over the course of the game, the sun slowly dropped out of sight, warming the left side of my face. This is probably the only spring training game I’ve been to that I won’t get a sunburn.

The players are still warming up, rolling on the ground with resistance bands, throwing a ball back and forth, and running with strange, skipping steps, kicking their knees high and wringing their waists like a wet towel. A few jerseys don’t have names on them, signifying their minor league status.

Mom nudges me and points to kids crowding the fences, holding balls, notebooks, and Sharpies high in the air. “Remember when that was Ryan?”

We used to come to games three hours early so that my cousin Ryan could collect autographs. However, now that he’s 6’4” and captain of the high school football team, players overlook him (or look under him) in favor of younger fans.

We’re sitting in the grandstand near the Pirates’ dugout, surrounded by black and yellow shirts. We’re less than an hour away from Tampa Bay, home of the Rays, but these interlopers have acclimated themselves nicely to their sunny environment, growing like an exotic plant, trying to choke out the native flora.

I don’t actually have anything against the Pirates or their fans (unlike the Red Sox or Yankees). Nevertheless, I feel a mother-bear protectiveness whenever my team is playing.

I’m too far away to hear the sounds of the game: the taunting whistle of the ball as it jauntily flies over home plate at over 90 mph; the desperate whoosh of the bat as a nameless jersey wildly beats the air; the low, satisfying thump as a fly ball securely nestles itself in an outfielder’s outstretched glove; the scuffle of cleats as a player slides onto a base; the emphatic, guttural declarations of the umpire.

The noise surrounding me drowns out what is happening on the field. My ears hum with cheers when a beloved player steps up to bat. The child behind me tries to intelligently discuss the game. (“Can he steal the base now, dad?”) A couple can’t figure out where they’re supposed to sit and keep getting booted out from their seats complain complacently. The loudspeaker echoes with announcements. (“Now, stepping up to the mound, third baseman, Evan Longoria!”) The food vendors impressively extend monosyllabic words as they climb through the stands. (“Bee-eer! Get yer ice-cold bee-eer!”) Sometimes, I can’t see the ump’s sharp hand signals, but I almost always hear the response from the crowd, whether they’re applauding an excellent call (which, coincidentally, benefits their team) or demanding his head while waving torches and pitchforks (i.e., hot dogs and soda bottles).

There’s no Jumbo Tron, no cameras scanning the crowd, no boisterous fans in heavy face paint, no walk up music to rev up the crowd as players swagger to the plate. Seagulls glide over the field, extending their wings and emitting small cries, as though they’re gunning for the best view of the game and cheering on players. In the spaces between the stands on the other side of the stadium, I can see an automotive building and cars driving past. In the seventh inning, a drunk man jumped onto the field and threw beer cans at the Rays dugout. There’s a distinct lack of the extravagant glamour and sleek intensity that we’ve come to expect while watching professional sports.

The only thing that doesn’t change from preseason to regular season is the people: the little leaguers with major league dreams; the men whose faded caps cover balding heads filled with the stats of every player on the field; the families raising their kids to love the sport and know who to root for (“Not the Yankees, Ali”); the people who don’t seem to know what’s happening or even who is playing, like the woman sitting in front of me wearing a Yankees shirt, Yankees cap, and Yankees headband. (Just…why?)

The famous quote from the movie Field of Dreams holds true: if you build it, they will come. Whether you build a multimillion dollar stadium or build it in a city neighborhood beside a crematory and a towing company, we always come. Because the red dirt of the infield spells out something more valuable than most things written in Expo marker on a classroom whiteboard. Because here we find friends and nemeses (here’s looking at you, Yankee Doodle lady). Because spring doesn’t enter like a lion or a lamb or with a balmy breeze and kaleidoscopes of flowers. Spring begins here. With the thump of a leather glove.