It’s Who You’re With: 25 Years of Marriage, Baseball, and Faith

You’ve heard that old cliché, “It’s not where you go or what you do, it’s who you’re with”? My parents are living that to the extreme.

Today, people are remembering September 11, 2001. I respect that; it’s important that we never forget what happened 17 years ago.

But I want to talk about September 11, 1993 – the day my parents got married.

That’s right; 25 years ago today, Kevin M. Renckens and Cyndi J. Kamp tied the knot.

(There weren’t wedding hashtags back then, but I like to think theirs would have been #GoneKamping. Other options include #HappyKamper and #StairwayToKevin.)*

So, what are they doing for their silver anniversary? Renewing their vows? Enjoying a romantic dinner? Revisiting the spot where an Ivy league grad from New York first met a bubbly systems analyst with big, brown eyes?

Nope.

Tonight, they are dining on Chipotle burritos, and in two weeks, they are flying to Ohio.

Because, you know, why settle for Paris when you can always have Cincinnati?

My parents are celebrating their 25th anniversary at the Great American Ballpark, watching a Reds game and chowing down hot dogs. Over the past few years, they have been on a mission to visit every MLB stadium, their navy Rays caps popping up in a new one every few months or so.

If you want to know where baseball ranks in my family’s priorities, my cousin Luke didn’t tell us when he got engaged, but as soon as the Rays officially announced the Logan Forsythe trade, my phone almost dropped dead of exhaustion.

It’s kinda funny; even though Mom is one of the biggest baseball fans I know, she really didn’t take any interest in sports before she met Dad. Now, she keeps up with the Lightning, she can talk about the Bucs…she even tells me about the latest round of the PGA tour.

In that way, Dad completely changed her.

But Mom changed Dad, too.

My dad wasn’t a Christian when he met my mom. In fact, on their first date, when she brought up Christianity, he told her how he could never give up control of his life like that.

He hadn’t figured out yet that Mom is usually right. And even when she isn’t…she is.

Now, he’s taken seminary classes, leads a mission trip to Africa every year, and has helped me, my sister, and so many others learn what it really means to have the heart of Christ.

I’m not here to say which is more important (sports fan or Christ follower), but I think we can all agree they both changed for the better.

(Ok, fine, Jesus is more important than baseball. But you can’t tell me He didn’t play a part in me getting an apartment right next to Tropicana Field.)

You might think that after spending 22 years around what’s been a pretty successful marriage (so far, knock on wood), I could crank out an article on what, based on my observations, is the formula for a strong relationship. But I don’t know if there’s some big secret to a long, happy marriage; I’ve never tried it. Heck, I’ve never even been in a relationship that lasted a full month (not counting when I was five and got married in my sandbox).

But I have learned something about how you know it’s the right person.

A lot of times, when we think of love, we picture someone we’re comfortable with. You know, sitting on the couch together, oily hair coiled into a messy bun, watching Netflix, and eating ice cream straight out of the carton, knowing that he’ll still kiss you goodnight and text you in the morning. Someone whose should you can cry on, who you can open up to about everything.

Feeling relaxed, comfortable, and safe around someone is definitely an important part of a relationship, but true love is more intense than that. It’s caring so deeply about someone, you can’t leave them where you found them. You don’t want to change who they are; in a way, you want them to be more who they are. You want them to be the best version of themselves.

That’s what Jesus did for us, right? God meets us where we are, but He never leaves us there. And no matter how many times we squirm ourselves out of His protective embrace, turn our backs to Him, and run back to the mess He saved us from, He always comes back for us, cleans us up, and brings us home like His beloved bride.

When I imagine what it’s like to be in love, I always think of someone who pushes me to try new things, to grow in some way, whether it’s finally mustering up the nerve to send my short stories to a literary magazine or even something dumb, like pulling me up on stage at karaoke night or just making me put on real clothes and leave my apartment once in a while. (No small feat, lemme tell ya.) I imagine someone who encourages me to do things I would never have done by myself.

Here’s what I have learned: in a healthy relationship, both people are unselfishly, earnestly working to help the other person grow and bring out their best qualities. My parents taught me the importance of being with someone who loves me not just for who I am, but who I can be, and is excited to support me on that journey.

And, of course, who’ll take me to every MLB stadium.

And Chipotle.

So, I guess the old cliché is true – it is about who you’re with, because the right person will take you where you need to go and help you with whatever you do.

If you want more reflections on relationships and advice from someone who has never actually been in a long-term relationship, type your email into the “Stick Around” widget on the top right of the screen! We can figure this out together, friends.

*I kind of just realized that my mom planned their entire wedding without Pinterest…like, how do you pick a dress when you haven’t been digitally hoarding photos for years? That’s probably why so many women wound up picking dresses with sleeves the size of balloons. I firmly believe the entire fashion disaster that was the 80’s could have been prevented if Pinterest had been invented 30 years earlier.

If you’re still reading this, you may be interested in my opinion on weddings (i.e., why I will never have one).

 

Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg, Florida

Scored on an Error

“Hey Ali, I suggested that the girl who has the internship position you did last summer set up a meeting with you,” my boss mentioned as he passed by my cubicle. “I thought you could give her some advice on how to leverage an internship into a full-time job.”

“Sure thing! I’d be happy to!” I chirped before turning back to my Post-It note-covered desk, thinking, how on earth am I supposed to explain fluking my way into this job?


“Hey Mom, there’s that company I’m never going to work for.” I pointed at a logo along the Rays outfield fence.

Mom gave me a tightlipped smile. I think it only hit her that year that her daughter would be graduating from college with two majors – one in journalism and one in creative writing.

To borrow a joke that I’ve only heard a thousand times, that means I didn’t learn anything in college, except how to communicate that very clearly.

And I had just blown my one chance for a well-paying summer internship.

For one thing, I didn’t learn about it until after the application deadline had passed, so my application was late. Plus, confused by the mad juggle of summer internship applications, I sent in the wrong cover letter, so the first paragraph explained how deeply I wanted to work for another company.

Not surprisingly, they never contacted me, so I was pretty confident when we went to a Rays/Blue Jays game during spring break my junior year that I would never work for the company whose logo I had just laughed at.

I think we all know where this is going.

Fast forwarding, the girl who did get the internship dropped out, so they gave me a call and asked me to resubmit my resume and cover letter. After that, I had a couple interviews with an HR rep and one with a communications manager, featuring my well-rehearsed spiel on how a creative writing major actually teaches valuable skills (most notably, how to think of arguments for why creative writing isn’t a useless major), and for a little bit of personal flavor, I also sprinkled in the story of how I accidentally killed my goldfish in a car accident.

In a shocking turn of events, they decided to hire me as the corporate communications intern.

Considering the fact that when I showed up for my first day, everyone in the office already knew the story of my late goldfish, I can only assume that somehow clinched it for me.

Through no fault of my boss, I really didn’t know what I was doing the entire time. But I read once that one of the reasons Ronald Reagan managed to inspire people was because any time someone asked him a question, he would sit up straight, smile, and say, “I’m so glad you asked that question,” even if he had no idea what to say after that. So, I decided to try that little presidential fake-it-till-you-make-it policy. My boss would ask me to do something, I would give a cheery affirmation, then I’d go to my desk and quietly sweat.

The second semester of my senior year of college, my boss emailed me to say that they wanted to hire me; all I had to do was submit my resume and cover letter.

As I uploaded my resume and cover letter, onto my account on the employee portal, I noticed something – when applying for the internship, I had uploaded the wrong cover letter the second time, too.

Error 404: brain not found.

On my first day after graduation, I showed up at the office sporting a new ID badge with an employee picture that was somehow worse than my intern photo (although at least they spelled my name correctly this time). My supervisor showed me my cubicle, introduced me to my new team members, and then we went out to lunch.

“So, Ali,” he smiled slyly as we took our seats. “Do you have any pets?”

After explaining how I’ve spent the last year-and-a-half debating whether I have the time and resources to give a fish the care it deserves, I turned to tell the story to the new hires and learned that they had already heard about my poor goldfish.

The only bad publicity is no publicity, right?

Last Wednesday was my one-month anniversary as a full-time employee. To celebrate (or maybe coincidentally), the company gave us free baseball tickets and a half-day. Lounging on the Tropicana Field party patio with my coworkers – right next to the logo I had pointed out to my mom about a year ago – it really hit me how inexplicably everything had come full circle.

Public seminars are a $400-500 million industry. We read self-help books on setting goals, watch TED talks on exuding confidence through power poses, and paste together motivational vision boards. We all want to know the ten steps to success or how to improve your life in just five days.

But sometimes we don’t get an instruction manual. Life doesn’t always operate in a linear, logical way. It’s messy and imperfect and sometimes there’s no single magic key that unlocks success.

Maybe we really don’t have control over what happens in our lives. I guess all we can do is have a good attitude, do our best, and trust God to work everything out in the end.

And maybe have a killer fish story.

(Oh wow, that was too soon.)

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“The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.” (Proverbs 16:9)

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!

A Rapunzel Story

My sister just locked me in my room.

Ok, she didn’t LOCK me in my room. She shut my bedroom door on me as I was industriously making my bed (which I hadn’t done in about a week).

The locking was implicitly implied.

It was explicitly stated when I promptly opened the door and walked into the hall.

“ALI,” Mackenzie said with her trademark calm and tender manner, “THAT WAS A SIGN TO STAY IN YOUR ROOM.”

With my trademark pluck and valor, I immediately turned tail and closed myself in my room.

You may be wondering what grievous crime I had committed to deserve banishment to my room.

Well, my little sister had a boy coming over. And she didn’t want me to meet him.

“Why don’t you want me to meet your boy?” I asked as we discussed this yesterday.

“You’re too weird and awkward,” she threw back at me, beating a retreat into her room so I couldn’t ask follow-up questions. And I had a lot of questions

I’m not sure what she meant by “too weird and awkward.” Granted, I have spent the majority of Christmas break slouching around in my XXXL “I support the right to arm bears” t-shirt (I’m a size small, if anyone was wondering). And the only person outside of my immediate family I’ve interacted with is the man who delivers the books I order.

I was so upset I almost didn’t invite her to help me and our cousin Brittney build our Christmas-themed blanket fort.

I made the best of being “locked” in my room, which, thankfully, overlooks the front yard.

“MACKENZIE. HE’S PARKED AT THE END OF THE DRIVEWAY.”

“What are you yelling about?”

“YOUR BOY IS IN THE DRIVEWAY, BUT HE ISN’T DRIVING UP.”

“He texted me to ask if he should park in the street…What are you doing?”

And that’s when she opened my door to find me peeking through the slitted window blinds.

“You’re the creepiest person ever,” she said, shutting my door for the second time.

I didn’t reply because I was sending the Snapchat video of him walking up the driveway to our family group message. (You couldn’t really see him though, because of the palmettos.)

I can say with certainty that if she had been born in the right time period, my sister is the type of person who would’ve stuck me in a stone tower and used my hair as an elevator.

Does that make me the sweet, innocent princess?

You can draw the comparisons.

Except the closest thing I have to prince is the Amazon delivery man.

Life isn’t like the fairytales, kids.

If it was a fairytale, we would fall in love at first sight and expeditiously ride into the sunset in our gilded carriage. Sure, we may have to elude a murderous stepmother or disgruntled witch, but we could blithely skip over the harrowing experience of bringing our significant other to family game night.

That’s the true test of love. Any guy in his right mind would rather battle a fire-breathing dragon than duke it out at Renckens Family Game Night.

But we can’t lock our relatives away forever just because they’re weird or awkward or wear shirts five sizes too big with baffling political messages or give us a sharp kick in the shin during an intense game of Uno…right?

Oh well. If I actually was in a tower, I could probably get a better video.

And with drone delivery, life wouldn’t be half bad.

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An artist rendering. Not actual footage.

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Baseball Gods and Fantasy Football

When I looked at my phone and saw 11-8, my heart dropped. I clicked “My Team” and scrolled through my players, looked at Team Smith’s roster, and consulted ESPN. Then, being home for Thanksgiving break, I ran outside, where my dad was mowing the lawn. I made him stop and showed him my phone, pointing to where I was projected to lose 123-126.

“I wouldn’t worry about it until after the first quarter,” he said.

I joined the crazy world of fantasy football because Ted Kluck, the faculty advisor for our school newspaper, walked up to the table where my friend Lydia and I were eating in Cobo, pointed at me, and said, “Caleb [the sports editor] and I are making a fantasy football league. You need to join. There’s an email in your inbox.”

I grew up in Tampa. We have three major sports: hockey, baseball, and football. But we’re not known for our football. Or our baseball. (In a good way.) For me, though, the difference between football and baseball is that I enjoy baseball.

I have never watched a televised football game. I have watched a lot of high school football games…using the word “watched” loosely. I ran the concession stand, talked to my friends, and called quarters “innings”.

Even as I agreed to join fantasy football, I knew that my competitive nature would take over. I started running crosscountry in middle school. My first meet, I was in fourth place, mere feet from the finish line, when I stopped. I couldn’t see straight. I could barely walk. My flushed red face contrasted with my dead white lips. Following my dad’s voice, I kept lurching to the finish where I swooned and threw up. I still finished seventh in a race with more than a hundred runners, but it the fact that I could have been fourth or possibly even third bugged me well into high school.

My first two weeks playing fantasy were not great. I lost both. My first week, I played the team that led the league for nine week on his best game of the season. My second game I only lost by seven points. Then I buckled down.

I started reading about football. ESPN, Sports Illustrated, CBS…anything that could give me an insight into this world of tackles and touchdowns. I started consulting with my dad. I checked my line-up and stats over and over and over.

And the Alley Cats started winning. After those first two games, I went on an eight-game winning streak. By week 11, I led the league in points. I led the western league. Only Ted, whose team was 9-1, was ahead of me.

Week 11, my team played Team Smith. It was three weeks to the play-offs and I if I won, I would only need one more win to clinch a spot in the play-offs. Plus, I like to win. Sunday, I checked my phone constantly. My defense had played Thursday and almost gave me 15 points, but they allowed 17 points in the 4th quarter, leaving me with eight.

I was projected to lose, then win by 12 points, then we were projected to tie, then she was projected to win, then me. Then tie.

If art and creativity do come from pain, the next few weeks may result in the best writing of my life.

I took my laptop down to the living room. To watch a football game. On TV. For the first time. Ever.

The Bucs were playing the Kansas City Chiefs. (Until maybe an hour before, I didn’t know that Kansas City had a team other than the Royals). According to an article by Tom Jones, the Bucs reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, the Chiefs are arguably the best team in the AFC. (I also didn’t know what the AFC was.) They were at an NFL-best 17-2, an 11-game winning steak, and 16-4 at home since the 2014 season. Sports Illustrated ranked them No. 3 in their power rankings. The Bucs were No. 21.

Jones wrote, “If you’re an NFL team, there are three types of games: Games that you are supposed to win. Games that you are supposed to lose. And games that could go either way. Today is a game the Bucs are supposed to lose…But sooner or later, if you’re going to take the next step as a franchise, you have to win games you’re not supposed to. You need to pull off an upset that makes everyone go, ‘Whoa!’”

When I joined fantasy football, I knew that I would probably lose. How could a girl who never had any interest in football possibly compete with a bunch of guys who have been watching the sport their whole lives?

But if ever the baseball gods were smiling on their downtrodden worshippers, they were this year. The year that the teams with the two worst records in the MLB faced each other in the World Series. The year that people yell-sang “Go, Cubs, Go” all the way down Lake Shore Drive and threw blue streamers in the air. Maybe – just maybe – this was the year that a baseball-loving football novice from Tampa could win a fantasy football league.

11:30 p.m. Team Smith was finished with 134 points. I bit my nails, watching my last three men, none of them earning me points. Washington kept trying to run for extra points (I forget what that’s called) instead of using my kicker. Then, when my fantasy score was 133-134, they used my kicker. And instead of tying the game for me, his kick sent the football into the side of the goalpost.

I screamed.

I screamed again, less than two minutes later, when Adams caught a pass and earned me five points.

The Bucs won that week, too. Sometimes you do win games you shouldn’t.

(And, hopefully, the baseball gods will at least wink at Tampa next season.)

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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.

Toto, We’re Not in Florida Anymore

2015-02-16 07.13.28-2It didn’t begin with the sirens, but with a beep from Lydia’s phone. Then, all our phones started ding-ing and I ended up crammed into the bathroom (our “safe zone”) with two of my roommates, our friend Rachel, and two of the girls who live above us. Scrunched into our shower, I remembered being back home when I was little, snuggling up in my closet with a flashlight and books while a hurricane raged outside. Funny. This is the closest to my hometown (Tampa Bay) I’ve felt in a while.

For the past few weeks, I’ve battled icy conditions with youthful vigor and the charming naivety of a baby playing with a rattlesnake. The first time I saw my windshield coated with an armor of thick ice, I had no strategy for counterattack. I wrenched my car door open and turned on the heat and the windshield wipers, which didn’t help. After a hasty retreat to my dorm, I returned brandishing glass cleaner and paper towels. (Spoiler alert: they didn’t work.)

As a tow-headed third grader, I got an entire week off because of the imminent threat of hurricanes. I’ve run three miles along the beach in rain, thunder, lightning, and hail. But this was my first tornado. I’d imagined it would start with a dark stillness in the sky, then cyclonic winds would tear shutters (that magically appeared for this fantasy) off the dorm windows…something like The Wizard of Oz.

Instead, it looks and sounds like a thunderstorm, except that I can hear the warning sirens and feel the cold, smooth bottom of our shower while we wait for our RA to give us the all-clear.

Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.

I think there’s a reason that’s one of the most famous lines in cinematic history. It expresses a pensive sense of displacement. It was obvious that she was far from home, but there’s still a sense of hesitancy, uncertainty, and innocent bewilderment as Dorothy wonders where she is. And this simple statement implies a poignant question: can we return home?

They say “home is where the heart is,” but what the heck is that supposed to mean? I divide most of my time between college and where I grew up, about a 900-mile difference. When I’m at school, I miss my family, usually calling them a couple times a week and texting constantly. Then again, homecoming isn’t like a parade across the football field wearing a sparkly crown and holding a bouquet of red roses; it’s more like precariously walking a tightrope, attempting to balance the freedom I have at school with that fact that I’m back in the room I’ve had since I was eight. And no matter where I am, I spend a lot of time planning where to go next. For instance, right now, I’m planning on moving to Birmingham this summer for an internship.

Each one of these places has my heart somehow; I love my family, I love my friends, I love school, and I love my work. It would be so simple if I could just click my heels and magically be transported to one place where everyone and everything I care about exists in perfect harmony. Instead, I’m sprinting down yellow brick roads, hoping they’ll carry me to my dreams.

Saying that I don’t know where home is sounds heartbreakingly mournful. But I don’t think it is. It’s only sad if there’s nowhere to go or no one to be with. There’s something wonderful – scary and beautiful and bewildering – about facing a world full of open doors, hearts willing to welcome you in, and suitcases ready to travel to every corner of the globe.

Maybe that’s the idea. Maybe home doesn’t have to be one, single place. Maybe a central facet of maturity is the conscious decision to find joy in any situation, love for new neighbors, and beauty in foreign surroundings, so that wherever we are, we can sincerely and confidently say, “There’s no place like home.”