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The City of Big Lessons: My Years as a Chicagoan, Part Two

In honor of my fifth year anniversary in Chicago, I’m taking time to reflect on all of the things I’ve learned in my years here. The first part of the series is here

Every new restaurant cannot be the best restaurant ever

Chicago is a food city. It’s also a sports city, the Windy City, and the City of Big Shoulders, but first and foremost, it is a food city. As such, there are new restaurants opening constantly, and anyone with an investor or a trust fund can try their hand at haute cuisine, food trucks, or even open a pretentious little vault that sells doughnuts for the price of ribeyes to people crazy enough to wait in absurd lines for fried dough. Most people in Chicago become foodies by proxy, and if the restaurant name is trendy enough or if it’s situated on a rough corner in a slowly gentrifying neighborhood, it might be billed as “the best restaurant ever” by the people who go there.

Perhaps the City of Big Shoulders is also the City of Gross Hyperbole, but I’ve heard the phrase “best ever” uttered so many times that it doesn’t even register. The true Chicago boulevardier knows he or she has to supply a more thoughtful portrait. If you’re the first person in your group to eat at a new restaurant, it’s your job to be an apostle, spreading the gospel of truffle fries and Scotch eggs to anyone who will listen. When among your peers, you should be armed with strong opinions about the food, and how the food ranks from best restaurant to (former) best restaurant. You also have to know the lineage—Kuma’s had the best burger ever, but then they branched into Lakeview which made it prosaic, and thereby were dethroned by Au Cheval or Three Aces. They too will be ousted by something that opens in the next six months.

Then there are all of the novelty food shops that pop up that you have to feign interest in—shops that make poutine, bars that specialize in brown liquor, hot dog shops, craft tacos, and places that put bacon in everything. Sure enough, as soon as someone says that BlackWoodBushHouse has the BEST biscuits and gravy in the city, your next brunch invitation will take you there. And, of course, if the food is disappointing your host will always take refuge in the bandwagon-jumpers favorite excuse, “Oh, it was much better the first time we came.”

There are good restaurants everywhere in this city. There are restaurants where you can spend your entire paycheck to literally eat the menu because the molecular gastronomy movement allows for it (and it tastes, as you’d expect, terrible) and there are taquerias with $2 tacos better than the ones you’d spend twice as much for at Big Star.  The secret is that a restaurant’s trendiness is seldom synonymous with its level of quality. The wise diner can ignore the hype in favor of those establishments whose qualities suit their individual temperaments. You don’t have to wait in line two hours of a hot dog, unless of course you want to. For me, the lists of bests include anywhere that you a) don’t have to wait in line b) don’t have to listen to the people next to you discuss the litany of problems with their vintage fixed gear and c) allow you to bring your own beer.

Don’t let anyone convince you that you’re less of a Chicagoan for not having tried every new restaurant in the week that it opens. Perhaps in certain circles there are points to be won for knowing someone who can snag you tickets to NEXT or a mixologist who gives you an exclusively heavy pour. What’s really unfortunate are the times that I’ve been surrounded by people simultaneously declaring something “the best” and being nonplussed that you’ve never heard of it, like we’re at Pitchfork talking about indie bands we love.

At best, you’re gullible. At worst, you’re broke.

Find Your Bar, Immediately.

I found my bar after being in the city for less than a month.  On that night, I headed back to the high-rise where my old boots had taken on water, this time in new heels and a suit for grad school orientation. I hated wearing suits, especially the jacket, but the invitation implored us to “dress to impress” which was synonymous for me with “dress in something excruciatingly uncomfortable, lest you be judged.” Even though I started overdressed, I felt the illusion of sophistication ripping away like I had lost a hand of strip poker every time I met a classmate who had roman numerals at the end of their name.

I still had more of a Kentucky twang at that point, which was at times a point of pride, but in rooms of young aristocrats, a point of insecurity. I sat alone in the corner, sipping the juice that I was handed when I walked in, and tapped my pencil on my notebook. I didn’t plan to take any notes, but it at least kept my hands busy, and if anyone made eye contact, I could fly open the cover and bury my nose in it.

The Dean of the University gave a speech, and while she spoke I looked through the “Welcome to Grad School, Don’t Fuck Up” pamphlet we were handed at the same time as the squeezed mystery berries in a Dixie cup. On the inside of the front cover was a letter from the Dean which seemed redundant since she was speaking from behind a podium inches in front of me, but it contained a biography that told me we did our undergrad at the same university. I hadn’t met anyone from Kentucky since relocating, but more importantly, it gave me a talking point with which to introduce myself. It would also prevent me from saying something stupidly awkward like “I EXCITED I AM SCHOOL GRADUATE EDUCATION” which is always the risk when you ask a wallflower to speak to a powerhouse.

When she approached, I shook her hand and said that we attended the same university. While that reference alone would have sufficed, my nerves forced me to throw in a “Go Cards” with the little L hand gesture afterwards (which is an event I’ve often replayed in my head as one of the most embarrassing things I’ve willingly done). Trent Thomas Edwards Rubenstein the Fourth, or whatever his name was, waited with growing jealousy as the dean and I talked about Louisville the city and Louisville the University. She then told me that she was leaving to go to a bar on the Northside and that if I hurried I could meet her and the alumni group to watch the remainder of the basketball game. With the Dean’s blessing, I blew off the rest of orientation and took the train to the bar, limping blocks in my boxy suit and itchy pantyhose. It was the first and only time I’ve chosen to watch a sporting event in stilettos. I was too shy to do much beyond say hello to the dean and her group, but I took a seat at the bar, which was tended by the owner. He’s no mixologist, but generous in pours and conversations.

In the months that followed, I wandered in there frequently enough that they learned my name, my drink, and even which sporting event I’d want to watch even before I could ask. It’s important to have a relationship with a bar as they seem to last longer than ones with people in this city. It’s nice to know there’s a place that can make you dinner, pour you a drink, and provide friendly conversation when being new can make you sometimes struggle to find it elsewhere.

The City of Big Lessons: My Years as a Chicagoan, Part One

Anniversaries for longevity have been elusive milestones in my life. Growing up, the longest I lived anywhere was two years. I stayed in my college town for six years, not because it took me that long to get two  degrees, but because I was so blinded by love that it took me a couple of years to figure out that the one thing I really wanted was to be left alone. I haven’t held a job, other than freelancing, for longer than two years. My aforementioned relationship was my longest, and it lasted just four years before ending with a lot of screaming and a partially-shattered sense of self-worth.

And when it was over, I landed in Chicago — five years ago today.

Conventional wisdom says that your early twenties are supposed to be the “best years of your life” and I guess, for me, that was no exception. I woke up two hours before my alarm, something that would have never happened in my first two years here, and watched the snowflakes dance along the Christmas lights hanging across the horseshoe curved courtyard.  It hit me that I’m just 365 days away from having more of an identity as a Chicagoan than a Kentuckian, if time were the only measure.

In celebration of my fifth anniversary, here’s part one of (at least) a two-part series of things I’ve learned from my first five years in Chicago.

Invest in good winter gear

When I arrived in Chicago, there was snow on the ground. That’s not usual for November-March, but on that particular morning in January there was just enough on the ground to argue that better footwear would be needed. My Chucks were reduced to squishy-soled water weights strapped onto my feet with fraying laces. As I carried my redneck suitcases (trash bags) full of clothes into my first city apartment my single agenda items– figure out how to get the sofa inside — was soon joined by a second: find better shoes.

The sofa was solved by using a rope to hoist it onto the balcony. I was proud of the new place, a two-bedroom that my parents were going to help me pay for until I found a roommate. I found it on my own, and it wasn’t until I moved in that I realized I committed a huge Chicago faux pas: I was renting west of Western Avenue. Now that gentrification has really picked up that carries less of a stigma, but I spent the first six months of my Chicago tenure convinced that the Norman Rockwell façade of the Northwest corner of Lincoln Square was hiding something more dangerous. Turns out, there’s just a caste system involving Chicago addresses.

In my first week in Chicago, I clocked nearly twenty miles of walking, all in boat shoes (without socks) and tennis shoes (also without socks). My feet were wet and cold, and on the first day of heavy snow and subsequent days of -30 degree weather, I caved to the importance of winter footwear. Money was something I didn’t have, so I got a pair of knock-off UGGs from the clearance rack at Macy’s. They lasted only a couple of weeks, until the snow started to melt; the faux-suede took on water like the Titanic and I sloshed around as if wearing a pair of icebergs.

One of the first things I had to do prior to starting grad school was meet a mentor for drinks at a gastro pub situated at street level of the 23-floor high-rise in which I was set to start classes at the end of the month. I still felt counterfeit when walking into the grown-up establishments catering to  cosmopolitan adults, places that often involved revolving doors and reservations, and if my own insecurities weren’t enough of a burden, as soon as I stepped on the rug my footsteps were met by gasps from the hostess, an early 20’s female, a thin stick of perfection with an orange-tinted face draped in long blonde waves (I’ll later learn we call those Trixies here), who looked at me as though I were a Great Dane whose paws were filthy. What she realized before I did was that my footwear had succumb to scientific principles; my budget boots were disgorging fluid with every step I took, water rushing out of the sides of the boots with great force, spilling onto the floor.

I shuffled to the table trying to avoid sloshing. The man across from me was pristine in a vintage gabardine jacket and rubbers over his wing-tipped oxfords. His cashmere scarf was finer than my fake one, and he sat with a stoic confidence that I assumed was gifted to individuals that had spent more than 30 days in the city. Each sip of my Sazerac and every word uttered about how grad school and the resultant change of career would revolutionize my life reminded me that I might not fit in. It was my nature to have cold feet, and on that day I did, quite literally, as my soggy boots created pools on the tile where they rested, the squid ink decay of car exhaust and other city unpleasantries deep enough for ducks to wade on the Italian tile.

The next day I took the red line to the Chicago stop. I found a place called Soupbox and ate clam chowder, my feet still suffering the same fate from the melting snow. I walked to the North Face store and charged new boots, a puffy sleeping bag coat, a hat, gloves, and a scarf to my emergency credit card. It was easily the most expensive shopping spree I’d had in all of my 23 years, but I wore the boots out of the store and threw the soggy sandbags I’d just disowned into the bin in front of the Jamba Juice.

There’s a joke that all women in this city look the same during the winter months, but it’s more about survival than conformity. Try walking two miles in fake UGGs and a wool pea coat in negative temperatures; chances are you’ll accept your fate as a Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. Today I put on the same boots and coat I bought that day and spent 45 minutes dusting my car off from the snow that festooned its hood. There’s exactly one type of person in Chicago and I learned that quickly: We’re all masochists who would rather complain about the weather than move somewhere that’s better (and that’s because the spring and fall are amazing here).

Without a Budget, You’re not going to make it

I knew that living in a big city would be more expensive, but it’s also fair to say that I didn’t have a great concept of how exponentially more difficult my life would be financially. Prior to the big move, I’d never been reckless fiscally. Sure, I decided to fly to Los Angeles on a whim to see a concert with my best friend and probably spent more on vinyl records than necessary, but I always had a safety net. I knew that money would be tight here. I had loans for grad school with a couple thousand in residual funds to help defray the cost of housing (which it did, for roughly two months out of the year). I had a full-time job, but was earning just enough to subsist, not thrive.

When you’re strapped is when you learn the truth about your spending habits. Emergency credit cards turned into a means for paying for groceries, and each month when payments were due I played the shell game with my bank accounts and shifted money from one place to another, watching it disappear and feeling guilty over every purchase from eyeliner to toilet paper.

I had no outrageous spending habits to correct, but when you don’t have much it adds up quickly, especially when you don’t adjust your discretionary spending. I naively thought that if I avoided places like Barneys and Alinea that the money would just sort itself out, but coffee four times a week, beer three times a week, and even the cheap tacos added up. Then came the car troubles, a sick puppy, and a back injury. Bottled water taxes and the 9.25 percent the city takes on everything sent me into spending depressions (and forced me to buy one of those stainless steel water bottles).

Then came the frugal years. When I’d go out with friends, I’d surgically dissect our bill, paying for only the food I ate instead of subsidizing their drinking habits. It felt unfriendly and cold, but when every dollar mattered, it was the best I could do. I eventually stopped accepting dinner invitations and would eat Chef Boyardee before showing up for just drinks, where I’d drink club soda with lime, sometimes tipping bartenders in quarters. I got my hair cut by students who often left the ends jagged or split and the roots a different color from inexperience. I shopped at second-hand stores, bartered for tickets to baseball games, and limited my social calendar to free events.

My one oasis in an otherwise functionally poor existence was a student membership to the Art Institute. It was $50 I could have used, but on days when I felt lost, broke (which was most days), or in need of a few hours of escape, I could wander the museum for hours, rubbing elbows with Monet and French tourists. I memorized the museum; I could tell you which miniatures had dogs in them and which I wished were real so I could live in them. It was a slice of culture, one that I played like a VHS tape of Roger Rabbit when I was a kid. With afternoons of art and free fruit-water on the members-only patio, I was enriching my life since my other alternative was usually sitting at home.

My salary is now above the area median income, and yet budgets seem even more important now. There’s a tendency for young professionals here to parade about as though they are millionaires when in fact they are swimming in debt or one disaster away from bankruptcy.  I went out with someone recently who informed me that he spent over $450 on cabs last month, all because his friends like to go out in River North and he doesn’t like to take the train. I lived with someone who made a modest salary, yet went out to eat four nights a week at the city’s fanciest restaurants and often wondered aloud what had become of her savings. My father always warned me when I was a kid that “expenses would rise to meet income.” What he didn’t tell me, of course, is if you’re not careful your expenses can rise exponentially higher than your income and that you’ll have to call and beg for some emergency cash because your emergency credit card is maxed out. This leaky sieve of a city encourages commerce. I’ll spend the rest of my life confronting that, I’m afraid.

When people come to visit, let them stay with you, and give them a map.

There was a reaction that I always waited for when I told people I was moving to Chicago: the moment their eyes would light up when they realized that they might not have to pay for a hotel on their next visit. I can sympathize with that reaction, having done my fair share of sofa surfing over the years. Since I was moving to a place where I hardly knew anyone, the prospect of people coming to visit was exciting.

It’s exciting, that is, until you realize what visitors entail. You have to have the refrigerator stocked, even if they plan to eat every meal out, because if you don’t, they’re going to decide they want bagels at the house or mimosas before heading out to see Buckingham Fountain. You also have to convince them that you always have clean sheets, an organized closet, and guest towels. If it’s your parents, then you also have to hide everything that would imply that you’re doing anything but ideal, which means stashing the mail, prescription medication, text books, and condoms.

In my first year, a handful and a half of people came to stay.

Sometimes it was strictly transactional. An old coworker needed a place to stay during Lollapalooza, another on their drive up north. But the worst trips, and most of them were like this, was the Thursday-Sunday trip in which they showed up agenda-less and proclaimed, “We are here to experience ‘city-life!’” Of course what they don’t know is that once you’re living in the city, the definition of that becomes very different than it does for someone who is just passing through. My definition of “city-life” was sitting in coffee shops with free wireless, going to bars to watch college football, and going to my favorite BYOB Neapolitan pizza place that wasn’t mentioned in any of the tourism brochures. To them it meant going to the Cheesecake Factory, then ESPNZone, and then riding your bellyful of overpriced nachos and tasteless cheesecake to the top of the Sears Tower to look out upon the sprawling landscape.

After paying roughly $45 dollars to see the top of the damn skyscraper and $50 for two martinis at the Hancock, you lose your energy to argue that there are better restaurants than Weber Grill, better bars than Mothers, and accept that some people are just on a reckless quest through the tourist strip of Chicago. These people are oblivious and unsalvageable and they should be sent out on their own. Arm them with directions to Lou Malnati’s (which they’ll like better than Pequods), the Bean, the Macy’s on State, Wrigley Field, and something Ferris Bueller- or Blues Brothers-related and send them on their way. Don’t go with them and tell them to save room for dinner and take them somewhere that you like and listen to the things they saw. And when at the end of the dinner they say, “I wish we had come to more places like THIS,” do not smile. And do not, under any circumstances, say that you told them so.

Hours in the Day

I knew that I wouldn’t get out of bed when my alarm went off at 5am this morning, but it was worth a try. Even in the process of going to bed—somewhere between double and triple checking the alarm and giving Lola her bedtime snack—I knew that waking before the sun was a lofty and ambitious goal, especially for a Monday, but I had to at least try. I don’t naturally get up with the sun; if left undisturbed and in room dark enough, I can easily sleep until the Price is Right. As much as I’d like to be a morning person, the type who springs from bed like wheat bread from the greased springs of a toaster, I’m lacking the proper genes or life exuberance to make that happen consistently. The only times I ever exit bed with alertness is the days that I wake up hours before the alarm with the extreme paranoia of missing a flight or an important meeting. For months now, I wake up with three layers of regret, the first from staying up two hours too late, the second from hitting snooze for thirty minutes longer than I should have, and the third knowing that I went to bed without finishing all of my projects.

There is a delicate line between depression and exhaustion; I’ve bounced like a pinball between them this year; lately it’s been impossible to distinguish between the days when I am frustrated and the ones where I’m satisfied, but my muscles are too fatigued to form a smile. I recognize the days when I’m stressed, those are punctuated by time spent behind locked doors crying, hoping that no one can hear. The tired days happen with great frequency, four cups of coffee turn into six and I still drift on conference calls and pinch myself to stay awake in the ninth inning. There have been plenty of days of joy this summer, involving time by the lake, out with dear friends, or agenda-less with reading material, but for the better part of seven months it’s been a grind of counting the hours until it’s all over, all while watching them zip by, unable to reclaim any sort of routine or memory beyond the moment.

Judging by the number of people who feel like life is passing them by, I’d guess it’s probably normal. “I’m just too busy,” their lips uttering endless platitudes lamenting that there, “just aren’t enough hours in the day,” and that, “they don’t sleep!” because they’ve been, “burning the candle at both ends,” since, “time just flies by, yanno?”  Maybe we’re all exhausted from one thing or another; perhaps we’re destined to live stages of our lives in a fugue state fogged-and- bogged by anything and everything. But I’ve been exhausted before, and this exhaustion, all mine and all consuming, feels different than it has in the past.

The 5am alarm was to get to the 9-5, which is actually a 7-6 if I’m lucky or a 6-9 if I’m not. The extra time was to guarantee that I finished cleaning from the party I had the night before, a chance to take the empties to the dumpster before anyone would see me in my tattered Louisville sweatshirt and shorts that reveal more leg than strangers should see. Getting up early would also mean that I’d get the full shower instead of the abridged one, and that the entire makeup routine— layers and layers from four different brushes—would be satisfied instead of the smoky eyes and concealer on rushed days. I feel better on days when my belt goes with my shoes, but damned if I don’t choose sleep over perfection even on days when I’m not physically tired, leaving me feeling frumpy and unfinished, inferior to the bodies and couture of a Type-A office.

And at least three nights a week, when the day should be winding down, part of mine is just beginning. In the evening hours I’m tethered to the laptop and television, messing around with Play Index, writing drafts, and calling editors. I swap time at the gym and well-balanced meals for radio hits and podcasts, fulfilling a seemingly foolish dream of entertaining and enlightening. Most days the words are there. Others though, the exhaustion—or the depression—take hold before I’ve even slipped into my pajamas and house shoes, and I get so worked up about deadlines that I suffer epic tantrums somewhere between topic choose and stat searching. Writing for a paycheck is different than doing it for yourself. It’s frustrating and time-consuming, all while punching someone else’s clock, not to mention the unfriendly and often misogynistic audience has partially broken my spirits on numerous occasions. But even on days when my sex-life is up for public discussion by strangers, or more innocently when I mix up David and Daniel Murphy in my first and final drafts, I work through it, often with laughter. The truth with writing is, that even on the worst days, I recognize that I’m fortunate enough to actuate a pipedream and collect a paycheck in the process.

But the exhaustion, depression, and general apathy have made both jobs impossible for me to do well. I know I am valued, and perhaps integral at times, but I’d never fool myself into thinking that the buildings won’t get built if I’m not there to crunch the numbers, or that the world would be any different if I weren’t around saying something about Adam Dunn. But part of the exhaustion is expectation; we have to do something with our lives, and Development and Writing are what I’ve chosen to do with mine. Part of it is certainly financial related, but in the process of creating a life for myself, I’ve pushed myself to work constantly not with career advancement as the motivator, and not because I had any misconceptions about the imprint that I leave on projects.

I’ve been doing it because without it, I didn’t feel like I had anything else.

I’ve been working on changing that, learning to work because it pays the bills and because it’s rewarding to be accomplished instead of using it as an escape from the voids. It doesn’t matter if I work until 4pm or 11pm; the apartment is still empty when I get there. And accepting extra assignments can’t distract from having a sick parent, even if it makes me forget about it for a little while. And the hours spent writing? For awhile, they weren’t about a love of baseball or the craft of writing, but more about avoiding the fact that I didn’t have anywhere to go or anyone to see. It’s easiest to be busy—no one questions anything but your sanity when you’re working hard. It’s much easier to spew platitudes and keep your hands busy than it is to sit idly and wonder where the hell some things went wrong.

It’s been trial and error, but I’ve mostly found the balance that has been missing. I brought back the things that I abandoned, and packed my week with activities that didn’t stress or complicate things. I painted for seventeen hours, dancing through the kitchen with paintbrushes as microphones, stomping carefully as not to disturb the makeshift easel that held the canvas. I pulled out a camera I haven’t used in five years and shot roll after roll of film, manually adjusting apertures and minding the rule of thirds while I explored my neighborhood. I ate lunch and didn’t count a single calorie, indulging in old favorites and new beers, and even sang along with the bartender and the Beach Boys. I read a book on a train, in a coffee shop, on a park bench, in bed until four in the morning listening to the rain fall, knowing I didn’t have to force myself from bed for any purpose other than breakfast.

I also remembered, for a brief moment, what it felt like to be completely engulfed by someone else, stepping outside of myself in the pursuit of being consistently good to another instead of focusing so strongly on my own needs. And I started writing again—not because I had to, not because someone was paying me, but because I missed the intimate hours alone with a moleskine and a keyboard writing things that I’d probably never show anyone.

I went to the ballpark on Friday, and arrived just as the gates open. I sat in the Bleacher Bar, just beyond the right field fence drinking cheap beer, watching the Kansas City Royals take batting practice. I admired the pristine field, and embraced the way that the air feels just as the sun is going down on the Southside. We drank, we swore, and we pontificated on a team that lost 99 games this season. It felt good to be among people; it felt better to keep score and watch a game without a deadline. It’s a shame that I allowed myself to go months without experiencing baseball like that, especially since the season is now over.

And still free from the pressure of work and deadlines, I made the best out of an evening of canceled plans by making cookies that I decorated like baseballs. I hung the ticket-stub shadowbox and some pictures in my office, and festooned the apartment with vintage baseball cards, an egg hunt of earned run averages and runs batted in for those who stopped by for my housewarming to find.

These two weeks have felt normal, the closest to complete and satisfied I’ve been as an adult. I laughed and smiled at strangers; I sang along with Roy Orbison in a parking lot with the car windows down, not caring who heard me. I gave hugs and at moments talked the loudest instead of meekly deferring to everyone else. Some days it’s still going to be hard to get out of bed—but I’m going to be working less. If the past two weeks have proven anything, it’s that I have some serious catching up to do.

Laughter in a Vacuum

Last Friday, I left work early, something I hadn’t done in nearly three months.

In my last job, finding an excuse to leave early was the only reason to go to work.  I took Lola to dozens of imaginary vet appointments, had numerous important trips to the bank (which closes early), and even fibbed a  weekly therapist appointment that required me to leave early every Tuesday—sorry, the fake doctor doesn’t take appointments past five.

The new job, however, keeps me tethered to my desk from the early hours before most coffee shops open until around the fifth inning of the East Coast games. There aren’t any vacation days, or even paid time off, for the foreseeable future. For 50+ hours a week, it’s just me, my thoughts, and a brand-new IBM laptop that still smells like fresh plastic.

Everyone was gone, though, and instead of spending hours with my eyes burning from the strain on multi-tabbed spreadsheets, I forwarded my calls to my cellphone and left the computer on, just in case someone came back to the office looking for me.

I didn’t have plans—I never seem to have plans these days.

I came home from the office and created my favorite bath concoction: part Mr. Bubble, part bath salts, and just a light squeeze of lavender oil. I read a book that a friend gave me over a year ago, but ditched it four pages in for a copy of a Fantasy Football magazine.

Instead of throwing on jeans and boat shoes, I upgraded to a sundress, my favorite loafers, and curled my hair in beach waves, instead of a wet ponytail. I wore my Prada sunglasses instead of the cheap aviators I wear to baseball games, and carefully applied the rose-red lipstick that I wear for special occasions.

After turning from side-to-side obsessively in the full length mirror, I accepted truce with my shadow and added the diamond earrings my mother gave me for Christmas, a ring from an ex-boyfriend that I never stopped wearing, and a necklace from a vintage store near the train in my new neighborhood.

Lola got her Kibbles N Bits, and I filled my flask—the one engraved with my favorite player’s slash line—with bourbon, and took to the tree-lined streets in search of….something.

I walked in a large square around my neighborhood, before taking the bus to see the new Woody Allen movie.

I purchased a single ticket with a student discount even though I haven’t been in enrolled in years, and my hunger-panged stomach propelled me to the concession line, since I’d skipped lunch in favor of a bath.

I dug in my wallet, looking for my debit card to pay for my popcorn and mixer.

“It’s $9.50,” a squeaky-voiced Northwestern student said while I searched for the card in my clutch that contains more baseball stubs than dollars.

A man entered behind me and sat his items within my popcorn’s buffer zone, which confused the register operator.

“Are you paying for his, too?” he asked.

My face turned red, and my voice quiet. “No, I’m here alone.”

Going to the theatre alone doesn’t bother me—it proposes no dilemma of loneliness—but I’d prefer to never say it aloud. I’m not a frequent moviegoer, but I do know there’s no benefit in platonic movie company, unless the proximity of someone else’s heartbeat is as soothing to you as it is to puppies.

Non-platonic seatmates, however, are an upgrade over platonic company, but not necessarily over going solo. Non-platonic seatmates are good for handholding, shoulder pillows, and when I was much younger, more risqué fun—but I certainly do not have company of that ilk to speak of these days.

When I arrived, there were plenty of open seats, and I walked up the stairs to one of the last rows as a courtesy to the geriatric couples who gravitate to Allen’s films and require the aisle seats for frequent bathroom breaks and Poly-grip reseals.

I was alone, and I was okay, but sometimes these situations serve as a good reminder that there are societal norms and pressures that must continually be confronted, even if you’re within the bounds of normal behavior.

Before the movie, I was alone with my thoughts, not because I was feeling exceptionally introspective, but because the MLB App wasn’t working. After counting seats and then people, I did the math on something else.

How long had it been since I had been on a date. The answer? Eight months.

Eight months may not seem like a long time for regular daters, but like most things in life, I never approached dating conventionally. After breaking off an engagement at 22, I spent the following years as a serial dater, eating lavish free meals and seeking a connection, while mostly piling up on heartache and refining my abilities at feigning interest for long stretches of time.

I spent three years this way, with handfuls of dates per month, filling up the spaces in my douchebag BINGO card. There were nice Jewish boys with mommy issues, and musicians and artists that insisted on coffee instead of dinner because it was cheaper. I had dinner with men who wore too much cologne and were impolite to waiters, and ones that showed all of the warning signs of being in committed relationships like obsessive phone-checking and constant over-the-shoulder watching. I sat in theatres with men that were considerably older, but were more mature and reliable than men my own age, and I dated several men that were clearly unsure about their sexuality, yet kept buying women dinners, hoping there would be a spark.

I prepped myself for every outing as though it could be the night where I finally met The One, and even in the present, but especially retrospectively, it was a pitiful existence, a cycle of desperation that didn’t even make sense, considering I wasn’t lonely or longing. It became a cycle, where bad dates fueled the desire to go on more dates just to erase the shitty aftertaste, and to prove, definitively, that there were good men who would return phone calls, not text too much, and help change flat tires in emergencies.

The good news for single ladies everywhere is that I met plenty of them, but given that I was still unpacking the baggage of a four-year mind-fucking relationship, even though several candidates for The One came along, I would intentionally sabotage the whole thing in the interest of autonomy.

I worked hard to convince others that I was just a free spirit that didn’t need meaningful relationships with men for fulfillment, yet in the end I became a caricature of singledom.

I’m not alone in this—there is a large sect of women who tread through their mid-20s breaking hearts and acting recklessly, just as their male counterparts do. We’re the ones who didn’t marry our high school sweethearts and were spurned by our college lovers and we’re free to sample all of the possibilities of what life can bring. We can see how it feels to date older men, to make out with younger ones. What it’s like to date lawyers with money, or writers who leave love notes and give backrubs as currency.

It sounds cold, malicious even, but it’s not. The freedom to choose, to explore, is a luxury afforded to those who are willing to be patient, and not rush to live their lives bound by vows and contained behind picket fences. At some point, however, the dating becomes sterile, and the enjoyment in meeting new faces is lost, and then there are just two desires: Waking up alone, or waking up to same someone else’s breath on the back of your neck every morning.

Now in recovery from dating too much, I’ve spent the past two years waffling between consistently being alone, and consistently wanting to find The One again. But this time, it’s less about the feats of strength and mental gymnastics to prove that we’re made for each other, and more about a gut feeling.

I’m told this is how grown-ups date.

But even though I’ve clearly sorted what I want, it’s not a simple thing to implement. My career has come first, and when I’m not chained in my office working on spreadsheets, I’ve chosen to spend my evenings analyzing baseball to help pay down some of my grad school debt.

There’s a fierce proudness in learning that I can do most things on my own. My own apartment, new car, an entire room dedicated to my meaningless baseball collection, enough of a savings cushion to go on vacation, and sole control of the remote and contents of the refrigerator. I painted the entire apartment without consulting anyone on paint colors (other than an interior designer), and did the work myself even though it probably would have been safer to have someone there to hold the ladder.

I’ve done, and will continue to do, single well. I’ve conquered the fears of loneliness and depression that can sometimes accompany it, and I’ve come out on the other side realizing that a lot of those feelings don’t stem from the need to receive affection, but because the desire to give it.

Movies alone are unfulfilling not because it’s embarrassing to be in public alone—it’s not, and it shouldn’t be—but because laughing alone in a vacuum is worse than not laughing at all.

And that’s the part, platonic or not, that seems to be missing these days.

“Are these seats taken?” an oversized grandma asked as she reached to move my satchel, her chipped hot-pink polish exposed on her shaking hands.

“Uh, no. I’m here alone,” I said with a smile, as I scooped up my gummy frogs, popcorn, and bourbon and moved to my left, realizing that the theatre was now packed and that my space on the outskirts was now prime real estate.

She didn’t smile, or even acknowledge I spoke, before turning around.

“JOHN! THIS GIRL IS HERE ALONE AND SHE SAID WE CAN SIT HERE. GET UP HERE.”

Her husband pulled himself up the stairs, one at a time, balancing his Raisinets and his desire to reach his Mrs. before the previews started.

Some turned to look at the girl who was taking in a movie alone, but instead of cowering, I was confident for the first time in awhile that I had finally figured everything out.

Domain Bills, Forget The Hyphen

I got an email over a month ago reminding me that it was time to renew my domain name. I marked it as important, then promptly went about my business for another 35 days.

I think I got a warning when I posted my most recent article, and thought, “Well, it’s probably time to settle up that tab,” then promptly forgot again because I’m sure my wallet was at least ten feet away from me, and I was engrossed in reading, writing, and watching baseball, as I’m wont to do.

Today’s final reminder came in the form of an email, which I read in the bitchiest of tones, even though it was an automated reminder from the domain host.

I’d waffled on the idea of keeping this site over the course of the past year. There have been times where writing and publishing for public consumption has been too much. But fortunately, despite deciding for a brief period that getting away was better than being subject to ridicule, I’m now in a good place with it all. The truth is, I enjoy writing enough that it’s worth some of the nonsense that comes along with it.There are days where I feel depressed when I can’t drop everything and write–and those are the days that I know that I’m meant to keep doing this.

So, Baseball-Prose.com is going to be around for another year. And, it’s finally the year that I won the battle for the BaseballProse.com domain as well, so if you’re anti-hyphen, you can now get there either way. I’m looking forward to another year of creating content for this site (and hopefully more volume!). I’ll still be fulfilling my obligations over at SBNation.com, as well, with my weekly column there, and hopefully there will be more opportunities throughout the year, just as there have been in years past. As I’ve said before, but mean sincerely: Thanks to everyone who reads this.

But today feels good, and I’ll consider it the two-year anniversary of this incarnation of this particular site (which evolved out of other works, so it’s hard to really pin a birthday on it).

Without getting too introspective and nostalgic, I’ll just say that things have come a long way. I’ve gained confidence as a writer, even if sometimes that confidence is just knowing I’m able to sit in one spot for hours at end staring at a screen.  These days, the office is filled with boxes because I’m moving again in a few weeks, but it’s still been nice to curl up in bed in the evenings with the laptop. I’m working on a few things that I haven’t published yet, but there should be more content here in the coming weeks.

Lastly, this year of writing has a motto, one of which I’ve put on a Post-It note on my laptop and will hopefully stick (the message, not the adhesive). I had dinner with a friend this week, someone whose work I respect and has become an important person in my world. We talked about the grind of writing, of work, of relationships, and eventually settled on a conversation about gender and the assumptions of onlookers.

Two nights before, I had offered him a ride back to his place from US Cellular, because logistically it made the most sense. At dinner, I admitted that I was self-conscious about leaving the park with him, because the minds of onlookers would undoubtedly be substituting their own reality over what was simply a friend giving another a friend a ride.

The fact remains, as with most situations, we’re all dammed if we do and damned if we don’t, and that extends well-beyond the throngs of people who have nothing better to do but speculate on the sexual escapades of strangers. In what is possibly the best advice I have ever received, he told me simply, “It’s not your job to mitigate reactions.”

Perhaps the key to freedom is really just that simple. It’s worth a try, at the very least.

Bereavement: Column Inches, Fribbles, and Farewells.

I’m not good at giving hugs.

It’s likely because I hit an early growth spurt, the Big Bird in a sea of little people. My limbs were long, and I’d stand akimbo until the last second, trying to decide if it’s a one arm or two arm effort. I grew into my arms, but I still don’t know where to put my head. Do I look outward, catching glimpses of the freedom that waits after the embrace, or should I nuzzle it into their neck a little for more intimacy?

Hugs shouldn’t be difficult, but what do you expect from that person who walks on the wrong side of the hallway, a frequent dancer in the which way are you going to go? Oops, was that your foot? This way? Uh, Nope, still in your way! shuffle.

Most people would just shake it off, but I replay those touches and every time I’ve used the phrase “You, too!” when it wasn’t appropriate.

“Have a safe flight!”

“You, too!”

Stupid, Cee. Why can’t you just stop being awkward for two seconds?

Goodbyes with my grandfather were exceptionally awkward. We would hug, and he’d pull back from our embrace, placing his hands on my shoulder. Even as an adult, his hands made me uncomfortable. During the Korean War, his left hand was badly damaged from shrapnel and his thumb had served as decoration ever since. He was permanently poised for a thumb war, and as a kid I thought his hand wasn’t real, until I noticed it tanned and the other fingers worked just like mine did. He didn’t carry a pen around like Bob Dole, since it was his predominant hand; he continued to use it for feeding himself, using the clicker, and for driving.

After hugs, he’d always say, “Glad you got to see me,” an ironically narcissistic reply, given that my grandfather was one of the most selfless men I’ve ever met. The first time he said it, I think it was just a slip of the tongue, but since it elicited such laughter and startled eyes, he continued to say it for years.

Sometimes, I’d try to beat him to the punch and slip it in during our awkward goodbye embraces, but he’d act like he didn’t hear me.

“Glad you got to see me,” he’d say one last time, squeezing my shoulders with his good and bad hand. He didn’t get to say that before he passed away last week, and I didn’t make it to Ohio in time to say it to him in person, either.

Bereavement policies are meant to mourn the loss and make arrangements, not for saying goodbye, so I didn’t leave for Ohio until after he was gone. My mother kept calling to ask me to make the six-hour drive to make it there in time to see him in the ICU, but every time the doctors said, “it should be a matter of hours,” he’d still be breathing the next morning. I don’t believe in miracles; he was surely never going to recover from the surgery that removed vital organs and guts, but I certainly didn’t want to be the new girl at work who cried dead grandpa and couldn’t furnish an obituary if he was miraculously among the living at the end of the company’s five-day policy.

The religious sect of the hospital said that he wasn’t dying because he was waiting for someone because his decision to extend his suffering didn’t make sense otherwise. So, they phoned me, then my sister, then my father, and we were all instructed to say our goodbyes since we couldn’t be there. I closed the door to my office and stared out of the window as I spoke before static interrupted.

“Wait, am I on speakerphone?”

“Uh….no.”

“Seriously, you had me on speakerphone?”

“Sorry… continue.”

Hey grandpa, it’s Cee. Sorry I couldn’t make it down; I just started a new job. That seems like a piss poor excuse, but I figured the hospital was crowded enough, and that you’ve already got enough women at your bedside. There was a chuckle.

“AM I ON SPEAKERPHONE AGAIN?”

“….yes.”

“DAMNIT, CAN’T YOU JUST PUT IT UP BY HIS EAR OR SOMETHING?”

The religious folks here seem to think that you’re holding on because you wanted to hear from someone, they think it might be me. I don’t think it’s me, but on the off chance that it is, I just wanted to apologize for not being there, but that I’m thinking of you. I love you…I’ll miss you…and… GLAD YOU GOT TO SEE ME.

I chuckled through tears, and no one heard me but him. After years of awkward hugging and farewells, I finally nailed it. He died just two hours later, not because I’d given him permission, but because they finally satisfied the waiting period that the hospital required before unplugging the rest of the machines.

I hadn’t been to southern Ohio in three years, but I was going there last week, even if my grandfather hadn’t died. My cousin was getting married and I decided it was the best location to host my sister’s baby shower so that our relatives could attend.  The town where I was born isn’t a place I like to frequent–it’s a backward Air Force town that’s only redeemed by the presence of a Waffle House and good pizza—but it is the sort of toilet town where people get so coated in monotony that they can’t imagine life anywhere else.  It made sense to travel there, though, because past experience showed that if it’s not within 10 miles of home or smothered in gravy, most won’t show up. Now that he was gone, the bereavement clock sped up my departure date, and I packed my Mazda with a handful of black dresses, Lola and her Monkeyball, and started the six-hour drive.

At dinner the first night, we drank beers ($5.00 for a pitcher in that part of the country) and toasted to my grandfather, a life-long enjoyer of Miller High Life and PBR. The next morning, as the writer of the family, I was tasked with completing my grandfather’s obituary for the local paper. My grandmother supplied me with three pages of hand-written notes of his achievements in the military, in his career, and family. There was almost one full page of information about dead relatives.

With my sister and brother-in-law in tow, we looked for a place to write while other relatives met with the funeral home. Without a Wi-Fi source, we found our way to Friendly’s, stuck in the land that Starbucks has forgotten. Smoking was banned years ago, but the carpet still retained the smell and the tabletop was peeled laminate.

We ordered drinks to be polite, and when it became clear that our server wasn’t going to have any other tables during the lunch hour, we ordered a basket of fries to bump up our total. She was disappointed that we never ordered a Jim Dandy or a Fribble, but she was quick to refill our unlimited iced tea and we tipped 100% for the extended use of a table in such a depressing establishment.

The newspaper obituary, for those who have never written one, is the blandest, most stripped-down version of a person’s life, death certificate aside. The traditional format is stating the name, those who preceded the deceased in death, and those who are still alive. Then there’s a short blurb, VERY short, about the deceased as a person, which usually just states where they worked, who they drank with, one to two hobbies, and a final sentence about the arrangements. I wrote, while they watched.

“Can you Google the V.F.W post?”

“Can you spell Sasebo?”

“Should you use an oxford comma on obituaries?”

I finished it quickly, but it didn’t feel good. The folks that write phonebooks or write blender manuals probably get more enjoyment from their craft than I did that day. It was edited and submitted, and $371.00 later, my grandfather became a birdcage liner, a piece of wrapping paper, or a surface for peeling potatoes. My grandmother didn’t want us to add a photo, and when I saw it in the Sunday paper, even though I wrote it, I didn’t recognize it as my own writing (or my own grandfather).

So, here goes nothing.

My grandfather died at age 82, following complications from an unexpected bowel perforation. He was complaining that his hip hurt just a few days earlier, and X-rays showed that he had a cracked pelvis, though the doctors seem to agree now that the majority of the pain he felt was due to the undiscovered stomach issues, not his hip. He asked my grandmother to call him an ambulance in the middle of the night, but she decided to drive him to a hospital 45 minutes away, even though she had already taken an Ambien. We are lucky we didn’t lose both of them that day.

He’d been married to his second wife, my grandmother, for 54 years. For a long time, I didn’t know that it was the second marriage for both of them because they never talked about the blended family in blunt terms. Still, he had five daughters that he loved so much that he was willing to share one bathroom with them until they all got married and moved out. He had a dozen grandchildren, 11 girls and one boy, that he helped through major rites of passages including: underage beer drinker, blue gill fishing, marshmallow toasting, forehead can crushing, Dean Martin singing, poker playing, bologna sandwich making, sun soaking, grass cutting, boat docking, pier jumping, Drumstick eating, pocket knife wielding, panhandling, Frisbee tossing, bubble blowing, birdhouse building, and the art of Christmas tree decorating.*

*My grandmother hated Christmas decorations, but my grandfather insisted that they always decorate the entire house for the family gathering. Over time, the grand layout of model trains, dancing Santas, and Snowman candy dishes evolved into scotch taping poinsettia lights to the plaster archway by the kitchen, and using the same 4-foot Christmas tree each year. Instead of dismantling the fake tree and removing the tinsel, my grandmother cleared a spot in a storage closet upstairs and unceremoniously stored the festooned bush there 363 days out of the year. Knowing that the tree wasn’t trimmed with care each year was more devastating to me than realizing that Santa Claus didn’t exist, and I cried the first time I saw her take it up the attic stairs.

He loved to gamble, and would let me spend my allowance on Swedish fish, real Coke, and pull tabs at the VFW when I was eight. He helped me cheat at this old wooden bowling arcade game by knocking over the pins with his claw hand after the ball went whizzing by. He watched Westerns nonstop, and I would sit on the floor and pout because Black and White movies are pointless, and he’d just say “let her suffer!” in a John Wayne voice when my grandmother tried to coddle me. When I moved in with my grandparents one summer, I told my grandfather I was a vegetarian. He proceeded to make bacon every morning and told me it was there just in case I changed my mind.

Sometimes he would take me to Reds games, but it wasn’t apparent that he liked baseball. We would always leave in the fifth inning and he’d try to convince me that the game was actually over. As a compromise, we’d listen to Marty Brennaman in the car as we drove home. We’d be back in the house before the ninth inning was over, so I’d never know the outcome of the games.

When I was in college, I invited my boyfriend home for Thanksgiving, because his family lived in San Diego and it wasn’t convenient or affordable for him to fly home. I assured him that my family would love him, and made out in front of our dormitory waiting for my grandparents to pick us up. When they arrived, the look on my grandmother’s face was one of displeasure and fear because I didn’t think it was important to tell them he was African American. After much embarrassment for them, and some coaxing, we started the drive. We were fortunate we didn’t lose them that day, too. By the end of the weekend, my grandfather decided that he liked this gentleman very much because they both had ties to the Navy, and he gave him a firm handshake and a salute with his dead hand when they dropped us off. Even several years later, my grandfather still asked about him and asked why we weren’t together and married. He referred to my next boyfriend as, “the old man” and the “cradle robber” since he was considerably older than I was.

He was the peacemaker in a family of mischievous deviants. A diplomat, he could explain away every misunderstanding, every passive aggressive attempt at baiting, every wrong doing, and every tear. He stood up for himself when he needed, but he was happy to play ignorant to most disagreements. He gave all of his daughters a quarter once a week and told them each it was because they were his favorite.

He meant a lot of things to a lot of different people, and he was the glue that kept our family together.

They don’t let you put any of those stories in the paper, though.

Oriole Park at Camden Yards

When we arrived, our row was empty and so was the one behind it. It seemed unusual, to have so many vacant seats clustered together in an otherwise busy ballpark, but we shrugged and went on our quest.

I don’t know why we found our seats first, a funny ritual that I always partake in, just in case the seats have been rearranged or unclearly marked. I’ve been confounded by the aisles at Wrigley Field, I’m willing to slip ushers a few dollars when they wipe off the seat, especially when it is covered in pollen from the trees that are growing out of the concrete jungle in left field.

The concourse was lively; someone spilled Natty Boh on my new shoes, but I didn’t care because sometimes carbonated beverages on fresh leather is just one of the hazards of attending a baseball game. I tried to keep pace, but my heels were aching from wearing heels the night before and I was more than a little distracted by the wafting whiffs of O’s Pretzels and Bacon on a Stick as we entered the Eutaw Street Promenade.

I’m not one to amble in a crowd; years of city walking has sharpened my bob and weave skills through the masses, but at Oriole Park, I don’t care if dozens run into me, or worse, curse at me, I want to see the baseball placards in the concrete and on the warehouse building that mark long-distance momentous occasions. Learning the history of Luke Scott and David Oritz going yard take precedent over predictable gaits. And if you hopscotch the markers just right, dodging the toddlers, the other amblers, and the douchebag drunks that are rolling in from Pickles Pub, you land at the base of Boog’s and the Hall of Fame plaques. Mike Bordick is out of place and he hopes no one notices.

Thirty deep times two, and smack in the middle on slight chair with an umbrella like a lifeguard stand boasts, there he sits.

“Do you think the younger kids think he’s just some barbeque guy instead of a baseball player?”

“Aren’t you one of those kids yourself?”

He was gracious with photos; years of practice not just from his days on the field, but also from years of sitting in front of the smoked meat tent. He looked happier than you might imagine, perhaps just happy to be part of the organization on a day when the sun was shining and the team was winning. He didn’t look as big or as goofy as I expected; we had matching boat shoes.

“Are you going to take your picture with him?”

I have a fear of cameras, especially when there’s a crowd on the opposite side of the lens capturing their own mental photo of the desperation of a nobody clutching a somebody. A one-sided memory, as he would never see a copy, sounded like an experience I could do without. Still, he caught me looking at him. I fiddled with the strings on my sweatshirt, as I’ve done since I was old enough to try and distract myself in anxious moments.

He smiled at me, and I frowned at him. He posed for a picture and looked back and I flashed him the fakest smile I could muster. He signed an autograph, and looked my way again. I nodded. We were finally in sync. If I had the opportunity again, I’d ask him why he half-assed the barbeque experience by serving it with Heinz Barbecue Sauce instead of something homemade. Probably involves lawyers, and even still, I’m not sure that’s an acceptable answer.

The section is still barren, and it’s safe to put my feet on the railing, unless someone 6’7” or up walks by. If they do, they’ll get a Sperry shoestring to the cornea. We don’t talk, because we don’t have to. It’s just the sound of crunching Old Bay chips and slurping of East Coast Old Style from Oriole-striped cans, and we like it that way.

A reminder that sometimes the purists get mad if you call it Camden Yards. The ballpark itself is Oriole Park; the Oriole is singular. The complex in which the park resides is Camden Yards; the Yards is plural. On a formal basis, it’s Oriole Park at Camden Yards. You can call it Oriole Park, or say you’re at Camden Yards. But never say “Camden Yards is a beautiful baseball stadium.”

Carl Crawford takes a lot of walks, and that’s unusual for him. His fear of leading off was never real, and the more he sets the table, the credence it lends to that being true. No matter how much the analysts and Buck Showalter want Jake Arrieta to figure it all out, sometimes the only thing that seems fact is that the mental strains of the game can sometimes outweigh actual ability. As a pitcher with command issues, do the yips seem enviable?

There are three men behind us, all together, but none of them fit. The First is in his 30s, wearing a wedding ring and dressed impeccably, despite his trailer park accent. The Middle is ailing; he has a cane and keeps mentioning his knee and his hip. He’s not old, just aged by the sun and cigarettes. The End is in his 40s and works with computers and doesn’t appear again. The middle might be the uncle of the two small boys who clearly aren’t brothers, sitting with them.

Kids in the ballpark are a mixed bag. Some are precocious, others are oblivious. I like the ones that ask less than obvious questions like, “how many miles did the Dodgers travel.” The two behind us were being educated by the First, who keeps shouting “STRIKE HIM OUT” regardless of the count. The smaller kid has the voice that every parent dreads… nails down the chalkboard and the clanging of frying pans hybrid. He doesn’t say much, but he squeaks and sqwanks, emitting high-pitched noises with as much blatant disregard as a four-year-old can muster. I already didn’t like this kid; I liked him less after he kicked me in the head.

In the silence between their cheers for J.J. Hardy, we tried to have conversation. I spoke quietly about my desires to watch baseball in a bubble, one that the hyper hyena behind me couldn’t penetrate. The middle kept asking to no one in particular who the NL MVP was last year. I told him Posey, but he didn’t believe me. He’s limping through the streets of Baltimore proud of Yadier Molina.

A season ticket holder paces the concourse on a quest for foul balls. Every game, every at bat, he readies his fistful of leather for a rocketing nine inch circumference. When there’s a lefty, he’s on my left. When there’s a righty, he’s to my right. The First can’t believe security allows him to troll for balls, but they are accomplices in his quest.

The First doesn’t even finish his sentence before the troll catches a foul ball. The First thinks it is destiny, that his observance of behaviors caused the baseball gods to bestow a gift upon the seeker. The First morphs into Bob Woodward, and in his redneck twang he shouts, “HEY MISTER.  HOW MANY BALLS DO YOU HAVE?”

It was the First at his funniest, even accidentally. The ball troll says he caught over 60 balls in three seasons, all in cases at his home. He puts the ticket and at-bat in there for prosperity. I’d like to pretend I didn’t judge his hobby, but I did.

The kids are too young for candy, so the first gives them fireballs. He challenges them to keep it in their mouth for as long as possible and calls them pussies when they whine that they are too spicy. The littlest one throws it away and the first scolds him for being weak. I’m just glad he didn’t choke; I don’t know CPR.

Why do the Orioles sing about being Country Boys? It’s disorienting in an urban setting. Guys like Wallace don’t last long in the country. The First is playing air guitar with the Middle’s cane and I’m wishing for my baseball bubble or something stronger than 4.28 % abv.

When the fans chant “Let’s Go O’s” to my ears, it sounds like “Let’s Go Home.” And that’s what they did, after losing 4-7.

 

Forty-Five Days

Forty-five days ago, I gave up.

I did not want things to end the way that they did, but sometimes fear and confusion seem insurmountable, and there’s only one choice: Run.

And that’s what I did. I hid all of the content that I spent years creating. I couldn’t figure out how to hide the posts en masse, so I spent hours clicking on each post one by one, and couldn’t help but read them. When I finished each entry, I chose the ‘Hide’ toggle, and pressed ‘Submit’, before moving on to the next entry. I was numb and kept clicking.

It’s weird to read things that I’ve written months, and some cases years, after the fact. Things that seemed so emotional and significant in the moment weren’t even registering on the radar of my current reality. The emotions were still there somewhere, but the hysterics of knowing that I was erasing a site that I poured hours of work into took precedent on the grieving pyramid. Maybe I had a stomach ache the whole time, but when I hit myself on the hand with a hammer, that was all that I could feel.

I wrote a post that required several rounds of edits because it was largely incoherent. Even after submitting, I spent an half hour cleaning it up because I left out chunks of words, put too many words much in others, and I felt an anxiety that I’d never experienced at the keys before. I was done with Baseball-Prose, because the world had failed me. I was done with the Internet, with the community that I valued, and even with close friends. After a week of being threatened, being violated, and feeling worthless and shamed I was DONE.

I shut down my laptop and put it on the top shelf near my bed. My cellphone vibrated on the bedside table, as alerts came in so quickly on Twitter in response to my news that the phone couldn’t get a full chime in before trying to make the next one. It should have felt flattering, but it was just a reminder that I’d failed on several levels, so I turned it off for three days.

I sat in the bathtub for almost two hours, a water prison that was quiet, aside from the motor that keeps the jets pumping geysers that create an undertow. I pushed my hands against the jets, watching water squirt into the air soaking the travertine floor. I gave zero fucks, even though the pulsing was painful. I tried to read a book, but 30 pages into a book set in 1800s, I threw it against the wall because I was frustrated that the characters lived in a simpler time where any harassment they received came in the form of a duel or the postal service or carrier pigeon or something.  I dunked my head under the water, leaving just my nose and mouth exposed, feeling my hair swirl violently as it tangled against my shoulders from the manufactured waves. I eventually got out, but I don’t remember sleeping.

I spent over a week off of social media, which normally seemed difficult, but this time it wasn’t.  I didn’t log into Gchat for days, because I didn’t want to answer any questions, and I never checked the email address that’s associated with Baseball-Prose…until today. I’m not sure what prompted me to log in to that account today; perhaps it was just the morbid curiosity and torment that comes with mourning or maybe it was just the right time. It took me three tries to remember the password, and when I finally had it, I was shocked at the number of emails, because outpourings are frightening and embarrassing to me.

I’m demonstrative and affectionate, but the idea that friends and readers were sending their best regards or caring at all felt as awkward as the first time a guy told me he thought I was attractive instead of just intelligent. It was supposed to be a compliment, but hearing stuff like that and reading those emails felt a lot like attending my own funeral, as I blushed and felt a range of emotions from elated to validated to appreciated to miserable.

Some people just wanted to share their support and did so in a variety of fashions. For that support, I’ll succinctly say: It is appreciated–Oh, and sorry for being delinquent in saying that, because that’s certainly rude.

Some asked for copies of stories that appeared here before—including one girl who asked if I’d be okay with her using one of my early musings as her reading for a Forensics competition. It reminded me of fear of public speaking in parochial school, when we were forced to participate. We’d search stacks of books in the library and look for the perfect work to memorize and stumble over and in front of a large audience, while adults with ill-fitting suits and glasses hung on every word, waiting for you to fuck up. Turns out, elementary school may be more of a precursor to life than we realize. I packaged up the ones that everyone requested and sent them over via email—mission accomplished.

Others demanded answers, but this one is a bit harder.

The joke about baseball writers is that, “you know when you’ve made it when everyone thinks you hate their favorite team.” It’s more a statement not of your opinions, but that people actually consider what you think to be relevant. It’s never about trolling—okay, fine, sometimes it’s about trolling—but having an audience, whether it’s ten or ten thousand, opens the writer up to certain criticisms. But I wasn’t just getting the normal harassment– I was getting deeply disturbing messages of vitriol and danger, mostly regarding my gender. But it’s not just men who are mean–there were women who participated as well.

The other joke amongst…really anyone on the Internet, actually, is do not read the comments. No matter how tempting the discourse, no matter how poignant the discussion, or idiotic the fallacies, it’s the writer’s job to exhibit self-control and stay the hell away from temptation. But really, that advice is bullshit. No one should have to turn a blind eye to hatred, and it’s not something to advocate. Silence is condoning, and more people should feel that way. Still, as a writer, it is your job to spend hours crafting words and arguments, submitting to an editor, and then spending all of eternity handcuffed to that stage while you’re praised, embarrassed, ridiculed—or worst of all, threatened.

It takes tough skin to live publicly, but it also takes common sense. For instance, if a commenter calls you a cum-guzzling gutterslut (his words not mine), it isn’t the gospel, even though it’s irksome. When folks insist that you’ve fucked your way to the top of your craft, no matter how outlandish their claims and implausible their arguments, it’s easy to just dust them off your shoulders, because you and the people who matter know the truth. But when they turn your honesty against you and go for the kill, it’s not about having calloused skin: it’s about safety, more than mental security.

And that’s what happened. There was a series of events that involved emails, public ridicule, harassing phone calls, and misogynistic degradation so severe that it caused a ripple well beyond my own sensibilities. There were libelous comments that not only stung, but also were actionable, but there were things much bigger than that, including death threats. The hardest part was knowing that I had provided some of the ammunition.

After all, the photos that were posted on a website that prompted a graphic discussion about my sexuality, in which they compared my looks to a porn star and talked about gang-raping me? Well, those photos were from a Google Image Search. And the tweets I received telling me that they hoped my ill mother died? Well, they’d read about her on this site. And the credible threats about knowing where I lived and the things that they wanted to do because of it? There’s no better word than terrifying.

So, I quit. I let people and fear get the best of me, and for 45 days I’ve been absolutely miserable, unable to function with my new routine. I was no longer rushing home to make a quick dinner and locking myself in my baseball festooned office to write. Even if I wasn’t publishing every day, I spent hours at my laptop typing and sipping Bulleit, letting my fingers dance anxiously on home row, thoughts becoming more fluid with every gulp of 90-proof.

Since I shut down Baseball-Prose, my Macbook has been a paperweight, an enemy that’s remained on the shelf as I tried to remember that writing was once fun and that I didn’t always have such anxiety when I hit the submit button. But to be honest, without the writing, I’ve floundered. I’ve watched countless hours of television, which confirmed my suspicious: I hate idle time and I hate television. I’ve read eleven books, just for something to do. I’ve organized pantries, bills, filed my taxes early. One night, for no good reason, I read a 74-page lead paint report for work, just because I had nothing else to do. The only nights I don’t regret are the ones I spent with dear friends in some of the nicest restaurants in the city or at the gym, because those get away from me when I’m writing too much.

But leaving was bullshit. The people who have threatened me (and others), whether credible or not, are frightening. That’s not because skin-thickness; it is because there’s no way to mitigate craziness. But even though there’s no good solution for harassment, other than seeking legal counsel when it’s extreme, there’s one thing that’s clear: They don’t get to be in charge.

It took me 45 days to accept that part, but today I’m embracing it. As I continue to write, there will undoubtedly be days where I have to unplug the laptop and shut off the phone, because the idiocy is rampant. There will be days when I’m called a cunt, an ignorant bitch, a fuckable broad, a whore, a cum-guzzling gutter slut, and I’ll do my best not to ignore them, but to continue crusading for the things that are important to me—equality, fairness, justice, and safety of anyone who’s willing to remain in the stocks and pillories on the Internet square daily.  And while I hope the worst days are behind me, there will probably be days where an email or phone call  threatens my safety and makes my stomach do backflips while I take screen shots, block numbers, and involve lawyers.

Those days will be the hardest, but they will be full of lessons. Those days will remind me that no matter how many allies I have, the world can be full of danger. Those days are also reminders that there are some conversations best had in private, and there’s such thing as too many personal details, no matter how poetic they seem.

But if I’m lucky, and I certainly was this time, those are the days that people rally around in large volumes. They offer their resources, their support, and their love. And even on the worst days, I think now it’s going to be easier to accept that there’s nothing I’d rather do than spend my evenings and mornings writing. It might take me another 45 days to publish again, but it certainly doesn’t change the joy of hitting ‘submit.’

A Great Run

I’m sure this raises more questions than it answers for most, but after a great couple years here at Baseball-Prose, I’ve decided that there won’t be any new content on this site for the foreseeable future and that all old content has been removed.

This isn’t an easy decision for me to make. I’ve been granted a lot of opportunities over the past few years, but this site remains my favorite, my heart. It’s a site I not only built myself, but I also invested a lot of energy and emotion into the words that appeared here. I have no regrets about living so candidly during this stretch, but given recent developments, it’s become abundantly clear that there’s a danger living so publicly–and for my own good and safety, I regrettably had to make this decision.

I won’t be disappearing completely, I’ll still keep up my other writing obligations at SB Nation and The Platoon Advantage, but there won’t be any new content here indefinitely. I just wanted to take the time to thank everyone who has visited these pages over the years, it’s difficult to put into words how much I’ll miss this project. Tearful goodbyes are the hardest, and admittedly I don’t think I’ve ever felt heartbreak greater than giving up this project. I’m continually humbled by the comments and emails I’ve received from readers of this site–it’s been a great ride, so thank all of you very much.

365 Days of Constant Learning

I still wasn’t accustomed to sleeping in my apartment in Washington, DC, when I awoke there on New Years Eve one year ago. I had only been there three days and I still hadn’t paid rent because my roommate was still on vacation in Florida. It takes a lot of trust to let a Craigslist stranger move into a shared space unsupervised, but it wasn’t the first time that someone trusted me without a good reason. I have one of those innocent faces that people don’t question, I suppose, but fortunately for her, she would return to find the house cleaner than she had left it. For six months, it was still her house, but my presence ensured two things: An organized pantry and a stack of baseball books of the coffee table.

I planned to sleep the entire day, but my iPhone would not stop buzzing and I knew it was him. I gave him a special ringtone, a nuclear buzz, so that I could identify when he was contacting me so that I could preemptively avoid him. When we were together, the special alert wasn’t necessary given that 94% of messages I received were from him; the final 6% were comprised of messages from friends in Chicago who occasionally remembered that I was not dead, but just in a different time zone and was still reachable by phone. The rest were from my mother and sister and mostly contained dog photos.

He texted often to make sure I was okay (of course I was) and to let me know he was sorry for how he handled the breakup, something that did, in fact, require apologies. I was asleep, but rolled over to rest my head on his chest when he told me that it wasn’t working. The timing was impeccable: Just enough time for me to put on pants, find my contacts, and tie my Pumas to make the ten-minute walk to the train station so that I wouldn’t miss the last train. It gave me no time to argue, but in hindsight, it also spared me the embarrassment of begging.

And now that he’d dumped me, I had the added stress of moving to his neighborhood. I didn’t pick my apartment because it was near him, but mostly because it was affordable and had a fence for Lola, but he dumped me before we reaped the benefits of living near one another. Instead of dinner and evening strolls hand in hand back to my front porch where we’d make-out and watch the stars, I spent the first three months in fear that I would see him at the only grocery store in the neighborhood, which was adjacent to his building. He would be with his new girlfriend, a doe-eyed blonde who is six years younger than me and considerably more attractive. They’d have a basket full of hummus, carrots, and pretentious pomegranate juice and her disheveled hair and the fact that she was wearing one of his sweatshirts were telling signs that she had slept over the night before. He loved her because she liked to talk about things like Paradise Lost, not because she knew anything about it, but because she was assigned to read it in an English course and assumed that circular discussions on Milton were a sign of adulthood. They would drink wine even though they were still young enough to justifiably prefer Capri Suns and analyze 17th century poets between bouts of unprotected sex. They are still together, but if forced, he would admit he was happier drinking bourbon and watching hockey with me.

Last New Years Eve, I ignored his text messages and groggily peeled myself from the borrowed mattress that came with the room I now inhabited. I stumbled into the bathroom of my new place and smacked the wall repeatedly while searching for the light switch. The 87-year-old house lacked insulation and the tiles were freezing, a problem I would later learn isn’t confined to just the cold months. On my fourth shower in the new place, I grimaced at the large chunks of plaster that were peeling from years of moisture exposure around the shower. “Why the hell hadn’t anyone called the landlord?” I wondered as threw my hair into a ponytail, put on my ex-boyfriend’s Capitals sweatshirt, and stumbled the four blocks for coffee, my careless steps suggesting I had too much bourbon the night before.

Armed with an americano, extra-strength Tylenol, and a moleskine notebook, I spent the better part of an hour making a list of everything I resolved to change in 2012.

*****

Resolutions are silly. I’m not sure why turning the calendar is such a motivator for self-improvement, but submitting to the cycle is simplistic and effective. It seems easier to lose weight in January than June and when considering life-changes like cross-country moves and new jobs, the metrics of starting the search and transition on 01/01 seems easier to measure than arbitrarily picking March 25th or June 3rd. And even though I don’t love the idea of holding myself accountable, today I intentionally found the scribbled list from a year ago. I never treated the laundry list as a roadmap for 2012, but I accomplished the majority of pipe dreams I set forth one year ago while hung-over and angry over a breakup.

  • Lose weight. This is on every list I’ve ever created, be it New Years resolutions, goals, or even the grocery list. Giving up soda, alcohol, and skipping dessert for the better part of the year certainly had a positive effect on my waistline.
  • Find a new job in Chicago. By June, I had a new job and was back in the city. I celebrated and violated my first resolution by having Pizza Art Café, Scooters, and bourbon at Finley Dunnes, all in one night.
  • Read more books. This felt pretentious but important. People who resolve to read more books probably have ‘give more money to charity’ or ‘fly to Africa to vaccinate children’ on their lists as well, but I did manage to read more books in 365 days than I did in thousands of day’s prior.
  • Save money; pay bills. If it’s dull to set aside money to pay bills, start a 401(k), and use a Flexible Spending Account, then I turned into a boring son of a bitch this year.
  • See more baseball games. Twelve major-league stadiums, three minor-league stadiums, and two and a half full scorebooks. Definitely the most baseball I’ve seen in one season in person, plus countless evenings on the sofa with Extra Innings on the TV, MLB.tv on the iPad and laptop simultaneously, and numerous Vin Scully bedtimes. This one was the easiest and most fulfilling.

At the time, the silliest thing I wrote was write more, which much like lose weight has worked its way onto any list of self-improvement I’ve made in the last ten years. In the past, it meant more journaling, but in 2012, I thought it just meant keeping this website afloat. But over the course of the year, it meant seizing more baseball writing opportunities and having my work on Over the Monster, The Platoon Advantage, Baseball Prospectus, Baseball Nation and other SB Nation sites, and in the Hall of Nearly Great this year has been incredible. It’s been a lot of work and a continued learning experience, but it’s been a clichéd dream come true to become part of the industry I have long admired. The year started with a jumbled head full of sabermetrically minded thoughts, and it ended at the Winter Meetings as credentialed member of the media. Even if it ends soon, it’s been a landmark year, one in which so many things happened it’ll be easy to remember when recounting happiness on a timeline.

I hit all of the items on my punch list, but this year still hasn’t felt easy. There have been small things like stolen license plates and my beloved MINI Cooper nearly catching fire on the highway leaving me stranded. In that moment, I realized there is nothing lonelier than needing help and having to hire someone because there’s no husband or family to come. I’ve dealt with a sick dog, stuck pickle jars, lost scorebooks, and canceled plans. All inconsequential now, but in the moment, nothing was more flustering.

More substantially, I’ve dealt with an ill mother. There have been hours of tears, but I’m writing this on her sofa and she’s sitting near me. She’s hooked up to her oxygen machine, but smiling because she’s learning to crochet a baby blanket because my sister is expecting. Tonight at dinner, my mom laughed as she told stories about the early years of marriage to my father, as they enter their 32nd year of marriage.  There was delight in her voice as she talked about their plans for 2013 in a way that made me confident she would see all 8765 hours of the year, even though there’s a lot of uncertainty. As much as spending my New Years Eve on a sofa in suburban Michigan isn’t how I planned to start the next chapter, I feel strangely content to be here for the night, knowing I return to Chicago and my own sense of normalcy in the morning.

But the toughest lesson of 2012 has been adjusting behavior, forcing myself to be less public for the sake of self-preservation. Someone told me recently that since I have decided to live my life so candidly that I deserve the pain that it has sometimes created, and sadly, that’s partially true. As much as I’ve enjoyed baseball writing and things for this site, there has been a great deal of abuse from not just readers, but also colleagues in the industry that was unexpected and unwarranted. It’s never been a case of needing to develop tougher skin, but for the benefit of my own sanity and out of respect for others, it’s resulted in some temporary recoiling to reassess things.

The criticism has never been about my writing, but has focused on hyperbolized perceptions of my personal endeavors, which have only been exacerbated by the fact that I’m a single 27-year-old female in an industry full of testosterone. There have been numerous untrue accounts about my personal escapades created by strangers and perpetuated by colleagues framing me as not only promiscuous, but also a home wrecker, neither of which is true. Some assume that my real personal life and their fictionalized accounts are fair game considering I’ve chosen to live publicly, but the substituted reality for their  imaginative fantasies of my life are insulting and a waste of time. It’s a big reason for the limited content on this site specifically in the last six months– it’s admittedly been too painful disspelling rumors to risk creating new ones.  Writing on a public platform has benefits and rewards, but there’s also a nasty side of it that has forced me to question if I’d be better off recoiling and admitting defeat. For now, the benefits of exercising my brain in the pursuit of less bunting and smart lineup construction prevail, but there are days when the conspiracy theories of my love life that are extolled on the Internet and whispered at industry events that I find it hard to envision writing in a public arena forever.

***

I woke up this morning in an unfamiliar bed, the last day of my week vacation in New York City.  Unlike just one year earlier, I was excited to be awake. There wasn’t the obnoxious buzz of a texting ex-boyfriend, just the quiet buzz of my alarm reminding me that I had an important breakfast to attend before leaving town.

While I can’t discuss the specifics, or even my whereabouts, I can tell you it was better than the coffee and the moleskine of December 31, 2011. At this breakfast, there was laughter and conversation over mushroom omelets and coffee. We talked about books; we talked about baseball. I listened to stories about people I’ll never meet and nodded along as though I had always belonged there.

I hired a car to take me back to LaGuardia and watched the tall buildings of the Manhattan skyline disappear as we reached the toll plaza. The driver shouted into his telephone, reminding his wife that they needed to buy a gift for a birthday party tomorrow, and I closed my eyes to soothe my stomach from the jerky motions of the hired car as it inched towards the terminal. I was sad to leave, but I was energized by the mental list of resolutions and things I want to do in 2013. I’ll tell you all about them after I’ve accomplished them—it’s harder to be embarrassed and criticized retroactively.

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