Mar 15, 2010

Playing Ball Like a Girl

I saw a girls little league team playing today when I took my daughter to the park. They were sporting purple uniforms. I watched them as they squinted against the sun, dug in their toes, smacked their mitts. They were maybe, ten, with skinny arms and long ponytails rapunzeling out of their purple caps. The left fielder mindlessly tap danced as she chanted "Hey Batter."

I might not have noticed them had I not seen my little daughter look that way. And I suddenly remembered that what I wanted most desperately in the late eighties was to play Little League. There were no girl teams, then. But once, at my brother’s game, I saw a player with waist length blonde hair, too pretty to be a boy, and my jaw burned with jealously. And hope. I knew if she had found a way in, I could too.

I begged my parents. I pleaded. I threatened to quit bathing. They were resolute, however, and refused to fight my first feminist fight with me. I don’t think they were being mean. I just don’t think they realized how obsessed I was with baseball.

Every day after school I played catch with my brother for hours. I caught fastballs, sliders, pop flies. Marshall, our neighbor, said I had “an arm,” to which I replied that I had two arms: one to catch and one to throw. When neither brother would play with me, I wore myself out with the lightening paced return of an upturned trampoline.

In the summer, my brothers had games every week at the Boys and Girls Club field. I have heard it said, and I agree, that baseball is the only game you can enjoy without paying attention. This fact is what makes the snack bar so important. It is the center of the Little League universe, around which all fields orbit. To me, nothing says baseball like a cinder block building with a metal roll-up window and a mom inside selling nachos and candy bars.

My own mother did not approve. However, I had other financial recourses: recycling, found pennies, and grandma. Every Saturday, I was happy to spend all of my money on chips and processed cheese.

Another great thing about baseball is the lack of time limits. Anything can happen. There is nothing quite like being at the ball field when the sun goes down and the stadium lights come on, and no one is rushing home for bedtimes. We knew our parents would sit on the cold aluminum bleachers as long as it took.

I collected baseball cards, too. Every week, I walked to the liquor store and bought a new pack. I wanted Orel Hershiser’s card bad. He had pitched two shut out games in the 1988 World Series and it was all any Dodger fan could talk about. I opened each pack with anticipation. I tried not to be disappointed when his card wasn’t there.

My dad told me that Nolan Ryan was a better card to have than Orel. I had a card that pictured Nolan mid pitch. It was a violent and moving pose. I liked to imagine the follow through, and the batter’s stunned expression. Nolan was fast. I liked him, that was for sure—but he was old, and he didn’t pitch for the Dodgers. The Dodgers were the only sports team I really believed existed, because I had been to see them play the Cardinals. The Cardinals only existed for that game, and they lost.

For how much I loved baseball, I am surprised at how completely I later forgot it. I felt some of the old fever, years later, during the Subway Series in New York, and during the Giants-Angels Series. There is nothing quite like the bases loaded at the bottom of the ninth—a chainsaw couldn’t cut that tension. Then, there are the hundreds of hours of outfielders digging their toes in the grass. I like that part, too. It’s slow, like life, with sudden bursts of activity. It’s graceful and brutal—I don’t think I can say anything about baseball that hasn’t been said before—but that’s what’s so great about it. A lot of people think about baseball an awful lot. Maybe someday Phoebe will want to play too, and I’ll pull my shift in the snack bar or on the cold bleachers.

The piece was originally published in October 2008 at the ezine

Walking Around in Someone Else's Green Pants

In college I had a professor who said something that resonated with me at my very center—he said, "You don't really know a person until you walk around in their green pants for a while."
The reason this particular slice of wisdom resonated with me is because in the second grade, I was forced to wear someone else’s green pants.

I switched elementary schools mid-year, and by the time I arrived in Mrs. Roux’s class, my classmates had already formed their circles of friends, and I was on the outside. My teacher only added to my intimidation. First, there was her name: Mrs. Roux. Any name with an X in it was cause for awe. Some of the kids spread rumors that she was from France, an exotic place none of us had been. She was also young and beautiful with long legs and straight brown hair. Her one strange behavior (which probably helped me in the end) was that she would often excuse herself—sometimes mid-sentence—to go to the restroom. We all sat in silence and listened to her high heels click across the hall to the girls’ room and then click back a few minutes later. As a group, we never spoke of this. It was too strange to think that teachers had the same needs we did.

One morning, still in my inaugural month at the new school, I had to pee during class. In most of my elementary school classes, there was always plenty of activity going on, and asking the teacher for a bathroom break would not have been difficult. But that day, Mrs. Roux was standing in front of the class, talking on and one, in more of a lecture style.

In order to be excused, I would have had to interrupt her, and the entire class would have stared at me. The thought of being caught in a circle of gazes terrified me. So, I folded my hands together on the desk and concentrated on the letter R, written in chalk on the board. After a half hour of trying to hold my bladder, my eyes began to glaze over. Mrs. Roux did not intend on stopping. I was strained almost to the breaking point.

Finally, I released a little. I felt some pee leak out, and I realized that I was too late. Letting go felt too good. My bladder slowly emptied while I sat in the same position in my wooden chair, staring at the chalkboard.

The warm liquid oozed slowly under my thighs to the edge of my chair and then followed the curve of the metal post down to the floor. A dark circle slowly grew outward on the avocado green carpet.

Had I thought things through, I would have realized that what I had done was probably worse than interrupting Mrs. Roux. But I wasn’t thinking. I was staring forward trying to become invisible until lunch recess, when I hoped to come up with a plan. I was still staring at the chalkboard when Mrs. Roux was by my side.

She whispered, "Sweetheart, do you need to go to the office?"
I nodded and carefully looked around. The class was involved in an activity and didn't notice our exit. Mrs. Roux walked me to nurse’s office, and the principal’s gray-haired assistant called my house.

My mother was not home to come for me or to bring clean clothes. I couldn’t believe it. How could she be away from home in my time of need?

The assistant went to the lost and found and brought back some abandoned clothes for me to wear—a red shirt and green, bell-bottom pants.

At the time, I was too self-conscious about the bellbottoms to think about whose they might have been or how they came to be abandoned at my elementary school. Through some unspoken communication, though, I knew that Mrs. Roux had once been in the same situation, and because of it, I was spared much embarrassment. When I got back to class, I dreaded the worst, but Mrs. Roux had somehow covered for me about the water on the floor. There was nothing she could do, however, about the pants.

Me and my brother. Circa green pants era.