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Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Living the Dream

I’m a pretty brave person.

I drove cross-country and slept in the backseat of a car on the side of the road. I camped on the beach of Sebastian Inlet and picked up nothing but a nasty bad bout of sun poisoning. I hopped into the cab of a stranger’s truck on the Blue Ridge Parkway at 2 am after a second flat tire left us no spare. I hitchhiked. I picked up hitchhikers. And that’s as far as I’m going with this because my 91 year-old mother reads my blog and she doesn’t need to know the truth about what she raised.

I’m not afraid to talk to strangers. I can work a crowd, chat up an Uber driver and elicit intimate personal details from a brand new acquaintance.

I’m not afraid to deliver a eulogy in a church packed with mourners or go to the movies alone. I’m not afraid of muggers, mongrels or men with orange faces. I don’t fear cancer, pancreatitis, 80-mile bicycle rides or artificial body parts. Because, hey, I’ve survived them all.  

But, as brave as I am. I am down-right, heart-pounding petrified of anyone famous.

Which is kind of a shame because not only am I one of the most star-struck people out there; I've always wanted to be famous myself. 

And so, I watch from the bleachers.

I’ve spent a lifetime loving baseball, admittedly following the stories of the stars more carefully than the plays of the games. Despite my somewhat wild ways, I typically swooned over the good guys, whether I was young enough to be their wife or old enough to be their mother: The Mike Schmidts. The Curtis Grandersons. The Mike Trouts. The David Wrights. The Tug McGraws. The Jim Eisenreichs.

So, even if he had ever stayed on a team long enough to love, I’m not sure I would have fallen for the arrogant antics of anyone like Shea Hillenbrand.

Over the weekend, I hugged Jim Eisenreich. And, Shea Hillenbrand broke my heart.

As a freelance marketing writer, I’ve promoted a lot of fun things. I’ve touted everything from Pampers and parenting to liquor and Levitra. But by far the funnest thing I’ve ever done was write for Be the Best Baseball and Softball Coaches’ Convention.

Last week, I got to hang out at Harrah's in Atlantic City with thousands of coaches from across the country, all there to share spirits (in both senses of the word), skills and secrets of success.

With all the pre-event marketing completed, once the convention came around, my job was to tweet all day long to keep the attendees, speakers and exhibitors informed, entertained and connected. So, I would pop in to see a speaker, snap a photo and send out a crafty little tweet. I’d tell the crowd where to go and what not to miss, whether it was Finding our Coaching WHY with ABCA’s inimitable Jeremy Sheetinger, Coaching the Female Athlete with Oklahoma’s Patty Gasso, where to find free drinks, or Balancing Mechanics and Psychology with former MLB player, Shea Hillenbrand.

I had every intention of spending no more than five minutes listening to Shea Hillenbrand before sneaking next door to catch a tweetable soundbite from Yankees’ head hitting coach, Alan Cockrell.

But, I walked in and was hit with a curve ball. I couldn't leave.

Here was this guy, this Shea Hillenbrand, smack in the prime of his life, pouring his heart out to a crowd of coaches who came expecting to learn some MLB lessons. But, he wasn’t talking about batting stances and reading pitches. He was talking about the fame and the shame of a man who had it all, lost it all and then crawled his way back. He once made $350,000 a paycheck, $20 million in the course of his career, owned three mansions, three hundred pairs of shoes and flew in private jets. He had a wife and three kids and played in the All-Star game, not once, but twice. He had everything. And was everything we dreamed our kids would be – after we stopped dreaming that dream for ourselves.

But in spite of everything he had obtained and all the success he had achieved, the one-sided conversation he had with himself is what ultimately demolished his dream.

“You’re a failure. You're a failure. You're a failure.”

When your head tells you the same story enough times, you start believing it.

He was rich. He was talented. He was lost. And he was broken.

Things got worse before they got better. But they did get better. Following that descent into his own personal hell, Shea woke up in van one morning and decided who it was he wanted to be. He wanted to transform lives. Help kids. Make a difference. And heal.

And in that process, one of the things he did was to team up with the likes of Doug Glanville, Steve Carlton and Jim Eisenreich in supporting the mission of Beyond the Laces. What started as just a feel-good children’s book written by Bob Salomon and Rick Young has evolved into a phenomenon that’s crisscrossing the country, inspiring children with its many amazing athletes on board, to promote the simple power of kindness.

“I can teach mechanics. I can show you how to hit. But that’s not what’s important. You coaches have so much power. You can help these kids. And if I can just touch one person in this room with my story, then I’ve done what I set out to do,” Shea Hillenbrand said last Friday evening.

I later tracked Shea down at the Beyond the Laces booth where he was hanging out with the authors of the book and none other than Jim Eisenreich.

“You did it,” I said, shaking in my sneakers. “I’m not a coach. I’m not a kid. But you hit me in the heart.”

I babbled about my fear of the famous and thanked him for his inspirational words and honesty.

“No. Thank you,” is what he said.

I sat in on his two more of his talks and his message never got old.

Whether you’re a Jim Eisenreich battling Tourette’s syndrome or a Shea Hillenbrand beating down your inner demons, anguish is anguish. And anguish checks neither bank accounts nor bloodlines. It doesn’t discriminate between all-stars and benchwarmers. It can claw its way into any one of us, tormenting us with its destructive chatter. And it will hold on as long as we let it.
There's a story behind every face of fame. Stories that aren't so different from yours and mine. They all have a beginning. They all have an ending. And they all have a lot of blank pages in between. 

We all have the power to fill those pages with kindness, respect, inspiration and love. It doesn't matter if the whole world knows our story, or if we touch just one little person along the way. As long as we lead with our hearts, follow with our souls and strive to be the best version of ourselves, we'll all end up just as famous as we need to be. 

Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Heart of Friendship

“Could you imagine how much fun it would be if he and I actually got married?” I conspired with my friends Pat and Nancy in the corner of the third-floor hangout room at Donald’s Fishtown apartment.

“I bet you will,” said the ever-omniscient Nancy.

I looked over at my longtime buddy, recently-turned beau and imagined our life, surrounded by these same friends, decades hence. I felt a little surge in my soul, knowing with all certitude that with no other group of friends would we ever share our hearts in quite the same way.

Our friendship took root in the early 1980’s at TV Guide magazine. Half of us worked there and the other half were significant others or friends of friends. While TV Guide meant no more to us than a meager paycheck, the real payoff came with the friends that lasted long after the last of us left the magazine job behind in Radnor, Pennsylvania.

 For several years when we were in our twenties, a dozen of us rented a house in Brigantine, a benign beach town in New Jersey. Brigantine’s appeal lay in its relaxed liquor laws and convenient location, quietly nestled just a bridge away from the Atlantic City casinos.

 But we didn’t care about the casinos. We had everything we needed right within ourselves.

Ourselves were an eclectic sort. Some of us were trying to figure out what we were going to be when we grew up and some of us already knew. We were an environmental lawyer and two public defenders-in-training, a perpetual student-eventually-turned-professor, a couple of journalists, an entrepreneur, an artist, a gossip columnist, a druggie (in the working for a drug company sense of the word), a techie and a salesman who spent those summer weekends together, more often than not, sleeping four or more to a room.

Because it was always more than just us. People came and went as they tend to do when they know someone with a beach house. Friends of friends were always welcome as long as they paid their rent – a case of beer per night. It was the best of times, those Brigantine days – toting coolers to the beach at noon, preparing extravagant barbeques at dusk and playing Hearts until dawn.

We took our card playing seriously. In the game of Hearts, you can take all the tricks you want, but the real trick is to not take any points. Or, you can Shoot the Moon and get all the tricks, which in turn, gives everyone else at the table all the points. You have to be on constant lookout for the Queen of Spades who is evil, unless you are indeed Shooting the Moon. When she is unloaded in a trick, she usually hits the table with a loud “Boom!” followed by a lot of hooting and affectionate chiding over who took the “Bitch.”

Every night after the coals turned to gray in the trusty and rusty Weber grill, we would gather on the screened-in porch, drawing numbers from a straw hat to determine playing and seating order. We rotated in and out of the game, in a mathematically-orchestrated fashion to keep an even playing table. We always had two decks shuffled and ready to be dealt, kept meticulous score on scraps of paper that were later immortalized, filled ashtrays with Marlboro Light butts and swept peanut shells from the sticky, floral-printed vinyl tablecloth.

For five, six, seven or more hours, we’d play hand after hand of Hearts, universally marveling over how many cases of beer we managed to consume each and every night.

It’s been more than 30 years since our Brigantine beach days. As Nancy predicted, I did marry that buddy-turned-beau. We all grew older and did what people do. We worked, we raised families, we got sick, we got better, we buried parents, we got fat, we got thin, we got gray then dyed it away. And we all managed to make it to middle-age relatively unscathed and pretty much unchanged.

We may not drink and gorge like we once did, but we all still play Hearts.

Every year, some configuration of the original 12 gets together to play Hearts. We have turned it into a tournament, complete with a Winner’s Trophy, a wooden Day-of-the-Dead shadow box from Mexico, with skeleton figurines playing cards and a stained-glass base that our resident artist added for appeal. Inside the box, we keep all the score sheets from all the games we’ve ever played, including start and end times. Whoever wins not only keeps the trophy for the year, but has the privilege of hosting the next tournament. Hosting responsibilities include providing two card tables, new decks of cards, a half-time feast and beds and breakfasts for all those who spend the night.

Nowadays there’s no more playing-till-the-sun-comes up, and though we still manage to make our way through several cases of beer, they’re IPAs and microbrews rather than Rolling Rock pony bottles. And some of us actually play the game completely sober because we drive home to let the dang dog out.

We’ve always been a diverse group in both personality and proficiency. Some of us will always care about the outcome of the game. Some of us will care more about the food that is served. Some will care about the size of the print on the cards. And some will care about the kind of table on which we play. Some of us will care about what time we start. Others will be more concerned with what time we finish. Some of us will know exactly how many hearts have been thrown. Some of us don’t even know how many hearts are in a deck. Some will count cards and tricks and know who is holding onto what. And some of us will never have a clue. Some of us (ah-hem, Donald) will always gloat, and some of us are just as happy to lose.

Last Saturday afternoon, when we convened at Bob’s house in Narberth, Pennsylvania for the annual Hearts tournament our age began to show. Some of us were not so quick on the draw. Some of us found it harder to converse and concentrate at the same time. And some of us even went an entire round dealing the cards counter-clockwise.

But we played on. Because it’s what we do.

There are those who marvel at some of the friendships I’ve kept alive throughout my life. They wonder how it’s humanly possible to stay in touch in touch with so many friends who live such different lives in such different places.

But, really, there’s nothing to it.

You simply follow your heart. 

Friday, January 13, 2017

Getting out of a Toxic Relationship

I’m in a toxic relationship.

I’ve been in it for so long I don’t think I’ll ever get out. But I keep trying. Day after day, year after year I proclaim, “This is it! I’m done!”   

I tell myself how much better I’ll feel. How much more I’ll accomplish. How proud I’ll be once I’ve shed this albatross hanging around my waist.

Yet, every night I go to bed with the same old toxicity broiling though my brain.

But, as they say, the first step to recovery is admitting there’s a problem.

So, there. I’ve said it.

I’m a calorie-counting, Spanx-wearing, middle-aged woman who is taunted and tortured on an hourly basis over something which is completely within my own control.

I’ve had a life-long love affair with food, always falling for the wrong morsels. Let me rephrase that. If I had fallen for mere morsels, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I fall hook, line and sinker for the carb-packed, sickeningly-sweet, unhealthy-fat, calorically-rich foods, every single time.

Even when I was young and thin, I still had15 pounds on my heaviest high school friends. Probably more like 20 on Karen Shea and Kit Schaeffer. But in my mind, it may as well have been a hundred-and-twenty. Because the teenage soul has a built in amplifier of all things possibly perceived as pudgy.

For as long as I can remember, my self-worth has been directly correlated to a number on the scale. Yet I continue to chisel away at that fluctuating confidence by weighing myself every single day. I keep meticulous records and can tell you to the pound how much I weighed at any given point in my life; before and after any Caribbean cruise, at any one of my college roommates’ weddings, or the day of  the 7th grade spring pep rally. However, I won’t tell you. Those numbers are password protected and set to implode upon my demise.

I have never downhill skied for one reason and one reason only. When you are fitted for skis, you have to divulge how much you weigh. I almost tried it once, but the night before I had a nightmare. It involved a long line of handsome guys standing behind me as I whispered my weight, 30 pounds less than I really weighed, 20 more than I wanted to weigh, and one of them bellowing, “That girl’s heavier than I am!” And their girlfriends with their concave bellies roared and roared and roared.  I feigned a fever and stayed home.

Every August, pages of my diaries were dedicated to rapid weight loss plans. Because, with the start of school in September came the dreaded weigh-in. We would line up in our underwear in the nurse’s office and step, one-by-one, on the scale. The scale with the cast-iron weights that clunked loudly as they moved to the next increment. And I was always in the next increment. I spent weeks and weeks worrying about who would be behind me in line. Would it be alphabetical, meaning Pam Ingram, all 93 pounds of her, would be right behind me? Or would it be first-come, first-served, in which case I could waddle my way to the end of the line? Weigh-in day loomed large, never announced in advance, making it particularly difficult to determine just when to do the last-minute praying, fasting and Ex-Laxing.

To this day, I still wonder if it was a compliment when, while changing for field hockey practice one day, Lynne Murray, all 103 pounds of her, (she was quite tall, after all) said, “Betsy! You look so much thinner without your clothes on!”

My empty pit of a stomach doesn’t give me cues on when to quit. I can consume boundless amounts of food and drink and when dining with my fine-figured friends know that I’ll inevitably hear one of them say, “I don’t want to fill up on bread!” just about the time I reach for my third roll. Then there’s the cringe-worthy request for a to-go container after four forkfuls of food followed by a table full of nodding heads. Not wanting to be the only one in the clean plate club, I too stop eating. But the difference is, my take-out dinner is always finished long before it reaches the refrigerator shelf.  

Throughout my life I blamed every shortcoming, whether it was not having a boyfriend or not landing a job, on my self-inflated weight issues. But eventually, I defied all odds and got both.

I married a man who has never, not once, suggested I think twice about that third helping of mashed potatoes. He pretends he doesn’t know about my secret chocolate stash and understands that I will never share my popcorn, let alone split an entrĂ©e.

Like all good dieters, my girth expands and contracts on a regular basis. I have failed at Weight Watchers three dozen times, succeeding once by maintaining my weight loss for close to a week. I will count calories, cut carbs, track triggers and exercise until my aching limbs scream in blissful agony. 

I’m currently 85 pounds from my all-time high, still 25 from where I’d like to be, but am neither obese nor grotesque. People don’t break into prayer as I walk down the aisle of an airplane or fear that the dinghy will sink on the way to the dock. I have never lost or gained a friend or foe because of my size, or lack of.

Which is why it’s an enigma as to why weight-shaming is one of my favorite pastimes and losing weight is a regularly recycled resolution.

I often wonder how I’d fill my day if I didn’t devote two hours to exercise. Or what it would be like not having to nix three outfits before finding one to cover all nine bulges. Or what I’d do with my snack-sized plastic bags if I weren’t doling out 100–calorie portions of peanuts. Or how empty I’d feel if I didn’t have a toxic relationship defining who I am and keeping me from becoming who I want to be.

So, let’s see if this theory works. Now that I’ve admitted my problem, I should be well on the road to recovery.

But, change is hard.

Especially when I hear Chocolate Calling.

So, maybe I’ll just finish off the candy that’s been mocking me from the kitchen counter. Gobble down the last remaining Christmas cookies. And double down on chocolate mint chip ice cream before making any rash decisions.

Because, after all, tomorrow is another day.