I’m In. Are You?

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Bucket Lists.  Do you have one?  Those once-in-a-lifetime adventures that you want to accomplish before you kick the bucket.

I found myself coming up short a couple of weeks ago when friends were rattling off their lists.

My friend, Donna, really impressed me. It was as though she had thought about her list for a long time.  Donna wants to: visit New Zealand, photograph polar bears and write a song.

Terrific, don’t you think?  The perfect combination of escapade and creativity.

When the conversation came to me, I fumbled, and said something about wanting to bring back saddle shoes and eat more cinnamon raisin toast.

JEEZ!  My Bucket List sounds more like a side-bar in the AARP magazine.

I gotta get going.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking BIG and have come up with a few Bucket possibilities.

Number One: I would like to attend a White House reception.

I came close to this wish in 2003.  Back then, I received an engraved invitation from Laura Bush requesting my presence at a symposium on “Poetry and the American Voice.” The invitation came during protests over the run-up to the Iraq War.  When several former poet laureates such as Rita Dove and Stanley Kunitz declined invitations in protest and other invited guests planned to read antiwar poems, Laura cancelled the whole shebang.  I received a hilarious message from the White House Social Office on my home phone “disinviting” me.  I could kick myself for not keeping that message.  It was a beaut!

Number Two.  I’d like one of my books to be made into a movie.  Mercury 13 has been optioned twice by Hollywood, but like most optioned books, it never was made into a film. At least not yet.  One reader once described the motion picture potential of Mercury 13 as “A League of Their Own with booster rockets.”  I like that.

Cross your fingers because my new book, Curveball, is currently making the rounds in Tinseltown.

Whoopi?  Queen Latifah?  Are you listening?  I would love to spin around a movie back lot in a fancy golf cart. And I’d also like one of those movie boards that gets clapped after every take. I don’t ask for much.

Number Three.  I’d like to take a Polar Plunge.  I’m an Aquarius.  I love water. One of my favorite things to do is stroll around a boat dock and pretend I own a yacht.  I also admire the mania of people who run into ocean water on New Year’s Day and then come out wild-eyed and blue. To me, that looks like fun.

So, since I’m still waiting to hear from Michelle & Barack and Whoopi and Queen Latifah, I’ve decided to start my Bucket List with the Plunge.

At 10 a.m. on Thanksgiving Morning, I will join hundreds of other crazies and plunge into Nantucket Sound off the coast of Massachusetts. I figure it’s a win-win situation.  I will cross off an item on my Bucket List and will help raise money for the Weezie Library for Children—part of the island’s wonderful public library, the Nantucket Atheneum.

It’s the Ninth Annual Cold Turkey Plunge on Nantucket and I’ve got to start work on my costume. Plungers often deck themselves out in all sorts of get-ups from hand-painted inner tubes to water-proof Pilgrim hats. I’ve appointed my four-year old godsons, Jackson and Henry, to head-up my wardrobe committee.  If you have ideas, for the committee–please post them here.

And say–if you’d like to support my Bucket List and/or the Weezie Library for Children, you can pledge a buck or two to the Nantucket Antheneum.

Here’s how.  Scroll down to Sponsor a Swimmer On Line.

I figure Bucket Lists give you something to strive for. They shake you out of routine more than saddle shoes and cinnamon raisin toast.  Every once in a while, a person just needs a shock to the system, right?

It might as well be Nantucket Sound at 51.1 degrees.

S.O.S.

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I need your help.  This week I learned that the Women’s Sports Foundation, a national organization that promotes equal opportunities for girls and women in sports, may be ending one of its signature programs.  The Billie Awards--named for WSF’s founder, Billie Jean King—honors media that present positive images of women in sport.  Past winners include Christine Brennan, sports columnist of USA Today, the motion picture Bend It Like Beckham and Ross Greenburg’s HBO documentary Dare to Dream.  Sadly, the WSF has suspended its Billie Awards for 2010.

Founded in 1974, the Women’s Sports Foundation has led the way in raising public awareness of women and girls in sports.  It advocates for equality, educates the public, conducts research and offers grants to promote sports and physical activity for girls and women.

You may be familiar with the Women’s Sports Foundation’s successful program, GoGirlGo. The program has awarded over $3 million dollars in grants to communities and organizations that create sports and physical education activities to underserved girls.  GoGirlGo also offers educational programs that teach girls in grades 3-12 about healthy lifestyles and ways to combat eating disorders, teen pregnancy and domestic violence.  In addition, the program has teamed up with the University of Michigan’s Institute for Research on Women and Gender to conduct research on the medical impact of physical activity.  Researchers have discovered—not surprisingly—that sport and exercise have a profound influence on osteoporosis, heart disease and breast cancer.

Consider these statistics on breast cancer. One to three hours of exercise a week over a woman’s reproductive lifetime may bring a 20-30% reduction in the risk of breast cancer. Four or more hours of exercise a week can reduce the risk almost 60% (Bernstein et al, 1994). And those stats are just one positive benefit among many of physical activity for women.

The Billie Awards are part of the Women’s Sports Foundation’s public awareness campaign to bring attention to the depiction of women in sport. The media shape our perception of women’s bodies and female athletes.  Positive media portrayals create an environment where young girls are encouraged to be active, take part in healthy competition and act boldly. Documentaries such as Mary Mazzio’s A Hero for Daisy show girls that strength is a quality that should be encouraged in everyone. Here’s a column I wrote for the New York Times some years ago on that remarkable film.

“Women deserve to be strong,” said Jane Gottesman, co-curator of a 2006 Billie for her photographic exhibit, Game Face: What Does a Female Athlete Look Like. Gottesman’s work helps young girls imagine a world where they are applauded for their grit, endurance and skill as well as their grace and intelligence.

Former WSF chief Donna Lopiano and Billie Jean King celebrate the 2006 Billies.

What began in 2006 with a gala celebration in Los Angeles that attracted media attention and business support from the likes of the Disney Corporation, Gatorade, Merrill Lynch, and Anheuser Busch is now on the chopping block. Staff at the Women’s Sports Foundation said they currently lack the resources “to do the awards right.”  While the Billies still are a priority of the WSF, they now are “re-evaluating the awards and the event itself,” a foundation spokeswoman said.

Here’s where you come in.

Help me encourage the Women’s Sports Foundation to continue the Billie Awards.

There are four things you can do.

Get on the Horn

Call, write or email Kathryn Olson, the chief executive officer of the Women’s Sports Foundation, and let her know you want to see the Billie Awards continue.

  • 800.227.3988
  • kolson@womenssportsfoundation.org
  • Women’s Sports Foundation
    National Office
    Eisenhower Park
    1899 Hempstead Turnpike, Suite 400
    East Meadow, NY 11554

Go Local

Get in touch with your local YWCA, Girl Scouts, elementary, high school, college or university and tell them they can support the positive portrayal of  women and girls in sports.  Urge them to get involved and petition the Women’s Sports Foundation to keep the Billie Awards.

Call Your Sports Guy or Gal

Let your local sportscasters and sports writers know that the Billies may be scrubbed and ask them to stand with women and girls in sports.

Spread the Word

Forward this blog to friends and family and anyone who is interested in creating healthy media images of women and girls in sports. Give them a push to get involved.

As a former girl, I remember the bad old pre-Title IX days when girls stood on the sidelines and rarely participated in sports.  Thank goodness those days are gone and girls now line up for a chance to play community soccer and are eager to try out for their high schools’ cross country team.  To me it’s fairly simple: sports teach girls the same valuable lessons they teach boys. Teamwork matters, a healthy body makes for a healthy mind, and pushing yourself to the limit increases your self-esteem.

The Billies are the only media awards to spotlight the positive portrayal of women and girls in sports. Let’s help keep the awards alive. Tell the Women’s Sports Foundation the Billies matter.

Release Your Inner Goofball

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For the most part, it’s great living in a college town.  Or to be more precise, it’s great living in a five college town.  Even though I live in the woods, I’m just down the road from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst College, Smith, Hampshire, and Mount Holyoke College.  From September to May, I’m surrounded by college kids.

I say living in a college town is great “for the most part” because there are, of course, some downsides:  raucous fraternity parties and traffic congestion when Pfish comes to town as they did last weekend.  And then there’s my favorite nuisance—group households shopping for their favorite breakfast cereal. I always seem to run into six-packs of students dawdling in the cereal aisle at Stop-n-Shop debating the merits of Cap’n Crunch versus Count Chocula. Their cogitation takes f-o-r-e-v-e-r and I’m stuck somewhere around granola impatiently waiting to get around their road block of shopping carts.

But, there are many unexpected pleasures of living around kids on the cusp of adulthood.

One is their goofiness.

I remember teaching a class at Mount Holyoke once when a young woman decided the classroom was too warm and she took off her tights one leg at a time.  Simply slipped out of them.  I’d never seen such a maneuver.

Then there are exuberant outbursts of youth. Around final exams, students gather on the college green and howl at the moon.  Not a bad stress reliever, it seems to me.

Or pranks.  One time I entered a stall in a women’s restroom near my department office and found all the interior doors removed.  Just one long row of toilets.  Pretty funny.

And graffiti.  There’s a particular light switch in the library that has an official warning posted above it.  “Do Not Turn On.” Someone has scrawled beneath it “I try.  Lord knows, I try.”

One afternoon last week I was driving down a fairly busy road near a cluster of student apartments.  The road had one of those portable radar signs set up that display how fast you’re going.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a group of students gathered on the shoulder of the road. Then I watched as one young woman tore out, running as fast as she could in the grass by the road.  The other students were wildly cheering her on and pumping their fists in the air.

“What in the world?!” I thought.

Then, another kid set out dashing and another.

Suddenly it dawned on me.

They were trying to “beat the clock” and see if the radar sign would register how fast they were running.

You gotta love it.

What better way to spend a sunny autumn afternoon than to release your inner goofball?

Boo

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When I walked into class at Mount Holyoke College the other day, the conversation among students was what you’d expect a few days before Halloween.

They were talking candy.

Marcella said her favorite was Hershey’s Milk Chocolate with Almonds. For Leslie, it was Charleston Chews—all three flavors.  Lauren admitted she liked Mary Janes, and those taffy balls wrapped in orange and black waxed paper, oh, and Milk Duds. Madeline was torn.  “There are so many,” she said, and then opted for Reese’s. Later she confessed to eating seven boxes of Nerds while preparing for her Italian mid-term.  “The mini ones,” she declared.  “And it was Dante!”

(L-R) Reese's, Charleston Chews, Mary Jane and Hershey's Milk Chocolate with Almonds

As a kid, I loved Halloween candy.  Snickers were my favorites and my dad taught me they’re best popped in the freezer for a couple of hours before eating.

But when it came to the whole Halloween experience, my attitude was mixed.  I never liked dressing in costume.  That terrorizing scene in “To Kill a Mockingbird” hit close to home.  I disliked wearing a sweaty plastic mask cock-eyed on my head and worried that someone’s big brother would swoop from behind and scare the daylights out of me.

Come to think of it, the only time I ever enjoyed dressing in costume was for Miss America pageant parties I used to attend back in grad school.  Everybody came decked out as their home state and we laughed at the show’s ridiculousness.   One year when Missouri, my home state, experienced epic flooding, I came dressed as “Becky Thatcher at 30 feet above Flood Stage.”  (Think bonnet and hip waders.)  Another year, a friend took home the top costume prize for her simple yet impeccable salute to Connecticut.  She was “Road Construction. Expect Delays.”

Growing up in Florissant, my neighborhood was a baby boomer’s Halloween paradise.  Streets upon streets of new homes and World War II vets who were more grateful than we ever would know to spend their evening passing out M & Ms. In those days, there were so many kids moving in that you only had to go half-a-block to find someone in your class or scout troop.  David Campbell, Sue Brown, the Clohessy twins, the Frey kids, Pat Gregory, Patty Lawrence, Gail Swick.  They all were just a quick bike ride away.

On Halloween, there was one friend’s house we always visited.

Randy Russell lived eight houses away and we rode together on the same school bus. You get to know someone pretty well riding a school bus for twelve years. Randy was a wonderful kid—fun to be with and kind—and a friendship with Randy came with a bonus.  He had great parents.  On Halloween, Joe and Lucille Russell dazzled the neighborhood.

The Russell family’s Haunted House was well known up and down all the nearby “Saint Streets”: St. Catherine, St. Nicholas, St. Cornelius.  If you were a kid and knew, for example, that the best local ice cream could be found at Bergen’s Dairy, you certainly knew that the Russells were THE stop on Halloween.

Randy’s parents loved kids.  And maybe because they had only one child, they were especially open to entertaining the neighborhood.  About two weeks before Halloween, word would leak out at school that the Russells were going ALL OUT this year.  Rumors began to fly about wild costumes and boiling caldrons and a secret transformation going on that would take their one-car garage and turn it into the NIGHTMARE ON ST. ANTHONY STREET!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Actually the Russells’ Halloween extravaganza was less about terror and more about imagination.  I think they worked for weeks turning electric fans, flower pots and red silk scarves into kettles of monstrous flames.  And then there were the creations of chicken wire and paper mache.  Nothing was bought; every decoration was hand-made. And dry ice.  The Russells always had dry ice.

Every year, we saved the Russells for our last Halloween stop and we left their house smiling and satisfied. Smug even.  “The Russells are terrific!” Gail and I would say, as if their ingenuity were our own. It made us proud that Randy’s house had crowds of people lined up, waiting to get it.  His parents’ creativity made our neighborhood feel special and we walked home puffed up and eager to gather at the bus stop the next day and relive the fun.

Maybe that’s what I cherish most about those Halloween memories:  the sense of a shared experience. All of us knew the Lawrences gave out big candy bars.  We all waited for Mrs. Swick to say something smart alecky about our costumes because she was the funniest mom.  And the Russells, well, the Russells were simply the best.

Thinking about those Halloween nights long ago,  I can see us—a pack of laughing kids racing up to doorbells, knocking each others’ masks off, comparing loot and swapping candy bars.

Halloween brought out in the tribe in us.  We were a neighborhood, October kinsmen—reconstituted in the dark like plasma.

Boo Radley's House from "To Kill a Mockingbird"

The Soothing Power of Squash

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Life has been hectic lately.

You know what I’m talking about.

You lie awake at night with endless lists running through your head. My favorites are the ones that start with tomorrow’s chores and end up twenty or thirty years down the road with a blipping monitor about to go flatline. My escalating lists go something like this:

  • Take pork chops out of the freezer.
  • Get old barbeque grill out of the garage and to the dump.
  • Have a tag sale in May.
  • Too much stuff in the house anyway.
  • What will happen to all this junk?
  • Gotta update the will.
  • Second thoughts about executor.
  • Why did Sara tell me she’d be good at pulling the plug?
  • Make a new list of possible executors.
  • And plug pullers.

Then there’s this mark of full-tilt mania. I’m in Stop and Stop and racing around the grocery store looking for something fast for dinner. [FULL DISCLOSURE: I’m a counter-intuitive shopper. I start with the frozen foods and end in lettuce.  Wrong way, I know. I do that so I won’t run into friends and neighbors, and then have to waltz together through the aisles making conversation.]  Does this make me a bad person? Add that one to the nightly lists, too.

When I’m crazy-busy like I’ve been lately, I often find myself in the spaghetti sauce aisle suddenly seized with terror.  I look down afraid that I don’t have on pants.

Now, I do wear pants.  Everyday.  But since I often work at home, I frequently begin my day by simply pulling on sweats or gym shorts or I might even linger at the computer in a nightie until—uh—let’s see it’s almost 11 a.m. now. Given these deviant habits, it’s just a matter of time before I dash out of the house without ever looking south.

Clearly it’s time to slow down.

Next Barn Over (CSA) Hadley, Massachusetts

Last winter when a new Community Sustainable Agriculture (CSA) farm opened nearby, a friend asked if we’d like to split a share. I’d been on a farm-share waiting list for several years.  They’re popular in Western Massachusetts and the concept is simple: neighbors buy in, farmers get much-needed start-up capital at the beginning of the growing season, and when crops are ready, everyone receives produce that is fresh, plentiful, secure and local.  A win-win situation as far as I am concerned.

What I hadn’t counted on was the therapy that would come in a 100% recyclable bag.

I have never been good at relaxation techniques.  Yoga?  Too public.  Tai chi?  I don’t flow. Meditation?  You must be kidding.  My mother once confessed to me that she made grocery lists in church during the moment for silent prayer. I figure I’m genetically hardwired to be a lousy meditator.

But the farm share experience?  This year it has been a study in relaxation from start to finish.

First there’s the drive. I turn off the radio. No NPR audio clips of Christine O’Donnell giving a lesson on the Constitution. No talk radio chatter out of Boston complaining about the Red Sox. No Golden Oldies station. Not even that good one from Hartford that plays Sly and the Family Stone. And BOY is it difficult to turn off “Take Me Higher!!”

Bull Hill Road

Instead I drive silently past the farmland along the Connecticut River. And I begin to notice things. The horse farm has plowed its field.  The foliage on Bull Hill Road is not as vibrant as it was last year. The Banded Galloways are now in a pasture nearer the road.

“I went to the woods to live deliberately,” Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden.

Good advice, I think, to slow down, take heed and take in.

Once I turn into the farm share, the walk from the dirt parking lot to the barn is a bit of a stroll. At first I was annoyed at the meandering path and wondered why we couldn’t park closer to the barn.  It seemed there was plenty of room.

But the slow walk is another exercise in relaxation. This summer the path between the car and the barn was covered in straw. I grew fond of the straw’s slippery unpredictability. More than once it almost sent me skidding into the U-Pick fields.

The best part of farm-share day are the bins of produce inside the barn.  It’s dark in there and quiet, and the room is suffused with damp, earthen smells. There’s a chalkboard on the wall listing each week’s allotments: half a bag of

Today's allotments

bok choy, one head of cabbage, two turnips, unlimited braising greens.

My favorites are the squashes.  I love their hard-headed brashness.  Bulbous butternut, majestic turbans, comical petitpans. The colors alone are enough to lower my blood pressure twenty points.

Today when I entered the barn, I chose a perfect acorn squash from the bin: dark green with a sturdy weathered stem.   I look forward to baking the squash later this week and scooping out all that steaming orange pulp. It should go well with those pork chops.

I’ll make a little note to take them out of the freezer.

Say Hey

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When I was growing up in St. Louis, the only time my Cardinal loyalty ever was tested was when the Giants came to town.  I loved Willie Mays.  I loved his eagerness. I loved his smile.  I loved the way his cap flew off when he was racing for a long ball out in center field.  He was joy personified.

The Catch. Game One 1954 World Series.

Now that the 2010 season has knocked out all the teams I was rooting for: first the Red Sox, then the Cards, and now the Twins--it’s time to think about that joyful Willie Mays again.

I’m going with the Giants.

I know my baseball allegiance gets a little squirrelly this time of year.  I’m one step away from rooting for a team based on its uniform. Remember the Pittsburgh Pirates circa 1979? NEVER!  Never root for a team that looked like that! But my current commitment to the Giants is actually based on something more than fashion. In a way, it’s a tip of that flying hat to Willie Mays.

When I was writing Curveball, I discovered that Willie Mays and Toni Stone crossed paths.  In 1949, eighteen year-old Willie Mays was playing with the Birmingham Black Barons in the Negro League. Toni Stone, meanwhile, was playing second base for the New Orleans Creoles in the Negro Southern League.  Seeing youngsters like Willie Mays and a teenage Ernie Banks coming up the ranks, Toni decided she needed to be more competitive– at least in the eyes of baseball scouts who were looking for talented young players. She lopped a decade off her age and told everyone that she was 18 years old—even though she was pushing thirty.

On July 25, 1949, the Creoles and the Black Barons were playing a game in New Orleans.  The Barons were a Negro League team (the equivalent of the segregated white major leagues), but they frequently played regional squads such as the Creoles in non-league contests. New Orleans was a wonderful baseball town for black ball clubs and a hard-working promoter made sure there were posters all over the city advertising the upcoming series. There was money to be made barnstorming in New Orleans.

In 1949 both Toni Stone and Willie Mays were having trouble hitting curveballs—a pitch that is often the ruination of young ballplayers.  In fact, scouts for the Brooklyn Dodgers passed on signing Mays, citing his inability to hit the curve.  But, Willie was lucky.  His Black Barons’ coach, Piper Davis, took him aside and told him to use his wrists more and try a lighter bat.  The suggestion made all the difference and soon Mays went from hitting .262 to .311 and drew attention of scouts from Boston and New York.

That afternoon in New Orleans proved to be a lousy day for both Mays and Toni Stone.  The Black Barons won 4-1 in a pitching duel and neither Willie nor Toni distinguished themselves at the plate.  It was one of those days.

But Toni kept her eye on Mays.  He seemed to be going places. And the next year, when Willie’s batting average soared to .353, the New York Giants signed him.  On the way to join his new team, Mays placed his cap and glove on the empty airline seat next to him. “Are you Jackie Robinson?” the white flight attendant asked him.

Playing a road game in Memphis, Toni thought about Willie Mays and vowed to redouble her efforts. Anything seemed possible—first Jackie, then Larry Doby and now Willie in the major leagues, she thought. “I figured that then was the time for me,” Toni said.  And she pledged “to make the grade as the first woman player” in the majors.

By mid-season in 1950, Toni was batting .300 for the Creoles, a remarkable stat since she was still smarting from a bruised left arm after being hit by a pitch.  She rarely let injuries sideline her and even got into trouble with managers who wanted her to sit out while she healed.  Maybe sensing that she had only a few years before her real age caught up with her, Toni bristled at being benched. One time after an injury sent her to a local charity hospital, she was so hopped up to get back in the game–she resorted to extreme measures. After being treated in the emergency room, she flagged down a policeman on horseback and rode double all the way to the stadium. For Toni the meter was running and she wanted to get to the big leagues before it was too late. “I had to play,” she said.  “I wanted to find the heart of the game.”

Toni Stone did move up in baseball. In 1953 the Indianapolis Clowns, the championship team in the Negro League, signed her to a contract.  The next year, she played for the legendary Kansas City Monarchs.

And Willie Mays?  He kept making those remarkable catches and ended up in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

But Mays never forgot his days in the Negro Leagues. He said that major league scouts misunderstood the showmanship that often was part of Negro League games and passed over a great many players who were serious ballplayers.

Maybe some like Toni Stone.

And that flying baseball cap?  Turns out that was a nod to the Negro Leagues as well.

“I started wearing a cap that was too big for me,” Mays said about his debut with the Giants. “Every time I ran from first to second and wheeled to my left, that cap would simply fly off.” The gimmick was strategy as much as showmanship.  When Willie would pause momentarily to retrieve his hat, “the moment’s delay would keep the fans worked up and make the opposing pitcher think a bit more about the spot I’d got him in,” he admitted.

Willie Mays without his cap.

“Some people call it show business,” Toni said.  “I call it plain hard baseball.”

Plain hard baseball.  Let’s hope we see the Giants play some against the Phillies.  I’d like to see hats flying.  After all, isn’t that joy the heart of the game?

Chasing Ghosts

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During an interview yesterday, National Public Radio’s Michel Martin asked me who I was rooting for in the Major League Baseball play-offs this season.  Her question took me by surprise.  Call me deluded, but I’m still flying the Red Sox flag in my backyard. My beloved Sox had a miserable year and didn’t make the play-offs.

I can't take it down. Pathetic, isn't it?

The Twins,” I said before I realized it.

I think my answer had a lot to do with ghosts.

When I was researching Curveball, I spent several weeks in the Twin Cities. Toni Stone, the subject of my book, grew up in Saint Paul in the 1930s and 40s and developed her talent for baseball on the playing fields in Rondo--Saint Paul’s African-American community. From Saint Paul, Toni went on to become the first woman to play professional baseball in the Negro League.

Most of Rondo doesn’t exist anymore—urban renewal in the 1960s cut a slash through the once thriving area and tore out of the heart of that neighborhood. The house Toni lived in is gone—but with the help of old maps, I could find where she spent her childhood and determine how far away Toni was from the sound of baseball bats cracking at nearby Lexington Park.

As a narrative non-fiction writer, I spend a lot of time chasing ghosts.  Toni Stone died in 1996. Since I couldn’t speak with her, I had to figure out other ways to determine what her life was like. That’s why I went to Saint Paul. I wanted to see where she once lived. Walk where she walked. Hear what she heard. Eat what she ate.  In order to construct scenes and characters in my books, I need to chase ghosts so that I can make them come alive.

I remember a couple of good ghostly encounters in Saint Paul.  One of Toni’s friends when she was growing up was Janabelle Murphy [Taylor]. Janabelle and Tomboy–as Toni was called in her childhood–were Rondo’s best girl athletes. We were “roughnecks,” Janabelle confessed.  After a week of internet searches, trying to find out if Janabelle was still alive and where she lived, I tracked her down to the house where she grew up—one of those rare Rondo homes sparred by bulldozers. When I got to Saint Paul, I called Janabelle to confirm our meeting and then drove over to Rondo.  I knocked on the door and when it opened, there stood a small woman in her late eighties with a sturdy stance and an even sturdier handshake.  “Come on in,” she said. “Wish I had made you some biscuits.”

The rest of the afternoon sailed on from there. Jane and I talked for hours about how the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center enriched her life with its after-school programs.  About Saint Paul during Jim Crow when some white drug store clerks would spit into glasses of Coke before serving them to black customers.  And about being a girl athlete at a time when girls were not supposed to be serious about sports.  One time at Hallie Q after Janabelle had the gym reserved for a girls’ basketball game, the head of the boys’ program told her to leave so his team could practice.  Janabelle grabbed an inkwell and starred at the man ready to throw.  “We reserved the gym and it’s ours,” she said without flinching.  The boys found another place to practice.

Listening to Janabelle taught me a lot about the world in which Toni grew up. I could imagine Tomboy and Janabelle tossing a ball around at the rocky Western Avenue playing fields or standing outside the fence at the local ice skating rink where black children were not allowed to enter. I could begin to see and hear the ghosts.

And then there were the White Castle hamburgers.  Toni loved White Castle.  And she especially enjoyed the beans, she told an interviewer in a newspaper article from the 1950s.  Vowing to seek out verisimilitude wherever I could find it, off I went in search of a Saint Paul “belly bomber.”  I found one.  Or to be more precise, I ordered a whole sack—but couldn’t find beans.  Seems White Castle dropped the beans from its menu sometime ago.

White Castle in Minneapolis around 1936

Undeterred, I took my sack of burgers and walked over to the spot where Lexington Park once stood.  Toni spent a lot of hours at Lexington.  The field was home to the Saint Paul Saints—a minor league team coached by the legendary Gabby Street, former manager of the St. Louis Cardinals‘ Gas House Gang.  In the 1930s, Gabby ran a baseball camp for white boys who were interested in learning the mechanics of the game.  Toni used to the stand outside the field and watch, trying to pick up pointers. Then she found a way in and stood on the sidelines watching.  Street shooed her away and Toni came back.  He told her to get lost and again she returned.  Exasperated, Street finally relented and told the young girl to go out to the field and show him what she had.

Gabby Street

Boy, did she ever.  Street was impressed by Tomboy’s speed and agility and probably was most taken by her heart.  Gabby always thought no one loved baseball more than he did.  But, perhaps, he was wrong.  Several weeks later, Street found out it was Tomboy Stone’s birthday and he gave her a pair of cleats.  Her first.  “It was a miracle,” Toni later said.

As I sat on a bench and ate my White Castles, I tried to imagine the courage it took for a young African American girl in the 1930s to walk into a baseball camp filled with white boys and a gruff old manager whom she didn’t know belonged to the KKK.

I could hear the ghosts and I could see them.  Even though Lexington Park no longer stands, Toni Stone Field now does–right in the spot where she walked onto that diamond for the first time.

I’ll never forget that moment–and three hours later I couldn’t forget eating those White Castles, either.

Maybe that’s why I’m rooting for Minnesota this year. Ghosts are all around us. And in the baseball fields of Saint Paul, someone else must be cheering on the Twins.

Toni always had her name spelled wrong. Even here.

Bad Hair Day

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This week did not get off to a good start.

On Tuesday, after I returned from a workout at the gym, I sat down at the home computer to send a couple of quick e-mails.

Tuesdays are my busy days.  I have to prepare for class, run to the gym, take a fast shower and then head to the college.  Some days I have just enough time to slug down a yogurt for lunch before students start arriving for our afternoon seminar.

Taking the time for e-mails was risky.  Or so I thought.

The moment I was ready to hit the *SEND* button, the lights flickered, there was a muted whirring sound and all went dark.

No power. 

That’s not unusual out here in the woods.  For some reason, we seem to be wired with cast-off technology from the former Soviet Republics.  About every month, either the phone or the electricity goes out. The utility company once told me there was a problem with “moist weather.”  I swear.

So, now it’s noon and I’m in the throes of a classic Hobson’s Choice: do I shower and go to class as a wet-head (no hair dryer, remember?) or skip the shower, do what I can do, and fashion some reasonable sculpture out of old hair gels?

I went with the gels.

Later, while standing on a dusty ladder trying to trip the electric garage door opener so I can get my car out, I found my mind drifting to other character-building moments.  Or to be more specific, I was heating up for one of those full-tilt THINGS THAT TICK ME OFF tirades.

So, buckle up, dear reader.  I’m lettin’ loose!

TICK NUMBER ONE.

Why doesn’t anyone yield on entrance ramps anymore? Didn’t they take Driver’s Ed?  You know who I’m talking about.  That red Civic comes barreling down the entrance ramp just as you’re getting ready to pass the merge zone.  But do they hesitate, slow down a little to allow you to speed on by? NOOOooooooo! In fact, they speed up, taunt you, push as much Honda pedal-to-the-metal as that little Civic will take and force YOU to do the yielding.  It’s a metaphor for the whole country, isn’t it?  No one yields anymore. What’s with that?!?

TICK NUMBER TWO

I know I’ll suffer the wrath of musical lovers everywhere, but I can’t stand Glee. Or more specifically, I can’t stand that guy on Glee. The teacher.  The one with the corrugated hair.  Can’t stand the wrinkled forehead, the simpering looks and definitely can’t stand the upstage-the-kids prancing.  Now don’t get me wrong.  If Jane Lynch had a cable channel, I would be a charter subscriber. I’ve watched Best in Show about ten times. But that Glee guy? Ruins the whole thing for me.  And don’t even get me started on his vests.

That Glee Guy

TICK NUMBER THREE

Crest toothpaste.  I’ve used Crest for years.  I like the squeeze tube with the blue paste—whatever that flavor is. And that’s the problem.  There are too many Crests. Have you stood in front of the toothpaste aisle lately? Here’s an abbreviated rundown on what awaits you at your friendly neighborhood Crest display:

Crest 3D Advanced Vivid

Baking Soda Peroxide Whitening with Tartar Protection

Baking Soda Peroxide Whitening with Tartar Protection Striped

Cavity Protection Gel

Multicare Whitening Gel

Nature’s Expression

Minty Fresh Liquid Gel

Pro-Health Clinical Gum Protection

For Me Fluoride Anticavity

Sensitivity Clinical Relief

Citrus Splash

Herbal Mint

Cool Peppermint

Wintergreen Ice

Cinnamon Rush

And my personal favorite: Barbie Burstin’ Bubblegum Gel

Just tell me which one is the squeeze tube with blue paste.  PLUUEEZE!

Contemplating the dizzying array of choices at the toothpaste aisle reminds me of my grandfather. Florence Wilhelm Ackmann was a kind and patient man.  I can remember only one time when he bristled and that moment became family legend.  Grandma handed him a grocery list and off he dutifully went to the corner market. When he returned an hour later ruffled and irritated, we knew something was wrong.  “Beans?!” he complained, waving the list. “What kind of beans?  Green beans?  Pork and Beans?  Lima Beans? Kidney Beans? Navy Beans?” At the end of his rope, he let loose with a final salvo, reverting to his German roots. “Verdammit Bohen!!,” he cried—the grocery list fluttering to the floor.

Maybe I should have uttered that ringing family phrase as I stood on tip-toe trying to trigger the garage door opener with wayward hair glued to my head in a helmet of sheen.

“Verdammit Bohen!!”  DAMN BEANS!

That phrase does make a person feel better.

Into the Beautiful

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Most writers have day jobs.  Even Toni Morrison has toiled away at Princeton University when she wasn’t writing Nobel Prize winning fiction.

Me?  I’m lucky. I teach at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts–one of the nation’s great women’s colleges.  Remember the Seven Sisters?  Wellesley, Smith, Barnard, Bryn Mawr… Mount Holyoke is part of that crowd.  We get terrific students and more than our share of future leaders who make names for themselves in politics, science and the arts.

Teaching is a wonderful way to compliment the many hours I spend at home writing. The students energize me. The books we talk about inspire me.  And, going to class gets me out of the house.  I need that.  Left to my own devices, I would be a hermit.

Which brings me to Emily Dickinson.

I’ve studied the great American poet for over 30 years and I’m writing a new book on her.  I discovered Dickinson’s poetry in an English class back when I was a junior at McCluer High School in St. Louis.  I can’t tell you why Dickinson’s poetry initially moved me, I just know it did.  Her lines seemed to reach a part of my brain that didn’t exist before. There was something primordial, startling and volcanic about her work.  I’ll never forget encountering some of her lines for the first time. Lines such as “After great pain a formal feeling comes” and “I dwell in possibility” and then there’s this one: “The Soul selects her own Society/ Then–shuts the Door–.”

That last one hit home.

Even though I’ve read Dickinson for so long, I must admit that I still don’t understand everything she wrote.  Not by a long shot.  So, it’s always invigorating to start a semester with a fresh group of students and open my beloved volume of The Poems of Emily Dickinson and begin anew.

Each fall I teach a weekly Emily Dickinson seminar and take on ten students.  It’s an admittedly small class and that’s because ten students are the maximum number who fit.

Emily Dickinson Seminar 2010

Yes, fit.

I teach the course in the Dickinson Homestead in Amherst in the very rooms where the poet wrote her memorable verse. All of her life, Dickinson lived 11 miles north of Mount Holyoke and attended the school in 1847-48. About a decade after Dickinson completed her education, she became reclusive.  Biographers theorized she may have had eye problems or agoraphobia. Her sister dismissed Dickinson’s seclusion as “just a happen.” Today scholars argue that Dickinson wanted life on her own terms and turned inward to write 1,789 poems that transformed the face of American literature.

Yesterday was our second class meeting.  If the weather complies, I always spend that session giving my students a three-hour walking tour of the poet’s Amherst.  We cover about a mile and make twelve stops from the site of the academy where Dickinson received her elementary education, to the church her family attended, to her grave in West Cemetery.  Along the way, we talk about everything from immigration in the nineteenth century to Whig politics to characteristics of lyric poetry.

Look what we found at the cemetery--a "Letter to Emily" secret box.

And the students ask penetrating questions:  why didn’t Dickinson publish in her lifetime, what’s with all those dashes in her poems, did the Civil War coincide with her greatest literary productivity, were the problems with her vision what she called her “terror since September”?

As you can tell, it was a wonderful afternoon.

We ended our class in Dickinson’s garden with a final poem. The poet loved her flowers and images of roses and gentian and even the most humble blade of grass enhance her verse.

But it wasn’t a poem about flowers that ended our class yesterday.

As she usually does, Dickinson took us in another direction. On that last afternoon of summer, Emily Dickinson made us pay close attention to seasons and twilight and what lies ahead. Nobody says it better.

As imperceptibly as Grief

The Summer lapsed away—

Too imperceptible at last

To seem like Perfidy–

A Quietness distilled

As Twilight long begun,

Or Nature spending with herself

Sequestered Afternoon—

The Dusk drew earlier in—

The Morning foreign shone—

A courteous, yet harrowing Grace—

As Guest, that would be gone—

And thus, without a Wing

Or service of a Keel

Our Summer made her light escape

Into the Beautiful–

Hubbub in Harrisburg

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This weekend I’m heading down to Harrisburg for the Capital BookFest at the State Museum of Pennsylvania. If you’re around Harrisburg, Carlisle, Lancaster, York or even Philadelphia, come to the CreateSpace stage (we’re indoors) at 1:50 p.m on Saturday. I’ll be talking about baseball, Jim Crow America and Toni Stone, and also autographing copies of Curveball.

Harrisburg is an especially appropriate place to be talking about women in baseball. Ever hear of Eleanor Engle?  Not many people have.  Engle was the first woman to sign a minor league contract to play professional baseball. She got on the field, but never in the game.

In 1952, the Harrisburg Senators, a Class B Interstate League team, was in the dumps. Nothing seemed to shake them out of their seventh place doldrums.  That’s when the front office had an idea.  Why not sign a 24 year-old, hot-shot shortstop—a local player with a fan following? Eleanor Engle, a stenographer for the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission, had been playing softball in the Harrisburg area and drawing attention.  Perhaps she could add some punch to the Senators, the team owner thought. But the front office decision did not sit well with team manager. The skipper blew a gasket.  “She’ll play when hell freezes over,” Buck Etchison said.  “This is a no woman’s land and believe me, I mean it!”  League umpire Bill Angstadt piped up as well.  “If she ever comes to bat,” he said, “I quit!”

Harrisburg General Manager Howard Gordon added Engle to the team anyway. He gave her a uniform (Number 11) and then called the press. “She can hit a ball a lot better than some of the fellows on the club,” he declared.

That’s when the trouble began.  George Trautman, minor league boss, would have none of it. After learning of the hubbub in Harrisburg, Trautman immediately wired all minor league teams declaring women players would not be allowed. Major League Commissioner Ford Frick agreed, Trautman said and added, “It’s not in the best interest of baseball that such travesties be tolerated.”

But Trautman’s screed came just as Engle was trotting out to the field.  She took in-field practice, a few practice swings at the plate and then sat down in dug-out–by herself–as photographers recorded the moment.

Later when looking at how isolated she was in the Harrisburg dugout, Engle said, "Look at that! I'm like a skunk at a picnic."

By the time the game began, however, Engle’s debut was over.

The Harrisburg front office was not willing to push the case, take on Trautman, and square-off against the Major Leagues. Eleanor Engle changed into street clothes and was sent packing. Her brief career in professional baseball had ended

But the aftermath for women in baseball was only beginning. She “threw like a girl!” The Sporting News reported, pulling out not only derision, but tired clichés as well. In an editorial, the newspaper stated, “The Sporting News hopes this is the last time it will ever find it necessary, as a matter of news coverage, to print the picture of a woman ballplayer on a men’s team…As far as Organized Baseball is concerned, a woman’s place always will be in the grandstand.”

Other news stories followed arguing that women were physically unfit for the game, pitchers would be reluctant to throw close, tagging would be a problem, lockers rooms couldn’t accommodate women and “dugout language is too sulphuric for the ears of ladylike performers.”

Engle was not prepared for the wave of publicity that followed her short-lived attempt to play minor league ball.  “It was a nightmare everywhere I went,” she said.  “I would come out of church and photographers would be there.  The day the story broke, the photographers were in the hallways of my office building.  It was awful.  I thought I was going to lose my job.”

Reports later circulated that Engle was offered a tryout with the Jimmy Foxx who managed the Fort Wayne Daisies of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. But Engle never went to Fort Wayne or to any of the so-called League of Their Own teams.  Perhaps her time in the spotlight convinced her that she rather stay at home with the doors shut.

Engle did not fade from the scene, however, without a parting shot.  “I think baseball is making a big mistake,” she said.  “I love the game.  Women are good at a lot of things like golf, politics and track.  Why not baseball?”

Toni Stone's baseball card

Toni Stone loved the game as well. The next summer—perhaps inspired by Eleanor Engle’s audacity–Stone signed with the championship Indianapolis Clowns in the Negro League.  She became known as the “female Jackie Robinson” and played against some of baseball’s most celebrated athletes: Satchel Paige, Ernie Banks and Willie Mays.  With the departure of teammate Henry Aaron to the majors, the Indianapolis Clowns needed another sensation and Toni Stone fit the bill. At one point in the 1953 season, Stone hit .364—fourth in the league behind Ernie Banks.

Engle spent the rest of her working life with IBM and responded politely when historians occasionally tracked her down to ask what happened in Harrisburg. Toni Stone played one year for the Clowns before being traded to the legendary Kansas City Monarchs. After butting heads with Buck O’Neil, her Monarch’s manager, Stone left the Negro Leagues in 1955. She was largely forgotten until 1991 when baseball’s Hall of Fame in Cooperstown finally recognized her accomplishments and that of other Negro Leaguers. Today, over a decade after Stone’s death, sports writers call Toni Stone “the best baseball player you’ve never heard of.”

History does not record that Toni Stone ever met Eleanor Engle. But this weekend down in Harrisburg, it won’t be difficult to imagine what the two women might have talked about.