Home runs & humor — it’s all in the perspective

Casey Stengel knew humor — and baseball
By R on en.wikipedia – From en.wikipedia; description page is (was) here, Public Domain

Humor or heartache?

“The fans love home runs,” said Casey Stengel, the first manager of the New York Mets. “And we have assembled a pitching staff to please the fans.”

Classic. It’s one of my favorite baseball quotes—I love it so much, I don’t care whether he actually said it.

For those of you who don’t follow baseball closely, Stengel knows that the fans prefer home runs when their team hits them, not when their team’s pitchers give them up. So is this humor or tragedy? It’s all in your perspective.

Even today, more than half a century after Stengel’s time, the Mets remain a team that lives and dies by the home run. More the latter than the former, this season. Once again, the Mets have “assembled a pitching staff to please the fans.”

This almost total reliance on home runs infuriates me. I’d much prefer to see my team advance around the diamond one or two bases at a time. It’s not about one person shining; it’s about the entire team pulling together to succeed.

Humor, the “home run” of writing

You have a brilliant sentence. I mean, so witty and concise it makes Oscar Wilde look like a second-grader. The problem is, it doesn’t quiiiiite fit the rest of your piece.

What do you do?

There’s only one thing to do. Move your “home run” to the Outtakes file. Maybe it’ll make a great tweet someday, but right now it’s derailing your piece.

Now, I’m not saying you can never use humor. But your wit must serve the interest of your reader, first and foremost. That’s true of every word you write, by the way—you must always focus on adding value for the reader.

If your humorous remark fits the theme and advances the story you’re telling, by all means leave it in. But if it only serves to make you look clever…you’ve got to take one of the team. Hit a single instead. Don’t interrupt the flow of your prose, not even for a laugh. Unless you’re writing a standup comedy set, your audience expects—and deserves—something seamless.

Allow your sentences to work together like a great baseball team. The “fans” may cheer less, but your readers will appreciate you more.


I wrote this piece while watching the Home Run Derby, perhaps my favorite event of the festivities surrounding the All-Star Game. Would you like to discover how to find stories in the wild like this and use them in your writing? Join me on a field trip to the Getty Center in LA this August.

The grace of Yu Darvish

The Dodgers may have one of the whitest baseball teams in the Major Leagues, but they do have a Japanese-Iranian pitcher, a man named Yu Darvish.

Darvish started Game 3 of the World Series on Friday and an Astros player, the Cuban-born Yuli Gurriel, hit a home run off him. Yep, that happens sometimes in baseball.

What doesn’t—shouldn’t—happen in baseball is what did happen next: Gurriel returned to his dugout and pulled the corners of his eyes up in a slant while uttering what lip-readers could clearly see was a racist slur.

Major League Baseball was swift to condemn the gesture. They suspended Gurriel for five games. Starting in April.

Where’s the sting in that? As Martin Luther King said, “Justice delayed is justice denied.”

Still, there was one moment of grace—brought to us by the man the slur was directed at, Yu Darvish. Asked about it after the game, he called the gesture “disrespectful” adding:

“Nobody’s perfect. And everybody’s different,” he says. ” And we’re going to have to learn from it. We are all human beings. That’s what I’m saying. We’ll learn from it and we have to go forward.”

“One of the most gracious and helpful statements”

The next day, Darvish expanded on that in a tweet:

“No one is perfect. That includes both you and I. What he had done today isn’t right, but I believe we should put our effort into learning rather than to accuse him. If we can take something from this, that is a giant step for mankind. Since we are living in such a wonderful world, let’s stay positive and move forward instead of focusing on anger. I’m counting on everyone’s big love.”

On the News & Guts Facebook page, journalist Dan Rather wrote

“In all of my years covering civil rights, this is one of the most gracious and helpful statements I have read. It is in the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And the response and conversation that this helped spark is bringing us together as a nation, rather than what we are seeing on the political level.”

Rather pointed out that the choices we make can exacerbate the divisiveness in our country or, perhaps, ease it:

Each of us has a decision to make, especially those in leadership or before the public eye. Do we succumb to intolerance? Do we refuse to listen to the voices of others? Do we play with the easy currency of fear? Or do we recognize that the only future worth a damn for our country, and our world, is to try to get along?

What’s your choice today?


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Listen up, people! The case for non-gendered language

There’s a lot of divisiveness in the world these days—at least in the United States, but I fear it’s spreading. In the face of so much division, we might do well to focus on what we have in common: our humanity. We are all people.

Is that enough to make a start?

Comedian Rhea Butcher put it this way in a tweet earlier this week:

"If we called everyone 'people' instead of separating everyone by gender we'd have to admit that everyone is a person."

“If we called everyone people…we’d have to admit that everyone is a person.” This Rhea Butcher person has a point.

Butcher was responding to the NFL player who found it funny “to hear a female talk about routes,” the patterns that football players run. Of course that “female,” Jourdan Rodrigue, is a sports reporter. It’s her job to talk about “routes.” But even if she didn’t talk football for a living, women can converse intelligently about anything we care to learn. And despite what sexist quarterbacks and hotel doormen assume, women can also be sports fans.

But Butcher is making a larger point here, and it’s one I’m surprised I haven’t given much thought to before. It’s about the divisiveness of gender.

“Women do X; men do Y.” Instead, how about:

People do X and Y.

Same set of information, but it produces an even more accurate sentence. Because we don’t make choices based on our gender; we make choices based on our passions and interests. I’m a woman baseball fan, but you can find plenty of men who’ve never watched a game in their lives.

Step into a toy store and it’s not hard to figure out the intended audience for all those pink toys. The world may want us to believe that pink is for girls, but I prefer a bluish palette—and I have some male friends who rock pastel button-downs better than anyone in the world. Yes, even the pink ones.

Why aren’t we all just “people”?

I spoke about this a while back, in a recording I made for the first World Speech Day. Instead of asking, “What’ll you girls be having?” a restaurant server could just as easily ask about “you folks” or “you people.”


It’s not easy to adopt non-gendered language, at least not if you’re used to the old way of speaking. That’s why in Sweden, they begin teaching non-gendered language in preschool. But adults learn plenty of things—when we want to.

So I invite you to spend a week noticing the pronouns you use. When you’re referring to a specific person, by all means use the pronouns that person prefers. But if you don’t need to gender something or someone, then don’t.

Start with your writing—it’s easier to revise and correct. Once you’ve gotten the hang of eliminating unnecessary gender references in print, it’ll be easier to do it when you speak. Eventually—like any new skill we learn—it will just come naturally to you.

Can baseball bridge divides? Maybe yes, maybe no

Some activists unveiled a banner about racism in baseball at Fenway Park this week. Baseball has figured into a couple of political conversations I’ve had in the last week. It’s left me wondering: Can baseball bridge divides in our society?

The case of the curious Lyft driver

I caught a Lyft when I arrived at the Cincinnati airport a couple of weeks ago. It was around midnight but my driver was chatty and I mentioned that I was in town to catch a baseball game. His next question came right out of the blue, like a pop fly in July:

“Are you married?”

He had kind of a thick accent—from somewhere in West Africa, he later told me—so I thought perhaps I’d misheard him. But when I didn’t answer, he asked again. Much more emphatically. Half-turning around in his seat:

“Are you married?”

I laughed and said, “That’s a very personal question.” He explained that he was just wondering because I was a woman going to a baseball game alone.

I tried to smile as I made it a teachable moment: “Well, as you’ve probably noticed in the year and a half you’ve been here, women in the United States often do things without their husbands. And husbands do things without their wives.”

I’m not sure I convinced him that our culture really does allow women to have agency (at least it has historically). But he did ask me how much the tickets were, and said he’d try to catch a game one of these days. If I didn’t manage to enlighten him, perhaps I created a baseball fan.

Can baseball bridge divides? The case of the translator

I found myself watching a game on TV with a relative of mine.

can baseball bridge divides?Baseball is one of the few things we have in common (although he roots for the wrong team). Then in the post-game interviews, one of the players showed up with a translator by his side.

“Now that—that I don’t go for,” my relative said, appending the familiar blather about how if you’re going to play ball here you should learn the language.

I knew I’d have to address the situation—I’m done letting teachable moments pass—but a combination of jet lag and my cold had ground down all my feistiness. So I said quietly, “Oh, I don’t know. Learning a new language is hard.”

And then a question popped into my mind. So I asked it, willing my voice to stay calm and curious:

“Have you ever tried to learn another language?”

I expected to hear something about high school Spanish but he just said, almost sheepishly, “No.”

Was his mind opening a crack?

“Well, it’s hard,” I said, still gently. “And then imagine that you’ve got to speak in this new language you’re learning in front of TV cameras and millions of people will hear you speak, and your bad accent, and maybe you don’t use all the right words. I can’t even imagine having to do that.”

My relative couldn’t either.

Listening, thinking can bridge divides

Now, my relative is not going to run right out and join a pro-DACA demonstration. But he’s thinking about at least one part of the immigration issue in a new way.

Can baseball bridge divides? Maybe. Not with banners but with personal interactions.

One conversation, one new idea planted. Starting right where you are, whenever you get an opening, whoever you can talk with.

It’s a long road, but it can lead to lasting change.


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“Go, Cubs, Go!” — Song for a Sunday

When I wrote about Steve Goodman last week, I had no idea I’d be standing in his favorite place in the world this week—Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs.

Steve spent many hours of his tragically short life in the “friendly confines.” And he’s spent time there in death, too: his brother scattered some of Steve’s ashes in the outfield, thanks to a groundskeeper friend. Yes, that last part sounds too good to be true—I read it in Clay Eals’s voluminous biography, Steve Goodman: Facing the Music. But  I checked with Steve’s widow, Nancy, and she verified all the details.

I was supposed to be in Houston this weekend, but I changed my plans in the wake of the hurricane. And so while my personalized Cubs jersey sat in a suitcase somewhere back East, I headed off to see the Cubs play the Braves.

The first inning looked rocky, but the Cubbies roared back, taking what seemed like a decisive lead and then adding to it. A good thing, too, because the Braves had the tying run at the plate in the 9th and the Cubs’ closer seemed to forget his job. But the Cubbies won.

Which was the main thing I’d been hoping for. I wanted to hear Steve sing “Go, Cubs, Go!” in the building it was intended for.

And it was amazing. Nearly everyone in attendance stayed—after a nearly four-hour game! If the Mets had an equivalent song, everyone would be shouting the lyrics while racing down the stairwell. Still a community experience, but rather a different kind.

I made a video of the scene at Wrigley yesterday. Notice how you almost can’t hear the opening lines through the crowd noise, but then everyone either gets quiet or starts singing. What a gift Steve left behind for Cubs fans—for all of us.

Enjoy.

Go, Cubs, Go! September 2nd 2017 from Elaine Bennett on Vimeo.

How to build a fan base? Think like your audience

Last weekend, Major League Baseball rolled out a new feature: Players Weekend. The players wore different uniforms, with the most hideous socks imaginable, and instead of having their last names on the backs of the jerseys, they each had nicknames.

The ostensible purpose of this exercise was to attract more young fans to the game. As a side effect, it also gave the teams a fresh batch of merchandise to sell. Okay, they’re auctioning off the game-used jerseys for charity, but MLB will happily sell you a replica for anywhere from $30 to $200.

I’m not the only person baffled by this promotion. If you’re a fan of the last Mets pitching star still in the rotation, Jacob deGrom, will you really be more likely to beg your parents to buy his jersey when it has his nickname on it rather than “deGrom”? That nickname, by the way—prepare yourself—it’s Jake.

The Spanish-speaking players seemed to go for more interesting monikers. Infielder José Reyes went with “La Melaza,” which apparently means “sweetness.” One of our relief pitchers, who has a Puerto Rican grandparent, was “Quarterrican.” I’m amused by the wordplay, but would a kid care?

And the night games still started at 7pm—or even 8:00—and still dragged on for more than three hours, on average. You want to attract the next generation of fans? How about playing games while they’re still awake?

No, the nickname promotion seemed to focus more on increasing MLB’s profits rather than increasing its fan base.

What could they have done differently?

To build a fan base, start with empathy

People want to feel special. Actually, more than that, they want to feel like you think they’re special.

I suppose kids named Jake might feel special to know they share a nickname with a major league pitcher. But that’s a pretty limited universe. (And a pretty unsurprising nickname.)

What if instead of offering to sell young fans something, baseball actually gave them something instead?

build a fan base with empathy

I haven’t been a “young fan” since well before the current crop of players was born, but I felt pretty darn special yesterday when the Cincinnati Reds gave me a certificate to commemorate my first Reds game.

There I was in my Mets jersey and “2015 National League Champions” cap and they still gave this to me.

Now, imagine you’re actually a young baseball fan. Does this certificate go up on your bedroom wall? I think it does. And I can’t see when it comes down. Wouldn’t you always want to remember your very first major league game?

And once you’re a member of the club—I don’t mean the ball club, I mean the club of people who go to baseball games. In this case, people who go to Reds games. Once you’re a member of that club, don’t you want to stay in it?

Now it’s true, if you’re focused on the bottom line, there’s nothing in this for the Reds. They’re not making a buck on this transaction. In fact, they’re losing money—paying an employee (today it was sweet-as-pie Rita), to sit at the computer, offer her congratulations, personalize the certificates, and print them out for the fans.

But what return is the team getting on that investment?

Young fans who feel special will grow into older fans who feel special. Catch a fan young and you’ve likely got a lifelong fan. That’s a lot of chili dogs and beer (and Graeber’s ice cream—a revelation) and merch to sell.

Somebody in the MLB marketing department ought to visit a Reds game one of these days. If it’s their first time, the folks at Fan Accommodations will be happy to give them a commemorative certificate. For free. Rita would be far too polite to say it outright, but the baseball execs might get the message: building a fan base means building a community. It’s not about getting people to buy merch, it’s about them to buy into the experience.


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Writing vs. crafting — “doing my autobiography”

writing vs. crafting —baseball editionSo there I am, watching a baseball game. I thought it was the Mets vs. the Nationals but the contest quickly turned into Writing vs. Crafting.

One of the announcers started talking about a long-ago incident and then explained, “It’s been on my mind because I’m doing my autobiography now.”

Anything strike you as odd about that sentence?

(I guess I gave it away in the title of the post.)

On the one hand, I’m grateful for the announcer’s honesty—as opaque as it is. Clearly he—like many a baseball player before him—has hired a ghostwriter. No shame in that. But that leaves us with this extremely odd sentence:

I’m doing my autobiography.

Stories about “doing” rather than “being” provide a much richer experience for your reader. But when I create those stories, the verb I reach for is “write.” I write blog posts, speeches, books. I don’t “do” them.

He could have said “I’m working on my autobiography.” That’s true enough, whether or not he’s writing every word.

Writing vs. crafting

I think I object to “doing” also because it somehow makes the act of writing sound like, I don’t know, building a cabinet. “I’m doing some woodworking in the basement.” “I’m doing some collaging these days.”

Is writing a craft? Well, I guess we call it that sometimes. I often craft speeches for my clients—yes, I use the verb to blur things. I don’t want to take too much credit for the words that come out of my clients’ mouths, even if I did write every one.

Playwrighting—I still remember the lecture my Playwrighting teacher gave us the first day of his class. It’s memorable not just for what he said but because it was pretty much the only thing even approaching a lecture that we heard for the rest of the semester. He very carefully explained the spelling of the thing we were about to undertake. That it’s “wrighting” not “writing” because we are crafting something.

But playwrighting is a participatory sport, at least once you get a director and a bunch of actors involved. Book-writing tends to be much more solitary. Unless, of course, you’re working with a ghost—and then the ghost puts in the bulk of the alone time.

Look, there’s nothing wrong with crafting. And nothing wrong with hiring a ghost—unless you lay all the blame on the ghost for your own mistakes. But please don’t “do” writing. Just write. Or work with a writer—either way, I’m happy.


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WTF Philadelphia?

First stop on my vacation took me to Philadelphia. I think of Philly as a sort of mini-New York. You know, a city on the East Coast. So it must share the kinds of New York City values I’m used to. But apparently…not so much. I found myself bewildered more than once, thinking WTF Philadelphia?

[Yeah, I know there’s supposed to be a comma between WTF and Philadelphia. But I don’t want to anger the SEO Gods.]

My first clue came at the ballpark. Of course I was in Philadelphia for a Mets game. Don’t you know me by now?

RIP Darren Daulton

WTF Philadelphia
Daulton’s 1991 baseball card, image c/o mysticgames.com

The Phillies had just lost one of their great players the week I visited. Darren Daulton was the catcher on their 1997 World Series-winning team, and they paid tribute to him before the game. You know: moment of silence, reverent video—at least 7 of the whole 9 yards. I’m sure they’ll get to 9 later, when they can bring in his family and the men he played with for a more extensive tribute. But he’d only just passed away; the family is probably still making funeral arrangements.

We Mets fans know what it’s like to lose a beloved player too young—”the Kid,” Gary Carter. Carter was a catcher on our 1986 World Series-winning team. And, like Daulton, he was also felled by a brain tumor. I grabbed some extra napkins at the cheesesteak stand to sop up my inevitable tears.

And I did cry at the memorial (enough with the dying, already). But I also gasped in astonishment at the film tribute. After detailing the highlights of Daulton’s playing career—the little film was packed with clips of him in action—the voiceover announcer intoned,

“To the ladies, he was a matinée idol. But he was also a man’s man.”

Now I’ll grant you, the guy was handsome. Chiseled cheekbones, strong jaw, a full head of floppy late 1980s hair. But will someone please explain to me why we needed the caveat that men also liked him—or maybe that he also liked hanging with  dudes. Honestly, I’m not quite sure what that sentence was trying to say.

One thing it did say—loud and clear to me—is that someone thinks the only reason a woman could possibly admire a player is for his good looks. But is that really the story you want to tell your female fans, Phillies management? “Don’t worry your pretty little heads about strategy and skill; just look at the hot bodies. And buy lots of pink gear with the team logo. M’kay?”

WTF Philadelphia?

Still, I did enjoy the game. For once the Mets were in fine form, combining lights-out pitching by Jacob deGrom; stellar defense in the field; and—mirabile dictu!—actual hits, including singles and doubles, so that more than once when someone came along to hit it out of the park we scored not one run but three. Add in a handful of solo shots and you arrive at the very satisfying score of 10-0.

I hopped in a cab outside the ballpark—couldn’t have been easier—and hurtled back toward my hotel. The doorman opened the taxi door for me, gave a deferential half-bow and asked, “How was your evening, sir?”

Sir?

I mean, yes, I was wearing a baseball jersey and matching cap. But I was also wearing my—well, this is a business blog so I’ll just say “curves.” The moment I stepped one daintily shod foot out of the taxi, he started falling all over himself to apologize.

I looked him in the eyes and said,

“You know, girls can be baseball fans, too.”

The minute the word tumbled out of my mouth, I wanted to stuff it back in. I haven’t been a girl in—er, probably since before that doorman’s birth. But I was a little bit rattled, I gotta say.

So WTF Philadelphia? Seems like the “city of brotherly love” still hasn’t figured out that women love things other than men—or, in some cases, in addition to men.

Is this what it’s like in the rest of the country? No, I imagine in some spots it’s probably worse.

Well, I’ve checked the Phillies’s ballpark off my list. I don’t have to go back; in fact, I probably won’t.


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Do unnecessary words slow your game?

I love baseball. But some people find the game too slow. The powers that be in Major League Baseball have lately instituted various rules to shorten the game—they’re even considering a pitch clock.

When coaches consult with pitchers during the game, that’s timed now—and from the moment the coach steps out of the dugout. So we now get to see out-of-shape middle-aged men running at top speed to the pitchers mound, arriving with just enough breath to gasp out their essential advice: “Throw strikes.”

Pitching coaches often teach their charges to eliminate unnecessary movements from their windup. I think the game could also benefit from eliminating unnecessary words. In fact, we all can.

Unnecessary words — yer out!

unnecessary wordsIf the folks who run baseball teams are really serious about shortening games, I direct their attention to the announcer’s booth. Let’s start with a sentence intoned by the public address announcer before the National Anthem that kicks off every game:

“At this time, we ask that you rise and remove your caps.”

No, I’m not suggesting that we stop singing the National Anthem. But look at that sentence:

“At this time”—to use a technical term: Duh.

You’re not saying, “In 15 minutes, we’re going to ask that you rise and remove your caps.” No, you’re making the announcement now. The cap-removal starts now. You don’t need to add that NOW is when we’re asking you to do it.

And if you really feel a need for a redundancy, then a simple “Now” will do. “We now ask…” But again, now is clearly when you’re asking.

And “ask”? I mean, yes, it’s nice to ask. But it’s a law or something that we remove headgear when they play the National Anthem. So is the announcer really asking?

Note: There’s no law, as far as I know, that requires any particular reverent gestures for Irving Berlin songs, and yet a security guard in Yankee Stadium once ejected a paying customer who tried to leave the stands to go to the bathroom during the singing of Berlin’s “God Bless America.” The man sued, and won.

At any rate: “At this time”—redundant; “we ask”—unnecessary. Which leaves us with:

“Rise and remove your caps.”

I’d throw a “please” in front of that because my mother raised me right.

“Please rise and remove your caps.”

There: I just shaved 30 seconds off the game.

At this time, you may thank me. A simple tip of the cap will do.


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Tailwinds, tutus, and a marathon commitment

They say “never say never,” but I feel confident you will never see me run a marathon. It’s not that I lack stamina; my writing streak stands at 426 days as I write this on Sunday afternoon—surely that counts as a marathon commitment. And while some days it feels like a walk in the park, others it feels like the Ironman with a couple of extra sports thrown in for good measure.

massive commitments
One of the rest stop volunteers during this year’s AIDS/LifeCycle ride

My friend Marcia has taken on several endurance rides and races. Last week wrote about the most recent—a week-long, 550-mile bike ride down the California coast, raising money for AIDS/LifeCycle.

During that long, hot bike ride, Marcia discovered many natural wonders: tailwinds that pushed the riders up steep hills; curves that revealed sudden, breathtaking views of the Pacific; volunteers at the rest stops wearing sparkly rainbow tutus.

She also discovered something wonderful about herself:

“…eventually, you don’t even feel it as your capability is massively enhanced. Tailwinds combined with graham cracker crunch bars and electrolyte drinks roughly every 20 miles made the whole 550 miles to Los Angeles about as effortless as a long ride could be.”

The 90-Day Writing Challenge, another marathon commitment

Marcia’s story arrived in my email as the writers in my 90-Day Writing Challenge are rounding a curve that reveals a breathtaking view of their finish line: the Challenge wraps up this Friday. A remarkable number of the writers who started it are on track to complete this marathon commitment, either writing for the full 90 days or just on the weekdays. I feel certain the writers would want me to add quotations marks around that “just.” Nothing feels simple when you’re struggling to make words come out of your fingers to meet a midnight deadline. But they’ve done it. And that’s an amazing accomplishment.

So what’s gotten them through it? Many of the same things that sustained Marcia, though with less sweating and (I’m guessing) less latex, or whatever space-age stuff they use in those bicycle suits.

Marcia had a team. It included her sister and several friends actually doing the ride, plus dozens of others who took on the very strenuous task of pushing a button to donate online. (Hey—I’ve put in a lot of hours of training to use that credit card at my peak performance level.) Plus the hundreds of volunteers supporting the riders in the field.

My writers also had a team: each other. When someone posted that she (no male writers in the challenge this time) felt she’d written poorly, the others provided strong tailwinds by reminding her that the challenge was not to write well; it was merely to write at all.

The writers shared their work in our private Facebook group and in person (well, via Zoom video calls) in a writers’ group. They loved the writers’ group so much that they insisted on meeting every week. And they plan to continue meeting even after the Challenge ends.

We had sparkly tutus, tu—er, too. I sent the group two writing prompts every week and made sure to include fanciful assignments like this:

marathon commitment

Even though most of my writers are business-oriented—writing blogs and website copy—it’s good to get out of your lane for a bit. Especially when you’re in the midst of a writing marathon.

Marcia and her teammates raised something like $30,000 for AIDS/LifeCycle. The 5-day writing challenges I’ve run to date have raised nearly $2,000 for Room to Read—with, as I’ve noted, much less sweat. The writers who complete this first-ever 90-Day Challenge will earn up to $150 apiece for their favorite charity. Those who put together shorter streaks during the challenge period will earn smaller donations.

How have you challenged yourself lately? My next 90-day challenge begins on Saturday. Stock up on graham cracker bars and electrolyte drink and join us. Sparkly tutus optional.