Friday, December 31, 2010

Book Review: "The Grove" by John Rector

Despite the fact that I'm sitting here writing a book review, I don't put a lot of stock in people's opinions. What I've learned over the years is that each person brings something completely different to reading a book, seeing a movie, eating a meal, etc.—not just what they think, but how they're feeling or what's going on in their lives at that particular time. My general rule of thumb is, if everyone in the world pans something, I know to stay away from it unless I am willing to risk disappointment; if everyone likes something, I need to be careful to watch my expectations.

John Rector's The Grove came really well-recommended, plus the bulk of the reviews on Amazon were fairly stellar. Unfortunately, I don't agree with any of them. I found this book unexciting (particularly the conclusion), poorly edited and just kind of, well, blah. Rector took an interesting premise: Dexter McCray, an alcoholic farmer who has been struggling with his demons for a long time, wakes up from a blackout one morning to find the body of a young waitress in his cornfield. He has no memory of even encountering the woman, let alone murdering her, but in an effort to figure out what happened (and hopefully prevent suspicion from falling on him), he surreptitiously investigates the crime. And assisting him is the dead girl herself.

I felt as if Rector missed some great opportunities to tell a unique story, and instead chose the easier path, the one I've read down countless times before. McCray is an utterly unsympathetic character despite all that has happened to him, and the book never quite explains what caused the hallucination of the dead girl, and hints at other things in McCray's past but never provides detail. Rector has a new novel that was published by a major company (this book was self-published), so I may give him another try at some point, but I'm still disappointed in this book. Oh well...

Thursday, December 30, 2010

If I Knew Then...

As many of you know, a few months back I recorded a video for the It Gets Better Project to help LGBT teens and young adults who are being bullied and struggling with suicide. As I remembered the anguish, pain and sense of aloneness I felt when dealing with this bullying in middle school, high school and summer camp, I thought about how useful it would have been to have had videos like these to support me.

And then I started thinking: if I knew then what I know now, would I want to go back to those times?

I'm a firm believer that the circumstances of your life—good and bad—shape you as a person. And much like in Back to the Future, the slightest correction could have serious ripple effects.

Am I totally happy with the course my life has taken? No, not completely. Hindsight is 20/20, after all, so there are certainly lots of changes I would make if I could. But that being said, if I had the opportunity to go back in time knowing what I know now, I don't think I would. However, what I wish I could do was simply tell the high school-aged or college-aged Larry that things really would get better, and that many of the things that were such a big deal then would turn out to be mere bumps in the road.

Of course, as they say in Coke Zero commercials, they haven't yet invented time machines (not even hot tub time machines), so this is just an interesting thought exercise. But it would be interesting to have a day back in high school, knowing what I know now...maybe I would have been president of the Drama Club after all!

How about you? If you could go back to a point in your life knowing what you know now, would you?

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Are There Things Money Can't Fix?

Last week it was announced that the parents of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers University student who killed himself this fall after his roommate put images of him having sex with another man on the internet, intend to sue the school for failing to protect Tyler. (Clementi's roommate, Dharun Ravi, and Ravi's friend, Molly Wei, also ridiculed Clementi on Twitter.)

The notice sent to Rutgers by the Clementis' attorney said that the university "failed to act, failed to put in place and/or failed to implement, and enforce policies and practices that would have prevented or deterred such acts, and...failed to act timely and appropriately." A Rutgers spokesperson said that the university sympathizes with the family but bears no responsibility in Tyler's death.

Those of you who read my blog or Facebook around the time of Tyler's suicide know how devastated I was by this tragedy. I certainly blame Ravi and Wei for their heartless intimidation and ridicule of Tyler, as well as society in general for ingraining in Tyler's mind that being "found out" as gay was so horrible he needed to kill himself to escape it. But unless the Clementis have proof that Rutgers' administration knew something about what was happening and failed to act, I do not believe the university is to blame.

This is a whole lot of background for a fundamental question I'd like to ask: when tragedy strikes, why does it almost always boil down to money?

When a product malfunctions and causes injury or death, I understand the rationale for a lawsuit.

When a person or company's malfeasance or neglect causes injury or death, I understand.

Beyond that, however, does money make it better? If your child commits suicide or is accidentally killed by a child playing with a gun, will large sums of money ameliorate your suffering?

I understand that sometimes it isn't about the money, it's about seeing justice served, or making a point publicly. But I have to believe that with multi-million dollar lawsuits, somewhere deep inside, it is about the money. (Nowhere has it been stated that the Clementis are suing for large sums of money; I'm simply making a point.)

I mean no one any harm with my questions, I'm just trying to understand.

Book Review: "The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake" by Aimee Bender

Where has Aimee Bender been all my life? I had heard of her before but hadn't ever read any of her books, and now that I've read her amazing yet slightly weird The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, I may be hooked.

On the eve of her ninth birthday, Rose Edelstein discovers she has suddenly developed a strange ability: when eating, she can taste the emotions of the person who cooked her food. Eating the chocolate lemon cake and other food her emotionally needy mother cooks causes Rose tremendous distress; she must resort to eating snack food and other "sterile" meals to escape tasting her mother's torment. She can taste when a baker is hurried, or when someone's girlfriend wants to be loved. (As this ability matures, Rose can detect where every ingredient of a meal originated, and even can tell if a farmer picked his parsley angrily before bringing it to market.) Rose's ability causes her to detach a bit from life, alongside her equally-withdrawn brother, Joseph. The only true light in Rose's life is Joseph's childhood friend, George.

I really loved this book. While I wish that Bender had fleshed out Rose's ability a little deeper, and I felt it veered into unnecessarily strange territory at one point, I was really captivated by this book's heart and its soul. Some have said this is a ripoff of Like Water for Chocolate, but I disagree. Bender's creativity is fascinating and she really lavished a great deal of love and complexity on her characters. If you enjoy suspending your disbelief when reading fiction, if you're a fan of authors like Alice Hoffman and Audrey Niffenegger, then this book is definitely for you. But don't read it on an empty stomach!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Book Review: "The Madonnas of Echo Park" by Brando Skyhorse

Echo Park, the Los Angeles neighborhood down the hill from Chavez Ravine, is the setting for Brando Skyhorse's interconnected story collection, The Madonnas of Echo Park. (I think Brando Skyhorse may be one of the coolest names I've ever heard for an author.)

The characters in Skyhorse's stories are Mexican-Americans of varying ages who are trying to fit in with or rebel against their culture and their neighborhood. Many of the characters are the types of people we pass by every day—cleaning women, bus drivers, day laborers, ex-convicts and teenagers—but Skyhorse brings each to life by wrapping us up in their stories. There's Felicia, who finds herself cleaning house for a family more damaged than she bargained for; Angie, who is reminiscing about her life-changing, fractious relationship with her teenage best friend; Efren, a bus driver who has always prided himself on his staunch devotion to rules and regulations, until one night; Hector, a migrant worker who is forced into covering up a murder; and many others.

Some of the stories in this collection truly moved me, some intrigued me and all but one compelled me to keep reading. Skyhorse created some complicated, multi-layered characters; even when they fall closer to stereotypes, I still found myself invested in what was happening to them. I never felt as if the way he connected the stories was too forced; at times, when I recognized the connections I was even a bit surprised (and even awed, once or twice). I look forward to seeing what comes next in his career, and I definitely recommend this book if you enjoy short stories.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas!

In the words of Charlie Brown and his friends, "Christmas time is here..."

As I've mentioned before, growing up Jewish, Christmas has always meant two things: movies and Chinese food. Today we continued that tradition, seeing two movies—The King's Speech and Rabbit Hole—and we'll be ordering Chinese in just a little while.

What I've found interesting over the last few years is the growing number of people at the movies on Christmas. While I certainly understand by mid- to late afternoon, family time may get a little bit, umm, chafing, I'm surprised by how many people have been at the movies Christmas morning. I guess traditions are changing!

However you've spent the day, I wish you and yours a very Merry Christmas. Here's hoping your holiday was filled with joy, peace, love and laughter...and maybe even a little buttered popcorn!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Time Doesn't Stop the Hurt...

One year ago today, our beloved beagle-shepherd Zeke died.

As I've discussed a number of times, I had Zeke for more than 15 years, and he was the most constant presence in my life. He saw me through good times and bad, sickness and health, relationships, jobs, weight loss, weight gain, etc., and always provided tremendous unconditional love and support in exchange for some people food.

It's hard to believe it's been a year since we made the decision to end his struggle with hepatic encephalopathy. And while I know it was the right decision, I miss him every day, and wish he could still be here with us.

Of course, nine months ago we brought a new puppy, Quinn, home. She has provided us a great deal of excitement, fun, frustration and sleepless nights, but she is tremendously sweet and smart (so smart, in fact, that she's apparently teaching other dogs at the doggie daycare facility to climb out of their cages when they have a "time out" every few hours), and I look forward to watching her grow.

I love Quinn, but sometimes spending time with her underscores how much we miss Zeke. Sometimes I see flashes of Zeke in Quinn (especially her stubbornness, cough, cough), so I know he's looking down on all of us.

To my sweet boy, I still miss you more than words can say. I hope you're playing, relaxing and getting as many bagels and pieces of turkey as your heart desires. We love you and you will always have a big part of our hearts.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Rules are Rules, Except in Sports...

I wasn't an athlete growing up, so I've never truly understood the immense reverence with which athletes are treated, that secret fraternity/sorority that allows for a special code of rules and conduct in many places.

Interestingly enough, every sport—and the organizations that govern both professional and collegiate sports—have specific rules, yet rules are only made to be enforced at specific times.

Today the NCAA announced that five Ohio State University football players would be suspended for the first five games of the 2011 season for selling awards, gifts and university apparel and receiving improper benefits in 2009. Note that the players will not miss the Sugar Bowl, because "the student-athletes did not receive adequate rules education during the time period the violations occurred"—even though the NCAA decided to dock a fifth game on top of the standard four-game suspension because the players "did not immediately disclose the violations when presented with the appropriate rules education."


So it's a punishment, but they should still get the honor of playing in a major bowl game. (Oh yeah, and the first five games aren't that big of a deal...they'll be back just in time to make the trip to Nebraska for OSU's first clash with the Cornhuskers as a Big Ten rival.)

Why are there rarely serious consequences for breaking the rules, especially in sports?

Does anyone really believe Cam Newton wasn't aware of his father's organizing an illegal pay-to-play scheme in return for his commitment to attend college and play football? No, but inarguably, he was the best player this year and deserved to win the Heisman Trophy, although as demonstrated with Reggie Bush, the award can be rescinded at any time if evidence surfaces.

In any other world, someone who admitted he violated rules and misled investigators would be fired from their job and might even face prosecution. But Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl was simply suspended eight games and fined $1 million. Just another slap on the wrist...

And what of New York Jets' assistant coach Sal Alosi? During a Jets/Dolphins game a few weeks ago, Alosi tripped Dolphin player Nolan Carroll on the sidelines. While it was a ridiculous incident and far beyond the behavior expected of a coach, players aren't punished horribly for far worse hits on their opponents, so the NFL suspended Alosi for the remainder of the season (three games plus any playoff appearances). Now, evidence is coming to light that Alosi ordered several players to set up a wall along the sideline so Alosi could trip Carroll. But instead of Alosi being fired, as of now he has been suspended "indefinitely."

Some people say that because players get second chances, so should coaches. I say that if Alosi were a gym teacher, or a parent coaching his kid's football game, people would call for his head. And here is someone representing the NFL! Ridiculousness abounds...

I know bending the rules and leniency happens all the time, even in our justice system. But if we're paying athletes obscene amounts of money, shouldn't they at least be held to the same rules? It's no wonder when many kids grow up they want to be professional athletes—where else can you get fame, glory, lots of money and free athletic gear, and then get to do whatever you want?

Book Review: "In a Strange Room" by Damon Galgut

Damon, the narrator of Damon Galgut's beautiful yet spare In a Strange Room, can't seem to settle down. Every time he finds himself settling into a place, he is struck by the somewhat inexplicable need to roam. Perhaps this quote says it best: "There is a moment when any real journey begins. Sometimes it happens as you leave your house, sometimes it's a long way from home."

The book follows Damon on three separate journies, which are three separate chapters. In the first, he meets up with German hiker Reiner, and they wander through parts of Greece, and later, take several circles through Lesotho. On his second journey, Damon travels through Nigeria, Tanzania and Malawi, and he meets (and often encounters) several people, including Swiss siblings Jerome and Alice. And on the third journey, Damon is caring for his friend Anna, who is suffering from significant mental illness. Each journey is characterized by Damon's near connections, which never quite turn out the way he hopes. Each journey sends Damon deeper into himself, his motivations and fears. And each journey leaves him wondering, what if?

Galgut's writing style was very interesting. He doesn't use quotation marks or question marks, but simply sets quotes off as separate sentences. And at times, the narrator is referred to as "I," and other times, "he" or "him." I thought the story was tremendously compelling, but much like those with which Damon came into contact, I found myself longing for connections. Too often the story led you to believe something would happen, only to be thwarted by Damon's conscience, anxiety, fears or lack of direction. The last two chapters each had heartbreaking notes but much was unsaid, even to the readers, so filling in the blanks wasn't always easy or satisfying. Ultimately, this book was, in Damon's own words, "the story of what never happened, the story of travelling a long way while standing still." Very interesting.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

How Much is That Messiah in the Window?

I love Facebook for so many reasons, one of which is the marvelous things people find and share. Here's a lesson which could be called truth in advertising by some:

An Endless Parade of Idiocy...

Today President Obama signed the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell into law. It's an amazingly moving and exciting moment that has been hoped for since before DADT took effect in 1994. As President Obama said, "No longer will tens of thousands of Americans in uniform be asked to live a lie, or look over their shoulder in order to serve the country that they love."

Although this week will be remembered by many for this historic moment, there have been a number of idiotic, offensive or downright stupid moments as well. Here are a few highlights:

  • On her "reality" show/campaign ad, Sarah Palin took a shot at First Lady Michelle Obama's anti-obesity efforts. While looking for ingredients to make s'mores, Palin said "Where are the s'mores ingredients? This is in honor of Michelle Obama, who said the other day we should not have dessert." (Palin believes what children eat in school should be determined by their parents, not schools or the government.)

  • Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour—often mentioned as a possible 2012 presidential candidate—might have torpedoed his chances much as former Mississippi Senator Trent Lott did several years ago, making a flippant comment about race. He said that growing up in Yazoo City, MS, during the height of the civil rights movement, "wasn't that bad." The governor went on to credit the Citizens Council, a group that has been viewed as pro-segregationist, for helping to integrate his hometown more peacefully than other cities in the Deep South were integrated. He also discussed attending a Martin Luther King, Jr. rally, although he boasted he spent more time "watching the girls" than listening to the civil rights icon.

  • Shortly after the Senate's vote to repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell last weekend, Virginia Delegate Bob Marshall declared he would introduce a bill in the 2011 General Assembly which would make DADT the rule in the Virginia National Guard. As Marshall, who was the sponsor of the bill banning gay marriage in Virginia, sees it, "allowing openly gay people to serve in the military will weaken military recruitment and retention, and will increase pressure for a military draft." Fortunately, Governor Bob McDonnell, who didn't support repeal of DADT, accepts that the repeal is now law, and doesn't think Virginia should deviate from the standard set for U.S. military members.

What would I do without political foibles?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Dream a Little Dream...

Every so often, I have bizarre and/or disturbing dreams. Sometimes I can figure out the genesis of these dreams—I'm particularly anxious about one thing or another, or I've just seen or read something that apparently stuck in my mind.

Some are fresh out of Dream Interpretation 101—I'm wandering all over the place in my underwear, I'm late to something tremendously important, etc. (I also tend to have dreams that people I know are serial killers after I've seen one too many episodes of CSI or Dexter.)

The other night, however, I had one of the most vivid and strange dreams I ever had, and while it wasn't frightening, it truly shook me up. At this point, I can't even describe it adequately, but let's just say the dream featured me as a child and an adult, as well as various original cast members from Sesame Street, and people I knew as a camper and counselor from my years at Timber Lake Camp.

During the dream it appeared that the woman who originated the role of Susan on Sesame Street (Loretta Long) was my mother. (Can't quite figure that one out.) There also was a great deal of somewhat-psychedelic stuff that occurred while I was "at camp."

The dream ended with me being handed a postcard, which read "I'm happy where I am." I'm not sure what this meant exactly, but it left me very emotional, and I woke up crying. You see, my mother died when I was two years old, and I have no memories of her, just a few photos. So given that a figure representing my mother was in this dream, I can't help but wonder if that postcard was her message to me that she's happy because she's had the chance to watch me and her loved ones all these years.

Of course, another hypothesis I've been playing with is that the postcard was a sign for me, that although I've been struggling with things lately, perhaps I really am happy where I am.

No resolution, of course. But it's definitely one of those dreams I wish I could have again, if only to try and figure out what it all meant.

Like that's possible.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Book Review: "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand" by Helen Simonson

Major Ernest Pettigrew's world has changed a little too much. His younger brother, Bertie, just died, and he is trying to delicately get something from Bertie's estate that rightfully belongs to him. His son, Roger, is becoming ever-more obsessed with money, appearances and social status, and is making the Major feel as if he's just waiting to be shuffled off to the rest home. His beloved town is under siege by developers. And after years of being a widower, he is starting to develop romantic feelings for Jasmina Ali, the local shopkeeper.

I really enjoyed this book. Helen Simonson, who has spent the last 20 years living in the US after being born and raised in England, has created a terrific little world in the town of Edgecombe St. Mary, with truly memorable characters. Major Pettigrew and Mrs. Ali make a terrific couple, and even if the story follows a fairly predictable path in many ways, I definitely found myself rooting for them and was quite invested in their relationship. While some of the supporting characters are little more than fleshed-out versions of characters you've seen before, and some of the plot devices are almost farcical, the word that best describes this book is quaint. And that's not a bad thing.

If you enjoy books that seem like throwbacks to a simpler time, this book is definitely one you'll enjoy. It reminded me a little of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society in its charm. Good fun.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

One Giant Step for Equality...

It didn't seem possible.

A lame duck Congress. Days before the Christmas recess. Emboldened Republicans determined to control legislation being passed before the New Year. An outspoken Marine commandant breaking ranks with his superiors and the Pentagon, giving ammunition to conservative opponents.

Yet this afternoon, by a vote of 65-31, the Senate approved the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, which has prohibited gay and lesbian soldiers from openly serving in the military since March 1, 1994. More than 13,500 soldiers—many of them highly decorated and commended for their service—have been discharged as a result of this law.

While certification is required from the President, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and Secretary of Defense before anyone can serve openly, this is a tremendous victory for equality. Finally, enough Senators and Congressmen had the conviction to do what is right. (Earlier in the week, the House approved the repeal with a 250-175 vote.)

Eight Republican Senators—Scott Brown (MA), Richard Burr (NC), Susan Collins (ME), John Ensign (NV), Mark Kirk (IL), Lisa Murkowski (AK), Olympia Snowe (ME) and George Voinovich (OH)—voted courageously with all but one Democrat on this historic legislation. They should be saluted for their strength. (West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, who had spoken out against DADT repeal, did not vote today.)

As expected, conservatives already have spoken out against the repeal. The reaction of Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association (another hate group with the word "family" in its name) was documented on the Truth Wins Out blog. But given that 77 percent of Americans support the repeal, these voices will get more and more strident as they are ignored by all but their most fervent supporters.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid used a Republican stalwart's words during today's historic vote. Quoting Senator Barry Goldwater, he said "You don't have to be straight to shoot straight."

The haters will hate, but finally, the law is on the side of equality. While it is sad that 206 of our elected representatives (including "hero" John McCain) voted to stay discrimination and hide behind bigotry, today's vote is one giant step in the right direction.

As President Obama said, "It is time to recognize that sacrifice, valor and integrity are no more defined by sexual orientation than they are by race or gender, religion or creed."

Music to my ears. Hooray!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Sorry Seems to Be the Easiest Word...

If you hurt someone that is close to you, apologizing can be one of the toughest things to do. There certainly is some truth in Elton John's song, Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word.

But strangely enough, saying you're sorry is easy when spewing racist, sexist or homophobic comments.

Earlier this week, FIFA President Sepp Blatter, in discussing plans for Qatar to host the World Cup in 2022, encouraged gay soccer fans to "refrain from sexual activities," because of the country's ban on gay activities. After being roundly criticized by the media, athletes and other officials, Blatter apologized.

Case closed.

Yet this pattern is all too familiar.

Pro athletes call people "faggot" and other homophobic insults in Tweets and other social media postings—when they're called out on these insults, they say they're sorry and apparently that's enough.

Celebrities like Mel Gibson and Michael Richards have complete meltdowns, screaming racial, anti-semitic and homophobic epithets to anyone who'll listen. As the controversy increases, they say they're sorry.

I understand that you're supposed to apologize when you hurt someone or do something wrong. But I can't help but feel as if we're making it too easy, as if we're condoning these insults because the person apologizes afterward.

Do the words "I'm sorry" really make that much of a difference? If you start using racial, homophobic, sexist or anti-semitic insults, is that simply an accident you can ignore because you apologized?

"I'm sorry" are two important words everyone needs to learn. But we need to teach children and adults that these words are not a do-over button. You can't erase away the hurt by simply apologizing.

But if you disagree with this post, I'm sorry.

Book Review: "Matched" by Ally Condie

I think I've read more "young adult" fiction this year than I probably did when I was a young adult, but of course, today's YA fiction is more creative than anything I ever read when I was younger. Don't be put off by the YA label, because you don't need to suspend your intellect or your maturity when reading these books.

I found Ally Condie's Matched tremendously intriguing. The first in a proposed trilogy, the book takes place in the somewhat distant future. Our world was destroyed, particularly because of an overabundance of choices and lack of control, so the ruling "Society" now has control over everything. Nothing is left to chance; they have already foreseen the future. The Society dictates your profession, they plan your meals based on your nutritional requirements, and they determine who will "match" with whom, based on the most favorable breeding characteristics. Shortly after your 17th birthday, you learn who your match will be at a special banquet. At Cassia's matching banquet, she learns she is matched with Xander, her childhood friend. Yet the next day, the matching program tells her she is matched with Ky, a former schoolmate. And while she is told by Society officials that this was a glitch and Xander is her true match, she can't help but be intrigued by the thought of Ky. Once she starts to question why she can't choose her match, the questions about the Society's control over everything start coming fast and furious.

I really, really enjoyed this book. Condie did a terrific job creating the Society and all of its rules and programs, and truly created a group of fascinating characters. While the outcome of certain incidents might have been predictable, my attention was completely held the entire time. I look forward to reading the next book in the series—sadly, I don't think Condie has finished it yet!

Sunday, December 12, 2010


Today is my 41st birthday.

As I've discussed before, I tend to get very excited about my birthday. I always struggled to be considered "special" among my siblings and peers, so my birthday was the one day that was "mine," where at least for a little while, I could be the center of attention.

Even now, as an adult, I excitedly await the arrival of my birthday each year. It isn't the presents—really. What I enjoy most is hearing from my friends and family, whether they call or email with birthday wishes, send birthday cards or now, thanks to Facebook, post birthday wishes on my wall. There's just something pretty heartwarming about hearing "happy birthday" from people I've known since high school, college, summer camp, previous jobs, etc.

Yesterday we drove up to New Jersey for my nephew's third birthday party. Apparently what he loves more than anything is seeing lit candles on a cake, and having people sing to him. Maybe that's a family trait, because that's another thing I love about birthdays, too.

I don't ask for a particular present or event on my birthday—all I want is the opportunity to blow out a candle in a piece of cake or other dessert, and have a few people sing "Happy Birthday" to me. While the superstitious part of me thinks this is what is necessary for birthday wishes to come true, the birthday-loving part of me just likes the ceremony. (I always loved when my friends would tell the server at Bennigan's or a similar restaurant that it was my birthday, because that meant the "Bennigan's Birthday Song.")

So...happy birthday to me. I don't feel much older, happily, and I don't feel any wiser. (I don't feel less wise, so that's no problem.) And although I'm struggling a bit right now with where I am professionally and personally, I know I am loved by so many people, so it makes the struggle a little easier to bear.

I'm off to dinner and blowing out a candle, hopefully. (We do have a contingency plan in place, don't worry.)

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Stuff That Irritated Me Today...

Some might say that I'm never completely happy (reasonably untrue), but two things occurred today that left me irritated and a little depressed.

First, the horrible Fred Phelps and his awful Westboro Baptist Church announced their plans to picket at Elizabeth Edwards' funeral. A statement on the church's web site read "God hates Elizabeth Edwards. Flee her example."

Are you f--king kidding me? I know Phelps and his church are simply publicity-seeking leeches, but what is the point of protesting at Edwards' funeral? I thought when they protested at the Iraqi soldier's funeral that they had scraped the bottom of the barrel, but it appears they still had lower to go.

I know the Supreme Court has upheld Phelps' right to hold these demonstrations outside funerals as part of their freedom of speech. Honestly, I cannot believe that our founding fathers imagined this type of behavior when they protected freedom of speech. And I do not understand how the Supreme Court believes that hatemongers have the right to protest outside people's funerals but most people believe they'll vote against legalizing gay marriage if the decision came before them. Sigh.

And then, later in the day, the Senate failed to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Despite the fact that the Pentagon study found a majority of troops don't have a problem serving with openly gay soldiers, and a majority of people have said they believe Don't Ask, Don't Tell should be repealed, the Senate believes fighting over procedural votes is more important than equality.

I am so tired of the closed-minded people in this country continuing to win because they protest the loudest. I am so tired of basic equal rights being put to a vote by a less-than-diverse group of people. Although there are a few senators rumored to be gay, not one is openly so; why do non-gay people get to vote on the rights of gay people?

In a surprising twist given his usual cantankerous behavior, Senator Joe Lieberman has vowed to bring a stand-alone Don't Ask, Don't Tell bill before the Senate before the winter recess begins, and rumor has it that this bill may have the votes it needs to pass. Whether this will actually happen, and if it does, whether the House will be willing to consider such legislation as well, remains to be seen. I won't hold my breath just yet...

Is it the weekend yet? Hopefully tomorrow will be a better day...

Book Review: "An Object of Beauty" by Steve Martin

Admittedly, I don't know a lot about art. I can recognize some more famous paintings by Degas, Manet, Monet, Van Gogh, O'Keefe, Picasso, Vermeer, etc., and because I'm in love with the musical Sunday in the Park with George I can recognize a Seurat painting like nobody's business. But I never took an art history class in college, and although I like to visit art galleries from time to time and certainly know what appeals to me aesthetically, I'm no art snob.

Art is at the core of Steve Martin's (yes, that Steve Martin) engaging and entertaining new novel, An Object of Beauty. The narrator, Daniel, is a somewhat shy and unremarkable art writer (he reminds me a bit of some of Martin's movie characters) who recounts the story of Lacey Yeager, a beautiful, ambitious art dealer who uses all of the weapons in her arsenal (some legal, some not) to succeed in the art world. Along the way, Lacey works for Sotheby's, then a private gallery, before opening her own gallery, and she becomes more and more driven to succeed. Which, of course, leads to challenges.

I found this book educational without being heavy-handed and the story was very captivating. While Lacey is not a sympathetic character and Daniel tends to be almost a non-presence (surprising when he's the narrator), I found myself hooked on the story and I wanted to find out how everything would turn out. Martin is clearly a student of the art world, as his expertise truly shines through the story, and his writing style is very matter-of-fact. I was very impressed with this book and again with Martin as a writer, as I very much enjoyed one of his last novels, Shopgirl. If you're an art fan, you'll definitely enjoy this. But read it even if you're not.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Remembering Elizabeth Edwards...

The world lost a courageous woman today with the death of Elizabeth Edwards, after a long battle with cancer. She (sadly) is best known for being the estranged wife of former Senator John Edwards, the one-time vice-presidential candidate who also ran for president in 2004 and 2008. The mother of Cate, Emma Claire, Jack and Wade, who died at age 16, Edwards was 61 years old.

While struggling with her own health, she was an outspoken advocate for health care reform. She often wondered aloud how other women suffering from breast cancer or other illnesses would fare if they didn't have the personal wealth she did. She also shared with the public the most intimate struggles of her bouts with cancer, writing and speaking about the pain of losing her hair, the efforts to assure her children about their mother's future and the questions that lingered about how many days she had left to live.

But it was her grace under tremendous pressure that truly showed the world what a class act she was. She initially stood by John Edwards as rumors of his infidelity and fathering a child swirled around his second presidential campaign, despite his staunch denials. And even once he admitted the affair and they separated earlier this year, she never publicly castigated John, despite what I'm sure was tremendous embarrassment and betrayal.

When on December 6 she announced that doctors had told her further treatment would no longer do any good, she still tried to remain positive for her supporters, and wrote on her Facebook page:

"The days of our lives, for all of us, are numbered. We know that. And yes, there are certainly times when we aren't able to muster as much strength and patience as we would like. It's called being human. But I have found that in the simple act of living with hope, and in the daily effort to have a positive impact in the world, the days I do have are made all the more meaningful and precious. And for that I am grateful."

Truly a role model of courage and grace, even in dark times. Rest in peace.

I Want to Be Alone (Kind Of)...

W is away this week on business. Although he'll be back Friday evening, and my week tends to be filled up with work, the gym, physical therapy, etc., I'm still a little lonely. (Quinn doesn't talk much.)

The funny thing is, every so often when you live with someone and spend such a significant portion of your time with them, you find yourself just wishing for a few hours of "alone time." And then a few hours is never quite enough (at least for me), as you only begin decompressing or taking care of whatever it is you need to.

But when you're alone for a week, when you're used to living with someone and seeing them every morning and every evening, and eating dinner with them most nights, it's a little too much. Even though we speak a few times every day, it's completely different than being able to tell him something whenever I need to.

So...I'm ready for his return. I'm relaxing and enjoying myself, but the house will seem a little bit fuller (and a little more home) with him here. As Billy Joel once said, "I need you in my house 'cause you're my home..."

We miss you!!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Monday Morning Song...

I'm becoming less and less fond of Mondays as I get older. I would really be a proponent of the four-day work week, because a) I already work 40 hours in four days, and b) the first day of the weekend you cram full of everything you need to do and then you do fun things the second day and it's all over! Oh well...

Anyway, here's a song to describe my Monday feelings. This is Joe Purdy's Can't Seem to Get It Right Today, and it goes out to all of you Monday sufferers.

Happy day!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Book Review: "Memory Wall" by Anthony Doerr

Wow. This book really knocked me out. The six stories in Anthony Doerr's fantastic collection each deal with memory--what memories (and their loss) mean to us, how they move us and how conscious we are in the creation of new memories. (A character in the first story says "Remember a memory often enough and you can create a new memory, the memory of remembering.")

Each story has a wholly different premise and different main characters, and takes place in a completely difference place and time, from the lengthy opening story about a town in South Africa where doctors have developed a procedure to harvest memories from those suffering from dementia in the hopes of rebuilding some of the brain's connections, to the concluding story about a dying woman struggling with early memories of growing up in Nazi Germany. And each has its own power—some hit you between the eyes while some slowly build in your mind.

This is a tremendously well-written book that really has me thinking about my own memories. Doerr has done a fantastic job, and I can honestly say this is one of the best books I've read all year.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Act...

The Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy has been a sore point since it was approved during the Clinton Administration, especially when, during his run for president, Clinton promised equality to openly gay soldiers.

Since then, appallingly, even during times of war, highly decorated soldiers have been discharged from the military because their homosexuality was disclosed, either by themselves or as a result of blackmail or exposure by someone else. While revisiting this policy was never going to happen during George W. Bush's presidency, President Obama promised the gay community that he would work to repeal the law if he should be elected.

Despite this promise, President Obama and his administration did nothing to advance the repeal of DADT during the first two years of his presidency. And once DADT was declared unconstitutional in federal court, the Justice Department appealed the decision and requested a stay be granted before openly gay soldiers could serve in the military. The stay was granted, and President Obama and Defense Secretary Gates promised that repeal would be considered once the Pentagon did a study of how repeal would affect the military.

While the study was being conducted, Republicans such as Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham questioned the wisdom of repealing DADT during a time of war, but promised to wait until the report was released. Earlier this week, the Pentagon announced that the military would experience no deleterious effects if openly gay soldiers were to actively serve in the military, and a majority of soldiers—much like the majority of Americans polled—have no problem. The only soldiers who object are mostly Marines serving in active combat.

Given the promises made, you would think now that the report's findings show what most of us knew all along, that it's no big deal for openly gay people to serve in the military, repeal would be imminent, right? Wrong.

Critics like John McCain are now saying the report is flawed, and despite the strong feelings of Defense Secretary Gates (a Republican appointee) and other military leaders, he and other Republicans pandering to their base know better. And besides, the Republicans in the Senate are showing off their desire for collaboration by refusing to pass any bills until the Democrats agree that very wealthy Americans deserve an extension of the Bush tax cuts, so no action would occur anyway.

How much longer must the good of the nation be sacrificed for the opinions of the few?

Why is it okay for the rights of some to be decided by people with no appreciable desire to see another point of view, or to provide equal rights for all citizens?

In a time of war, don't we want the best soldiers serving our country? Why does it matter who they love? Don't hand me the old, tired "gays-as-sexual-predators" argument that is only used by self-loathing hypocrites shortly before they're exposed.

Enough is enough. At one point, Senator McCain was an American hero. He showed tremendous bravery in the face of tremendous adversity.

Senator McCain, it is time for you to be brave again. Embrace something you might not understand, but embrace it because it is right; otherwise the freedom you fought for truly means nothing, because it is only freedom for some, not freedom for all.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Today is World AIDS Day...

Today is World AIDS Day. I came of age after the AIDS crisis had become a part of our society, so I was fortunate to have the need for safe sex fairly ingrained in my mind. I also feel lucky that, although I know a few people who are living with AIDS, I have not lost anyone to the disease.

Advances in medicine have allowed individuals who have HIV or AIDS to live much longer than they would have 20 or even 10 years ago. However, this tends to create a feeling of invincibility among young people, who think that even if they contract HIV, it is something they can control. Since the beginning of the epidemic, an estimated 40,059 young people in the US have received this diagnosis, and over 10,000have died.

Progress in other countries hasn't been as positive. While the United Nations says new HIV infections have declined by almost 20 percent worldwide over the past decade, the estimated number of children living with HIV or AIDS in 11 Asian countries (Bangladesh, Bhutan, North Korea, India, Indonesia, Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Timor-Liste) has increased by 46 percent between 2001 and 2009.

Be safe. Take care of yourself. While AIDS may not be the death sentence it once was, it still is a fatal disease.

Get tested.

Before you want to engage in potentially unsafe behavior, make sure you and your partner get tested.

Say a prayer for those who have lost their lives.

Stay safe. It's the best way to stay alive.

Happy Hanukkah!

Happy Hanukkah! (Or Happy Chanukah, for the traditionalists among us!) I joked earlier today that many Jewish holidays are built around one premise: "they tried to kill us, we overcame, let's eat!"

Seriously, though, the story of Hanukkah is pretty miraculous. Following the brutal destruction of the ancient temple, the Jews wanted to burn the synagogue's menorah for eight days to purify it, but there only was enough oil to last one day. Miraculously, the menorah stayed lit for eight days. (There's a lot more to it, but that explains the whole eight-day part.)

Growing up Jewish around the holidays was always a little strange. My earliest realization of not celebrating Christmas was when I was four years old and we moved into a new house that didn't have a fireplace. I remember asking my mother how Santa would visit us, and she explained that we were Jewish and Jews didn't celebrate Christmas. Talk about a shock...

There is so much amazing Christmas music, but most of the Hanukkah music tended to sound alike when I was in high school chamber choir. And while Hanukkah offers a great deal of festive options, there isn't anything to quite rival the pomp of Christmas. (It sure would be nice to see a big menorah lighting on TV, much like they do when the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree is lit!)

Having a December birthday was an interesting proposition as well. Given the vagaries of the Jewish calendar, sometimes Hanukkah fell during my birthday, sometimes it was just before or just after. It was exciting to have both events so close together until people started with the "I'll give you one combined gift instead of separate gifts for your birthday and Hanukkah" thing. (As you may or may not be aware, I'm pretty fanatical about my birthday.)

All of that being said, Hanukkah is a lot of fun. Spin the dreidel, eat some potato latkes and, in the words of Adam Sandler, put on your yarmulke, it's time for Hanukkah!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Humble is Not in His Vocabulary...

There's little doubt that Roger Federer is one of the greatest tennis players and one of the greatest athletes of all time. To date he has won a record 16 Grand Slam titles, more than any other tennis player, and although he isn't as intimidating as he once was, he still proves to be a formidable opponent, and it wouldn't surprise me if he were to win a few more Grand Slam titles before he retires.

What Federer isn't, however, is humble. Not surprising, but ironic, given that many sportscasters (particularly the McEnroe brothers and Mary Carrillo) have lauded him for his graciousness. But instead, "Fed" is much like the Williams sisters in their inability to give credit to their opponents who defeat them. Usually in his post-match speeches Federer praises himself and his performance, and excuses away a loss by attributing it to an injury or, in one instance, that "he needed to remember what it's like to lose."

Following Federer's victory over world number one Rafael Nadal in yesterday's World ATP Finals, Federer explained "I was able to stay offensive. Rallies were never that long." Of the fact that Nadal took him to a third set, Federer's back-handed compliment was "I don’t want to say I gave it to him, but obviously Rafa is good enough off second serves he’s going to win at least 50 percent off them usually, unless you’re on a roll and he doesn’t kind of figure out your second serve."

Rafael Nadal, on the other hand, is immensely gracious in both victory and defeat. While he now leads Federer 14-8 in all-time matchups and 5-2 in Grand Slam finals, he still recognizes Federer's amazing talent. As he explained, "I feel I lost the match because I played against a very good Roger Federer in one of his favorite surfaces. And when he’s playing like this, it’s very difficult to stop him, no?" Nadal then concluded his remarks by telling Federer, "You played unbelievable all during the week. So well done for everything."

Isn't it nice to see a humble athlete? I wish people would laud Nadal for his off-court demeanor as well as his amazing abilities, and not keep inventing humility in Roger Federer, who only seems humble when he cries following a victory.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Life Lessons Come When You Least Expect Them...

I spoke to one of my closest friends today and she shared that one of her friends, L, had been in a medically-induced coma all weekend following her collapse on Friday after having chest pains. Apparently her husband gave her CPR and was able to revive her, but it then took the paramedics 40 minutes to stabilize her before transferring her to the hospital, and she flatlined twice in the ambulance. The doctors still aren't completely sure what happened, although they suspect she might have suffered an aortic tear, which normally is fatal. (This is what killed John Ritter and Rent creator Jonathan Larson.)

We then talked for a while about how L's husband would be lost if she were to die, as they were high school sweethearts. And she also expressed regret that she didn't speak to L this week, adding that L didn't have a bad bone in her body.

As I pondered this sad event, I realized once again how important it is to live life to the fullest each day, and to never take anything—or anyone—for granted. I know I'm not alone in getting upset over petty things, or worrying about things I can't control.

I also was reminded of one of Garth Brooks' earliest songs, If Tomorrow Never Comes. The chorus talks about whether or not his wife would know how much he loved her if tomorrow never came, and then the song reinforced this lesson:

Tell that someone that you love
Just what you're thinking of
If tomorrow never comes

My prayers go to L and her family, and all those who care about them. I hope that her condition isn't as grave as they fear, and that she's ultimately able to recover. And I hope that this may help me remember not to stand on ceremony with people and tell them how I feel when I feel it, because you never know when you won't have another chance.

A Sappy Trip down Memory Lane (courtesy of McDonald's)...

I've acknowledged more than a few times that I'm a bit of an emotional cripple, but I'm okay with that. For some reason, this old McDonald's commercial from the 1980s has been in my head recently, and I remember getting choked up any time I've seen it as an adult. (The first step to recovery is admitting there is a problem.)

This McDonald's commercial, Little Sister, is one of their most popular, and it was part of their tremendously successful "McDonald's and You" campaign. Take a look and see why...and maybe you'll need the Kleenex too!

Book Review: "South of Broad" by Pat Conroy

I've read all but one of Pat Conroy's books and every one of them has made me cry. While I've acknowledged numerous times that I'm an utter sap, Conroy has a way of tugging at your emotions and completely pulling you into a story even if you might not empathize with all of the characters. And so it is with his first novel in 14 years, South of Broad.

It is the summer of 1969, and Leo "Toad" King, a sensitive, introspective student, is about to enter his senior year of high school in Charleston, SC. Life has been tumultuous for Leo following his older brother's unexplained suicide several years before, which led to Leo's own mental and legal challenges. The suicide is something no one in his family, especially his strict mother, who is principal of Leo's high school, has gotten over. But just before the school year starts, Leo befriends a number of new students at his mother's direction—orphaned siblings Niles and Starla, and their friend, Betty; troubled twins Sheba and Trevor; disgraced "society children" Chad, Molly and Fraser; and Ike, the son of the new African-American football coach—and all form lifelong friendships. The story flashes back and forth between 1969 and 1989, when the friends gather together to deal with a number of crises.

Pat Conroy does melodrama really well. Quite often I felt the characters traveled from one crisis to another, and sometimes the chaos seemed too overblown. But through it all, despite the fact that many of the characters seemed like one-dimensional stereotypes (the melodramatic actress, the privileged Southerners who value appearance over happiness, the sassy gay man), I became tremendously attached to them, and really felt compelled to keep reading in order to see what happened. Much of the dialogue between characters (especially Leo) was a little overly sarcastic and I could have done without the stalker/murder mystery plot, but regardless, I really enjoyed this book and feel a little sad that it's over now. If you like Pat Conroy, you'll like this book, and if you're a soap opera fan, I think you'll like it as well. I always appreciate a good cry when I'm reading anyway.

Friday, November 26, 2010

A Little Friday Night "Glee"...

Glee is easily one of the most talked-about shows on television. The songs performed on the show are some of the most-downloaded on iTunes, and celebrities are clamoring to perform some role. This season alone has seen Neil Patrick Harris, Kristin Chenoweth, Gwyneth Paltrow, Carol Burnett and even Susan Boyle is lined up for a cameo.

Truth be told, I'm not a fan of the series. Having spent several years in high school chamber choir, theater and even show choir, I feel as if the musical numbers and other situations have surpassed anything we every saw in high school. (The biggest "costume changes" we dealt with were sparkly bow ties and cummerbunds.) But beyond that, I feel as if the show is falling into the trap that befell Will and Grace in its later seasons—the "guest casting" is becoming more gimmicky and the theme episodes really sound false notes to me, moving the show away from its core—and often, its heart.

That being said, some of the music is pretty fantastic. Lea Michele (Rachel) and Amber Riley (Mercedes) bring the house down nearly every time they sing (apart from the silly and contrived "mash-ups") and Mark Salling's (Puck's) voice is really unique and enjoyable. But it is the introduction of singer-songwriter Darren Criss as Blaine that has caught my interest. Apart from his obvious attributes, he has a dynamite voice, and his rendition of Katy Perry's Teenage Dream has apparently become the show's biggest hit, as well as one of mine. Check it out:

Next week's episode has Criss singing the nearly-ubiquitous Hey Soul Sister, and again, makes a song I'm practically tired of fresh again.

While it's not making me tune into the show on a weekly basis, thank goodness for the internet and iTunes, so I can enjoy the songs without the filler!

It Still Gets Better...

Although thankfully the tragic spike in suicides among teenagers bullied for being gay has disappeared over the last two months, what hasn't disappeared is the public showing of support for those struggling with bullying and depression. (Of course, we can only measure those suicides that are reported publicly, but it is certainly my hope that the number of young people taking their own lives outside the public eye has decreased as well.)

As I've written about a few times on this blog, writer Dan Savage and his partner, Terry, started The It Gets Better Project shortly after the number of suicides spiked horrifyingly in late September/early October, and since that time, countless people from all over the world have posted their own video messages of support. Everyone from President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton and others in his administration, to celebrities, athletes and entertainers, to "ordinary" people like me, have let those struggling know they are not alone, they are loved and need to stand strong in the face of what appears to be extremely difficult situations, because it does indeed get better.

I just saw this video recorded by a number of staff at Pixar, and it brought tears to my eyes. The number of people who have viewed this video on either the It Gets Better Project web site, YouTube or other sites is huge, so hopefully their messages will get to those in need, but I thought I'd share it here. Thanks to those at Pixar who shared their stories and bared their hearts.

Giving Thanks...

Yesterday was Thanksgiving, but since we were visiting my parents (who are without internet service—the horror!), I couldn't post until our return home today.

Two hours of grocery shopping (at two different stores) and 14 hours of cooking resulted in most of the food being polished off in 45 minutes. But as exhausted as I felt, I wouldn't have traded the time for anything.

I am so thankful to have been able to celebrate Thanksgiving with my family and the love of my life at my side. I am thankful that, at age 88, my grandmother could join us to celebrate for another year, and of course, it didn't hurt that she praised all of my food. And my nephews are growing up into sweet, funny little boys, despite the clear fact that my three-year-old nephew is possessed by the spirit of a 50-year-old!

During the week we were in New Jersey, the time wasn't always relaxing but it was enjoyable. However, I'm so thankful we were able to spend time with my aunt and uncle and cousins, as well as my friend Lisa and her family. !

Most of all, I'm thankful for every person in my life. Whether they're colleagues, compatriots, antagonists, family, friends or simply people I connect with online, every single one of you brings something special to my life, and I truly cherish each connection and each memory.

May each of you have health, happiness, success, love and laughter in the year to come!!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

People are Strange...and Kinda Rude...

Admittedly, I find myself with less and less tolerance for people's foibles. But that being said, it seems to me that people are becoming ruder and more self-centered. Does anyone else notice this?

Granted, the most recent experiences I have to bolster my case are all from our time in New York City; however, these instances seem to happen just as frequently back home.

Tonight, as I've already blogged about ad infinitum, we saw Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. About 10 minutes before the show started, a mother and son sat down behind us. She started telling him (in a not-particularly-quiet voice) that he needed to start going through stuff in her house or she was going to give it away. A few minutes later, their conversation devolved into him yelling at her (seriously yelling) about her nagging him about what time he needed to meet her at the theater and he shouldn't be late. Literally, he screamed "Why don't you just leave me the f--k alone?" In the theater. People, pull your stuff together.

I certainly don't expect people to have perfect behavior all the time. But I seem to see more people cutting each other off in traffic, not thanking those who hold doors for them, taking people's parking spaces, slamming into others, etc. And don't even get me started on so-called customer service.

Where did all of this sense of self-importance come from? Are we teaching our children more about lack of accountability than anything else?

Can't we all just get along? Or at least try to coexist peacefully?

What I'm Thankful For -- Day 21

Thanksgiving is in four days. Egads.

Day 21
The last two days in NYC have been fantastic. Rock of Ages was enjoyable and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson was friggin' incredible. The hotel we've been staying in, a brand-new one called The Pearl, is terrific.

But even better than having a great place to lay our heads and terrific shows to see, today I'm thankful for the wonderful weather we've had as well as the fantastic food we've gotten to eat. We've had our requisite New York bagels (boy, the "New York-style" bagels back in Virginia sure do pale in comparison) and two wonderful dinners. And today we had some absolutely incredible New York pizza at a place called John's, which is located in what used to be the Gospel Tabernacle Church, built in 1887. Amazing food in an amazing location. How could you not be thankful?

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Book Review: "The Caretaker of Lorne Field" by Dave Zeltserman

What a strange and bleak little book this was.

Jack Durkin has a great responsibility. Every day until first frost, he must weed Lorne Field in its entirety, purging it of Aukowies, bloodthirsty plants that could overrun the world in weeks if not attended to. He is the ninth generation of Durkins to serve as caretaker; the eldest son of each generation has been contracted with since 1710. In exchange, the caretaker gets an $8,000 annual salary and he and his family can live rent-free in a cottage. And in the early days of Jack's tenure as caretaker, the town's business owners understood the sacrifices Jack made to save them all, and they donated free goods and services to his family.

But times have changed. Most of the people in the town don't understand what the Aukowies are and don't believe that weeds could pose a threat. Jack's wife, Lydia, is tired of living hand-to-mouth. His oldest son, Lester, who is destined to become the next caretaker, wants nothing to do with it and is tired of his family being the butt of jokes throughout the community. As the pressures of family and community bear down on him, Jack is determined more than ever to prove the Aukowies are real and that his job should be taken seriously.

The idea behind this story was very unique and compelling. What I found intriguing is that at one point in the book, I wasn't really sure whether the Aukowies were real or whether Jack and his family had all bought into some kind of hysterical fantasy. I became a little frustrated with the endless amount of pain and suffering that Zeltserman inflicted upon Jack, and I felt that many of the supporting characters were very stereotypical, but in the end, I couldn't stop reading, because I really wanted to know how everything would be wrapped up. This could be an interesting movie.

What I'm Thankful For -- Day 20

Thanksgiving is in five days. But nowhere do the holidays seem closer than in New York City, especially in Times Square, where the crowds seem just that much bigger and more festive. You can just smell the holidays in the air. Or maybe that's just the charcoal from the vendor carts...

Day 20
As I mentioned in yesterday's post, W and I have taken NYC by storm, and we'll be seeing two musicals over the next two days—Rock of Ages tonight (complete with Dee Snider of Twisted Sister) and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson tomorrow night, a surprise for my upcoming birthday. This will bring the total number of shows we've seen here this year to three, as we had the amazing opportunity to see the incredible American Idiot over Labor Day.

Growing up in New Jersey, we had the tremendous fortune of getting to see a large number of Broadway musicals. Watching these amazing performances—from Annie and Grease to The King and I and Les Miserables—really cemented my lifelong love of theater and my desire to perform on stage. Plus, living in Washington all these years, I've seen some terrific shows as well—I got to see the late Raul Julia and Sheena Easton in Man of La Mancha and I even got to see Barry Williams (of Brady Bunch fame) in a great performance of City of Angels!

I feel tremendously thankful to have grown up exposed to so many incredible musicals, and I'm grateful to my parents, relatives, high school and friends who have helped nurture this love throughout the years.

I haven't quite given up my dream of performing either, so who knows?

Friday, November 19, 2010

What I'm Thankful For -- Day 19

The fact that Thanksgiving is in six days doesn't make me nearly as crazy as the thought I will no longer be able to go to Target or the mall after next Friday, unless I drug myself. But that's neither here nor there; let's get to the thankfulness!

Day 19
Tomorrow morning we head home to NJ for a week for the holidays. Actually, we're going to NYC tomorrow through Monday, to belatedly celebrate W's birthday with dinner and tickets to see Rock of Ages, and now apparently we're going to have an early celebration of my impending birthday with tickets to another show on Sunday evening. (I'm hoping for Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson—I've always been fascinated by the presidents!)

Because we'll be in the city, we've had to leave Quinn behind, and she's staying at the doggie daycare facility for the week. And it is for that facility—A Dog's Day Out in Vienna, VA—for which I'm thankful today. Raising a puppy can be challenging, especially one like Quinn who requires infinitely more exercise than we can give her on a daily basis. She absolutely loves spending days there playing with the other dogs, and because it's a cage-free facility I know she won't be locked up for hours on end. (Truth be told, she's apparently been leading rebellions among her fellow dogs, teaching them to climb their cages so they don't have to stay in them during "time out.") In fact, mornings she doesn't go to daycare, she gets angry and storms around in her crate, banging her food and water dishes together to note her displeasure!

My previous dog, Zeke, hated being boarded, and never really enjoyed socializing with other dogs, so our vacations and holidays required having someone stay in the house with him, which always was difficult to find during the holidays. (Plus, I didn't enjoy having to shove everything in the spare bedroom closet so the dog sitter would have a place to sleep!) So I'm thankful Quinn enjoys "playing with the doggies" and doesn't punish us when we return home!


If you watch network television at all, you're bound to run into a drug commercial or two. Viagra or Cialis (and the infamous twin bathtubs) are shilled during sporting events, Sally Field encourages women to protect themselves from bone loss with Boniva, Brooke Shields can help you regrow your eyelashes with Latisse, and of course, there's medicine to lower your cholesterol, get rid of blood clots or save you from depression.

Legally, the commercials need to be very detailed, and although I'm sure there's risk of heart attack, stroke, paralysis and death when you take almost any medication, it's wholly different when you hear about these risks on television. And of course, there are the embarrassing side effects—and I can't help but wonder how many men experienced an erection for more than four hours before they had to report it as a side effect of taking Viagra or Cialis!

I thought I had seen it all though, until last night. Last night I saw a commercial for Uloric, a drug that can help people with gout. The commercial explains that gout is caused by an excess of uric acid, and to illustrate this, they literally had a man carrying a gigantic beaker of urine all over town—on the bus, on the golf course, etc. Luckily, once he took Uloric, the beaker shrunk into a much smaller flask that he could keep in his pocket(!).

It's one thing to have a blood clot demonstrated on television, but can I draw the line at people carrying urine around? Like people who have gout don't get the picture?

I shudder to see what's next.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Book Review: "The Pursuit of Other Interests" by Jim Kokoris

Charlie Baker has it all. He's the award-winning managing director of a major Chicago advertising agency, gets driven to and from work by a car service, and has an enormous house in the suburbs with a loving wife and teenage son. Or so it appears, until Charlie is unceremoniously fired, and he discovers that his life isn't nearly as secure and wonderful as he thinks. His wife resents his never being home and missing everything in his son's life, and his son doesn't know what to think.

After his initial collapse and downward spiral, to pass the time (and to avoid initially telling his wife he was fired), he spends his days in an outplacement center, alongside of a number of other executives that have lost their jobs. His mentor at the center, Ned, hopes to break through Charlie's shell, while Charlie mentors Ned a bit as well. Charlie tries to break through to his wife and son, and find out where their lives went wrong, while at the same time he wants to get back to the life he's used to, even if it might not be the best solution.

I really didn't like this book. Every review I've seen seems to praise it, but I found Charlie's character completely stereotypical and really unlikeable. I realize his transformation is accurate, but I found him so unsufferable I was unable to muster any sympathy for the situation in which he found himself. His "breakdowns" were supposed to be humorous but I found them annoying. And I felt as if I could see the book's conclusion coming from a mile away. Oh well...

What I'm Thankful For -- Day 18

One week until Thanksgiving. Unbelievable. In fact, I completed planning my menu today, so I know the holiday is just around the corner!!

Day 18
Following my participation in last year's half-marathon in Las Vegas, I started noticing I was unable to run anymore. Then this pain and weakness started affecting my ability to do regular cardiovascular exercise, even leg workouts at the gym. At first I thought I was having hamstring issues, then I thought it was an issue with my knee, and finally, worried I might need my hip replaced. After x-rays and a hellish MRI, I was sent to physical therapy, where the tear in my hip as well as some other structural/muscular issues were diagnosed.

A few weeks ago, I had a cortisone shot in my hip, and to say the difference in my mobility is night and day would be an understatement. In the last two weeks, I've started actual hip exercises and even went on the treadmill for the first time today. It's going to be a hard road back to getting into the shape I was in prior to this injury, but thanks to my physical therapist and his team, I feel ready to do so. I'll be a beast again, I promise you! :)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Book Review: "Yield" by Lee Houck

"This isn't about violence. It isn't about fear, or obsession, or sex, or digression. It's really about progress. You can't always see where things are headed, but you can easily look back and see what has been so far."

So says Simon, the young hustler who is the narrator of Lee Houck's Yield. He is unapologetic about his chosen profession and feels like he has complete control of the encounters he sets up. He works a "day job" as a hospital file clerk, where he is responsible for sorting records of patients' previous hospital visits. He has a circle of close friends he met through hustling—Louis, who "graduated" to a career as a successful underwear model; Jaron, whose happy-go-lucky attitude belies his anorexia and cutting issues; and Farmer, the sweet and super-smart bookworm who watches over all of his friends. They live in New York City at a time when random gay bashing attacks are occurring more and more frequently, and one night, Louis is beaten up by thugs while Simon is kept from intervening. This attack sends Louis into a downward spiral, causing him to fear leaving Simon's apartment and become obsessed with buying things from QVC in his effort to make Simon's house a home. Meanwhile, Simon is intrigued by and becomes involved with Aiden, who starts out as a client but wants much more. And for the first time, Simon is heading down a path over which he has no control.

I found myself immediately caring about the characters in this book, and quite often, I read with a sense of foreboding, because I was worried something bad would happen to one of them. (I've read too many books in which the typical seems to happen.) I really liked Houck's writing style and the way he developed this atypical "family." What disappointed me about the book was that it was more of a series of connected vignettes than an actual novel; a chapter would describe one or more days and then the next chapter would be a few days or weeks or even months later, without any transition. For me, that is what kept this very good book from being a great one. But I'd still love to know what happened to these characters after the book ended.

Thankful x2...

Getting yourself back on track after a vacation seems almost impossible! I had really hoped to be completely current with my thankfulness posts by today, but since the last post, which spanned Wednesday-Monday, took a long time to write, I ran out of time to write yesterday's. So, please forgive me for one more combined thankful post, ok?

Day 16
One day when I was in high school I decided I wanted to cook dinner for my family. I had never cooked before, and I can't say what prompted me to do it then, other than the fact I was intrigued by a recipe. That planted the culinary bug in me, and although I spent my college years and the few after graduation mostly eating fast food and the cheapest meals I could find, in 1994 I spontaneously decided that I would cook Thanksgiving dinner for friends. Despite making a 22-pound turkey for five people (they should put a serving guide on those Butterballs), the meal was a tremendous success and that was when I knew cooking was something I truly loved.

From that point on, I was hooked. Meals became more and more elaborate; I started taking some cooking classes and then eventually wound up in culinary school. For a few years, I worked as a personal chef, something I'd probably still be doing if it weren't for the economy! I'm truly grateful for the desire and the ability to cook and bake—it's a tremendous stress reliever (although sometimes it causes more stress) and it makes me popular! LOL

Day 17
How can Thanksgiving possibly be only one week from tomorrow?

These two items for which I'm thankful may have a little less weight (so to speak) than others but they're just as deserving of my gratitude—chocolate and peanut butter. I love both separately but they're also tremendously wonderful together. (As an old Reese's Peanut Butter Cup commercial said, they're "two great tastes that taste great together.")

Chocolate is a wonderful thing, both a luxury and a stress reliever. Throw in a little peanut butter and it's even better. And right now, Reese's Christmas Trees are on sale, which are one of the greatest things about the holidays!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Book Review: "Sunset Park" by Paul Auster

I've been reading Paul Auster's fiction for more than 20 years now. Most of his books are staggeringly well-written; sometimes, he doesn't quite hit the mark, which I felt was the case with his last two books, Man in the Dark and Invisible. His latest novel, Sunset Park, shows he's back in fine form, as it both tugs at your heart and makes you think.

Miles Heller is fairly directionless. Seven years ago he dropped out of college and stepped out of his parents' lives; since then, he has drifted around the country without any real plans. While living in Florida and working on a crew that empties foreclosed homes, he meets Pilar, a wise-beyond-her-years high school senior, and the two fall in love. Running afoul of Pilar's older sister, Miles flees back to his native New York until Pilar's 18th birthday. In New York, he joins his old friend, Bing, and two others as they squat in an abandoned house in Brooklyn's Sunset Park neighborhood. Miles uses the return home as an opportunity to reconnect with his parents and mentor Pilar from afar, while each of his housemates struggles with their own self-discoveries, and his father, Morris, deals with his own shaky marriage and his fears of mortality.

While the book starts out being narrated by Miles alone, after a point his voice is joined by those of his housemates and both of his parents, publisher Morris and actress Mary-Lee. Each has a unique viewpoint and each character occupies their own space with their own unique voice. I found this book tremendously compelling and thought-provoking, as it was both about big and small ideas. This is a story about relationships, self-confidence (and the lack thereof), discovering your true self, baseball and seizing opportunities that come your way. I found the ending a little too melodramatic and predictable, but it also left me to imagine what the next steps would be in the characters' lives. So good to see Paul Auster back on track again!!

Monday, November 15, 2010

So Much Thankfulness...

Each day since the start of November, I've posted about something for which I'm thankful. Last Wednesday we went to the Dominican Republic for a work "retreat," and with sporadic internet coverage I wasn't able to do my daily posts.

So, without further ado, here's what I was thankful for from Wednesday, November 10-Monday, November 15:

Day 10
In this time of continued economic uncertainty, I am tremendously thankful to have a job that challenges and fulfills me. I am lucky to work with a fun-loving group of people; I am so fortunate that I can dress casually every day (there's something to be said for wearing shorts or whatever I choose each day) and, most importantly, I am thankful to work for a company that offers two additional, amazing perks—our weekly seated chair massages (well worth the hellish commute) and, of course, the incredible, all-expenses-paid trip to the Dominican Republic we just returned from! (I'm not so much thankful for the hellacious sunburn, but it is what it is...)

Day 11
For as long as I can remember, I have been a voracious reader. In elementary school, I looked forward to our weekly library visit more than almost any other class. During many athletic events in summer camp, I could usually be found with a book in my hands. I was reading far beyond my grade level at an early age, which meant I was reading "adult" novels in middle school. (I even was called into the vice-principal's office at one point for reading a somewhat "racy" book in eighth grade.)

I am almost never without a book. Before I got my Kindle, I would pack a ton of books on every trip, because I read so quickly and needed to be prepared in case my flight was delayed or canceled. And even though I'm definitely not supposed to, I even read when I'm stuck in heavy traffic. Reading relaxes me and I'm so thankful it's a pasttime I enjoy, as I've been exposed to some amazing authors and stories.

Day 12
As I've mentioned more than once on this blog, I've never been particularly athletic, and I've struggled with my weight more times than I care to count. About 2-1/2 years ago, we made the decision to start working out at a personal training studio, Fitness Together — Tysons Corner. I made pretty fantastic progress during that time, and exercise has become a regular—and enjoyable—part of my life. (Remember the marathon? That was thanks to Fitness Together.)

While I'm thankful to the trainers at Fitness Together for helping enhance my health and well-being through exercise, I'm more thankful because they actually saved my life. During a routine fitness assessment shortly after joining the gym, they discovered my blood pressure was obscenely high. My doctor began treating this with medication, and fortunately, we've been able to keep it within normal rates. So, I'm most thankful to Fitness Together for the fact I'm still here today!

Day 13
There were some amazing things about our recent trip to the Dominican Republic—the resort where we stayed, the weather, the friendliness of the staff. But what I enjoyed the most, and am most thankful for, was the opportunity to relax.

Those of you that know me well know that I'm, well, fairly high-strung. My last job was tremendously stressful and I worked about 60 hours each week, plus I went directly from one job to the next with only one extra day off. Whenever I've had a few days off, I've always been torn between the desire to do nothing, to do something fun or to take care of all of the errands I generally don't have time to do. So being in the Dominican Republic this past week was amazing, because the most stressful decisions I had to make were whether to relax by the pool or the beach, what book to read next and where we should eat. I am tremendously thankful for the opportunity to relax and thankful for my job that made this trip possible!

Day 14
I'm going to talk just a little bit more about my trip to the Dominican Republic. On the last full day of my vacation, after being tremendously careful the entire time, I got a wicked sunburn all over my shoulders and upper back. You see, you can stand in the pool for more than two hours without reapplying sunblock, and keeping your shoulders under water just taunts the sun!

Fortunately, I didn't get anything worse than first-degree sunburn, but it HURT. I am very grateful the resort gift shop had aloe vera; otherwise I wouldn't have been able to function these last few days. Must do better next time!!

Day 15
As I've been writing these posts about what I'm thankful for, I realize one thing for which I'm thankful (no matter how self-serving it may be) is this blog. I am grateful to have a place to record my thoughts, questions, conniptions, reviews and memories, and thankful that people have taken the time to read what I write. (Although truthfully, I'll keep writing even if no one reads my posts. I talk to myself all the time; this is no different.) Thanks for the creative outlet!