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!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Book Review: "The Privileges" by Jonathan Dee

Are the rich different? For hundreds of years now, many novels have explored this concept and never really found a conclusive answer. Jonathan Dee's The Privileges tells the story of Adam and Cynthia Morey, a "charmed couple" who meet in college, marry and raise two children in New York City. Adam achieves tremendous financial success as a partner in a hedge fund, but he is still driven to step outside legal lines and he becomes involved in an insider trading scheme. Meanwhile, Cynthia struggles between trying to play a vital role in her childrens' lives and allowing them the freedom to make their own decisions and mistakes.

I found this story extremely compelling, even if neither Cynthia or Adam were particularly consistent in their likeability. To me, the character with the most depth was the Moreys' son, Jonas, and I found his development tremendously interesting (although I'll admit, the resolution of his story confused me). I did like the fact that Jonathan Dee rarely resorted to taking the easy way out with the plot—there were a number of times when I saw the story going in one particular direction (although I hoped it wouldn't) and it surprised me. This was an enjoyable and quick read, and although I can't understand the issues of the very rich, the characters and the plot were very relatable. Good book!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Book Review: "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest" by Stieg Larsson

As I've discussed before, I often torn between rushing through all of the books in a series and savoring them, so I'm not left pining for more. While I read the first book in Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy about 16 months ago, I read the last two in the last three months, so impatience won out.

When The Girl Who Played with Fire ended, Lisbeth Salander had been seriously wounded in an attack and left for dead, while the public (and many in the Swedish police) believed she was guilty of three brutal murders. As she recovers from her injuries, she must fight for her life in many ways, as a political conspiracy grows ever more powerful in its desire to ensure she never has the chance to see the light of freedom again. As always, she is assisted by her friend, reporter Mikael Blomkvist, whose dogged determination to prove Salander's innocence threatens him and those he loves with significant harm. The ramifications that occur from Blomkvist and Salander's discoveries have the potential to shake the entire country.

I felt that The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest was a worthy conclusion to Larsson's trilogy, as it tied up many loose ends and advanced the lives of its characters in a logical, not necessarily convenient, fashion. While this novel didn't have as much raw action as the last two books, the courtroom drama of Salander's trial was pretty intense. I'll admit the concluding confrontation irked me a bit, as I felt it was almost tacked on for effect, but beyond that I can say this entire trilogy was tremendously thought-provoking and exciting. Do yourself a favor and read the books before the American theatrical adaptations are released, because I'll be amazed if they can do these books justice.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

What I'm Thankful For -- Day 9

Just a little more than two weeks until Thanksgiving. You know that means holiday music and Santa in the malls are both just around the corner!

This is my daily thankfulness post, when I take the opportunity to write about one thing for which I'm thankful. I'll have a nice set of these once Thanksgiving rolls around—heck, I could turn this into a whole blog if I wanted to!

Day 9
Social media has changed my life. I never had a MySpace or a Friendster page; while I did rely on email to keep in touch with friends, apart from an occasional venture onto one of the high school alumni web sites, there really wasn't any way to find people I knew growing up. Strangely enough, I resisted joining Facebook for a long time after many of my friends did; somehow I knew with my slightly obsessive personality, I'd get hooked immediately and want to add all sorts of "extras" to my Facebook page.

A little more than two years later, I am a huge fan of Facebook and my prediction was correct—as my Facebook friends will attest, I spend a lot of time on there updating my status, communicating with friends, sharing links and media, and enjoying the feedback and reactions I get.

Facebook, Twitter and this blog have offered me opportunities to expand and express my opinions, thoughts and creativity, and for that I'm thankful. But beyond that, I am able to be in touch with friends from elementary school, summer camp, high school, college, my involvement with pageants, etc.—people whom, in many cases, I might never have seen or spoken with again—and it really has expanded my life. So today I give thanks to the world of social media for making my world even fuller—and even more hectic!

Monday, November 8, 2010

What I'm Thankful For -- Day 8

Turkey Day in T-Minus 17 days! Despite the fact that I'm going to have to cook like crazy, I'm looking forward to my yearly turkey, stuffing and green bean casserole, that's for sure!

If you read my blog, you probably already know that I've been posting each day about one thing for which I'm thankful. I'm thankful for a lot, but I've tried to focus on things which truly mean a lot to me.

Day 8
I've never been an athletic person. I have really lousy hand-eye coordination, which makes a lot of sports more difficult and frustrating, and when you combine that with a tremendous lack of confidence, you'll understand why I struck out more times than I could count, why I was usually put in right field (where I prayed the ball would never be hit) and why I was picked last in gym class constantly. (This, of course, began what I'll call the "I left my gym clothes at home" defense.)

A few times in my life I've made up my mind to start exercising. I know it's an important component of life, especially for someone like me who loves food, has a history of weight issues and suffers from high blood pressure. Strangely enough, after avoiding much physical activity for most of my life, I have discovered that I actually like exercise and working out. And as I posted last year, if you had told me when I was growing up and sneaking out of gym class that right before I turned 40 I would have run a half-marathon, I would have thought you were crazy.

I've been dealing with a hip injury for the last few months so it's seriously curtailed my ability to exercise my lower body, but thanks to a cortisone shot and physical therapy, I'm on my way to recovery. Hopefully within the next month or two I can start exercising again, because I'm actually much happier when I'm in shape. Who would have figured?

Sunday, November 7, 2010

What I'm Thankful For -- Day 7

Eighteen days until Thanksgiving! Turning the clocks back last night made it seem even more like fall, and with the colder weather, the holiday season really does seem much closer.

Each day since the start of the month I've been posting about one thing for which I'm thankful. This isn't a bad thing to do every day, even after Thanksgiving!

Day 7
They say music soothes the savage beast. I certainly don't think of myself in those terms, but I know I'd be lost without music. At times, music does calm me; sometimes it energizes and excites me, especially when I need a lift. I work out to music, drive with it, work and read while listening to it. What an amazing gift it is!

Music has provided an amazing soundtrack to so many events in my life. There are so many instances where hearing a certain song takes me back to a specific place and time, or certain people. Songs make me smile and sometimes they can make me cry, if they evoke a memory or provoke an emotional response.

To quote one of my favorite television shows growing up, Fame, songs are around whenever you need them.

With the advent of the iPod, I've been able to aggregate nearly 15,000 songs at my fingertips. Songs I grew up with, songs sung by artists I saw in concert, songs I decided to experiment with (musically) and again, songs that evoke memories. I am so thankful that music has been so important in my life, and I am thankful to have been able to share so much of that music with friends and loved ones.

Sunday Morning Affirmation...

Fred Rogers was one of my heroes. Beyond all that he did for education and public television, I continue to be amazed and overwhelmed by the tremendous positive effect he had on the self-esteem and creativity of the children he touched with his television program, songs and stories.

As a child, I really wanted to be Mr. Rogers' neighbor. Because we didn't like the family that lived next door to us (they never answered the door on Halloween and once yelled at us for accidentally kicking a soccer ball onto their lawn), every time Mr. Rogers would ask "won't you be my neighbor?", I would ask my parents if it was possible he could move in instead of the Gibsons.

Whenever I needed encouragement, I'd break out one of my Mr. Rogers' record albums (you know you had at least one), and inevitably, I'd come upon It's You I Like. The simple lyrics and melody always hit the spot, and let me know if nothing else, Mr. Rogers liked me.

Don't know why this hit me on a Sunday morning, but here's a little Mr. Rogers. And he likes you, too.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

What I'm Thankful For -- Day 6

Thanksgiving is unbelievably in 19 days. Where is November going?

Each day on my blog I've been posting one thing for which I'm thankful. The hardest part of this exercise? Deciding which thing to highlight each day, as I don't want someone to assume that because something isn't mentioned until Day 12, for example, it's less precious to me than something mentioned on Day 2!

Day 6
As many people know, nearly one year ago we had to put our beloved dog Zeke to sleep after a brief illness. Zeke was a part of my life for nearly 16 years and I was absolutely devastated by his loss. Still, barely a day goes by when I don't think about him or remember something memorable he did.

In the few months following Zeke's death, I couldn't imagine ever wanting to get another dog. But the emptiness in the house—and our lives—became a little too much to bear. And then Quinn came into our lives.

Honestly, even when we thought of getting another dog, a puppy never crossed our minds. But the minute I picked her up at an adoption fair, and she settled into my arms, I knew she was ours. And while raising a high-energy puppy hasn't been without its difficulties, Quinn has brought us tremendous joy and I know she's going to bring so much more fun and excitement into our lives.

So, while I still miss my Zeke tremendously, I'm so grateful to have this little girl in my life!!

Why Shouldn't the Same Rules Apply?

Yesterday MSNBC political commentator Keith Olbermann was suspended indefinitely without pay when it was discovered he had contributed to the political campaigns of Arizona congressman Raul Grijalva, Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, and Kentucky attorney general Jack Conway, despite the network's rules against such contributions. Despite criticisms from the right about MSNBC's seemingly one-philosophy coverage of the midterm elections earlier in the week, Olbermann's suspension has united commentators on both the right and the left in questioning its necessity.

On The Weekly Standard web site, conservative William Kristol wrote, “MSNBC’s suspension of Keith Olbermann is ludicrous. First, he donated money to candidates he liked. He didn’t take money, or favors, in a way that influenced his reporting. Second, he’s not a reporter. It’s an opinion show."

Interestingly enough, Fox News allows its hosts, such as Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck and Mike Huckabee, to not only donate money but to appear at campaign events in support of candidates they praise on their programs. And many in the media have questioned exactly how the 2012 presidential campaign might be affected when a number of Fox News employees—including Huckabee, Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin—are expected to run.

In a post on her blog yesterday, MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow contrasted MSNBC with Fox News.

Olbermann knew what NBC policy was and he violated it, and for that, he should be penalized. But all of this brings to light a much more urgent issue—that many in our nation consider opinions to be news. Each time someone like Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck or Keith Olbermann or Rachel Maddow states their opinion or allows their guests to state an opinion that is masked as a fact, people in our country believe and take those opinion/facts to heart. That is why things like the birther movement still exist—because the people who voice these opinions are seen as newsmakers.

Let's face it: more people get their news from television and the internet than ever before. They're called news networks, after all. Don't we have the responsibility to present the news, and not the news presented through the filter of the networks' and/or reporters' own biases?

Naive, perhaps. Necessary, absolutely.

Friday, November 5, 2010

What I'm Thankful For -- Day 5

Twenty days 'til Thanksgiving!

Each day this month, I'm posting one thing (or set of things) I'm thankful for. This has been a fun exercise so far, because I'm starting to realize just how many things in my life for which I'm grateful.

Bette Midler once said "you've got to have friends..." Boy, I couldn't agree more. Throughout my life, I've been tremendously fortunate to have met some amazingly giving, funny, creative, sensitive, quirky, adventurous, challenging and loving individuals whom I've been privileged to call my friends.

Some friends I've known since I was very young (my friend Lisa and I have known each other for 37 years) and some friends I've not known long, but it's not always the longevity that has made these relationships special. Knowing there are people I can count on when I need them, being able to turn to them for laughter, comfort, support, guidance, advice, a reality check, etc., is one of the things that makes life more enjoyable and, at times, easier to take. And it's tremendously gratifying to know I can provide those same things to my friends as well.

Some friends I talk with and see on a regular basis, while others I don't see or speak with as often, but when we connect it's as if no time has passed. Clearly, Facebook and Twitter have strengthened and restarted those relationships, but that's a whole different day's post!

So on Thanksgiving, and every day, be thankful for each and every friend you have. I know I am.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Book Review: "Moonlight Mile" by Dennis Lehane

Dennis Lehane is easily one of my favorite authors, and his series with PIs Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro is truly superlative. (If you're one of the few who never saw Mystic River, that is Lehane's finest stand-alone novel.) With Moonlight Mile, Lehane brings back Patrick and Angie after a 10-year absence, and their lives have moved on since the conclusion of Prayers for Rain, the last novel he wrote featuring them. They're now married and raising their four-year-old daughter, while Patrick is still scraping by as a private investigator, barely able to make ends meet.

Their most emotionally fractious case was investigating the disappearance of four-year-old Amanda McCready 12 years ago (the core of Gone Baby Gone); the resolution of that case still remains the unspoken issue in their relationship. One day, Patrick is visited by Amanda's aunt, Bea, who tells him that Amanda has once again disappeared. And once again, Patrick and Angie get caught up in the search for Amanda, yet 12 years later, the stakes are higher, the violence and danger has escalated, and the number of people affected has grown exponentially.

Sequels—especially of books you love—always pose a delicate dilemma. Will the author be able to recapture the magic of the last book? Will the characters, action, plot seem fresh and original or just tired retreads? While Moonlight Mile isn't Lehane's finest book and it doesn't quite crackle with the tautness his previous books featuring Patrick and Angie did, it's very good. (While it's helpful to have read Gone Baby Gone, it certainly helps frame things for you.) This book certainly reinforced how much I've missed reading about Patrick and Angie, and how dynamic a partnership they are. And just like Lehane's other books, I read it far, far too fast (in one day thanks to a bout of insomnia), and now lament that it may be a long while before the next one. Sigh.

What I'm Thankful For -- Day 4

Thanksgiving is in 21 days. (Wow.)

On November 1 I started a daily post in which I list one thing (or set of things) I'm thankful for each day. This is actually getting to be fun!

Day 4
Life doesn't always go smoothly and quite often, it doesn't go the way you planned it. (And if that's in general, imagine what my life must be like!) I am thankful for my sense of humor (even if no one else is), because it enables me to not take everything so seriously, and cope a little better when things are tough. If nothing else, it helps me pretend I'm flying high when I'm really not.

And the ability to laugh at myself has helped me out in more embarrassing situations than I'd care to count!

Being able to make other people laugh or feel better is a wonderful thing, too. It's always tremendously gratifying when someone tells you that you made them laugh at a time when they needed it most. So I'm thankful both for the gift of laughter and the gift of a sense of humor.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A Little Musical Interlude...

About 10 years ago, my old colleagues and I put together a list of our favorite songs of all time. It was an interesting challenge when we each revealed our list—there was at least one or two songs of overlap among each of us, and, as you'd imagine, there were lots of head slapping, "I can't believe I forgot that one" moments.

One song that two of my colleagues and I had on our list was Bob Marley's Redemption Song. Honestly, I think it is one of the most poetically beautiful songs I've ever heard, and one of the true "slam dunks" on my list—which at some point I'll have to resurrect. Marley wrote it in 1979, after he was suffering from the cancer that would take his life.

And we're not alone in our worship of the song—Rolling Stone, in 2004, ranked it as #66 of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

Beyond Marley's voice, what I love about this song is the continued relevance of its lyrics.

"Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery; none but ourselves can free our minds"

"How long shall they kill our prophets while we stand aside and look? Some say it's just a part of it; we've got to fulfill the book."

Many celebrities and musicians have covered this song. For me, the most memorable cover of the song was when I heard Toad the Wet Sprocket perform it in concert when I saw them in the mid-90s. Of course, I've never been able to find a copy of that version anywhere. If only mp3 recorders existed then...

Here's one of Marley's performances of the song. Because it's from YouTube, you'll need to endure a montage of video and lyrics, but just let the song mesmerize you.

What I'm Thankful For -- Day 3

Thanksgiving is in 22 days.

On November 1 I started a daily post in which I list one thing (or set of things) I'm thankful for each day.

Day 3
Even though I'm not pleased with the overall outcome, I'm thankful to live in a country where we have the right to choose our own leaders without fear of reprisal or worry that (most of the time) our votes will be counted. While I'm not thrilled that a significant portion of my home state of Virginia is way more socially conservative than I am, again, I have the opportunity to voice my opinions with my vote.

All too often we forget that this is a right that people fought for, a right that not all people—even in this day and age—are lucky enough to have. So even if, like me, you woke up a little disillusioned about this year's election results, feel thankful you had the opportunity to participate.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

What I'm Thankful For -- Day 2

Thanksgiving is in 23 days.

On November 1 I started a daily post in which I list one thing (or set of things) I'm thankful for each day. This way, when the craziness of life occasionally gets me down—and I have no doubt it will—these posts will serve as a terrific reminder of all of the things for which I should be grateful.

Day 2
I have a terrific family. Even if we haven't (and don't) see eye-to-eye, I'm thankful to have been able to share the goods and bads of life with them, to have their love and support during difficult times, and know I can turn to them when I need it. I'm thankful for my parents, sister and brothers (I consider my brother-in-law to be one of my brothers) and my grandmother, who turned 88 this year. I'm also thankful for my in-laws, who have welcomed me into their family with open arms and tremendous love and support.

I'm also thankful to have the opportunity to watch my two nephews grow into amazingly funny, loving little boys.

Life is better when it's shared with those you love.

Monday, November 1, 2010

What I'm Thankful For -- Day 1

Thanksgiving is in 24 days, on Thursday, November 25.

Borrowing an idea from a friend on Facebook, I'm going to post each day one thing I'm thankful for. This way, when the craziness of life occasionally gets me down—and I have no doubt it will—these posts will serve as a terrific reminder of all of the things for which I should be grateful.

Here goes!

Day 1
I am thankful to have the love and friendship of the most amazing person in the whole world. Without you, I'd be lost, lonely, sad, silent (well, perhaps not) and directionless.

Thanks for you being you!!

Book Review: "The Widower's Tale" by Julia Glass

Sometimes absence really does make the heart grow fonder. It has been a while since I've read a book by Julia Glass—I loved her first two books, but skipped her third, I See You Everywhere, as it received very tepid reviews from critics. But reading her latest, The Widower's Tale, I again realized what a terrific writer she is and marveled at her ability to make characters seem like people I wish I actually knew.

Seventy-year-old Percy Darling is proud of the fact that he's a bit of a curmudgeon. Although his wife, Poppy, has been dead for many years, and he has a somewhat strained relationship with both of his daughters, he loves his historic suburban house outside of Boston, loves his routine of a morning run and a naked swim in his backyard pond, and enjoys his relationship with his grandson, Robert, a premed student at Harvard. Then he makes the decision to allow the local nursery school, Elves & Fairies, to convert his old barn into the new school facility, which brings myriad surprises into his life. He begins a relationship with local artist Sarah, whose son attends Elves & Fairies, a rapidly growing ecoterrorist group is plaguing many of the "new rich" in Percy's neighborhood, and his relationship with each of his daughters changes in different ways.

Although Percy is the center of this book, portions are also focused on Ira, a teacher at Elves & Fairies; Percy's grandson, Robert; and Celestino, a gardener who comes into contact with Percy and his family. I really enjoyed every character Glass created in this story; even though I could sense the direction of several of the story threads a bit ahead of their unfolding, that didn't affect my enjoyment of the book or the empathy I felt for the characters. If anything, I could have kept reading this. To me, one of the marks of a great book is that you keep wondering what would happen to the characters after the story ended. This is definitely one of those books.