Friday, December 25, 2009

To the Spoils Go the Victories...

Earlier this week, the Associated Press named Serena Williams Female Athlete of the Year. She won both the Australian Open and Wimbledon in 2009, and her dominating play throughout the season ensured she ended the year as the WTA's top-ranked player.

While Williams' prowess on the court is undeniable, there's the little matter of a little temper tantrum she threw during the US Open in September. A temper tantrum during which she threatened to shove a tennis ball down a line judge's throat after an incorrect foot fault call, and followed it up with brandishing her racquet at the far-smaller line judge. A temper tantrum for which she was disqualified from her semi-final match and fined more than $80,000.

Not to be outdone, during this same week, the Philadelphia Eagles named Michael Vick the recipient of the Ed Block Courage Award, which recognizes a player from each NFL team who, in the eyes of his teammates, exemplifies a commitment to sportsmanship and courage.

Now, Vick has acted in a professional manner (read: he has kept his mouth shut and stayed out of trouble) since joining the Eagles after he was released from jail for dogfighting. But can he be considered courageous for overcoming a situation he created for himself? Should he receive an award just for keeping his nose clean?

Like it or not, professional athletes are role models, and sadly, very few act worthy of this responsibility yet are paid overwhelmingly large salaries and receive profitable endorsement deals. While athletes seem to be able to follow their own code of conduct, should they be recognized as shining examples when their behavior proves them otherwise?

Should Williams receive an award for her on-court performance when it was her performance on the court that showed her sportmanship seriously lacking? Should Vick be voted as an epitome of courage alongside players from other teams who overcame paralysis or donated large amounts of time to volunteer service?

My answer in both cases? No. As more children dream of emulating professional athletes, shouldn't we hold those who actually deserve to be emulated up in the spotlight?

Book Review: "Amateur Barbarians" by Richard Cohen

Middle school principal Teddy Hastings is in the midst of a midlife crisis. His brother recently died, he's battling his own health issues, his older daughter has escaped to Asia and he may be having a minor emotional meltdown. And there's this little issue of being in prison.

Oren Pierce has always been a drifter, moving from major to major in college, from relationship to relationship, place to place. Suddenly he's found himself as co-acting principal and on the verge of a challenging relationship, and he can't figure out if he wants either one.

Teddy and Oren's stories, along with the ripples they make in the lives of their family and friends, are the backbone of Richard Cohen's Amateur Barbarians. Many of us have found ourselves sharing at least one trait with either Teddy or Oren (hopefully not the jail thing), so I think their stories are fairly easy to digest and understand.

Cohen was at his best when writing about Teddy. I don't know if it was his blustery nature or the situations he found himself in, but I found myself caring much more about him than Oren (and Teddy was the one in more trouble). Oren's lack of ambition and backbone frustrated me after a while. I thought this was a good book, but not a great one.

The Hardest Goodbye...

Yesterday afternoon I had to put my dog, Zeke, to sleep. He had been suffering from hepatic encephalopathy for the last six weeks or so, and his condition was getting worse. While I had been anticipating making this decision sometime in the near future, truly, this was—and is—the hardest decision I've ever had to make.

I had Zeke for 15 years. When I adopted him from the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria, I was 24 years old. Back then, I couldn't imagine still having him when I turned 40, but fortunately, he hung around to celebrate my big 4-0 a few weeks ago.

Zeke was four months old when I adopted him. He had been a stray and had clearly been abused by someone. For the first few weeks, he'd roll on his back if you stood tall above him. I remember the adoption counselor telling me he might never bark, and never feel comfortable around people. Anyone that ever got to know Zeke can definitely attest that he proved those predictions wrong!!

What struck me first—and forever—about Zeke was one thing. When I first saw him at the shelter he walked to the front of his cage and sniffed my hand to see if I had any food. When he saw I didn't, he promptly walked away and laid down in the back of the cage. This "no food, no love" attitude won me over immediately, and honestly, he embodied that every day for the rest of his life.

You know, I could fill this blog with anecdotes about Zeke. The way he used to jump up on our dining room table to look out at the street below. The way he recognized the words "I'd like to place an order for delivery," and would go crazy when the doorbell rang. Or when he got a bag of turkey leftovers off the counter and proceeded not only to eat all of the turkey, but shake every last crumb out of the bag as well.

Zeke has been the one constant in my life over the last 15 years. He saw me through the ups and downs of jobs and relationships, unemployment, cancer, deaths of loved ones, losing weight, gaining weight, losing it again, gaining friends, losing friends, you name it. And he always handled everything with a wagging tail, a few licks and maybe even a howl or two.

He never asked for anything more than love, and he always gave more than that in return. I really can't imagine what our lives will be like without Zeke greeting us in the evenings after work, or getting excited for his Saturday morning bagel. I do know that my life will be a little less joyful for a while.

I don't know what I believe in terms of the afterlife. But I do believe that somewhere, Zeke is watching down on us, eating bagels and turkey and everything else to his heart's delight, lying in a sunbeam on his couch. And as painful as that memory is to think about right now, I know it will give me comfort.

Sleep well, my boy. I miss you more than I have words.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Milk, Bread, Toilet Paper. Enough.

I've lived in the Washington, DC area for 22 years now, and I've never quite gotten used to the way they deal with snow, even the threat of it.

The TV meterologists hunker down at "storm desks" and deliver predicted snowfall totals in voices usually reserved for unsolved murders or random shootings. And of course, once the very possibility of snow is introduced, panic begins at the grocery stores. Carts are packed with everyone's favorite snow staples—milk, bread and toilet paper—and lots of it. And you can't help but get caught up in the frenzy—I'm lactose-intolerant but I find myself wondering how much milk I can fit in our refrigerator.

This past weekend our area experienced the biggest December storm in history, with anywhere between 12 and 24 inches of snow falling. And with that, I'm officially done with the snow.

Was it beautiful? Sure. But honestly, after shoveling our front steps and walk four times, and digging out one car twice (the other car is packed in until spring, I think), I'm done wishing for snow days. Being able to relax for one day, catch up on DVR-recorded shows and movies that we've had from Netflix, and do a little baking is fun. But it loses its luster after a day.

More than cabin fever, however, what frustrates me is that our cities never seem to be prepared for these storms. This is the nation's capital, yet some subdivisions might not get plowed out for almost a week! Major highways around our house are still fairly obstructed by slush and snow, which is a boon to SUV owners and no one else. Yet strangely enough, folks in New Jersey got the same amount of snow and bounced back the very next day.

Yes, I know I should appreciate the opportunity to slow my pace a bit. And I'm happy to. But I'd much prefer the traditional Washington snow storm—8 inches of snow one day, 55 degrees and melting the next. Now I'm considering a move to a place where the word "snow" is only followed by the word "cone," or at least a place where they can handle snow with more finesse and less hoarding.

Book Review: "Silver Lake" by Peter Gadol

I have been waiting for Peter Gadol to write another book for years. I read a lot (bet you didn't know that) and although I'm always finding new authors, I often read new books by those authors I really like. Those authors who take a long time between books pose an interesting challenge for me: when they finally have a new book come out, I vacillate between wanting to read it immediately and wanting to hold onto it for a while, because who knows when their next book will come out?

It's probably been about 8-10 years since Peter Gadol's last book, so when I discovered Silver Lake I fell on it like a soldier protecting his company from a grenade. Needless to say, I wasn't disappointed, except when I was faced with the prospect of another 8-10 year wait!

It's a lazy weekend, and Robbie and Carlo are doing some work in their architecture studio when a young man enters and asks to use the phone because his car broke down. After some conversation, Robbie and Carlo invite the man to play tennis with them and ultimately, have dinner at their home. The discussions that night (fueled by a lot of wine) turns a bit dark, but they invite him to spend the night in their guest room. What unfolds after they awake the next morning shatters their worlds. How they cope with this one act affects their lives in every way, and opens them up to secrets, lies and uncomfortable self-discovery.

Clearly I'm being a bit circumspect in describing this book, as you need to let the story unfold around you. While some of what happens I could see coming, some things surprised me, and overall, the book tugged at my heart and my mind. At times I got frustrated by all the things that Carlo and Robbie didn't say to each other, but I know that life is like that.

This is a fantastic book, and I'm sad to have finished it. Peter Gadol, if you're out there, I'm willing to sharpen your pencils or dust off your keyboard if it will make the next book come faster! :)

Book Review: "Safelight" by Shannon Burke

It's 1990 in New York City. Paramedic Frank Verbeckas is fairly aimless since his father's death, and he has developed a bizarre habit: he enjoys taking pictures of the ill, wounded, dead and down-and-out. He and his paramedic friends get involved in some fairly unsavory schemes, and it seems as if he's headed on a collision course with his own downfall.

And then he meets Emily, a professional fencer who is HIV positive. She teaches Frank how to actually live life, while he helps her relax and realize that she doesn't have to face her challenges alone. Despite opposition from friends and family, the two build a relationship unchallenged by all that lies around them.

This is a terrific book. At times I wanted to kick Frank to make him take responsibility for his life and stop him from being so rudderless, but the transition he makes caused me to appreciate his character even more. Shannon Burke is a fantastic writer, as he has the ability to create hope out of the bleakest situations. (See his second book, Black Flies, and you'll understand what I mean.) This book is gritty and at times it makes you nervous for what might come next, but it really affected me, and has stuck with me in the weeks since I've read it. Take a chance on this one.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Crossing the Line...

It's just over two weeks since the big race, and there is still a little part of me that cannot believe it.

I ran a half-marathon (and I didn't come in last)!

More than 17,000 people ran the half-marathon with us, with an additional 10,000+ running the full marathon. (My hat is off to them, because when I got to mile 10.5, where the marathon runners split from the half-marathoners, I was ready to saw both of my legs off at the knees; the thought of running another 15.7 miles would have sent me over the edge.) I felt interchangeably great and lousy (and let's not talk about how I felt afterward), but ultimately, I felt—and still feel—incredibly proud.

My team—Wayne Ference, Rob Graveline, Brigid McEvilly and I—raised more than $16,000 to benefit the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America. Thanks to the generosity of so many of our friends, family, colleagues and clients, this money will go directly to try and find cures for these diseases and help those suffering from them.

This truly is one the greatest things I've ever accomplished. I'm forever indebted to everyone who provided encouragement, good vibes, training tips and support every step of the way, especially those who sent me messages via Facebook or Twitter while I was making my way through those 13.1 miles.

I'm grateful to Dani Rogers at CCFA for managing the Team Challenge program for the DC area. Everyone on Team DC truly benefited from the amazing encouragement and support she provided. From the weekly supportive emails to the sign she put on our hotel room door to send us on our way that Sunday morning, she was a big part of why we ran and why we finished.

I'm grateful to Uzzi, Brigid, Q and Jag from FT Tysons for training me to have the physical stamina to cross the finish line and the self-confidence to believe I could. They truly were (and are) my partners in this success.

Most of all, I'm grateful to Rob, for running alongside me and giving me the encouragement that I needed when the last few miles seemed insurmountable. At Mile 12, I told him that "everything hurt but my heart, which knows I can do this," and he helped me channel that energy when I needed it most. It was Rob who planted the seed in our heads that we could run this race, so it seemed only fitting that he be there as I crossed the finish line. Thank you!!

Book Review: "A Gentleman's Guide to Graceful Living" by Michael Dahlie

Arthur Camden is a well-to-do, middle-aged New Yorker in a bit of a bind. His wife left him (after having affairs through most of their marriage) because he wasn't aggressive enough, he's run his family business into the ground and he doesn't quite know what the next step in his life should be. And bursting into tears in front of other members of the exclusive Hanover Street Fly Casters is probably not the best way to put on a brave face.

Michael Dahlie's book tells the story of a man whose life is collapsing around him and how he finds the strength to carry on. And it's far from an easy path—from getting back into the dating scene, trying to save face with relatives angry with him for botching the family business and wanting to reconcile with his ex-wife despite the fact that she's about to remarry.

A Gentleman's Guide to Graceful Living is an enjoyable social comedy. Arthur's misadventures and how he copes with them are alternately funny and heartbreaking, and Dahlie's characterizations of Arthur's peers are spot-on. If I had any issue with the book it's that, like Arthur's ex-wife, I wished he was a bit more aggressive as everything was falling down around him and people were ripping him to shreds. But that might not have made his character as memorable.

Book Review: "Where the Dead Lay" by David Levien

I mostly read two types of books: general fiction and mysteries/thrillers, with a little bit of nonfiction thrown in for good measure. When reading mysteries or thrillers, I tend to gravitate toward books anchored by a central character—a private detective, cop or other individual thrown into the investigative world.

David Levien's Where the Dead Lay fits that category well. It's the second book featuring former Indianapolis cop (and private investigator) Frank Behr, who has a great investigative sense and a whole lot of emotional baggage. (The first book in this series City of the Sun, is terrific as well.)

When Behr's Brazilian martial arts instructor is brutally murdered just before his scheduled training session, he takes it quite hard and is more than determined to find the murderer. At the same time, he is approached by a private investigation company to find two investigators who have gone missing, although the company is keeping much of their information a secret from Behr. As Behr takes on the job, he uncovers a family of thugs who have started a turf war to secure a monopoly on neighborhood crime. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

This book has some fantastic action and some great twists, which isn't surprising, given that David Levien is a screenwriter responsible for films such as Rounders and Ocean's 13. But what makes this book (and his first one) so great is the complexity of Frank Behr. He's so much more than a taciturn former cop determined to find his place in the world again—he has more than enough of his own demons to fight while trying to fight those around him at the same time. Great book.

Mea Culpa...

Remember as a kid, when you'd finally get a toy you'd been dying for? You'd play with it for hours and hours, days and days, until the batteries ran out. And then, suddenly, unexplicably, you just stopped. Forgot about the toy you'd begged your parents or grandparents for.

Well, that kinda happened with the blog this past week or so. Between last-minute race preparations (more on that later) and the merriment of the big 4-0, life got in the way. But I'm back now. Promise.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Pretty Freaking Amazing!

Those of you who know me know I cannot dance. Jog in place, sure, but not dance. However, I am a late-to-the-party fan of So You Think You Can Dance and have been blown away by some of the dancing the last two seasons.

I don't know a développé from a development, but I know what I like. And I loved this contemporary routine to "Tore My Heart" by Oona and Dave Tweedle, choreographed by Sonya Tayeh. The dancers are Jakob and Ellenore, among my faves this season. The dance itself is about two minutes long; the remaining time is the judges' (understandably) amazing reactions.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A Little Disrespect...

Earlier today, the New York State Senate handily voted down a decision to legalize same-sex marriage. And much as in other states, we saw the common arguments—legislators objecting on religious grounds (despite the fact that there is supposed to be a separation between church and state) and my personal favorite, that same-sex marriage disrespects and harms the stability of traditional marriage.

I found it amazingly ironic that on this same day, the drama surrounding Tiger Woods' mysterious middle-of-the-night car accident continued to unfold. Rumors of Woods' infidelity are becoming ever more rampant, with a cocktail waitress coming forward claiming she and Woods had an affair for 31 months, beginning shortly before the birth of his first child.

If these rumors are true, I have a few questions for the New York State legislators and all those who cast votes to discriminate, those who decide that only certain people are worthy of equal rights:

Did Tiger Woods cheat on his pregnant wife because of gay marriage?

Is it THIS "traditional" marriage you're voting to protect by rejecting the rights of same-sex couples to marry and live their lives like everyone else?

Think about it: the arguments of the National Organization for Marriage and other groups that same-sex marriage is hazardous are reinforcing one simple fact: infidelity is safer to our families and our nation than same-sex marriage.

Makes sense, doesn't it? How much longer can we allow our lawmakers to cast votes for discrimination?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Book Review: "The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University" by Kevin Roose

Kevin Roose was a sophomore at Brown University when, after being intrigued by an encounter with student parishioners at Jerry Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church, he decided to spend a semester at Liberty University to better understand the young evangelical crowd. A non-practicing Quaker raised in a liberal household, what Roose discovers about his fellow students and what life is like at an evangelical college is at the heart of The Unlikely Disciple.

I really loved this book. I'll admit that I expected this to be much more tongue-in cheek and critical than it was. Roose makes no bones about how he feels about certain issues, such as the evangelical community's view of homosexuality or the theory of evolution, and how hearing both sides didn't sway his feelings. But he approached this whole assignment with a tremendously open mind, and what he discovered changed him in ways he didn't expect. But don't get me wrong, this book is not a love letter to Falwell and Liberty University either.

Roose is a terrific writer. He made me interested in what he was learning, how he felt about the school's rules and philosophies, and his depictions of everyday life at Liberty—from prayer sessions to dating to the friendships he built—were really captivating. The people he wrote about could be fascinating subjects in their own books. I highly recommend this one!

The Cult of Celebrity

Our society seems remarkably fixated on the overnight celebrity, the person who does something extraordinary or finds themselves in an extraordinary situation (see: Sullenberger, Charles). At times these individuals are more than happy to be recognized for their achievement and then slip quietly back into the woodwork; other times these individuals ride their 15 minutes of fame far beyond their expiration date (see: Kaelin, Kato).

Then there are those simply desperate for notoriety, those for whom reality shows were created. Many of these individuals will stop at nothing to be famous and certainly do not worry about portraying themselves in a less-than-flattering light (see: Upton, Caitlin) or doing something they might not otherwise do were it not for the attraction of the spotlight.

And then there are those who find fame because they do something objectionable or controversial. For some reason, our society likes to welcome those people with open arms. We love to give them a bully pulpit, and the media in particular likes to jump on those bandwagons until the next big thing arrives. It doesn't matter if their accusations are outrageous (see: Prejean, Carrie) or if their behavior is reprehensible (see: Hilton, Perez); if there's a talk show or news program, you'll be sure to see their faces for a while.

Which brings us to our latest pseudo-celebrities, Michaele and Tareq Salahi. This telegenic couple decided to crash a White House state dinner (apparently the second political dinner they attended uninvited), posted pictures of their adventure on their Facebook page, shopped around an interview to the highest bidder and now they claim to be "shocked" about the attention. They didn't crash the party, they say.

But were they invited? Excellent question. They can't produce an invitation, of course, but they didn't crash. And yet this most implausible of excuses has given them more media mileage than if they appeared with a smiling baby or singing kitty on YouTube. Congressmen want to have hearings into the security breach. Talk shows are clamoring to talk with the Salahis. At any minute, I expect Rush Limbaugh or Karl Rove to blame President Obama's administration for this blunder.

And in the end, what are we left with? Two people who didn't do much of anything being treated as if they did, riding the fame train until it stops, perhaps at an episode of Celebrity Rehab?

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Day after Day it Reappears...

I've mentioned before that I grew up as a child of 80s music. One of my all-time favorite songs was "Overkill" by Men at Work. Great song, great lyrics.

Years later, the television show Scrubs resurrected both the song and Men at Work's lead singer, Colin Hay, when they had him sing "Overkill" throughout one episode. It still is stuck in my mind. And now it can be in yours!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Movie Review: "Precious"

Wow. Even with all the hype, this movie still knocked me for a loop.

Precious boasts Oprah Winfrey as one of its executive producers, and this film definitely has an Oprah-like feel to it. But don't take that comment as a disparaging remark.

Clarice "Precious" Jones (film newcomer Gabourey Sidibe) is an overweight, illiterate teenager, pregnant with her second child and growing up in Harlem in the late 1980s. She lives with her unstable, abusive mother (Mo'Nique) and routinely dreams of being beautiful and famous while her life is falling apart around her.

Her pregnancy causes her to get kicked out of high school and sent to an "alternate" school run through Each One, Teach One. And it is there that Precious finally starts to learn, both how to read and write and, more importantly, how to love herself. But her mother isn't going to let her meal ticket go that easily.

This movie packs a tremendous emotional wallop and deals with some very tough subject matter. And while you think you may know what will happen, quite often the film leads you in the opposite direction. Lee Daniels did a phenomenal job directing this film, which is based on the novel Push by Sapphire.

The acting is absolutely phenomenal. In her film debut, Sidibe has an uncanny way of imbuing Precious with a radiant light even as she is dealing with emotionally and physically harrowing situations. And Mo'Nique gives a performance straight out of the "what dream roles are made of" playbook. Nothing you've ever seen her in before can prepare you for the rawness of this portrayal. Mariah Carey eschews her usual, shall we say, glitter, for a subdued (and well-acted) role as Precious' welfare case worker, Paula Patton shines in the somewhat-stock character of the teacher who helps Precious triumph, and Sherri Shepherd and Lenny Kravitz show up in small roles.

I'd expect Precious to show up in a number of Oscar categories come the spring. And deservedly so. This movie is heavy but well worth the emotions you'll feel watching it.

Book Review: "A Friend of the Family" by Lauren Grodstein

I first heard of Lauren Grodstein's A Friend of the Family when Amazon selected it as one of the best books of November. Since I'm a big fan of books about family dysfunction (quiet, you), I was quite eager to read it. And I'm pleased to say that once again, Amazon didn't steer me wrong. I thought this book was terrifically compelling and well-written, and devoured it really, really quickly.

Dr. Pete Dizinoff is an internist living a fairly idyllic life in suburban New Jersey. He and his wife, Elaine, who met in college, have a close relationship with college friends and their families are bound together quite closely. If there's any blip on the screen of their lives, it's their son Alec, who in his teenage years and early 20s struggled with a number of issues, including a firm direction for his future. But Pete is determined that Alec will succeed.

And then Laura Stern, eldest daughter of the Dizinoffs' best friends, reappears, after being gone from New Jersey for a significant period of time following troubles of her own. Laura takes an interest in Alec, who is about 10 years her junior, and this interest troubles Pete a great deal. Pete becomes obsessed with trying to get Alec back on the path he wants Alec to follow, at any cost.

I found this story intriguing because I'd imagine many parents might feel—and act—the same way Pete did when faced with this same situation. And although many of Pete's actions made his character a little less sympathetic, when taken together with the history Grodstein provided for his character, it all seemed very natural. The ripples that a few stones like these can make in so many lives really fascinated me. I'd definitely recommend this book, and I'll check out Grodstein's earlier fiction as well. It will be interesting to see if this one gets made into a movie...

Friday, November 27, 2009

Book Review: "What the Dead Know" by Laura Lippman

It's 1975. The Bethany sisters, 15-year-old Sunny and 11-year-old Heather, head to the Baltimore-area Security Square Mall one Saturday. And they're never seen again. Apart from the usual crank calls and shakedowns, no information is ever found about what happened to the Bethany sisters, leaving their parents at a great loss.

Years later, a woman is involved in a car accident on a Baltimore highway. Disoriented, she flees the scene of the accident, only to be caught by a policeman. And then she claims to be Heather Bethany. But she doesn't want to have to go to jail for the accident, nor does she want to have to tell her story to the media.

This book was a really gripping read. There were so many twists and turns I really didn't know what was going to happen, and I certainly didn't expect what did. Laura Lippman created some fantastic characters and a very compelling story, so even when I found myself confused—or when the multiple narrators and the flashbacks slowed the story down a bit—I definitely wanted to keep reading. I felt she captured the anguish, ambiguity and frustration that parents of missing children feel, along with guilt at wanting to get on with their lives.

I'd always heard good things about Laura Lippman's books, so I'll definitely try another.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

What I'm Thankful For...

Back in my soap opera-watching days, I always used to cynically chuckle when the various groups would gather together in Port Charles or Salem or Oakdale or Springfield for Thanksgiving, and make melodramatic pronouncements about what everyone was thankful for.

As I've grown older, I've realized how much it means to be thankful for what I have, as well as what I don't have. And while there may not be a crowd around to listen to my pronouncements of gratitude, they mean a great deal to me all the same.

I am thankful for the health of my friends and family.

I am thankful for the love and support of my family and friends. To know that I have others in my corner makes every difficulty a little less daunting.

I am thankful that my dog, Zeke, is healthier than we thought he'd be, and that we can spend yet another Thanksgiving together.

I am thankful for two amazingly adorable nephews. The wonder they experience at life's simple things thaws even my jaded heart.

I am thankful to have found the love of my life 7+ years ago. I can't imagine my life without you.

I am thankful to have people who challenge me and push me to be better than I ever thought possible. I cannot believe I'll be running a half-marathon next weekend, but I am thankful for the health and stamina to do so.

I am thankful for the ability to dream and hope. Far too much of life is spent focusing on reality, so aspirations are magical.

Most of all, I am thankful to have a job and a roof over my head. Especially at this time, there are too many people in this world who have neither or lack at least one.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

Monday, November 23, 2009

A Musical Gem for You...

I'm an unabashed child of the 80s. There's probably a song that can evoke a memory at every turn. This song, Alison Moyet's Invisible, doesn't necessarily evoke a good memory, but the song is too amazing to shy away from a little awkwardness. (For those of you who are 80s neophytes, Moyet was the lead singer of Yaz, one of my favorite 80s Brit pop bands.)

Check it out. Hopefully it doesn't cause you any particularly evocative flashbacks...


When driving to work the other day, I found myself behind a car with a license plate that read "B AZ U R." (I took this to mean "Be As You Are" and not "Be Azure," as the car wasn't blue.)

Over the last several days I've started to view that as a pretty clear directive.

The other night at my cousin's wedding someone told me I looked "so much better" than before.

Now, over the last 18+ months I've become pretty fanatical about what I eat and I exercise quite a bit. And I'm pleased with the progress I've made.

Could I be buffer? Sure.

I took the "so much better" comment in stride because it was meant as a compliment, but the remark certainly instigated a bit of soul-searching. I know that I was unhappy with how I looked prior to starting my fitness and diet program, but when someone tells you that you look "so much better," you can only imagine how others saw you previously.

I was depressed and happy simultaneously for a while. I knew I should be pleased that someone recognized all the effort I've put in. And I feel better as well as look better, so how can I lose?

But it's like when someone takes you in confidence by badmouthing another person—you think to yourself, gee, if that's what they say about this person, what must they say about me?

And then I remembered the license plate. As bizarre as it may sound, the more I thought about that unconscious message, the more I realized that I'm the only person that needs to be happy with me. And while that chore is sometimes a bit harder than it should be, the path toward self-esteem is a little less rocky than it used to be. So "being as I am" isn't bad at all; in fact, it's so much better than before. That's a pretty good place to be.

A Gift for One Who Has Everything...

So I'm not a gigantic Star Wars fan, but I'll tell you, even I think these movie-inspired adidas sneakers are pretty cool. They come in both Darth Vader and Stormtrooper versions. If you've been pondering what to get for the fan who has everything, look no more. These kicks will be available come January 2010.

Check out the adidas Originals web site for details.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

20 Days 'Til The Race: Why I'm Running

In a little less than three weeks, I'll be doing something I never dreamed possible: running a half-marathon. Unless you've been under a rock or just not paying attention to my constant Facebook updates or Tweets, you know that I'll be running the Rock N' Roll Half-Marathon in Las Vegas on December 6, as part of a team challenge to benefit Crohn's Disease and Colitis.

Even with the race under three weeks away, it seems nearly impossible to believe that I'm going to do this. If you had told me in June that within six months I would have run two 5K races and would be training to run a half-marathon, I would have asked you to share whatever hallucinogen you were taking.

A little more than 18 months ago, I was the heaviest I've ever been. Simply going up and down the stairs in our house winded me. I never really wanted to do anything more strenuous, because I was scared I'd have a heart attack. Shoveling snow, carrying boxes at the office, even dragging my luggage upstairs after a trip put a strain on me physically.

Luckily we decided to start working out. I say luckily for two reasons: first because I remembered how much I liked to exercise and was able to take advantage of the benefits of doing so, and second, because during a routine assessment, they discovered my blood pressure was obscenely high. Like numbers that should never be seen in a blood pressure reading. So starting to work out saved my life in more ways than one.

But why run a half-marathon? I get asked that question a lot by those who know me.

I've never been athletic. Those of you who knew me growing up can attest to that. If there was a way to avoid athletic activities or gym class, I figured it out. My father used to joke that when he coached my soccer team, he was the only coach who never played his kid. I was more content to sit on the sidelines and talk to everyone else. I wrote tons of extra credit papers for gym class in high school to make up for all the times I showed up without the proper clothes. Even as a kid at camp, I spent nearly every day avoiding athletic activities.

But it wasn't so much the exercise I was avoiding as it was the ridicule. I was—and still am—uncoordinated. Big time. Ball coming at me? I'd certainly not be able to catch it. I'd either drop it or, more often than not, it would hit me square in the face. Growing up, I scored plenty of baskets and goals for the opposing team, struck out with the bases loaded or caused more than a few double plays. Try that a few times and you guarantee you'll always get picked last when they divide up into teams.

Don't be fooled; I don't feel sorry for myself about my lack of athleticism. But I will admit that it is one of the biggest motivators pushing me to run this race. (That and turning 40 six days after the race, but who's counting?) I know that when I cross the finish line in Vegas, I will have achieved something I never dreamed possible, a long time after I believed I was capable of something like this. And while the weight of the past may slow me down a little, it's what I need to carry with me through the race, almost as necessary as water or nutritionals.

A Little Musical Gem...

I'm starting to feel that Lady Gaga is way overexposed these days (in more ways than one). But while her music is catchy, the best thing I've found recently is an acoustic version of "Poker Face" that Chris Daughtry performed live on a radio station in Germany. It's a few months old so you may have seen this; if not, give it a listen and you may not want to hear the original version of the song again!

Book Review: "The Book of Joe" by Jonathan Tropper

Sometimes it's not that you can't go home again, it's that you shouldn't. Take Joe Goffman, for example. He left his hometown of Bush Falls shortly after high school and then years later wrote a fictionalized account of life there which left his former friends and neighbors feeling a little, well, angry. The book became a bestseller and was adapted into a movie, so the whole world got to see what Joe had to say.

Joe returns to Bush Falls 17 years later after his father has a stroke. Needless to say, he isn't welcomed with open arms by anyone. As he relives his glory days and tries to come to terms with his adult life, he starts to realize why he wrote the book and how he can move on to a new chapter with his friends and loved ones.

When The Book of Joe came out a few years ago, I remember not wanting to read it because I usually shy away from books labeled by critics as "funny," "heartwarming" or "life-affirming," because they're usually not. But after reading—and loving—Jonathan Tropper's newest book, This is Where I Leave You, I decided to read some of his previous novels as well. And I'm glad I did, because honestly, this book is funny, a little heartwarming and even slightly life-affirming. Sure, it's a little predictable, but Tropper's characters are so interesting and intriguing it doesn't matter. And besides, who hasn't wanted to write a book about where they grew up, getting revenge on those who did them wrong? I know it's not just me...

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Forgotten Gem from the 90s...

Dog's Eye View is one of my favorite one-hit wonders from the 1990s. Their hit, Everything Falls Apart is really catchy, even by today's standards, at least IMHO.

What I love about this song most is some of the lyrics. My favorite line:

"I met God this afternoon, riding on an uptown train. I said, 'don't you have better things to do?' He said, 'If I quit my job, what would you complain about?'"

Don't know why, but it resonates. Check out the video for yourself. (I'm guessing Sony won't let this video be embedded for some reason I don't understand.)

Friday, November 13, 2009

Questions. I Got Questions.

So here are some things that have been confusing or perturbing me lately. Thought they merited a mention:

  • Why does Joe Lieberman still caucus with the Democrats? The man endorsed the Republican candidate for President and creates headaches weekly for the Democrats. Here's the latest example.

  • Shouldn't schools be more worried about gang violence, pregnancy, dropouts, even the quality of children's education rather than a haircut?

  • So Sarah Palin thinks Katie Couric was condescending, biased and "badgering." Oh, and Palin thinks Katie knows nothing about energy issues. Why is news coverage biased when the person doesn't agree with you?

  • Why is Carrie Prejean still considered newsworthy? In case you don't know who she is, here is a roundup of all things Prejean.

  • What was Bruce Springsteen smoking when he wrote "Blinded by the Light"? "And Go-Cart Mozart was checking out the weather chart to see if it was safe outside..." (Thanks to Kelly for pointing me towards the answer from the Boss himself.)

See? I warned you my mind was a scary place...

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The End, or: Whose Fault is it Anyway?

Last night, a particularly scary period in Washington, DC officially ended with the execution of sniper John Allen Muhammad, who along with his partner, Lee Malvo, was responsible for the deaths of at least 10 people in this area. (Muhammad and Malvo are also thought responsible for deaths in several other states.)

I remember the fall of 2002 and how gripped by panic everyone (including me) was. No one knew where or when the snipers would strike next. I (like many others) would put the gas pump in my car's tank while crouched low to the ground and quickly head back to my car to wait until it was finished and I could start the exercise again. I was at the Falls Church Home Depot the day before Linda Franklin was murdered in the parking lot. No one at that point imagined someone would be gunned down after a shopping spree. And we all lived in fear that the snipers might never make a mistake and might continue their spree for weeks, months, even years.

When Muhammad was sentenced to death, my sometimes-shaky faith in the justice system was secured briefly. I had worried that his case might be turned over on some technicality, or that one juror might not believe that even someone clearly capable of the violence he masterminded was deserving of death. And that concern reappeared earlier this week, when I heard that Muhammad's attorneys, in a last-ditch plea to save their client's life even briefly, alleged that he was mentally ill, attributable to years of abuse at his father's hands. One of the jurors who chose to sentence Muhammad to death said she would not have done so had she known what he had gone through earlier in life.

I wonder how it is any action in someone's life, no matter how horrific, could be excused by some because it was "someone else's fault." I am in no way ignoring the horrible effects child physical and sexual abuse can have on a person's psyche and future behavior, but at what point must a person accept responsibility for their own actions? If well into your adulthood you choose to commit a series of horrible actions, taking the lives of at least 10 people in acts of random, emotionless violence, is it really attributable to something that happened years before, or is that just a crutch you choose to stand on when your back is against the wall?

Muhammad's death will never bring those he and Malvo killed back to life, or even ease their suffering. But I also hope it may have sent a message to even one person contemplating such an act of violence that if they get caught, it isn't something that can be wiped away by excuses of abuse, religious hatred, even revenge. It isn't someone else's fault. If you want to cavalierly discard of human lives, at least accept responsibility for your choices. You control your own destiny. Which path you choose is your choice, not someone else's.

Book Review: "Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater" by Frank Bruni

When I make a list of dream jobs, restaurant critic is always near the top. For a foodie like me, to be able to eat at some of the best restaurants in a city (and not have to take out a second mortgage to afford the meals) would be a pretty amazing opportunity. But since no one is beating down my door offering me that chance, it was fun to live vicariously through Frank Bruni, former New York Times restaurant critic.

Interestingly enough, this book hit home for me in more ways than I imagined. While it was fascinating to read about how he went about surreptitiously visiting NYC restaurants and disguising himself from curious servers and owners, and hearing about some of his most memorable meals, that information was included only in the very last part of the book. The majority of the book recounted Bruni's constant struggle with food, his weight and his self-esteem. Growing up Italian, he was always bombarded by food, and it controlled him for many, many years. He'd yo-yo between heavy and thin, tried every major diet (and some minor ones) as well as some very unhealthy habits, and his food-related issues truly affected his mental and emotional well-being probably more than his weight did.

Throughout the book, I kept thinking about how similar Bruni's story is to my own. While I never went to the extremes he did, food has always been one of my biggest vices, and my weight remains one of my biggest challenges even now. I thought this book was terrific, not only for the fat and formerly-fat among us, but for anyone who's ever struggled with controlling an obsession that is controlling the rest of your life. Bruni is self-deprecating, funny, intelligent and insightful. I really enjoyed this book.

Monday, November 9, 2009


Talk about a whirlwind. In the last 48 hours I went from the pseudo-normalcy I call my typical life to complete despair to relief and cautious optimism. Even for someone like me that's a lot of mood swings.

Our dog, Zeke, is 15-1/2 years old. I've had him since he was four months old. We've been through a lot together—work crises, roommate dramas, moving twice in two years, road trips, health crises, relationships good and bad—and through it all, he's been a source of constant unconditional love, as long as there's food in it for him. (After all, this is the dog who actually recognized the phrase "I'd like to place an order for delivery" about five years ago when we ordered Chinese food at least twice a week.)

As he's gotten older, he's slowed down a little bit at times, although at other times he gallops around the house like a miniature horse. Saturday morning started out like any other Saturday—he got his half a bagel (you can take the dog's owner out of Jersey but you can't take all of the Jersey out of the dog's owner) and he was his usual psyched self. And then at midday he started having trouble getting up on the couch, which was troubling for a dog who spends most of his day on the couch. The evening found him getting caught in the bathroom and stuck behind the toilet (as much as I'd like to believe his newfound zeal for toilet training, it worried me) and getting wrapped up in a cell phone charger cord.

And then the pacing began. Zeke kept circling around the ground floor of the house, round and round, never stopping to relax or lay down. After about 90 minutes of this and his refusal to come upstairs, we took him to the emergency vet around 12:30 am Sunday. Following some tests, the vet told us Zeke had something neurologic wrong with him—either a stroke or a brain tumor. Clearly neither spelled good news. They were going to keep him at the hospital until Monday, when he'd be sent for an MRI.

Needless to say, the outlook wasn't good and we were devastated. While when you have an aging pet you know in the back of your mind at some point you're going to be faced with saying goodbye, you're never quite ready to do so. And to have to make the decision is a Schindler's List-ian burden you never want to shoulder.

So today we took him for an MRI, which came back clear, and a spinal tap, which also came back clear. No stroke, no brain tumor, no encephalitis, no meningitis. Great news all. But of course, the question remains: what is wrong with Zeke?

Good question, that. Zeke is remaining at the vet one more night. They'll take some additional tests and try to pinpoint the cause of the sudden pacing and disorientation. But it certainly appears, unless something changes drastically again, that Zeke is coming home tomorrow. And given where I thought today would end, this is a resolution well worth the rollercoaster ride.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Book Review: "City of Bones" by Cassandra Clare

So I'm starting to wonder if I was a tween girl in a past life (shut up, you). I enjoyed the Twilight series a lot more than I expected I would (some books more than others) and now I just devoured the first book in the "Mortal Instruments" trilogy, Cassandra Clare's City of Bones.

Much as I said when I reviewed the Twilight books, are they well-written? Not necessarily. Are they enjoyable? Yes. A little melodramatic, sure, but when you combine teenage angst with demons and the underworld, what would you expect? I couldn't sleep in the middle of the night AND I read really fast, but I read the entire book yesterday.

Teen-aged Clarissa (Clary) Fray is at a club one evening when she sees three young people armed with knives stalking another kid. She witnesses a murder and winds up finding out about the world of the Shadowhunters, warriors dedicated to ridding the world of demons. And once her mother disappears suddenly and Clary is attacked by a demon, everything gets just a bit more bizarre.

Sometimes the book gets a little overly detailed, as there are a lot of different classes within the shadowworld, but the action keeps coming. And even if you can anticipate most of what is going to happen, it's still pretty enjoyable. I'm headed back to the real adult shelves now, but I'll be back for book 2.

The Randomness of Memory...

It's true confession time: my name is Larry Hoffer and I'm a bit of a savant. For some reason my brain has an excess of room for completely random trivia that has very little value in the outside world, but when it comes time to remember where I left my wallet about 10 minutes ago, or where I was headed when I left my desk, no dice.

For example, I can tell you—no lie—who was nominated for and won every Oscar for best picture, actor, actress, supporting actor, supporting actress and director. And while this helps me run the Academy Award categories when watching Jeopardy, I rarely get asked in a job interview or by my boss how many times Johnny Depp has been nominated (3) or what won Best Picture in 1973 (The Sting).

Scarily enough, this isn't the only glut of trivia residing in my brain. I discovered via Facebook I can still name nearly everyone in every one of my elementary school classes or all of my bunkmates from the 10 summers I spent at camp. Song lyrics (lots of 'em), movie quotes, even nearly every semi-finalist from the first five or six seasons of the original Star Search. And I don't practice. Well, I will admit to reciting the Oscar nominees and winners when I'm trying to fall asleep or even when driving by myself late at night, it keeps me alert.

Who knows why? I'm sure there's a scientific explanation for the random things you retain while losing the crucial things, but I've probably forgotten it. Once you get over the sheer hilarity of this confession, I'd love it if you'd share the random stuff your mind has retained over the years. Prove to me I'm not alone in my savant-hood, please?

Friday, November 6, 2009

What Do You Get from a Glut of TV??

Sometimes life is so bizarre it even beats television. Of course, my life is like that on almost a daily basis, but this takes the cake.

So it's just a typical night. We're going to grab some Vietnamese food from the place around the corner. As I'm walking to the car I see a strange looking guy trying to flag down passing cars, and then he's pointing at the streetlight. Always the tolerant one, I'm thinking either the person is going to ask for money or kill us. So as we go to drive away, he waved and said there was an unconscious woman in a car parked across the street.

Now, maybe we watch too many crime shows and I read too many PI novels, but I was pretty much convinced this was a set up. We walk over to the car and there's a gray-haired woman passed out in the passenger's seat. I start to call 911 (I'm not one to get my hands dirty) and W goes over to check if the woman is alive. Again, there's a tiny piece of me wondering whether the guy who flagged us down didn't off the old woman, but maybe that was a recent episode of Criminal Minds.

W called her name and when he poked her, she shot up. She said she was just drunk and told us not to call the police, but of course, I was on the phone with them. I had to explain that the woman was just drunk and didn't need help. It turns out she was (perhaps) stalking her lover who lived in the neighborhood, as she told W "I cannot believe this is my life. I'm 64 years old and live in San Francisco, and here I am." (10 martinis or so later, I might add.) We reunited her with her "friend" and went on our way.

But now, a tasty bowl of pho later, come the questions we want answers to: Did she drive drunk to our neighborhood and then pass out? Did her boyfriend leave her drunk in the car to perhaps catch hypothermia? Does the course of love ever run smoothly, even for people in their 60s? (Clearly the question of "will you still need me, will you still feed me when I'm 64" hits a little too close to home for this couple.)

Sadly, these questions won't get tidily wrapped up before the last commercial break. But so ends our good samaritan run for the month. Time to watch some manufactured drama on TV.

Book Review: "Invisible" by Paul Auster

Although I try to read a lot of different books by different authors, I certainly have a group of favorites. If I see a new book by one of these writers (if I haven't been tracking them on Amazon), I will immediately by it when I see it. Paul Auster is one of those. The minute I saw his new book, Invisible, I nearly leapt on it (I'm crazy like that) and, of course, bought it.

Invisible is a well-written, intriguing and odd book. It starts in 1967 at Columbia University. Adam Walker is a college student dreaming of life as a poet when he encounters Rudolf Born and his girlfriend, Margot, at a party. Rudolf and Margot immediately intrigue young Adam with their worldliness, and the couple becomes somewhat intrigued by him as well. What happens shortly thereafter is a shocking act of violence that has ramifications for the rest of the book.

And that's where everything gets a little bit hinky. The book is divided into four sections. The first is narrated by Adam himself, the second and third sections are narrated by a college friend of Adam's (through Adam's words) and the fourth is narrated by another character and almost feels tacked on. There are a lot of big issues in this book--murder, incest, voyeurism, emotional anguish--yet not a lot of it resonates. I loved the story Auster was telling even as I felt uncomfortable reading pieces of it, but ultimately I was left somewhat unfulfilled. I guess I'll hope his next one has a bit more for me.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

How to Find a Masculine Halloween Costume for Your Effeminate Son

Ok, so it plays on every bad stereotype, but it's kinda funny. Thanks to the Onion News Network for this little goody...

How To Find A Masculine Halloween Costume For Your Effeminate Son

Worthy of Equality...

What a difference one year makes. Last year, the day following Election Day was mainly one of excitement, of amazement and of course, hope, although the blow of the Prop 8 decision in California tempered the enthusiasm of Obama's election.

Waking up this morning to learn that Maine's voters had decided to reject the state's law allowing gay marriage was in sharp opposition to the feeling I had last year at this time. I just cannot believe we have a system in our country which allows people to decide the civil rights of others. What gives one person the power over another to decide who deserves equality and who doesn't? We would never have put a decision related to interracial marriage to the votes of the people during the civil rights movement; why is it okay for people in this day and age to decide who can marry whom?

I've seen so much of the press coverage following this vote and honestly, it just depresses me. I cannot believe people--including those from outside the state of Maine--would have invested so much time and money in furthering hatred and discrimination. For what?

I hear constantly how gay marriage undermines the sanctity of traditional marriage.

Well, guess what?

So does divorce.

And so does adultery.

But so many of those people championing the sanctity of traditional marriage have either committed adultery or been divorced. Why is it ok for celebrities to get married and divorced as often as Cher gets her face fixed, yet that doesn't undermine the sanctity of traditional marriage but gay marriage does?

Why does what one couple does in their own home threaten what another couple does in theirs? None of my friends have ever expressed concern that my relationship undermines their marriages. And you know why? Because, plain and simple: it's nonsense.

Sadly, this is going to be a longer and harder fight than anyone even imagined. The discussions related to DC recognizing same-sex marriages at one point seemed like a slam dunk, yet I believe the opposition will be clearly emboldened by the Maine decision. And any time gay marriage gains the upper hand because of a decision made by a legislature or by a court, the action of "activist judges" will be overturned by the vote of a populace filled with hate and ignorance, of the "I'm better than you are" attitude.

Even if I buy the argument that marriage is seen as a religious ceremony and people's opposition is based on religious beliefs, how can people still vote against laws banning discrimination against gay people, or vote against hate crime bills? No person ever deserves to be beaten up for walking down the street, run over a car or left to die hanging from a fence in the wild. Is this really 2010 that we're still seeing this type of violence?

If I am less of a citizen than some, then can I pay less taxes? Can I have less of a responsibility for the world around me? Because from where I sit, it doesn't seem all that fair to be told I can have half the rights at the same price.



Well, it's finally happened. After months, perhaps years of thinking about setting up a blog I finally did it. So thanks for stopping by.

Those of you who know me are fairly aware that I have a lot to say. But there's also a lot I don't say, whether because no one wants to listen, there's no one around or because sometimes it's just not appropriate to say it. And that's why I now have my blog: because typing to myself is a lot more fun than talking to myself!

Over time, you'll see a good mix of things here. Random thoughts, music/movie/book reviews, recipes, gossip, etc. Feel free to let me know what you want to see as well. Oh, and of course, I need to give credit to the amazing Billy Joel for inspiring the title of this blog.

See ya!