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?