Why I Love/Hate the Olympics (And You Should, Too)

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Because – duh – the Olympic Games always bring out the best and the worst sports have to offer. Not just in the athletes, but perhaps even more so in the public’s reaction to them.

Some recent examples. Two African American women won gold medals in events that used to be dominated by white athletes – gymnastics and tennis – but at home their victories were overshadowed by criticisms of the gymnast’s hair (!) and the tennis player’s brief celebratory dance. Yes, that’s right. All-around gold medal winner Gabby Douglas’ hair was a story, as was Serena Williams’ few seconds of unguarded happiness at the baseline of Wimbledon’s Centre Court after she defeated Maria Sharapova in the women’s tennis final.

As for Gabby Douglas, she is, unsurprisingly, far more mature than her critics. The AP reported last week (via The Grio):

The 16-year-old said Sunday she was a little confused when she logged onto her computer after winning her second gold medal in three days and discovered people were debating her pulled-back look.

“I don’t know where this is coming from. What’s wrong with my hair?” said Douglas, the first U.S. gymnast to win gold in team and all-around competition. “I’m like, ‘I just made history and people are focused on my hair?’ It can be bald or short, it doesn’t matter about (my) hair.”

Yeah you did just make history, Gabby Douglas. Too bad your critics are living in the past.

And as for Serena Williams, the nonsensical controversy demonstrates how uncomfortable a good part of America is with Black success. From Huffington Post:

Serena Williams was so overjoyed after defeating Maria Sharapova in the Olympic singles and winning the gold that she broke into a Crip Walk dance.

“It was just me. I love to dance,” Williams told reporters who inquired about her Crip Walk. “I didn’t know what else to do. I was so happy, and next thing I know I started dancing and moving. I didn’t plan it. It just happened.”

“For the uninitiated, the Crip Walk is a funky little hip-hop dance move made famous by Crip gang members in Compton in the 1970s,” wrote Fox Sports’ Reid Forgrave, who went on to criticize Williams ….

Oh, please. So, forty odd years ago some gang members did a particular dance move, and now any African American who does it is … what? Promoting street gangs? Lauding gang culture? Being … too Black?

It’s a dance move, fer Chrissakes. I hear Al Capone was an opera fan. So, naturally, any Italian American who likes opera is … Jesus, these racial and ethnic stereotypes are really confounding.

Actually, if you want to criticize an Olympic athlete for questionable sportsmanship, how about British triathlete Alistair Brownlee, who won the men’s race Tuesday with 11 seconds to spare:

It could have been a larger distance from first to second, but Brownlee grabbed a British flag and draped it on his back down the stretch. He walked the last few steps with a huge grin and finished with a time of 1:46:25.

Wait, what? Who stops (or slows down) to grab a flag and then walks across the finish line in an Olympic race? Seriously. Who does that?

Apart from the fact that Brownlee was celebrating victory before he actually achieved it – which is pretty crass, really – he walked across the finish line. In the Olympic triathlon.

Good lord, man. Why would you not want to finish the race in the fastest possible time? That’s the first lesson of marathons and triathlons: You’re not just running against the other athletes; you’re running against yourself.

Of course, there was no media controversy after Brownlee’s premature flag-draping and walking across the finish line (in an Olympic race! – I still can’t get over that), but it’s not like he did anything, you know, Black.

On the other hand, the Olympics also give us moments like this:

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That’s Grenadian runner Kirani James exchanging bibs with South African runner – and double-amputee – Oscar Pistorius after Pistorius failed to qualify for the 400 meter final last Sunday:

Most athletes would not have a smile on their face after finishing last in an Olympic semi-final, but then Oscar Pistoriusis no ordinary athlete. The South African made history on Saturday by becoming the first double amputee to compete in the Olympics and on Sunday night was attempting to break another record by reaching the final of the men’s 400m.

It was not to be, however. In an intimidatingly strong field, Pistorius, nicknamed the Blade Runner, was never really in with a shout. The 25-year-old, who fought a long battle for the right to enter the Games, finished in 46.54sec, the only disappointment being that he had run 45.44 in his heat on Saturday.

Pistorius’ success (not only making the Olympics but winning his initial heat) is one of the great stories to come out of this year’s Olympics, but so was that simple gesture by Kirani James. The 19-year old James went on to win the gold medal in the 400 in 43.94 seconds, which is astounding in its own right; but that moment when he walked up to Pistorius after the semis and asked to exchange bibs – that said more about Olympic values than any physical triumph ever could.

And did I mention Kirani James is only 19 years old? Nineteen. What were you doing at that age? As for me, I shudder to think.

But, so, anyway, there you go. While the media and the public obsess over a gymnast’s hairstyle and hyperventilate over a tennis player’s dance moves – while ignoring an odder and more questionable finish to the men’s triathlon – a 19 year old from Grenada and a double-amputee from South Africa kind of made the whole thing worth watching.

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Remembering All The Dead

This happens every few years: Memorial Day falls on my brother John’s birthday. He would be 57 years old today if he hadn’t passed away on April 9, 1991.

No, John wasn’t a veteran. He didn’t die in combat, the kind of death the country honors today. But there is a connection between John’s untimely death 21 years ago and the somber purpose of today’s remembrance.

John committed suicide, and that resonates today because suicide is increasingly the leading cause of death among veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Back in April Nick Kristof of The New York Times wrote:

HERE’S a window into a tragedy within the American military: For every soldier killed on the battlefield this year, about 25 veterans are dying by their own hands.

An American soldier dies every day and a half, on average, in Iraq or Afghanistan. Veterans kill themselves at a rate of one every 80 minutes. More than 6,500 veteran suicides are logged every year — more than the total number of soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq combined since those wars began.

The causes of suicide are complex, and being a survivor, while it opens your eyes, doesn’t make you an expert on anything other than grieving. For better or worse, we’re really knowledgeable about that particular subject.

So, anyway, I won’t pretend to understand exactly why this is happening. I will, though, point out the obvious: It’s completely unacceptable for so many of our brothers and sisters to suffer and to die by their own hands after serving our country – our country; they’re our responsibility – while the government scratches its head and expresses regret but fails to act.

To be fair, the Department of Veterans Affairs has a crisis hotline that, according to it, “has answered more than 500,000 calls and made more than 18,000 life-saving rescues” since 2007. And in 2011, the Obama Administration finally discarded the longstanding, ill-advised policy against sending letters of condolence to families of military suicide victims, which was a symbolic but important step towards recognizing the connection between combat experiences and death by suicide. But as Paul Rieckhoff, Executive Director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, noted last January, that’s not enough:

The facts are stark. After 10 years of war, almost 2.4 million service members have combat experience. Nearly a third suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder, depression or a traumatic brain injury. Between 2005 and 2009, one service member committed suicide approximately every 36 hours. The VA estimates that 6,000 veterans killed themselves in 2009 alone.

Veterans are only 7% of the American population, but they account for one of every five suicides in the country.

And the numbers above are only part of the story, since only about half of new vets utilize the VA services they’ve earned. The mental health of the other half is a great unknown.

This epidemic is attacking an entire community and will continue to do so until the country’s full attention and resources are devoted to stemming the crisis.

The President must lead. He can start by issuing a call for more military mental health providers and launching a national suicide prevention campaign by the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments, veterans groups and community-based nonprofits nationwide. Then and only then can something more than lip service be paid to veterans’ mental health.

Amen to that, Mr. Rieckhoff.

May 28 is a day when I remember my brother John, who died an untimely death for reasons I’ll probably never be able fully to understand. This year it’s also Memorial Day, a day to remember everyone who died in uniform, whether they died of visible wounds or the demons that war implanted in their psyche; whether they died in combat or months later, alone in their own private hell.

Never forget. Any of them.

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How This Whole Thing Got Started

I did something strange today, which is to say, I forgot what today was.

I forgot that I was sitting in my downtown Chicago office eighteen years ago today when my wife-to-be called me to tell me that my dad had had a heart attack and that I’d better come home right away. Even thought it was eighteen years ago, I can still sort of make out the faces of the strangers on the el sitting across from on that panicked ride from the Loop out to Oak Park, normally about a twenty minute ride that that day stretched out for what seemed like forever.

At the time I didn’t realize my father had already passed away, and so there was still some slim hope that I’d find him in the ICU with tubes and IV lines and all that, in danger but still with us; but it didn’t work out that way. The moment I stepped foot in the emergency room my brother Mark told me the bad news, and that was that. I’d never see my father alive again.

It’s weird but maybe good somehow that I’d forgotten today was my father’s yahrzeit. Not good that I overlooked it, but good that it’s not a morose or obsessive kind of thing. Meaning, that as much as I miss the old man and wish he were still around, the loss itself isn’t something that dominates my life. You don’t really get over the loss of someone close to you, but you do have to learn to live with it. It can’t rule your life; so maybe forgetting it, momentarily anyway, is okay.

But it’s also worth nothing that my old man’s passing was the very thing that set me off on this running odyssey in the first place. My father died of a heart attack at 72 – way, way too young – and his father died, also of a heart attack, also around age 70 or so. And that was enough to get me to run … not that I started right away; it took me nearly a year to make the commitment to run several times a week. But I’ve kept it up pretty consistently since then, and I guess that’s something.

Of course, when I started out I never anticipated running races, let alone marathons. My one and only purpose was to run for health, to stave off the inevitable icy cold death-grip as long as I possibly could. In fact, when I started out I genuinely thought that anybody who ran for any reason other than health – that is to say, anyone other than an actual track star who ran for anything other than health – was stark raving mad. What was the damn point, right? You run, you get your heart rate up, you go home and shower. Done. Anything else was … madness.

Heh.

Anyway, it’s funny how things change once you start running regularly. Pretty soon, you need more of a challenge than just running three or four miles a day. Pretty soon you start running longer and longer runs on the weekend … then you run a 5K, or a 10K … then a 20K or a half-marathon … and the next thing you know, it’s seventeen years and five marathons later, and you can’t believe your knees are still intact.

So, thanks, Dad, I guess. It’s all your fault.

But I still miss you.

Note: This song is not altogether appropriate for my Dad, who was a World War II combat vet but who never like to talk about it all that much. But it’s Steve Earle and the Pogues, which is reason enough to listen to it; and I am proud of his service just the same.

Pfc. Paul J. von Ebers, U.S. Army, 66th Infantry Division, 1943

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“Just as Long as the Guitar Plays …”

Brother Tom would have been 54 years old today.

This one of his favorite songs from his favorite band of all time, and one of the best rock ’n roll songs ever recorded:

And one more thing, kids: Don’t smoke. Those f*cking things’ll kill you.

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Finished!

Crossing the finish line at the 50 yard line at Memorial Stadium in Champaign.

I’ll write more when I have time to reflect on the whole experience, but yes, I finished the Illinois Marathon this past Saturday, my 50th birthday. It was a grueling experience in many ways, but it was fantastic. I can’t think of a better way to turn over the odometer than running a marathon with in my mother’s honor with Team In Training in the home of my alma mater, the University of Illinois.

For the record, my official time was 5:45:23 – not great, and a little slower than I expected (I thought I’d finish in around 5½ hours) – but I’m willing to own it. At least I finished, and as my brother-in-law Ed likes to say: Anybody can run for two hours or so; it’s really hard to run for five or six.

I note that Ed, when he ran marathons, was much faster than I ever was. But: Point taken.

Anyway, here are our finisher’s metals (Jenn ran the half marathon):

And here we are under the JumboTron at Memorial Stadium, where both the full and half marathon races ended:

And, yeah, this would be my theme song for the day: “Not Dead Yet,” by Chicago’s own Bad Examples:

Whew!

 

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April 9th

Brother John, posing in front of a ceramic tile mural he made in 1990

For the past twenty-one April 9ths, I’ve felt kind of haunted by the opening lines of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland because I think I know exactly what he means:

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

There’s something to that. There’s a kind of false hope that comes with the spring, because you’re supposed to be happy in the spring and everything’s supposed to be looking up, only sometimes you’re not and it’s not, and the fact that it’s spring and everything’s supposed to be okay just underscores the feeling that it’s not. And that can be the hardest thing in the world to grapple with.

I’ve often wondered whether there’s an increase in cases of depression in the spring, and, even worse, whether there’s an up-tick in suicides, but it’s something I haven’t bothered to look into before now and I probably never will. Because my brother John took that ride on April 9, 1991, and ever since then, for the past twenty-one Aprils and the past twenty-one April 9ths, it’s hard enough just to bear that burden all on its own.

As for anyone else stung by the cruelty of false hope, I’m sorry. Today, I can’t help you.

I’ve tried to express this before and it never really works, but I’ll try it again anyways because that’s part of the burden. The thing of it is, as much as this day sucks and the circumstances of his death left a more or less permanent scar, I still think of my brother the same way you’d think of anyone close to you who died too young. I think about my brother John all the time, but I don’t think about how he came to die. I think about how he was the best man in my first wedding, and how I was the best man at his one and only wedding. I think about driving around in his beat up nineteen-seventy-something powder blue Gran Torino, listening to the Clash’s Sandinista! LP, one of his favorites, especially when I hear this song:

The band went in and knocked ’em dead in two minutes fifty-nine.

Yeah, they did.

And I think about how John introduced me to the great Garland Jeffreys, an artist’s songwriter if ever there was one:

I know John would be glad to hear that Garland Jeffrey’s career is on the upswing again, and I’m pretty sure he’d be all over this song – “Coney Island Winter,” from The King Of In Between (2011):

I also think about John’s favorite movie, The Pope of Greenwich Village, which featured this song by Willie DeVille, another in the seemingly endless litany of musicians and bands that John was the first to discover:

There’s so much more than that, but the point is, what I think about most of all today is the normal stuff, the mundane day-to-day stuff that our lives were comprised of, when he was still with us. I don’t think so much about the disease that killed him – and, yes, it was depression that killed him as much as it was his own hand – though the disease was kind of woven into him; it was almost like an integral part of him.

But he was just my brother, and I miss the hell out of him, and that’s really all I think about today.

Oh, hell. I know what I mean, I just don’t quite know how to articulate it. As T.S. Eliot might say: “HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME ….” As in, get to the damn point, will you. Yes, well, I would if I could. Maybe some day I will. There’re a lot of April 9ths left.

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Bubble Genius Fundraiser for Team In Training!

Jennifer and I are very excited to announce that our friends at Bubble Genius (@bubblegenius on the Twitter Machine), makers of fine quality soap and bath products, are helping us raise funds for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team In Training program as we train for the Illinois Marathon on April 28. Through the end of April, Bubble Genius will donate 50% of each purchase to our Team In Training efforts. So please do us and yourself a favor: Order from Bubble Genius today!

Just go to BubbleGenius.com, place your order, and enter the coupon code “TNTIL” and 50% of the purchase price of your order (exclusive of shipping charges, of course) will go to Team In Training.

Really, we’re overwhelmed by their generosity. Paula and Sarah, the owners of Bubble Genius, are genuinely great people. And their products are great – we use them in our house:

Whoop Ass hand balm - it really works!

So please, even after the fundraiser is over, please patronize them.

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