Thursday, August 14, 2008

Olympic Thoughts

Please understand: I'm not real big on the Olympics. I don't dislike them. I just don't get all worked up about them. Still, even we casual watch-as-you-walk-past-the-tv types pick up on certain things.

I have to begin with the men's swimming, especially that 400 meter swimming relay a few days ago. That's the one the American team won after the French team said they came to the Olympics to, and I quote, "crush" the Americans. Now, I'm a New York sports fan, and trash talk is certainly nothing new here, but it still seems out of place for what the Olympics are supposed to represent. More important, though, is that it may be a good time for someone to give Pepe Le Pew a refresher course in manners, starting with the fact that if it weren't for the Americans, he'd be swimming for the German team.

Did a small animal die on Bob Costas' head, or does he just need someone to be really honest with him about toupees? It's hard to tell.

Seeing that between-the-events report the other day about the Chinese street-food-on-a-stick delicacies of scorpions, starfish, silkworms, political dissidents, and heaven only knows what else was like watching a bloody scene in a slasher movie, the ones that make you shut your eyes and turn away while listening for something to indicate when it's over. Not like the normal treats I grew up eating in Jewish delis, things like beef tongue and kishke. (The first is just what it sounds like, sliced thin and served warm on rye with a good deli mustard. The second - trust me, you don't want to know.) In any case, I really didn't need that close-up of the guy shoving a scorpion-pop into his mouth. And, so help me, I'll smack the first one of them who ever says anything again about what's in hot dogs.

Don't you love sportscasters who say that an athlete "settled" for a bronze medal? There are 6,000,000,000 people in the world. To get a bronze medal, you have to outscore all but two. I'd "settle" for that.

Explain it to me again: how exactly did beach volleyball become an Olympic sport?
Many Americans expressed disapproval of Bush's decision to go to Beijing to attend the opening ceremonies. Not me. I thought it was the right thing to do. My main disappointment was his decision to come back.

That little gymnast on the Chinese women's team is absolutely adorable, and an amazing athlete. So well preserved, too, for 16. You'd think she was ten or 11 at most. Must be the scorpion pops.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Luckiest Woman on the Face of the Earth

Yesterday was Old Timer's Day at Yankee Stadium, and it got me thinking about the great, understated courage of a woman I feel fortunate to have known. If that seems like a convoluted six-degrees-of-separation thing for emotions instead of people, well, maybe it is. Bear with me.

Old Timer's Day is always a lot of fun: legends and non-legends I'd seen play, and others I've only heard about. Watching is like hearing a Beatles song on the radio; not reliving a particular moment but rather peeking in on what we thought and felt in other eras of our lives. Eras that feel simpler now though, in actual fact, they probably weren't. For fans, baseball has always had a lot of emotion tied to it. Aside from this being the Yankee's last year in this historic stadium (something I'm not as worked up about as a lot of other people seem to be - they're only moving across the street), there were the losses this past year of two very beloved Yankees, the fine gentleman Bobby Murcer only a few weeks ago, and the fun and colorful Phil Rizzuto. Seeing Mrs. Rizzuto throw out the first ball to Derek Jeter, the future legend currently at her husband's old shortstop position, packed something touching and human I don't think you have to even be a baseball fan to feel or understand.

There's something I've been wanting to write for some time, waiting for an appropriate moment, and it occurred to me yesterday that this was it. It has to do with how20Old Timer's Day originated. It's an often-told story, and you may have heard it, but the tradition goes back to when the Yankees invited old team-mates back to join in an on-field tribute to a terminally-ill Lou Gehrig at Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939. That was the day Gehrig gave that unforgettable speech in which he mentioned all the wonderful things in his life and, with great and understated bravery, said he considered himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. (There aren't a lot of speeches, particularly by athletes, that people still remember nearly 70 years later.)

A Washington Post reporter who attended wrote this:
“I saw strong men weep this afternoon, expressionless umpires swallow hard, and emotion pump the hearts and glaze the eyes of 61,000 baseball fans in Yankee Stadium. It was Lou Gehrig, tributes, honors, gifts heaped upon him, getting an overabundance of the thing he wanted least—sympathy. But it wasn’t maudlin. His friends were just letting their hair down in their earnestness to pay him honor. And they stopped just short of a good, mass cry.”

Fast-forward to July, 2007. Denise, a woman I knew only from on-line conversations but liked very much, was in her early-to-mid 40's and diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic breast and liver cancer that had spread to her lymph nodes. Although we exchanged a number of letters, this is from the one that stands out most:

"Please beg your wife to have mammograms. If nothing else comes out of this, at least I know my friends are all getting checked now.

"I have been on chemo for 3 months, I feel I have the best care possible. With treatment and prayers I hope to live to see my only child graduate from High school next May [2008]. I just want to see him become a man. He is a great  kid and I am truly blessed.

"I have learned in all of this that I have wonderful loving friends, a loving family, and many people who touch my life everyday to let me know they care.
"I do not see this as tragedy Ben, I see it as a gift. I will have no unfinished business, nothing left undone. Tragedy is getting killed by a drunk driver. I am given the gift of knowing that I need to take care of business and make sure I talk to my son about everything I want him to know in life. That is a gift when you know. Nobody is promised tomorrow but I am living as though everyday is precious and a gift."

It's one of those things we know and still can be reminded of once in a while: there is an everyday brand of courage that doesn't involve battlefields or daring rescues from burning buildings. Gehrig had it. So did Denise. We know others; for this journal-community, surely Kim comes to mind as well. (I shaved my legs for this? )

I've asked around but never got any official word about Denise. An e-mail I sent a few weeks ago was returned undeliverable: her account has been canceled. In the context of what she wrote, even I can figure out what that means. I share this now with the feeling she wouldn't mind. And in the hope Denise knew how much respect and admiration she inspired, even when all she had really set out to do was address a difficult situation the best way she knew how.