Tuesday, December 21, 2010

On the shortest day of the year, hope for brighter days to come


Since the time they migrated to the cold northern latitudes of Europe so very long ago, our ancestors from that part of the world faced the long winter months with a mixture of dread and hope. Slaughtering most of their animals so as not to have to feed them during those months when feed for livestock would be scarce, they held one last banquet at this time of year before steeling themselves for the hard months of starvation and cold that lay ahead. I imagine, as they gathered in their great halls to feast on meat washed down with mead and beer, that they faced the shortest day of the year with some sense of hope. They would perform their propitiating sacrifices to the gods in the hope that the days would grow longer, that the sun would once again warm the earth, and that its life-giving rays would sow the seeds for new life in the coming year.

This, the shortest day of the year, thus came to represent the wheel-like motion of life on earth, moving from decay to growth back to decay again. And so it is that most civilizations in the northern hemisphere have come to identify this time of year with the cycle of death and rebirth and have marked it with celebrations such as the Yuletide of the ancient Norse and Germans or the Lenaia of the Greeks or the Saturnalia of the Romans. That the relatively new religion of Christianity adopted this time of year for Christmas is therefore hardly a coincidence. No matter what form our celebrations may take, the ancient roots of this day remain and echo a time when our ancestors saw the world as an endless cycle of death and life. They looked upon the sun as the male fructifying power of nature sowing the seeds of future life in mother earth, a power that would grow stronger from this point forward until it bore fruit in the spring.

So with that hope of warmer, brighter and longer days to come and with the bursting forth of new life in the coming year, I wish all my friends in these cold northern regions a joyous and hopeful Winter Solstice.

Monday, August 30, 2010

2010 Philadelphia LIVESTRONG Challenge (Part II)

Friday

Sean and I drove directly to the campus of Montgomery County Community College, starting point of the Philly Challenge, with our bikes firmly attached to Sean's car. I brought with me a printed listed of all the people I wanted to honor at "the wall" at the LIVESTRONG Village: the TC Forum Family, people who had been taken from their loved ones by cancer, and people my donors wanted me to honor. We got there as soon as the Village opened so the few cards clipped to the clothes lines fluttered in the strong gusts of wind blowing through the campus.

It wasn't long before we saw Kate, Mike and Miriam walking across the lawn at the Village to join us. Our extended family, in the fullest sense of the word, was coming back together. We went through registration which, at that early hour, had no wait although the folks behind the tables were still figuring things out. But after a few fits and starts, I walked away with my bibs, a screaming yellow t-shirt, a dri-fit cap, a water bottle to add to the growing collection, a running chip (paid for back in December when I thought I'd still run) and a very nice back pack. Nathan was still on his way so we decided to go check in so we could unload all our gear. Back at the Double Tree, which after three years was starting to seem very familiar, we saw Nathan and then Scott. Nathan had won a free LIVESTRONG bike helmet back at the Village. That guy has all the luck.

In what seemed to be developing into a tradition from prior Challenges, we went to P. J. Whelihan's for dinner. I was very excited for Kate and Mike who would be running the 5K and 10K courses, respectively, the following morning. Mike had us all laughing as he recounted the reaction he had gotten from complete strangers while running on the roads in Ohio (where he and the family had been visiting) while wearing a pink bandanna on his head.

Saturday

Early Saturday morning, we got to the Village and soon found Kate, Mike and Miriam. Kate looked ready to take on the 5K and Mike looked pretty good in his pink bandanna. Nathan joined us soon after as did our friend Michael and his partner David. Don, who had just driven to the area, soon found us. Not having had time to have breakfast at the hotel, I led the hunt for coffee, remembering last year's experience of downing cup after cup of Starbucks coffee. I was disappointed that all that was on offer this time was some lukewarm and bad-tasting Starbucks instant coffee. "Drink it fast" was Don's advice. He wasn't joking.

I recorded the start of the 5K and 10K runners on my PlaySport and couldn't help feeling a little wistful that I wasn't there among the runners. Ah well, I had the Sunday ride to look forward to. So off we went on the 5K walk, Sean holding little Miriam's hand the whole time. Along the way, I got a shout-out ("Hey, fellow survivor!") from a young woman who had seen my survivor tag pinned to my back. We talked about dealing with cancers that other people think are a walk in the park (thyroid cancer in her case, testicular cancer in mine) but that we know are not. Michael and I talked about returning to running. He had run the 5K in 2009 as well but had stopped training regularly.

Approaching the finish line, survivors are asked to step to the right of the lane at the end of which they each receive a yellow rose. It's one of those particularly powerful moments at these Challenges and reminds me of the mix of emotions I felt at my first Challenge. I remember thinking at the time "Wow, they really get it. They really know how terrifying and often lonely this can be." It's a humbling experience to get that honor and a reminder that with it comes a responsibility to help others.

Just like that first time, Sean and I had decided to hold hands over the yellow line that separated survivors from everyone else. I was vaguely aware of the photographers and the crowd but was a little surprised and very touched when one photographer asked us to stop for a picture while holding hands. Part of me always feels uncomfortable demonstrating so clearly that I'm part of the gay minority in this country. For all my self-assurance and advocacy for gay rights, I always expect somebody to say or do something unpleasant at any moment. But not in this case. At that moment, I genuinely felt welcome. I can hardly wait to see the photo and just hope I remembered to suck in my gut. After congratulating Kate and Mike, I joined Don, Nathan, Michael, David, and Sean for lunch at the Village. We then toured the vendors, had my picture taken pretend to ride a bike next to a virtual Lance, and got to talk to one of the members of the TC forum who had spotted me in the crowd.

Later that day, in keeping with what Nathan, Sean and I had done last year, we went to the Lucky Dog Saloon for lunch, joined this time by Don, followed by a trip to REI to pick up some bike gear. There, I struck up a conversation with a guy whose brother is a TC survivor. We members of the TC family have a way of finding each other, it seems. After that, it was back to the hotel to get ready for the Fundraising Appreciation Dinner. At the hotel, we saw Jason and Nanci and their two beautiful kids. Paul and Cathy were there ready to head off to the dinner.

Having raised $3400 this year, I qualified for the dinner and could bring Sean as my guest. I had declined to go last year but this time didn't want to miss it. Lance Armstrong was attending this time and the venue was very close to where we were staying. Thanks to the generosity of Sean's coworker Susan, Nathan and Don were able to go as her guests along with her friend Amy. At the dinner, we joined Paul and Cathy, Kevin and Melissa to make an all-LOVEstrong table near the stage. The dinner was a great opportunity to hear from the other teams that had raised so much money or who had a particularly powerful message or who had otherwise stood out. Everyone was very enthusiastic about this joint effort to fight cancer. A tough moment came, however, when the survivors were asked to stand up. We were clearly in the minority in that hall and I wondered at the stories each of those survivors could tell about their fight with cancer. Caregivers were then asked to stand up and I felt a lump in my throat seeing Don stand up. After the dinner, Kevin managed to intercept Lance as he was leaving and Melissa quickly took a picture of the two of them. We hurried back to the hotel where I prepared everything for the following day's ride knowing that we'd want to get to the starting line as early as possible to beat the crush. I got hardly any sleep that night.

Sunday

The morning started early, with the two of us waiting for an empty elevator to take our bikes down. Everybody at the hotel had the same idea so I eventually gave up and carried my bike down the fire escape stairwell. It had rained the night before but I hoped the weather would stay dry. The low-hanging clouds suggested it wouldn't. I had never ridden on wet pavement so I was already getting nervous, imagining I'd spill out on the slick roads of Montgomery County and thinking I might have to settle for the twenty mile ride instead of my planned-for 45 route.

At the LIVESTRONG Village, a photographer started taking pictures of me, Sean and Nathan as we unloaded our bikes. He seemed to took special interest in shooting me pumping up my bike tires. Go figure. Kate, Mike and Miriam caught up with us and we then found the rest of the gang, including Mark from the TC forum. As the time for the ride start drew closer, we separated into our respective groups: Nathan in the 100, Kevin in the 70, Don and I in the 45, everybody else in the 10 and 20. I stayed back to let the other 45 milers go ahead of me, having never ridden in such a large group and not wanting to get caught in the crush. Before long, I set out and was on Morris Road with the rest of the people doing the 45-mile ride. With that, came a surge of excitement. It was hard to hold back during those first few miles. The pavement was damp but it wasn't raining, the road was mostly downhill at that point, and it felt great to be pedaling among such a huge mass of fellow cancer fighters for my very first time. Nathan's sound advice to take it easy in the beginning is all that kept me from racing ahead of everyone. This was going to be fun.

By the time I got to the turn-off for the 20-mile route, it had started to rain. I could have turned off then and spared myself riding in the rain over a longer course but it seemed like taking the easy way out. I hadn't come this far just to turn back. Besides, there was a hill halfway through the ride I meant to take so I couldn't stop now. I pulled into the first power stop at Advent Lutheran Church where, listening to Nathan's voice in my head, I made a point of eating. My glasses and rearview mirror were doing me no good in the rain so I stowed them away.

It was there that, while waiting in line for a Porta John, a woman by the name of Ursula introduced herself to me and congratulated me on being a two-time survivor. But my own experience with cancer seemed like nothing once I asked her to describe her own experience. Suffice it to say that within a few minutes I realized I was standing in front of somebody who embodied the very idea of survivorship, someone who despite a series of past and current (and possibly future) challenges was here to do her part. She was a seasoned long-distance rider on top of it all. It was at that moment I was glad to be riding under the now constant rainfall on the windy and hilly roads of rural Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, in the company of people of Ursula's caliber.

Bill, Ursula's husband, motioned for her to get going. A short while later, I set off as well. Navigating some tight corners on the slick pavement was nerve-racking, leaving me wondering if the bike would slip out from under me. At about that time, Lance Armstrong and his entourage were coming down the road towards us on his return from the 45-mile course. That, more than anything, demonstrated just how much of a world-class athlete he really is. We all cheered as he passed.

Heading towards Perkiomenville and the next rest stop, I felt myself gaining confidence. By that point, I had noticed that many other cyclists would get off their bikes at the slightest uphill. I'll confess to feeling a little cocky as I pedaled past the walkers, most of whom had expensive road bikes, in my trusty but decidedly not sleek hybrid bike with its odd-shaped handlebar extensions. It felt odd breathlessly calling out "on your left" as I passed people trudging up the hills on foot.

I rolled into the power stop at the twenty mile mark thinking I'd stay only long enough to refill my water bottles and have some peanut butter sandwiches before tackling the big hill ahead. But then the rain actually started to pick up. Before long, it was coming down in sheets. My bike shoes were now water logged and I felt like I was carrying so many extra pounds as my bike clothes were soaked through. The power stop started filling up with more cyclists, perhaps all thinking like I was that we could wait this out. A few guys, not wanting to cool down or maybe wanting to show off, dropped to the ground and started doing push ups. My thoughts alternated between "cyclists are crazy" and "why am I doing this?" A few of us huddled under the trees and talked about how, after the next climb, we faced a steep decline that might prove perilous in the hard rain. I figured I could always walk down that hill after riding up to the crest, an odd reversal of the usual pattern.

Riders started leaving the power stop so, after about half an hour of hoping and waiting for the rain to calm down, I figured I should just press on. By the time I got to the base of the hill at Niantic Road, the rain was hitting my eyes so hard I could barely see. True to pattern, it seemed like at least half the cyclists were getting off their bikes to walk up the hill, often right in the middle of the road. So I had to pedal up this incline blinded by the rain and wind while swerving to avoid people walking all over the road. Yet, somehow, it was a great climb! The wind whistled through the glistening leaves of the trees looming overhead and the grade of the road eventually became less challenging as I moved along. The "big" hill I had so dreaded was actually rather exciting. Sure I was in the granny gear but that hill was far less daunting than I had feared.

The real excitement came, however, when I reached the crest of the hill and faced a 260 foot drop over half a mile on a road that more resembled a river. Down I went, unclipping from the pedals for fear of tumbling still attached to the bike and gently pressing the brakes for fear of accelerating out of control. Some riders road past me while others got off their bikes and walked down that flume. I can't recall if it was at the bottom of that hill or one of the next hills that lay before us that I saw an ambulance being loaded with someone on a stretcher, undoubtedly a rider who had lost control of his bike. Seeing that made it clear that this was indeed a dangerous ride. I hadn't faced cancer only to break my neck on a bike ride so I continued to engage the brakes to slow my descent.

It was a relief to arrive at the next rest stop where I saw Bill again. After talking to some of the other riders, I set out again and started hitting some more hills, none of them particularly challenging. A pattern seemed to emerge on these hills: people would race past me on the downhills as I braked to control my speed out of fear of losing control. I was keenly aware of my inexperience riding in the rain. Yet at the next climb, I would pass the very same people who had all unclipped and were walking their bikes up. At one point, one of these other riders started to walk towards the middle of the road and I narrowly missed hitting her as I rode past.

I also had a few close calls in some narrow stretches and in some tight turns of the road but was, by that point, eager to get back. Riding back to the Lutheran Church power stop, the last on the ride, I was pedaling a little too hard up a hill and tried to switch my chain ring, something I know can cause my chain to drop out. Sure enough it did but before I could even finish putting it back on another rider stopped to help out. I had witnessed other riders helping each other out during the ride and, despite my embarrassment at having made such a rookie mistake, was grateful for the sense of community spirit.

There were many such moments that made riding a far better experience than running at the Challenge, the bad conditions notwithstanding. On one straight stretch of road when the rain had calmed down, I found myself riding alone but noticed a group of cyclists riding in a tight formation and coming up fast on my left. "On your left, survivor, sir" the first rider called out as he passed me. That left me speechless.

By the time I reached the final few miles of the ride, my brakes were effectively gone. I started wondering if I would be able to stop the bike quickly enough if needed but I kept on pedaling, eager to get back to the Village on the college campus. The rain had started to pick up again and I found myself having to pass slower riders in the midst of heavy car traffic. One last bit of excitement lay ahead. I came to a busy intersection with a right turn lane, forcing me to come up behind the other riders waiting at the red light between the right turn lane and the lane for through traffic. The driver of the third car at the light decided to change her mind and make a right turn from the middle lane through the cyclists. A lot of yelling ensued as the confused driver insisted on crossing the now fast-moving line of riders proceeding straight. I couldn't slow my bike fast enough and so had to swerve so as not to get hit, yelling at the driver in colorful language.

After that, I couldn't wait to get back. I unclipped from the pedals as soon as I turned into the return chute before the finish line, afraid of hitting somebody should they stop short ahead of me. I had visions of running over one of the volunteers handing out roses to the survivors. In the rain, the faces in the crowd of cheering people looked like a blur save for one: Joe from our the TC forum, whose bald head stood out like a beacon. Seeing his smiling face and bare pate put a smile on my face like nothing else that day.

Grabbing my rose, I looked around to see if I could find Sean. The first person I saw running up was Kate, who gave me a warm embrace, with Sean right behind her. We were joined by my friends from the Voices of Survivors Foundation Rich and Jess. Within minutes, we were joined by Bill and Ursula. Wet, tired, and filthy, I couldn't be happier. Despite the conditions, I felt strangely energized and even imagined that, but for the rain, would gladly have gone on riding.

Sean took my bike back to the car, Don found me before making the return trip to his house, I managed to find Joe so I could joke about how he and his head stand out in a crowd, and I was off back to the hotel. By the time Nathan and Scott returned to the hotel from their rides, the sun was actually starting to shine. Great timing. But this Challenge wouldn't have been as, well, challenging had it taken place in the sun. After cleaning up, Scott, Paul, Cathy, Sean, Nathan, Kate, Mike, Miriam reminisced about the day over dinner at California Pizza Kitchen at Plymouth Meeting Mall where we briefly debated whether it was better to ride in the rain or in humid sunny weather. I unequivocally voted for the latter. You can always rehydrate, after all, but riding wet roads on smooth bike tires is just treacherous.

Nathan, Sean, Kate, Mike, Miriam and I regrouped the following morning at Blue Bell Diner in one last nod to last year's Challenge. The service and food were disappointing but what mattered was the companionship. The skies were clear as we left but it was raining by the time we got home, somehow fitting given the weather we experienced this weekend.

This, my third Challenge, was indeed memorable. The sheer length of this blog entry reflects just how important the weekend of August 20th-22nd, 2010 was to me. I reconnected, even if briefly, with some wonderful people and met some new people who are nothing less than amazing. The volunteers at the Village and at the power stops were all lovely people and I made a point of thanking every one with whom I interacted. The police controlling the traffic for the riders gave us all an added sense of security on some of the busier intersections. Everything went smoothly short of the one thing nobody could control: the weather. And nothing was as delicious as the peanut butter sandwiches at the power stops.

I learned a lot about cycling, too: I never want to ride in the rain again if I can avoid it. I can't count on other cyclists signaling their intentions or calling out when they're passing. I actually prefer to climb a hill than to go down it, as insane as that may seem. I can take on longer rides by simply breaking them down into segments interrupted by stops to eat and hydrate. I'm sure there are other things I've learned but these stand out.

But above all, I learned that this event, like cycling itself, can bring out the best in people: a sense of community and working in common cause to do good for others.

2010 Philadelphia LIVESTRONG Challenge (Part I)

I've been putting off writing this account of my participation in the 2010 LIVESTRONG Challenge in Philadelphia on August 21-22 because I genuinely dislike writing. But out of fear of forgetting some wonderful moments from a mere week ago, I figured I should commit these memories to paper or, in this case, bytes before too long. If this account is long, it's because there is just so much I experienced that I fear forgetting let I put it down here. In particular, since this is the first time I'm blogging about the Challenges, I thought I'd provide some background before going into the events of the Challenge itself.

This was my third Challenge since my second cancer diagnosis in 2008. Prior to that year, I had only a vague sense of who Lance Armstrong is, had never heard of the foundation bearing his name, had next to no interest in running or cycling, and had mostly put my first cancer diagnosis (in 1996) behind me. I understood cancer could change one's life. I just never imagined exactly how when I was diagnosed for a second time two and a half years ago.

For the 2008 Challenge, my partner Sean and I joined a team (Team LOVEstrong) consisting mostly of fellow TC survivors and caregivers, most of whom I had already met online on a cancer forum or in person. I walked the 5K event at that Challenge, hardly a challenge for me. Much more difficult was receiving a yellow rose, given to all survivors, at the finish line and struggling not to break down emotionally. That was hard. The previous months of surgery, recovery, sense of loss, anxiety, anger, and relief at being given yet another chance at life all came together in a mix of emotion.

For the 2009 Challenge, I decided to do something more demanding so I started training to run the 5K beginning in February of that year. I had always hated running, associating it with a particularly sadistic high school phys. ed. teacher. By the time of the Challenge, however, I had gotten myself to the point at which I was able to squeeze out a 5K run at a respectable pace of 8.17 minute mile. Not bad considering I had drunk so much coffee before the run that my bladder was literally bursting by the time I finished. I still remember clenching my survivor's rose in my teeth in the Porta John within minutes of reaching the finish line. Watching Sean come back from his bike ride, cheering Nathan on his very first century ride, raising more than $3000 for that Challenge and helping to recruit several new people to the team all made that a great Challenge.

But cycling seemed like so much more fun than running at that point. When you run, there is no such thing as coasting. And while completing a run can leave you with a huge endorphin rush and sense of satisfaction, starting a run has always been difficult for me. Had it not been for that year's Challenge, I probably would never have bothered. I was also aware that, in my forties, I couldn't count on being able to run pain-free indefinitely. Finally, I was done with my ride in no time while everyone else spent much of the day seeing beautiful scenery and interacting with fellow riders. So off I went to buy a bike for the first time since I was twelve or thirteen years old. I was apprehensive, wondering if I could really take up cycling, feeling overwhelmed at all the technical aspects of the sport and, ever the frugal shopper, preparing for sticker shock from all the many things cyclists seem to spend money on. I settled on a Trek 7.5 FX, a bike that has proven ideal for me. I've since customized it with Shimano pedals and extension bars.

By the time this year's Challenge rolled around, I had taken to cycling much faster than I could have imagined. I owe a lot of that to my friend, coworker and fellow former economics grad student Nathan whose enthusiasm for all things cycling is infectious. He thought nothing of challenging me to join him on rides that he would admit, always after the ride was over, had challenged him when he first started riding years ago. His devil-may-care attitude could be exasperating sometimes, especially whenever we came to a hill he seemed to climb effortlessly while I lagged behind with my tongue hanging out, gasping for breath at each pedal stroke. He would chide me for recoiling from tough climbs but then praise me every time I completed our rides together particularly when they broke new ground in terms of hills, speed or distance. As much as I felt like a complete neophyte to the sport, Nathan helped me feel like I actually belonged to this strange group of people in lycra shorts known as cyclists. Yes, I did succumb to wearing bike clothing. Thanks to a lean build and years of weight-lifting, I have to say I don't look half bad in lycra.

While the number of people on our team was much smaller than in 2009, I was looking forward to Nathan participating for his second year, seeing my friend Michael join us for the 5K walk, being joined by our Brit friends Kate and Mike (both runners) and their daughter Miriam, and seeing some of the people I had come to know over the past few years of raising money and awareness to fight cancer. Sadly, this effort had found a new member in my colleague and friend Don who had, just a few months ago, lost his wife to this terrible disease. It was shaping up to be a memorable and cathartic Challenge for so many of us. The only thing that remained was to decide on what distance to shoot for at the Challenge and to hope for good weather after a particularly scorching summer. So on to the Challenge in the second part of this blog entry...

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Upgrading an iPhone 3G (not 3GS) to iOS4

I've been reluctant to upgrade my two year old iPhone 3G (not the 3GS that was released later) to the recently-released iOS4, the first time I delayed doing an upgrade. The 3G doesn't support all of iOS4's new features because of the new OS's RAM requirements but there are plenty of new features to make the new OS very appealing, not least of which is support for iBooks. But I was scared off by user reports of significant performance degradation and crashes after performing the update on the 3G. That is, until I came across this link suggesting that performing two hard resets after updating the phone would prevent the widely-reported slowdowns. So I bit the bullet last night. Downloading the update didn't take long but doing the actual upgrade did. The 3G essentially gets backed up, wiped clean, updated, then has its user content restored, a process which will take hours. But after doing all that, I hard reset the phone a couple of times. Not only is the phone not slower than it was before, it actually feels more responsive. Some apps seem to be running better with even (in my experience) the buggy Facebook app now much more stable. So for you second-generation iPhone (meaning, the iPhone 3G) users out there who, like me, had been fence sitting, go ahead and follow this procedure. Assuming your phone isn't jailbroken, it should make a big difference.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Hyperactivity, and it feels so good

Those who know me often tell me that I can't seem to stand still. My idea of a vacation is to see things. My idea of relaxation is, well, to do something. My idea of an ideal beverage is strong coffee. Notice a pattern? While I often think it would be nice to stop and just relax, I don't think I'm really capable of that. I go through life with a long list of things I want to do, never actually having the time to do it all. As with all things, I suppose I could blame my parents: two people who never stop thinking of the next chore they want to take on or the next thing that needs to be fixed. I guess I see the world around me as a place that needs fixing.

I write this now because over the past few months I've taken on more things to do. For starters, I participated in the lobbying days at the New Jersey State House from November to January to support civil marriage equality for same-sex couples in our state. While that effort was unsuccessful in the state legislature, it sharpened for me the degree to which lesbians and gay men are still thought of as second-class citizens and how much work remains to be done to educate the public and our political leaders about that inequality. The fight has moved on to the state Supreme Court but, in the meantime, it has energized many of us who spent many cold mornings outside and inside the State House to continue the fight at the state and Federal levels with the ultimate objective of securing full equality in all matters governed by the law.

Much of the testimony before the New Jersey Senate Judiciary Committee in December, as that committee considered the marriage equality bill, touched on matters relating to health insurance coverage, hospital visitation rights, and medical decision-making power for same-sex couples. That testimony highlighted just three examples of the disparities faced by lesbians and gay men in the medical setting. As a two-time cancer survivor, I realized all the more the extent to which we in the LGBT community are vulnerable to bias in the law as well as in common practice. Add to that some of the cancer risks more prevalent among LGBT people and some of the other unique obstacles we face, and I realized that we needed a resource for New Jersey's LGBT community specific to the experience of cancer. So, aided by two other gay men who are cancer survivors, I started up the New Jersey LGBT Cancer Support Group which now holds monthly meetings at the Pride Center of New Jersey.

I was asked soon after that to become a moderator on TC-Cancer forum, a site that was a critical element in my clinical treatment for and emotional recovery from my second cancer diagnosis. Through that site, I've made many wonderful friends, learned a great deal, rejoiced in victories, mourned the loss of far too many people, and discovered that one of the best ways of overcoming cancer is to help others in their own fights. Being a moderator means doing more of what I've discovered has been a win-win: by helping others, I help myself come to terms with my own cancer experience.

Last night, I took on developing a Central New Jersey chapter of the Voices of Survivors Foundation with the goal of bringing together cancer survivors in our region to celebrate our own survivorship not only for own sakes but to offer hope to others facing cancer. Survivorship begins the day one is diagnosed and encompasses an important mindset with respect to feeling empowered to fight and overcome the psychological weight cancer represents.

Then there's the Philadelphia LIVESTRONG Challenge. I bought my first bike last October after resisting for a long time. I was afraid of the cars, didn't want to spend so much money on myself, and just didn't think I'd have the stamina for it. Well, I love cycling. I'm not particularly fast and I'm terrible at hills. But it sure beats running, an activity I had taken up for last year's Challenge, in that it's more fun for me and a lot easier on my middle-aged joints. So with the weather finally getting better, it's time to dust off the bike and hit the roads again so I can be in good form for Philadelphia in August. Meanwhile, my overpriced running shoes beckon so maybe I'll even fit a run in every once in a while.

There's also weight lifting, my plans to completely redo our family room, upgrade my computer, improve our garden now that spring is here, etc. Oh, and I'm also a mid-level manager at a large corporation. There's no end to the hyperactivity. I often feel I've bitten off more than I can chew. But if I didn't, I'd feel bored. I guess I'll just need to drink more coffee.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Some fascinating results from a Daily Kos poll

Daily Kos has published tables summarizing the results of a phone poll among self-identified Republicans taken in January 2010. Some of the results are predictable enough: Most believe that or are at least unsure if Barack Obama is a "socialist" (a term prone to incorrect interpretation, of course) and a racist who wasn't born in the US and who "wants the terrorists to win" (whatever that means). I pretty much expected to see results like that, despite many people telling me that the images of people yelling precisely those things on TV are a media distortion. The poll numbers seem to suggest that at least a very large proportion of self-identified Republicans actually believe those ideas or are at the very least open to them.

But what is interesting is to see a quantification across different demographic and geographic slices of the forms of anti-gay sentiment among those responding to these poll questions. Three-quarters do not think people like me and my partner should be permitted to be married. Two-thirds don't believe we should enjoy any Federal or state benefits (the same enjoyed by straight people) at all, although sadly the poll did not include a follow-up question regarding whether or not gay people should still be required to pay taxes.

Almost three-quarters don't even think people like my partner should be allowed to teach in public schools. Incidentally, he's a great teacher and much-loved and respected by his students and fellow teachers. But, alas, most Republicans seem to think that his being gay disqualifies him from teaching, his PhD and devotion to teaching notwithstanding.

One other thing jumps out: A majority oppose sex education and even think birth control should be illegal. Now there's a formula for teenage pregnancy if ever I saw one.

Now of course not all Republicans think the way these poll numbers suggest. But the fact remains that most self-identified Republicans seem to. It's small wonder that the GOP members in Congress and across the country in many state legislatures vote the way they do.

Here's the link to the poll: http://www.dailykos.com/statepoll/2010/1/31/US/437

Friday, January 22, 2010

Don't Ask, Don't Give

On the Saturday after the marriage equality bill failed in the New Jersey state senate, thanks in large part to turncoats in the Democratic Party, I received a phone call from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee asking for money. I didn't give the caller money. I gave him a message: with no action on DOMA, ENDA and DADT despite having majorities in both houses of Congress and, for a year, a self-proclaimed "fierce advocate" for gay rights in the White House who has failed to exercise leadership of any meaningful sort on these issues, the DCCC cannot then come back and ask me for money. After all, they can then use that money to support candidates who will do nothing for my community and may even oppose our issues. I told the caller not to bother calling back until there is concrete action on DOMA, ENDA and DADT.

With that, it's good to read this blog entry on AMERICAblog showing one gay man's hand-written response to a fund-raising letter from the Democratic National Committee. It expresses the same anger shared by many of us who have given, time and time again, our money, our votes, and our volunteer hours to the Democratic Party, with little in return. AMERICAblog's John Aravosis has called for a Don't Ask, Don't Give campaign and I've gladly joined. I will certainly contribute to individual candidates who, by their actions (as opposed to their promises), have demonstrated support for the LGBT community. But for the Democratic Party at large, this ATM is closed for business.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Bicyclists of New Jersey: here's something you can do to increase access

As reported in the WalkBikeJersey blog, the Scudders Fall I-95 bridge over the Delaware and which connects Ewing, NJ with Lower Makefield, PA will be undergoing reconstruction. The bridge currently does not include a pedestrian/bike path but, by writing an email through this link, you can petition for one to be included. The email is prepopulated and ready to go thanks the efforts of the folks at the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia. I'm doing my part. Please do yours if you value cycling as an alternative to cars or just for recreation along the beautiful Delaware River.

A message to gay youth everywhere: come out and be proud

My friend Matt shared with me his contribution to I'm From Driftwood, a compilation of first-hand testimonials from young gay people across the country about their coming out experience. Here is Matt's testimonial to his coming out and serves as a reminder of just how important being out is and gives hope to teens across the United States who live in fear of coming out to their families and in their communities:

Monday, January 18, 2010

Apple adds iTunes Store page for Haiti donations

Apple adds iTunes Store page for Haiti donations

Posted using ShareThis

Scott Brown is NOM's man in the Mass. special election

Tomorrow is the special election in Massachusetts to fill the late Ted Kennedy's seat. The National Organization of Marriage, which has devoted itself to making sure same-sex couples never achieve equal rights anywhere in the United States (e.g. Maine and New Jersey), has launched robocalls in support of Republican and one-time Cosmo centerfold Scott Brown. A description of the call is in this article. Brown opposes marriage equality. His Democratic opponent, Martha Coakley, support equal rights for lesbians and gay men.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

I miss riding my bike on the roads

The Oak King is taking his own sweet time to take over from the Holly King and we face a lot of cold weather still. Apologies to those who don't get the pagan reference just now. Suffice it to say that for anyone who enjoys riding a bike, the winter months here in New Jersey can be very bleak indeed. I'm a neophyte when it comes to cycling but I've ridden just enough last fall to get bitten by the bike bug and now must content myself with spinning at a gym. Spinning is a lot of fun but it's an entirely different experience from biking out on the road.



For now, my bike — a Trek 7.5 FX fitness bike as shown above — hangs dormant on my garage wall. It looks sad, cold and unloved as I pull into the garage at the end of each work day. All I have to console myself are maps of possible routes for when the weather warms up and videos like the one below, promoting Trek bikes. Springtime can't come soon enough.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Congressional Republicans seek to block DC marriage

It's the height of hypocrisy. So often we hear conservatives decry what they call "judicial activism" when the courts uphold minority (e.g. gay) rights in the face of discrimination. Yet now thirty-nine Congressional Republicans, as reported by Joe Sudbay in AmericaBlog, have filed an amicus brief in DC Superior Court to try to put the brakes on the recently-enacted civil marriage equality law in the District of Columbia. In other words, some so-called conservatives believe the courts should be used to deny people rights but not to uphold minority rights. The latter would be "judicial activism" and that, in their view, would be bad. Either you believe in the courts as a place for appeal or you don't. But some highly-placed members of the Republican Party seem to think the courts are to be used only to deny people rights and impose a tyranny of the majority.

Incidentally, I say "so-called conservatives" because I'm reminded of a conversation I had while waiting at the security line to enter the New Jersey Statehouse last Thursday for the state senate vote on the civil marriage equality bill. As luck would have it, I arrived at the line alone and soon found myself standing immediately behind a large group of Hassidim, consistently present at the Statehouse as opponents to marriage equality over the past month or so. Behind me formed a line of people completely unassociated with the marriage equality issue and there, presumably, to visit legislators or testify in committee on unrelated matters. It was quite a study in contrasts: before me the Hassidim in their traditional clothing, behind me a group of grim-faced people in business suits. An evangelical clergyman walked by, saw me, and took the opportunity to chat up the Hassidim, raising his voice (perhaps for my benefit) as he told the Hassidim they were all in the fight together to do God's work. Alas, they didn't discuss whose definition of god they supported. Now that would have been fun to witness.

Soon, another gentleman joined the group as the line inched forward ever so slowly towards the security desk. That man, seeing me in my Garden State Equality t-shirt, told me "I'm just their friend. I don't necessarily agree with them." I really didn't care and didn't acknowledge him at all. I remained silent, not wanting to engage them, and just proceeded to text my friends in the Statehouse wondering where they were, half tempted to text "Help me!" The very businesslike couple standing behind me just rolled their eyes, smiled at me sympathetically, and told me they wished some people would just learn to mind their own business. I replied "Oh well, they can say what they want but we've been advised not to respond to any taunts or attempts to engage us." I just wanted to get my stupid security badge and get on with the day's business.

But the couple behind me wanted to make a point: "I'm a Republican and, for me, being a conservative means I don't want government ever telling people what they can or cannot do. You should be allowed to do what you want" said the man, the woman with him nodding in agreement. Of course, his statement struck me as overly simplistic since marriage does, inescapably, carry with it government-recognized protections. But he had made an interesting point with an important implication: For those who profess to dislike government intruding in private concerns to then say that government should favor some relationships (opposite-sex in this case) over others (same-sex) smacks of hypocrisy.

In other words, there are indeed conservatives out there who do recognize the hypocrisy inherent in opposing gay rights. Indeed, there are Republicans like Senator Baroni and former solicitor general Ted Olson (now challenging California's Prop 8 in Federal court) who understand this. That the Republican Party is still mostly represented by people like House Minority Leader Boehner and US Senator Inhofe and the other opponents to DC's marriage law demonstrates just how much the Republican Party is at odds with its own professed world view.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Names of NJ State Senators to Remember in 2011

A friend asked that I post the names of who voted for or against (or, laughably, abstained) in the 01/07/10 NJ state senate vote on S1967 which would have included same-sex couples in New Jersey in the state's civil marriage statute and thus would have afforded those couples, like me and my partner, all the protections and obligations afforded in law and common business practice (e.g. insurance, hospitalization, etc.) to opposite-sex couples. That the bill failed was not, by the time the vote was finally scheduled, unexpected for a whole host of reasons (the governor's race and political cowardice to name two). But this post isn't about the vote itself or what led up to it. It concerns naming those who stood by us and their promises to us as compared to those who either went back on their word, acted on their professed hostility to us, or who dithered and sat on the fence on what is one of the most important issue to scores of same-sex couples in New Jersey.

We cannot, as a community, forget who fulfilled their promises to us, who betrayed us, who voted purely out of self interest, and who sat idly by. Given the small size of the LGBT community, it's unrealistic to think that all the senators who voted against us or who abstained can be made to pay the price in 2011. But there are many who represent districts in which we or at least the progressive community as a whole can certainly affect the outcome of the next election (only a couple of years away). And that's just in terms of votes. As a community, we have had and can still have an impact out of proportion to our voting ranks in the form of volunteering, canvasing and donating money to candidates. What we lack in sheer numbers we more than make up for in commitment. We can support those who have supported us as well as support challengers to those who have not so long as those resources are husbanded and used strategically. In any event, here is the list of heroes and villains from last Thursday's vote with full names, party affiliation and district number:

Yes votes (totaling 14):
Bill Baroni (R-14)
Barbara Buono (D-18)
Richard J. Codey (D-27)
Sandra B. Cunningham (D-31)
Nia H. Gill, Esq. (D-34)
Robert M. Gordon (D-38)
Raymond J. Lesniak (D-20)
M. Teresa Ruiz (D-29)
Nicholas P. Scutari (D-22)
Bob Smith (D-17)
Brian P. Stack (D-33)
Joseph F. Vitale (D-19)
Loretta Weinberg (D-37)
Jim Whelan (D-2)

Abstaining (totaling 3):
James Beach (D-6)
Paul A. Sarlo (D-36)
Stephen M. Sweeney (D-3)

Absent (totaling 2):
Diane B. Allen (R-7)
Andrew R. Ciesla (R-10)

No votes (totaling 20):
Christopher Bateman (R-16)
Jennifer Beck (R-12)
Anthony R. Bucco (R-25)
Gerald Cardinale (R-39)
Christopher J. Connors (R-9)
Michael J. Doherty (R-23)
John A. Girgenti (D-35)
Philip E. Haines (R-8)
Sean T. Kean (R-11)
Thomas H. Kean, Jr. (R-21)
Joseph M. Kyrillos, Jr. (R-13)
Fred H. Madden, Jr. (D-4)
Kevin J. O'Toole (R-40)
Steven V. Oroho (R-24)
Joseph Pennacchio (R-26)
Ronald L. Rice (D-28)
Nicholas J. Sacco (D-32)
Robert W. Singer (R-30)
Shirley K. Turner (D-15)
Jeff Van Drew (D-1)

District 5 is vacant, thus accounting for why the numbers total only 39. Among Democrats, 13 voted for the bill while 9 either voted no (6) or abstained (3). They are the Democrat 9. We'll remember them. Among the Republicans, only one voted for the bill despite the fact that among Republicans there were other supporters, that is before the election of Chris Christie as governor. Among the 16 Republicans who either voted no or abstained or were absent, a few stand out as having betrayed earlier promises to the LGBT community in this vote. We'll remember them too. The next election, in 2011, can't come soon enough. The time to start laying the groundwork to defeat some of the most vulnerable among those who voted no or abstained is now.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

An open letter to NJ state Senator Stephen Sweeney

What follows is my open letter to Senator Stephen Sweeney, who is taking over as New Jersey Senate president in the new legislative term and who abstained from voting on S1967 — the marriage equality bill — last Thursday.

Senator Sweeney:

I write to you today as a member of the Democratic Party, as a proud resident of the state of New Jersey, and as someone who is deeply ashamed of your complete lack of leadership as shown by your failure to cast a vote on senate bill 1967. As you must surely know, that bill would have extended civil marriage rights to same-sex couples in New Jersey. The citizens of New Jersey expect their elected representatives to be men and women of action. That you could sit by and take no action at all on what may very well be one of the most important pieces of legislation to come to the floor of the state senate in a long time, a piece of legislation having a direct practical impact on the lives of scores of same-sex couples in our state, says a great deal about your lack of leadership. By your unwillingness to cast a vote, you have shown yourself utterly unworthy of the post — that of incoming president of the Senate — to which you have aspired. I would hope, out of a sense of shame and regret at so seriously defaulting on your responsibilities to the people of New Jersey and to your new position as senate president, that you would do the right thing: resign your leadership position. After all, you are a leader in name only.

Friday, January 8, 2010

My education in New Jersey politics

Yesterday saw the long-awaited vote in the New Jersey state senate on the issue of marriage equality. I won't go into the legal aspects of this issue, all stemming from a court case decided a few years ago by the New Jersey supreme court finding that the state was required to offer same-sex couples the same rights and protections as currently enjoyed by straight couples who are married under the state's civil marriage statute. That the state legislature's 2006 civil unions statute has failed to meet the requirements of the court decision has been amply demonstrated. What remained was for the legislature to do not only the right thing with respect to justice, but to do what it had to do to comply with New Jersey's state constitution. Yesterday, the New Jersey state senate failed to do that.

But the story is much more nuanced than simply focusing on a 20-14 tally would suggest. After all, three Democrats abstained from voting altogether: Senate judiciary committee chair Sarlo, who had voted no in committee in December, abstained rather than voting no again, with no explanation offered. Senator Beach, whose district includes the city of Collingswood with its large gay population, likewise abstained and promptly fled the chamber refusing to explain why. Incoming senate preside Sweeney, who admitted that our side had made a persuasive argument for marriage equality, abstained. Yes, the incoming leader of the upper chamber of the New Jersey state senate, a mean who through a power play was able to push aside a widely-respected leader like Senator Codey, demonstrated his idea of leadership by failing to vote on probably one of the most important pieces of legislation in quite some time. Senator Sweeney's brand of leadership is to see which way the political winds are blowing and to act accordingly. He's not a leader. He's not even a follower. He's a weather vane.

As for the Republicans, apparently there were many who this past summer would have voted yes for marriage equality. Many of them (senators Beck and Sean Kean immediately come to mind) represent districts with large gay populations. But then Chris Christie won election over a Governor Corzine, a weak candidate, a poor campaigner, and an unpopular governor. So unprincipled, so without independence of thought are those Republican senators that their support shifted to opposition. During the hearing in the judiciary committee, for example, senator Beck voted no without once (as I recall) asking a question of the witness during many hours of testimony. She never offered an explanation. Those Republican senators who took their marching orders from the incoming governor, who has made it abundantly clear he opposes marriage equality, are not fit to occupy their seats. They are not thinkers, they are not leaders, they are political weather vanes.

Sean Kean (not to be confused with the other marriage opponent Tom Kean) probably provided the most perplexing speech yesterday. He stood up and talked at length, often repeating himself, about how gay people move into neighborhoods and make great neighbors and improve property values. He went on to brag about how he has many gay friends and has held public events with gay people. He joked how he's been told he represents a particularly gay district. But he said he would vote no. So gays are good for increasing property values but not good enough to have equal rights. He didn't offer any explanation as to why he voted no. He simply went on a self-serving diatribe about how offended he was at the implication he was bigoted for voting no. How like a bigot to not recognize his own bigotry. In that respect, bigotry is a lot like body odor: those who stink seldom smell their own odor.

From ranking Republican judiciary committee member Cardinale, who had given a bravura performance in ignorance, bigotry and incivility during the committee hearing in December, we heard the same tired slippery-slope arguments. Newcomer Republican Doherty demonstrated his complete ignorance of this country's constitutional principles by arguing that the rights of a minority should be subject to the whims of an oppressive majority, something the founding fathers rejected by establishing a representative form of government.

But there was one Republican, Senator Baroni who represents my partner's (wait, make that husband's) parent's district and who had voted yes in committee, who spoke at length about the very nature of love between two people who have supported and cared for each other. He compared the love shared by Marsha and Louise, who have been featured so prominently in our campaign, to the love shared by his grandparents, finding that there was no difference at all. His speech was brilliant and moved many of us in the audience to tears.

Speaking of emotion, Senator Lesniak choked up on reading a letter from a constituent, Senator Cunningham spoke from the perspective of being descended from slaves, Senator Ruiz spoke briefly and eloquently about never denying others the opportunities that had been denied the Latino population. Senator Gill, as is usual for her, spoke calmly, quietly but with strength and passion about how this fight is at its core a fight about civil rights. As an African American woman who has practiced law and represents a district with a large African American population, she is certainly qualified to speak to issues of civil rights. She has earned our admiration for doing so on behalf of our community.

Finally, congratulations go to Senator Weinberg who has been so persistent on this and many other progressive issues. She opened and closed debate by reminding the members of the senate that their responsibility as leaders was to vote their conscience. It is to their shame that so many failed to do so. It is a lesson to all of us, straight and gay, who care about progressive issues, that many members and leaders in the Democratic Party cannot be counted on to exercise their responsibility to all the citizens of New Jersey. It is a lesson that there are many Republican senators who actually are reasonably progressive on social issues, reflecting the general mood in their districts, but who nevertheless put towing their party line ahead of thinking for themselves.

But the three biggest lessons I learned yesterday is that never should members of our community donate money to, volunteer for, and vote for members of either party who do not pass one simple acid test: Do you commit publicly to the principle that lesbians and gay men are entitled to the full range of citizenship in our state including the right to the protections and responsibilities afforded by civil marriage in name and in fact?

The second lesson is that we must each commit to supporting any challenger to the sitting members of the legislature who have, whether by voting no or by abstaining or by professing opposition to us (in the case of the assembly, which will not vote on this bill), by donating money to, canvasing on behalf of, and voting for those challengers so long as they are on our side. We must demonstrate that our resources, which for too long have gone to support candidates who do not support us or are cause, can be brought to bear against those who oppose us.

Finally, I can't help but think of how the concerns of women and African Americans and Latinos and so many other disadvantaged parts of our society didn't get addressed in fundamental ways until leaders from those same communities rose up, spoke out, and began to take positions of responsibility in the community at large and in government. There are still precious few out members of the LGBT community in prominent positions in government. We need to be everywhere in the public sphere. And that includes in all levels of government, from dog catcher all the way up to the executive. That begins with running for office. I heard one gentleman at our post-vote reception, say he would take that challenge. We all need to take an active role, even if it means volunteering on a municipal committee to start out. We can't be passive observers of the political process any longer.