Monday, March 31, 2008

The Boor is ready for marriage?

He is 27 years old but behaves like a big baby. There is nothing mature about his on-court deportment. In fact, these days he attracts more attention for behaving like a jerk than for his still periodically lethal tennis. He seems completely unable to control his temper and is almost guaranteed to get a warning from the Chair after he loses his serve. He has flung some of the meanest and most sarcastic insults to his opponents, and recently attracted much criticism for his childish intimidation of an 18-year-old Japanese opponent [Kei Nishikori]. He has never and will never receive the Stefan Edberg award for sportsmanship.

Some have blamed Jimmy Connors but those who do so must have very short memories because Andy Roddick has always been boorish. What has changed is that he has gotten unbearably worse. So much so that one of his biggest supporters, Jon Wertheim, was recently moved to write the following in his weekly tennis column:

“I haven't hidden my fondness for Roddick over the years. But it's probably about time he got called on his you-know-what. And heeding Roddick's advice to Nishikori, we're going to stick him with it: I cringed as Roddick dressed down Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and winced as he sucked down champagne and blew off the Portland, Ore., kids seeking autographs at the Davis Cup, and bristled at this laughable, Connors-ian me-against-the-world routine.

“But he completely lost me in Australia. Roddick's tirade against the umpire – so
me poor guy with kids watching at home – was not only low-rent, but also played to every Ugly American stereotype. Roddick played the role of posturing bully frat boy, even when he didn't have right on his side.”

Even Roddick’s charitable foundation has come under heavy fire, with claims that the management is fraught with nepotism and have no idea what they are doing. Claims are that none of the big-name stars he most recently advertised to support his charity event actually showed up. Andy and his mother have been described as having “delusions of grandeur”. I guess goat don’t make sheep.

The Boor has announced his plans to marry. The willing victim is a 20-year-old Sports Illustrated slut named Brooklyn Decker [in photo].

Roddick has been dating his wife-to-be for a few short months. She has witnessed his public meltdowns and embarrassing displays on court. Maybe she is a starry-eyed 20-year-old who believes that love can tame the nastiest beast. Or she may be seizing the opportunity to see the world as his travel companion. Or maybe she is just using him to advance her fledgling career. Whatever her motivation, she cannot at any point in the future claim not to know that she was marrying a boor.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Federer – 2007 ATP Player of the Year

The timing of the announcement of this award could not be worse for Federer. Nothing about his recent performances points to the greatness implied by this honor. Or maybe the timing is perfect as this may be the pick-me-up that he so desperately needs.

So far 2008 has been nothing less than a disaster for Federer.

He started the year losing in straight sets in the semi-finals of the Australian Open to a player who is fast becoming his nemesis – Novak Djokovic. It is no surprise then that Djokovic has been honored 2007 Most Improved Player for the second straight year. It is a bit unusual for a player to receive this award two years running. But Djokovic deserves it – because he’s gotten that much better.

A week after losing to Djokovic in Australia, Federer lost to Andy Murray in Dubai, in the round of 32. That one hurt a bit, but I consoled myself with the fantasy that the sheiks probably paid him a pretty penny just for showing up.

Then Federer lost in straights sets to Mardy Fish in Indian Wells. That loss hurt the most because Federer has no business losing to the likes of Mardy Fish who is ranked #98. For an entire day after that match, I walked around holding my head and asking “he lost to Mardy Fish???” to anyone who would listen. I could not believe it.

Anyone happening across any of the above matches – not to mention his whorish performance against Pete Sampras at Madison Square Garden – would have every right to wonder what all the fuss is about. So far in 2008, Federer has been a ghost of his former self, a shadow of his greatness.

Rumors, some confirmed some not, have abounded to explain his apparent decline. I’m keeping my fingers crossed. If he can hold it together and win Miami, the year to date would have been redeemed. And perhaps a new fan running across one of his televised matches would be able to understand why he was dubbed ATP Player of the Year in 2007 as well as Laureas Sportsman of the Year.

For now you’ll just have to take my word for it that he deserved it.

To see the complete list of awardees, go here

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Killers in our midst

There are people in our society who are hired killers. I don’t mean the illegal stuff done by gangs and proponents of organized crime. I mean perfectly legal killers, the types that populate the Army or become good Marines. They are the killers who defend our safety. Their job is to kill before they are killed. That is how they keep our world safe. Or at least try to.

These killers undergo a special kind of training in order to be effective at their jobs. The training requires that they lose their individual identity and become part of a group so cohesive and interdependent that their closeness eventually challenges the intimacy of any marriage. They are battle buddies sharing the same focus and mission. Stripped bare of ego, warriors are expected to comply with orders to kill. And most do.

Killing is a lot like sex. At least that’s the view of Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, an expert on “killology” or the science of killing [“On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society”]. Grossman notes that there is no substitute for actual experience. A virgin can figure out the mechanics of sex from looking at a pornography video. But she/he will still have no real sense of the actual experience, of what it feels, smells, and tastes like. You have to live it to know it.

For legal killers, this knowing however comes at a cost. Grossman believes that this is because it is instinctive in human nature to avoid slaughter, because killing another human being is a horrible experience. That is why most fighters are much more comfortable killing from a distance. From a distance the enemy remains amorphous, undefined. From a distance, it becomes more difficult to experience guilt.

Grossman opens his book with a wonderful piece by Garrison Keillor called Hog Slaughter. In it, Keillor recalls a childhood experience growing up on a hog farm. After some exposure to the slaughter of hogs, young Garrison finds himself becoming carried away by the excitement of it and he and a cousin start pelting stones at the pigs to torment them. They are caught in the act by an enraged uncle who threatens dire consequences if they ever do that again. And young Garrison understands that he has violated the honorable ritual of the slaughter in which pigs are killed not for fun or sport but as part of the mechanics of survival on the farm.

Soldiers kill because they are ordered to do so. Killing is easier under order. When a soldier finds himself unable to carry out this order, it is characterized as a moment of failure, and is called an acute combat reaction. When he is able to kill but becomes overwhelmed by the horror of it, we say that he is suffering acute stress. When these feelings refuse to go away, when they become the stuff of nightmares and flashbacks that continue to haunt over time, we say that he is suffering from post-traumatic stress.

When news stories tabulate the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they start quoting billions and trillions of dollars. But the much larger cost is psychological. Psychiatric breakdowns under the pressure of having to kill remain the single largest cost of this or any war. You cannot put a price on the impact of fatigue, hunger, living with profound and daily fear, lack of sleep, weather changes, hatred, not to mention being under constant attack – there is no way to compute the collective toll of all of these deprivations on the psyche of a human being. Add to that the psychological cost of having to kill and no wonder some go over the edge of sanity.

At some point, these killers will have to come home. To live among us. There are many killers who have been deployed twice or three times, and who, in the last five years, have spent more time fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan than they have with their loved ones at home. Those who return are often broken, mutilated, their psyches dominated by fear, their bodies instinctively avoiding danger. For a while, they remain hypervigilant, mistrustful. They see enemies everywhere. They remain in survival mode. Many feel guilty for having survived while their battle buddies did not. Far too many end of killing themselves as a result of difficulties reintegrating into our midst.

It is our collective job to take care of them and make them whole again. To deprogram the killing mentality and help them reconnect with all of the aspects of their human natures. We need not to belittle what they did but to honor the scale of its grandness. We need to put them on pedestals so high that they are above us, but not so high that we cannot reach out to touch them. We need to love them back into being the people they once were, while accepting that they will never be those persons again. Killing changes you in ways too profound to measure.

We need to forget about ourselves and what we went through while they were gone. That is a reasonable sacrifice for what they have sacrificed. Nothing we endured can ever equate what they suffered. We need to get over selves and make it all about them. Because they have participated in the ritual of killing, and like virgins, we will never know what that smelled, or tasted, or felt like.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Goodbye Sweet Guga

I remember the first time I saw Guga. I remember it clearly because I promptly fell in love. He wore rasta colors on a gangly frame, and had a goofy smile and a herky jerky bobbleheaded manner of walking that all combined to make him sweetly endearing.

But the moment I actually fell in love was when I heard him moaning as he made contact with some sweet sweet forehands as he spanked Sergi Bruguera to snatch his first Roland Garros trophy. He sounded like he was about come any minute. He had me at first moan.

Guga has won three French Open titles (1997, 2000, and 2001), 17 other singles titles, and closed 2007 with a 358-191 singles record. He has earned over $14 million in prize money alone. He could play on hard courts as well as clay, and proved this by winning Masters tournaments in Indian Wells and Miami. He earned fans’ respect by showing up to Wimbledon and taking his beating on grass like a man.

In 2000, he became the first South American to become the Number 1 tennis player in the world, beating Sampras and Agassi back to back to achieve this accomplishment in Lisbon, Portugal. Guga dominated the Clay Season in 2001, culminating in a win at Roland Garros. After beating Alex Corretja in the finals, Guga used his racket to draw a huge heart in the clay – and then lay down inside it. The French crowd went wild with appreciation. It seemed like a hokey moment, sure, but it was also consistent with Guga’s charismatic, expressive surfer-dude style.

And then in 2002, he revealed that he had to undergo hip surgery. Plagued with back problems that required frequent on-court massages, Guga’s doctors apparently discovered that the problem actually stemmed from his hips. Something to do with torque, rotation, and displacement.

I remember well his comeback matches later that year. They seemed to occur inordinately soon. I remember how angry I was with Guga’s coach and father-substitute, Larry Passos, whom I then blamed for the haste with which Guga had returned to tennis. I can still recall the painful spectacle of watching Guga playing against Radek Stepanek in Paris, late 2002. All Stepanek had to do was play drop shot after drop shot. The sight of Guga waddling forward on hips not yet ready for such punishment is one that I will not soon forget. It brought me to tears.

2003 was a forgettable year for Guga. In 2004, he made his home crowds proud by winning the Brazil Open for the second time. And he punished Federer in straight sets at Roland Garros in the one year that Federer was heavily favored to win. On September 1, 2004, Guga announced that he was going to have to undergo a second hip surgery. I was not surprised. I had always felt that he had come back too soon, that in his haste to ride his moment of glory, he had lost sight of his rehabilitation needs. Of course I would give anything to be wrong.

Guga’s life story has been filled with as many blessings as tragedies. His beloved younger brother, Guilherme Kuerten, suffered oxygen deprivation at birth that resulted in mental retardation and physical disability. Guga dedicated much of his earnings to establishing the Gustavo Kuerten Institute in his hometown of Florianopolis, Brazil, to assist individuals with similar disabilities. Guilherme died on November 9, 2007, of respiratory failure. Guga was at his side. In 1985, Guga’s father, Aldo Kuerten, died suddenly while umpiring a junior tennis match. And then there are Guga’s own struggles with hip surgery.

Earlier this year, Guga officially announced his retirement. It was a foregone conclusion really. He plans to play six tournaments this year as part of his goodbye tour. I am not planning to attend any of these matches. I want to remember Guga as he was, the dominant and fearless player with talent that left one agape, the renaissance man who played with his hair and adored Bob Marley, the generous surfer-dude who loved his family and never lost appreciation of his fans. I will miss him.

UPDATED: Guga played his final match at Roland Garros, on May 25, 2008. The tears flowed, and I am not just referring to mine.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Safety Last?

The flight was packed. Scheduled to leave Curacao at 9:00pm, we never lifted off until well past midnight. The rumor was that the plane was overloaded. By midnight, all nerves were frayed. I worried that I had missed my connection to New York. I had come to spend a week in paradise. Leaving turned out to be one of the most chaotic experiences I have ever endured.

I didn’t hear the announcement to line up for boarding. There may not have been one. All I knew was that all of a sudden there was a mad rush to form lines. I found myself jammed between a group of vendors all wondering if they would get home in time to get their products on the streets the next day. A man jammed on my left used the opportunity to lean closer. There was no space for escape.

The counter attendant asked us to form a proper line. People jostled and pushed their way into a semblance of order. A couple of passengers boarded without fanfare. Then it was the turn of one of the street vendors, a sad-looking woman of East Indian descent. The attendant told her that her packages were in excess of carry-on regulations and that she would have to pay extra. We all strained to look at the packages at her feet. She had enough carry-on baggage for at least three people.

She started begging for lenience. The attendant insisted that she had to pay for the excess baggage. She refused. Several other vendors then piped up in support of their colleague. “What he charging she for? Two, three bags and the man carrying on! Look let the lady get on the blasted plane so we could get home tonight yes!!!”

They quarreled, they grumbled, they offered her their angry support. And she responded. Whereas before she had seemed this frail woman willing to plead her way on board, now she became an angry and hostile virago. In response, the attendant locked the doors leading outside to the plane. He waited patiently while she cussed both him and his mother.

A man at the back sucked his teeth and suggested that she should step aside so that the rest of us could board the damn plane. The other vendors cussed him into silence.

A woman in front of me started shouting, “Ask him for a receipt! Ask him for a receipt! Don’t give him a blasted cent until he give you a receipt!!” After she had said it for about the tenth time, I started getting a headache. So I foolishly said to her, “I think she heard you all ten times. Why don’t we just calm down and stop stressing ourselves so much? We all have boarding passes, we will get on the plane.”

Well I don’t know who died and made me therapist. She spun around and put a cussing on me that probably made my poor mother turn in her grave. The man jammed on my left, who had been mildly flirtatious until then, tried his best to put distance between us. He wanted no further association with someone who was clearly a loser in the cussing game.

Eventually the woman at the counter finally stepped aside, allowing the rest of us to start boarding. Once on board, there were new battles over who was occupying whose seat, and why did they have to check baggage once the overhead compartments were full, and why hadn’t the airline sent a larger plane anyway?

A woman seated next to the emergency exit refused to part with her duffel bag, despite the many patient explanations by the flight attendant that it was blocking the safety exit. I found myself feeling sorry for the flight attendant. She seemed so young, and so utterly overwhelmed.

We landed safely around 2am. I had missed my connecting flight to New York. The information desk was closed. There were no coupons for cabs or overnight hotel stays. I spent the night in the tiny airport sitting on my suitcase. Paranoia kept me awake.

I finally got on a flight to New York that afternoon. I have never been more grateful to see American Airlines. I have never been more appreciative of the benefits of order and endless security searches. And I have remained acutely aware of how much we take safety for granted when we entrust ourselves to air travel.

Which is why I was so disappointed to read recently that Southwest Airlines had violated federal regulations by not submitting 44 of their planes for safety inspections. That was a scary discovery. I found myself wanting to cuss somebody but I did not know whom to cuss.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Fairweather Citizen

In a March 11 press conference in Tokyo, Martina Navratilova announced that she had reclaimed her Czech citizenship on January 9, 2008. She gave as her reason that she has become disillusioned with President Bush. She said that in fleeing Czechoslovakia, all she had done was exchange one kind of oppression for another. And so she decided to be Czech again.

At first reading, one might get the impression that Navratilova has decided that she no longer wants to be an American. But in reality, nowhere has she stated any intention to stop reaping the many benefits of American citizenship. What she has done is reclaimed her roots. In theory I have no problem with this. I just wish Navratilova had gone about this in a psychologically healthier way.

The truth is that Navratilova never voluntarily gave up her original citizenship. It was unceremoniously stripped from her after she defected to the US at age 18. Despite the murmurs about her sexual orientation, America embraced her. She was given a green card one month after her defection and became a US citizen six years later. She in turn demonstrated her commitment to the US by playing for America in the 1981 Federation Cup event against Czechoslovakia. The event was held in Prague, Czechoslovakia. Talking about spitting in your face. There was no doubting Navratilova’s loyalty.

And Navratilova has over the years been deeply critical of Czechoslovakia. She said that in 1975 – the year she defected – gays and lesbians were routinely placed in insane asylums. Coming out of the closet was not an option. Indeed, Navratilova only came out after she became an American citizen. At that time, her own father stated that he would have preferred her to be a prostitute. In America, despite claiming to be bisexual, Navratilova has had several public affairs with women, reportedly with the novelist, Rita Mae Brown, and most infamously with the former Texas beauty queen, Judy Nelson, who sued her for palimony after their relationship ended.

But now, in explanation of her decision to regain her original citizenship, Navratilova is claiming that she is ashamed of President George Bush and his policies, especially his lack of support for gay and lesbian rights. This is such manipulative bullshit. I can only surmise that Navratilova might have been counting on George Bush’s unpopularity to help deflect attention away from any close examination of her decision, and the deep well of ingratitude that it implies. So she blamed Bush.

Whatever his failings – and they are many – I have never heard anyone before accuse George Bush of setting back gay and lesbian rights to the state they were in Czechoslovakia. On the contrary, the vice-president’s daughter is not only openly gay, but she has been willing to engage an open dialogue about the differences between her views and her father’s. She has never been silenced by her father or his boss.

But to hear Navratilova tell it, she might as well not have left Czechoslovakia. And she has been carping on this crap for several years. In 2002 she told a German newspaper: “The most absurd part of my escape from the unjust system is that I have exchanged one system that suppresses free opinion for another. The Republicans in the US manipulate public opinion and sweep controversial issues under the table. It’s depressing. Decisions in America are based solely on the question of how much money will come out of it and not on the questions of how much health, morals or environment suffer as a result.” And last year Navratilova told the Czech daily, Lidove Noviny, that while she was once ashamed of Czechoslovakia, she now felt ashamed of the United States under Mr. Bush: “The thing is that we elected Bush. That is worse. Against that, nobody chose a communist government in Czechoslovakia”.

The defense mechanism that Navratilova is using to justify her behavior is called ‘splitting’. Psychologists use this term to explain the very unhealthy tendency to divide the world into all-good and all-bad. People who use splitting as a defense tend to view things in extreme polarities – as always either-or, black or white, good or evil.

When Navratilova fled Czechoslovakia in 1975, she couldn’t say enough bad things about that country. She repeatedly denounced its communist regime. She repudiated every aspect of its government and its policies. Now that she has decided that she wants to be Czech again, America under Bush has become all-bad.

Don’t get me wrong. There is much for which President Bush needs to be held accountable. But influencing a lesbian woman to reclaim her country-of-origin is not one of them. Navratilova is doing what Navratilova has always done – she is splitting in order to justify her decision. In the thirty plus years she has enjoyed the fruits of being American – including being one of the first openly gay individuals to receive corporate sponsorship from Subaru – Navratilova seems to have grown very little. What makes this especially sad is that I don’t for a moment believe that anyone would have begrudged her decision to make peace with her past. It is beyond pathetic that, at age 51, she was unable to find a healthy way to do so.

But perhaps Connie Chung said it best back in 2002 when, in response to Navratilova’s typical splitting, confronted her with, “I wanted to say, go back to Czechoslovakia. You know, if you don’t like it here, this is a country that gave you so much, gave you the freedom to do what you want”. Well it appears that Navratilova has done just that.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Can men and women really be just friends?

We shared a bedroom umpteen years ago, but nothing happened. It was a weekend beach lime, and, in my haste to be in the water, I neglected to state a roommate preference. By the time I emerged from the water, all the sleeping accommodations had been sorted out, and I realized that my options were going to be sand or shared bedroom. I opted to share.

Running into him years later was enlightening. He told me that that weekend became a line of defense against women who would accuse him of being interested in just one thing. He could, with a straight face, tell them about the weekend he spent with a woman, and nothing happened.

It has served no such purpose for me. Maybe it’s a gender thing, I dunno. But for me it’s just a nice memory of an interesting weekend spent in a bedroom with a gorgeous man with whom I never became physically intimate. Then again, I’ve never been called upon to defend whether or not I perceive men as being only good for one thing.

But our conversation ignited the question of whether men and women can be 'just friends'. Of course I recognize that this question is not original. It has been thoroughly explored as in “When Harry Met Sally”, and the sitcom, “Friends”.

Mary Hunt (author of 'Fierce Tenderness: A Feminist Theology of Friendship'), believes that true friendship is always based on the premise of equality, which does not necessarily exist in male-female relations. On the contrary, she observes, “economic, political, psychological, and other differences between the genders result in the fact that women find it difficult to be friends with men and vice."

Others argue that men and women can develop platonic connections but that problems arise when they attempt to sustain these bonds over time. Nietzsche averred, quite bluntly, that a woman “can enter into a friendship with a man perfectly well; but in order to maintain it, the aid of a little physical antipathy is perhaps required." Ouch!

This of course implies that a man and woman who are not erotically involved with anyone else, and who find each other attractive, may experience difficulty remaining 'just friends' over time. Is it inevitable, under such conditions, that an erotic attraction would eventually develop? Would my very attractive bed-mate and I have ended up doing a little something something had the weekend been prolonged? Hmmm…

But there are other reasons why it is sometimes difficult for a man and woman to maintain a platonic friendship. Quite often, these difficulties have little to do with any lack of ability to keep their hands off each other. Instead, problems often arise from the troubling impact such friendships may have on co-existing romantic relationships.

Many lovers find themselves repeatedly having to convince their jealous partners that there is nothing to feel threatened about in their friendship with someone of the opposite gender. Eros can be very possessive.

Other lovers may accept that a friendship is platonic, but nevertheless question the need for this other bond. They do not see these extra-intimate bonds as an expression of a healthy emotional need, but as evidence that there may be something missing in the romantic relationship.

Some lovers resolve the issue by simply including their erotic partner into the platonic bond, forming a three-way friendship. Others take a firmer stand, insisting on their right as mature individuals to have friends outside of the romantic partnership. And for others, it eventually becomes an unfortunate question of having to choose between romantic partner and platonic friend.

And yet, as long as women and men continue to work and play in the same spaces, the business of friendships across the gender divide will remain a salient one. Attempts at forming such friendships are sometimes misunderstood. How often have we heard the line of defense against accusations of sexual harassment that the person was just trying to be friends? How often has it been true?

As J. B. Priestley noted aeons ago, friendships between men and women will always have to face certain difficulties that will not be present in same-sex friendships. There will almost always be what he calls "a faint undercurrent of excitement” usually not present when only one sex is involved. And this is where problems often lie.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Who knew Federer was a whore?

‘Mano vs. Mono’ quipped a newspaper headline, a wry reference to Federer’s revelation that his recent losses have been the result of an attack of mononucleosis. I prefer Dull vs. the Dullard. No amount of music, manipulation, celebrity interviews, or fireworks can ever duplicate the intensity of a real match.

But who knew that Federer was capable of selling his soul to bring to tennis all of the baseness of a championship wrestling match? The only thing missing was fake blood.

My favorite moment was watching the expression on Tiger Woods’ face as he applauded the end of the match. Tiger looked as if he was thinking, “For this I missed being at home with my sweet baby? Steups.”

That over 19,000 fans bought overpriced tickets to watch this non-match tells me that New Yorkers are so hungry for tennis that they will even settle for a faux-spectacle. That’s all well and good. And if Federer was already over 35 and on the decline, I would have been more sympathetic. But Federer has a lot of tennis years left in him. And he has Sampras’ record to erase. Which he can. Which he is within striking distance of doing. Sampras won 14 Slams and 64 career titles. Federer has 12 Slams and has won 53 career titles.

In an earlier interview, Sampras declared that he did not think that Federer, at 26, would have any problems winning 15 Slams. But faced with the prospect of his legacy being erased, what does the same Sampras do? He dusts off his shoes, lubes up the creaky old joints, lumbers out of retirement, and challenges Federer not to a series of real matches but to a string of fake-assed exhibitions.

The way I see it, if you’re going to come out of retirement, then have the cojones to face real players in real matches. Like Billie Jean King did back in 1982 when she came out of retirement, got her 38-year-old butt in shape, re-entered the tour, and made it all the way to the Wimbledon semi-finals. Or like Martina Navratilova did in 2003 when, at age 46, she came out of retirement and won both the Australian Open and Wimbledon mixed doubles championships. Now that’s what I call having balls.

But not Sampras. He settles for staged exhibitions with all of the genuineness of a scripted soap opera. Is it that he lacks the courage? Is his ego too fragile to face a real challenge?

And could the corporate sponsorship be any more barf-inducing? Thanks Rolex. I’m truly appreciative that you sponsor tennis. But did you really have to require them to wear your damn product while playing? Who the heck plays tennis with a watch on his wrist?

During the match, Federer was so boring I wanted to slap him. He rolled in his first serves, gave Sampras easy volleys, and blatantly avoided putting away short balls. There were moments when he just stroked the ball back to keep the rally going. I kept wondering if he was auditioning for the role of tennis whore in a Hollywood movie.

And when Sampras announced afterwards that he had never lost a match at night in New York before, my blood almost boiled. I kept waiting for him to interject a hint of humor, a touch of irony to that grotesque statement. But neither was forthcoming. He was dead earnest. Can narcissism cause such deeply disordered thinking that he actually forgot that this was an exhibition match? Now that’s really sad.

When Sampras finally won the third of their exhibition matches, I understood the deal. There was no way Federer could win all of the events leading up to a match-up at Madison Square Garden. A 0-3 score for Sampras would not sell tickets.

But even then I kept wondering, why is Federer doing this? I understand that there is a market for this crap, but Federer doesn’t exactly need the money; he’s won over 39 million dollars in prize money alone.

I decided that it must be that he is craving American acceptance. For the Number 1 tennis player in the world, Federer has remained a relative unknown. He doesn’t appear regularly on Letterman. I’ve never seen him on ‘The View’. He hasn't dated Paris Hilton.

I suppose that this is a deal from which both players benefit. Sampras gets to remind people that he was once great, and to pretend that at his advanced age, he can still take on the best. And his wife, Bridgitte, the D-listed actress, even gets some free camera attention.

Federer gets to be the next Holly Olly, whoring himself out for American acceptance and popularity. I hope he finds that it has been worth it.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Knowing when to quit

This week Brett Favre tearfully announced his departure from the NFL. He had hinted at retirement several times over the past few years, but this week, standing with his wife at his side, he seemed finally to mean it.

But this was the impression I got in 2003 when Martina Hingis announced her retirement from professional tennis. Gone was the cocky girl who in 1997 had beaten all comers and ascended to the number one spot in the world. Since then Steffi Graf, Jenifer Capriati, and the Williams sisters had taken turns either beating her up or leaving her so badly bruised that, by 2003, The Smiling Assassin was a shadow of her former self. She retired, and declared her intention to become a professional coach. I actually believed her. Hingis vs Graf, Roland Garros 1999

Two years later, Hingis un-retired herself and returned to professional tennis. Today, tennis has sent her packing – after she tested positive for cocaine. I can’t help but wonder if she has regretted coming out of her early retirement.

It is clearly difficult for many professional sports persons to know exactly when to quit.

I remember watching Brad Gilbert’s body language during Andre Agassi's late career resurgence. With Gilbert’s help, Andre had clawed himself up from #141 in the world. At first, Gilbert’s body language proclaimed pride and support for Andre; he seemed honored to be a part of Andre’s team. But as time dragged on and Andre’s results, while decent, were not particularly stellar, Gilbert’s body language seemed to shift. He often appeared bored, as if he just wanted out of there. It was embarrassing to watch. I wasn’t surprised when Andre eventually fired him and replaced him with Darren Cahill.

I interpreted Gilbert’s disinterest as insinuating that Andre had overstayed his welcome. That of course remains debatable. There are many who believe that Andre should have quit when Pete Sampras did. I disagree. I think that Andre needed to stay on for a bit longer to individuate his career from Sampras’ and to recover some of the ground he lost during the Brooke Shield years. And by his dedication, he ended up inspiring other players to improve their fitness and conditioning and prolong their run. But he did nothing by way of clarifying the question of when should a professional player say adios.

Some believe that one should always go out on top. Many expected Sampras to do so in 2001 when he invited his parents to watch him win his 13th slam and 7th Wimbledon final. But Sampras plodded on for another year, suffered a number of humiliating losses, and finally retired after once again beating Andre Agassi in a gut wrenching four-setter at the US Open '02.
Andre vs Pete US Open 2002

This is the same Sampras who is scheduled to play Roger Federer in a much-hyped exhibition match at Madison Square Garden tomorrow night. So much for retirement.

I do not mean to give the impression that the decision to quit is always under a player’s control. This is far from the truth. The timing of when one leaves a sport is dependent in part on the amount of success one has enjoyed while playing it. For the average journeyman or bottom feeder, quitting is not an option. They just keep plugging away, hoping to make enough money to take care of the family and have something left over for retirement.

Some like Gustavo ‘Guga’ Kuerten, have retirement forced upon them by injury, before they may be psychologically ready. Guga underwent his first hip surgery in 2002. I will never forget his return match against Radek Stepanek. All Stepanek had to do to win was to keep playing drop shots. The sight of Guga waddling painfully forward on hips that were clearly not ready to be on a tennis court is one I will not soon forget. Who knows what additional damage he may have caused by his hasty return. But his actions are evidence of how difficult it is to leave a sport that you love and once dominated. Guga has finally announced his retirement in 2008. It was a foregone conclusion really.

But back to the popular cliché of quitting while you’re ahead. That doesn’t make sense to me. It seems to me that that is precisely when you need to stay on. The time to quit is when you start detecting signs of slippage that indicate that you are no longer capable of producing your best. Brett Favre actually explained it best: “I’m not up to the challenge anymore”, he said.
“I can play, but I’m not up to the challenge. You can’t just show up and play for three hours on Sunday. If you could, there’d be a lot more people doing it and they’d be doing it for a lot longer. I have way too much pride. I expect a lot out of myself. And if I cannot do those things 100 percent, then I can’t play.”

Knowing when to quit is one thing. Knowing how to do so is quite another. Few sports professionals leave their field as quietly or with the same level of dignity as Steffi Graf. When she lost to Lindsay Davenport at Wimbledon in 1999, Graf refused to steal Lindsay’s thunder – she just quietly walked away.

Some pointlessly prolong their stay, like Monica Seles, who last played a professional match in 2003 – but only announced her retirement five years later in 2008. Letting go is clearly difficult even when the need to do so is quite obvious.

In his frankly honest “You Cannot Be Serious”, John McEnroe admits that part of his difficulty in quitting tennis has to do with giving up being the center of attention. He still plays on the senior tour. He is the kind of player for whom the word ‘retirement’ is such anath
ema that he would probably rather die on a tennis court.

Retirement seems to be easier when it is active. Andre Agassi has transitioned smoothly to running his Charitable Foundation and managing his Las Vegas Academy where excellence is all areas is stressed. And it is a joy to watch the generosity of his mentorship of 16-year-old Asia Muhammed, a beautiful African-American player with talent to spare. Asia just made it to the Finals of the Tennis Channel Open. Congratulations to her and farewell Andre Agassi. Time marches on.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Unnecessary losses

I used to have another brother. He was a year or two younger. I remember him as chubby and happy, always smiling. We shared the same mother but different fathers. And some time after our mother died, his father came and took him away.

I remember the day clearly. It was a Sunday morning, and we were playing and fighting like children do. My mother may have been dead for weeks or months, I can’t remember. What I recall is that we were young enough to have rediscovered a way to laughter. I was eight and he would have been about six and we were laughing and fighting that Sunday morning, just before he was taken.

When his father showed up, I initially thought nothing of it. Or perhaps I was a bit jealous as mine rarely ever came by. The father arrived suddenly and simply walked into the house. He picked up Michael and walked out with him. It all happened so quickly, so easily, that it was a moment or two before we all realized what had just occurred. I remember watching them walk away, unhurriedly, up the street. I did not cry. I didn’t understand what had just occurred to cry.

My sister went to the police. I don’t remember them coming to the house. But I do remember that they had said that the father had had every right to take his son. We, the siblings, had no say in the matter. And my mother was already dead so she had no say either.

I remember the feeling of emptiness. It felt like a dull ache. I had not even felt this way after my mother died. I had felt sad but I wasn’t sure if my feelings were my own or if they had been the result of being surrounded by so many sobbing adults. My mother had been much loved.

Losing Michael was different. It felt like there was a hole where my heart used to be, like a part of me was missing. Although he continued to live in the same village, we rarely ever saw him. He was not allowed to speak to us; he was never allowed to visit. His new mother was childless; her husband had had an affair with my mother. He gave his wife a son. And I lost a brother.

Years later I heard that Michael’s father had died and that Michael had moved to New York. And one evening, during my first year at college, he called me. He said that he was calling from a phone booth in Brooklyn. He was homeless. He didn’t have a phone. He had found work in a factory and sometimes slept there. He wanted my help. I am a student I said, I have no money. I don’t know what I can do to help. He called a few more times, always wanting help. I felt helpless, confused, overwhelmed. I live in the dorms I said, they won’t let you live here. Then he stopped calling. I called the telephone booth for months but no one ever answered. And like that Michael was gone again.

For years I could not bring myself to read Judith Viorst’s “Necessary Losses”. I wasn’t ready to face her truths. Viorst argued that the loss of the mother-child connection sets the foundation for all of the other losses we will experience in life. She said that the process of learning how to let go of people, emotions, and situations is a necessary component of the development of a solid self-identity. Loss is a part of growing, from childhood to old age. Loss prepares us eventually for death. Loss is the price we pay for the privilege of being alive.

I still believe that some losses – or perhaps just the manner of their transaction – are completely unnecessary. I do not understand the treatment of a child as a piece of property, to be claimed at will by the sperm donor. I do not understand the wrenching away of a child from the only family he knows. Or maybe I am just haunted by guilt, by a voice reaching out to me from the cold streets of New York, and my inability to find way to stay connected.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Nurturing your relationship

There once was a beautiful hibiscus hedge in front of an apartment I lived in. During the dry season, when the earth was parched and water became scarce, I would awake to a daily miracle – red and pink flowers, radiant in the sunlight, swaying gently in the breeze. I used to feel secure behind its shield. I never needed drapes and could walk around semi-clothed with no bother of Peeping Toms.

Compared with my neighbors who were both excellent gardeners, I was a negligent caretaker. The full extent of my care consisted of bringing in a creaky old gardener who charged way too much for lopping off the top branches when they threatened to tangle with the electricity wires. I cannot underscore how much I took this plant for granted.

Then one day my hibiscus became invaded by parasites. They ravaged the plant, spreading an ugly white coating on its leaves, quickly killing off the bloom.

At first I refused to accept the obvious, so desperate was I to believe that the plant could survive. But eventually, accepting its inevitable death, I hired the same old gardener to spray, cut, and burn. I absented myself during the operation, realizing belatedly that I cared more than my haphazard approach to gardening indicated.

Afterwards, contemplating the dried stumps where the hibiscus used to be – detritus of a war fought and lost – I found myself reflecting on a similar battle I myself had lost. Another woman had invaded a relationship I was involved in, and before I knew it, the man and I were history.

Of course I considered her a parasite at the time, but in truth, her invasion was only part of the story. Clearly he had been ready to move on. After all, he had not made any attempt at resisting her attentions.

And I have since remained fascinated by the manipulations that some people use to invade the relationships of others. And although one hand can never clap – these folks succeed only because one or both parties in the relationship allow them to – you have to admit that there are some seriously manipulative folks out there who will stop at nothing to exploit the crack in your bond.

I have also observed some interesting gender differences in techniques of invasion. Some women insinuate their way into a man’s relationship by whispering sexual promises of things they would or could do that his mate apparently will not. Others use the pity approach, getting the man to feel sorry for them, confiding in him all of the awful things that their current or past partner did or should not have done. Before he knows it, our boy is playing the role of the rescuing hero. And presto he’s hooked.

Some men use the subtle technique of bad-mouthing. They sit back like a cat and wait for the woman to open up about her relationship. And as she begins to complain – and which women doesn’t at some point? – they pounce, and exploit her insecurity.

Regardless of gender, the worst kind of intruder is the one that invades your relationship while pretending to be your friend. These are the true parasites. They invite confidences and make other pretences at friendship, all the while stabbing you in the back.

Can a relationship resist this kind of invasion? Of course it can. But it takes teamwork. Both partners must maintain the same focus – achieving a parasite-resistant union. It helps to never take the relationship for granted. To pay attention to its needs so that it can develop and grow. To maintain an emphasis on nurturing. To cut back and discard all dead weight to allow new growth. To prune and fertilize regularly. To never let the relationship wither. But not to overfeed it either because this too can be toxic.

It helps also to spray regularly to avoid parasites. But use approaches that are friendly to the environment. There’s no need to kill off these bugs. Simple repelling will suffice.

Finally, aerate the soil so that the roots of the relationship can breathe freely. Never become so fearful that you don’t give each other room to grow. Relationships, like plants, need space to breathe.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Outsourcing your relationship needs?

The language of relationship psychology has influenced the way we verbalize many of the expectations we bring to the workplace. Thus employees expect to derive a sense of ‘emotional satisfaction’ and ‘personal fulfillment’ from their jobs – concepts that are clear imports from the world of intimate relationships. Similarly, workers may complain of not feeling ‘emotionally supported’ by their bosses (parent substitutes?), of being ‘taken for granted’ by fellow co-workers (spouse?), or of being ‘unfairly picked on’ (siblings?).

But isn't it possible that this process of influence is mutual? Can the way we think about our jobs also come to influence and perhaps change our conceptualization of how intimate relationships are supposed to function?

One of the more popular workplace trends is the strategy of 'outsourcing'. Outsourcing has been hailed by Fortune as a powerful tool for business growth. Outsourcing refers to the use of "innovative, strategically grounded outside relationships" to get certain company needs met, at a significantly lower cost.

So my question is this – is it possible to outsource your relationship needs? And if so, exactly how would that work?

The point of this type of outsourcing would be to develop a flexible system in which your emotional needs are met via a single relationship but by multiple partnerships. There would of course be no expectations of longevity, permanence, or any other other emotional annuities. Instead, you could establish a number of peripheral relationships, each carefully selected to meet a separate need.

Thus, you could decide that James is your lover. You may even contract to be sexually faithful to him. In the meantime, Michael, your best boyfriend may supply the emotional intimacy you also crave. He may or may not be gay. But he does become the repository of all of your most intimate thoughts and feelings.

But you also need Christian because he is a wonderful person to hang out with and take to events. And then there's Donald. He appeals to your intellect. He can debate you under the table and continually challenges your thinking process.

Four different needs, successfully outsourced to four different men. A flexible system indeed. And let’s be realistic, you can't expect one person to meet all of your needs anyway.

Outsourcing your relationship needs may, in the long run even be cheaper because you don't have to permanently acquire any of these outside resources, simply organize and manage them. Really it’s networking by another name.

But, a cautionary note. Don't ever fall in love with any of these dudes. That can be a deal-breaker. And of course don’t ever come up pregnant. You simply can't outsource the needs of children. Ever.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Healing the past

Several years ago a man telephoned me to apologize for having hurt my feelings when I was 16. I was stunned.

I had developed a massive crush on him. It was your typical teenage crush and for a while I went around acting like a love-struck idiot. He was 21 and had little time to waste on virginal girls. And really, he was right to ignore me because I would probably have been overwhelmed had he returned my affections.

Years later, our worlds happened to intersect again, and he made a point of calling me up to apologize. He said that he had known then how I felt about him, and he felt badly that he hadn’t handled it properly. I forgave him.

Since the events of Sept. 11th I have not been able to shake the awareness that life is too short and too precious to waste by holding on to feelings of hurt and betrayal and bitterness and rancor over events long past. That it is important to learn how to let go.

Of course some hurts are too profound for a simple letting go. But many situations can often be worked through, with hurts visited and revisited until their impact lessens and can eventually be erased.

True forgiveness is very hard work. Some people can only forgive after they have extorted some kind of revenge. That’s the aspect of forgiveness that makes us human (as opposed to divine) beings.

But the work towards forgiving someone, the effort required to let go of the nasty feelings before they begin to fester, the sometimes superhuman journey you have to make to get yourself emotionally to the other side – that work may seem to be an investment in the other person but it isn’t. It’s actually an emotional investment in yourself.

The man who called me up years ago to apologize was performing an act of self-therapy. It wasn’t about me. I had already moved on; in fact, within months I had already started behaving like a love-struck idiot over some other boy.

But this man had not moved on. He called me up so that he could set himself free. A moment of rapprochement before the final letting-go, in the way that parents hug their children really close just before saying goodbye.

It was not up to me to understand why the guilt affected him so. That was his problem. My role only was to set him free, to tell him that it was OK, that I had not remained scarred for life, that it is quite possible for teenage girls to love one boy like mad today and then love another equally passionately half-a-year later.

It is not a surprise that I have never heard from this man since. That was the purpose of his call – he needed to rid himself of me once and for all. He needed to close out some unfinished business. And I had accommodated him.

Of course it is not always this easy to tie up loose ends. Sometimes the other person just is not in the same emotional space to allow for a mutual and healthy letting go. And sometimes too, people forget that this was a person that they once loved, and end up doing such destructive harm to the relationship that healing may never be possible.

Sometimes too, the intent in reaching out becomes misunderstood, and what is actually a gesture towards release gets incorrectly interpreted as an attempt at reconnection. And someone may end up getting hurt a second time.

But sometimes it becomes possible to reach back and actually heal the past. If for a moment your worlds align just right, and you rediscover a few minutes or hours of compatibility, you find that you can once more reach back so that you can go forward, can hold on one more time so that you can let go completely.