Personal Writing


January 20th, 2011

Why Abs Are More Than Just Abs

Six-Pack Abs

With a title like The Abs Diet: The Six-Week Plan to Flatten Your Stomach and Keep You Lean, you’d think this book would be an infomercial, dreamed up by a biz-dev-happy marketer. Since I haven’t actually read the book, I can’t confirm or deny this. Yet the below excerpt makes a surprisingly reflective statement about the importance of your midsection.

“Take the person with a six-pack. He’s the icon of strength and good health. He’s lean; he’s strong; he looks good in clothes; he looks good without clothes. Defined abs, in many ways, have defined fitness. But they define something else: They’re the hallmark of a person who’s in control of his body and, as such, in control of his health. . . . When you have abs, you’re telling the world that you’re a disciplined, motivated, confident, and healthy person.”

By the same token, if you let your body sag, the message you’re broadcasting is one of apathy and laziness. If you can make time to read this post, make time to do a few crunches.

Addendum (6/13/2011): A fitting poscript: The day before I published this post, the New York Times nailed the legacy of Jack LaLanna:

“What he left behind when he died last week, at the toned old age of 96, was not only a sweaty culture of relentless crunching and spinning but also the notion that fitness equals character, and that self-actualization begins with the self-discipline to get and stay in shape. In the post-LaLanne landscape, it’s not the eyes but the abdominals that are windows to the soul …

“Perspiration is a gateway to, and reflection of, higher virtues … A ‘new you’ usually means a trimmer, tauter version, not someone who has learned to speak Mandarin or picked up woodworking skills …

“Steadiness of exercise signals sturdiness of temperament, and physical leanness connotes mental toughness …

“Listen to the way doughy contestants are introduced (and how they talk about themselves) on TV weight-loss shows, which promise redemption through rigorous calisthenics. Saddlebag thighs and love handles are woven together with career frustrations and domestic strife—all of them the wages of sloppy living. Moving past these humiliations and rejoining polite society are contingent on serious gym time.

Addendum (6/19/2011): On the other hand,  Julian Michael points out that fat “implies zero about your value as a person in this world.”


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August 18th, 2010

The Importance of Tipping

Tipping

The subject of tipping is a touchy one. No one wants to be called “cheap,” yet people can disagree reasonably about what that means. As someone who eats at or takes out from gratuity-based restaurants (as opposed to McDonalds) three to four times times a week, here’s my two cents.

20% is the new 15%. Assuming your bill is less than $100, the difference between 15% and 20% is less than $5. That’s the price of a desert, or a side dish—before tax—which I suspect most people wouldn’t think twice about ordering because of price

Yet when it comes to a tip, suddenly every dollar takes on great importance. We look at the final tab, which can be higher than we thought, and are reluctant to reach deeper into our pocket. Instead, we rationalize that $10 may only constitute a 15% gratuity, but it’s still a healthy gratuity.

Of course, to the waiter, 15% is 15%. So, why haggle over a few bucks when their effect on your wallet is so little and their effect on hers is so much? As one commentator on Andrew Sullivan’s blog noted, “If I can’t afford to tip and tip well, I can’t afford to eat out.”

Tip for tat. Assuming you frequent the given establishment, you want to be known as a good tipper. Good tippers get good service. Aren’t a few extra bucks worth the extra attention they engender—whether additional roles or chips and salsa, or never having an empty glass? While a waiter can’t turn a dry cut of meat into something zesty, she can make sure that your dining experience (temperature, noise, delays, etc.) is as enjoyable as possible.

Of the all the things to cut corners on, tipping shouldn’t be one of them—for the waiter’s sake and for yours.

August 17th, 2010

Where I’ve Been

Writing

As some of you know, I maintain another blog, Sprachgefuhl, which chronicles my pet peeves about the English language. Since I haven’t blogged at No Straw Men in such a long time, here are links to my most recent posts at Sprachgefuhl:

1. Do “High-Quality” and “Quality” Mean the Same Thing?

2. Is “News Media” Redundant?

3. Don’t Spell-Out What You Can Abbreviate

* Lest you think I’m ignoring my own advice, I keep Sprachgefuhl separate from No Straw Men because their readerships are so different.

September 30th, 2009

The Washington Virus: Partisanship

Washington, DC

The other day, a friend who I haven’t talked to in a while asked if I am still active in politics. The answer—no—came easily, but the reason necessitated some introspection. Why, after spending four years in college and two years afterward immersed in the field—professionally and personally—have I soured on the subject?

Obviously, that I’ve changed professions accounts for a lot. Yet I think my disenchancement runs deeper. Here’s why.

1. Hyperbole is more common than thoughtfulness. I first commented on this trend in 2007, when I questioned three things: (1) the historically ignorant use of the words “totalitarian” and “authoritarian,” (2) the title of a new blog, TechRepublican, as opposed to TechConservative, and (3) Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandant.

A year later, I lamented that, literally and figuratively, the pugilistic partisan, Grover Norquist, had replaced the courteous intellectual, William F. Buckley.

Finally, on a prominent ListServ of conservative bloggers to which I belong, few seem to mind when the e-mailer calls a politician with whom he disagrees a “douchebag” or “scumbag.” Never mind that the issue is usually trivial, or that the pol is usually a Republican; the rancor toward one’s own party is palpable.

As one who prides himself on no straw men, I find such discourse repugnant.

2. Winning has become more important than doing what’s right. An excerpt from Taylor Branch’s new book, The Clinton Tapes, illustrates this point:

[President Clinton] treated posturing as a natural element. He remarked, for instance, that he had no idea what Senate Republican leader Bob Dole of Kansas thought about the merits of gays in the military. “He may genuinely be for it or against it,” said Clinton. “All our discussions have been about the politics.” He said Dole advised him quite candidly that he intended to keep the issue alive as long as he could to trap Clinton on weak ground, where he would “take a pretty good beating.” Similarly, the president said Dole consistently advised that budgets were the most partisan matters between Congress and the White House, and that Clinton could expect to get few if any Republican votes for his omnibus bill on taxes and spending. Clinton said Dole spoke of the opposition’s job not as making deals but rather making the president fail, so he could be replaced as quickly as possible.

Indeed, as a recent article in the New York Times suggests, the advocacy group, Americans for Limited Government, seems more interested in thwarting Obama than thwarting big government. The subtitle of the blog of the libertarian scholar, David Boaz, “Independent thinking in a red-blue town,” makes more sense to me every day I’m here.

In his book, Politics Lost, Joe Klein deplores “the insulting welter of sterilized speechifying, insipid photo ops, and idiotic advertising that passes for public discourse these days.” Wise words. What a shame they’re so true.

Addendum (10/6/2009): In a recent op-ed, Steven Hayward, of the American Enterprise Institute, elaborates on my point:

During the glory days of the conservative movement, from its ascent in the 1960s and ’70s to its success in Ronald Reagan’s era, there was a balance between the intellectuals, such as Buckley and Milton Friedman, and the activists, such as Phyllis Schlafly and Paul Weyrich, the leader of the New Right. The conservative political movement, for all its infighting, has always drawn deeply from the conservative intellectual movement, and this mix of populism and elitism troubled neither side.

Today, however, the conservative movement has been thrown off balance, with the populists dominating and the intellectuals retreating and struggling to come up with new ideas. The leading conservative figures of our time are now drawn from mass media, from talk radio and cable news. We’ve traded in Buckley for Beck, Kristol for Coulter, and conservatism has been reduced to sound bites.

September 29th, 2009

Watch Me Swim

A few months ago, I observed, “To watch me swim is to understand who I am.”

A high school valedictory I delivered provides the explanation, in words, of this declaration. Now, 10 years later, comes the videotape, filmed this past summer in Alexandria, Va.

July 15th, 2009

To Watch Me Swim Is to Understand Who I Am

Summit Area YMCA Seals Swim Team Pool

Two months ago, Hank Buntin, the longtime head coach of the Summit Area YMCA Seals Swim Team, retired. Upon hearing the news, I e-mailed Hank the following letter, which I thought I’d share here.

Hank,

My mother told that your retirement party was richly deserved, well-attended, and fun. I wish I could have been there, so that I could have shared my respect for your steady, storied leadership of the Seals.

Swimming was the rock that, from age eight until 18, brought together therapy, exercise and camaraderie for a couple hours each night. Indeed, had you not chosen me to be part of the Seals after I showed up for try-outs in a baggy, decidedly un-Speedo-like swimsuit almost 20 years ago, my life might have taken a far different direction.

Swimming taught me myriad life lessons–the importance and fruits of hard work, of ethical behavior, of esprit de corps. And you, Hank, taught me that fun and purpose are not mutually exclusive but complementary.

I still wear my Seals t-shirts to the gym, still think of myself as a swimmer, and still experience great pride and fond memories whenever I enter the Summit Y.

Thanks for taking a chance on me, for staying with me, and for inspiring me.

Very respectfully,
Jon

July 6th, 2009

Of Migraines and Moderation

Balance Is the Key to Life

In college, I began experiencing severe headaches. The symptoms were classic migraine: Lightness is blinding, one side of my head (the right) is throbbing, and relief arrives only after at least an hour lying in bed in a dark room.

A physician at the health center clarified the causes. I had been pulling a series of all-nighters, during which I didn’t eat and stole but an hour or two of sleep, after which I rushed to class without breakfast. To wit, sleep deprivation + lack of food = migraine. (To paraphrase George Orwell, Sometimes it takes a MD “to see what is in front of one’s nose.”)

Several months later, a consultation with a neurologist made me aware of Excedrin Migraine. If taken preemptively rather than reactively, this over-the-counter medicine proved to be a panacea for what turned out to be an occassional flare-up.

Of course, pills don’t address root causes, and for the past week and a half, I’ve found myself back in migraine misery. A chart I kept of the time of the episodes, what I ate in the preceding 12 hours, and how many hours I slept the night before, revealed my good old friend: Sleep deprivation + lack of food = migraine.

Now, common sense says the solution is to sleep better and eat better.  Yet there’s a broader point about living better.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve pooh-poohed my health. While I’ve never smoked or drank coffee, or even much alcohol outside of social settings, I’ve lived off fast food and Coke. I stopped going to the gym after graduating, I nap regularly because of an erratic sleep schedule, and I seek out stressful situations. While these bad habits don’t cause headaches, they bring about an environment that facilitates them.

Accordingly, if there’s an upside to my recent bout of migraines, it’s that I’m convinced any road to recovery must be holistic. I can’t just start swimming again (as I’ve done); I need to establish a daily exercise routine. I can’t just stop napping after work; I need to become an early riser, on both weekdays and weekends. I can’t just stop eating at Wendy’s; I need to change my diet.

The road to a migraine-free life goes through a moderate lifestyle.

June 28th, 2009

Does Obama Recognize Criticism of His Health Care Proposal?

A version of this blog post appeared on TechRepublican.

Given his aversion to the bubble of the presidency, willingness to admit when he screws up, and experience as a professor of constitutional law, it seems fair to conclude that while Obama may disagree with you on a particular issue, he’s at least conversant with the counterarguments. Indeed, it’s said that a good lawyer—and Obama graduated from Harvard Law magna cum laude—can argue both sides of a case.

As such, I think the President would be open to the following question, which I submitted this morning for his upcoming online town hall meeting on health care:

What do you think—without caricature—is the strongest, most serious objection to your health care proposal, and how would you reply?

YouTube says the winning questions will be among the most popular ones, so if you’re interested in which conservative criticism is most cogent, why not watch and share the above 16-second video? Let’s see if we can replicate what Patrick Ruffini did in 2007 with YouTube’s “10 Questions” contest.

June 13th, 2009

How I Bought My New TV

Sony Bravia KDL-46V5100

Because I haven’t blogged in a while.

Checking off an item that’s been at the top of my to do list for a couple years now, yesterday I became the proud owner of a flat screen TV. There was nothing wrong per se with my 15-year-old 34” Sony; rather, I wanted something better, specifically, lighter and horizontal.

My first question—plasma or LCD—was answered by way of the paucity of the former and abundance of the latter. My second question—size—was answered by the viewing distance used by a friend who recently bought a 42 incher. Even though the distance in her living room equaled the distance in my bedroom, my poor eyesight suggested that I’d be better off with the next size up, 46”. My third and fourth questions—resolution and refresh rate—were answered by an article from a few months ago in the Los Angeles Times, which convinced me that I wanted 1080p and 120Hz, respectively.

Using these criteria, I began my research. I started with two sites I rely on routinely: BestBuy and Amazon. I used these sites—in addition to a little Googling, which generated this recent article from CNET, “Best HDTVs (43-49 inches)”—to familiarize myself with the range of 46” LCDs. At this point, I decided on a budget of $1,500.

Next, I headed over to ConsumerReports.org, which for my money offers the most reliable recommendations for shopping. In the 46-47” category, CR recommends five sets: the Sony Bravia KDL-46XBR8 (quality score: 77), Samsung UN46B7000 (76), Samsung UN46B6000 (74), Toshiba REGZA 46XV540U (71), and Sony Bravia KDL-46V5100 (71).

I excluded the cheapest and most expensive units—the Toshiba ($1,200) and the Sony Bravia KDL-46XBR8 ($4,000)—and so was left with three choices: the Samsung UN46B7000 ($2,700), Samsung UN46B6000 ($2,520), and Sony Bravia KDL-46V5100 ($1,800). Given my budget, the choice from here was easy: the Sony Bravia KDL-46V5100.

Similarly easy was where to make the purchase. Technically, the wholesaler, Butterfly Photo, offered the best deal ($1,394 total). Yet a little Googling revealed that Dell.com had recently reduced its price to $1,399. And while Dell charges tax and for shipping and handling, I was able to use a coupon for a final price that noticeably bested Butterfly’s.

Many people still prefer to walk into a store, chat with a salesperson, make a purchase and be home within the hour. I prefer research and comparison-shopping online, which, while more of a headache and time-consuming, yields a better price and more confidence in one’s purchase.

Addendum (6/21/2009): Check out this buyer’s guide that appeared a few days ago in the New York Times.

November 11th, 2008

How Would You Respond to This E-mail?

Hand on MouseIn the first week of my first job, my boss sent me the following e-mail:

“Jonathan: Please find out who voted for BCRA.”

My first instinct was to reply, “Hi Bill: So sorry about this, but I don’t know what BCRA is.” Fortunately, before clicking Send, I rethought my response and instead Googled “BCRA.” Ten seconds later, I found the answer: BCRA stood for the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, otherwise known as McCain-Feingold.

These differing responses represent the two types of employees. The first response, which foists the burden back onto the questioner, comes from the slothful employee, who wants to go about his job without exertion and who does not seek success. The second response, which embraces the burden, comes from the achiever. He may not know the answer—and even be utterly ignorant of the subject—but he takes it upon himself to learn. He is averse to answering a question with a question, and considers it a failure if he cannot do what is asked, even with limited information. (A third response, research without success, is fine, as long as the research is undertaken in good faith.)

In short, the slothful employee presents his boss with problems, whereas the achiever presents him with solutions. One is a problem; the other is a problem-solver.

Think about which person you are the next time you receive a request—and not just from a superior—which asks for something about which you’re ignorant. Instead of reaching for the Reply button, scroll a little farther for the search bar. You may surprise yourself.

August 4th, 2004

My Time at Time

Time magazine cover, July 26, 2004A version of this blog post appeared on the Hamilton College Web site (August 30, 2004) and in the Utica Observer-Dispatch (September 1, 2004).

If you’re an undergraduate majoring in political science, attending the 2004 Republican National Convention is something to brag about to classmates. If you’re also an editorial intern at Time magazine, it’s a good reason to miss the first week of classes. If the Time building in which you work is less than 20 blocks away from the convention at Madison Square Garden—and you have a press convention pass—it’s better than college; it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Then there are the parties: breakfast with CNN anchors, a forum at the Council on Foreign Relations, lunch with some U.S. senators, dinner at William F. Buckley’s home. Of course, now that I’ve dropped them, I can say that names no longer impress me. Indeed, my office (not a cubicle, by the way) is mere doors away from Joel Stein (columnist); Joe Klein (author of Primary Colors); Romesh Ratnesar (world editor); Nancy Gibbs (the go-to writer for cover stories); Jeffrey Kluger (coauthor of Apollo 13); and Lisa Beyer (nation editor). As a 21-year-old, I only hope my future can compete with my present.

But what a present it has been. For contributions to the Notebook section, which leads the magazine and includes the Performance of the Week, Verbatim, Milestones and X-Number of Years Ago in Time, my name appears each week in print. In the August 2nd issue I received my own byline for a “splash” on forthcoming books related to Donald Trump’s Apprentice show. Two weeks earlier, I transcribed an interview Time’s national political correspondent, Karen Tumulty, conducted with John Kerry and John Edwards. The uncut copy showed some sharp contrasts: Edwards, whose optimistic vocabulary reflected a boyish sunniness, strove to demonstrate deference, only to reveal diffidence, whereas Kerry alternated between undue gravitas, when others laughed, and anger, when Time noted he had said in December that if he were not running, he would vote for Dick Gephardt.

On the lighter side, last week at the famous Avalon nightclub, I attended the book launch for Jenna Jameson’s How to Make Love Like a Porn Star: A Cautionary Tale (Regan). So impressed were Jenna’s handlers that Time would cover this event, I found myself interviewing the allegedly “most downloaded woman” and her entourage. In a more tasteful setting, Time’s managing editor once solicited the opinions of the interns on the cover for our Las Vegas story. Out of the five pictures of scantily clad women dancing on a table, which did we prefer and why? It was obvious that the cover would primarily appeal to a young demographic, so I chose the one that displayed an additional girl. (My preference prevailed.)

Two weeks later, we put swimming phenom Michael Phelps on the cover, garbed in an even skimpier Speedo. But whereas Phelps was an easy choice, discussion over a subsequent cover pitted Michael Moore and his blockbuster documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11, against Saturn and the Cassini-Huygens probe then orbiting the planet. This made for a challenging and lively debate among the senior editors, and remained unconcluded until Sunday, when Time goes to press.

January 30th, 2004

New Hampshire Primary: The Best and Worst of Politics

A version of this blog post appeared in the Hamilton College Spectator (January 30, 2004), in the Utica Observer-Dispatch (February 3, 2004), and on SOLOHQ.com (February 5, 2004), and was noted on the Hamilton College Web site (February 3, 2004).

With 11 other Hamilton students this past weekend, I volunteered for Sen. John Kerry’s presidential campaign in Keene, NH. Listening to the Democratic candidates in person and their supporters’ questions, mixed with many personal conversations, including phone and front-door solicitations, led me to some general reflections on American politics.

First, just because you like political science doesn’t mean you’ll like political activism. In the former, one debates whether Saddam was a threat or whether we could have contained him. In the latter, one lambastes either the absence of weapons of mass destruction or the people lambasting that absence.

Second, slogans trump substance. Howard Dean declares himself “pro-education.” John Kerry asks, “If George Bush wants to make foreign policy an issue in this campaign, I say, ‘Bring it on!’” Al Sharpton refers to “weapons of mass deception.” Yet while these sound bites generate applause, they say nothing. Who, after all, could be anti-education in the broadest sense? We may laugh, but we learn nothing about a candidate’s positions.

Third is the job known as “visibility.” It’s as simple as it sounds: you stand in a well-trafficked public place waving a big sign featuring your candidate’s name. Yet while such advertisements may quickly inform passersby of a candidate’s relative popularity, they appeal to a herd mentality: vote for Dean because everyone else is.

Fourth, asking volunteers why they support a candidate or why they abhor Bush or how Kerry differs from Dean reveals an uninformed populace. Typical answers cite not political positions but personalities.

Fifth, supporters criticize their opponents more than they promote their own candidate. On one particularly flagrant occasion, while I took a break to read a book for my history class titled Inside Hitler’s Germany, one man asked me, “Reading about Bush, huh?”

Sixth, presidential campaigning requires the skin of an oak tree, the excuses of a Hamilton student pleading for an extension on a final paper, and a lockjaw smile. Remember, though, that we all have skeletons in our closets, and they’d tumble out if scrutinized by every reporter across America.

In the end, I’m glad I went, because I experienced politics at its best—no place is busier politically than Iowa or New Hampshire during caucus and primary season—and politics at its worst: mud-slinging and anti-intellectualism. Of course, I can say these things only because I harbor no political aspirations.

January 21st, 2001

Wyatt

Wyatt RickMore pics here

Wyatt is a miniature schnauzer. Yet as he props himself up hind-legged, he can without fail paw me awake. Through our roughly two years side by side, he has developed a répertoire of innocent-appearing techniques to get me up. He can quickly develop a sneezing fit, or, if that doesn’t work, he can bay deep-mouthed enough to wake the dead. But his most successful approach is the simplest. He sits quietly beside the bed and stares into my face with sweet and forgiving aplomb; I come out of deep sleep with the feeling of being watched. If I even blink, he puts his noble scimitar of a nose close to my ear and licks; opening my eyelids, I am confronted with an insinuated snout that usually means “Why” would like to salute a tree or, if I move too slowly, a couch. Often the contest of wills goes on for minutes, I squinching my eyes shut and he knowingly persisting. In the end “adogableness” prevails, and in the company of a heartbeat at my feet, I amble to the front door to let Wyatt go about his ceremony.

He doesn’t have to think to do it well; in fact, in some respects Wyatt is more intelligent than I, and in others he is abysmally ignorant. He can’t read, can’t drive a car, and has no comprehension of mathematics; on the contrary, as Ezra Pound once testified, “When I carefully consider the curious habits of dogs / I am compelled to conclude / That man is the superior animal. / When I consider the curious habits of man / I confess, my friend, I am puzzled.” To be sure, in his tour of duty that he is now practicing on the familiar brick flowerpots, the slow, imperial smelling over and anointing of an area, followed by the ambivalent turning this way and that to perfect range and trajectory, “Sir Wupford of Wayforth” has no peer. He may be a dog, but don’t tell me that he doesn’t have a real grip on life. Of course his horizons are limited, but how wide are mine?

When Wyatt is washed, he is as pleased with himself as is a woman newly patinaed by a beautician. His legs are combed columns, his salt-and-pepper hair is like silken velvet, and he carries the pompon of his tail—which is not much, although I’m attached to it—like the baton of a bandmaster. A chin of neatened whiskers gives him the air of an aristocrat. I happen to know, however, what this cavorting beauty looks like without the decking out. His paws matted and coat mildewed by the rain, he is a runt. Behold, under those brawny towers of legs are spindly shanks, thin and not too straight. His tail, trimmed too short at infancy, contrasts his Dumbo ears; with his chest ruff stripped, one can see the stomach of a growing boy. His whiskers become shaggy, and his seemingly proportionate rumpus rotund. But if Wyatt is in the least aware of his imperfections, he is complacent.

Wyatt reflects this bravado in eating, which, like all his undertakings (and many of ours), is paradoxical. Outdoors, where to him the world is a smell, never is his insatiable appetite slaked and he will ravenously accommodate twigs and branches. Indoors, where our wine-and-cheese prince is dished up sirloin and salmon, he scrutinizes such delicacies with fastidiousness. Rejecting canine chow altogether, he extracts, with the precision of a D.N.A. scientist, all human food from his thoroughly mixed bowl. No shrinking violet, Wyatt has us convinced that he is a person with fur.

Indeed, this “dog,” with his wet, delicate, exploratory nose, is to his limbs an investigative reporter—mischievous, assertive, and, above all, acutely curious. With high-hat gravitas, he pontificates in his self-appointed job of sentry, even as he shrinks in fear at his shadow. He is without question a coward, so deep-seated a coward that he has patented a technique for concealing it. Still, this alpha gives every indication of wanting, in the middle of the night, to go out and murder the strident animals that prowl our backyard and that outweigh this bite-size pooch ten to one.

And yet Wyatt’s perceptions are keen; he is a mind reader. Before a plan is half formed in my mind, “Wupsters” knows about it, namely, whether he is included. I know too well his look of puppy purity and dejection—an animal can express more with its tail in seconds than a human can with his tongue in hours—when I have just thought that I must leave him at home. In actuality, not everyone thinks him as much a person as my mother and I do. But like me, like my pooch, for as the French say, the best thing about a man is his dog.

Dogs love company; they place it on their nominal list of needs. So scratch “Why,” and you’ll receive permanent employment; find the spot behind the ears that he delights to have rubbed, and you’ve thereby replaced me. In Wyatt there is such affability, such loving kindness, such a way of crouching along to lay his force, his courage, and his heart at my feet, that it is a dog who has clarified my concept of friendship. Incapable of deceit and full of fidelity, he is, as Lord Bryon said of his furry friend, “the firmest friend, the first to welcome, the foremost to defend.” He asks no questions, passes no judgment; to bestow his heart is his one aim. He offers love unflinching, and asks only for it requited. So he soils the carpets, chews my slippers? I wouldn’t have it any other way.

May 5th, 2000

A Second Home

Jonathan Rick

I approached this valedictory with the query, “Why swimming”? Now, it is said that one shouldn’t answer a question with a question, but I demur: why life? For me, living means vigor—awakening in the morning and flexing and fanning out the biggest muscles in my back, stepping outside and, as my great uncle Marshall has told me he does, gloriously breathing in air to my lungs. The world is bright and brimming with life itself, and I am privileged, at this juncture of opportunity in my youth, to be not only of sound mind but also of sound body.

If memory serves, I was in the eight-and-under age group when Ben Eakley, who also attended Millburn High School and in fact lives a few houses down from me, gave his Seals valedictory. As I sat spellbound by many words I did not yet know, I understood that swimming meant a great deal to this Yalie; thenceforth, I have been mentally attempting to redact what swimming means to me. What should come naturally, however, is daunting; I now stand in the company of such alumni as Bethany Karl, whose emotive words touched every Seal, and J.D. McMillan, who called Brian Greene “a father.”

Swimming has appealed to me from childhood as an ageless arcadia. Its compulsion of pure body force against resistance—without the aid of a racket or spikes—suites my physique; its coordination of grace with energy poises my movements and manner. Especially now that I’m back in training—though I did skip practice this morning—I soak up the feeling of going somewhere purposefully and rhythmically, with little to distract me en route. To watch me swim is to understand who I am.

From a spectator’s view—not the open bleachers that Mr. Lawler populates Monday through Thursday nights, but, more fondly, the defectively ventilated and lighted observation deck from which Mary and Mike Nervi, Marge Reheis, and my mother replenished us swimmers with doughnuts and orange juice—it is six lanes, each divided by two lines going and coming, in which loop concatenated bodies, some masculine, more feminine—all skimpily, snugly clad, pallid, and sinewy. From a coach’s eye—probably Marty’s—my elbow should be extended further, I am still breathing with every stroke, and why am I still on the wall? From the swimmer’s outlook, such scenes evoke the utter bliss that is vibrantly, uniquely swimming. For this is the Summit Area Y.M.C.A. natatorium in which I have grown from a diffident and clumsy freestyler, flailing his erratic laps through heavy, humid, crowded water, to an assertive two-time captain, powering through practice in a place as familiar as my home town and as comfortable as my home.

I came to Seals as a seven-year-old attired in swim trunks below my knees. My mother had heard about the program through the Y, where I played soccer in what is now the main exercise room. Having spent my summers at Jefferson Lake Day Camp, where the swimming lessons my great uncle Marshall taught me on the weekends propelled me to the highest level of water instruction, I was not unfamiliar with water but with the jargon of swimming: who knew that freestyle was the same thing as crawl?

Tryouts were held on a September weekday. My lap of choice was breaststroke, for which I simply copied the form of my nearest competitors, my only concept of the stroke being that of my mother’s summertime technique. To my mind, I paled in comparison with the other aspirants, many of whom already knew each other through previous years on the team. After I changed rapidly in the crowded locker room—in those days, I would race in any endeavor and hence often wore my wet suit home—I climbed the stairs and befriended the vending machines that would regularly supply ruin to my dinner. As my mother and I waited in the cramped lobby, Hank called the names of those accepted; finally, toward the end, he announced “Jonathan Feder,” and I was a Seal. I made my way through the crowd to receive my prized packet, and walked out of the Y that crisp night beaming. My mother hugged me; I jumped with joy—and with apprehensiveness.

Today, such joie de vivre is unqualified; like my miniature schnauzer Wyatt, practice is a panacean pleasure. On particularly stressful days, the pool is both a Nautilus and a Tylenol. Here, accolades are often redundant, since one’s stroke divulges one’s mood: is Jeff kicking so forcibly as to blur my foresight from behind; is Abby pushing off the wall before the interval? In water, be it at practice or drifting, head back, miles downstream with the ocean current, I feel free, unbounded by neither time nor space.

Swimming, also, is ideal as a social outlet, “where the troubles are all the same and everybody knows your name.” Rewarding it is to reciprocate the support of teammates and coaches—friends—in the crucible of the competitive arena. We may vie against one another, but when practice ends, we carpool home, chat online, and fall asleep energetically; the following morning, still smelling faintly of chlorine, muscles usually sore, we exude vitality. For us, this ambiance is tantamount to oxygen; and the sport and the program are simply a way of life, which they enlarge.

The weekday endurance training during Friends and Seinfeld, the weekend technique calisthenics when we should be sleeping—how does the repetitive pulling and kicking back and forth, back and forth, hour after hour, remain, after eleven years, a seven-month-season, six-day-a-week regimen? In conceptual terms, swimming is principally a function of time; we race against the clock, and measure our speed in those inestimable milliseconds only sprinters can appreciate. Thus the swimmer values orderliness. But more than disciplining, swimming alleviates loneliness; it is an isolation that is comforting. Insulated from any sight or sound other than the vague perspectives of water and the muted thunderclap of our arm strokes and breathing, we swimmers tunnel onward amid silvery bubbles. Others may swim alongside—unavoidably, magnified eyes meet via goggles or one’s toes rub up against another’s arm—but their distinctiveness tends to refract away. Often, nonswimmer friends marvel at our ease of progress through seeming crises, for we swimmers see the world through our cool, measured pace in the pool.

And so, this is swimming—a religion, the backbone of my positivity, focal point of my day, ambrosia to my soul, a passion that transcends life’s obstacles and facilitates unbridled enthusiasm, intense drive, and enduring solace. But who facilitates the opportunity for these qualities?

I first want to thank my teammates, all of whom made practice worth coming to—the power naps beforehand; the speeding to maneuver Summit’s streetlight patterns; the cherished locker-room gossip; the culminating sauna, shower and turquoise dispenser-shampoo; the sliding down the Y’s front two railings; the frigid walks to cars, without socks, with a wet head; the post-practice ravenous appetites. When, after my disappointing freshman year I was resolved to quit swimming, Hank needed only to refer to this community, for without teammates, ambitions lose import.

Indeed, the man we all know quietly as Hank is the patriarch of Seals. Having weathered changes in teammates, coaches, weight rooms, locker rooms, the record board, pools, and practice schedules, I will above all miss our abiding head coach, who himself has repeatedly weathered sickness so that he can again be with us. Kind and affable, Hank has steered me not only through athletics but also during several situations through life. His trademark humor is frequently an antidote, his gentle spirit contagious, and his devotion inspiring. When I asked him for a letter of recommendation for college swimming—although my request was but two weeks before the decisions were to be mailed—Hank knowledgeably wrote about me in terms sure to convince any coach, if not of my Olympic times, then of my Olympic personality. Perhaps my fondest memory of Hank is at the eight-and-under championship mini-meet in Pennsylvania; there I attribute my record in the fifty free to at least two things Hank: the Seal he drew on my left shoulder and his classic motto, Winning isn’t everything, but the will to win is.

Likewise, I have nothing but appreciation for the many other coaches, past and present, of Seals: Marty, whose love for the sport induces motivation and whose reminiscences of the team it was a pleasure to discuss at dinner this year in Charlotte; Dave, whose blunt approach forced me to decrease, somewhat, my lap- and wall-skipping; Laura Ridel, whose comments to me on wearing a Speedo endowed confidence in a modest eight-year-old; Greg, who wouldn’t allow me to give up on myself—lest Ellen beat me—during an afternoon weekend practice this year; Mrs. G., whose smile symbolized others’ happiness; Laura Figler, whose walking the laps I was swimming spurred me forward; Bill, whose Saturday morning practices introduced me to the famous medicine balls; Brian, whose indefatigable spirit permeated each practice and whose support, in and out of the pool, turned many tough days laughable; and Mrs. Diamond, whose coaching, because she had just finished her own workout, was continually cheery.

Finally, to my family—my mother Barbara, my late grandmother Loretta, my grandfather Sidney, and my great uncle Marshall—I give the gratitude of my very being. Upon my shoulders rests a world of appreciation to you four for your confidence in me as a son. Without your munificent love and support and time, I would be nothing.

Grandpa and grandma, thank you for your untiring encouragement and optimism. Uncle Marshall, thank you deeply for the pineapple that nourished me during mini meets and your sincere interest in my times. Mom, you spent countless hours driving me to practices and meets. We share a lack of a sense of direction, but, somehow, we always reached our destination—even that time in Princeton when I missed one of my two events. I remember how proud I felt when long ago, the bus—this was when Seals employed buses for transportation to away dual meets—never returned to collect the team; having just won the meet, we were hungry and so you treated the team to lunch. And, throughout, despite my protests, you saved every article in which my name appeared, a thankless task of which I now see the poignancy.

Never did my family pressure me—an example I hope I can one day emulate—but instead they conferred up my years of athletics a prerequisite for success and the characteristic that makes any endeavor worthwhile: fun. No child, especially with an estranged father, could ask for a more loyal and loving family.

Time will not fade the memories of Summit Area Y.M.C.A. Seals swimming; most likely, time will give rise to indelible gratefulness for the fostering environment in which I was both student and teacher. To a new generation of Seals—especially to you slackers whose cramps arise during long sets—it is with sad happiness that I wish you the best and expect to read about many of your achievements in the newspapers. Carry your team’s name with pride, in the full knowledge that you are part of something special. I sincerely hope your experiences on this team have been, and will be, as thoroughly rewarding and delightful as mine have been.

Thank you.