Sunday, December 25, 2011

Sharing our common humanity

Feliz Navidad, Milad Majid, Joyeux Noel,
Buone Feste Natalizie, Hristos se rodi,
Kung His Hsin Nien bing Chu Shen Tan.
Merry Christmas comes in many languages.

An introduction: I enjoy sharing messages with my friends that combine sacred thought with secular wisdom. I think that the two play well together. There are so many different things that can tie together a good message about our faith, love and hope in God. And, there are plenty of good messages that are worth sharing. Sometimes, it just takes moving in the slow lane of life, observing, and enjoying the journey.

Today, I would like to share a Christmas Day poem by the 19th-century Scottish poet and essayist Robert Louis Stevenson reflecting our common humanity.

A Prayer for Christmas Morning
By Robert Louis Stevenson

The day of joy returns, Father in Heaven, and
crowns another year with peace and good will.
Help us rightly to remember the birth of Jesus, that
we may share in the song of the angels, the 
gladness of the shepherds, and the worship of the
wise men.

Close the doors of hate and open the doors of
love all over the world.

Let kindness come with every gift and good
desires with every greeting.

Deliver us from evil, by the blessing that Christ
brings, and teach us to be merry with clean hearts.

May the Christmas morning make us happy to 
be thy children.

And the Christmas evening bring us to our bed
with grateful thoughts, forgiving and forgiven, for 
Jesus's sake.


Wishing kind thoughts for a Merry Christmas to all of my friends. Although we are of many faiths, it is important that our common humanity allows us to share a season of peace and goodwill.

Peace, Mike 

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

In our garden on this afternoon

Rainbow colored rose / A rose by any other name ...

It is said that a rose is a rose is a rose ...

First Prize rose

And, yet, said the French artist Henri Matisse:  "There is nothing more difficult for a truly creative painter than to paint a rose, because before he can do so he has first to forget all the roses that were ever painted."

White rose

I would like to think that the same could be said for photographing roses, too.  After all, no two roses are the same shape or color.

Orange rose

Here's to the colorful roses in our backyard garden. ... Cheers.

All photographs by Michael Dickens, taken in my backyard garden on September 19, 2011. Copyright 2011.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Solemn moments of silence

10 years after / Solemn moments of silence

It's what's on my mind:

Awaking to the remembrance of September 11, 2001 ~ 10 years after ~ and reflecting.

It's a day in our history that will never be forgotten.

It's a day that will forever stand alone.

May God bless those heroes whose lives were lost defending our freedom.

So many names to recite.

So many solemn moments of silence.


Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Picasso: He wanted to be a painter ...

Pablo Picasso / "Give me a museum and I'll fill it."

"Give me a museum and I'll fill it," said Pablo Picasso, arguably the most compelling figure of 20th century modern art.

The Spanish artist wanted to become a painter and, instead, he became Picasso.

"Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musee National Picasso, Paris" is an exhibition of "Picasso's Picassos." An extraordinary group of 150 paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints are currently on display in a special exhibition at the de Young Fine Arts Museum in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park through Oct. 9.

Portrait of Dora Maar
(Oil on canvas, 1937)
It's a good month for Picasso lovers as "The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde," an exhibition showcasing the collections of Gertrude Stein and her siblings, major figures in the early 20th century Bohemian Paris, is on display at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through Sept. 6. Among the 40 Picasso highlights are: Lady With a Fan and Boy Leading a Horse.

Earlier this month, I took the opportunity to visit the de Young to gaze at the genius of Picasso and see for myself why looking at a painting by Picasso is like a form of magic.

Among the many memorable moments for me were: The Spanish Civil War and The Weeping Woman, Portrait of Dora Maar, Still Life with Pitcher and Apples, The Matador, and my favorite, Chat saisissant un oiseau (Cat Catching a Bird).

A Picasso quote that appeared overhead in one of the gallery rooms read: "Painting is just another way of keeping a diary." Another spelled out: "Painting is stronger than me. It makes me do what it wants."

Picasso at the de Young / A fresh, revealing perspective 

Well, I am happy to say that I came away with a new, refreshing and revealing perspective of Picasso.

The man could paint.

"It took me four years to paint like Raphael but a lifetime to paint like a child," said Picasso.

And, little did I realize until that lively Friday evening, Picasso had a sense of humor, too.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Stars: Our fading fascination with space

The days of America sending astronauts into space is over.

Last week, NASA's Space Shuttle program ended with the successful landing of Space Shuttle Atlantis.

What has been a regular fabric of my lifetime ~ American's fascination with space exploration ~ has waned in recent years. There just isn't the same interest in the American space program that I remember as a child, when man was first exploring Moon, starting with the historic Apollo 11 flight in 1969. Remember "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind?"

While Space Shuttle Mission STS-135 was authorized last year, it initially had no appropriation in the NASA budget. There were questions about whether the mission would fly. After a lot of haggling on Capitol Hill, money was found and, finally, STS-135 got the green light to proceed in April. Space Shuttle Atlantis was launched on July 8 and was originally scheduled to land on July 20. However, it was extended by an additional day.

On July 21, Space Shuttle Atlantis safely returned to Earth at 5:57 a.m. EDT and NASA's space shuttle program, for all intents and purposes, ended with the mission's conclusion. Ironically, it was 53 years ago this week that President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed into law the National Aeronautics and Space Act, which created NASA.

Thinking about our nation's space exploration, I am reminded of the ethereal sound scape "Stars" by German electronic musician Ulrich Schnauss, a song I've been listening to on my iPod with great frequency.

Beginning or end.
When it's all gone,
Why should I pretend?
All these days,
Will never come back.
Do you remember,
Or did you forget?

Losing with every step I take,
Losing with every move I make.
Turn into everything I hate,
Losing with every move I make.

Looking at the stars, must be a reason.
Why our hopes feel lost in the glow for every season.
Looking at the stars, I see that they move on.
Because I'm not sure if you miss me, I move on.
I move on ... 
Carry on.

Now, looking up at the sky and admiring all those bright stars on a clear night just won't be the same.

"Stars" lyrics by Ulrich Schnauss, copyright 2007.
Video courtesy of YouTube.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The pleasure of our gardens, part 19

The pleasure of our gardens ...

Rainbow colored rose 

White rose

First Prize rose

First Prize rose

Orange rose

Queen Elizabeth roses

... is what's on my mind this summer.

I've been thinking a lot about a quote I recently came across attributed to the late author Leo Buscaglia.

"A single rose can be my garden ... a single friend, my world."

One beautiful thought summed up in 12 simple words.

Such beauty, love and kindness.

Indeed, it's the pleasure of our gardens.

All photographs by Michael Dickens. Copyright June and July 2011.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

A splendor in the Wimbledon grass

Novak Djokovic / He's the new No. 1 men's player in the world.

Sunday's Wimbledon gentlemen's singles final between Novak Djokovic and defending champion Rafael Nadal brought out many great qualities in both players. It also served as a reminder to us why tennis truly is a global sport. 

This year's final was watched with the same eager anticipation and interest by my Facebook friends around the world: in Serbia and Spain, the native countries of Djokovic and Nadal; in Austria, Morocco, Tunisia, Thailand, the Philippines, even here in the U.S., where interest often wanes when there isn't an American competing on the final Sunday. 

There are not many sports or sporting events ~ except maybe international football's World Cup ~ that draw such a diverse audience, regardless of the time of day we watch it in our respective countries. For me, residing in northern California, watching Wimbledon live meant waking up early at 6 a.m. Yet, that is why it's billed by broadcast network NBC as "Breakfast at Wimbledon" here in the U.S. 

Looking back, it doesn't always matter who wins or loses, but how the game is played. And, Djokovic, who knew prior to the final that he would be the newly-ranked No. 1 player in the world as of Monday replacing Nadal, showed great all-court skill in all facets of his game ~ serving, volleying, ground strokes, returns ~ and, he proved to everyone why he is worthy of his No. 1 ranking. 

This year, Djokovic has won titles on hard courts, clay and, now, grass. He started 2011 by winning the Australian Open in Melbourne in February, then won tournaments in Dubai, Indian Wells, Key Biscayne, Belgrade, Madrid and Rome. He won an amazing 43 consecutive matches dating back the 2010 Davis Cup final tie in December before losing to Roger Federer in the French Open semifinals last month. As for Nadal, 25, himself a two-time Wimbledon champion, he showed why he is the eternal optimist. El Matador, as he's known by many of his most passionate fans, never gave up when he was behind. He battled his way back into the match from down two sets to win the third set ~ and, Nadal nearly forced the championship match to a fifth and deciding set. 

In the end, Djokovic won 6-4, 6-1, 1-6, 6-3. It was the affable 24-year-old Serbian, who enjoyed the Bjorn Borg splendor in the grass moment as he joyfully collapsed to the grass before Borg and other past champions in celebrating his victory on Centre Court.

In tennis, the best are known simply by their first names: Bjorn, Martina, Roger, Serena. Or, in the case of this year's final, their nicknames. On Sunday, good sportsmanship prevailed on the battle-tested Centre Court between Nole and Rafa. When the match ended, Djokovic embraced victory by planting a firm kiss on the grass. He had become a first-time Wimbledon champion and, thus, fulfilled a childhood dream. He would return home the next day to a hero's welcome in Belgrade before hundreds of thousands of fans and fellow Serbians. Meanwhile, Nadal and his fans could take solace in knowing that for Djokovic to become the best, he had to beat the best in Nadal.

Tennis was the winner on Sunday and throughout the fortnight at Wimbledon. Now, a great rivalry has been firmly seeded in the green grass of London SW19 for many years to come.

Image of Novak Djokovic courtesy of TennisChannel, 2011.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The pleasure of our gardens, part 18

Mr. Lincoln rose / photographed on June 15 at 7:10 a.m. 

In the beauty of our garden,

There are many roses of different shapes and colors.

Like dear friends, each has a personality.

And, a story worth sharing.

Their names include:

All That Jazz, Mr. Lincoln, Queen Elizabeth and Angel Face.

Each comes alive during both sunshine and following rain.

Each is special: full of joy, love and happiness.

Although each is with us for only a brief time,

We are determined to make the most of our time together.

The memories of our roses live on in our minds.

And, thankfully, through my photographs.

Queen Elizabeth rose / Photographed on June 21 at 8:41 a.m.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Rafa Nadal: Fighting for every point

Rafael Nadal / The King of Clay

Rafael Nadal has a Curriculum Vitae that is the envy of young adults.  In an age where most 25 year-olds are still trying to find their place in the world, Nadal woke up on his 25th birthday Friday ready to go to the office.

Not just any office mind you. Nadal's office was on the terre battue of Roland Garros in Paris, where he has won five French Open singles championships. He probably had his C.V. zipped up with his Babolat tennis racquets.

While it might have been easy enough for Nadal to call in sick on his birthday, take the day off and go out sight-seeing around the City of Lights with his family, the undisputed King of Clay, as he is nicknamed, put on his kit, grabbed the tools of his craft and went to work under the watchful eye of his Uncle Toni, his coach.

Or was it play?

In front of an enthusiastic crowd of 15,000 tennis spectators in Court Philippe Chatrier at Roland Garros ~ plus a world-wide television audience numbering in the millions ~ this elite-level Spaniard from Mallorca, who is easily identifiable simply as Rafa, painstakingly plied the genius of his craft. He won his semifinal match over Britain's Andy Murray 6-4, 7-5, 6-4 to advance to the final of the 2011 French Open, where he will try to tie Bjorn Borg's record of six French Open titles.  Borg has become an ally of Nadal and is expected to be in a court side box cheering for Nadal to tie his record.

A few hours after he left the stadium court victorious, Nadal found out the identity of his next opponent for Sunday's championship match ~ and, it would be a familiar foe. Namely, Roger Federer, who broke the 43-match winning streak (41 matches to start the 2011 season) of Novak Djokovic in four sets as darkness began to set in over Paris late Friday evening.

Over the course of this French fortnight, Nadal overcame a dismal start ~ he needed five difficult sets to advance over the American John Isner in the first round ~ and his other first-week wins left him feeling in a state of resignation.  Plus, he came into the French Open having lost four consecutive finals this year to Djokovic, including two on clay, his best surface.

Had Rafa become obsessed by his defeats to Djokovic? Many of his most loyal Facebook fans recognized something was troubling Nadal, whose confidence seemed shattered.

Nadal's press conferences at Roland Garros became a kind of daily confessional.  He wasn't happy with the way he had been playing and he acknowledged that it was a matter of time before Djokovic, currently ranked No. 2 in the world, would move up to No. 1 and replace Nadal at the top. (Had Djokovic beaten Federer on Friday night, he would have surpassed Nadal in the rankings. If Federer beats Nadal in the final, Djokovic will climb to No. 1 when the new rankings are released on Monday.)

Then, a funny thing happened on the way to the final: Nadal regained his confidence and his ability as the second week of the French Open developed. The Matador, as he's been nicknamed, put together a string of impressive victories ~ including a straight-set win over Robin Soderling in the quarterfinals ~ to carry him into his semifinal against Murray. Now, with six consecutive victories at this year's Roland Garros, Nadal will go after another French Open title on Sunday afternoon against Federer, 29, who is the career leader with 16 Grand Slam titles.

Nadal and Federer share a bit of history at Roland Garros, where Nadal has never lost to Federer in three previous French Open finals (2006, 2007, 2008) and also beat Federer in a 2005 semifinal en route to winning his first French Open title. Nadal owns an impressive 44-1 career record at Roland Garros, a statistic that hasn't gone unnoticed by Federer.

"It always seems to me that Rafa needs to be in a French Open final to make it special, and I got the match I guess I was hoping for," said Federer, who won the 2009 French Open when he beat Soderling in the final, as quoted in Sunday's edition of the New York Times. "After beating Novak, in a way it's a nice gift that I get the chance, and I am looking forward to it."

I am intrigued by what it is that endures Nadal to so many of his most loyal fans, who adore him and daily post "Vamos Rafa" and pictures of their idol on Facebook profile pages across many continents and on tennis forums with much aplomb. And, it's nice to read what tennis critics have to say about the nine-time Grand Slam champion, too.

"Lately with him, it's been like being on a roller coaster ride," said John McEnroe, a tennis legend himself who is an analyst at Roland Garros for American television audiences. "Make no mistake, though, he fights for every single point."

Indeed, Rafa's fan base is tremendous.  As of Friday, there were more than 6.8 million fans of his official Facebook page.

One Facebook admirer of Rafa's penned a birthday ode to him that began:

Happy Birthday, my sparkling Rafa!
You're everything to me!
You're the god of beauty!
You're the god of tennis!

Pretty serious stuff, yet very poetic ~ and, most importantly, very sincere.

Sincerity has always been a trait that endures Rafa to his fans. After his win against Murray, Nadal downplayed Borg's record, saying: "I don't think about that. A lot of respect for the great Bjorn, but I ... focus on (trying) to play well. For me, it is much more important to win at Roland Garros than equal Bjorn."

So, we have arrived to Sunday's epic final, another classic in the Nadal-Federer rivalry. The two have met 24 times overall and Rafa holds a 16-8 advantage.

By now, at least on Facebook, everyone is on a first-name basis for the biggest stars of men's professional tennis. Nole, as Djokovic is known by his nickname, has been eliminated. And what had been, in the words of American tennis analyst Mary Carillo, a "trivalry" has been reduced simply to Rafa and Roger, following in the tradition of other great tennis rivalries like Borg and McEnroe, McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, and Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi.

As the San Francisco Chronicle's Bruce Jenkins noted for readers of his Saturday 3-Dot column about the Rafa-Roger final: "Just like old times ~ and as contemporary as it gets."

And, win or lose, Rafa will be out there on Sunday fighting for every point. He wouldn't have it any other way.

A postscript: Sunday evening, Rafa Nadal defeated Roger Federer 7-5, 7-6, 5-7, 6-1 to win his sixth French Open title.

Rafael Nadal image courtesy of Tennis Channel (c. 2011).

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Djokovic: Nole's got the fever

Novak Djokovic / He's got the whole world in his hands.

Novak Djokovic is arguably the hottest athlete on the planet. Not just in professional tennis, mind you, but in the whole world.

Yes, the whole world.

Djokovic is perfect in 2011. He's won 39 consecutive tennis matches this year, including his first two matches at the French Open this week. Djokovic has won one Grand Slam this season ~ the Australian Open in January ~ and he has already amassed titles in Dubai, Indian Wells (Calif., USA), Miami, Belgrade, Madrid and Rome. At Roland Garros, Djokovic is seeded second behind five-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal.

Nicknamed Nole, the just-turned 24 year-old Serbian native has grown and matured as a player. Recently, he made headlines for revealing a new, gluten-free diet that has made him appear more fit and trim while also improving his endurance on the court.  Djokovic's world ranking has improved since the start of the year, from No. 3 to No. 2, and his sights are clearly set on becoming the new No. 1.  That's a position currently held by Nadal, whom Djokovic has beaten twice on clay in finals at Madrid and Rome  ~ Nadal's best surface.

Singing and swinging / Could Novak Djokovic be the next No. 1?

Based on his current performance, I like Nole's chances of becoming the next No. 1. Others like his chances, too.

American tennis commentator Mary Carillo, who is covering the French Open for Tennis Channel and NBC Sports, has nothing but high praise for Djokovic.  Recently, she told the San Francisco Chronicle's Bruce Jenkins: "Now you look at him and he's the strongest and fittest guy out there.  I'm also trying to think what anyone is doing better on the court.  Djokovic has the best forehand on tour right now, and the best backhand." About the winning streak, which includes winning his final two matches in 2010 (for a total of 41 consecutive victories, Carillo labels it: "A remarkable streak."

Djokovic is chasing after the Open Era (from 1968-present) record of 42-0 to start a season set by American John McEnroe in 1984.  Coincidentally, McEnroe is at Roland Garros as a tennis commentator for both Tennis Channel and NBC Sports. He spoke about Djokovic and the streak during an interview with Carillo that was broadcast Wednesday on Tennis Channel.

"(Djokovic) has it a lot tougher than I did," said McEnroe, whose 1984 winning streak was stopped in the French Open final by Ivan Lendl. "He had to win a major his first tournament of the year. Back in my day, the Australian Open was played at the end of the year in December.  We can all talk about the depth in the game being better now. The fields are tougher. What Djokovic has done is more phenomenal."

McEnroe continued: "The one thing he's had going for him, I suppose, is that the expectation wasn't as high.  Let's be honest. We still thought Nadal and Federer were the favorites going in (to the Australian Open). We were wondering about Djokovic.  Why is this guy stuck at No. 3 in the world, and wondering, if that was what his lot in life was going to be?  Is he ever going to be able to step it up and beat these guys?"

At the French Open  / Nole tries for his second Grand Slam of 2011.

Instead, Djokovic put together an impressive two-week run in Melbourne, and hasn't looked back.  During the winning streak, he's 4-0 against Nadal and 3-0 against former No. 1 Roger Federer, who is in the same half of the singles draw as Djokovic at Roland Garros.

"I got to hand it to him. (The streak) has been a great shot in the arm for tennis," said McEnroe.  It's a bummer for me, but records were made to be broken. So, I like that. It's great for the sport, it's unbelievable. It's incredible what he's been able to accomplish."

Is there a moment maybe Djokovic, who is a beloved national hero on and off the court in Serbia, wanted to lose to take off the pressure from winning? Carillo asked McEnroe.

McEnroe was candid in his response. "I think there was a moment. In Madrid, he beat Nadal for the first time on clay. When he went to Rome and made the semis, he was still playing good tennis.  Then, he faced Andy Murray, and Murray nearly had him there."

Djokovic held off a third-set rally by Murray, where he trailed 4-5 and faced match point.  He reversed his misfortune and came back to beat his British rival 6-1, 3-6, 7-6 (2) to set up his fourth final of the year against Nadal.  In the final, Djokovic was dominant in beating Nadal 6-4, 6-4.

"I think there, maybe (Novak's) thinking to himself: 'Maybe it would be good to lose that one, take some pressure off myself.'  But, then he showed character. At the end of the day, the competitor in him said: 'The hell with this.' He took some pressure off and he (beat Murray) in the semifinals. Then, he beat Nadal, again (in the final)."

The streak  "The run I've had is definitely something I didn't expect."

So, what does Djokovic think about his newly found success that has elevated him to becoming a co-favorite along with Nadal to win the French Open?  He revealed his thoughts during an interview with ESPN's Chris Fowler that aired Sunday during the opening day of this year's tournament at Roland Garros.

"The run I've had is definitely something I didn't expect to go this far," said Djokovic, who has won 25 career titles and led Serbia to the 2010 Davis Cup championship. "If someone told me I would go without any losses to the French Open, it would be hard to believe."

Djokovic will be tested throughout his remaining matches at Roland Garros starting Friday, when he faces former U.S. Open champion Juan Martin Del Potro, seeded No. 25, in the third round.  If he succeeds against Del Potro ~ and the seeds hold true through the rest of the tournament ~ his remaining opponents could include: No. 13 seed Richard Gasquet (Round of 16); No 12 Mikhail Youzhny (quarterfinals); No. 3 Federer (semifinals); and ultimately, top-seeded Nadal in the final.

"I think the hard work I've put in during the last year and the experience is starting to pay off," said Djokovic. "And my confidence on the court, I think confidence is obviously a very important part of your game.  You can get confident, but it's easy to lose. It's very important to be focused. I've been trying to work on my consistency.  I am a more mature player."

While it may be impossible for Djokovic's streak to go on forever, there's no arguing that Nole is doing some truly amazing things on the tennis court ~ and, in doing so, every match he's gaining new fans around the world.

All images courtesy of Tennis Channel, c. 2011.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The pleasure of our gardens, part 17

I am always amazed at how the color and shape of a single rose can change in just a matter of days.

The spring weather has been kind to the rose bushes in our backyard garden and has made photographing our roses and other flowers a real pleasure ~ and, a daily habit.

Last week, I followed the progress of a single rainbow-colored rose over the course of four days and recorded three photographs that illustrate how its color and shape changed day by day.

May 11, 7:58 p.m.

May 13, 7:13 a.m.

May 14, 3:25 p.m.

Sometimes, all it takes is a bit of sunshine, coupled with a little overnight rain, to make things nice and colorful in our garden.

All photographs by Michael Dickens, copyright 2011.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

A love of American team sports: At what price?

The rest of the sporting world is catching up to America.

In his weekly sports commentary this morning on National Public Radio, commentator Frank Deford opined about how America's love of team sports comes at a price.

I have a deep admiration for Deford, an author and writer whose reporting and commentary includes: senior contributing writer for Sports Illustrated, commentator for NPR and correspondent for HBO's monthly sports magazine 'Real Sports'. Today, Deford said: "I've always thought that one of the best things about American sport is that we aren't dominated by one team game, as so much of the rest of the world is soccer-centric. That's why we can have our own American dream.  The dream of most other countries is simply to have their national soccer team do well." (Note to my friends around the world: What you call football, in the U.S. we call it soccer.)

Deford is absolutely right.  In America, we've always focused our devotion to team sports ~ baseball, American-style football, basketball and ice hockey come to mind ~ and we've turned college sports into a big multi-million-dollar business. Can high school sports be fare behind?

Looking up at No. 1 /
Vamos Rafa!
Meanwhile, I have found through many friendships I've made on Facebook that in other nations, their sports affection and devotion are monogamous.  For instance, my friends either root for Rafa Nadal or Novak Djokovic, but not for both. It's either "Vamos Rafa" or "Ajdee Nole". Switzerland's Roger Federer, like his native country, is a neutral presence. And, on the football pitch, the line is clearly drawn between fans rooting for either Real Madrid or Barcelona. For Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi. You see, there's no waffling among my international friends when it comes to showing one's rooting interest.  It is pinned to their heart or worn on their sleeve for everyone to see ~ and I've grown to appreciate this.

Here in the U.S., Deford refers to American sports fans as "serial team fans". What this means is simple: You're either for the Yankees or the Mets if you live in New York, but dare not root for both. And, if you live in Chicago, you're either a Cubs fan ~ especially if you live on the North Side ~ or a White Sox fan if you're from the South Side. But you can't be a true Chicago baseball fan and root for both teams.

In a topsy turvy week that began with deadly tornadoes whipping through Alabama and beyond in the U.S., then continued with the splendid Will and Kate's Royal Wedding in London, and, finally, concluded Sunday night with President Obama announcing to the nation and the world the killing of Osama bin Laden, the U.S. has shown it has become less of a power in individual sports like tennis.

From the hard courts of Melbourne and Flushing Meadows to the red clay of Roland Garros to the pristine grass of Wimbledon, all of the reigning Grand Slam champions, except for Serena Williams at Wimbledon, are foreigners.  Sure, the Williams sisters have mostly been injured on and off for the past year. But, even if they were healthy, who's to say the outcome of any of the Grand Slam tournaments would have been any different? Still, it's a far cry from the days when John McEnroe, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Chris Evert were part of a dominating American presence in the Grand Slams.

Roger Federer/
In search of his 17th
Grand Slam singles title.
Now that the tennis calendar has shifted to the European clay court season in the lead up to this month's French Open, the focus is clearly on rest of the world.  The top four men's seeds at this week's Mutua Madrid Open ~ Rafa Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Andy Murray ~ are from Spain, Serbia, Switzerland and Great Britain, respectively. After the first day of competition, all of the Americans except one had lost.  The lone exception, John Isner, had to defeat another American, Mardy Fish, to advance to the second round.   And, it was yet another clay-court disappointment for America's best player, Andy Roddick. The red clay that is a universal playing surface for much of the rest of the world, is still so very foreign to the American players.  It seems they can't wait to get to Wimbledon so they can play on grass, or to return home to America for the summer hard-court season leading up to the U.S. Open in August.

Yes, it is painfully obvious that the rest of the world has caught up with America in sports as it has in many other respects. And, as Deford concluded his commentary this morning, he said: "The cliche is that there's no 'I' in team. But more and more, when it comes to tennis and golf, there's no 'U.S' in world champion."

I couldn't agree more.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Random acts of kindness

Random act of nature's kindness / our first Pristine rose of spring.

Lately, my days have been filled with random acts of kindness. The week leading into Easter was very rewarding for me.

Let me share a few examples of these "random acts of kindness" with you:

1. While I was walking on a pathway leading to the entrance of our Sunday farmers' market in Oakland, I helped retrieve an errant tennis ball for an exasperated father whose young toddler had thrown it past him. I received a polite "thank you" from the relieved father for retrieving the tennis ball as I tossed it back to him.

2. A few minutes later, while picking out navel oranges at the farmers' market, an elderly woman also shopping in the same stall accidentally dropped a navel orange at my feet.  The look on her face exuded embarrassment. No worries, I gladly picked up the fallen navel orange, wiped it off, and handed it back to her.  I received another polite "thank you" for my simple act of courtesy.

3. After offering some long-distance academic counseling for a very nice Facebook friend of mine, who was seeking advice and direction for selecting a media studies project, I received a very heartfelt "thank you" via e-mail for my time and help. Plus, there was a very rewarding postscript attached to the e-mail, too: "I'm blessed to have such a good friend."

4. As I pulled out of a parking space at our downtown fitness center, I honked my car horn at a nearby vehicle to warn its driver of imminent danger.  You see, unbeknown to the driver, she was about to back her sleek black SUV over her designer-brand purse and very expensive-looking brief case, which she had apparently forgotten about while putting something into the vehicle's trunk (car boot for anyone in Great Britain reading this post).  I stopped my car, got out, and managed to attract the driver's attention just in the nick of time.  I pointed to her purse and brief case, which were mere inches from being run over.

The driver got out of her SUV and glanced at what had almost happened.  Then, she approached me. "Thank you so much," she said, looking obviously tired and exhausted, but nonetheless wanting to express her gratitude.  "I am a doctor and have just finished a very long day.  You don't know how much this means to me. Thank you."

5. After sending an e-mail to a long-time friend to offer some positive encouragement and help console them through some difficult personal matters, I received a simple response that meant a lot to me: "Thank you for being my friend."

Added up, it was a very rewarding week for me.

A postscript: Monday night, I returned home from our fitness center only to discover I didn't have my iPod in my possession, my most trusted music companion.  Obviously, I felt panicked. I hoped ~ prayed ~ that somebody, anybody, had found my iPod which I had inadvertently left at the stationary bike workout station I rode at.  Hurriedly, I drove back to the fitness center and moments later, much to my relief, I was the recipient of a random act of kindness for which I am most appreciative.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The pleasure of our gardens, part 16

Our first Queen Elizabeth rose of the season /
 Blooming just in time for the Royal Wedding.

Oh, the joy of morning rain to enhance the beauty of flowers.

It has been a celebratory week of first blooms in our gardens this week.  There's been something new to enjoy each day.

First iris bloom of spring.
Aided by the right amount of sunshine and rain, our first roses and iris are now blooming and adding beautiful color and tone to our backyard garden.

Among the earliest to bloom have been our White roses as well as our Queen Elizabeth, Pristine and First Prize roses.  And Thursday morning, I stood on our deck and observed our first iris had opened, too.

Our first Pristine rose bloom of the spring /
Enjoying the late afternoon sunshine of April 21.

Yes, it's been a celebratory week of first blooms.  And in the case of the lovely pink Queen Elizabeth rose, its arrival is just in time for next week's Royal Wedding. Who knew!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The pleasure of our gardens, part 15

A Garden party /
What started as a trio, grew into a quintet and now is a septet.

As the middle of April approaches, our spring garden is starting to take shape.  And, with the Bay Area sun shining regularly again, it's a matter of days before we welcome the return of our irises and roses.

Yes, spring colors are ready to burst out just in time for Easter.

Calla lily / Its trumpet blooming
and smiling.
Our calla lilies, which started to blossom in mid January, are now in full bloom. What started as a trinity of three (Father, Son and Holy Ghost?) in a calla lily bed anchored by our Japanese maple tree on the right side of our front porch has grown up to become a party of seven (one calla lily for each day of the week, maybe?).  Around the corner from the garden party, the rest of our majestic calla lilies are lined up single-file along the east side of our house with their trumpets all beaming with smiles.

Budding iris / Peaking out
through sword-shaped leaves.
In our backyard garden, our iris bed has been a hub of activity as sword-shaped leaves have grown tremendously during the past month thanks to plenty of rain. The first iris buds protruding through these sword-shaped leaves should start blooming within a week.

Queen Elizabeth rose /
Our first bud is ready
to open any day.
Also, our Queen Elizabeth and Mr. Lincoln rose bushes have shown some budding development after being pruned back for the winter months.

Day-by-day, along with our other rose bushes, they are showing hints that they're ready to blossom.  Once they do, we will be rewarded with a steady stream of colorful roses for days and months to come.

The pleasure of our gardens, indeed.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Why I love 'The Ricky Gervais Show'

Ricky Gervais / Funniest man on TV today?

Announcer (off-camera, voices over as classical English horns play in background):  For the past few years, Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant and Karl Pilkington have been meeting regularly for a series of pointless conversations.  This is one of them.

(Three funny, real-life English blokes calmly walk into the radio studio and take their seats. The red "recording" light turns on. It's show time.)

Ricky Gervais (as himself): Hello, and welcome to 'The Ricky Gervais Show' with me, Ricky Gervais. Stephen Merchant.

Stephen Merchant (now animated): Hello.

Ricky Gervais (also animated): And that little, round-headed buffoon that is Karl Pilkington.

Karl Pilkington (very animated, but looking a bit timid): Hi.

A comedy round table /
Stephen Merchant, Ricky Gervais 

and Karl Pilkington
Sometimes, you just want to stay home on a Friday evening, turn on the TV set and be entertained while enjoying dinner. It could be a funny line of dialogue delivered humorously by a comedian. Or, even the simple sound of cackling laughter.

The Ricky Gervais Showan animated series that wraps up its second season next week, airs Friday evenings on HBO (9 p.m. ET/PT, with repeats throughout the week). It satisfies my hunger for good comedy on many levels.  It's entertaining and funny ~ occasionally thought provoking, too.  And, to hear Gervais cackle ~ even in animated fashion ~ is pure delight. Get him going and the cackling laughter can be contagious. This is a show where you'll definitely want to activate the closed-captioning on your TV set.

Ricky Gervais / cackling laughter
We live in prosperous times thanks to Gervais, the visionary British comedian, who created The Office and Extras, and whom I consider to be one of the great comedic minds of our time on either side of the pond.  Plus, he's not afraid to poke fun at public figures, either.

During a recent "The TV Column Live" Q & A chat with Washington Post TV columnist Lisa de Moraes, I asked her if there were a better comedic genius than Gervais working in TV today. Her response:  "No, because he dares to look foolish, and he dares to bomb (cough Golden Globes cough) and he dares to go out of his comfort zone (see An Idiot Abroad). He's great.  I don't always love his results, but I applaud his nerve and creativity."

Partners in all things comedy /
The animated Stephen Merchant

and Ricky Gervais
Like Seinfeld, which was a show based on the concept of being about "nothing," The Ricky Gervais Show grew out of a wildly successful podcast that was produced in Britain and, as the announcer at the beginning of each broadcast states, it's a show based around the premise of a "pointless conversation."

Simply, the raison d'être of The Ricky Gervais Show is to entertain and make us laugh. The podcast episodes are animated in a style that's reminiscent to classic Hanna-Barbera cartoons like The Flinstones. Here, Gervais and his creative partner Stephen Merchant take delight in poking fun at their friend and producer Karl Pilkington, drawing out his thoughts and (sometimes ignorant) observations about whatever they happen to be talking about ~ endlessly and mercilessly ~ and goading amusement in Pilkington's theories and personal life.

Real life Ricky Gervais
For the whole half hour ~ and it's works. This is hilarious, unscripted comedy at its best, an animated and visualized version of an audio podcast featuring three funny blokes who happen to be friends. And, thanks to it airing on HBO, the show can take liberties in its content and language.  Plus, as Gervais commented to critics after being notified last year that The Ricky Gervais Show had been renewed for this season: "This can run and run as long as Karl remains a global village idiot."

Karl Pilkington / sympathetic hero
Pilkington is good fodder as the frequent target of Gervais's humor to the point of becoming a sympathetic hero. He maintains a sense of calmness not matter the odds that he's likely to say something that will dig himself into a deeper hole than he's already gotten himself into. Some episodes, you simply wonder what stupidity will spew from Pilkington's brain.

Earlier this year, Gervais spun off a travel documentary series, An Idiot Abroad, that aired in the U.S. on the Science Channel and in Britain on Sky 1. (It has also aired in Canada, Sweden, New Zealand, Norway and Finland.)  An Idiot Abroad captured Pilkington's reaction to cultural idiosyncrasies as he explored the Seven Wonders of the World. It turned into a social experiment of global proportions. Ironically, one of the show's central themes was Pilkington's lack of interest in global travel, which Gervais and Merchant exploited for good, cackling laughs.

In both The Ricky Gervais Show and An Idiot Abroad, Pilkington has probably concluded: "With friends like these, who needs enemies?" Then, again, who knows what's going through his mind?

Postscript: On April 11, 2011 HBO confirmed that The Ricky Gervais Show had been renewed for a third season in the U.S.  The third season will debut on April 20, 2012.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

It's a brand new baseball season: Play ball!

It's a beautiful day for a ballgame
For a ballgame today
The fans are out to get a ticket or two
From Walla Walla, Washington to Kalamazoo
It's a beautiful day for a home run
But even a triple's okay
We're going cheer and boo and raise a hallaballoo
At the ballgame today

A brand new Major League baseball season starts today.

Play ball!

Every team starts with a clean slate. Zero wins. Zero losses. Zero games behind.

The baseball season is a marathon, not a sprint.  It lasts 162 games, stretching from March until October. Try telling that to the Steinbrenner family, which owns the Yankees and frets over every Yankees loss.  Even the best teams are bound to lose at least 60 games over the course of a season and the worst teams will win at least 60 games.  It's what happens during those other 42 games that makes or breaks a season.

Last year, the Giants finally won their first World Series since moving to San Francisco from New York at the start of the 1958 season.  For the lovable Chicago Cubs, they still haven't won a World Series since 1908 ~ that's 102 years.  The Cubs haven't even played in a World Series since 1945.  The Florida Marlins have been in existence less than 20 years and they've already won two World Series. Will this be the Cubbie's year? Time and 162 games will tell the story.

Last season was a high-def moment for Giants fans, of which I count myself among them.  Winning the division on the last day of the regular season, then defeating the Atlanta Braves and the Philadelphia Phillies to win the National League pennant.  I think many fans would have settled for National League champions and been happy. However, the Giants weren't finished.  Instead, they ran the table during the postseason with clutch hitting and superb pitching when it counted. The Giants beat the Texas Rangers in five games to the win the 2010 World Series.

Last season, the Giants were led by a motley crew of talented baseball players with nicknames like: The Freak (Tim Lincecum), Huff Daddy (Aubrey Huff) and Panda (Pablo Sandoval).  And, don't forget Brian Wilson ~ not the Beach Boy Brian Wilson, mind you.  Think "Fear the Beard" Brian Wilson. Today, he's 30-Down in the New York Times crossword puzzle. The team's marketing slogan suited the team's personality: "Giants baseball ~ Torture!"

Tonight, the Giants start the 2011 season as the World Champion San Francisco Giants.  It's got a pretty neat ring to it, doesn't it? Going into the new season, the Giants are deep in pitching, talented in hitting and they have 2010 N.L. Rookie of the Year Buster Posey behind the plate to guide Lincecum and the rest of the pitching staff ~ and, he'll no doubt add a little pop at the plate with his bat. Add to the mix the much-talked-about and talented rookie first baseman Brandon Belt, who could be this year's Buster Posey, and there's a lot to be excited about.

The Giants start defense of their world title against their nemesis and N.L. West rival, the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Game on. Beat L.A.

It's a brand new baseball season and every team starts with a clean slate.  Play ball!

Play Ball! credits:
1940s blockprint of Home Run by Walter Anderson (Mississippi artist, 1903-1965).
"It's a Beautiful Day for a Ballgame" sung by the Harry Simeone Songsters (1960). 

Sunday, March 27, 2011

I ♥ words: LOL with the OED ~ OMG!

OMGI'm LOL at the giddy list of new words that the venerable Oxford English Dictionary has added ~ and, believe me, there are many.

Perusing the blogosphere, I couldn't help but notice the news about noteworthy initialisms "OMG" (Oh My God), "LOL" (Laughing Out Loud), and the symbol for "heart" ♥ have all been added to the OED online dictionary. They join other initialisms such as "IMHO" (In My Humble Opinion), "TMI" (Too Much Information), and "BFF" (Best Friends Forever), among others, that have already gained recognition.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

People take notice when the Oxford English Dictionary adds new words to its lexicon. After all, the OED is the definitive record of the English language ~ it says so on their website. Achieving status in the OED means a word has gained mainstream acceptance, it's part of correct English. Of course, by the time they gain recognition, these words are behind the curve, so old school. Whatever your attitude or point of view, the English language ~ and the words we use in our daily conversation ~ is forever changing, always in revision.

Some other new and notable words added in the Class of 2011 besides the aforementioned OMG, LOL and  include: Ruthian, smack talk and ego-surfing. Ego-surfing?

Because I'm a big fan of British slang, I was intrigued by cream crackered, an adjective, a British slang term that connotes being tired and exhausted. And you thought it had something to do with food.  OMG, no. Now, I challenge you to use cream crackered in a sentence with a straight face. Speaking of food, I know that many foodies who appreciate Asian cuisine ~ and there are many here in the Bay Area ~ will delight in seeing the addition of bánh mì, a noun, which is a Vietnamese sandwich served on a baguette stuffed with strips of pork meat or chicken (tofu is acceptable, too), spring onion, cilantro, cucumber and lettuce, along with chili or soy sauce.  Think New Orleans-style po' boy or Philadelphia hoagie sandwich and you kind of get the culinary picture of bánh mì

However, after perusing the list of new and accepted words, I think my favorite new word is: yidaki. It is a noun that is defined as a long wooden instrument played by the Aborginal peoples of Arnhem Land.  

Mind you, I have no particular reason for liking yidaki over all the others I guess the wordsmith in me just likes the way the word yidaki (jɪˈdækɪ) sounds and rolls off of my tongue.

Now, it's time to head off to class and learn these newly-added ~ and accepted ~ words that are defining our language today and try using them in polite, daily conversation. Dare I say: OMG, sound the yidakis, let's enjoy a little bánh mì and, eventually, we'll all get a little cream crackered in the process! LOL. 

Here's the Oxford English Dictionary 'Class of 2011' words (presented alphabetically followed by their part of speech):

about round, adv.
ambigram, n.
banh mi, n.
Barnard's star, n.
bet-hedging, n.
bet-hedging, adj.
biker, n.
biologic, adj. and n.
calligram, n.
car crash, n.
couch surf, v.
couch surfer, n.
couch surfing, n.
cream crackered, adj.
crème de cassis, n.
Divehi, n.
dot-bomb, n. and adj.
dotted line, n. and adj.
drill-down, n.
dubplate, n.
Dutch colonial, adj. and n.
ego-surf, v.
ego-surfing, n.
English colonial, adj. and n.
fabless, adj.
fnarr fnarr, int. and adj.
gnasher, n.
gremolata, n.
headline, v.
headlined, adj.
headlining, adj.
hentai, n.
heteronormative, adj.
heteronormativity, n.
Hindutva, n.
June, n.
kleftiko, n.
la-la land, n.
lari, n.
LOL, n.1
LOL, int. and n.2
lumpenintelligentsia, n.
meep, n. (and int.)
meep, v.
muffin top, n.
non-dom, n.
non-domicile, n.
non-domiciled, adj.
OMG, int., (n.), and adj.
pap, n.5
pap, v.3
party-crasher, n.
party-crashing, n.
party-crashing, adj.
radioprotectant, adj. and n.
rotograph, v.
rotoscope, v.
rotoscoped, adj.
rotoscoping, n.
rototill, v.
rototilled, adj.
rotten egg, n.
Rotterdammer, n.
Rottie, n.
rottle, n.2
rotty, adj.
rouding time, n.
rough-cut, adj.
rough-cut, v.
rough-dress, v.
roughed-in, adj.
rough-in, n.
roughstock, n.
roulade, v.
roulading, n.
roulette, v.
roundman, n.
round-nose, adj. and n.
round-trip, v.
roupily, adv.
Roussanne, n.
roustabouting, n.
routed, adj.2
router, n.6
routery, n.
routineness, n.
rowdily, adv.
rowed, adj.3
rower, n.3
rowlock, n.2
Royal Free disease, n.
royalness, n.
rozzle, v.
RSA, n.2
Rt. Rev., n.
Rt. Revd., n.
Ru, n.
rua, n.
ruach, n.
rub-a-dub, v.1
rubber-banded, adj.
rubberization, n.
rubberize, v.1
Rubisco, n.
rubrene, n.
rubrification, n.2
rubus, n.
ruck, v.7
ruckly, adj.2
rude, n.1
rudimentarily, adv.
ruesome, adj.
ruff, n.10
ruff, int. (and n.11)
rufiyaa, n.
Rugby sevens, n.
rugelach, n.
rugulate, adj.
ruleful, adj.
rumble-de-thumps, n.
Ruminal, adj.1
rumminess, n.1
rumour control | rumor control, n.
Rumping, adj.
rumspringa, n.
run-and-shoot, adj. and n.
runathon, n.
runchick, n.
Rungu, n.
runiform, adj.
run-round, n.
ruote, n.
Rupert, n.
RUPP, n.
Ruppia, n.
rural economics, n.
Rurales, n.
ruralite, n.
Russellite, n.1 and adj.
Russellite, n.2
Russellite, n.3
Russophilia, n.
Russophobic, adj.
Russophone, n. and adj.
russula, n.
rusticate, adj.
rusticator, n.
rusticle, n.
Rusyn, n. and adj.
Ruthenic, adj.1
ruthenous, adj.
Ruthian, adj.
rutinic, adj.
rutting, n.2
ryanodine, n.
ryotei, n.
ryugi, n.
Second Coming, n.
singledom, n.
Skidi, n. and adj.
smack talk, n.
smack talking, n.
smack-talking, adj.
spinback, n.
state-run, adj.
stonewash, n.
stonewash, v.
stonewashed, adj.
suicide door, n.
taquito, n.
tetri, n.
tinfoil hat, n.
Wag, n.4
wassup, int.
yidaki, n.