Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Appreciating summer vacations – even if for just a day

On the grounds of V. Sattui Winery in Saint Helena, California.

Summer vacation is a time of the year when many of us enjoy escaping urban environments in favor of wide open spaces – beaches, lakes, hills and mountains, even wineries – in seeking respite from our fast-paced lives. Sometimes, just a day off from routine to escape to the Napa Valley, which I did with my wife last week to celebrate our recent wedding anniversary, was just the right thing to do.

The Napa Valley is only about 75 miles from our Bay Area residence, and on a good day it is reachable by car in about 90 minutes. During summer, the drive and the crowds doting the valley's towns along California State Highway 29 from Yountsville to Calistoga that come for a wine tasting or to enjoy an outdoor picnic can be jam packed. 

Fortunately for us, going up to Napa Valley as we did on this recent weekday, proved a totally different experience. The traffic was manageable and the public spaces were far less crowded than we expected, and it added up to a delightful day.

Enjoying a picnic on the grounds of V. Sattui Winery.
Arriving shortly after noon, we started with a picnic lunch at one of our favorite wineries, V. Sattui, in Saint Helena. The weather was ideal for sitting outside.

From there, we drove north through "downtown" Saint Helena and, soon, we were in Calistoga. Once there, we parked our car and walked along the main "high" street, filling our time with perusing café and bistro menus, and browsing summer reading recommendations at the independent bookseller, Copperfield's Books.

Finally, we backtracked to Yountville, where we savored a late-afternoon treat of gelato, then bought puff pastries and macarons at the famed Bouchon Bakery to bring home.

Public art in Yountville
We return often to the Napa Valley to relish its culinary aspects and sample its wine. Over the past 20 years, we've seen the town of Yountville – our favorite destination – transform nicely, thanks to its colorful outdoor sculptures that blend in with the fabric of its main thoroughfare, Washington Street. 

Although we were gone just a few hours, we both agreed that our Napa Valley day road trip was both satisfying and time well spent – and we can't wait to go back.

All photos: By Michael Dickens © 2016.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

2016 Rio Olympics: Just because ...

Fireworks exploded during the Closing Ceremonies
for the Summer Olympic Games at Maracanã Stadium
in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Sunday night.

Every four years I fall in love with the Summer Olympic Games.

Just because.

It goes beyond just the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

NPR sports commentator Frank Deford once observed that the Olympics are "like an independent movie with foreign actors you've never heard of." Further, he said, it's quite all right if we "cheer for people you've never heard of in a sport you don't care about just because."

David Rudisha of Kenya won the men's 800-meter run.
During the Rio fortnight that just concluded Sunday night, in addition to rooting for American athletes like the swimmer Michael Phelps and Simone Biles, and for the American teams in basketball and volleyball to win and do well, I found myself:

• Urging on Kenyan and Ethiopian runners, such as David Rudisha and Almaz Ayana, who moved so gracefully about the track, excelling in the middle and long distances. Rudisha became the first male runner to successful defend his 800-meter gold since 1964 while Ayana shattered the women's 10,000-meter world record by 14 seconds.

Sanne Wevers of the Netherlands
displays her gymnastics gold medal.
• Cheering on a Dutch gymnast, Sanne Wevers, from the Netherlands, who steadied herself on the four-inch-wide balance beam and flawlessly performed a gold-medal routine. In doing so, she became the first Dutch gymnast to earn an individual medal of any color.

• Applauding a South African sprinter, Wayde van Niekerk, who broke a 17-year-old world record in winning the 400-meter run, then seeing the priceless joy expressed by his coach, a white-haired, 74-year-old grandmother named Ans Botha, who sat in the stands with van Niekerk's mother, watching over her pupil with admiration, confidence and enthusiasm.

• Smiling for the charismatic host Brazilian men's and women's football teams, with their iconic one-named stars like Neymar Jr. and Marta, as they provided their country with many thrills, none bigger than Neymar's decisive penalty kick that clinched the gold medal for Brazil over Germany.

• And, I think everyone around the world cheered for Jamaica's Usain Bolt as he once again ran faster than anyone in the world in collecting three gold medals in athletics for the third consecutive Olympics.

Malek Jaziri of Tunisia competed in the
Olympic Tennis Event.
Also, thanks to having a lot of Facebook friends from Tunisia, I rooted for their country's athletes like Malek Jaziri (tennis), Habiba Ghribi (athletics), Ines Boubakri (fencing) and Oussama Mellouli (indoor and outdoor swimming) to do well. This proud North African nation collected three bronze medals, earned in fencing, taekwondo and wrestling.

Closer to home, I thrilled in cheering for the United States on the basketball court, in the swimming pool, in the gymnastics arena and on the Olympic Stadium running track throughout the past two weeks. I ached for Kerri Walsh-Jennings, whose quest for a fourth consecutive gold medal in beach volleyball was dashed by Brazil, but delighted in seeing her and teammate April Ross rebound the next night to win a bronze medal. They were elated and so was I. The same goes for the U.S. women's indoor volleyball team, arguably the best women's volleyball team in the world. After going through pool play undefeated and winning their quarterfinal-round match, they stumbled against Serbia in the semifinals. Their gold-medal hopes were broken, but the Americans regrouped nicely to win the bronze medal with a satisfying four-set win over the Netherlands – and they were beaming with their bronze medals around their necks on the awards platform. Sometimes, medals can be color-blind. It's the thrill of achievement, sometimes under adversity, that we'll remember years from now.

Fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad became the first American woman
of Muslim faith to compete wearing a hijab.
The late American poet Maya Angelou, who wrote about diversity and inclusion throughout her distinguished lifetime, once observed: "We all should know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and we must understand all the threads of the tapestry are equal in value no matter what their color."

Swimmer Simone Manuel became the first African-American
woman to win an individual swimming gold medal.
I was so very proud to see the swimmer Simone Manuel break a color barrier in becoming the first African-American woman to win an individual swimming gold medal, when she tied for first with Canada's Penny Oleksiak in the 100-meter freestyle, setting an Olympic record along the way.

Afterward, Manual said the gold medal wasn't just for her. "It was for people that came before me and inspired me to stay in the sport. For people who believe that they can't do it, I hope I'm an inspiration to others to get out there and try swimming. You might be pretty good at it."

I was just as proud of American fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad for being the first American woman of Muslim faith to wear a hijab while competing in the Olympics. There were many other first set during the Rio Games – most of them positive – and I applaud those nations who won gold medals for the first time, including: Singapore (swimming), Vietnam (air pistol), Kosovo (judo), Fiji (rugby sevens) and Puerto Rico (tennis).

The Parade of flags during Sunday's closing ceremonies.
Throughout this Olympic fortnight, the host nation Brazil displayed for the world to see why they are a sports-loving country.

I found myself rooting for athletes from around the world I had never heard of in sports that rarely receive any mention in my country like team handball, judo, and weightlifting.

Just because ... just because I cared enough to want to. And it was fun.

Photos: A variety of sources was used for the photographs included in this blog post.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Falling in love with the Olympics, again and again

Opening ceremonies at the 2016 Rio Summer Games were full of color.

Every four years, many of us fall in love with the Summer Olympic Games.

Count me among them.

Last Friday, the athletes of the world representing 207 nations gathered in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – the country for Carnival – for the Opening Ceremonies of the Summer Olympic Games. At times, it resembled a giant street party complete with samba, funk, passinho and maracatu. 

Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima lit the
Olympic cauldron on Friday night.
It's time to fall in love, again.

The French educator Pierre de Coubertin, who was most responsible for the revival of the Modern Olympic Games in 1894, once said: "The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well."

While there's much focus in my country – the United States of America – on celebrated athletes such as the swimmer Michael Phelps, the basketball player Kevin Durant and the soccer (football to the rest of the Olympic world) player Carli Lloyd, to name just a few, I find just as much joy in rooting for the lesser-known Olympians – especially those from other countries who might have overcome an obstacle or hardship to be able to compete. For instance: 

• Swimmer Yusra Mardini, an 18-year-old Syrian refugee representing the Olympic Refugee Team, had to swim for her life just last summer when – on her journey to safety after fleeing her homeland – the boat she was in started to sink. Along with her sister, both trained swimmers, she jumped out and pushed the boat for three and a half hours until it safely reached the Greek island of Lesbos. "I want to represent all the refugees because I want to show everyone that, after the pain, after the storm, comes calm days." 

Mardini's personal story is remarkable and one we should all spend time learning more about. 

Jamaica's Toni-Ann Williams and her coach Justin Howell
enjoy a happy moment during the gymnastics competition.
• Closer to home, there's Toni-Ann Williams, 20, a young gymnast from the University of California, Berkeley, with dual U.S.-Jamaican citizenship, whom I've watched thrive collegiately the past two seasons. She was born in Maryland of Jamaican parents. Williams is Jamaica's lone representative in the women's gymnastics competition – in fact she is Jamaica's first gymnast in Olympic history – and the reason I woke up at 5:45 a.m. Pacific Time Sunday morning to watch a live video stream of her Olympic competition on my iPad.

I wouldn't have missed it for anything. 

With a score of 50.966 in the all-around qualification, Williams placed 54th, which wasn't high enough to advance to Tuesday's final competition. Still, it didn't diminish her Olympics enthusiasm. "I am very, very excited," she said afterward during an interview with a Jamaican journalist. "I'm happy to represent Jamaica. I gave it my all. Hopefully, my performance today can be a trailblazer for the kids to keep the program going in Jamaica."

Egypt fielded its first women's beach volleyball team in Rio.
• On Sunday, history was also made as Nada Meawad and Noaa Elghobashy became the first women's beach volleyball pair from Egypt to compete in the Olympics. They were easily recognized by their long pants and sleeves – compared to the standard bikini uniforms worn by most countries – and Elghobashy wears a hijab. She never gave it a thought. "I've worn the hijab for 10 years," said Elghobashy after competing on the Copacabana venue against Germany. "It doesn't keep me away from the things I love to do and beach volleyball is one of them." The Egyptian duo lost to Germany 21-12, 21-15.

As Herb Elliott, the Australian middle-distance runner who won a gold medal in the 1,500 meters at the 1960 Rome Olympics, once said: "It is the inspiration of the Olympic Games that drives people not only to compete but to improve, and to bring lasting spiritual and moral benefits to the athlete and inspiration to those lucky enough to witness the athletic dedication."

And that brings us to the story of Sarah Attar.

Sarah Attar marched in the Opening Ceremonies of the
2012 London Games representing Saudi Arabia.
Four years ago, an Olympic milestone was achieved at the 2012 London Games as the first woman track and field (athletics) athlete representing the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia competed. Sarah Attar, then 19, born in the United States of a Saudi father and an American mother and who bolds dual citizenship, ran last in her heat of the 800 meters.

A cross-country runner at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, where she studied art, history and graphic design, the 5-foot-5-inch, 115-pound Attar finished her 800-meter heat in 2 minutes 44.95 seconds, about 41 seconds behind the first-place finisher. I remember watching her performance on TV. It brought tears of joy just to see her finish. It didn't matter that her time was the slowest of any 800-meter runner. 

Attar said she wanted to represent Saudi Arabia at the Olympics as a way of inspiring women. "This is such a huge honor and an amazing experience, just to be representing the women," said Attar after the conclusion of her race. "I know that this can make a huge difference."

Sarah Attar competed in London wearing a white hijab and
a black and green track suit that covered her arms and legs.
Attar competed while attired in a white hijab and a black and green track suit that covered her arms and legs. She received a standing ovation from many in the crow at Olympic Stadium as she crossed the finish line alone, well behind the others in her heat.

Fast forward to 2016. "A lot has changed since then," Attar said in an article she wrote for Marie Claire. "Oiselle, an athletic apparel company for women, sponsors me, and I am living and training full-time with an elite group of distance runners in Mammoth Lakes, California."

Now 23, Attar is back at the Olympic Games in Rio, once again representing Saudi Arabia, along with three other Saudi female athletes – all who train outside of the country due to government and religious restrictions placed upon females competing in sports. However, this time, Attar will compete in the Olympic marathon instead of the 800 meters, a distance (42195 kilometers / 26.219 miles) she feels she is better suited to run. Her personal best in the marathon is 3 hours 11 minutes 27 seconds, which she ran at the 2015 Chicago Marathon. The Olympic women's marathon will be run on August 14.

"The marathon is such a beautiful challenge,"
says Sarah Attar.
"The marathon is such a beautiful challenge and I am really diving into marathon training to see what I am capable of at this distance," Attar told Like the Wind magazine.

In a recent Washington Post feature, Attar's coach, Andrew Kastor, credited her with "the right amount of spirit and courage I see in most seasoned and mature marathon racers," and with eagerness as "a student of the sport, learning all she can from her mentors on the team."

In the same article, Attar said: "The Olympics was always what these amazing, elite athletes do, that I just watch on TV, and I observe, and then to be a part of it, where I never would have anticipated that in my life was just, like, so wild."

Sarah Attar will compete in the women's
marathon on Sunday.
More and more, Attar has begun to realize her place in history. 

"There is a whole generation of girls in Saudi Arabia who now have a female Olympic role model to look up to – that didn't exist before. 

"They'll grow up knowing that competing in the Olympics is a possibility, and that's what means the most to me," said Attar, in a recent Firstpost.com story. 

May the next two weeks be filled with friendship, respect, good sportsmanship and fair play. May it be a peaceful gathering of nations. May it be filled with many new stories to share in the years to come. 

After all, every Olympic athlete is a winner in our hearts.

Photos: Courtesy of Google images. 

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Mr. Trump and a lesson in American citizenship

On Tuesday morning, I woke up to the headline "Mr. Trump and Spineless Republicans," at the top of The New York Times editorial page. In its opinion, The Times wrote: "Just when it seems that Donald Trump could not display more ignorance and bad judgment or less of a moral compass, he comes up with another ignominy or two. This weekend he denigrated the parents of a fallen American military hero and suggested that if elected he might recognize Russia's claims to Ukraine and end sanctions.

"Mr. Trump's divisive views helped him capture the Republican presidential nomination. And even as he creates a political whirlwind with each utterance, leading members of his own party haven't the spine to rescind  their support. Sure, some have come out with strong criticisms, but none have gone far enough. Repudiation of his candidacy is the only principled response."

As the 2016 presidential campaign came into full focus following last week's historic nomination of Hillary Clinton as the first female to be nominated for president by a major political party, I have followed with great interest the fallout from Donald Trump's crude derision of the parents of Army Capt. Humayun Khan, a Muslim American who was awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart after he was killed by a suicide bomber in Iraq in 2004. It's drawing around-the-clock attention by 24-hour cable news broadcasters like MSNBC, CNN and Fox News as well as making daily headlines in national newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post. In today's Times editorial, it called Trump's statements towards the fallen soldier's parents "deplorable and mystifying" and asked: "Why would a presidential candidate mock the parents of a soldier who died in combat?"

Khizr Khan, father of a deceased Muslim American soldier, offered Donald J. Trump
his copy of the U.S. Constitution during a speech at the Democratic National
Convention in Philadelphia last Thursday. Standing beside Mr. Khan is
his wife, Ghazala, mother of the fallen soldier.

It is said that words, like eyes, are the windows into a person's soul. Last week, Captain Khan's father, Khizr Khan, along with his wife Ghazala Khan, standing by his side, were highly critical of Mr. Trump for proposing to ban Muslim immigration to the United States. In a speech to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia last Thursday, Mr. Khan accused Mr. Trump of having made no sacrifices for his country. He spoke moments before Mrs. Clinton formally accepted her party's nomination.

In a tribute to his fallen son, the 66-year-old Mr. Khan spoke passionately of his son's character, his faith, and his patriotism. In doing so, this Muslim American father's electrifying speech turned into a lesson in American citizenship. There was no denying that Mr. Khan was being sincere while showing his undivided loyalty to his country.

The elder Khan, an immigration lawyer with an advanced degree from Harvard Law School, became a United States citizen after he emigrated from Pakistan in 1980. You see, he came to America seeking a better life for his family. Along with his wife, the Khans raised three sons, the middle one who would become a hero in death. The Khan family resides in Charlottesville, Va.

Army captain Humayun Khan, 27, died while serving his country – the United States – in combat in Iraq on June 8, 2004. He became a victim of a suicide car bombing while trying to protect the other troops in his unit. In my research, I learned that Khan had graduated from the University of Virginia and had been accepted into law school. He wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father. However, he deferred his admission to serve our country before continuing his education.

In speaking to the DNC audience – and by extension to a worldwide audience – Khizr Khan "gave a voice to Muslim Americans outraged by the anti-Muslim pronouncements of the Republican nominee for president, Donald J. Trump," wrote The New York Times.

It should come as no surprise that Mr. Trump's call for restrictions on Muslims entering the U.S. is acutely personal for Mr. Khan. And, it's something that has become a recurring talking point between me and many of my Muslim Facebook friends, most whom reside in Tunisia. They are puzzled by what is going on in the U.S. While most of them realize that Trump's sentiments are not shared by most Americans – including me – and goes against the ideals and values that have helped shape my country's democracy, they are shocked and disturbed that Mr. Trump could be calling for a blanket restriction on Muslim immigration – solely on the basis on religious grounds.

In December, Mr. Trump called for "a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on."

In speaking about his deceased son with his wife standing his side, the bereaved Mr. Khan said during his speech: "If it was up to Donald Trump, he never would have been in America." Under Trump's proposed policies, the younger Khan would have never served his country because he and his family would have been barred from entering the United States.

The elder Khan said Mr. Trump "wants to build walls and ban us from this country."

"Have you ever been to Arlington Cemetery?" Mr. Khan asked Mr. Trump. "Go look at the graves of brave patriots who died defending the United States of America. You will see all faiths, genders and ethnicities. You have sacrificed nothing and no one."

Mr. Khan's remarks reverberated inside and beyond the Wells Fargo Arena where he spoke to an attentive DNC audience. Then, the moment that turned Mr. Khan into a social media phenomenon – and has been shown countless number of times on TV over the past few days – happened. Staring unwaveringly at the television camera, he passionately spoke: "Let me ask you: Have you even read the United States Constitution?" said Mr. Khan. "I will gladly lend you my copy." Addressing Mr. Trump directly (which the intolerant Trump later called "a vicious attack" in a series of tweets), he pulled out a pocket-sized copy of the Constitution from  his coat pocket and waved it for the entire world to see. It was the emotional moment of the convention.

Mr. Khan's speech was one of the most stirring speeches I've ever heard or watched. It was heartfelt and passionate. My eyes welled with tears and I applauded several times. I'm sure I was not alone in expressing these feelings.

Beginning Saturday, Mr. Trump belittled the Khans. He implied that Mrs. Khan did not speak at the convention because her religion did not allow it, and he equated his "sacrifices" as a businessman to those of the grieving Gold Star parents. What Mr. Trump failed to realize is that he could not sacrifice without serving. "With his implication that the soldier's mother had not spoken because of female subservience expected in some traditional strains of Islam, his comments also inflamed his hostilities with American Muslims," wrote The New York Times.

"If you look at his wife, she was standing there," Trump said, in an interview with ABC News. "She had nothing to say. She probably, maybe she wasn't allowed to have anything to say. You tell me."

The Washington Post wrote: "Trump described (Mr.) Khan as 'very emotional' and said he 'probably looked like a nice guy to me' – then accused him of being controlled by the Clinton campaign."

Trump's response stirred outrage among critics who said the episode once again proves that Trump lacks the compassion and temperament to be president.

Over the weekend, Ezra Klein, a columnist for Vox.com, wrote: "Trump listened to a speech by the bereaved father of a fallen Muslim soldier and used it to slander the fallen soldier's family. That was his response. That is his character. ... This is the gauge of his cruelty." He called the slander "horrifying" – even for Trump. Then Klein asked: "Just what kind of person is Donald Trump? What kind of person says these things? And is that really the kind of person we want to be president?"

"There's only one way to talk about Gold Star parents: with honor and respect," Ohio governor John Kasich, a Republican Party primary rival of Mr. Trump's, wrote on Twitter, using the term for surviving family members of those who died in war. His sentiments have been echoed by many politicians.

During an interview with MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell, the first of many the Khans have granted, which aired Friday night, Mrs. Khan broke down sobbing as she spoke about her son. It suggested to me – and I'm sure others – that Mrs. Khan let her husband give the convention speech for one simple reason: even though it's been 12 years since her son's death, she remains overwhelmed by grief. How can Mr. Trump not understand this? How can he not express any empathy for the fallen soldier's parents?


"Sacrifice, I don't think he knows the meaning of sacrifice, Mrs. Khan said. "Because when I was standing there, all America felt my pain. Without saying a single word. Everybody felt that pain."

In a rebuttal to Mr. Trump's disparaging remarks, Mr. Khan lashed out at the Republican Party nominee during an interview on Saturday, saying that his wife did not speak at the convention because it was too painful for her to talk about her son's death. Mr. Trump, he said, "is devoid of feeling the pain of a mother who has sacrificed her son.

"Trump is totally void of any decency because he is unaware of how to talk to a Gold Star family and how to speak to a Gold Star mother," said Mr. Khan.

On Monday morning, Mr. Trump continued to criticize Mr. Khan via Twitter. "Mr. Trump complained that Mr. Khan had become a ubiquitous presence in the news media since his speech at the convention, in which he excoriated the Republican presidential nominee," wrote The New York Times. 

"Mr. Khan who does not know me, viciously attacked me from the stage of the DNC and is now all over T.V. doing the same," Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter. "Nice!"

Ibrahim Hooper, who is a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told The New York Times: "It's really despicable that anyone, let alone a presidential candidate, would choose to dishonor the service of an American who gave his life for this nation."

Instead of showing any remorse for the Khans, Mr. Trump's foolish and ignorant – inhuman – comments are the latest in a continuing and disturbing pattern and serve as the latest reminder of his total unfitness for becoming President of the United States. Donald Trump is a person without a soul. He's a loud bully, a bigot. He is unaccepting of criticism and easily becomes unhinged as the events of the past few days have shown loud and clear. He lacks compassion for others and he doesn't know the meaning of empathy.

Meanwhile, acting presidential and expressing compassion and respect, Mrs. Clinton said: "I was very moved to see Ghazala Khan stand bravely and with dignity in support of her son on Thursday night. And I was very moved to hear her speak last night, bravely and with dignity, about her son's life and the ultimate sacrifice he made for his country."

Appearing on CNN's State of the Union program over the weekend, Mr. Khan expressed: "Two things are absolutely necessary in any leader or any person who aspires, wishes, to be a leader. That is moral compass and second is empathy. ... Mr. Trump is a black soul."

On Monday, Senator John McCain of Arizona, a decorated hero of the Vietnam War, sharply criticized Trump, saying: "It is time for Donald Trump to set the example for our country and the future of the Republican Party." Sadly, Sen. McClain refused to back off his support for Mr. Trump. When will he and other Republic Party leaders such as House speaker Paul Ryan and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell disavow Trump?

This morning, during a news conference following a joint address with the prime minister of Singapore in the East Room of the White House, President Obama gave his strongest denouncement of Mr. Trump. He said Mr. Trump is "woefully unprepared to do this job" and added that Republican criticisms of their party's presidential candidate "ring hollow" as they continue to support his bid for the presidency. Mr. Obama asked Republicans matter-of-factly: "If you are repeatedly having to say in very strong terms that what he has said is unacceptable, why are you still endorsing him? What does this say about your party, that this is your standard bearer?"


Indeed, Mr. Trump has shown time and again that he is capable of being both callous and cruel, and is unfit to be the commander in chief. He exhibits the character of a dark, dystopian dictator.

With less than 100 days until the November election, it remains to be seen how many more disgusting things Donald Trump will say that show off his ignorance and disrespect for the highest office in our country, his unfitness to be president, and his lack of empathy towards America's decent and ordinary citizens.

Sometimes, it takes a patriotic Muslim American family – one which emigrated to the United States so they could build a better life for themselves and who have made the ultimate sacrifice for this country – to remind all of us of the importance of the values and ideals that shape our American democracy.

Read the full text of Khizr Khan's speech to the DNC:


Read Ghazala Khan's Washington Post Op-Ed article: