"How do you spell ensemble?" Sonya asks. Though this weekend phone call isn't exactly like run of the mille—they don't usually start off with spelling quizzes—it's not completely atypical either. I'm sure God blessed with me with a big sister for several reasons, but the most important of them seems to be that He knew she would keep me on my toes.
1,325 miles separate me from Sonya, but I can always count on her to drive me crazy somehow. Why would she expect me to know how to spell anything? Does she not remember my grades in school? Her baby brother, she seems to have forgotten, depends heavily on Microsoft Word’s spell-check when he writes. The sweat pours over my face from my crown to my chin. Adrenaline flows through my veins. Breathe. Some wordsmith you are, I think.
It turns out Sonya's five-year-old daughter is preparing to model the latest fashion at a church event, and Sonya has embraced this as a learning opportunity—my niece doesn't know what an ensemble is, but soon she will.
If only I can spell it.
I feel like Atlas with the world on my shoulder, until I'm finally able to provide the correct spelling and definition from memory, and relief sets in.
But why all the stress over a silly word? Why, when rejection letters mount, and I stare down a slew of documents covered in track changes, do I subject myself to the aggravation of caring so deeply about language?
I think it's because I've resolved to find my way through life using writing. As a guy who gets punchy proofreading PowerPoint presentations, it feels like the natural way to plod forward.
I can't sing, dance, or act. Sometimes, I become tongue-tied during staff meetings. I didn't inherit my mother’s sharp sense, my sister’s discipline, or my father’s rugged athleticism. Put my in a sporting event, and I turn into Charlie Brown—trying his best to kick the football over and over but always ending up on his back. What I do have is a vivid imagination and a library of fond memories that revolve around reading.
In the last few years, I have realized the value of learning through literature. From Cicero to Shakespeare, I find that carefully chosen words can spark the intellect and illuminate the imagination. Books can take readers to entirely new worlds. They can spark curiosity—in my case, a curiosity that, when coupled with hard work, led to internships and ultimately a job in Washington.
I spend my work life reading reports and sorting through data and interacting with policymakers, pundits, and wonks. And the longer I'm here, the more certain I am that regardless of politics or economics, our country will always need individuals who can write well and think critically. So perhaps I'm lucky that my curiosity, my desire to be a reader and a writer—the same things that make Sonya count on me for spelling help on the spot—compel me to stress over selecting just the right word every time.
The challenge may seem unnecessary, but ironically, I wouldn't have it any other way. And as I've embraced the blogosphere as a means of storytelling recently, I've realized that the gratification that comes from choosing words so carefully isn't just internal. The interaction I get there from other writers and bloggers is heartfelt. There's something inspirational about strangers being willing to provide feedback and encouragement regarding such a personal craft. It becomes somehow collaborative and doubly rewarding.
And the world of words does not care about ethnicity, income, or gender. Writing only asks for originality, and in return, it provides the opportunity to persuade, entertain, and inform. We all yearn for something greater, and for me, there is no greater freedom than the power of self-expression.
Donavan Wilson is a writer who lives in Germantown. He blogs about life and culture at Timon's Opus.
Monday April 15th marked the running of my 5th consecutive Boston Marathon. I developed knee troubles during training this year, so well before the race started, I decided that it would be my final marathon.
Since I was born and raised in Framingham, Massachusetts—miles 5 through 7 along the course—I’ve had the honor these past years of having my family and friends come out to support me. Ever year, my parents wait for me near the finish line at the same spot: on Boylston Street, right in front of the Hynes Convention Center. This year was no different, except that along with my parents were my girlfriend, my brother, and his girlfriend. What happened in the final stretch of the race this year went by so quickly—so many thoughts rolled through my head seemingly at once that it's difficult to explain them all.
The final stretch of the marathon is a run down Commonwealth Ave., a right turn onto Hereford Street, and then a quick left onto Boylston. The stretch of Boylston from the turn to the finish line is about a third of a mile.
Just as I was about to make the left turn onto Boylston, I heard and felt the first explosion. It sounded like an 18 wheeler smashing its cargo to the ground. I work in the District; I hear similar sounds all the time, every day as trucks come and go near my office, but never quite this loud. But after 26 miles of running, I surely wasn’t thinking about a bomb. The first thought that shot into my head was that it was probably one of those Gentle Giant trucks—the ones they have past the finish line to give out water and bananas to the finishers.
As I continued running and turned the corner completely onto Boylston, I didn't look toward the finish line, I focused on the right side of the street, searching for my family, who would be looking to wave to me. That’s when the second explosion went off, and as my head quickly jerked forward, I saw a huge cloud of thick, white smoke in front of me. Again, my mind couldn't correctly register what was happening. I began to wonder to myself: Why on earth are they shooting cannons??? As this all was happening, two Boston Police officers were to my right, up against the rail, and I heard one shout out, “OH SHIT!”
That was the moment that I realized something was wrong. Kind of like when there's turbulence on an airplane—they tell you to look at the flight attendants, and if they aren’t freaking out, then you don't need to either. Well, this time they were freaking out.
My next move was to locate my parents, which I did immediately. I ran over to them with slight hesitation and stopped next to them on the rail. I recall asking my mother, “What the hell was that just now?” My girlfriend, who was standing right next to her, began to break down in tears, looking extremely shaken up.
She told us that she just saw a fireball and then heard a loud explosion. “This isn’t right,” she kept saying.
I asked my parents if we knew anyone down by the finish line and very quickly realized that my brother-in-law was beyond the finish, passing out water to runners. My dad, quick on his toes, had reached out to him immediately after the first explosion to see if he was ok. He was fine—he'd been about 3 blocks from the first bomb. I asked everyone again if we knew anyone else down there. We didn’t, so I told them, "I'm gonna stay put right here with you all for a minute."
Next thing I know, Boston Police are stopping runners from behind me and closing off access to Boylston from Hereford Street. All of this is happening before my eyes, but I feel like I'm in some kind of weird dream. You never think something like this could ever happen in front of your face, or in your backyard, or during the running of a marathon. It was very surreal.
The next thing I recall are the gates that had blocked off Boylston opening up, and the fire station located at the top of the hill there unloading its trucks, which came flying down Boylston toward the scene.
After that, about 15 seconds later, Boston Police began telling people on the sidewalks and street to move back immediately and start walking toward Huntington Ave. People were moving quickly but in a calm manner. There was no pushing, shoving, trampling, none of that. The Boston Police did an absolutely fantastic job of being firm in their orders but calm in moving people out of the vicinity. I have to applaud them graciously—the evacuation could have been a lot worse.
So as a family, we moved together and eventually found ourselves over by Northeastern University, where we were picked up by my uncle and driven back to Framingham. Our cars were parked in garages closer to the finish line, and there was no way we would be able to access them.
This is all I can remember. The entire scene has played back in my head over and over since Monday. Like everyone else, I’m a very proud Bostonian, even though I don't live there now. Patriots Day is our holiday. Schools are closed, offices are shut down. People get together to grill and sit out on street corners cheering on complete strangers as they run by. They do it with respect and admiration for these strangers, so much so that when you're a runner, you feel like these people cheering for you are your own brothers and sisters and best friends. I know this because I've been on both sides of the gates. I've experienced both feelings. Patriots day brings the entire city together as one, and you feel it.
Having someone attack our beloved city during our holiday, during the most historic race in the world, it leaves me with a lot of emotions. I'm sad, angry, petrified, shocked; I can’t pinpoint one feeling that outweighs the other. Seeing everything happen in person and then seeing the photos, the blood that spread across the sidewalks of Boylston Street, it will never be forgotten. And although I decided long before the race that this would be my last marathon, I wouldn’t be from Boston if I didn't run again. We’re tougher than that.
I expect next year to be the most emotional, loud, energized marathon in the history of marathons! Hopkinton, Ashland, Framingham, Natick, Wellesley, Newton, Brookline, and Boston you’ll all see me out there next year. As President Obama would say, “BET ON IT!”
Tim Vafides is a Boston-area native who works in finance at George Washington University. He lives in Arlington.
Monday was my 15th marathon—my sixth Boston Marathon in a row. I've run the Marine Corps Marathon here in Washington twice. I've run marathons on five other continents, in Dublin, Cork, the Canary Islands, Mumbai, Rio de Janeiro, Sydney, and Dubai. I'll have covered all seven continents once I finish a 2016 race in Antarctica. I've literally run around the world, but never in my wildest imagination would I have thought that a terrorist act would occur in a city like Boston during its iconic marathon.
Originally, I had planned to be a supportive spectator this year for the Tufts University Marathon team, which included my son, Mark, and his girlfriend, Ana. Approximately a month ago, I was able to become an official participant and decided to run. Of the so many "what ifs" that inevitably run through your head after something like this, I think, if I had not secured a bib in March, I could have been close to the finish line waiting for Mark and Ana during the explosions.
We had perfect weather for Patriots Day, "Marathon Monday," as it's called. I felt the best I've ever felt before a marathon, both physically and mentally. We enjoyed the camaraderie of the Tufts team prior to the race, took photos, and were feeling high as we entered the pens at the start in Hopkinton. We met many international runners including a buoyant group from Mexico, Ana's home country. Before the start, after meeting a Polish marathoner with a prosthetic leg, I decided to volunteer as a "guide" next year through Achilles International, to help disabled runners through the race.
I paced with Mark (his first marathon) and Ana (her second) for the first half of the race. At mile seven, the Tufts marathon coach and other Tufts parents and students greeted us with hugs and cheers. We took a break there and ate some of the fruit that was offered.
Close to mile 13, we heard the roar of the Wellesley students, many holding "kiss me" signs. This is always an uplifting halfway point for the participants in the race.
Soon after, Mark and Ana urged me to go ahead—my pace was picking up. I was hoping to run the second half faster than the first, though my regular socializing along the way would probably impede this goal in any event. In my first several Boston marathons (except last year during the 90 degree heat), I finished right around the time of the explosions on Monday.
At mile 17, our friend Marco jumped in the race to help me pace Heartbreak Hill as well as the final five miles after Boston College. On Heartbreak Hill, we stopped to greet a close friend from Tufts who was shooting photos. At Boston College—mile 21—two undergraduates jumped over the barricade and ran with Marco and me for approximately a mile, the sound of roaring students enjoying the scene in the background. Then we set off to conquer the final five miles of the race, the most difficult segment of all. Throughout the race the spectators were helpful, happy, and supportive. Seeing the crowd is simply exhilarating, even for someone who's seen it many times before.
Around mile 23, I received a phone call from Mark and immediately asked if something was wrong. He had heard at Boston College about an "incident" at the finish line, but we all kept running because nothing had yet been confirmed.
At mile 25.2, I stopped to greet Mark's former lacrosse teammate, who was waiting for his sister. Then, suddenly, all of the marathon runners were stopped, and one relayed the grim news that explosions had halted the race. We saw and heard the fire engines and ambulances. I texted my son and his girlfriend, and to my relief, they were fine.
By this time, cell service was being disrupted, but a couple of family members got through, so I could get word out that we were safe. I've received hundreds of calls, texts, emails, and Facebook messages since, from all six continents where I've run marathons.
We took refuge in a hotel, where I met other Tufts team members, including a woman who had lost her father in New York City on September 11. I spoke with a runner from the UK who had been desperately trying to find his girlfriend at the finish line. It turned out she was safe.
I was able to reunite with Mark and Ana at a Panera near Fenway, and we adopted another runner, Tim Murphy, from Nova Scotia. This was Tim's first marathon ever. When he finally got in touch with his parents (unharmed), he learned that they had seen the grim scene from only 50 feet away. The next day, Tim's father, Mike Murphy, even recounted the scene to CNN.
We were all astonished by the photos of the scene on the Internet, and we focused on trying to contact friends we knew were in the area—including the Tufts marathon coach and the head of the Boston Athletic Association—and letting our family and friends around the world know that we were safe.
When I parted ways with Mark, Ana, and Tim and I headed back on the "T" to my Harvard Square hotel, another passenger asked me about the Kenyan who had won the race. I was dumbfounded; nothing about the race seemed less important than its winner. All that mattered in this Boston Marathon were the victims and their families.
After the race I heard from a number of people, a demonstration of the camaraderie between marathon runners. There was a couple from Kentucky, whom I'd met on the plane going to Boston, a woman from Boston who had 13 family members located between the two explosions (only one minor injury), a young couple from Texas I met on the "T" that morning, and my friend Tim Vafides. And in true Washington fashion, I had dinner Monday night with a friend who once worked in counterterrorism at Homeland Security and at the White House.
As it turns out, my 15th marathon—the only one I didn't technically finish—had more meaning than all of the others combined. The outpouring of love and concern from family and friends around the world remains overwhelming several days later and will always be remembered.
The day after the marathon, Boston looked like a war zone. Television trucks and reporters were everywhere. I was interviewed by Dutch TV, my son by TV Portugal. I retrieved our checked bags (including my son's cell phone and keys) and was given three medals for Ana, Mark, and myself. National Guard members were checking people going onto the "T." Boston was in lock-down mode.
President Obama said at the interfaith service Thursday morning: "We will keep going, we will finish the race." He also said: "Scripture tells us to run with endurance."
But Dick Hoyt, whom I met on Heartbreak Hill and who has wheeled his disabled son through many endurance races, said it the best. "We can't let something like this stop us."
Boston, we will be back next year, stronger and faster.
Joe Findaro is a Tufts alum, lawyer, and father of three who lives in Vienna. He will complete a seven-continent marathon challenge in 2016, and he plans to run in Boston again next year.
I am the lost generation of Washington baseball fans. I'm still trying to figure out why we can’t start our top pitcher every other day. My dad and I have enjoyed hundreds of Washington Capitals games together since 1974, but we never got to watch a hometown team play baseball—until now. Last October, I took my 76-year-old father, a native Washingtonian, to the city’s first home playoff game since 1933: game three of the Nationals’ playoff series against the St. Louis Cardinals.
My dad was born in 1935, so he just missed the last one. He grew up a loyal Washington Senators fan but never saw his team make the playoffs. And I grew up here in the 70’s and 80’s and never saw any kind of baseball at all.
Instead of worrying about the Nats' early-inning troubles, I tried to get my dad focused on finding our seats safely—my mom would never let me take him again if he stumbled down the aisle to our destination, about twenty rows behind the Nats' dugout. But my dad ignored me; he was more interested in telling me about the beer garden at Griffith Stadium and about Frank Howard.
The inconvenient history of Major League Baseball robbed me of the opportunity to watch a Washington team with my dad growing up, but the sports gods (and Ian Desmond and Stephen Strasburg!) roared back last summer to grant us both this playoff game.
The 8-0 final score didn’t matter. For one magical afternoon, my dad and I focused our gaze on a Washington baseball team in its first round of the playoffs ever. As I turned from the field to watch my dad that Wednesday afternoon, I couldn't tell whether he was watching Bryce Harper try to connect on a Cardinals pitch or seeing Harmon Killebrew battle the Philadelphia Athletics at Griffith Stadium. Maybe a little bit of both.
After that game, the Nats trailed St. Louis two games to one in the best-of-five series. When the following afternoon’s memorable game four rolled around, Dad was safely back in his Northwest Washington home, on his couch, watching Ross Detwiler and the Nats on television—probably a safer spot for someone his age than competing with 45,016 other fans for a drink. So I raced from work to Lafayette Elementary School in Northwest DC to pick up my six-year-old son, Sammy, and head to the ballpark for the late-afternoon start. Sam remembered to wear red to school that morning; I didn’t even need to remind him.
My son knows the Nats starting lineup better than I do. I spent my childhood watching Mike Gartner and Rod Langway pace the Caps to plenty of playoff appearances. And Sam has hockey heroes in this town, too, but he gets to grow up both a Capitals fan and a Nationals fan. Since I missed baseball as a kid, I'm not sure I'll ever be able to appreciate the sport like my father and his generation or my two sons and their friends.
At game four, I was again leading the way through a red-clad crowd. Same ballpark, same teams, same seats, but this time with a companion 70 years younger. Sam was embarrassed as I sang loudly along with Michael Morse’s walk-up song, A-ha’s “Take on Me." My arms remained tired for days from lifting my son to see over the standing crowd as Zimmermann, Clippard, and Storen struck out Cardinals batter after Cardinals batter to keep our season going. And we danced and cheered as Werth knocked that ninth-inning fastball out of the park and rounded the bases. Sammy high-fived everyone around us.
“Look daddy, fireworks!” he yelled, as Nationals Park celebrated the home run with its own aerial show.
Sam is not weighed down by sports history the way his dad and grandpa are; he may even think that all Washington playoff games end this way, though he found out the next night in the winner-take-all game five heartbreaker that they don’t. We stayed ‘til the end and then some—the celebration is the best part—bedtime be damned, I thought, but don’t tell his mom or his first grade teacher.
The week could not have gone any better. My dad and I witnessed history in playoff baseball's returned to Washington. For us, that even being possible trumped the deflating final score. And then my son and I hugged and cheered as Jayson Werth pointed the way to a game-four win and Washington’s baseball future. It's a shame we can’t bring every Washington generation along to witness the city's great sports moment; but for one brief playoff homestand, I tried.
Don Fishman is the Washington Capitals’ assistant general manager and director of legal affairs. He is a graduate of St. Albans School and Harvard College, where he served as the radio voice of Harvard hockey. Growing up in Upper Northwest DC, Don played several years of street hockey for the Lafayette Firebirds but never played a day of little league baseball. He lives in Cleveland Park with his wife and two boys.
When I moved to Washington from Western Montana for a new job, the last thing I expected was to get lost on my first hike inside the District.
As I apartment-hunted from Montana, I used Google Maps to check the location of every place I was considering in Washington. My final decision was based partially on the existence of a green band half a mile from what would become my address. A place called Glover-Archibold Park just one-half mile away: Not bad, I thought, for a city. Still, I doubted the green band could compare to the trailhead the same distance from my apartment in Montana. That route climbed 2,000 feet into mountains before giving way to a national forest—and then a wilderness area, if you hiked far enough. The park in my future neighborhood in the East? I pictured a manicured lawn with swing sets and slides and crowds of people.
I go exploring in Glover-Archibold Park one morning in November, not long after Hurricane Sandy. At the entrance on the street, there's a sign warning of raccoons with “rabies and distemper.” I think of the entry sign at the national forest on my favorite hike in Montana: “Entering bear country. There is no guarantee of your safety.”
Thirty feet into my new backyard park, I pick up a piece of litter on the trail. It’s someone’s receipt from Panera—a breakfast sandwich and coffee three days ago. Doesn’t that just figure? The East, I think, exasperated.
But it’s not long before the scene around me upstages the litter at my feet. A few minutes into my hike, the trail is blocked by a tree trunk four feet in diameter. A rake of long splinters spears the air from its base, like the fibers of an enormous, snapped popsicle stick. The leaves of the downed branches are barely wilted, the exposed wood creamy beige. Sandy was here.
I follow a dip in the trail and find myself under a lid of lemon-lime—a beech ceiling punctuated by sugar maple, crisp and coral. A little farther and I'm in a grotto of Japanese maple, where leafy branches create a perfect scarlet pattern in the sky.
Beech, sugar maple, Japanese maple—these aren't trees I would find on a hike in Montana, where a few species of conifer dominate the forests. I savor the colors of the leaves, the dry fall scent of them in the air. I realize that, in hastily assuming this forest wouldn't hold a candle to those out West, I've forgotten that autumn in the East is really a treat.
After thirty minutes, I stop to think about where I intend to emerge onto the street. But I realize that I can’t hear cars anymore. And I haven’t seen anyone else for a while. Come to think of it, the trail is no longer well-defined. I've been crossing more and more downed trees, which means this route is not frequently maintained. Perhaps most concerning of all, I haven't seen a piece of litter for a long time.
I realize I am remote—somehow. I'm lost—somehow—in a tame tangle of woods just a half mile from my apartment.
I come to the top of an incline, stop under a massive beech tree, and recall the classic advice for people lost in the mountains: Head downhill; eventually you’ll find water and, likely, a road.
I descend a steep slope, slippery with rotting leaves. At the bottom I find a trickling creek. It's lined with down limbs, their gorgeous fall leaves still attached—citrusy tints of beech accented by crimson maple.
If I could teleport my friends from Montana to this spot, they wouldn't believe they were in the District of Columbia. I’ll have to tell them where I've been today, I think, before remembering I actually don’t know where I am.
An abrupt rustle behind me shakes me back to reality. I immediately pictures raccoons—with rabies and distemper. I twist around. It’s a runner. She’s forty feet away, just up the opposite bank of the gully. I climb to discover a clearly defined path, six feet wide. A man walking a dog approaches from the other direction.
A short distance up the path, I reach the street, where I find an intersection that is familiar to me. I am relieved, not to be out of the woods, but to have discovered them in the first place.
Lauren Koshere writes about place, play, and (sometimes) the Packers at floword.wordpress.com. She lives in Northwest DC.
When the Body Works Plus Abs instructor tells us to grab our heaviest dumbbells, the woman in front of me doesn't mess around. Before every class, she stops by the weightlifting area, where she selects two ten-pounders to carry through scores of squats, curls, rows, and presses.
This fitness class superstar is slim and pretty, and on most days, she wears her long hair down. She somehow appears fashionable and put together as she powers through each workout. I glance at her from the corner of my eye several times during the class—how does she do that?
Perhaps it has to do with her wardrobe, which is comprised mostly of hot pink and tiger-print spandex. But it's not just that. When I check out my own form in the three walls of mirrors, I see that I'm using wimpy one-pound and two-and-a-half-pound weights and struggling along. When I glance at her, I note that she never drops to her knees during a pushup set and appears not to break a sweat. Ever.
It's not just her I've developed a crush on, though. I've fallen hard for my whole gym.
The facility, located just outside the District line, could be described as...basic. There are a few rows of cardio machines, a room full of muscle-toning contraptions, a half-court basketball area, a small spinning studio, space for workout classes, and a sauna. No towel service or personal lockers. No lotion or cotton balls. And the reasonable monthly membership fee includes one personal-training session—one, for your entire relationship with the club.
Yet, like a mate to whom you weren't totally attracted at first, it can grow on you. Soon after I joined in the summer of 2012, I started chronicling sweet scenes in my head: A locker-room greeting between retirees that bespoke years together in Aqua Fit classes; a trio of middle-aged women grunting through Body Works in old T-shirts and full makeup; the guy with a buzzed head and calves like a World Cup MVP heeding Step instructions like "walk sexy for eight!"
Then there's the fitness teacher who says, just as my triceps are about to explode, that we have 12 more reps to do, even though she's spent all class saying "listen to your body," and mine is saying "that's enough." And, of course, there’s the stylish strongwoman knocking out endless, sweat-free reps to the Black-Eyed Peas.
I spend most of my time in social situations in Washington worrying that I won’t be able to keep my head above water when the conversation gets intense. But at my gym, there's no need for doggy paddling of that sort—the only time I struggle to stay afloat is in the pool, while a woman who could be my aunt calls out moves in Aqua Fit. No one cares what I do there. I want to hug them all.
Even as I passed my half-year mark at the gym, I was still appreciating these vignettes from afar. They helped me to feel at home in the gym, but I was just an observer, watching people go about their fitness, greet their friends, and then move along.
Until one morning, just before Valentine’s Day, when I find myself next to the spandex-clad fitness goddess in the locker room.
I play it cool at first. It's not like I've just watched her all through our class and wondered how she keeps her manicure intact. As she towels off on the bench beside me, we inadvertently exchange a look. And as I think about what I might say to her, I realize that in five months here, I've never really talked to anyone.
"Did you..." I start. She looks up at me, intentionally this time. "Did you, uh, have to work up to those weights?" I ask.
The gym class heroine smiles. It's not a catty smirk or a condescending grin. It's more like a reminder that she's just a normal person, too. Like when she steps out of this tiny world in a few minutes, she’ll hop into a Nissan Sentra, drive to the fourth floor of a garage somewhere, and elevator up to an office suite that smells like printer toner and powdered creamer.
"Definitely," she says. "You'll get there."
Rhea Yablon Kennedy teaches English and writing courses at Gallaudet University and has written about art, culture, religion, and the deaf and Jewish communities in the past. She lives in Takoma.
Snuggled in bed at the end of a long day, I was glued to my phone, undoubtedly on Facebook, when a news alert came through. I expected "Dow Hits Record Low," or "Angelina Jolie’s Leg's Twitter Account Reaches One-Million Followers." What I saw shocked me. "Mississippi Baby Cured of HIV."
My first reaction was disbelief—it couldn't be true, someone must have made a mistake, the reporting must be wrong. I mean, we’re working toward a cure for AIDS, but that’s still years away, right?
After reading many stories from credible sources online, I realized: "Yes! This is really happening!" I’ve been waiting thirty years to see these headlines. I leaned over to my husband, who was also on his phone, “Have you seen this?”
“Yeah,” he replied.
“Holy cow, this is huge,” was all I could get out.
Those were our only words. Shocked and excited, we went back to furiously searching the internet for more info.
Why? Because I have been living with HIV for 30 years.
I was born with a heart defect called Tetralogy of Fallot. I had open-heart surgery at age three, and I recovered well and got back to the business of being a kid quickly. But five years later, my parents got the most shocking phone call of their lives: I had received a blood transfusion during surgery that was possibly infected with HIV. The doctor told them that I might have been infected and that I should get tested just to be safe. Their worst fears came true when they found out my test was positive. The doctors said that I had two years to live.
When my parents told me that I was HIV-positive, I was devastated and terrified. I asked my mom if I was going to die, and she said, “I don’t know, Sweetie, but we're going to do everything we can to keep you healthy.”
I began a new life—a life dominated by frequent medical appointments, around-the-clock medication, and a great big secret. This was life-changing news for my family, but we couldn’t tell anyone for fear of being ostracized from the community. I quickly learned how to skirt questions about why I missed so much school, and I kept that part of my life safely tucked away. I saw friends from the clinic lose their battles against AIDS, and I grieved in private. My family started taking wonderful vacations, as a way to cherish every moment we had together.
This life presented its fair share of challenges, but I never lost hope. I came to terms with the idea that I might not live to graduate from high school, but my parents somehow created a pervasive feeling of hopefulness within our household. I dealt with what I had to deal with, and we all hoped for the best.
Now, at age 33, I’m healthy, married, and successful in my career. I know that things are only going to get better. I have been lucky to witness huge progress in the fight against HIV and AIDS over the last three decades. The development of HIV medications and proven methods of preventing mother-to-child transmission are exhilarating milestones that it thrills me to see. News of patients being functionally cured is cause for even more excitement. We don’t know what it means quite yet, but we know that it’s a monumental step in the right direction.
Along with that excitement comes the realization that we have so much work still to do. In the United States and around the world, too many mothers are unable to reach the services that they need to prevent transmission, and too many children are still infected with HIV. This is 100-percent preventable—the dream of eliminating pediatric HIV can and should be a reality.
As a child, I knew that I had no promise of a full life. I knew that I might not live long enough to go to the prom or go to college or fall in love. I relied on new medications to keep me healthy, and I took everything one day at a time. With each day came a little more hope. I clung to the dream that some day, I would read a headline saying that we had found a cure for HIV and eliminated the disease worldwide.
This month’s news makes me even more hopeful. I think about what headlines we could be reading ten, five, even two years from now: What will we have accomplished as a result of our continued advocacy, research, and education? What will we be celebrating? I can’t wait to find out.
Jamie Gentille is a hospital administrator and foundation ambassador for the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation. Her full story can be found in a memoir out this year, titled Surviving HIV: Growing Up a Secret and Being Positive. She and her husband live in Northern Virginia.
I am deeply grateful to all the readers who expressed concern for the dog who lived next door to me, after I wrote about her a few weeks ago. After watching her suffer for so long and wondering how anyone could allow a pet’s condition to decline to such a dangerous state, it was heartening to hear from so many animal lovers.
At the same time, the sincere worry that many of you felt for the dog makes it harder to share this update: She was recently euthanized. It was the best option but certainly not the outcome I had hoped for.
After I wrote about the dog’s plight, the Washington Humane Society, the Metropolitan Police Department, and others became more heavily involved in her case. Officers from the Washington Humane Society and MPD met with the dog’s owner and ordered her to bring the dog to a veterinarian for an examination and tests. The vet determined that the dog—who was 12 years old—had worms and cancer. Though she had been skinny for the entire year I observed her, her weight had declined drastically in the weeks before I wrote about her. I’m told the worms were likely the reason.
Given her age and myriad health issues, euthanizing the dog was the most humane thing to do. I am grateful to the Washington Humane Society for giving her some peace at the end of her life. Otherwise she would have continued to suffer and waste away in her filthy backyard.
But what now? It took months of phone calls, dozens of visits from Washington Humane Society officers, and media attention to get a resolution for the dog next door—and by the time action was taken, it was too late for her. I know I’m not the only one who’s had to throw a tantrum to get help for a mistreated animal in the District, and, more important, I know I won’t be the last.
After reading my piece about the dog, a friend and fellow journalist got in touch to tell me about a similar experience of his own. One of his neighbors had kept a puppy—a puppy!—outdoors 24 hours a day, no matter the weather conditions. He was surrounded by piles of his own waste and subsisting on pasta and other leftover human food. My friend had a view of the puppy from his home and took photos of him routinely. He showed me some of the pictures, and to say they were disturbing is a severe understatement.
When, as I did, he found Humane Society officers unhelpful, he sought another solution. In his words, he “carpet-bombed” the DC government authorities that had a stake in such a situation—including the health department, the DCRA, and the DC Council—with e-mails and photos of the puppy. Finally, a Washington Humane Society officer arrived at night during a storm and rescued the poor thing.
That dog got a second chance. But what about the mistreated pets whose neighbors don’t know how to put pressure on the right government agencies or don’t have a platform like Washingtonian from which to garner attention? Why must it take such a ridiculous amount of effort to get someone to help? The reason—and the big lesson I’ve learned from this ordeal—is that the law is flawed.
Under federal law, pets are treated as property, not as living, breathing, emotional beings. They are legally no different from flat-screen televisions.
To anyone who loves their pets, this seems insane. But more to the point—not only in DC, but nationwide—this means it’s extremely difficult for law enforcement to intervene when a pet is being abused or neglected. Like any material possession, pets are covered by the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, which guards against search and seizure of property, unless authorities can meet the high standard of probable cause.
Of course, I always believed there was probable cause for the Washington Humane Society to rescue the dog next door: She was plainly unhealthy, and her yard conditions were deplorable. But I’m just a concerned neighbor. I don’t have the perspective or liabilities of a Washington Humane Society officer. Since pets are considered property, the officers are at real risk of getting sued if they seize animals too hastily. And they work for an organization that relies on donations—WHS can’t afford to spend years tied up in litigation or have its reputation tarnished for being overly aggressive.
When I spoke with Scott Giacoppo, the Washington Humane Society’s vice president of external affairs, for my first piece about the dog, he summed up the situation: “We can’t take an animal, get sued, and have the bad guy win.”
A quick search through court records shows that the Washington Humane Society has already been down that road. In 2003, a woman sued the organization in DC federal court for violating her right to due process after officers seized her dog. Two other pet owners who had also had their animals taken joined her lawsuit. The litigation dragged on for eight and a half years, until April 2012—long enough for one of the plaintiffs to die—before it was ultimately resolved in mediation and dismissed.
I have no doubt that a lawsuit of that magnitude seriously spooked the Washington Humane Society—and with good reason. Who knows how much money was spent on nearly a decade’s worth of legal fees, which could have otherwise been used to help the District’s animals? The organization’s officers are completely right to be cautious, given the potential for such disastrous consequences. But there has to be some kind of a balance. It’s lunacy that a dog must literally be on the brink of death before “probable cause” can be established to intervene.
The dog next door was a good girl who never got a fair shot. I wonder how many others like her throughout the city are waiting for someone to help them.
Marisa M. Kashino covers law and lobbying as a staff writer for Washingtonian, and also edits the magazine's Pets coverage. She and her husband live in Bloomingdale with their dog, Bexley, and their cat, Olive.
Early last year, in the midst of a long ramble through the city, I remembered that I needed some toiletries and ducked into a CVS south of Dupont Circle. The building, I recalled as I stood inside, had once been the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle 5—it opened in 1987 and closed in 2008. In those years, the theater was a place of refuge, provided in two-hour increments. Standing in the store, I tried to conjure the feeling of losing myself in a movie again.
Maybe I could try to recapture some of the magic right there in CVS, I thought. I stared intently at a bottle of Head & Shoulders, hoping to lose myself in the moment, but I was not transported. Instead, the volume of the song playing in the store—ironically, the Counting Crows cover of “Big Yellow Taxi”— seemed to grow louder: “Well don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone ”
When I was six years old, my parents and I walked up Connecticut Avenue to the Avalon to watch The Black Stallion, my first movie. Before that day, my screen time had been limited to The Electric Company, and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, which I watched on my parents’ tiny black and white TV. The Avalon smelled of buttered popcorn and had chairs more plush than any I had ever occupied, and the pictures were enormous and in Technicolor. I watched, enraptured, as a fire consumed a sinking ship, a boy and a horse thrashed in the water, and the black beast galloped thunderously on a desert island and, later, around a race track.
A few months later I saw Superman II from the balcony seats of the Uptown. Time stood still as Superman saved Paris from a nuclear bomb, carried Lois Lane through the evening sky, forfeited his super powers for love, and then regained them in order to vanquish the three Kryptonian criminals in his icy fortress of solitude.
For the next few years, I accompanied adults to the movies they deemed appropriate for children. Once I was old enough to pay my own way, I spent many weekends during the George H.W. Bush years watching films. I saw Misery at the Embassy Theater in Dupont, The Silence of the Lambs at the Janus across the street, Goodfellas at the Tenley Theater and Speed at the Jennifer in Friendship Heights. My high school was across the street from the Outer Circle Theater on Wisconsin Avenue and, from time to time, I’d stop by by myself after school or on half-days. Once, when I was bored with class, I cut school to watch Kenneth Branaugh play Henry V.
Most of these theaters had funky interiors with small screens and floors that sloped at odd angles. The Janus had a pillar in the center of the auditorium, and one of the theaters in the Dupont Circle 5 had a poorly positioned ceiling sprinkler that cast a shadow on the top of the screen. I always felt a bit awkward as a I sat alone waiting for a movie to start, but once the lights dimmed and the curtain parted, I could tune out my surroundings, knowing no one was focused on me.
Occasionally, I’d screw up the courage to ask a girl on a date to see a movie. I watched Dick Tracy at the Mazza Gallery Theater with Donna, who had a nice sense of humor and ran on the cross-country team. I saw Avalon at the Wisconsin Avenue Cinema with Laura, a pretty, black-haired girl who was my year in school. I found myself able to make small talk in the theater as we waited for the show to begin, but I never knew what to do after the movie ended, sensing that something was expected but not knowing what it was. We would just go our separate ways.
For a few months in 1990, some friends and I attended the midnight showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the Key Theater in Georgetown. Those who have never seen Rocky—“virgins,” in fan parlance—should know that the film is a cult classic, a parody of B-movie horror and science-fiction films made whole by audience participation. My classmates and I hurled vulgarities, rice, water, and toast at the screen, and we pelvic-thrusted along with Frank-N-Furter and his merry band of Transylvanian Transvestite Transsexuals during the show’s signature number, the “Time Warp.”
Update: Thank you to all the commenters for their concern. But please do not seek to take action yourselves. Since posting the story, I've gotten a great response from officials within Mayor Gray's office, as well as the DC Council member for my ward, Kenyan McDuffie. The Humane Society of the United States is also now looking into the situation. I sincerely appreciate your intentions, but I am hopeful this situation can be resolved legally.
I knew the dog would be an issue from the second I saw her. My husband and I had been condo hunting for months when we finally found the place that felt like it could be home. It was one of four units in a newly renovated rowhouse in DC’s Bloomingdale neighborhood. But the dog that I could see through the fence next door gave me real pause.
Her yard was a mess—covered in feces and random debris. She didn’t seem to have much shelter, and I couldn’t see bowls for water or food. Most alarming—she didn’t look well. She was thin, and her constant barking told me she was seriously stressed. Who knew how long she had endured these conditions? The condo building, which has a direct line of sight into her yard, had been vacant for years before a developer came through and remodeled it. Maybe no one had noticed this poor dog before.
I love animals. I mean, I really love them—especially dogs. And I knew that buying this condo would come with the heartbreaking task of trying to help this one. But we signed on the dotted line, and now here we are, a year later. The dog’s yard conditions have not improved. Her health is severely deteriorating. Her ribs, as well as her hip- and backbones are clearly protruding. I have lost sleep over her. I have shed many tears for her. The other residents in my building have, too.
Let me be clear: I am a huge supporter of the Washington Humane Society (WHS), which cares for 30,000 of the District’s animals every year, and whose officers are responsible for enforcing DC’s animal-cruelty laws. I have been a volunteer dog-walker at the WHS’s Georgia Avenue shelter, I regularly donate to the organization, and we adopted both our dog our and cat there. But it’s precisely because I have so much respect and admiration for the work that the folks at WHS do that I’ve been so shocked by their failure to help the dog next door.
Immediately after spotting the dog, I began calling WHS’s animal-emergency line to report her conditions. My neighbors have continuously called about her as well. I’ve filed multiple reports with the city about the unsanitary conditions in her yard. I’ve had one conversation with her owner: I politely tried to express my concern, but it was not all well received. I know Humane Law Enforcement officers from WHS have visited her house dozens of times, and yet nothing ever comes of those visits. In conversations with the lead officer assigned to her case, I’ve been repeatedly told that while her situation is bad, it’s not bad enough for law enforcement to intervene. To me and the other residents of my building, this is simply unfathomable. When I spoke with the officer a couple of weeks ago, he mentioned that even if he impounded the dog, she would likely never find another home, so taking her might not be in her best interest anyway.
She is a pit bull—a breed so unfairly maligned and stigmatized that animal shelters overflow with them—and she could be dangerous, since she has clearly never been trained or socialized. Indeed, this doesn’t bode well for her. But I’ve seen firsthand how dedicated and loving the staff is at WHS’s shelters. Surely, even if she’ll never have a comfortable home of her own, being surrounded by humans who actually care would be a small measure of justice for a dog that currently knows only hunger and neglect.
And I’m not convinced that she’s dangerous. For a while, I fed her dog food through her fence. She would eagerly wag her tail when she saw me approach, sniff me through the chain-link, and gobble up the kibbles. But I’ve been told by Humane Law Enforcement to stop feeding her. They say they’ll never be able to build a case for taking her out of her situation if the neighbors are keeping her healthy.
So now, I feel as though I’m totally powerless, which is why I’m writing about her. It seems like the only thing left to do.
When I told the WHS media spokesperson that I planned to write about this dog’s plight, she immediately put me in touch with Scott Giacoppo, the organization’s vice president of external affairs. He outlined the laws that his officers must operate under. In short, he said, “We’re dealing with law, not common sense.” And as I now know, that’s a huge understatement.
For starters, though they’re deplorable, the dog’s yard conditions don’t meet the legal standard of cruelty because she is not forced to lie in her own waste. Giacoppo described a cruelty case brought by WHS against an animal hoarder who kept cats in a home where feces covered the floor. Because the cats were able to jump on top of a dresser and away from the waste, WHS lost the case.
And almost anything, even a shabby piece of plywood propped against a fence, counts as adequate outdoor shelter for a dog, under the law. Though the dog next door is not kept outdoors 24 hours a day, she spends hours on end in her yard, even in subfreezing weather. When DC’s temperatures dipped into the teens and twenties this winter, my neighbors and I called to report that the dog—who has a very short coat—had been left outside. But guess what? That doesn’t necessarily meet the cruelty standard either.
But what about the dog’s physical condition? This is where Humane Law Enforcement’s rationale for failing to intervene loses credibility with me. Giacoppo says that, under the law, an animal must have “protruding ribs, backbone, and sunk-in hips” to be impounded. When I look at the dog next door, all I see is how skeletal she’s become. I see an animal that’s dying, but apparently it hasn’t gotten bad enough.
The Washington Humane Society handles an average of 1,400 cruelty investigations per year. The organization’s budget is reliant on donations. Until recently, there were only three Humane Law Enforcement officers policing all of DC. A fourth officer was just added. Even with limited funding, the organization does great things, including its recent seizure of dogs from a fighting operation.
I get it—resources are slim and demand is high. But the dog next door needs help. And nobody seems willing to provide it.
Marisa M. Kashino covers law and lobbying as a staff writer for Washingtonian, and also edits the magazine's Pets coverage. She and her husband live in Bloomingdale with their dog, Bexley, and their cat, Olive.