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The author with her father—then and now.

“Young lady, do you have NF also?” I felt the weight of my father’s hand on my 12-year-old shoulder. “No,” he said to the woman, “we’re just here to learn.” Dad knew my response was likely to be one of confusion delivered with tears, so he stepped in. 

Back then, my only understanding of NF—neurofibromatosis—came from a TV program about the “Elephant Man.” After watching that program, I had begged Dad to take me to this NF conference. It was here that I first learned about genetic counseling. Thirteen years later, I became a genetic counselor—it has been my dream career ever since.

Through teenage angst, academic challenges, boy troubles, and workplace politics, Dad was there for me. He listened, discussed, and advised. He was many things:  husband since age 22, father of two girls, government employee since age 16, Army veteran, marathon runner, and deeply steadfast person. When I was a kid, I didn’t see the last part.   

When I was in my 30s, I grieved his loss. Although I could still see him, hug him, and talk with him, he wasn’t there. Most of the time, he didn’t know who I was. My father had begun a slow descent into Alzheimer’s disease. The gentle, witty person I loved was replaced by a forgetful, depressed, distant, and belligerent man. When these behaviors peaked in 2010, I thought that when he did actually die, I would not mourn because he would be relieved of his suffering. And my family would be relieved of ours. But I was wrong.

Dad recently turned 85. He resides in an assisted living facility. Caregivers surround him with music.

He usually doesn’t recognize me, but he knows the lyrics to almost every song. He has perfect pitch. He cajoles me into singing with him. I never sing in front of anybody! But I can’t resist—he says he’s never heard me sing before.

Last month, Dad asked me if we still go to the movies and the zoo. I said no, but that we do other things together. That day he remembered me: “Little Beth,” he said when I kissed him. My eyes welled with tears that I pushed back. I was quiet. He looked at me and asked what was wrong. “You look sad,” he uttered. I was.

He often asks me: “Why did this happen?” And so begins his painful chanting of unanswerable questions that rip my heart out. “Why can’t they figure out how to cure me? I want to be your old Dad again. What did I do to deserve this? What else can they do for me?” When I say that I don’t know and that there is no cure, he understands. Sometimes he cries.   

These glimpses of my father—the moments of joy, the flashes of empathy, the demands to know why—this is my father fighting. He is holding onto everything he has left. This is the torture of being in a black hole. But my old Dad is still in there.

Beth N. Peshkin is the Senior Genetic Counselor and Professor of Oncology at Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center. She lives in Arlington.

Posted at 11:05 AM/ET, 03/19/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()

After the first day, the hotel clerk made me ask for my room key in French. When I first arrived, he had produced a cream-colored envelope. “A letter for you, Madame. The gentleman brought it this morning.”

The gentleman was artist Arthur Hall Smith. Arthur died last year, a month short of his 84th birthday. He moved to Paris a decade before I traveled there to interview him in 2007. His paintings and drawings are so well regarded that the Corcoran Gallery of Art held a 10-year retrospective of his work the year Jack Kennedy became president.

I’ve been thinking about Arthur more than usual lately, partly because of the exhibition Arthur Hall Smith: In Memoriam, which opened yesterday and runs through April 4 on the campus of GW. But also because I finally completed my doctorate, in which Arthur played an integral role.

When Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, one of my professors at Georgetown, learned that I planned to write about museum founder Duncan Phillips and painter Mark Rothko, she thought it imperative that I interview her dear friend Arthur, who knew both subjects. Hired by Phillips in 1959 to work at the Phillips Collection, Arthur remained at the museum for 14 years as a curatorial assistant, tour guide, lecturer and, on occasion, handyman. There, in January 1961, he witnessed Rothko’s first visit to the Rothko Room. 

“I will impose my taste on you,” Arthur said to me during our interview. “In my opinion, Green and Maroon is the greatest Rothko [that Phillips purchased]. It is more subtle and also more complicated." I agreed with Arthur that day about the standout among the four paintings in the Rothko Room at the Phillips Collection—and most often, I still do. There are times, however, when Orange and Red on Red astounds me.

Even before he graduated from high school in Norfolk, Virginia, Arthur aspired to an artist’s life in Paris. In 1951, when he was 21 years old, Arthur was awarded a Fulbright scholarship that allowed him to study art at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts (School of Fine Arts) across the Seine from the Louvre. He pointed it out to me on one of our bus rides.

It had been arranged that we would break our interview into two sessions on different days. My husband, fiction writer Richard Birken, had regaled me with tales of gazing at the Eiffel Tower from a sleeping bag during his undergraduate years, but this was my first time in Paris. I planned to spend my other days sight-seeing. But I didn’t know in advance that Arthur would take it upon himself to play tour guide. He carved out time for me every other day during my week in his adopted city. 

Arthur served in the Army during the Korean War. While we waited for le Metro long past the evening rush one night, he expounded on how one should never force an artist to drive a tank. Tears filled my eyes, not because of the sadness of war he relayed, but because he made me laugh so hard. The train platform became a stage for the story of his unsuccessful tank maneuvers.

After Korea, Arthur returned to the States to study under abstract painter Mark Tobey at the University of Washington in Seattle. From there, he came to DC, where he worked in federal jobs until his interview with Phillips. 

Many people in the Washington area remember Arthur as a caring professor at George Washington University, where he taught art for 25 years. “The inspiration he gave to his many students is legendary,” art historian Barbara Stephanic told me, for example. During his GW years, Arthur would return to Paris each summer to paint at the studio where I interviewed him. After retiring from the university, he lived and worked year-round on the fourth floor of a Paris building with elements dating back to the 15th century. On the rue Visconti, where neighbors knew him as “le Professeur,” galleries of African and South American antiquities line the street.

It was a mild November the year Arthur led me to Notre Dame, Sainte Chappelle, and cafés known only to Parisians. The Beaujolais Nouveau debuted that week. He would write me later that he would think of me in following years when France uncorked its young wine.  

My favorite letter from Arthur refers to his continuing excitement as an artist despite entering his 80th year: “Among my birthday presents was a whole set of new paints manufactured in Australia of all places, which are water soluble but handle like oil. Can’t wait to try them out. The lure of the unexpected faced with a new media that has to be mastered, like having to ‘break’ a horse.”

His mastery of several media—including oil, ink, acrylic wash, and crayon—is evident at the exhibit on GW’s campus. Organized by Jeffery and Barbara Stephanic and John Morrell, the show features 52 works spanning more than six decades. For The Canals of Chartres: Moon After Rain (1984) and Brick Kiln, Maine (1980), Arthur used a “brutalized lines” technique he taught his students. (One of his instruments was the hard brush from an ink eraser.) Descent of the Dove (1963) and Dove Ascending (2006) showcase his interest in spiritual subjects. A lithograph from his Lazarus series is also on display.

Perhaps most striking to me: Several of the paintings in the exhibit call to mind pieces of floating paper. They make me think of the cream-colored envelope that contained my first letter from Arthur, the one that began “Welcome to Paris.”  

Arthur Hall Smith: In Memoriam runs March 13 through April 4 at the Luther W. Brady Art Gallery, 805 21 St., NW. It is open to the public Tuesday through Friday, 10 AM to 5 PM.

Pamela Carter-Birken is a freelance writer who covers the arts and humanities. She lives in Arlington.

Posted at 10:58 AM/ET, 03/14/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()

One of my favorite things about modern technology is the way it helps us integrate creativity into our daily lives. Of course, technology has many practical applications, but it also gives us access to great works of art, from music and movies to museum masterpieces.

Technology increasingly provides an outlet for creative expression, bringing out the artist in each of us. Far from making us “less human”—as many respondents to a recent survey suggested—today’s technology offers tools that can help us express ourselves and celebrate our creativity.

Even the pros are incorporating technology into their craft, pushing the boundaries of art in once-unheard of ways. Sculptors craft stunning, complex designs using computer programs. Painters are able to create breathtaking works using apps available on tablets. Artists are even using technology to put together exhibitions. In 2010, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City included an exhibition of works of art that could only be seen through a smartphone app.

On a more practical level, technology gives us the tools to identify historic works of art better than ever before. It can help us restore and preserve great works of art more precisely, keeping masterpieces around for future generations to enjoy. Computer imaging can help detect when a work is a forgery, to make sure we’re looking at the real thing when we visit a museum. And fingerprint technology helped experts identify an obscure painting by Leonardo da Vinci in 2009.

Performing artists are also using technology to create and share their work with audiences. Musicians are increasingly savvy, using technology just about everything, from composing to recording to distributing their work. They are especially adept at using new media to promote themselves and their music and to interact with fans. Because they can share with a wide audience without having a major record label behind them, more musicians are recording more great music than ever. Two years ago, Gracenote, a global media database, had registered more than 100 million songs from 400,000 artists, both independent and mainstream. Even dancers can use cutting-edge technology to collaborate. To take just one example, the New York City Ballet’s principal dancer, Wendy Whelan, recently told The Wall Street Journal that she choreographed her latest show with the help of an iPad.

But none of these things can compare to the degree to which technology has affected film-making. Movies are arguably the most high-tech art. Cutting-edge technology has shaped the film industry from the first film played in a theater in 1895 to “talkies” to the first color films to the jaw-dropping technology on display in movies like the recent blockbuster “Gravity.”

In addition to giving artists tools they can use to create amazing works of art, technology also gives them a platform for sharing their works with millions of people. Through the Internet, relatively unknown artists can now reach anyone anywhere in the world. Musicians, photographers, painters, sculptors, filmmakers, dancers, and all other kinds of artists can post their work online and attract fans and buyers.

And technology also brings out the artist in each of us, giving amateurs and aspiring artists the tools to express themselves and create their own art. Tablet apps help professionals and amateurs alike paint and draw. Photographers of all levels can take stunning pictures with their smartphones, or choose from hundreds of apps to turn ordinary snapshots into works of art. Smartphones and tablets even have features for recording professional-grade videos and music. And people can share their creations online and through social networks, and be inspired by their friends’ creations. Through these interactions, technology connects us with one another, making us more human. It gives all of us tools we can use to step back, look at the world around us in a new way, and express ourselves by creating something new.

Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), a US trade association that represents more than 2,000 consumer-electronics companies from its headquarters in Arlington. Shapiro is author of two New York Times best-selling books, Ninja Innovation: The Ten Killer Strategies of the World’s Most Successful Businesses and The Comeback: How Innovation Will Restore the American Dream. He can be found on Twitter at @GaryShapiro.

Posted at 11:29 AM/ET, 12/16/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()

Still smitten with our beach vacation, I ask my husband if we might consider buying a place on the shore. His arm around my waist, he squints slightly into the setting autumn sun as if seeing into the future. The boys are a few steps in front of us, familiar with the after-dinner stroll.

The baby stops to pick up a rock then throws it into the street. My husband and I simultaneously remind him not to follow. A comfortable silence settles over us while he contemplates his answer, a canopy of autumn leaves overhead.

Our corner of Del Ray is quiet. We almost never see other pedestrians strolling through the neighborhood on our evening walks—a rarity in this town, to be surrounded by solitude. I haven't decided yet if I like it.

"I think it's feasible," he finally spits out, though I know the reason for the delay.

We turn the corner, holding our boys' hands as we cross the street without a car in sight. I know what makes this a difficult question. It's the same reason we are not still in Buenos Aires, taking after-dinner walks through the Bosque de Palermo on the expansive walking path that encircles the lake and rose garden. It's the reason we lived with my in-laws in Springfield for eight months while we waited for my husband to heal, for decisions to be made, for our belongings to arrive. The same reason I am, somewhere buried deep, still scared to death. Cancer.

The uncertainty of the future, the complete loss of control, is not lost on me. And yet I ask him about the beach house in search of a false sense of security. He knows it. "We could do it, and then if we have to move, we'd make sure it's rented. But we could do it.” He placates me while he kicks a rock down the sidewalk holding a leaf in his left hand, a gift from our toddler: Here Daddy, hold this.

The boys stop to collect some fallen leaves; our toddler points out the red ones, and our baby collects the yellow but calls them pink. I watch my husband as he squats down alongside them to try and determine their origin: oak, maple, cherry. As they study the leaves, I study my husband. The glow in his cheeks and his muscular frame paint a picture of health. No evidence of disease for six months, and yet the evidence is everywhere.

I watch with a smile on my lips as my baby attaches a leaf to a stick, spearing it then waving it around overhead. But my thoughts are on those who hold our fate in their hands: Georgetown Hospital, the Air Force, and, primarily, my husband's body. The baby starts down the sidewalk once again, stick with speared leaf in hand, and we move with him.

"Daddy, where are we?" our toddler wonders, swinging his blonde hair out of his blue eyes. Haircut, I remind myself, the kid needs a haircut. We are walking our usual route, only in reverse. All the same houses, the same streets, but from a different point of view.

I am surprised at his confusion—the three year old who can tell me how to get to the grocery store. "It's the same walk as always, sweetie,” I say, “you'll know where you are in a few minutes." I’m certain he will recognize the house on the corner, the one he calls the castle.

I think back to a year ago, on a walk to the park after dinner in Buenos Aires. The air is damp and cool, a perfect spring evening. The jacarandas in full bloom proudly wave their vibrant purple blooms in the breeze, sprinkling their petals into lush carpets underfoot. We walk past the guards of the ambassador's residence, stopping so they can high-five our toddler, who is perched in the front of the double stroller. We wait for the light to turn and then quickly cross Libertador—a busy ten-lane thoroughfare—and then roll our way into the park, engulfed in a sea of people.

To say the Argentines are obsessed with fitness would be an understatement. We are always the only ones who simply stroll, and tonight is no exception. We are passed by runners, walkers of varying speeds, rollerbladers, cyclists, people on unicycles; we pass the nightly street-hockey game at the far end of the lake and the Argentines learning to tightrope walk on the other side of the rose garden between palm trees. A noisy flock of neon-green feathers flies low overhead, squawking loudly. "Mommy, look! Parrots!" our toddler shouts.

The familiar sound of castanets puts us all on alert—we know what this sound means. Suddenly, he appears behind us, and we stop in our tracks to watch him go by. On rollerblades and dressed in his usual black trousers and black T-shirt, his long, dark hair flowing out behind him, he dances toward us, performing a kind of rollerblading flamenco.

His headphones prevent us from hearing the same sounds that so inspire his dance, but the effect is the same: utter joy. His joyfulness, his total inhibition, it's infectious—everyone takes notice, and everyone smiles at the authentic happiness he exudes as he dances atop eight small wheels. We marvel at him as he rolls by, hands high over his head, stretching to hit the pose. Completely lost in his world, he brings such happiness to ours. "There he goes!" shouts our toddler, clapping his hands and kicking his feet. I squeeze my husband's hand, happy for our first four months here and not believing that this will be our life for another two and a half years.

And as it turns out, it wouldn't be.

The sun is almost gone, and I am keenly aware of the change of seasons as the breeze hits my cheeks. What was a refreshing wind a few weeks ago has now become winter's warning. My husband and I exchange a glance, reading each other's minds: We're not ready.

What my husband calls "the dark days" literally were last year—the heart of winter spent undergoing surgery to remove 17 tumors in his groin; three subsequent skin infections, one rendering him septic; a clinical trial for stage III melanoma at Georgetown. Our memories of dark winter days in DC are not ones we often revisit.

But the spring, the warmth, the promise of growth and change: We devour that. I think back to the garden—the first finished project at our new townhouse—the need for my husband to cultivate, to get dirty after so much illness, so much sterility. The days lengthened by sunlight mirrored my husband's healing, each day a little brighter, until finally, summer. The warm, humid air filling our souls. The joy of watching our boys harvest small cherry tomatoes everyday, picking jalapeños and kale in our urban garden, popping mint leaves in their mouths. Relishing life.

I think back to our warm, summer's end beach vacation at Cape Charles, a small town where our history wasn't present, where cancer didn't exist, where we were free—all reasons I need to go back, need the promise of a beach house, the promise of an escape. A chance at happiness. A way to outrun the disease.

"I'm not ready for winter," my husband mumbles, zipping up his jacket.

We round another corner on our walk and I break the silence that has befallen us. "I'd like to stay here," I proclaim, partly because of his trial at Georgetown and partly because I'd like to live in one place for more than eight months, but mostly because I love this city. I hear the metro rails whine as the train slows into the station a few blocks away. So do my boys, who stop dead in their tracks and turn toward the sound.

"I know," he says, breaking the metro spell by lifting our baby onto his shoulders. The baby grabs hold of my husband's hair as if it were reins and then giggles, trying to push back against my husband's hands, which hold him firmly in place. "Me too. I'm glad we came back here for the trial," he finishes and then laughs, chiding our baby as he continues to giggle and lean back.

We are at Braddock Road, the "busy" street where I force my boys to hold our hands as we walk, listening to the fast cars pass, drivers intent on getting home. A stone wall emerges along the length of a front yard. My toddler sits here every night, just to feel the slick stone, to watch the cars. Tonight, he decides to wave.

I sit with him, half worried about the owners of the home, half exhausted from the weight of too many unknowns. My husband follows suit, and soon we are a family of four, seated on a stone wall in front of someone else's house, watching DC traffic heading home for the night.

A break in commuters allows us a moment to speak without being interrupted by zooming engines. "Let's wave at this car," my husband suggests, making a game of our stop. As the headlights approach, preparing for the sunset that's only minutes away, we wave. The toddler yells and waves furiously, the baby watches, hand up, frozen in the cooling air. The driver, caught off guard by this waving family, waves back, smiling, laughing. Our baby relishes this game—the cause and effect leaves him giddy: Wave to a passing car, watch people wave back. He erupts in laughter and doesn't stop.

We wave like this on and on, to both lanes of traffic, under a pink-hued sunset. Without fail, each driver is surprised and thrilled. Some lean over their passenger seats, some look up from texts, all with the same reaction—unrestrained joy. For those brief moments of surprise while the drivers are still trying to understand what they've seen, we glimpse the real humanity of this town. Everyone trying to get home, everyone eager for a smile, a laugh. We’re all so similar that way.

We stay and wave and laugh until the sun has finally set, until the drivers can hardly see us. Then we leave our stone seats and waving game behind. "Let's do that again tomorrow!" Our toddler bounces, gripping my hand, delighted by the happiness he's caused. He bounds ahead and then stops in his tracks, turns toward us, and shouts, "Hey! I know where we are! We are right here!"

I smile at his exclamation, the wisdom of his simple yet profound words. We are right here. Our life has been punctuated by a cancer diagnosis, but we know right where we are. We are waving at strangers and taking a stroll in a city we love. Because DC or Buenos Aires, it doesn't matter. We are seeking and creating joy. We, like drivers in those passing cars, are searching for certainty in a sea of unknowns, but tonight, we settle for commuter smiles.

Kate Reimann is a mother of two. She writes—between teaching cycling classes, cooking plant-based meals, and stepping on stray toy cars—from her home in Alexandria. She tweets at @KateReimann and posts stories of life in spite of cancer on her blog, effthec.com.

Posted at 10:13 AM/ET, 12/06/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()
On October 21, the author’s foundation will host a golf tournament and dinner in Fairfax to raise money for spinal-cord-injury victims’ rehabilitation. By Anthony Purcell

On February 6, 2010 my entire life changed in a second. I was in Miami for the Super Bowl, and at 11:30 AM, I dove into the ocean. It was much shallower than I thought, and when I struck something hard, my entire life flashed before my eyes. The waves came crashing down on me, and I immediately knew I was in trouble. I couldn’t move.

My cousin, Bernie McKeever, was with me—he saved my life by pulling me out of the water, and I was transported to Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. After surgery, I learned that I had bruised my C5 and C6 vertebrae. I couldn’t move anything from my chest down.

After two months in the ICU, I moved into the hospital’s rehab center. My injury seemed like a life sentence, and I wasn’t willing to accept it. I am a sports fanatic (Go Redskins); I had played sports all my life and always been very active. After my injury, everyday was slated to be a struggle, not just for me but for my entire family.

When I started rehab, our insurance company was covering the expenses. But after 21 days—when I’d made little progress, if any—we learned with no notice that my rehab would no longer be covered.

It turns out that if you break your back, insurance covers rehab, but if you have a spinal-cord injury, it doesn’t! The insurance company essentially kicked us to the curb. At the time, I couldn’t lift my arms up to feed myself; I couldn’t move my body. The actual plan was for me to go home and live in an electric wheelchair for the rest of my life.

In the last three-and-a-half years, I have continuously learned the value of unconditional love, compassion, and, of course, patience from my family. My parents got me to a spinal-cord-injury rehab center in Carlsbad, California, called Project Walk, which costs over $100,000 a year. I have been attending rehab there for over three years now. I’m lucky.

Today, I am stronger, healthier, and more independent. I’m back at work, I drive a car, I have a beautiful girlfriend. I have my life back. I continue to make tremendous physical progress, which would not have been possible without the financial and loving support of my family. This progress continues to cost money, and my entire family has been there as a support system.

The thing that has been most concerning to me throughout this process is to think: What about everyone else who suffers a spinal-cord injury in an accident? What about the people who don’t have the resources to pay for rehabilitation? How are they getting by? I researched and found that insurance companies, like mine, typically only cover 22 days of rehabilitation. Recovery from a spinal-cord injury is costly, and it takes a long time—but it is possible.

Once I learned all of this, I decided I wanted to help other people who have had traumatic injuries like mine. So my mother and I started the Walking With Anthony Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to the rehabilitation of spinal-cord injuries. We raise money to help individuals pay for rehab and to expand rehabilitation centers and support research related to recovery.

This is what brings us to Fairfax this week. For three generations, my family and I, including 22 aunts and uncles and 29 cousins with deep roots in the Washington area, have been die-hard Redskin fans. When we contacted Jerry Olsen, president of the Washington Redskin Alumni, about potentially co-hosting a fundraising event, he and the organization were excited to work with us. And I’m especially excited about the golf tournament and dinner we planned for next week because 100 percent of the proceeds it generates will benefit individuals with spinal-cord injuries.

This is the part where you can get involved: Foursomes, foursomes with Redskins alumni, and tickets to the tournament and/or the dinner and reception that follow it are all still available at walkingwithanthony.org. I hope to see you there!

Anthony Purcell lives on the west coast but will visit Washington this week for his foundation's charity fundraiser Monday, October 21. To see a video about his recovery, click here.

Posted at 10:58 AM/ET, 10/16/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()
The author and his Paraguayan friend Biera await the arrival of President Cartes. Photo by Marcos Adrián Echeverría.

My mid-August business trip to Asunción, Paraguay, was well timed. A Washingtonian since the Reagan era and veteran of numerous American Presidential inaugurations, I was thrilled to learn that I would be in Asunción when the newly elected President was set to be sworn in—August 15—a day that marks the founding of Asunción in 1587 by Juan de Salazar y Espinosa. I would witness my first foreign Presidential inauguration in a South American country that seeks to strengthen its bilateral relationship with the US.

I had been to South America several times before, mostly to Argentina and Brazil, which both border Paraguay. But this was my first trip to Paraguay, where 6.7-million people live on a piece of land about the size of California. Until this trip, I had only known Paraguay through the eyes of two friends who had been Peace Corps volunteers there, and I’d heard mostly of the warm and hospitable nature of the Paraguayan people.

New President Horacio Cartes—a well-known businessman—was not involved in politics until he joined the right-center Colorado Party in 2009. He had studied and worked in the US, and his business background turned out to be of significant appeal to voters. His running mate, now Vice President Juan Afara, whom I had the honor of meeting during my stay there, comes from a farming background and was the popular Governor of Itapúa. In the US, they would have been considered a "dream ticket."

The night before the inauguration, I asked my colleagues from Paraguay and Argentina if they would be attending the President's swearing-in. For various reasons, I was the only one who decided to go. I’d been warned about the traffic (nonexistent), the security (nothing like ours), the crowds (quite small compared to those in Washington), and the weather (brisk but sunny—a perfect day nothing like January on the Mall).

I took an early taxi from my hotel, no official ticket in hand, and headed off for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The friendly driver sped past the official Presidential parade-reviewing stand, much simpler than the Washington version of Fort Knox that marks our inaugural days. We saw a small group of opposition demonstrators, whose low-key protest felt nothing like a DC political protest. When we could go no further due to restrictions, I jumped out and made my way toward a young couple with camera equipment, hoping they could direct me to the swearing-in.

Good fortune struck in meeting these new friends. Marcos, a graphic designer, had media-photographer credentials and Biera, a specialist in university accreditation, was planning to take pictures, too. They invited me to tag along, and I was delighted to.

The author with his new friends, Marcos and Biera. Photo by Joe Findaro.

Marcos entered a highly secured area, and Biera led me to an excellent viewing spot. She translated the speeches and proceedings into flawless English. (In addition to Spanish and English, Biera speaks Guarini, the country’s native tongue, as do most Paraguayans. I find this impressive, given that its American equivalent would be something like the residents of southeastern Massachusetts speaking the language of the native Mashpee Wampanoag tribe in 2013.)

Biera's family had emigrated from Russia as "White Russians," anti-Communist and pro-Czar, and Marcos had Italian and Spanish roots. Other locals I met that day had families originally from Lebanon, Germany, and China. It turns out that Paraguay, like the US, is an ethnic melting pot. And unlike the US, Paraguay has historically integrated and appreciated the natives who were there before the Spanish. Also interesting, the country maintains ties with Taiwan and has excellent Chinese restaurants.

On inauguration day, the red, white, and blue Paraguayan flag and the red flag of the Colorado Party were everywhere. Colorado party supporters in the streets were exuberant. The crowd was bursting with national pride, like we do at such events, but the military pomp and circumstance alongside the native cultural ambiance was much more noteworthy than it is during our inaugural productions.

The Presidents of Brazil and Argentina arrived approximately 18 minutes late to the President's swearing-in. The Paraguayans were not pleased, and the media was sharply critical of this affront the next day. To make matters worse, at the end of the prayer service hours later, Argentine President Kirchner could be seen on her cell phone, ignoring calls for her attention from the crowd. To put it lightly, she and Brazil’s President, Dilma Rousseff, are not aligned with the new Paraguayan President. I’m told that the Presidents of other nearby countries Bolivia and Venezuela were not invited to the inauguration.

During his inaugural speech, Paraguay’s new, charismatic, youthful President told the crowd: "You are not the future, you are the present." He emphasized: "Paraguay is a rich country with poor people, and that has to change...this is the government of opportunities." He quoted Pope Francis I, who said "Paraguayan women are the strongest in South America,” to thunderous applause.

The crowd was electric. Many people I spoke with that day believe Paraguay is positioned to be the next global boom economy, given its new leadership, the human capital of the population, and the country’s significant potential in such sectors as agriculture and energy.

After the ceremony concluded with a song by Biera's aunt, I joined Marcos and Biera in a trek by the new Congress building, the old Congress building, and many other architectural gems, on our way to the Catholic cathedral for the prayer service. I was struck by the number of military groups dressed in colorful uniforms and helmets (with artfully designed monkey tails) that lined the road and by the order of the crowd. I even had the chance for a brief visit with Frank Sanchez, our Under Secretary of Commerce, who was part of the official US delegation sent to Asunción by the White House.

Biera and I followed Marcos, covered in press credentials, into the cathedral area without being stopped or questioned once. Maybe it helped to have on a Boston Marathon jacket and to be taking photos (with my iPhone) alongside an official photographer. I had somehow made my way into the center of the action on this historic day, and it dawned on me how Forrest Gump or Zelig (from the Woody Allen movie) must have felt.

Women in traditional dress waited for the President to arrive at the prayer ceremony. Photo by Joe Findaro.

At the steps of the cathedral, older women stood in traditional dress ready to greet the Presidential motorcade. Most of the women who entered the cathedral were exceedingly elegant—they would have looked at home on the red carpet on Oscar night in Hollywood. Just a single line of security flanked the arriving VIPs on each side of the cathedral steps. Biera and I stood close to Prince Felipe of Spain and the incoming line of Presidents (from Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, and Peru) as they went solemnly into the cathedral after arriving on buses, not in limousines.


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Posted at 10:51 AM/ET, 09/09/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()

I was pretty sure I'd found my soul mate. For starters, none of his pictures were shirtless, bathroom-mirror selfies or obscure side-angle shots that mask a busted face. In the world of online dating, this was rare. Even more promising, he was 6 feet tall—5’10” in the likely event that he was lying—and he reported no self-imposed dietary restrictions. Frankly, if you've sworn off Oreos before 10 AM, I don't want to date you.

After sifting through his answers to 300 questions on everything from global warming to the morality of dolphin fellatio, I learned he found God “somewhat important” and was totally cool with gays and lesbians adopting children. This was a rare combo—like a Mormon who enjoys a hard lemonade every now and again.

A quick look at his main profile page, and I could start planning the wedding.

The remaining information looked promising. Works in TV, studied abroad, loves Arrested Development, calls his mother, can’t live without…

“Son of a bitch!”

"What’s wrong?” my roommate yelled from the kitchen, where she was making popcorn to snack on as I trolled for dates. “His profile was good!”

“One of the things he can’t live without is his dog.

“Oh God.”

“It gets worse. At the bottom, it says ‘must love dogs.’”

“Well, you hate dogs. This will never work.”

“I don’t hate dogs," I insist, "and why should that be a deal breaker?"

“Lauren, you don’t like dogs. And you can’t fake it.”

I really don’t dislike dogs. I live in Alexandria, after all—a city with one of the highest rates per capita of dog ownership in the country.

But truth be told, I don’t quite like them either.

Perhaps this is because I didn’t grow up with pets. We had fish briefly when I was little, but Bubbles and Spot died tragically after choking on chicken breast and suffocating in a tank full of baby-doll stuffing, respectively. A few years later, my brother—the responsible party in our two previous pet deaths—threw a football at a rabbit, accidentally breaking one of its legs. The next morning we found it dead in the backyard. So yeah, we've always been better off without animals, and they're better off without us.

When I tell people I’ve never had a dog—and never felt like I missed out, either—they say: "But your dog is your best friend!" I guess that’s true…if you can't find a human for the job.

I certainly don’t wish any harm upon canines—though I do find it a little ridiculous when friends tell me about the suffering and vet bills caused by a dog's debilitating arthritis or exposed rectum. If your dog really was your best friend, he wouldn’t guilt you into cashing in your 401k for reconstructive paw surgery, would he? My best friends don’t burden me with medical bills.

Still, I respect dogs. Sometimes I even pet them, though I can never bring myself to be pleased about it and usually end up offering an awkward and obviously half-hearted attempt at civility—this is the same way, it turns out, that I interact with little children. Then, whomever I’m with feels compelled to explain my behavior by announcing that I “hate dogs.”

“I don’t hate dogs!” I say quickly. “I just don’t love them.”

The dog-owner’s face inevitably contorts into a mask of horror. “Oh no, I think you misunderstood!” I offer. “I didn’t say I make couture ear muffs out of puppy fur. I just said I don’t love dogs.”

Tears stream down the owner's face, his pupils dilate. At this point, despite my continued objections, I’m deemed soulless.

Maybe they’re right. Maybe only truly heinous people groan when they hear the opening notes of “Angel,” knowing that 59 screen shots of Sarah McLachlan cradling dogs with missing eyeballs are on deck. Maybe I'm a monster.

Or maybe I would simply prefer to donate my money to a child with a cleft palate and be free to take a spontaneous trip without worrying that my Shih Tzu will have explosive diarrhea the second I leave.

The longer I mull this over on my couch, the more I think I could probably handle an errant bowel movement or two, if it came with the man of my dreams, the man on my computer screen. If he were to be my husband, I would have to make sacrifices. Much like a woman who inherits step children and learns to sort of love them, I would learn to love this guy’s dog. It would be a struggle, but I could do it.

“You know what? I’m going to message him,” I tell my roommate.

“Aside from the dog thing, he does seem perfect for you,” she says, making her way over with her popcorn.

She's right—I'll just ease my way into the whole dog thing. I can start by sitting through all 28 minutes of that ASPCA freak show—er, commercial—and slowly build up to sponsoring a dog with one leg and a cauliflower ear.

“Here goes nothing,” I say, my cursor hovering over “send a message.”

“WAIT!” she suddenly yells. “Don’t do it!”

“I just told you I’ll get over the dog thing,” I say.

“I know—but look.” She points to the corner of his profile. “This is a deal breaker.”

“What could possibly be worse than dogs?”

Cats.

Lauren Boston writes for a national association magazine. She is working on her first book, a collection of personal humor essays, and she blogs about life’s awkward moments at At Least It’s A Good Story. She lives in Alexandria, pet-free and perfectly happy.

Posted at 09:52 AM/ET, 06/20/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()
During the portion of the race that passes through his hometown of Framingham, the author high-fives his nephew, Jack, while his father looks on.

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.

Just short of the finish line, the author looks away from the explosions, as fire trucks begin blaring 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.

Posted at 12:47 PM/ET, 04/19/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()
The author, left, with his son, Mark, and Mark's girlfriend, Ana, at Monday's Boston Marathon.

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.

Mark and Ana with their new friends.

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.

The Wellesley College crowd around the half-way mark.

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.

Tim's father, Mike, telling CNN about his experience near the finish line Monday.

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.

Tuesday's guarded bag-check pick-up line.

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.

Posted at 04:22 PM/ET, 04/18/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()

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.

Posted at 11:42 AM/ET, 03/22/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()