Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Running a marathon for a kid named Francis

Some of you might know this by now, but I am going to be running the Pittsburgh Marathon on May 3rd. In addition to attempting to complete all 26.2 miles without stopping or crying, I will be raising money for Francis Omondi, an 11-year-old boy who lives in a slum in Kenya. The money I raise will allow Francis to get a quality education at a boarding school, something he simply would not be able to do without sponsorship.

I want to ask each of you to help me send Francis to school. I would really appreciate it if you would donate $30 (or more, or less… honestly, anything is appreciated) towards my goal.

If you would like to know more about the who, what, why and how, please read on. If you would just as soon avoid my blathering but would still like to help, you can skip to the bottom to the cleverly-named section entitled: “How Can I Help?”

A marathon? Really? Why… why would you do something like that?

I have thought about this quite a bit. Given the pain and exhaustion I'm feeling during my training runs, I may have a grudge against myself. This might be a form of aerobic self-loathing.

Actually, I’ve running a lot more often since I’ve been in New York, and have done a number of races including a half-marathon. And I guess I wanted to challenge myself to do something I never thought I would do.

I also wanted to sponsor a needy child like Francis. Running to raise money for his schooling will provide me with added motivation before and during the race.

But... really? I've seen you wearing shorts. Your legs... they're so skinny. They're barely three-dimensional.

That's not very nice.

Seriously. They're like little knobby-kneed, hairy toothpicks. Anyway. What organization are you working with to sponsor Francis?

I am working with AmericaShare, the non-profit arm of the company I work for. AmericaShare is dedicated to helping the people of Mukuru and other Nairobi slums who have been affected by HIV/AIDS epidemic.

You can learn more about AmericaShare at (incidentally, I also happened to have written much of the site. So please refrain from caustic critiques unless you want to hurt my feelings).

Through AmericaShare’s School Sponsorship Program, vulnerable children (often orphans) are paired with sponsors who cover the cost of sending them to a boarding school. The sponsorship covers tuition, books, uniforms, room and board and all the basic items a student needs for a year of schooling.

I have learned a lot about AmericaShare and their work since I’ve been with Micato. I admire what they do and I am inspired by what they accomplish. Here are a few quotes from children who have been sponsored—they are taken from letters the children sent to their sponsors:

“Thank you very much for what you have been doing for me. If it were not for you, my whole [life] would have perished. You have really brought sunlight back to my life.”

- Jane, 15 years old

“I want to thank you very very much for agreeing to support me. It’s like you have rescued me from a prison where I was locked in.”

- Justus, 12 years old

“Every time and whatever I do, I will always pray to God to reward you so you can continue helping others.”

- Eunice, 13 years old

Who is Francis Omondi?

Francis is 11 years old, the last in a family of seven children (his picture is attached). Francis’ father died of HIV-related infections when he was three. His mother is also HIV-positive--and since becoming re-infected with tuberculosis, she cannot work. Because his mother is unable to earn money, Francis and his siblings are reliant upon charity.

Francis lives in Mukuru, a large slum outside Nairobi that I visited when I was in Kenya. It is estimated that families of five are surviving on an average of $1.30 per family per day in Mukuru; some by selling things or offering services, other by walking several miles to a factory and working as a day laborer.

The slum has an estimated population of over 500,000, of which sixty percent are under the age of 18. There is an estimated HIV prevalence rate of 15 percent, and approximately 30 to 40 percent of the children in Mukuru have been orphaned by HIV/AIDS.

This is Francis Omondi’s reality. He sees poverty, dirt, disease and a daily struggle for survival. This is what he is surrounded by day by day, and what shapes his choices. For better or worse, this is what he knows.

I want Francis to know something else.

And what is that?

What a good and convenient question. With your help, Francis will know that people he never met cared enough to send him to school. He’ll know that he can shape his reality just as easily as it can shape him, and that there are people who want to help him do that. The impact of sponsorship is direct and hard to overestimate... Francis will be given an opportunity to change his life for the better.

What is your goal?

My goal is to raise $3,000 for Francis’ schooling. The cost to sponsor a child is $1,500 for a year, so this will be enough for two years, and it will give me a head-start on saving for future years.

How about the goal for the marathon?

Finishing. I may have a time goal in mind closer to the actual date of the race, but right now I have my eye on simply crossing the finish line with my person and my dignity intact.

How can I help?
There are two ways you can donate: by check and online. If you donate online, please be sure to follow the directions--otherwise it may result in you supporting a child entirely on your own (which, while noble, is considerably more expensive).

By check: Make checks payable to AmericaShare, and please put a note on the check indicating that it is for Francis Omondi. Please send it to my attention at the address below. This is my work address—it will allow me to collect the checks and give them to AmericaShare all at once (they are in the same office as me).

Philip McCluskey

Micato Safaris

15 West 26th Street

New York, NY 10010

Online: you can donate on AmericaShare’s website using PayPal.

Simply scroll down to “General Donation,” (not Sponsor a Child's Education) put the amount you wish to give in the box, and follow instructions from there.

On the page that says "Review your Donation", there will be a link saying "Please write any additional notes here." Please click it, and put my name or Francis’s name in the box that pops up. Otherwise, AmericaShare won’t be able to determine that your gift is for Francis. Once your donation is complete, you'll receive an email confirming it. IMPORTANT: Do not click on Sponsor a Child’s Education... this is the one that will cost you quite a bit more than thirty bucks.

You can also help just by sending some words of encouragement. No matter what… thank you. I really appreciate any and all help you can give me. And I know Francis will too.

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Thursday, October 30, 2008

A Note about the Vote

Well, this will be a little more intense (and probably over the top) than I would've liked for my first post in awhile, but the time calls for it. And as a prologue: it is as much for me as it is for anyone else.

I've always avoided--despite having the urge from time to time--to post anything political in this blog. And I'm going to keep that streak going, because what I am about to write is not political.

Next Tuesday is Election Day. It can be hard to forget that with the enormous amount of attention being heaped on the presidential candidates. And for good reason. This is the most important election in recent history--definitely the most important in my lifetime.

I remember when I was first eligible to vote, I didn't think much of it. It didn't appear to make a discernable difference, and I wasn't all that interested in it. So, I didn't vote. And apparently, about 40 percent of the voting population didn't either.

According to a study done by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, the United States ranks 139th in the percentage of eligible voters who have actually voted in elections (since 1945). The highest--Italy--was at 92%. Third place went to Cambodia, a country that has been ravaged by war and genocide. It is one of the 50 poorest countries in the world and over 90% of the population votes.

As a country, we have never (at least in modern times) risen above 65% voter turnout. There are things that make us different from other countries--we have to actively register ourselves, and we are not required by law to vote--but the bottom line is that we get a 'D' in democratic participation (and that is being generous).

That is both remarkable and sad. I hope the enormous amount of media attention this election is getting changes something.

I was lucky enough to be born in a country that is the most successful, most prosperous and most inspiring in the history of the world. There has never been another country like it--ever. In the centuries it has been in existence, people have risked their lives just to reach its shores. They still do. Though the mantle of "Greatest Country in the World" is freighted with subjectivity, no one can deny that the United States should be involved in such a discussion.

People talk quite a bit about love of country, and what it means to love this country. But the truth is that my country doesn't require me to love it at all--that is one of its virtues. It doesn't (currently) require me to serve in the army. It does not require me to take a vocal stand on issues, or openly support any party, or even put my hand on my heart when the national anthem plays.

It only asks that I participate.

An uncommon collection of brave geniuses committed to an idea a couple hundred years ago, and generations since have been vigilant in protecting it. The idea is letting the people participate-- allowing the governed to dictate to their government, rather than the other way around.

This country can claim to be many things: capitalist, imperialist, humanist. Innovator. Bully. Angel. And people argue back and forth about the issues behind these designations. But it is foremost a democracy. Our nation is predicated on choosing our leaders. And--if they fail to do their job--voting them out.

But if we don't vote, it doesn't really work. One quote I read by a man named Walter Judd said it most clearly: "People often say that, in a democracy, decisions are made by a majority of the people. Of course, that is not true. Decisions are made by a majority of those who make themselves heard and who vote - a very different thing.”

To me, there is simply no good reason for a healthy, able-bodied person not to vote. Save your excuses for something else. Cold outside? Too bad. Line too long, gotta get to work? You can wait, and so can your job. Don't like any of the candidates, or don't think your vote counts? Tough *&%#.

In addition to being practical, voting is symbolic. Yes, it's the act of choosing your leaders, but it's also a clear way to show appreciation for the privilege of choosing your leaders. It's a rare opportunity to show that you don't take that gift for granted.

And don't ever take that gift for granted. It's not. Choose, lest the choice someday be taken away.

Yes, this post definitely is not political. It is polemical. To the apathetic or otherwise-indisposed 40% I say this:

Beat Italy and Cambodia at their own game--the one that should be ours. Seize this opportunity. Revere the rights you have, and practice the privilege you've been given. Speak now, or for four years hold your peace. Don't you dare allow Tuesday to pass without pulling a lever, punching a chad, hitting a switch, making a statement of conviction and gratitude.

Vote. Vote. Vote.

P.S. For a great insight into what it's like when you don't have a functioning democracy, check out this post from my buddy Grady's blog. It describes the post-cyclone situation in Burma--which despite its government's claims, is not a democracy. Though I can only imagine how much the people of that country would give so that it could be.


Thursday, August 14, 2008

Paula Radcliffe believes in me.

I just got a gadget.

It's an add-on to my iPod for when I go running. Basically, I put a sensor in my shoe and during my run, it briefly interrupts my music to tell me about my distance and pace per mile. I can then plug my iPod into my computer and it uploads the information to a website--so I can keep track of my progress. Technology is grand.

It is one thing to look at a watch, a pedometer, or even a computer to see how far you've gone. It's another to hear a voice telling you about your progress.

"You're halfway there," or "1 mile to go."

I had gotten used to the familiar, if mildly robotic, female voice providing time and distance measurements to me. Then I was surprised by a new voice. I had just finished my longest run in a while, which in the diverse egalitarian world of jogging, does not necessarily mean it was particularly long. After the usual lady came on and told me that I had completed my run, another woman spoke up.

"Hi, I'm Paula Radcliffe. Congratulations! That was your longest run yet."

I perked up, because a) Paula was right, and it was a nice reminder of my progress, and b) I had no idea who Paula Radcliffe was.

My first--clearly misguided--thought was of an asexual comedienne. But upon further deliberation, I knew that the voice was different and my most recent run would have little meaning to her. I was thinking of Paula Poundstone.

It dawned on me then, of course, that this was obviously a runner. A runner that other runners would know. And she is... in fact, she holds the world record in the women's marathon. She's fast.

But I didn't know who she was when I heard her voice. It wasn't her status as a running icon that I enjoyed when she cheered in my ear that evening at the O'Nassis Reservoir in Central Park. It was her voice--a human, encouraging voice recognizing that I had just run further than I had the day before.

I can't help but think how nice it would be to have Paula as a regular commentator on my runs....

"Hi, I'm Paula Radcliffe. I couldn't help but notice that your strides were more purposeful today."

"Hi, I'm Paula Radcliffe. Wow. That's all I can say. Wow. I'm not sure what you're doing differently, but that was one hell of a run. Bravo."

"Hi, I'm Paula Radcliffe. In addition to the great time you posted on your run today, I would like to take the time to comment on your handsomeness. It is already prodigious, and yet it seems to grow by the day."

Oh, Paula. Go on.

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Monday, August 11, 2008

one moment in time.

I had tried to go to bed last night, but for some reason I couldn't get to sleep. So I turned on the TV. I'm really glad I did.

For anyone who did not see it last night, Michael Phelps won his second gold medal in the 4x100 freestyle relay. It was a team event, and though he was his usual stellar self, this was not his show. He would not have won this gold medal without Jason Lezak.

Lezak is the oldest guy on the team. He trains himself. And yesterday, he pulled off by far the greatest swim of his life--and what several people have called one of the greatest Olympic performances in history.

Lezak was trailing before he went into the water on the last leg of the 4x100 freestyle finals. And he was not just trailing anyone--he was behind the world record holder, Alain Bernard from France. With less than 50 meters to go, the announcers started talking about how France would win the gold, and America would get the silver.

They said: "I don't think he can do it." I have to wonder if Lezak heard them.

Amazingly, he started to close the gap. As the announcers started yelling, I leaned forward on my couch. As their pitch increased, with less than 25 meters to go, I stood up. In those final electrified seconds before a neck-and-neck Lezak and Bernard touched the wall, I stared at the screen as if it could tell me my future.

Time stopped.

Then I saw the Americans raise their hands in the air. Lezak did it. To put it into perspective, Phelps--the undisputed best swimmer in the world--put up a time of 47.51 on his leg of the race. Lezak, when it mattered most, put up a time of 46.06--nearly a second and a half faster. He had also come from behind to beat the man who held the world record.

At the moment I saw that the US won, I jumped in the air and pumped both my fists in the air--similar to the way Michael Phelps, Garrett Weber-Gale, Cullen Jones and millions of people watching on TV did. All of us watching--more or less at the same time--twitched with the excitement of the moment, synchronized in gestalt glee.

Lezak won by eight one hundredths of a second. A sliver of time. In ordinary circumstances, it would be easily forgotten. But this wasn't ordinary.

One German swimming coach that was watching said: "It was one of those moments where you just sit back and say, 'Jesus Christ.'" The American swimming coach said, "It has to be in the unbelievable category. That's the biggest word I know."

"Unbelievable," said Phelps.

"It really crossed my mind for a split second that there was no way," said Lezak. "Then I changed."

Yeah. He changed alright. France's team director said that it wasn't his team that lost, but "Lezak who won."

And he wasn't the only one.


Here's a replay of the race....

But if you get a chance, try to find the replay of Phelps' reaction to the win. I'm sure it'll be on YouTube at some point. The three phases of it are fantastic--his incessant cheering and gesticulating in Lezak's final push to the finish, the moment of wide-eyed anticipation as he looks up to the board to see the results, and the euphoric eruption upon seeing that the US won. It's fun to watch.

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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

ironic or apropos?

sesquipedalian [adj]: (of words) long; having many syllables.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Somnolence in the City

I love my balcony.

In an apartment that can best be described as spatially spartan, my balcony is a saving grace: a gateway to the fresh air and a sliver of sky. I take deep breaths there. It’s a great place to just sit, and since I have very relaxing lounge chairs—they lean back so that it’s almost like you’re in the cockpit of a spaceship—it is also a good place to nap.

Generally, my naps have taken place on lazy Saturdays or Sundays, when a book just can’t keep my eyelids aloft. It’s generally a brief one too, since there are built-in alarms outside. Birds, planes overhead, the occasional honking horn.

The other night, however, I had come home from happy hour. As is the custom, the ‘hour’ stretched into several, over which time I had a few drinks. When I came home, I went out on the balcony to just look up at the glare-muzzled stars above.

Instead, I fell asleep.

About 50 windows have a clear view of my balcony. There are spread symmetrically, like white-paned dominoes, over the back of an apartment building that faces the back of mine. There’s no reason to believe that anyone be looking down at me from these glassy perches. But if they did, they would see a sprawled body in his Friday clothes, mouth open in a muted snore, bared before the world in alfresco slumber until about 6:30am.

But hey, if they want to watch, let them watch. I’ll take regular outdoor naps, and spend nights under the stars if that’s what the people want. It’ll be the latest reality TV extravaganza—and we’ll call it “Somnolence in the City.” Can’t be any worse than all the other reality shows, and I’d get paid to sleep. Win-win.

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Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Black Sea Boozehounds

We all have our talents. Some people’s talents place them far above any others in their chosen field of endeavor. Picasso. Newton. Shakespeare. Philbin.

But what if you didn’t know your talent, or didn’t know the extent of it? You knew you were good… but because you rarely saw a need to compete, you didn’t know how good you were.

What if you were the best ever and you never even knew it? And what if being that good saved your life?

I just read an article about a man in Bulgaria who was "knocked off his feet" by a car three years ago. When doctors examined him, they were not surprised to learn that he was drunk. They were surprised to learn how drunk he was.

His blood-alcohol level was 0.914.

The legal limit for driving in most cases is .08. According to one source a “level of 0.30 is classified as stupor, 0.4 is comatose and 0.5 is considered fatal.”

In other words, this man was twice as drunk as a dead guy. And I would like to point out that he was “knocked off his feet.” Which means that he was on his feet when he was hit, and it took an automobile to knock him down. His blood could be considered an incendiary, and yet he was standing up.

This man was clearly superhuman (and by the way, 67 years old). And he is not alone. One of his countrymen registered a 0.835 a year later. I'm guessing his breath could sterilize medical instruments at that point, or could blind a puppy. Oh, and he was driving at the time. Stellar.

It’s like they are breeding an alcohol-resistant super race in the former Easter Bloc. The Black Sea Boozehounds, they might be called, were they a minor-league baseball team.

In any event, I have a new perspective on Bulgaria—a mix of respect and fear. In fact, I may honor them by coining a new term. The next time I have an awful hangover, I might just tell people I’m “nursing a Bulgarian.”

On second thought, that might sound a bit weird.

Side note: I noticed in one of the articles, they talked of a "Latvian champion." That seems to suggest a competition (and an absurd Eurasian dominance of it.) Underground drinking championships. Like "Bloodsport" for booze. Hmm.

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