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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Forty-Eight and Happy the World Isn't Mine...

Was Tony a happy camper?
When I was in my early twenties, I had my life meticulously planned out.

By the age of 25, I was going to be a news reporter on a local television station. By the time I was 30, I was going to be anchoring a local newscast somewhere. At 35, I was going to be a network news correspondent and sometime in my 40’s, I was going to have my name attached to a nightly network newscast, i.e., “The ABC Nightly News with Carlos Espinosa” (Modesty was obviously not my strong suit!).

I was young, ambitious, and was only concerned about myself (not to mention, I weighed almost an entire Backstreet Boy less than I do today and was in great shape, so I was cocky and thought, like Tony Montana, that the world was mine!).

I wanted to be a “star,” to have tables waiting for me at restaurants, crowds parting like the Red Sea whenever I walked by, women throwing themselves at me and people asking for autographs. I wanted a mansion in Key Biscayne, a Porsche 911 Carrera (I didn’t know any better) in my garage and more money than I knew what to do with (in other words, Montana only taller sans the drug dealing). That’s what I thought was success. That's what I thought would make me happy.

Well, so much for the best laid plans of mice and men. Outside of working as a news reporter in my mid-twenties, everything else that I thought would make me successful and happy went up in smoke. And, in all honesty, now, as I look back on my life, after celebrating my forty-eighth birthday on Tuesday, I thank God.

What’s that old joke about God and making plans? Oh, yeah; “Do you want to make God laugh? Tell Him your plans!”

Now my wife will tell you that, even though I may not be as young or ambitious any more, I still struggle with self-absorption.  And, considering how upset I got on my birthday, when I found out that the kids and I couldn't go to Port St. Lucie to see the New York Mets (my favorite team) workout because my younger daughter has her first soccer game of the season on Saturday and both girls have to take their ballet photos on Sunday, I can see her point. (C’mon, ballet photos? That’s just another way of extorting money from us!)

Anyway, despite my self-centered tendencies, and at the risk of sounding like a cornball (which of course, I am), I can honestly say, as I reflect on where my life is today, I couldn't be more delighted.

My life is so much richer than I could have ever imagined when all I was thinking about was becoming “somebody,” having lots of cash in my pockets and all the material toys that society told me were important.

No, the ABC Nightly News doesn’t have my name attached to it. But, my wife and three children do. And, at least for me, that is by far, the greater accomplishment.

Moreover, I can say with all sincerity, that I don’t know where my life would be without them. No really, the kids, not only bring exponential joy to my existence, but they are tax deductions.  And my wife, is not only the love of my life and, like Jerry Maguire's Dorothy, completes me, but she pays our bills, takes care of the house, serves as the kids’ taxi driver to soccer and ballet, helps them with their homework, does our laundry, prepares dinner for us and lunch for the kids, and much more. (I want you to know, I throw out the garbage and put the dishes in the dish washer!)

Yet, despite how much I appreciate my family now (although that may be subject to interpretation for my wife), that wasn’t always the case.

I remember up until several short years ago, my wife often telling me, “You’re never happy,” because I was apparently always searching for more.

Although I would argue that I was happy, it was evident to anyone, except myself, that I was never satisfied with all the blessing I had, including my beautiful wife and healthy children.  I was always wanting more and comparing myself to others who had it (and, to play pop-psychologist, possibly, battling the demons in my head for failing to reach all my early ambitions).

There was a void deep within me that I never realized was there until it was filled by the grace of God, during a spiritual retreat about six years ago.  It was a turning point in my life and spun my priorities upside down.

I guess you can say, I found God (but unlike The Fray, it was not on the corner of  First and Amistad).  That more I was always searching for was filled by an inner peace and a sense of fulfillment that I had never felt before. I felt true joy in my heart.   

On Tuesday morning, during my three and a half mile run, which ended up being more like three because I couldn't keep going (I really need to drop at least a third of that Backstreet Boy I'm carrying!), I started thinking about my life and how different it may have been if I had reached the goals I set in my 20’s.

Knowing my own weaknesses and flaws, I can say with confidence that had I become the celebrity I sought out to be, I probably would have been consumed by my own pride, ego, vanity and arrogance (which is enough of a battle for me even in obscurity).

If I had reached the financial wealth I wanted, I may be drowning in my own greed and/or vulnerable to all the traps and temptations that having more money than knowing what to do with often breeds.

And, if I had attained my career aspirations, I may have been lost in a never ending cycle of travel, overwork, stress, petty competition and other demands, at the expense of my personal life and, possibly, my family (if I even had one).

Of course, I'm just being hypothetical, since I’ll never know if God’s grace would have penetrated through my worldly skin. But, excess often leads to more excess and a never ending search for happiness through the physical, material and natural, which, unfortunately, is evident in the lives of many of today’s celebrities and public figures (not to mention, the rich; just see Keeping up With the Kardashians, and Real Housewives of wherever, among others).

I often quote St. Augustine who says our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God but there's a statement at the beginning of the Catechism of the Catholic Church that puts it this way, “The desire for God is written in the human heart… and only in God will we find the peace and happiness we never stop searching for.”

That definitely hits home for me. In other words, I could have searched my entire life for true happiness and never found it, outside of God.

It’s funny, at my age, some men, realizing they have not reached their goals in life and seeking to fill the emptiness, often go through what is commonly known as a mid-life crisis.

Many attempt to fill the void through the material and go out and get a new sports car, motorcycle, or boat.  Others, sadly, seek emotional fulfillment and decide to trade-in their wives for a newer model with all the upgrades. Then there are those who, at my age, try to find themselves (which, in all honesty, if they haven't found themselves yet, they may be lost!) or come to terms with their own eventual demise and try to complete their bucket lists.

Maybe, I’m too tired, too lazy, too poor, or just too joyful, but none of that interests me.

I am happy with my life; with wife and children and the health that we have, with our many close friends, with my job and my wife’s job, which affords us the ability to send our children to Catholic school. I’m content with our small two-bedroom house that we have outgrown and with my leased Honda Accord sedan, that, unlike the Porsche 911, has enough room for my entire family (without having to pack the kids like sardines into the front end trunk!).

Maybe the world isn't mine, like I thought in my twenties.  But, now, I know it belongs to God and I'm happy with that as well. 

As for my bucket list, it only includes things that I want to do with my family; like going back to Paris with my wife someday (we went for our honeymoon), traveling with my family to Spain, France, Italy, the Vatican, passing my faith to them, teaching my son the intricacies of baseball and what it means to be a Christian man, and walking my daughters down the aisle on their wedding day.

I don’t remember praying much when I was making my lifetime plans, outside of desperation, but if I ever prayed for those goals, I am comforted by the words of a Garth Brooks song that says, "Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers. Remember when you're Talkin' to the man upstairs, that just because He doesn't answer doesn't mean He don't care. Some of God's greatest gifts are unanswered prayers."

Then again, if I think about it more deeply, I realize that if I did pray for those things, my prayers were indeed answered. The underlined desire of my early goals was to be happy and now, I finally am…

Thursday, February 23, 2012

For Gary Carter, There was More to Life than Baseball...

Gary Carter
In his best-selling book, The Bad Guys Won! A Season of Brawling, Boozing, Bimbo Chasing and Championship Baseball..., author Jeff Pearlman writes that New York Mets’ All-Star catcher, Gary Carter, who died last week from brain cancer at the age of 57, never quite fit in with the rest of the guys.

Sure, he was one of the team leaders on the field and his addition to the club in December 1984, was one of the final pieces to the Mets puzzle.

The "Kid,” as he was affectionately known for his contagious smile and childlike passion for the game on the field, fit nicely into the cleanup spot, between star first baseman, Keith Hernandez, and NL Rookie of the Year, Darryl Strawberry.

He also provided great defense, relentless competitiveness and a keen ability to handle the young pitching staff, led by 19-year-old phenom, Dwight “Doc” Gooden, Ron Darling, Sid Fernandez and veteran Bobby Ojeda.

As a long-suffering Mets fan, I remember telling my brother in jest one day before the trade, “Could you imagine if the Mets got Gary Carter?”

Never in my wildest dream could I have imagined that my half-joking comment would come to fruition when General Manager Frank Cashen traded popular infielder Hubie Brooks and several spare parts for Carter, who at the time, was arguably the best overall catcher in the majors since Johnny Bench.

My father, brother and I, who have been following the team since the early 70’s, and had spent a decade in baseball purgatory, following a team that finished in the cellar or near the cellar every year, were obviously ecstatic.

The Mets won 98 games in 1995, including a game-winning extra-inning home run in his first game with the team, which not only ingratiated him to Shea Stadium faithful, but was indicative of things to come, and then went on to win 108 games in the 1986 World Series Championship season, where they led the division from opening day and never looked back.

Celebrating '86 WS win
However, off the field, it was a different story. The eleven times All-Star, who was inducted into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in 2003, was much maligned and ridiculed by some of his teammates, because, well, he was just too good.

He refused to go out carousing with the boys or, as some of his teammates called it, “raiding and pillaging” visiting towns. He preferred to hang out with his family then with groupies.  And, even had the audacity, during the team's '86 post-season run, to ask management to allow the wives to travel with the players!

Because of his wholesome lifestyle, and the fact that the media loved him because he was always willing to give interviews, he rubbed some, who were suspicious of his intentions, the wrong way.

In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Pearlman writes:
Baseball clubhouses are much like junior-high lunchrooms, in that the cool kids divide themselves from the un-cool; the studs distance themselves from the geeks.

In the oft-ignorant, oft-shallow world of baseball, Carter was deemed a geek from the very beginning. He didn't drink and didn't smoke. He didn't curse and he didn't talk smack. He showed up to work early, played hard, embraced home-plate collisions and—by all accounts—worked his tail off. He was loyal to his wife, Sandy, and an involved and dedicated father to their three children.
Carter was a devout Christian. He was raised Presbyterian but is said to have grown stronger in his faith with the guidance of former Montreal Expos teammate John Boccabella, who was Catholic, and helped Carter come to terms with the death of his mother, who died when Kid was 12-years-old.

Carter hit 324 career homers
His mother’s death left a profound mark on his life and, he would often say, was the driving force in his wanting to succeed. He was always trying to make her proud. In fact, some who were close to him say he loved to hear the cheers of the crowd because he knew his mom was smiling.

And, as passionately as he played on the field, he was as ardent in giving of himself to others.

He was involved in many charitable endeavors, including his foundation, the Gary Carter Foundation, which helps kids break out of poverty by, as they state in the organization's web site, "better the physical, mental and spiritual well being of children" and also founding Celebrities Fore Kids, which ironically helped children with cancer and their families.

After retiring from the game and a stint as an analyst with the Florida Marlins, and several minor league managing jobs, Carter became the head baseball coach at a Christian university, Palm Beach Atlantic, near his home, where his daughter Kimmy is the school’s softball coach.

He always stressed to his players that there was more to life than baseball, “My primary goal is to help these young athletes become better Christians and prepare them for life, not just baseball.”

His ambitions for one day managing in the majors were dashed last May, when he was diagnosed with inoperable brain tumors. After several months of treatment, last month, the family announced that more tumors were found.

He died two days after being admitted to Good Samaritan Medical Center in West Palm Beach last week.  His family, friends and teammates, including those who had ostracized him during their playing days, were visibly affected, many breaking down in tears.  

On a post announcing his death, Carter’s daughter Kimmy wrote, “He is in heaven and has reunited with his mom and dad. I believe with all my heart that dad had a standing ovation as he walked through the gates of heaven to be with Jesus.  He is now in God's Hall of Fame."

Carter is survived by his wife of 37 years, Sandy, their three children, Christy, Kimmy and D.J., and three grandchildren.

In life, there are certain public figures, heroes, if you will, that leave a lasting imprint on our lives, even if in a subtle way. I will always remember Gary Carter for the many joys and inspiration he provided for me during those glory days that turned a hapless and hopeless franchise into a World Series Champion.

So, I bid farewell to a man of virtue and courage, who stood up for what he believed, despite the criticism, and because of this was often misunderstood.  But, through it all, he never wavered in his love for God, his wife and children and the game that he played with the passion, joy and enthusiasm of a kid...

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Lent and the Spiritual Return Home...

From ashes to ashes
Many years ago, when I was going through the darkest moment of my life (at the time), I remember turning to the only place where I knew I would not be condemned for my many failures and be welcomed with unconditional love. I returned home; to the house of my parents (with my tail between my legs!).

It's funny, I had moved away on my own, only five short years before. During that time, I was too busy in my own self-absorption to pay much attention to my parents.  I took them for granted and would only see them at family gatherings from time to time.  I never called, never went out of my way for them and never gave much thought to what they had to say (after all, I knew better).

Yet, when I came home one dreary night, beaten by my own pride, arrogance and selfishness, and not knowing where else to turn, they eagerly accepted me without conditions, prepared my old bed for me, and consoled me.

The same applies in our spiritual lives.

It's the story of the prodigal son, who shames his father by asking for his half of his inheritance (equivalent to saying I wish you were dead, at that time), traveling to a foreign land, blowing it on debauchery before hitting rock bottom, coming to his senses and realizing the wrong that he had done, and returning home to ask his father for forgiveness.

What's great about this story is that when the father sees him walking towards him from afar, he doesn't wait and make him plead for forgiveness.  He runs out to meet his son on the way, and before the son could apologize, puts a ring on his finger, a robe over his shoulder and sandals on his feet.

Without getting into all the symbolisms involved in the story (and I wrote a blog about this not long ago), suffice to say that the father was more than happy to welcome his son back home; just like our heavenly Father is happy whenever one of his lost children returns.

Something that has always stuck with me was written by well known theologian and former protestant minister, Dr. Scott Hahn, in his book, Reasons to Believe.  He writes that at the foot of the cross, when Jesus takes His last breath and dies, His home became our home. His Father became our father. And, His mother became our mother.

That thought, for me, is what Lent is all about.

It’s about returning home, repentance, penitence, healing and hope. 

On my way to work on Ash Wednesday, I heard the radio hosts, former Miami Dolphins' wide receiver, Jimmy Cefelo, and Manny Munoz, talking about what they were going to give up for Lent.  This is on secular radio, can you believe that?  Although, neither gave a definite answer to what they would be sacrificing, a good friend of mine is giving up social media (signs of the times) and another is giving up alcohol, which he does every year.

But, as I have learned in recent years, it's not about depriving ourselves in some abstract form of piety.  It's about conversion (which is never ending) and renewal.  It's about asking for forgiveness, changing our life, and growing closer to God.

If we fail to achieve that, then our sacrifices are done in vain.

When I asked my eleven-year-old daughter Tuesday night, what she was planning to do for Lent, considering Ash Wednesday was the following day, she gave me a very deep and well thought out, “I don’t know.”

To be fair, I didn’t know or understand what Lent meant at her age either (or for most of my life for that matter!). In fact, I often used the forty-day season (which ends on Holy Thursday) to jump start my annual diet. In other words, I would give up fried foods, or desserts, or chocolate, or other fattening foods.

It was less about God and more about me, which unfortunately, I still struggle with often.

But, in the last several years, I have adopted goals that are more consistent with what the Church recommends for the faithful during the Lenten season; prayer, fasting (which doesn't necessarily mean from food but could be from things that we may like more than we want to admit) and alms-giving (which also includes giving of our time and talent).

This year, among other things that I do regularly, I plan on focusing on my spiritual growth by reading and reflecting upon Thomas a Kempis' The Imitation of Christ, which is the best read spiritual book of all time, outside of the Bible.  I also plan on intensifying my prayer life, including a daily Rosary, and volunteering whenever I could.

All this, in preparation for the biggest feast of the Christian calendar year; Easter Sunday, without which there would be no Christianity.

Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said, “Unless there is a Good Friday in your life, there can be no Easter Sunday.”

Therefore, the Church calls us to make our small, albeit significant, sacrifices during Lent, to be united to the ultimate and everlasting sacrifice that was made for us on the cross and prepare ourselves to be reborn in Him on Easter Sunday.
 
And, as I did many years ago, when I returned to my parents' home and later returned to my spiritual home in the Church, it starts with humbling ourselves, repenting and taking that first step back, regardless of how far or wide we may have traveled...

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Lessons from Whitney's Search for Happiness...

Whitney Houston
Two weeks ago, as I was sitting in our minivan with my kids, waiting for my wife to get back from a convenience store, and trying to keep my seven-year-old daughter from reaching over to change the radio station (they always want the same station), Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You comes on the radio.

Knowing my eleven-year-old daughter’s interest in singing, I started telling them about Houston’s amazing voice and talent, and how she was one of the biggest stars of the eighties and nineties.

As my wife got into the car, she jumped into the conversation, and we used the opportunity to tell our daughters, and to a lesser extent our son, who was probably oblivious to what we were saying, how Houston got addicted to drugs and how drugs destroyed her once prominent career. (Although we didn’t know it at the time, our oldest daughter was as oblivious as our son. It’s nice when we parents talk to the walls, isn’t it?)

Regardless, it was a sad commentary to make about the legendary singer’s life. It was even sadder when about a week later, we hear, during my sister-in-law's birthday party, that the pop diva had been found dead in a Hollywood hotel room, at the tender age of 48 (Wow! I'm weeks away from my 48th birthday, it is way too young to be taking a last breath!).

Another superstar had fallen, apparently the victim of her fast lane lifestyle, which, among other things, was marked by superstardom at an early age, parties, drugs (including crack cocaine) and alcohol, personal problems and a tumultuous relationship with ex-husband and singer, Bobby Brown.

Sadly, it's a vicious cycle that many celebrities, wannabe celebrities and, even, not-so-celebrities, often get into; the search for happiness through superficiality, relationships, substances and conditions.

One of my favorite quotes is by St. Augustine of Hippo, who in the 4th Century put this quest for happiness into perspective, "Oh God, Thou has made us for Thyself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you."

In other words, true happiness can never be found, unless in God (I learned that from personal experience!).

Nevertheless, despite the over-saturation of news on Houston’s death over the weekend, on Monday when I got to work, many of my co-workers were still talking about the tragic ending to one of America’s biggest selling music artists of all times.

"How sad," I kept hearing.

And, while one co-worker said he did not feel a wee bit sorry for her because, with all her money, she refused to get the help she needed, another added, "She was a victim of her love for the wrong man."

It’s easy to pass judgment and point fingers when we hear about celebrities wasting their lives on fast living.

In fact, we have become used to seeing mega stars fall on their face. We kind of expect them to. And, in some suppressed and warped way, it may even make some of us feel better about ourselves and our own failures (which may be why Tim Tebow is so disliked. He refuses to fail!).

However, it’s different to see a person die because of their failures and to realize that, despite their many struggles and flaws, they are is still deserving of our compassion, as fellow brothers and sisters, who are made and loved by the same celestial Father (or as Whitney would sing, The Greatest Love of All).

Ironically, Saturday morning, before this news broke, a priest stressed this same point to me, albeit in reference to my wife and kids, during confession. He told me to look at them, not as my own, but as children of God, who have been bestowed upon me to care for and love.

In other words, just as God loves me, He loves my wife, my children, and on a wider scope, He loves my co-workers, that man that cut me off on my way to work this morning, the homeless guy that sometimes stands in the corner near my house and Whitney Houston (In fact, He even loves those that reject Him).

We will never know what was in Whitney Houston's heart. I’d like to think that having grown up in a church environment, as a singer in the junior gospel choir at the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, as well as having a mother, Cissy, who was a well known gospel singer, and having attended an all-girls Catholic high school in her teenage years, there had to be, at least, some remnants of faith (if not more).

Even though I refuse to watch awards shows because of all the political and social commentaries that some, in their self-righteousness and narcissism, feel compelled to express, I felt a sense of hope when I heard the way the Grammy Awards' host, LL Cool J, opened the night.

He said, "There is no way around this. We've had a death in our family. And so at least for me (he repeated "for me," as if he was trying to quell any objection by appealing to their sense of tolerance), the only thing that feels right is to begin with a prayer for a woman who we loved, for a fallen sister; Whitney Houston."

As he pulled out a paper from his jacket, many started clapping.

He continued, "Heavenly Father, we thank you for sharing our sister Whitney with us. Today, our thoughts are with her mother..."

As the cameras panned around the jam-packed Staples Center in Los Angeles, they captured most of the audience, some in their multi-colored hair, Mohawks and tattoos, including Lady Gaga, holding their hands as if in prayer, bowing their heads and closing their eyes, as they listened to the words being read, while an estimated 40 million viewers tuned in from home.

"…her daughter, and all of her loved ones. And, although, she is gone too soon, we are blessed to have been touched by her beautiful spirit and to have her lasting legacy of music to cherish and share forever. Amen." And someone was heard yelling form the audience, "Amen!"

What a fitting and poignant way to show respect to God and to Whitney Houston and her family.

(Of course, all that reverence went out the door when Nicki Minaj took the stage later in the show. Isn’t it amazing how you never see Hollywood and music industry celebs trashing other faiths, except Christianity, and in particular the Catholic Church?)

Anyway, getting off my own soap box, what becomes apparent to me from Houston's death, like Michael Jackson’s, Heath Ledger’s, and so many others super stars in recent, and not so recent, years, is that (and going back to my original point) money can't buy happiness (and it can't buy us more time, or love for that matter).

As most of us know, every day we get up and every breath we take is a blessing but, as I heard a priest say during a funeral one time, “Death is not the end. It’s the beginning; the beginning of eternity.”

Therefore, Whitney will live on; not just in her music and in the memories of her fans and loved ones, but in her eternal resting place.

Although they may be too young to understand right now, I hope that Houston's life, talent and tragic ending will serve as a lesson for my daughters (and all young girls wanting to follow in her footsteps) about rising too fast, losing their grounding and searching for happiness in all the wrong places...

Thursday, February 9, 2012

My Little Girl is Growing Up and Soon the Nightmare Begins...

Maybe, it was after having to tell a group of ten and eleven-year-old boys to stop yelling, “You eat poop!” at my backdoor neighbor, or maybe, it was after having swept the backyard patio, after a popcorn fight broke out, only to see it covered with popcorn again, but, somewhere during the night of my daughter’s eleventh birthday party, I thought to myself, “Now, why are we doing this again?”

Oh, yes, my wife would later tell me, “It’s a memory that she will cherish for a lifetime.”

I sure hope so because it was mayhem; thirty five plus wannabe-teens fifth graders, screaming, dancing (to their own song), and throwing food, the Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides blaring on a huge rental blowup movie screen, and a mess throughout our patio and kitchen, as a revolving door of parents, kids, family and friends went in and out of our home. And, in the middle of all this were our four-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter, who were having a blast.

General George A. Custer
As one mom dropping off her child at our house told me, “You’re very brave!” Thank you. That was nice. I could just picture someone saying that to General George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, before an Indian arrow pierced his heart (although legend says he was shot!).

After trying to maintain decorum and keeping a close eye on my daughter (there were boys in the house!), for about forty minutes, I finally gave up. I opened a beer and told my wife, “This was your idea; you go out and keep an eye on them.” I’m more trusting when I’m tired (and thirsty)!

Then again, as most tween parties, the boys were on one side watching the movie and the girls were on another talking and goofing off.

In any account, the reality of all this, as I pondered after everyone had left, is the realization that my once little girl is growing up fast, which in all honesty, has been coming on as fast as the Millennium Falcon fleeing the Imperial Starfleet over the past year.

Now, instead of Disney Princesses and Barbie dolls, she’s talking of dance parties, wearing her mother’s clothes and, lately, talking on the phone to her BFF, who apparently refuses to talk or hang out with her at school, or NBFF (new BFF) for longer than I talk to my wife (which is not saying much). Girls are definitely more complicated than boys!

I sometimes wonder what ever happened to that baby girl, who wouldn’t fall asleep unless she was lying on her daddy’s chest at night? Or, as she got a little older, the many nights that I had to calm her hysterical crying by bouncing her in my arms, while walking around the house and trying to soothe her with that clicking noise that we parents make with our tongues.

The morning of her party, as I sat at the beauty parlor, waiting for my daughter to get a mani-pedi and blow dry (and waiting for a haircut myself); I was admiring how beautiful a young lady our firstborn child is growing up to be (of course, she has my looks, despite my wife’s family's insistence that she looks like my sister-in-law!).

Her body is totally changing; sprouting and curving in all the womanly places. And, unfortunately, with her physical maturity, like all girls’ fathers, will soon begin my next round of sleepless nights.

At the beginning of one of my wife’s favorite movies, Father of the Bride, Steve Martin’s character, George Banks, says, “You have a little girl. An adorable little girl who looks up to you and adores you in a way you could never imagine. I remember how her little hand used to fit inside mine. How she used to sit in my lap and lean her head against my chest. She said that I was her hero. Then the day comes when she wants to get her ears pierced and she wants you to drop her off a block before the movie theater. Next thing you know she's wearing eye shadow and high heels. From that moment on, you're in a constant state of panic.”

Although, I’m not at the high heels and eye shadow stage yet, I see it coming. Granted, we still have several years to help shape her conscious, but soon, all that will be left for us to do is to trust.

Trust that my wife and I have brought her up with the high moral foundation that will keep her grounded upon her faith and her family. Trust that when she makes mistakes, she will rely on that faith and moral fabric to help her through it. And, trust that our prayers for her and her siblings will ultimately be answered.

Several years ago, my men’s faith group invited my wife’s all-girls high school principal, who happens to be a Sacred Heart nun, to talk to us about raising girls.

She said something that resonated with many of us. She said, “Fathers need to take their daughters out on dates so they can teach them how a man who loves them is supposed to treat them; before it is too late.”

Unfortunately, it wasn’t until last November, and about four years after the fact, that I finally took my oldest daughter on a date. I took her to see the Taylor Swift concert (which by the way, I may have enjoyed more than her).

Aside from teaching her about how private parking lots and attendants try to rip off people in downtown Miami and standing in an endless line to get her and her sister concert t-shirts (talk about price gauging!), afterwards, I took her to a Cuban cafeteria by our house for some late night pastelitos (something my wife would never do!).

It was an amazing opportunity for one-on-one bonding time and hopefully, like her eleventh birthday party, it is a memory that will last a lifetime. Now, that I got the hang of it, I plan on asking her out on another date in the near future.

Nevertheless, I know that starting in about five or six years (and hopefully not sooner), I’ll be having as much fun as a man getting a prostate exam. Although, at least in my yearly exam, I know what to expect!

As for the party, and the aftershock of having hosted my first pre-teens birthday bash, like General Custer, I’m going to take a stand; no more eleven or twelve-year-old birthday parties for our two younger kids, no matter how much they will cherish it later!

Of course, that's easier said then done, Custer was not married to Sitting Bull (just kidding)…

Friday, February 3, 2012

The Pope, the Dictator and my Wife…

I love my wife.

She is smart, confident, self-reliant and doesn’t shy away from standing up and speaking out for what she believes, even when it doesn’t agree with others around her.

In fact, aside from her beauty (let’s be real), her intellect and passion were some of the reasons I fell in love with her on our first date (she could hold a conversation about almost anything!).

I sometimes wish I could be more like her or my late grandfather, who as Cubans say, never had “hair in his tongue” for telling people what was on his mind. In other words, he told it like it is; like it or leave it.

However, my wife’s passion can sometimes lead to differences between us, especially considering that I can also be passionate as well.  And, she can be as stubborn as a mule (although I should say horse, since a mule is too close to a donkey, the mascot of the dark side!).  Then again, I can be a bit hard headed myself.

Like most Cuban-Americans that live in Miami, she is fervent about her disdain for Cuba’s communist government.

Fidel Castro
Maybe, it is the way she was brought up. Her father trained to fight in the Bay of Pigs, although he was never sent, and taught his daughters about Fidel Castro’s betrayal of our people and his murderous wrath against opponents.

Or it could be the fact that her mother came during Operation Peter Pan, where about fourteen thousand children were sent by their parents to Miami in coordination with the Roman Catholic Church, as word started spreading that the Cuban government intended to take kids away from their families and send them into Soviet-style work camps.

Or, maybe, it’s the fact that she has spent the last 19 years of her life working for one of the strongest critics of the Cuban regime, retired U.S. Congressman Lincoln Diaz Balart, and has been very involved in the plight for the freedom of Cuba.

In any case, there is absolutely no compromise in many Cuban-Americans when it comes to dealing with the Cuban dictatorship, which is responsible for the deaths of thousands over the last five decades, the separation of the Cuban people and the confiscation of property, including lifelong businesses, homes and estates.

So, a few nights ago, when I told my wife that my station was requesting credentials for me to go to Cuba to cover Pope Benedict XVI’s visit next month to the island for the 400th anniversary of the appearance of the image of La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre (aka Our Lady of Charity) to three fishermen on the Bay of Nipe, she got a bit upset.

“You volunteered, didn’t you?” she asked in an indignant tone. (Talk about being caught between "the" Rock and a hard place!)

No, I can honestly say I did not ask to go, even when other co-workers did, although, as a Cuban, born on the island (but here since I was five), a Catholic, and a journalist (not to mention a loyal follower of Pope Benedict), I think it’s an opportunity of a lifetime.

I have never traveled or, in all honesty, had any interest in traveling to Cuba; at least while the communist government was in control.

Servant of the Servants of God
In fact, my father got out just before state security officers came knocking at my grandparents’ house to arrest him under suspicion of assisting the contra-revolution.

He could have been one of the tens of thousands of political prisoners that were thrown into Cuban jails after sham trials and locked away for decades or faced a firing squad.

Like many exile kids, my brother and I could have grown up without our father.

I figured, as my parents engrained in us, as long as Fidel Castro and his regime were in power, we had nothing to do in Cuba, despite still having family there, on my father’s side.

In fact, one of the few times I remember seeing my dad cry was the day he was driving me to high school, when I was in tenth grade, after hearing that his father had died in Cuba.

He told me, “Do you know what one of the hardest things in life is? It’s having your father die and not being able to even attend his funeral.” I have never forgotten that.

It is a story often repeated in the Cuban exile experience, especially among the early arrivals, who would come because of political and religious persecution, and understood they could never go back while the dictatorship was in power.

Needless to say, fifty years later, there remains a lot of pain. There are still many open wounds and resentment.  Forgiveness and healing of this magnitude takes time; although for some it may be easier then others.

The Cuban Catholic Church, which was a powerful social force when the revolution triumphed, soon came under fire by the new atheistic communist regime; who blamed the Church for collaborating with counter-revolutionaries and the Bay of Pigs invaders.

Catholics were persecuted, parishes and properties were seized, schools were shut down and hundreds of clergy were forced to leave the island (over 80 percent of religious).

The Church was left debilitated and forced into hiding.

However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba adopted a more lenient position on religion and the Church began to reemerge from the shadows again.

The Pope and the Dictator
In 1998, Bl. Pope John Paul II made a historic visit to the island.

Many, who had witnessed the pontiff bring down communism in Poland, Europe and the Soviet Union, without a shot being fired, were hopeful of a similar consequence in Cuba.  It never materialized.

Nevertheless, the relationship between the Church and the government began to improve, much to the dismay of some exiles, who as I stated, because of all the water that has passed under the bridge, will never compromise on their firmness against the regime.

The fact that Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the highest ranking Church official on the island, has never been an outspoken critic of the government’s human rights abuse, lack of basic freedoms, and oppressive control over society, has left much to be desired among exiles.  Many see him as nothing more than a puppet of the dictatorship and kowtow to governmental whims.

While repressive state security officers have beaten and arrested a group of women protesters, who each week march to their parish dressed in white, in prayer and openly calling for the liberation of all political prisoners, and when dissidents have starved themselves to make a point against the oppressive government, he has remained eerily silent.

Meanwhile, they claim that he is dining with dignitaries, traveling openly and living a life that the average Cuban on the island cannot live.

Fair or not, regardless of his many human weaknesses, and although he, like all Christian leaders, have an obligation to stand up for social justice, the dignity of the human person, and boldly speak the truth regardless of consequence, as the martyrs of the Church have done, it must be noted that the Church’s primary mission is not to free men from oppression and ties that bind them in this world. It is to free men’s soul from the ties that bind them in the eternal one.

We only have to look at the cross to understand that, unfortunately, at times, we may have to suffer in life.  (Not to mention, Liberation Theology, as Jeremiah Wright and many others, including Catholics, around the world preach, is condemned by the Church)

As a matter of fact, in The Beatitudes, Jesus makes clear that the poor, the hungry, the downtrodden and the persecuted are really more blessed than we are.  Looking at it from a human perspective, maybe not so much, but God doesn't look at human suffering with our lenses.    

Anyway, at the risk of airing some dirty laundry, all that is to set up the story I first started telling you about my wife.

For many Cuban exiles, including my wife, the fact that Pope Benedict is traveling to Cuba is bad enough in it of itself.  It represents millions of dollars for the government from visiting press and pilgrims, including a group from Miami.

But, making it worse, is the fact that the pope is going to be received by Raul Castro, the current leader of the regime, and later, during his trip, is scheduled to meet with the Fidel, who is now retired and suffering health issues.

"Why doesn’t he meet with Cuban dissidents?" she asked during our discussion.

Keep in mind that Jesus Christ said that it is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick. He did not come to call on the righteous but the sinners. Let’s just say, Castro, who attended a Catholic school while growing up, might fit that description.

"Are you questioning the pope?” I asked, as I felt a rush of emotion overcome me. “How do you know what the pope is going to talk to Fidel about?”

Of course, that's no consolation to those who feel betrayed or had to endure suffering at the hands of the Cuban dictator.

Our Lady of Charity
I must admit, it didn’t help that I was a bit animated and condescending. I have a tendency of being self-righteous.  It's one of my many faults and, unfortunately, my wife knows it well.

But, in my mind, I couldn’t fathom how anyone, politics aside, and I wasn’t just thinking about my wife but all the recent critics, can second guess the actions of the successor of Peter; who Christ gave the keys to the kingdom and authority to lead His Church.  As self-righteous as I can be, I am not going to second guess the intentions of the Bishop of Rome!

Sure, there have been a handful of popes in the Church’s two thousand year history that have not necessarily been upstanding citizens in their personal lives, but none ever taught error or led the flock astray.

They may have acted hypocritically, as the sinners that they were (aren't we all?), but they never misled the faithful into accepting their lifestyles as an example of Christian living.

In other words, I believe that just as I am called to follow Christ, I am also called to follow the Church, His Body, the “pillar and foundation of truth,” which Jesus founded upon the Rock of Peter, and has had an unbroken line of succession from generation to generation until today.

Unfortunately, my wife didn't care much for any of my brilliant arguments or my passion (which, in retrospect, may have come on a tad too strong!).  I've been in the dog house ever since.

It's like the old saying, "Would you want to be right, or be happy?"  Obviously, as the old Holy Grail Knight in the last scene of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, would say, I chose poorly.

Of course, my wife would argue that I definitely wasn't right and, at least at this point, I am not happy either.

In any case, I’m not even sure that I will be approved for press credentials by the Cuban government. The Castro government has a very negative opinion of the Miami press corps, especially my station, which they call a mouthpiece of  the “Cuban Mafia.”

Chances are that I may never be allowed to enter Cuba (and they may be even less after this blog!).  But, if I am, it’s an opportunity I can’t pass up, regardless of politics in or outside my house; even at the risk of staying in the Espinosa dog house for a little while longer.

As the great G.K. Chesterton once wrote, "Marriage is an adventure, like going to war."  Sometimes, it certainly is, especially when ego and pride get in the way, but I wouldn't change a thing...