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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

New Year and New Hope for Resolutions...

"Should old acquaintances be forgot, and never brought to mind?" say the lyrics of the old New Year's Song, Auld Lang Syne

Well, in my case, as rough as 2014 may have been at times, I have no regrets or no one to have to forget! 

However, every year as the music plays in the background at Times Square, after the clock strikes midnight, and couples kiss, while confetti pours from the sky and fireworks burst in the sky and toasts are made with champagne glasses around the globe (and Cubans eat their twelve grapes and toss a bucket of water out the door!), millions of people make their New Year's resolutions, if they hadn't already made them beforehand!

It's a tradition as old as the beginning of time, when surviving the new year was a good resolution to make, and often, like most resolutions, fell short at some point, due to an unexpected bite of a Tyrannosaurus (Of course, the calendar year may have been a little different, or not existing at all!) but, in the spirit of the New Year, I will share my resolutions for 2015:

1) Continue growing in my faith, which includes working through the Old Testament every morning, which I started a couple of years ago but haven't finished, attending daily Mass, like I did for several years before my work schedule changed, and taking more time in prayer and meditation throughout my day.  I also want to continue reading and learning about the Church, as I have been doing for the past eight years.

2) Spend more quality time with my family, which includes having dinner at the dinner table, that, because of hectic schedules, we have gotten away from in 2014, adjusting our schedules to spend more time as a family, which may mean accepting less invitations to parties and events that take time away from the family, doing more proactive activities together on weekends, and despite, extra expenses for our older daughter's Confirmation, primary school graduation and starting high school, and my son's First Holy Communion, my brother's wedding in Oregon and my wife traveling to London for our niece's First Communion (which, unfortunately, we all can't afford to go unless we win the lotto!), I want to take a family vacation together.  We have four years left before our eldest daughter goes off to college and she already has her heart set on Notre Dame!

3) Spend more time dating my wife.  Now, that we have a soon-to-be 14-year-old, who is going to be entering high school by the end of the year and has proven to be a responsible babysitter in recent weeks, we are going to take advantage and leave her in charge of our little ones from time to time and go out on dates, which we haven't been doing as much lately.

4) Lose weight (Goal 50 lbs.); not for any narcissistic or vainglory reasons but because I want to be around to attend my kids' high school and college graduations, and when they go through their teens and desperately need fatherly guidance, I want to be there as well as.  I also really want to walk my daughters down the aisle, which my father-in-law wasn't able to do.  This includes eating healthier, starting a consistent exercise program, staying away from sweets and fried foods (which I love!), drinking more water and less beer (Although, I can compensate by drinking more scotch!) and stop snacking when I get home from work (Which, to me, is as hard as giving up beer!).  Yes, I know.  I've made this resolution before but new year new hope, right?

5) Streamline my life (And, I don't mean getting rid of my wife and kids); my briefcase is bursting at the seams and, to top it off, I carry around an ever-growing stack of papers to and from work everyday.  Why?  God knows why (Maybe, it's insecurities from the time I ran out of toilet paper at a  park in my teens).  I never have time to go through the papers and documents at work and probably less time at home, but the pile keeps growing and keeps going with me everywhere I go!  I want to do away with unneeded junk and distractions (I'm a bit of a pack rat) and that includes getting rid of clothes that don't fit (although, if I plan on losing 50 lbs., I may have to reconsider this one), old shoes that are worn out, and papers and items that I don't need (my side of the room is a sore spot for my wife and me!).

6) And, finally, I want to watch less Mets, Heat and Redskins games (No, I don't really mean this one but wanted to see if my wife really reads my blogs!)

Let's be honest, I don't think any of these can compete with avoiding a Tyrannosaurus (Or staying alive!), so they should be within reach, if I apply myself and show a little will power.  In any case, I'll keep you posted as the year progresses.

What are your New Year's resolutions?...

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

What's Love Got to Do With It?...

Brings back memories...
In her 1984 classic song, Tina Turner asked, "What's love got to do with it?  What's love, but a second hand emotion?"

In all honesty, I wasn't much of a fan of the song but it came to mind lately, as I reflected on a good friend, whose nearly 20-year-marriage is coming to an end after his wife left a note stating, "I don't love you anymore," in contrast with my brother, who, following the footsteps of George Clooney, is finally taking the plunge into respectability, while still in his 40's and before needing Celebrex to keep his body in motion, announced he is getting married next year.

If you think about it, there's a profound truth and wisdom in the Turner song.  Whether the songwriters meant it as such or not, the truth is, as I said in the toast I made for my brother and his fiancĂ© on the night they made public their intentions to a group of family and friends, love is not a feeling (although, it can be).  It's an action; a choice.  Feelings can come and go, and anyone who's been married can attest there are days, where the feelings are stronger than others (i.e., a second hand emotion!).  But, a choice to love can last forever.

One of the most popular Bible verses at weddings is from St. Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians,  "Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, [love] is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth.  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things."  (1 Cor 13:4-7)

If you look around today, when more than forty percent of marriages end in divorce, and it goes up to sixty percent of second marriages and seventy percent of third time marriage (You see, the grass is not always greener!), not to mention, the children of divorced parents are more likely to end up divorced themselves, there is obviously a disconnect between the words of St. Paul and what couples at the altar are hearing, or, at least, living.

Let's face it, we live in a throwaway society that tells us, moreover, reinforces at every chance, that it's all about us; looking out for number one and finding personal happiness.  And, if something is broken or damaged, forget fixing it, throw it away and get a new one!  An entire generation of best-selling books bolstering this message can be found at any local book store.

Last Sunday, I was helping my good friend remove furniture from his house and into a new apartment he was forced to move into, just days before Christmas.  I'll be honest, it was a bit heart wrenching for me to see that house, where we had shared in so many laughs, good meals, good wine and memories, be left in shambles and disarray from the emptying of book cases, consoles, closets and furniture that kept two decades of mementos.  The remnants of a marriage coming to a bitter end and whose casualties are two teenage kids, who will now be forced to live bouncing from house to house to be with their parents.  I could only imagine what my friend was feeling as he moved out of the house, where he started a life with his wife and was raising his family. 

At one point, during a short lapse in work, I told another man who was helping, "I don't know about you but this really saddens me."

He shot back in a very pragmatic tone, "It's better that it happens now then finding himself unhappy ten years from now."

Really?  Is that what marriage has come down to?  I take you so-and-so for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part or until you stop making me happy!

With that mentality, it's no wonder why marriages are failing.  Resting one's happiness and fulfillment on another person or thing, is a sure recipe for disappointment and frustration, because no one can ever live up to those expectations, no matter how hard they may try (or not try in some cases!).  Happiness and fulfillment become as elusive as the Road Runner to Wile E. Coyote, unless our priorities are grounded correctly.

St. John Paul II once wrote that our lives, "which seem like so many other lives, are in fact caught up in a great drama of sin and redemption.  In that drama, human love will yield to 'the pressure of reality' and crumble unless it is completed and perfected in being conformed to a Love that is capable of fulfilling love's longing for absolute fulfillment." 

That is a transcendent love that can only come from God.  A marriage without God centering it, is always at risk to the pressures of society.

I think we, as a culture, with all the destination and "venue" weddings, have lost that sense of "till death do us part" because marriage has been devalued and relegated to a piece of paper; a contract (like a business partnership) in a civil ceremony rather than a covenant before God in a church or place of worship.  That's not to say that taking wedding vows in a church guarantees success, unless God is a prominent part of the marriage. 

Still, a contract can be dissolved for any just reason at any time, although in states with "no-fault" divorces, no reason, aside from "I'm not happy," is needed.

However, a covenant in ancient times was how a person, who was not a blood relative, became part of another family.  It was and is a commitment usually sworn before God, is sacramental, since it is self-offering and sacrificial, and meant to last forever. 

Last May, my parents celebrated their 50th Wedding Anniversary.  Fifty years!  Like an old Cuban grandmother would say, "Que Aguante!" or loosely translated, "What patience!"  Fifty years of good times and many happy memories, as well as, plenty of sacrifices and hardships.  No marriage can ever be measured by just the good times but how it overcomes the tough ones.

In my parents' case, like most couples, I'm sure there were many ups and downs in how they felt about each other at different times in their life but they never gave up.  They chose to love like St. Paul described it; a love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things.

I cannot thank them enough for their example of perseverance and true love, not just to one another but, just as importantly, to God and to their family; my brother and me, because marriage is not just about the couple but about the good of the family, and the good of society, if you want to take it a step deeper.

As St. John Paul II also stated, "Marriage is an act of will that signifies and involves a mutual gift, which unites the spouses and binds them to their eventual souls, with whom they make up a sole family - a domestic church." And, “As the family goes, so goes the nation and so goes the whole world in which we live.”

A marriage is not easy.  It takes hard work, sacrifice and a will to endure.  I pray my parents serve to encourage my brother to choose to love through rough times, which are inevitable in any  matrimony.  Although, let's not get any illusions of grandeur.  For my brother to make it to his 50th Wedding Anniversary, it would mean he would have to live to nearly 100!  Yikes! 

After experiencing the somberness of having to move my good friend from his house earlier this week, I see how easily a failure to choose to love and putting God in the center of a marriage can lead to the lyrics of another '80's song, this one by Luther Vandross, "A room is a still a room, even when there's nothin' there but gloom.  But a room is not a house and a house is not a home, when the two of us are far apart and one of us has a broken heart."

May God bless my brother's marriage and heal my good friend's and his children's' broken hearts...


Thursday, December 18, 2014

A Day in the Life; Like Mike, Well Almost...

Real Gatorade or beer?
A popular Gatorade commercial in the 90's highlighted NBA legend Michael Jordan, as a catchy song played in the background, while images interlaced of Jordan and kids frolicking on a basketball court, that said, "Like Mike.  If I could be like Mike. I want to be like Mike."

Well, my seven-year-old son has never seen that commercial and doesn't even know who Michael Jordan is (Sad, isn't it?).  So, last weekend, he announced at a Hooter's restaurant, where we had gone to lunch so I could catch a little of the Redskins game (I know they suck but I still root for the sorry saps!), while my wife and daughters went for a quick stop at a beauty salon in the same mall, that he wanted to be... get this, not like Mike, but like Dad (aka, me!).  However, instead of having the moves and playing like arguably the greatest basketball player that ever lived, he was talking about drinking beer and whiskey!  No kidding, he said that. 

Of course, we all laughed but seconds later, the waitress shows up to take our drink orders and he orders a beer!  We all started laughing again but he wasn't kidding.  The waitress played along.  "What kind would you like?" she asked him.  He responded, "What kind do you have?" as if he had done this before!  She went on the say several beers and he answered, "I'll have a Corona Light."  He was serious!

In fact, about as serious as the time last week when he asked me for wine, as I was pouring a glass for myself at home, and gave it to him and saying, "This is for you."  He said with a surprised look on his face, "Really?" and took the wine glass, went to the living room and told his mom and sisters that Dad had given him wine, as he proceeded to take a small sip before I took it away from him.  He was like, "Why did you take it away?"  He really thought it was his.

In any case, going back to the Hooter's story, he was very disappointed when the waitress brought him lemonade and I said it was a Corona Extra Light.  He wasn't amused!

I may have to rethink the example I'm setting and, maybe even, have to have that man to man talk with him soon...


Saturday, December 13, 2014

Words of Wisdom from Fulton Sheen...

“There are 10,000 times 10,000 roads down which you may travel during life. But at the end of all of these roads, you will see one or the other of two faces: the merciful face of Christ or the miserable face of Satan.”

-- Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen, priest, author and one of the first and greatest televangelists in U.S. history.  Sheen hosted a prime time television show called, Life is Worth Living in the 1950's and The Fulton Sheen Program in the 1960's.  His cause for canonization was officially opened in 2002 and, earlier this year, Pope Benedict XVI recognized him as "Venerable Servant of God," for a life of heroic virtue...

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Screwtape, Distraction and a Weekend with the Boys...

It is commonly suggested within Christian circles that the Devil will not attack humanity with horns, a pitchfork and flames burning within and around him (outside of Tim Curry in the Hollywood flop, Legend).  Instead, he attacks in the temptations we are prone to covet and in the subtleties and distractions that keep our focus away from God and on the mundane and quotidian. 

C.S. Lewis' fictional character Screwtape, the senior demon writing to his apprentice and nephew Wormwood, in The Screwtape Letters, got it right when he wrote, “It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out.”  

Not to belabor the point, but, as I wrote in my last blog, the last few months have been a bit hectic for me, to say the least.  At times, I've felt like I've been treading water, just trying to keep my head afloat, with the day-to-day grind of work, the stress and anxieties that come with the demands of a rigorous work schedule, and, thus, the distractions that ensue.

In other words, my mind has been more preoccupied with the temporal, mundane and quotidian than the eternal.

Unfortunately, it couldn't have come at a less opportune time (Then again, it all depends on what side of the opportunity you're on!).

Several months ago, I was selected to lead a spiritual retreat to help bring men closer to God at my parish.  At about the same time, I took on a new role at work and, let's just say, work won!  I let my job consume me,  affecting, not only my spiritual life, but my home life in the process.

Yet, to be honest, I didn't see it until a few weeks ago, as we were fast approaching the retreat weekend and I was telling a good friend about how busy I had been and how difficult it was for me to concentrate on preparing the topics for discussion for the men and even praying. 

In 2009, when I led the same retreat, I was in a zone.  I was reading the Bible every morning, praying from almost the time I woke up until I went to bed (Not continuously, but in an open-ended conversation with God), going to Confession every two to three weeks, reflecting and giving thought to the meeting topics and partaking and receiving the Eucharist on a daily basis.

This time around, it was a challenge.

I was so absorbed with my job that, while I was praying every day, it was not as deep or with the same intensity as I was doing the first time around.  I wasn't reading scriptures on a daily basis.  I went extended periods, at times eight to ten weeks, without going to Confession, and aside from Sundays and Fridays (when I lector), I was finding it difficult to make it to daily Mass.  Moreover, there were many weeks (if not most!) when our meeting topics were decided on the morning of! 

It was a bit discouraging because I felt like I was failing the men, who entrusted me to lead the retreat. 

In any case, before I carried on about all the things that were happening at work, my feelings of dejection and hints of fear and anxiety that were enveloping me (And, to think, he was only calling to say he couldn't make it to an upcoming meeting and asked how I was doing!), my friend stopped me in my tracks and said, "Carlos, you know you are under attack, right?" 

Say, what? I thought.

"You're leading this retreat and the Devil knows it," he went on.  "Remember, when I led?  I had a fire and flood at my house!"  How could I forget?  Some of the guys joked that the locust and frogs weren't far behind! 

His words resonated within me.  It was like the heavens opened and the choir of angels sang.  I hadn't even realized it.  In fact, I was too engrossed to realize it!  It all suddenly made sense; the busyness, the stress and sleepless nights, the constant turmoil at work (and sometimes at home).  They were all distractions!  I was being led astray without even knowing it.

As C.S. Lewis' Screwtape would write, “Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one--the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” 

Sin separates us from God, as another friend pointed out the first night of the retreat, and when we're not focused on God, it is easy to fall into sin.  We are sitting ducks to the temptations of life, just waiting to be shot down. Now, fortunately for us, there is no sin that is greater than God's love.

As I told a friend on the way to the retreat house, "It's amazing how every time I go to Confession; no matter what I do, no matter how many times repeat the same sins and no matter how I feel, the priest always forgives me!" (As long as I'm repentant!)

In a nutshell, that's the message we conveyed to the seventeen men that attended the retreat for the first time. 

It's the story of The Prodigal Son, who betrays his father by asking for his inheritance before his father's death, moves to a foreign land and blows it on a life of debauchery, only to find himself in a famine and working in pig slop.  He comes to his senses, repents and heads back home to ask for forgiveness.  If you think about it, it's the story of every one of us at one point or another.

His father, not only forgives him but, throws a huge celebration upon his return because, "This son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found."

After the conversation with my two-Egyptian-plagued friend, by the time the retreat came around, I was finally in that spiritual zone that had eluded me for months.  Our team of over twenty-five men came together, as we always do, and we had a wonderful weekend of bonding, camaraderie and goodwill.  In the full sense, it was a true demonstration of loving God through loving our neighbor.

Author and Boston College Professor, Peter Kreeft once wrote, “Our culture has filled our heads but emptied our hearts, stuffed our wallets but starved our wonder. It has fed our thirst for facts but not for meaning or mystery. It produces "nice" people, not heroes.”

While, most of the men on the team would balk at being called heroes, heroic is what they do every six months at the retreats.  With God's help, they have changed lives, including mine and most of the men who are involved year after year.  They have saved marriages and restored families. 

But, it all starts with each man, who at times, like me, may not be "feeling it" because of distractions, or, may even, be feeling the full weight of his own cross, but grinds it out and is obedient and faithful to God, in spite of it.

As Screwtape acknowledged, “Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy (God)'s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”...

Monday, December 1, 2014

Busy, Busy, Busy but it Could be Worse!...

We live extremely busy lives.  In fact, too busy if you ask me!

In my case, the last several months have been a blur.  I was promoted to a new role at work, and while I'm still doing most of the things I was already doing, since July of last year, I've gotten more piled on my plate.  Let's just say, at times, I feel like Wonder Mike from The Sugarhill Gang's Rapper's Delight.  And, so I digress. 

In any case, in recent months, I've been busy planning and coordinating special stories for "sweeps," the TV ratings period in November.  I've been busy with staff scheduling, which is a bear of a task, especially heading into "sweeps," with reporters and photographers doing special assignments, everybody overworked and realizing if they don't use their sick days before the end of the year, they will lose them, and heading into vacation season.  I've been busy overseeing and contributing to our day-to-day editorial content.  I've been busy organizing and supervising special stories for a sales campaign that lasts until the beginning of the year.  I've been busy attending editorial meetings, scheduling meetings, promotions meetings, personnel meetings, budget meetings (by the way, did I mention meetings? Sometimes 5 in one day!), interviewing candidates for open positions, and, if that weren't enough, our news department is relocating to a new building next month and I have been busy with meetings about the move, coordinating the training schedules, and scheduling freelancers to fill in during the training.  Even when I get home at 7:30p or 8:00p at night, I am constantly checking emails and putting out fires.  It's been a bit hectic!

But wait, as the infomercials on TV say, that's not all!  In my spare time, I recently made a presentation for the adult catechesis class at my parish on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ (A monster topic, which required a lot of time and study) and I was preparing my men's group for a spiritual retreat and had to come up with weekly topics for discussion.

As a co-worker acutely pointed out one day, "You really like to take on a lot don't you?  I don't know how you do it!"  Well, to be fair, I don't know either!

I tell you, several times a week, I found myself awake at 5:00a, 4:30a or even 3:00a (And not just to go to the bathroom!), thinking about work and all the other things that needed to get done, which is a sure sign of anxiety; the antithesis to faith and trust in God.  It's been overwhelming.

It came to a point where, twice in the past month, I felt an uncomfortable pressure in my chest and had to go check it out.  Aside from my blood pressure shooting up to the stratosphere, it seems, the pressure was most likely stress related but I was referred to a cardiologist, just in case.   

Fortunately, sweeps are done and so is the retreat I was preparing for.  Now, I see a light at the end of the tunnel; only the tunnel is deep and dark and still requires some steady maneuvering through the myriad of goblins, sick days, a monumental move and Smaug the fire-breathing dragon.  Where's Bilbo Baggins and his magic ring when you need him?   

At the end of the day, as Igor says to Dr. Frankenstein, while digging up a grave, in one of my all-time favorite movie lines, in Mel Brook's Young Frankenstein, "It could be worse.  It could be raining." Of course, no sooner had he said that, than a monsoon comes over them.

Lord, give me strength!...