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Friday, December 30, 2016

2016: Tears, Terror and the Times of Our Lives...

What a year...
For better or worse, depending on your perspective, 2016 was one of the most remarkable years, at least, in recent memory.

It was the year the Chicago Cubs won the World Series after a 108-year drought.

The year that Cuban Dictator Fidel Castro finally died (at the age of ninety, mind you!), in probably the most anticipated deaths in history, especially among Miami's Cuban exiles community, which I am a part of.  It took fifty-seven years for it to happen!

And, it was the year, the least-likely presidential candidate, Donald Trump, a man with no political experience ever, was elected President of the United States; after polls showed him trailing by double figures as late as a month before the election. No presidential candidate had ever overcome that type of deficit in U.S. history.  And, that was all in November!

As a TV news professional, for me, it was an exhausting month; long hours at work, lots of logistical and special coverage planning, continuous live coverage and far too many meals in the newsroom. In fact, the elections, its fallout and death of Castro, which carried us into December felt like a real-life version of Pulp Fiction, only we didn't have Harvey Keitel to clean up the mess!

Aside from President Obama's visit to Cuba in March, which was a big deal for all the local stations, especially mine, which caters to a Spanish-speaking and mostly Cuban-American audience, and this marked the first time an American President set foot on the island nation since 1928, the latter half of the year was when it really got busy.

It started with the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando in June, followed by shocking death of Marlins baseball star Jose Fernandez in a boating accident in September, then Hurricane Matthew threatened South Florida.  Finally, there was November, which, while the Cubs were not something we covered extensively, Castro's death and Trump's win were.

By the time mid-December came around, we were running on fumes.

Winston in black.  Dante in gold...
On a personal level, we had a banner year at the Espinosa home-front.  We made an addition to the family in March; adopting an energetic terrier mix, who we named Dante, fitting for this high strung ball of fur that drove me crazy during his first several months with us.  He couldn't control his bowels and bladder.  But, he grew into probably the most lovable and affectionate member of our family.

We also took several trips this year; our annual family vacation to Sanibel Island in July, which has been an ongoing week-long getaway for my wife's family for the past forty years, give or take a few, and includes extended family and lifelong friends.

My wife and I also took the kids to New Orleans to celebrate our younger daughter's twelfth birthday in September.  We had taken our oldest daughter to New York City in 2013. Now, our nine-year-old son wants to go to San Francisco or Honolulu for his 12th!  We're going to need to start saving for that one!

We also traveled to Orlando for the girls' national dance competition in July, which after years of succeeding, took a turn for the worse this time, after several of the studio's top dancers broke off to start their own studio.  Let's just say, I lived the Dance Moms drama with my wife and daughters every night in the flesh!

Another highlight, albeit a bit melancholy, was our oldest daughter singing the National Anthem with her school choir at a Miami Marlins v. New York Mets game in September.  The New Yorkers are her, my son and my favorite team.  However, it happened to fall on the same night the Marlins were playing their first game after the Fernandez tragedy!  The girls were visibly shaken after singing by the emotionally charged pre-game ceremony.

Still, some lows included the deaths of a good friend due to cancer, which consumed him in three short months, and of our station's longtime anchorman (over thirty-five years to be exact), who was a beloved and respected figure by most of the staff, and I had the privilege of working with for eighteen years.  He was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis just months after retiring in late 2015 and died in November.

Yet, amidst the sorrows, joy, loss and celebrations, 2016 without a doubt will be a memorable year for me; a year much like Green Day's song, Good Riddance (Time of Your Life); replete with contradiction.

"Another turning point, a fork stuck in the road.  Time grabs you by the wrist, directs you where to go.  So make the best of this test, and don't ask why.  It's not a question, but a lesson learned in time. It's something unpredictable but in the end it's right.  I hope you had the time of your life."

As another year goes by, our kids grow older and the memories we made soon begin to fade, I realize that we have to enjoy the moment for these are the times of our lives.

May 2017 be as memorable...

[photo credit: AP Photo/ Matt Slocum]

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Finding Purpose and Setting the World on Fire...

Setting the world on fire...
St. Catherine of Siena once said, "If you are who God meant you to be, you will set the world on fire."

It was the quote used by the Bishop of London during his sermon at Prince William and Catherine's royal wedding.

For many of us, trying to figure out who we are meant to be can take a lifetime; a lifelong search for purpose.

I remember a time in the early stages of my life, when I thought my purpose was to be a cowboy, before the Ed Bruce song advised moms against it, and after thinking I wanted to be a trapeze artist, inspired by Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis in the movie, Trapeze. Somewhere between cowboy and my illusions of grandeur on a high wire, I also considered the priesthood.  Talk about confusion!

Then, later in my childhood, I thought my purpose was to play professional baseball, only to realize, when I got to high school, that I wasn't going to be setting the world on fire in that role, which coincided with my short endeavor into acting in Mrs. Jones' drama class (which by the way, inspired my younger brother to become an actor, which became what he was meant to be.  He's been acting professionally since 1995!).

Playing Oscar Madison in The Odd Couple, was a revelation.  The attention and undeserved accolades I got in the hallways was like the hypnotizing visible smell of cheese that got Jerry into trouble with Tom in the TV show I would put on in the background, as I napped, after getting home from school before baseball games.  It was only reaffirmed with my roles as Bert Jefferson in The Man Who Came to Dinner, the Chief in Get Smart, Jonathan Harker in Dracula and Earthquake McGoon in Li'l Abner, our end-of-year musical.

So, I decided to combine the best of both worlds (my love of baseball and love for the attention of acting) and become a sportscaster! It changed to newscaster by the time I got to college, fearing that, as a sportscaster, I would get labeled as an ex-jock who failed at making it as a player (which was true but why admit it?).

Thus started my career as a news reporter, with hopes of becoming a network news anchor someday. It soon evolved into newsroom editorial management and I have been working in various editorial roles in television news ever since.

Yet, I realize, as my priorities changed with time, that my true vocation and who I am meant to be is beyond whatever I can ever achieve professionally.

Some people identify themselves by what they do in life or what they want to be and, if they stop doing it, or their goals are frustrated, sometimes due to circumstances beyond their control, they feel empty, depressed, resentful or, even, worthless.

Thomas Merton once wrote, "We are so obsessed with doing that we have no time and no imagination left for being.  As a result, men are valued not for what they are but for what they do or what they have - for their usefulness."

It's the reason some men, and lately more and more women, have midlife crisis.  They reach a point in their life when they haven't accomplished what they set out to do and so, they try to fill the void in their souls with material things or by having intimate relationships outside of marriage.

Some even try to go back in time by having their hair dyed, wearing an earring (men) or getting a tattoo.  It never works.  Aside from looking as ridiculous, and met with as much enthusiasm from friends and loved ones, as Frank Ricard (Will Ferrell's character) streaking down the middle of town in Old School, the emptiness continues; the hole doesn't diminish.

Moreover, what we are is often not who we are or are meant to be.  I remember a friend once telling me that he had achieved everything he wanted in life; he had a very successful career, a beautiful wife, healthy kids, a waterfront property with an infinity pool and 35-foot boat on a dock in the back. Yet, one evening, as he sat in his backyard smoking a cigar and drinking a scotch, overlooking the pool, lake and boat, as the sun was setting, he asked himself, "Is this all there is?"

You see, despite popular opinion, our purpose is never what we do, how many toys we have in the end, how much power, vainglory or sexual partners we have had.  As the old saying goes, we came into this world naked and naked we will leave it!

Finding true joy, fulfillment and peace surpasses all the empty promises.  It comes down to love; feeling loved and loving others; getting outside ourselves, and the never-ending search for happiness in our heads, and serving others.

St. Teresa of Calcutta (aka Mother Teresa) once said, "The fruit of silence is prayer.  The fruit of prayer is faith.  The fruit of faith is love.  The fruit of love is service.  The fruit of service is peace."

It's like the first line of Rick Warren's best selling book, The Purpose Driven Life, which states, "It's not about you."

Of course, in the self-absorbed culture we live in today, where selfies have become a validation of the happy and fulfilled lives people want us to see, and where we are constantly told to look-out-for-number-one and that we control our own destiny, if we think right, eat right, live right and look right, Warren's line may sound as foreign to some as the second line of Manfred Mann's Blinded by the Light.  (I've had this ongoing argument with my family.  Doesn't he say, "wrapped up like a douche in the middle of the night?")

In any case, I am not defined by what I do but who I am, as St. Catherine stated.  And, who I am is not the cowboy, trapeze artist, baseball player or TV star that I wanted to be or my profession as a television news managing editor, but a child of God. We are all children of God.  And, if children, as St. Paul points out, then heirs.

As heirs, therefore, our purpose is to lift up the Kingdom of God by serving others; reflecting Christ's love in this world and, in our own small way, setting a spark that spreads into raging flames and draws people to the consuming fire of God's love, which is the only place anyone can find real happiness.

Then we can say, as Jesus once did, "I have come to cast fire upon the earth; and how I wish it were already kindled!" (Luke 12:49)...

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Christmas, Santa and a Boy's Dying Wish...

Eric Schmitt-Matzen, aka Santa Claus... 
I'll admit it.  I'm a sucker for Christmas stories.  Every year, there's a heartwarming story or song that really touches my heart (to the point where I find myself quietly sobbing and people coming up to me to see if I'm alright).  The Christmas Shoes by NewSong comes to mind.

This year, it was the story of a dying boy and Santa, Eric Schmitt-Matzen, the bigger-than-life Kris Kringle impersonator from Knoxville, Tennessee (he's six-feet tall but weighs in at 310 lbs), who made the boy's wish come true; to make it to Christmas before he died.

Although, God called the five-year-old home before the day we celebrate the birth of Christ, he did make it to Christmas, thanks, in part, to the handlebar mustached Santa, a caring hospital nurse and his family.  In fact, not only did the boy live to see Christmas, he died in Santa's arms.

By now, you may have heard the story.  It has been reported in various media outlets.

Schmitt-Matzen received a call from a nurse at a local hospital to tell him that he needed to get there as soon as possible because a boy was not going to make it past that night and his biggest concern was missing Christmas this year.  So, Schmitt-Matzen, who had just gotten home from a day of playing Santa for other kids, immediately sprang into action and scurried over.  

When he arrived, he found a distressing scene and asked the boy's family to leave the room if they were going to cry, because his job was "to make sure he got Christmas," and he didn't didn't want their tears to make him cry as well.

As they left, the boy's mother handed Schmitt-Matzen a gift to give the boy; toys from the animated series PAW Patrol, that he really wanted.  The family went outside and watched tearfully through an Intensive Care window.    

Schmitt-Matzen, who was born on St. Nicholas' Day and has dedicated his life to bringing Christmas cheer to children, says the boy was weak and appeared to be falling asleep.  But, he approached him with the joy of Christmas, as he had done countless times.  His exchange with the boy brings a knot in my throat as I write it:

"What's this I hear you're going to be missing Christmas this year?" he said.

The boy answered meekly, "They say I'm going to die."

"Well, you're not going to miss Christmas!  The elves already had your present.  We knew you wanted this for a long time."


"Sure!" Santa said, as he handed the boy the present.  The boy was so frail that the man had to help him open it.

When the boy saw what it was, Santa saw him smile.

"When you get up to those pearly gates, you just tell them you're Santa's number one elf."

"I am?" the boy asked, as he perked up.

"You sure are.  I'm sure they'll let you right in."

The boy looked at the man, gave him a big hug and said, "Santa, can you help me?" And, then he died.

I can't imagine how difficult this must have been for Schmitt-Matzen but he says he cried all the way home and even considered giving up playing Santa anymore.  It took several weeks before he was able to muster the strength and courage to put on the red suit again.

Some people say that parents shouldn't let their kids believe in Santa Claus because they claim it is perpetuating a lie and giving children false hope in a fantasy that is sure to disappoint.    

I disagree.  Maybe, these people had frustrating experiences growing up but I was raised believing in jolly old St. Nick and he never let me down.

I recall fondly the anticipation of Christmas starting to build after Thanksgiving, the family reunions and Noche Buena parties, as the big day drew near, then the difficulty of falling asleep on Christmas Eve, as I heard rustling noises in the house (I always heard noises!), and knowing that if I peaked, I wouldn't get any presents (that's what my parents told us and I was terrified to even open my eyes!).

As a matter of fact, one Christmas, I think I dreamt I had seen the large bearded figure placing presents under our tree (but, even in my sleep, I only glanced at him briefly, before shutting my eyes immediately and hoping he hadn't noticed me!).  I think it happened the same night that an older cousin, who was visiting from Chicago and sleeping in my bed, wet the bed!

I wholeheartedly believed in Santa Claus.  In fact, I didn't want to listen to any friend that doubted his existence.  I was convinced the red coated man with the white beard was real.  A trip my family took to Chicago when I was about eight or nine convinced me of that.

When we left our home in Port Chester, NY, there were no presents anywhere in sight.  But, when we got back, the gifts were under the tree!  (Later, I learned that my parents pretended to have forgotten something in the house when we were all in the car getting ready to leave and they ran inside and placed all the presents under the tree before we left!)

It took a mean-spirited fifth grade teacher to spoil the fantasy for me, and, even then, I didn't want to believe her.

That fateful night, after the devastating blow at school, I told my mom that a teacher said there was no such thing as Santa Claus, hoping she would set the record straight.  Instead, I guess, she thought I was old enough to know and asked me not to tell my younger brother!  I thought, "Say what?  You mean, he's not real?  How about when we went to Chicago?"

It was then that she told me how my dad and her had pulled it off years before.  When she finished, I pretended it wasn't a big deal, even thought it was.  I'm sure she noticed my disappointment. However, it wasn't to the point, where I was scarred for life or to make me think that I would never make my kids go through it.

I loved the fantasy while it lasted and have passed it on to my children.  But, I digress.

For a terminally ill boy, who was still too young to have reached the age of reason, and who wanted, more than anything, to meet Santa and celebrate Christmas this year, that fantasy, that illusion of Father Christmas may have been the best gift his parents could have given him.

For on that day; the day the boy was meeting God, Schmitt-Matzen brought him the true meaning of Christmas; a taste faith, love and hope, when the boy most needed it.  And, the greatest of these, as St. Paul writes, is love.

It makes me want to believe in Santa Claus again...

Friday, December 2, 2016

Chesterton on Why We Need the Church...

"I don't need a church to tell me I'm wrong where I already know I'm wrong; I need a church to tell me I'm wrong where I think I'm right." 

-- Gilbert Keith Chesterton (better known as GK) is considered one of the most prolific and influential writers of the twentieth century.  Called "The Apostle of Common Sense," the bigger than life English author (standing 6'4" and weighing over 300 lbs.), poet, philosopher, historian, political satirist and journalist, is well known for his popular Father Brown series and was highly regarded by fellow authors Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, Orson Welles and T.S. Eliot, among others, for his humor and provocative style.  A brilliant Christian apologist, he has influenced and still influences faithful and seekers alike, including his once atheist countryman, C.S. Lewis...