Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Memory, fear, and a very convincing limp...

My little honey pot pie, Teresa, was an unfortunate victim of circumstance. Let me explain...Our Lady of Hope is a wee-little school, and the children, pre-school through 8th grade, often attend gym class together. One fateful afternoon an older child fell on my little angel, and her tibia was no longer just one bone, but two.

For five glorious weeks this sweet, innocent little four year old became a tyrant. Not that one could blame her; she went from dancing and running about to being unable to move without effort and considerable help. It would've made me crabby, too. Check that - I would have been a miserable, mean old bear. We all pitched in, and we made it through. Finally, five weeks after that unfortunate day, the cast was removed. We were so excited! Apparently she wasn't. It was nearly ten days before she would walk. No cajoling, pleading, bargaining or bribing would bring her to her feet. Even Chuck E. Cheese failed. This was serious. At long last, on "Moving Up Day", the very last day of school, Teresa walked, albeit with a very dramatic limp, and a firm hold on my hand. The lunch ladies, who had grown quite fond of my little crunchy pumpkin over the school year, all cheered as she took her first steps. She was so proud of herself, as were we all!

Nearly four weeks have passed since the cast was removed, and still she limps. Today was her final orthopedic follow-up appointment. "The leg is healed," we were informed. But the limp, we queried, what of it? Give it time, we were told. This,too, shall pass. Humph.

Though the bone healed quickly, the mind heals at a much slower pace. She is not entirely convinced that the searing pain of a broken bone might not suddenly re-appear. She feels fragile, and worries that without care she just might break again. Hence, the limp. The careful steps. The cautious movements. It will take time. Memory has that effect on us.

I am patient with her, because I, too, have my little "limps", my little fears that prevent me from running and jumping and dancing for fear of getting hurt. We all do. Sometimes fear can make us a tyrant, cranky and demanding. Sometimes it causes us to withdraw into ourselves, to a place perceived as "safe". Fear can cripple an otherwise intelligent and healthy individual and stagnate life. It can prevent us from living God's will for us, and hinder us from using the gifts we have been given.

Pope John Paul II repeated the words, "Be not afraid", throughout his pontificate. The Scriptures are full of citations calling us to abandon fear and embrace the goodness of God's love. Joshua chapter 1 says, "I command you: be firm and steadfast! Do not fear nor be dismayed, for the LORD, your God, is with you wherever you go." And yet, like little Teresa, we limp...we fear.

There is a wonderfully talented lady I know well who assists at the Mission. She is caring, responsible, patient, gentle, and loving. She is clearly gifted with the tools to be an incredible missionary and servant for Jesus, whether here or anywhere else in God's vineyard, yet she hesitates...she is a recovering alcoholic. She fears relapse like Teresa fears the snapping of her leg bone. She can't make a commitment; she fears that if she "arrives" complacency will leave her vulnerable. And so she works, but from a distance. She serves, but with no buy-in. She will not take that step. Not yet.

How often do we hinder ourselves because of fear? How often do we hesitate to take the next step, terrified by the prospect of failure? How often do we fail to reach out to others for fear of rejection? All too often; yet the Scriptures repeat, "do not fear nor be dismayed, for the Lord, your God, is with you wherever you go."

Teresa took her first steps on "Moving Up Day". She did so while holding on to my hand with all her might. It was important to her that I be there, holding her hand, assuring her, and helping her to feel proud of her accomplishment, no matter how small in the eyes of the world. I think she has a good understanding of how to conquer fear. We need a hand to hold. We find that in Scripture, in prayer, and in the reception of the Eucharist and Sacraments. In these we find God's hand to hold. So, too, do we find His hand in the person of our brothers and sisters in Christ. The community of believers must reach out to one another with support, guidance and a hand to hold. In all these are gifts of grace. With God's grace we can conquer the fears that keep us from living to our potential, to the potential God sees in us. Without it we haven't got a leg to stand on...

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Sunday Snippets - A Catholic Carnival

Hello Snippers! Swine Flu continues to take it's toll on my free time (20 hours overtime so far) so my submissions have been sparse, but I did manage to express myself a bit in two articles: First, my ode to Food TV and the love of good food began my week. Second, a reflection on the shoes walking by during Communion capped everything off.

I do ask that you pray for a personal intention for myself...and for nurses and physicians struggling with the volume of patients with swine flu, most especially in the ER. Thanks!

Our Hostess with the mostest: This, That and The Other Thing

Imelda Marcos had nothin' on these...

Contrary to popular Catholic tradition, my family sits in the front pew of our church. Several years ago we discovered that by being close to the action our short people were better able to pay attention. We found it difficult to keep a toddler in line when their only view of the proceedings was the backside of Mrs. Tuttlebaum, no matter how lovely the floral pattern of her polyester-blend skirt. Of course, residing in the front pew comes with its drawbacks; everyone can see you wildly flailing as your son rips pages out of the missal, and a domestic argument over whether a child should be eating Cheerios in church is easily recognized no matter how inconspicuous you think you might be. Nonetheless, the front pew has become our home, and the congregation has grown accustomed to us being there.

Let me take a moment to let you know about my church. In a documentary recently produced about St. Luke's Mission of Mercy, the narrator stated, "They shouldn't even be here". That is very true. The former St. Luke's Parish was officially closed by the Diocese of Buffalo in 1992, another fading congregation supporting a building far too large and costly for it's meager resources. The neighborhood is the poorest in a city with the dubious distinction of being among the most destitute in the nation, second only to Detroit. Nearly fifty-percent of the homes in the area are abandoned. Businesses that once thrived in this community originally occupied by Polish immigrants are all gone, replaced by empty storefronts, broken windows, and urban decay. Drugs, garbage-strewn streets, and crime are so common as to appear "normal" to the residents deep in poverty's grip. It was in this setting that St. Luke's Mission of Mercy was called.

After the founders purchased the entire complex in 1993, the works of mercy began in earnest. The harvest was plenty, laborers few, but the Holy Spirit began to lead men and women to service over the years, and the role of the Mission in the community grew. Michelle and I began attending Sunday Mass at St. Luke's nearly ten years ago after learning about the work being done there at a Cursillo retreat. It was then that the Bishop of the Diocese of Buffalo recognized the value of the ministry and service St. Luke's provided and allowed the Mission to conduct RCIA classes, religious education, daily and Sunday Masses, and to repose the Blessed Sacrament. We felt called early on to be a part of this faithful group dedicated to the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

For some years the congregation was quite small and mainly consisted of suburbanites, like ourselves, who were attracted to the charism of mercy; but faithfulness did not go unrewarded, and the Lord began calling men, women and children from the community to Baptism. Soon St. Luke's began to see record numbers of individuals receiving the sacraments at the Easter Vigil and throughout the year. Our little congregation began to grow. Whole families were converted, and received the sacraments with joy. Babies by the busload were baptized, and the church was filled with a beautiful noise.

St. Luke's, now fifteen years old, is a much different place than the one we found. The congregation now better reflects the neighborhood: Black, Latino, Polish, and everything in between. The dwindling parish closed in the early nineties now rings with an assembly that continues to grow and transform. God is so good, and He has only just begun...

But I digress. Back to the front pew.

I usually sit on the end of our pew, at the center aisle; Michelle resides on the opposite end. This provides a book-end approach to policing errant children. Recently I have begun concentrating on the shoes of our congregation as they approach the Blessed Sacrament during Communion. Since we are the first to receive, I am afforded a view of every pair of feet to come after. Before you criticize my apparent lack of prayerfulness after receiving the body and blood of Christ, allow me to reflect on my observations.

The first pair of shoes to attract my attention are a pair of sandals, worn by a young father of two recently returned from Missionary work in Belize. His family has been coming to Mass at St. Luke's for years. What a joy to see them together, and what energy I draw from his courage and devotion. Then, I notice three little sisters in white patent-leather shoes; the shoes are most certainly second-hand, as are their clothes, but mother dutifully dresses them in the best they have for church every Sunday, and they look like angels to me. Next comes a pair of cowboy boots, worn on the feet of a former heavy-drinking truck driver who has found a home in a place that doesn't mind his gruff language and lack of social graces, but loves him for who he is. They are followed by a pair of open-toed sandals revealing feet disfigured by arthritis, most surely painful, and yet they are feet that run to the care of grandchildren abandoned by her daughter's addictions.

Shoes slowly process by, each with a special story to tell: the work boots of the illegal immigrant working endless hours of manual labor to provide for his family; ragged sneakers stained from hours of kitchen work feeding the hundreds who come for food every day; specially fitted shoes on two artificial limbs that replace legs lost long ago to diabetes and a lack of access to medical care; expensive leather shoes worn on the feet of a wealthy benefactor looking to share in the bounty of a lifetime of blessings...

Fifteen years ago St. Luke's closed. We shouldn't be there. We do not have the resources to maintain the complex, much as the Diocese didn't long ago. The neighborhood is broken, and to many, appears beyond fixing. The men, women and children who call this community home have been all but forgotten. Despite these realities, St. Luke's Mission of Mercy exists. It draws God's children home. It helps them to realize how deeply God loves them, and for that, they dress themselves in the very best they have each Sunday, put on their shoes, and walk to Jesus.

How Great is our God.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Personal intention

Please pray for me for a personal intention. Thank you very much.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Why can't there be Smell-O-Vision?!?

I am aware of many who find comfort in a bottle of liquor, and others who cannot resist the physical addiction of narcotics. I have met many who have been unable to control the urge to gamble. I say, "There but for the grace of God go I"; and yet there is untruth in my utterance. For I, too, have an addiction. A sinister, gnawing addiction that I must now reveal in this most public of venues.

Food TV.

It began simply, innocently. A little "Bam!" every once in a while, nothing more. I said, "I can control this; I'll change the channel when it gets to be too much." Then Emeril led to Bobby Flay, Molto Mario, the ridiculously thin Giada, and I slid quickly down the slippery slope. Ace of Cakes. Tyler Florence. Diners, Drive-In's and Dives. And then the show that put me over the edge, propelled me into a Food TV zombie, unable to function without my daily dose: Iron Chef America.

Iron Chef America is perhaps the finest show ever created by man. Celebrity, excitement, competition, the thrill of victory, and FOOD. What more could a chubby little kid from Buffalo want? As I watch the contestants create their succulent variations (to borrow the words of Alton Brown) it becomes nearly impossible not to do a quick assessment of the food presently available in my own fridge and pantry and get cooking. Hence the belly like a bowl full of jelly.

Last night my wife and I watched as a challenger took on Bobby Flay in "Competition Rib Eye", creating some of the juiciest looking beef dishes I have ever seen and not smelled or tasted. They looked delightful. Sauces and steaks, seafood and soups, and ingredients that would make a vegetarian convert back to the carnivorous side of the aisle. What could we do? It was unavoidable. We put on our shoes and walked two blocks to Kosta's Greek Diner. I got a delicious lamb gyro with fries, she a BLT club. At ten o'clock PM. Pathetic.

I grew up in a simple Polish home. Dad liked chicken, beef, and pork. And potatoes. Oh, mom would mix things up a bit every now and then...sometimes the potatoes were mashed, sometimes boiled; but for the most part, we ate what dad liked. We had no exposure to anything ethnic beyond spaghetti and Ragu...I thought Mexican food consisted of Fritos and Velveeta. Chinese food was La Choy in a can. Of course, we didn't eat those things, but I saw them on commercials during Happy Days.

When I was sixteen I went to a "fancy" restaurant with friends to celebrate some occasion lost to my memory. On the menu I read, "Escargot". That seemed to me to be the fanciest thing I had ever heard of, so I ordered a plate. When the snails arrived (HOLY INVERTEBRATES - I had no idea they were SNAILS) I was quite certain I would regret choosing this particular dish, but didn't want to appear bourgeois (in a restaurant in suburban Buffalo...as if I could be anything else). I extracted the first with great care, trying to appear nonchalant in front of the table full of teens looking with unabated interest at my plate of slugs in a shell. I sniffed them, and recall making some kind of comment that they appeared fresh. As if I would know a fresh snail from one that was regurgitated by a seagull. And then...I took a bite, chewed for a second or two...and they...were...AWESOME! The garlic, the butter, the texture, everything came together and I quite suddenly realized that there was more to life than pot roast! There were flavors beyond chicken gravy! I was awakened!

Since that day I have eaten a lot of food. Some I like, some, not so much. I enjoy trying new dishes, new flavors, new ingredients. But that Food TV...every day I look in the mirror, front-ways and side-ways, back-ways and such, but the belly isn't getting any smaller. I say to myself, "tomorrow I will lose the weight. I will control myself tomorrow." Then Morimoto makes a Kobe filet and tops it with a lobster tail, and I am shoving provolone and Calabrese sausage down my gullet. I am weak.

Judge me not, friend. Do not scorn my weakness. For a man's life is but a breath in length, and his passions can bubble to the surface like a slow-simmering bouillabaisse on a low flame. Besides, if you're nice to me I might cook for you. I got this new recipe from Paula Dean...

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Sunday Snippets - A Catholic Carnival

This has been a difficult week, but God is so good! It ended with a beautiful retreat with my community led by a holy priest from Niagara Falls. It was the refreshment I needed! Please pray for health care workers in the coming week as we grapple with the influx of patients with the flu.

I began the week with a tongue-in-cheek essay on humility and the great help children can be in achieving it...followed by a reflection on the importance of sharing in the joys of those we love, even when we may not exactly feel like "smiling and waving". Finally, I wrote a piece on the reality of suffering and the hope we have in Jesus, a reflection dedicated to the father of a boy who died this week, a death that touched many hearts.

May God bless you all this week!
Link to the Sunday Snippet host

Thursday, June 18, 2009

For Matthew's Father

Someone is at fault.

People are losing their homes to foreclosure. Forest fires are ruining beautiful trees. Families aren't going to church anymore. You can't get a real person on the phone when you call a business. Hurricanes are devastating whole communities. Planes are crashing, killing passengers and crew members. Television is nothing but violence and sex. Glaciers are disappearing. Children are starving. Marriages are ending. Taxes are going up. Gas prices keep getting higher. People are lonely. Kids are dying from the flu.

Someone's got to be blamed.

Life isn't easy. We are all taught that at an early age; maybe it was when we were cut from a sports team, or didn't make the cast for the high school musical. Maybe we learned that when a loved one died. Perhaps it was taught through personal illness and suffering. Somewhere, somehow we learn that things don't always work out, that life can be painful. But that's so very hard to accept. Many never do.

In our collective psyche life has a particular order. We are to grow up in a loving family, go to college, get a good job, get married, settle down, raise a family, watch them grow and marry and have children of their own, and die peacefully in our sleep at a ripe old age. That's just the way it's supposed to work. Unfortunately, for many that particular order of life is interrupted, broken, and ended all too soon. Perhaps the family wasn't all it was cracked up to be. Maybe college never happened. Marriages end all too often. Children sometimes grow into dysfunctional, broken adults, and sometimes die before mom and dad. Sometimes it just doesn't work out the way we'd hoped.

Someone has to pay.

It seems to come naturally, the need to blame someone or something for our suffering. We blame our spouses, the schools, the government, the Church...and God. Lawyers have made a fine living helping us to find someone to pay. Politicians point their fingers at one another. Friends become enemies over misunderstandings and accidents. Families are torn apart. In the Broadway musical, "Wicked", the Wizard of Oz explains to one of the characters, "the best way to bring folks together is to give them a really good enemy". God knows in this day and age we've got plenty of 'em. And so we get angry, we write letters to the editor, we push for legislation, we vote the bums out, we shake our fist at the heavens...my God, my God, why have you abandoned me?...sound familiar?

When Jesus uttered those words on the cross He wasn't speaking extemporaneously - He was quoting the words of a Psalm everyone present at the crucifixion would have been very familiar with. Psalm 22 begins with those words and yet ends in great hope, words that would have struck a chord in the hearts and minds of those present. The Psalm ends in triumph and hope:

For God has not spurned or disdained the misery of this poor wretch, Did not
turn away from me, but heard me when I cried out.
I will offer praise in the great assembly; my vows I will fulfill before those who fear
The poor will eat their fill; those who seek the LORD will offer
praise. May your hearts enjoy life forever!"
All the ends of the earth will worship and turn to the LORD; All the families of nations will bow low before you.
For kingship belongs to the LORD, the
ruler over the nations.
All who sleep in the earth will bow low before God;
All who have gone down into the dust will kneel in homage.
And I will live for the LORD; my descendants will serve you.
The generation to come will be told of the Lord, that they may proclaim to a people yet unborn the deliverance you have brought.

Someone did pay. He paid with His life. And by placing our hope in the person of Jesus Christ we find comfort, hope, and victory over all those things that bring us pain and despair.

In today's Gospel reading Jesus is asleep in the boat during a violent storm. The apostles are incredulous that Jesus would be sleeping when their lives were in danger - they awakened him and asked, "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?" How many times have we asked that question, or wondered if our Lord was asleep, unaware of our plight? With a word Jesus calmed the storm. He will do the same for us; He only asks that we have faith.

There will be storms, no doubt. But do not fear. He is not asleep. He is not unaware. Like Psalm 22, suffering will be answered with victory and peace, if we only have faith.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Smile and wave, boys, smile and wave...

As the children round-about again, you can see the change coming; heads raise, mouths slowly open to a grin, hands raise in a wave, and the air is filled with "Hi, Billy! Hi Suzie! Hold on tight!" And as Billy and Suzie are spun away, the smiles fade, gazes drop, and hands resume counting what is left in the wallet. Missed it? Don't worry, it will be repeated twenty more times in the next two minutes, before the tobacco-chewing operator stops the carousel.

I have been smiling and waving for nineteen years. That isn't a complaint - but it isn't a cheer, either. Standing in eighty-five degree direct sunlight with this lily-white Polish complexion isn't easy. As others slowly bronze in the sun I have a more abrupt progression: from snow white to scalded to extra-crispy.

Amusement rides lose their appeal somewhere between maturity and nausea. A few years ago I tried to re-live my youth on the "Tilt-A-Whirl". It was a perennial favorite for my brothers and I, spinning and turning children like a giant mix master until one or two invariably lost their cotton candy and cola. My spin down memory lane was a disaster. It took ten minutes just to be able to walk without falling. And that giant fried onion we ate kept coming up for a look around...not pretty. Never again.

And so it goes; parents gather 'round the amusements, smiling and waving, in a venue that lost its magic for them personally many years before. Just like our parents did. Just like our children will. It can't be escaped or avoided, for children are attracted to fairs and carnivals like mosquitoes to a zapper. Accept and move on.

At a recent trip to our county fair my eldest daughter, the trendy collegiate, was observant for a moment between cell texts and noticed that I only smiled and waved when the children were in sight. She seemed a bit surprised, so I took that moment to relate an important life lesson: No, it is not fun to watch a child go around in circles sixty thousand times. Nonetheless the job of a parent is to make sure that no matter how excruciating that one last ride on the teacups may be, the smile on our faces is as bright and cheerful as the very first. It's a rule.

Lest I sound like the crabby old father I may be, let me counter the above with the notion that, for the most part, I do like trips to amusement parks, carnivals and fairs. I love to eat fried food, enjoy spending obscene amounts of money to get a dollar-store plush item, and absolutely do not consider any visit complete unless I am taking home a sickly goldfish. Our yearly trips to the county fair are a highlight of the summer for the whole family. Being in a family of eleven, many of the activities are not the cup of tea of each member, but that doesn't matter. If little Teresa thinks that the choo-choo is the most wonderful ride in the park, well, doggone it, we all do, too. That's what love does. It pulls us beyond ourselves, our own wants and needs, and makes the wants and needs of those we love more important than our own. That's why we smile and wave.

Yesterday my son, Jacob, graduated from our little elementary school at St. Luke's. He was the valedictorian. Okay, there were only two of them in his class, but I always wanted a valedictorian in the family. Don't ruin the moment. Anyway, part of the celebration was a video with pictures of the two boys from earliest childhood to the present. It was carefully crafted by their teacher, who did a beautiful job. The music to the pictures was perfect. As I watched, I admit to shedding a few tears. He has grown so much in the last thirteen years, and as he moves on to high school he'll face so many exciting challenges. We received a copy of the video as a gift, and I assure you, it will be watched often in the coming days.

As the video ended yesterday, I felt a little bit like a kid on the carousel. As I looked around the room, everyone was smiling, congratulating, and wishing us well. Everyone was so gracious and kind, and hugs were the rule. I knew darn well that video, six songs long, must have been tough to sit through for some of them. It was a long, warm night. For the parents and students, it seemed to go by to quickly, but for everyone else...well, because they love us, they smiled and waved. It was awesome.

That's what we do for one another, sometimes without even thinking. I see it every day at the Mission when David listens patiently to the jumbled thoughts of a mentally ill resident when he has hundreds of tasks to complete by noon. Or when Eddy helps a member of the community move to a new apartment with cheer and joy for the fourth time this year. Or when Molly smiles and welcomes every face, no matter what its expression, as she scoops macaroni and cheese on their plates in the dining room. I see it at work when Mary gives loving attention to a frightened, confused old woman who can't remember why she is in the emergency room. Or when Sharon listens attentively to the concerns of her co-workers even though her own plate is full, too. Or when Doni drops in with little gifts for someones birthday, even though she struggles with her own pain. Little gifts of friendship. Little gifts of service. Little gifts of love.

Life is full of discomforts, annoyances, and irritations. So what. Somebody, somewhere needs you to smile and wave. Go ahead, try it. The amazing thing is, when we do it, all those discomforts, annoyances and irritations melt away when we share the joys of those around us. Jesus said it best when He spoke of His role, "For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many"(Mk 10:45). By putting the needs, joys, sorrows, and dreams of others before our own, we follow in His footsteps. For it is in serving one another that we learn to love.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Pompous? Moi?!? Hardly.

Humility is not a problem for me. Well, scratch that. It is. The part that isn't a problem is actually humiliation. I get plenty of that. I have nine children who have mastered the art of making dear old Dad look like a sputtering buffoon. Often without trying very hard. It's a gift.

I recall several years ago an incident in which our eldest daughter, fresh from the throes of toddlerhood, informed our "perfect" neighbors that "mommy and daddy fight ALL the time. It is SO ANNOYING!" The horrific sound of nervous laughter peppered with quick smiles and furtive glances...made me long for the days when she couldn't speak. As they grow the humiliations become sinister..."Your daughter informed me that she gets bad grades in biology because you make her babysit every night for hours." Oh, she got an earful for that one. But my favorite of all, most often exclaimed on a crowded beach of slim, trim twenty-somethings: "Dad, PLEASE don't take your shirt off! Who wants to see THAT." Mrs. Marciniak, that's who. So there.

Teenagers, in particular, can be very damaging to the psyche. Especially when they do something really STUPID under the watchful gaze of Christian society. I have some that are very good at that...for instance, I was tickled to find a picture of one of my lovely daughters on the Internet kissing a boy. She no longer has lips, so that isn't a problem any more. Nonetheless, definitely not a shining parental moment. Or, the boy who is failing RELIGION CLASS. Yes, the son of Catholic missionaries. Failing religion. He gets great grades on tests; just seems to not understand the concept of homework. Gets better: the teacher is an old friend. Great. Luckily, there are group of parents that double as spies, informing one another and gathering intelligence, or at least reporting the lack thereof. We have to stick together. We are like the allies in WWII. We don't always speak the same language, but doggone it, we sure know who the enemy is. And it shops at Sephora.

And so I thank the children, young and old, who have brought me to this lowly state, endeavoring ceaselessly to pull the wool over dear old dad's eyes, and to proudly utter the most embarrassing statements at the least opportune times. Without this spiritual help I surely would be lost in a sea of pomposity. Indeed.

Blessed Louis and Zelie Martin, parents of St. Therese of Lisieux, pray for us!

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Sunday Snippets - A Catholic Carnival

What a week! My first week back from vacation was busy, busy, busy! I still managed to write a bit, though, and would love to share with the Sunday Snippet crew. First, I continued my reflection on our recent trip to NYC in Lighten Up Baby. Second, I updated my Swine Flu post with a bit more information and a reminder on ways to stay healthy. Finally, I gushed about my beautiful son, Joseph, and his First Holy Communion.

Have a great week, everyone!

Scary good!

A few years ago Rick Jeannerette, the revered play-by-play voice of the Buffalo Sabres, commented after an incredible victory: "This team is scary good!" It became an instant catch-phrase, and the fans ran with it. Not to mention the money-making machine behind the hockey club: T-shirts, hats and bumper stickers emblazoned Rick's comment for all the world to see (and buy). Unfortunately, the team was just...good. But not good enough for the Stanley Cup. No bother. We're from Buffalo. We perfected the word "almost".

Enough about Buffalo sports. Every time we start talking lost championships Scott Norwood starts twitching. Wide right.

Two weeks ago my son, Joseph, received the Eucharist for the first time. This is probably not a big deal to most folks; thousands of third-graders all over the country have done the same this spring. Joseph is our seventh child to receive the sacrament. Something about this one, though, has got me on edge. I have a feeling...

Did you ever read one of those saint biographies that begin with a description of their childhood? I always disliked that part of the book. There didn't seem to be any reality to them. The children were always supremely obedient, kind, and generous, thoughtful to others, and preoccupied with holiness. There was an other-worldliness to the stories, and they were a challenge for me to accept their authenticity. Then came Joseph.

Joseph is obedient. He is kind, generous and thoughtful. He is preoccupied with holiness. The kid informed me of the exact number of days to his first Holy Communion for months. He reads the scriptures and prays. Heck, he even chose a suit that made him look like a missionary. He is a gentle, sweet little boy. He is a favorite among his siblings. In a word, he is good. Scary good. All those saint biographies are starting to look a little more realistic...

Don't get me wrong - Joe likes to play ball, watch Spongebob Squarepants, and can be as silly as any third-grader can be. Yesterday he built a "time machine" out of empty pop bottles, a paper plate, and tape. His feelings are a little tender, especially when one of his brothers is unkind. But when I look at the boy objectively, I can't remember a time when I have had to discipline him. Ever. Not kidding.

I don't know what the future will bring for Joseph, but I know that if he perseveres in the faith he now loves, God will have great plans for him. I feel humbled and blessed to have been given such a son to love and care for. One night, not long ago, I asked him to pray for me. I think I will ask him to do that again soon. I have a feeling God's ear listens to this little son of mine quite intently.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Notorius PIG

Piggie, piggie, piggie,
can't you see?
Sometimes your press
can hypnotize me.

My first week back to work in the humble emergency department of the hospital that pays my bills has been dominated by swine flu. H1N1, the "official" name given by those concerned about giving porky a bad rap, has been declared by those who make such declarations as a bonified pandemic. That basically means the following: we can't stop it.

Before you shuffle the wife and kids into the hole under your shed please note the following: so far the swine flu has been fairly benign. Many, many have been infected; the vast majority have recovered quite nicely. Out of nearly 18,000 documented cases (most likely the tip of the iceberg as most folks infected are just waiting this out at home) there have been 45 deaths. No death is to be discounted or diminished in importance to those left behind, but in comparison, world-wide the yearly run-of-the-mill flu kills about 500,000 men, women and children. In perspective, we are doing pretty well.

That hasn't stopped the media's attention, particularly after the pandemic declaration by the World Health Organization. I have been watching the same nuns sitting in a Mexican parish church wearing surgical masks for about three months now on just about every news station. I can only hope they have slept and taken nourishment. All the media attention has stoked the flames of panic for many who have been visiting emergency departments here in my hometown and all over the fruited plain. If you are one of those who have been losing sleep, let me help: Relax. There. All better.

The swine flu has been mainly an upper-respiratory problem: sore throat, cough, fever. For the vast majority of us, this hasn't been or won't be a problem. Plenty of fluids, stay home, tylenol or motrin for the fever, and a few days of rest and all will be well. Just like the yearly flu, though, our elderly, very young, and those with chronic illness and immunity problems are most at risk. Let's make sure we keep an eye on one another.

For those who didn't see my previous post on the swine flu, I will re-post some basic tips on how to keep yourself and your family healthy:

1. Keep your hands clean. Nothing says healthy like soap and water.

2. Cover your mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing. Cough and sneeze into your elbow rather than your hands. And, once again, wash your hands. If you are one of "those people" who insists on sneezing in a hanky, one word: DON'T. First, it's gross. Second, your wife has to touch them when she does the laundry. Not fair. Third, its like keeping viruses as pets in your pocket. Not good. Get rid of them and use tissues like the rest of us.

3. Stay home if you are sick. We don't want your germs. No offense.

4. Get some of that sanitizing gel for your hands and keep some at work and at home. It really works. Don't touch your eyes, nose, and mouth if you can avoid it. Viruses look at these as welcome mats.

5. Don't panic. Most of those with H1N1 in the U.S. are suffering from very mild cases. If you feel sick but normally wouldn't go to the doctor or ER for the symptoms you are having then you really don't need to now, either. Wait it out. You'll know when enough is enough.

6. Did I mention you should wash your hands?

St. Raphael the Archangel, pray for us!

Monday, June 8, 2009

Lighten up, baby

My lovely bride and I enjoyed an elegant dinner at the Four Seasons Restaurant on Park Avenue last Wednesday. Since it was our first trip to the Big Apple, I insisted that a stop at this iconic eatery was a must. It didn't disappoint: the decor was impeccable, the food was exquisite, the service was astounding, and the bill was devastating. I love New York.

Mrs. Marciniak, ever the celebrity scout, scanned the dimly lit "Pool Room" like a falcon scanning for field mice. Dr. Laura was eating across the room with friends (at least I think she was eating; somewhere during her seemingly endless conversation I assume she took nourishment); otherwise the room was occupied by politicians and Manhattan movers and shakers...and us. Ma and Pa Kettle go to New York.

We probably looked like a couple of hoot owls as we looked dreamily on the scene. There we were, on the legendary Park Avenue in the City that Never Sleeps, in one of it's most incredible restaurants, hoping not to spill something and reveal the fact that we were not really socialites but rather a middle class couple with nine kids from Buffalo. It worked. Nothing spilled. We never asked for ketchup. And nothing we ordered came "hot, medium, or mild." High livin'.

As we dined on seafood civiche, prosciutto with asparagus, and filet of bison with foie gras and black truffle sauce, we luxuriously sipped Mersault white burgundy (2005: a fine year for French wines, I learned approximately one hour prior to ordering in the handy guide located on the end table in my hotel room). It was, in a word, yummy. The hushed conversations, muted lighting, bubbling pool, and pretentious waiters darting about making sure everything was as it should be all contributed to an almost magical experience.

As she does in most places we go, Mrs. Marciniak finds it supremely necessary to tell everyone that we have nine children. Paul, our German-accented waiter, was no exception and was soon aware of our history down to the last time I got my hair cut. He politely informed us that his brother-in-law lived in Williamsville, a suburban outpost of the fair city of Buffalo. And yes, we asked for his brother-in-law's name. No, we didn't know him. Oh well. No bother; it's still a small world. He smiled and ran.

Dessert was an experience: we each ordered some gourmet-type thing that came with a scoop of ice cream the size of a marble, and thank God since I was already thinking about loosening my belt a notch or two. Then Paul brought us a complimentary dessert. Well, gosh, we had to eat it; I mean, he gave it to us for free for cryin' out loud. Another gastronomical triumph. Then the unexpected happened: Paul and one of his fellow servers approached the table with what seemed at once silly, whimsical and delightful: a plate with the biggest puff of pink cotton candy I had ever seen, dotted with lavender rock candies and topped with a single candle. They wished us a happy anniversary and invited us to blow out the candle before the wisps of spun sugar lit up like a roman candle; we did so and gushed our thanks at this fun little gesture of celebration.

It seemed out of place, a plate of cotton candy in a restaurant famed for sophistication and panache, and yet it fit our experience like a glove. We were tickled.

The Four Seasons understood something that we should all remember every now and again: when we begin to take life a little too seriously, we just have to lighten up. This has been a message God has been reinforcing in my life as of late, and that plate of cotton candy drove it home nicely. We can take ourselves, our problems, our struggles so to heart that we become dry and lifeless. We can become self-righteous and judgmental, and appear cold and aloof. We see it all around us and even within our own hearts. It's hard to avoid. But every once in a while God sends us a plate of cotton candy dotted with lavender sugar...in the joy of our children and grandchildren, the beauty of community, the wonder of friendship, and the delight of new experiences with the ones we love. Life is a gift to be savored and appreciated, with open eyes and open hearts.

At that time the disciples approached Jesus and said, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" He called a child over, placed it in their midst, and said, "Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the
greatest in the kingdom of heaven. " Matthew 18:1-4

Sometimes you just have to have a big ol' plate of cotton candy.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Sunday Snippets - A Catholic Carnival

Trying out a new link to share posts with the Catholic blogging community! We'll see if I can figure this out. Sunday Snippets is a forum to share posts from the previous week. I will post two: A Fiddler on the Roof was my reflection on suffering and difficulty, while A New York State of Mind is the first of my reflections on my recent trip to NYC. Not very prolific this week; I was enjoying the Big Apple WAY too much!

Here is a link to RAnn's site (our host).

Happy Sunday!

Saturday, June 6, 2009

A New York State of Mind

I have considered myself a "city mouse" for some time now. Unlike my "country mouse" friends, I revel in the noise and hustle-bustle of urban life. I like being within walking distance of stores, restaurants, coffee shops and movies. I enjoy seeing my neighbors out walking, sharing a coffee or a cocktail on a street-side patio, strolling leisurely on a warm summer evening. Music, car horns, shouts and laughter are everyday sounds that are comfortingly familiar and welcomed.

On the evening of Sunday, May 31st I discovered that I am a country bumpkin. At approximately 9:30PM that evening my wife and I stepped out of a cab on 46th and Broadway in Times Square.

We did what any self-disrespecting tourist would do - we made a bee-line for the familiar: Applebee's. I know. Laugh if you must. It was just like home, except for the seventy-percent mark-up. We even got stuck in the revolving door as we tried to escape our first panhandler. Pathetic. As we sat in the restaurant that would become the butt of jokes later that week, we gazed out like Hansel and Gretel at a house made of gingerbread and frosting, knowing that it was wonderful but not knowing where to bite first. The hour we spent there staring silently out the window, barely touching our slightly edible fast food, gave us the begonias to venture out, to bravely go where several million have gone before, at least in the last few days.

We lived it up: the David Letterman Show (where the opening act made fun of tourists to NYC visiting Applebee's...we laughed condescendingly and hid our shame well), two Broadway shows, visits to the Four Seasons, Sardi's, Feinstein's at the Regency, a cruise to Ellis Island and Lady Liberty, jaunts to Chinatown (officially renamed by me as DollarStoreTown), Little Italy, NYU, the Met, Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral (both the old AND the new) and too many other adventures to mention. By Friday afternoon my wife and I were so exhausted we watched Law and Order for three hours in our hotel room. It was almost like being there.

Seven days later, we have returned to the city of Buffalo, our little country outpost in the hinterlands of New York State, with, not surprisingly, a new perspective.

As I thought about my changed understanding of the word "city" on our flight home I considered other assumptions, presuppositions, and perspectives I have that are limited by my parochial understanding of life. Sometimes these limitations can bring us to judgmentalism and prejudice when our understanding of "the way things ought to be" clashes with those around us. It is an exhausting and lonely place to be.

New York City is a loud, obnoxious place. It can be cold and lonely. It has money on it's mind, as the old Garfunkel song goes. There are desperately poor people and broken dreams abound. But beneath all that is a pervasive sense of hope and optimism that I have not felt in a long, long time. It can be felt in the circus atmosphere of Times Square and in the determined and studious air of Washington Square. It is on the face of the musicians in the subway, the waiters as they serve, and the performers on the Great White Way. It is in the midst of school children touring Central Park and on the faces of immigrants working in servile jobs all over Manhattan. They all have hope; sure, a cynical hope that expects suffering and difficulties, but hope nonetheless. And their hope manifests itself with a hustle-bustle the likes I have never seen before!

Concerning hope, we Christians need to take a look at ourselves. We have every reason to be a hopeful people. God loves us and wants us to be with Him always! That hope should find us busy with the work of God, serving our neighbor. Sure, there will be suffering. No doubt. There will be obstacles and difficulties. A given. But our hope in eternal joy and union with God should lift us beyond cynicism and impel us to love. Not quite that easy? You're not alone.

Many of our brothers, sisters, neighbors, and co-workers do not know the hope of Christ Jesus. Do they see it in us? Do they see it in me?

New York is a wonderful, terrible place. It's "in-your-face", all the way. And it's in mine.