Thursday, December 30, 2010

"Honey, I think God is calling me to New York..."

 Reason number 6,117 to relocate to the Big Apple:  I'm a rock star there.

Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating a bit; let me explain.

For several years I have been organizing and hosting bi-annual health fairs and "Saturday Clinics" at St. Luke's Mission of Mercy in Buffalo, New York, my home-sweet-home.  Buffalo has the dubious distinction of being the second poorest city in the nation...there we go again, second place.  St. Luke's is in the poorest neighborhood in the city, and health care is a low priority for folks looking for food, clothes and shelter.  My job has been to bring the resources to them, and I've been privileged to do it for some time now.

Over a year ago a couple o' big city folk came to my little health fair to observe - though it was unclear just why.  They flew in from NYC and actually jumped right in, getting screened for diabetes, osteoporosis, thyroid disease.  They flew home later that day, and little did I know the impact our event would have on the future of diabetic education and care in New York...

Funded by state to promote diabetic education, the group (Institute for Leadership) formulated a program called "Faith Fights Diabetes" encouraging churches, synagogues and mosques to train and equip leaders to present diabetic education and support, based on a program from Seton Health.  The leadership training, they state, was based on...little old me. 

Fast forward:  In early December they flew my beloved and I to LaGuardia, put us up in a swank little botique hotel in the fashion district, wined and dined us, and treated us to a wonderful holiday diversion.  We were treated like celebrities.  Dinner at Carmine's with the program director and president was amazing, the company entrancing - the president, Rev. Faulkner, told a wonderful story of how he lured his wife from Virginia, her home, to Times Square (when Times Square was not the Disney production it is now...); he reported, "I told her, honey, I think God is calling me to New York."  My eyes lit up, and I turned to my bride, who quickly retorted, "Don't even try it."  Foiled again.

The trip was capped with an award ceremony where the graduates of the Community Health Worker Program received the "David P. Marciniak Defy Diabetes Award", to be given yearly to all the graduates of the program...not kidding!  They also presented a nifty plaque to me for my service to the community, and gave me time to address the group.  Here's the jist of what I said:

"I feel like an explorer who has happened on a lost tribe, and the tribe believes that I am their god, and start feeding me grapes and waving palm leaves to keep me cool.  But I fear that the tribe will inevitably realize I am just Dave, and will subsequently put me in a pot and cook me...(insert laughter - it worked)

When our father Abraham was called from his home he did not have a map, a written manual, a power-point or GPS to lead the way.  He believed that God would fulfill his promise, and went by faith.  He was just Abraham, but he responded to extraordinary circumstances with faith and was righteous because of his great faith.  I am just Dave.  You are just Franco, just Sarah, just Matilda, just Virginia.  But God is calling you and I to go forth in faith, to reach out to our brothers and sisters who are suffering, and to make a difference in their lives.  You are called to be extraordinary in a very ordinary world.  Your faith, your trust, your obedience, will be honored by our God as righteousness.  Don't shrink from this challenge.  Just as Abraham responded in faith, you too must go forth trusting in God's goodness, and he will reward you for your faith and trust." 

The next day we flew home.  Everything here was the same; there were dishes to do, work was piled up, and the bills were screaming to be paid.  Dinner needed cooking, laundry needed washing, and snow was piling on the driveway. 

I was just Dave again...thankfully un-cooked.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Thanks, Steve.

Technology is like infatuating love.  One moment we are enamored, amazed, confused, and totally enveloped in its charms.  Our thoughts and desires are irrationally lured to it.  But, like a childhood crush, the feeling is fleeting: all too soon the pedestal is upturned and we are reminded again that we are unsophisticated rubes in a manipulative game we cannot hope to win. 

Best Buy knows this.  Damn them.

I spent gads of money at Best Buy this year and remain a technological infant.  My sons play games on systems that I suspect they may be using to infect the Iranian nuclear program while I type on a keyboard where the control button has long since disappeared.  There are sugary fingerprints obscuring my monitor and the number lock button sticks from the time Teresa spilled apple juice on it.  My parents watch Chumlee of "Pawn Stars" on their 52" flat screen high-definition television while I gaze on Giada DeLaurentis on a six-thousand pound 27" monstrosity that is shaded pink on the left side of the screen.  That's the side my father dropped it on while getting it ready for donation to me.  He didn't need it after getting that big ol' flat screen. 

Please don't misinterpret my lament; I don't fashion myself a technological "Job" scraping my running sores with pot shards as I wallow in ashes.  No, I am not some ways, I feel a sense of freedom from an endless cycle of "new and obsolete".  I am quite pleased at my ability to save pictures, surf, and type my silly essays whether in the kitchen, the den, or hiding from the kids behind the garage.  I have a router that is far too large for my needs and am not entirely sure that I don't provide internet service for several blocks.  And most of all, I have my favorite toy, my piece de resistance, my equivalent to Gollum's "precioussss":  my little iPod. 

Oh, how do I love thee?  Let me count the ways...

Ella Fitzgerald.  Chet Baker.  Miles Davis.  Billie Holiday.  Mel Torme.  Duke Ellington.  Nancy Wilson.  Sonny Rollins.  Frank Sinatra.  Dinah Washington.  Sarah Vaughn.  The list goes on.  They did not exist in my childhood; they were hidden away on vinyl, gathering dust in someone's collection, sleeping in a record label's vault.  While we bought Barry Manilow and Twisted Sister and got physical with Olivia Newton John the legends slipped into obscurity.  They waited, quietly while my tastes matured.  I threw off childish ways (Kiss, Madonna, and yes, Tears for Fears) and searched for music to match my "adult" taste - and found none.  Rap and Hip Hop give me a rash.  Country (especially the modern hip country) makes me burp bile.  Pop music is like Bounty paper towels - good for the moment but quickly thrown away. 

Steve Jobs, Apple and iTunes changed all that.  An entire universe of music was suddenly mine (mostly for 99 cents, too).  I "discovered" jazz much like Columbus discovered America.  It was already there, already loved by the people who lived there, but new and exciting and wonderful to a boy who suffered Boy George and Rick Astley. 

This past summer I was sitting at a little club in San Antonio along the river, and a trio of old men played jazz standards as we drank in our cocktails and the warm, humid night.  They were taking requests; I asked for Coltrane and Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood".  He smiled, lifted his sax, and played a song that clearly was an old friend.  Now it was my friend, too. 

Ain't technology grand?

Monday, September 6, 2010

Keep Your Nurse Happy!

In a June 2000 issue of the British Medical Journal an article revealed a surprising statistic:  during a three-month period physicians in Israel imposed a series of sanctions in response to a disputed state-imposed wage contract.  Those sanctions included the cancellation of hundreds of thousands of office and clinic visits as well as elective surgeries.  The result?  Mortality rates among hospitalized patients decreased.  Conversely, numerous studies indicate that when nurses strike mortality rates increase in the 20% range.  The numbers are significant.

Before anyone jumps to any conclusion that you're better off firing Dr. Marcus Welby, note that during the sanctions elective surgeries were cancelled, and if you don't go under the knife you won't have any of the risks and complications associated.  This certainly would have affected mortality rates in the situation described.  Concurrently, before making an assumption that without your nurse you are six feet under, striking hospitals see fewer patients, and those tend to be of a higher acuity, increasing mortality.

Many in the media and online have had a good time hashing over the numbers, but I tend to think the study regarding physicians was weak and poorly addressed outlying issues.  The nurse studies, in contrast, are fairly well documented and contain good data that strongly suggests that if you want safe care during hospitalization nurses are the key. 

This shouldn't surprise anyone.  Nurses are at the bedside, hour after hour, observing subtle nuances and identifying changes.  A good nurse is not so much the one who saves a patient in the nick of time; a good nurse is the one who doesn't allow her patient to GET to that point.  This happens day after day under her watchful eyes, the eyes that physicians rely upon to care for their patients.  Anyone who has ever been hospitalized is well aware that the presence of the doctor is brief and fleeting; it is the nurse that will take the time to observe your wounds carefully, listen to your concerns, detect fluctuations in your vital signs, and respond quickly to subtleties you may not even recognize yourself.  It is no wonder Gallup polls indicate that nurses are the most widely trusted professionals in America year after year.

It has been clearly illustrated time after time that nurses are the key to safe care.  As we consider the contributions of the workers of this great nation today please remember nurses in your thoughts and prayers.  Their contributions to our health and well being cannot be adequately measured.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Sunday Snippets - A Catholic Carnival

I am excited to post on the Carnival for the first time in many weeks.  I took the warm months off, but time for this carny to get back to the Ferris Wheel...

This week I began with an essay on the judgments we are called to make every day.  I followed this with a look at the changes in what "potential" means as I pass the half-way point of my life (God willing). Finally, I rounded out the week with a few things that make me go "hmmm..."

School starts this week for the entire family (mom- teacher, kids - well, you know, me - extending degree).  It is going to be quiet around here, except for the gnashing of teeth.  God bless the teachers, the students, and most of all, the lunch ladies.  We need them most of all.

Visit the head carny here...

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Religion in the Modern World...?

Thank you Curt Jester for this video...I laughed so hard I fell out of my chair, literally. Unfortunately, there are lots of Stan's out there. 

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Oy, my knees.

I have passed the mid-point of my life (I am forty-two. The life expectancy of a beer-swilling, kielbasa-eating Buffalonian is definitely NOT eighty-four.). I am now on the downward spiral. Things are breaking down faster than I can fix them. Time to make burial arrangements…’cause just like the cemetery commercials imply, only an insensitive jack ass who hates his whole family, America, baseball and apple pie leaves death unplanned.

There are many new and exciting things I am learning about aging. For instance:
• Ear hair grows three times faster than any other hair on the body after forty. And it NEVER falls out.
• Any food intake after 7PM will inevitably result in heartburn and insomnia.
• Calories coming into the body have become two for the price of one. And they have double coupons.
• Upon awakening my knees make sounds similar to a sasquatch fleeing hunters through a thick forest.
• The bladder fills quickly. Most often at night. So I don’t drink anything after 7PM. Which constipates me.
• I am suddenly lactose intolerant. Dairy gives me indigestion and wind.

Despite all these signs and symptoms of impending doom I still FEEL young. As a matter of fact, I feel doggone good. When I was a boy I remember looking upon people my present age and thinking, “how decrepit”. But now that I am here, it’s not so bad (except for the whole lactose thing).

All that being said, I am starting to get a little introspective over the whole situation…have I been a good man? Have I used my talents to make things better for others? Will my son live in the basement forever? I just don’t know…and I guess I don’t want to spend too much time worrying about it, at least not yet. But deep down there is a pull, a tug at my heart, that says (in the voice of the Sham Wow guy): “You better act now, ‘cause we can’t do this all day”. My day is half over.

Up to now I have worried about many things. Some of those things have amounted to nothing, and others might have benefitted from a little attention. Despite that, my long-term plans always had a resolution in mind…now the long term plans are getting a wee bit shorter. I know, some of you oldsters out there are thinking, “this whippersnapper needs to shut his pie hole.” Maybe so.

When I was young people used to talk about how much “potential” I had. Eventually you reach a point in life where people stop saying that; but is that true? Is potential done so early? I hope not. I have some living and loving to do, God willing, but the nature of the potential changes. Now I measure friendship, love, relationships, prayer, peace, and humility as my potentialities.

These are not the result of college degrees, career tracks, promotions or networking. They are not measured by Forbes or The Economist. They are measured by the only one who really matters in the end. And when He calls me home, maybe sooner, maybe later, I want him to tell me I lived up to my potential.

I just hope the Bills win the Superbowl before then.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Don't miss the Knishes.

Central park is famous (infamous to some) for its horse-drawn carriages. Depending on your point of view, they are either a romantic reminder of time gone by, or a graphic illustration of man's cruelty to beasts of burden. I tend to the former opinion, but to each his own. In an effort to keep the horses from getting distracted by yellow cabs and pedestrians they are fitted with "winkers" - small leather plates that prevent them from looking behind or to the side, keeping them focused on the route to follow.

There have been times I would have much liked a set of winkers for myself. I am so easily distracted; the enticements of the world constantly pull my gaze. In times of spiritual struggle I most often long for a singular vision…but it is not to be. God, respecting our free will, did not outfit us with bridles, winkers, or harnesses to keep us on track. He gives us grace, the sacraments, and the Church to lead us, but it is by practicing our faith that we remain on course and free (relatively) of distractions. Easily said…tough in application.

In the emergency department we are faced with constant distraction: illness, crisis and pain accompanied by fear, emotion, and irrationality. Our response often requires quick assessments and decisions. That can come with pitfalls: initial judgments may in the long run prove incorrect. Every emergency room nurse and physician is familiar with the "frequent flier" who comes several times a week with some complaint or another; in our haste we may discount their complaints based on historical histrionics. Sometimes that backfires, and I am sure nurses and physicians can recall such instances. Nonetheless, we are called daily to make judgments on based on both objective and subjective data; it is part and parcel of the job. Circumstances can distract us, color our decisions, and keep us off track. We learn quickly to rely on one another, our experience, and knowledge to keep focused, and most of the time, we do make accurate judgments.

Whether a nurse, a police officer, a mom at home, or a worker on the line, we are faced with a need to make judgments every day, all day. Without good judgment distractions easily pull us off track. I am well aware that in Christian circles the word "judgment" carries a certain stigma, and rightfully so - to a point. Jesus commands us, "Stop judging, that you may not be judged" (Mt 7:1); but what did He mean? Was Jesus promoting a sort of "moral relativism" in which we had to refrain from any evaluation of behaviors, circumstances or situations? Was he asking us to ignore the world around us, adrift and completely entrusted to providence?

Matthew 7:5-6 help to better explain Jesus’ position: “You hypocrite, remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother's eye. Do not give what is holy to dogs, or throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them underfoot, and turn and tear you to pieces.” He asks us not to arrogantly, prejudicially judge, placing undue burdens, while hypocritically denying the “wooden beam” in our own eyes. And how does one recognize the swine and dogs we must protect the holy from? Judgment. Pure and simple.

Some judgments must be made instantly; when safety and security are at stake haste is necessary. Most judgments, though, benefit from careful thought and prayer. Our Mother Church is a great example of this: her careful consideration and prayer reflects the role of the Holy Spirit and the weight of her pronouncements. She does not acquiesce to public opinion or fads.

For you and I quick judgments are necessary at times: a man whose home and family are threatened rightly pursues all avenues to prevent offending persons from exercising that threat; he may not be aware of the childhood trevails of the offender, nor his poverty, nor his pain, but he is acutely aware that his family is in danger and must act. A mother who recognizes that the behaviors of a young man approaching her daughter are inconsistent with her purity rightly ends the relationship if able; she is not aware that he may have been abused, has been unloved by parents, or is a boy scout, and no matter. She does what she must do to protect her daughter.

Other judgments must be “weighed, prayed, and remade”. We carefully weigh the consequences, pray for guidance and discernment, and remake our judgments if the situation warrants. It is in these circumstances that we evaluate the fruits of our decisions, in the light of the teachings of the Church and of Scripture. A wise guide / spiritual director / mentor can help.

Do not fear making judgments, but do have a healthy respect for the weight of them. We are judged by our own criteria, as Jesus has made clear. Make judgments based on love, with the guidance of the Church and the Holy Spirit, and consistent with mercy – not only for the circumstances, but for those in it. Avoid the distractions of the world, the power of prejudice and the lure of popular opinion. Stay true to the vocation God has given you, whether as son or daughter, husband or wife, father or mother, priest or sister. Remember that those God has given you are your priority. Most of all, pray, pray, pray.

And keep the winkers off. You might pass a knish cart at Columbus Circle and not even know it.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Thank you.

As I consider the events of this day they play in my mind like a pleasant montage, accompanied by strains of Louie Armstrong singing "What a Wonderful World". I am at peace.

Early this morning I was generously given the opportunity to speak to a group of individuals representing Christian, Jewish, and Muslim traditions about the importance of giving our brothers and sisters the tools to live healthy lives. It was a training session for Faith Fights Diabetes, a program promoting local faith communities to take an active role in the education of their congregations on diabetes. The program, funded and promoted through the State of New York, was based on an educational model from Seton Health downstate and (gulp) my health programs at St. Luke's. They treated me like a rock star. It is a DREAM COME TRUE to think that individuals will be following the screening and follow-up models I initiated at St. Luke's in their congregations all over the state. Think of all the people who will be helped…it is a miracle. God bless Franco Ohmeda and all the wonderful people he has gathered around him for this amazing project. I am humbled to have been a small part of its inception.

Later in the afternoon I drove my lovely daughter Elizabeth to her dormitory at Niagara County Community College to begin her freshman year. It was bittersweet; I cried, but my heart swelled with pride. Of course, her mother sobbed like a baby. One of her room-mates is a child of a family of twelve; what are the chances? She is in good company. It is so hard to let go. As I type this I am weeping - not for her…for me. I will miss her bubbly personality, the joy she brings to our home. She sings constantly; I will miss that most of all.

Later in the afternoon we attended a fund-raiser for St. Luke's at a locally famous beach house, "Mickey Rats". It is providentially placed on one of the loveliest sandy beaches on Lake Erie, and has been a perennial favorite in the community. We were entertained by an amazing band called "Party of Nine". I don't know if there is anything as attractive or entrancing as musicians who have honed their craft. I was enamored. They held us in the palms of their hands all evening. We ended the evening walking along the beach as the sun dipped into the horizon, leaving behind a crimson, orange, and pink sky that slowly succumbed to a deep, dark blue night dotted with stars. It was breathtaking.

God is so good. I am filled with gratitude. And I say to myself, what a wonderful world.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Ellen from Buffalo - YOU ROCK

Today during the radio show Ellen from Buffalo, our resident Maronite, hinted at a wonderful ode to Tabbouleh.  Here it is.  Brace yourself.

I want glow sticks.

George Lopez is Right.

I need some help. I need a bathroom.

My wife, thirteen year-old daughter, and sixteen year-old son just got contacts, and between the three of them they have taken possession of the mirror above the sink. My wife has been trying to get the lens out of her left eye for about a half-hour now. She's frustrated and irritated. I thought it would be funny to show her how easily I am able to remove my glasses. I am now bruised.

Out of six that require glasses to read, drive, and guide forks to the appropriate orifice I am the only one who still wears good old fashioned spectacles. The rest are far too good looking to hide their fair complexions behind the coke-bottle lenses myopia requires. And so they stand before the mirror, blinking and frowning and poking their eyeballs twice a day. The rest of us pace outside the bathroom. I'm not getting mixed up in the whole contacts thing.  I don't feel the need to be fabulous.  In the words of George Lopez, "I'm married now. I don't care what I look like". I think he said that. Maybe not. Whatever.

My wife has had a bit of a transformation as of late. As I have previously posted, she has lost somewhere near a gazillion pounds and fits into the dress size she wore on our wedding day. She let her hair grow out and got it styled. She wears clothes that compliment her figure. For a body that gave birth to nine bouncing babies, she looks pretty darn good. The contacts were the last addition to a lovely transformation.

Me? Well, luckily, she thinks chubby is cute.

I would like to lose a few pounds, though. Okay, ninety but let's not nitpick. I have stopped drinking soda pop at work, am developing the habit of taking the stairs instead of the elevator (thank God I work in a small building), and recently initiated drinking two full glasses of water prior to eating. Someone said it will make me eat less. So far it just makes me need to go more. Hence my problem.

Vanity. Makes me need the bathroom and keeps me out.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

I don't know nothin'.

I was perusing the magazine racks at Borders a day ago, an activity totally foreign to me. I don't read magazines, generally speaking, unless they are conveniently located next to a toilet (to the dismay of those waiting). Since the only ones old enough to have a job and purchase magazines in my home are females, the selection usually includes People, Us, Better Homes and Garden's Christmas Cookie Spectacular, and Seventeen. Mixed in the bunch one might find the latest news from Franciscan University (they keep sending me magazines…did I give them money? Impossible - I have no money.), catalogs for home school supplies, and programming notes from the local Catholic radio station. They tend to hang around for three month intervals. I usually re-read them several times.

While I reviewed the titles I picked up a copy of Writer's Digest; I fashion myself to be a diamond in the rough when it comes to literature. The truth is I am more like a briquette in a bucket. The tag line on the cover said, "Write About What You Know". Apparently that will translate into huge contracts, whirlwind book tours, and a castle in Wales. Or at least it will get suckers like me who want to be the next GK Chesterton to keep buying their lousy magazine. Either way, it has joined the rest of the magazines in my bathroom.

Write about what you know.

What if what you know isn't particularly interesting to most of America? What if what you know consists primarily of lawnmowers, barbecue grilling and cleaning M&M's out of a DVD player? Or driving to work, taking the wife to dinner once a week, and cleaning crayon marks off the bathroom wall? Who the heck is crazy and bored enough to read about that? Okay, maybe my mom, but that ain't gonna get me no flippin' castle.

There has to be more. Did J.K. Rowling grow up with wizards? Did Anne Rice suffer puncture wounds to her neck? Did Stephen King get dropped on his head? (C'mon, that guy's mind is NUTS.) Did Mary Shelley collect brains in a jar? Did Herman Melville spear seafaring mammals? No, I say, hogwash. They had talent. They made this stuff up. And it was good. They expanded their own reality and wrote about things the LIKED. They found out that a lot of us liked it, too.

Unfortunately, even knowing that means little. The great writers of our day and days gone by are a woefully small minority of humankind. They do not grow on trees. They are not a dime a dozen. You can't find them as easily as, say, an artist (don't tell me you don't know that the greatest masters of the canvas can all be identified by how well they draw Tippy?!?).

That being said, many amateur writers are capable every once in a while of something pretty good. Generally it has to be short (good comes in spurts for most). Which makes blogging the PERFECT outlet.

As I browse the web I have found a few bloggers with what I consider real talent - they hold my attention, make me laugh, cry, or sometimes even get angry. They write about things they like…their faith, their families, their thoughts and feelings. Most have never been published, and probably never will. But each day they offer their words to the world for free, and I think that is pretty doggone awesome. So today I will finish by writing about what I like - blogs. Your blogs. You inspire me, amuse me, and make me think. Pat yourself on the back. Because we can't. We aren't anywhere near you. Of course, you are probably okay with that.

So join me in raising a glass to the lowly blogger. May your laptop hold its charge and your spell check never fail.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Have a Hot Dog - Enjoy the Party

The house looked perfect, inside and out. Michelle and I had labored for two days; we had invited a cadre of friends and family for a summer cook-out and the first guests were due at any time.

Most years our annual outdoor affairs were graduation celebrations; with nine children, it’s a fairly good bet that someone is graduating from something come June. This year was one of the few marking no milestones in the educational careers of the fruits of my loins, so the party was, in the words of my beloved, "just for fun". "We can't go a year without a party - everyone looks forward to them," she intoned, and I reluctantly agreed, anticipating the last-minute flurry of vacuums, dusting, mowing and shopping.

Unfortunately, we are of Polish descent, which means that every surface in the home must be amenable to dining on it. The Poles are known to scrub things twice just because. Cleaning has a different meaning in a Polish home, and though my wife and I are third generation and the obsessive-compulsive need to clean has quite nearly been bred off our DNA, not so our guests. With the eyes of falcons (Polish Falcons?) they would see every dust particle, smear and blemish. And so we cleaned.

As the final seconds ticked by before the first guests arrived, I surveyed my kingdom. The house was dust-free. The windows were crystal clear. The rug was devoid of Lucky Charms. The computer desk was free of cups, plates, and empty yogurt cups. There was no salami in the dvd's. The lawn was a perfect 1.5 inches, soft to the most tender feet. Weeds had been eradicated, flowers dead-headed, and borders trimmed. The tables and chairs were set about the yard, carefully designed to look as though they were not carefully designed. Drinks were set, food was simmering, and gentle strains of jazz wove through the scene like a comfortable old blanket. Even the tomatoes on the vine looked like decorations, as if to say, "here lives a man who can do it all". Sadly, it was too late to cancel the party and extend the moment further.

The party was a huge success - over eighty friends, relatives, and crashers enjoyed themselves. I spent hours at the grill, making hot dogs, burgers, and steaks. Our guests laughed, chatted, and enjoyed one another. Old friends were reunited, and new friends were made. The food was delicious and everyone left with a full belly. A few moments after the last guests said goodbye late that night, I once again surveyed my kingdom. It looked like it had been attacked by Huns.

There were empty cans everywhere. Chip dip dripped from a table. Pretzels were smashed into the blacktop. Wet rings stained the woodwork indoors. Some child smeared mustard on a window. Chairs and tables were scattered everywhere. Dishes were piled in the sink, and left-over's dotted the kitchen counters. A disaster.

I was tired and irritated. The children were half-helping; you know the scenario - walking like zombies, suddenly needing to go to the bathroom, disappearing for several minutes…I was disgusted. We needed to get things back in order, and no one seemed as concerned about it as me. By the time we were finished cleaning I had managed to anger just about everyone, and we went to bed having accomplished little.  Even my beloved said, "You really ticked me off".  Oy.

Had I opened my eyes to reality, I would have been open to the joy of having truly seen what the party was all about - memories and stories, friendships and love. The setting, so carefully executed, was only an avenue to facilitate the true focus of the gathering - our love for family and friends. As the party ended I concentrated on the mechanics of it all. I missed the boat.

As I reflect on that day I see it as a metaphor to a larger reality within our own beloved Church. As Catholics I think many of us concentrate on the mechanics and miss the boat. That is not to say the mechanics are unimportant - the Church facilitates relationships, and we need to carefully keep it "clean" to encourage the spiritual journey to salvation. But we must endeavor with care not to lose the sense of love and brotherhood that marks that journey and gives it meaning. The movement that defined Church as "the people" went too far - structure is integral to its success. But the backlash that concentrates on structure suffers the same error. Our concentration in such thinking is suddenly and necessarily void of the fundamental focus of Christianity - love.

Pope Benedict XVI, in his address to the Rome Diocesan Congress, clarified the focus of our Christian life and the role the institutional Church plays in fostering that focus:

"Anyone who knows he is loved is in turn prompted to love. It is the Lord himself, who loved us first, who asks us to place at the center of our lives love for him and for the people he has loved. It is especially adolescents and young people, who feel within them the pressing call to love, who need to be freed from the widespread prejudice that Christianity, with its commandments and prohibitions, sets too many obstacles in the path of the joy of love and, in particular, prevents people from fully enjoying the happiness that men and women find in their love for one another. On the contrary, Christian faith and ethics do not wish to stifle love but to make it healthy, strong and truly free: This is the exact meaning of the Ten Commandments, which are not a series of "no's" but a great "yes" to love and to life. Human love, in fact, needs to be purified, to mature and also to surpass itself if it is to be able to become fully human, to be the beginning of true and lasting joy, to respond, that is, to the question of eternity which it bears within it and which it cannot renounce without betraying itself."

Without the Church our party is out of control. Without the guests the Church has no function. As in all things, there is a balance and a need for moderation. Without it we just "tick each other off".

Monday, April 19, 2010

David and Goliath?

Tim Kennedy took a run at Zdeno Chara early in the second period after Chara had casually lifted his left arm and sent tiny Tim flipping end over end like a sock monkey.  It was a sad display.  Tim Kennedy, South Buffalo's pride and joy, threw his five-foot ten, 176 pound frame at Zdeno's six-foot nine, 260 pound wall of steely flesh with all he could muster.  Chara didn't seem to notice, and Timmy just bounced off and fell down.  It typifies the struggle the Buffalo Sabres are experiencing as I watch the third game of the opening series of the quarter finals of the Stanley Cup playoffs.  The Boston Bruins are picking the Sabres off one by one.

With about seven minutes left in the third period Boston has broken the stalemate and taken the lead, 2-1.  I am watching a valiant response from number 44, Sekera; the gloves are off and punches are flying...Mrs. Marciniak is screaming "HIT THE BIG JERK!".  She's a pacifist, as you can plainly see.  It's a good showing, but I fear its a bit too little, too late.

Kennedy's struggle is reflective of a much greater reality, a reality Buffalonians carry with them every day:  we are small potatoes. 

Oh, we like to talk a blue streak about the Pan-Am Expo back at the start of the last century, and fondly remember the captains of industry born of strategic placement on the shores of Lake Erie. It is a location that fostered our rapid growth and precipitated our gradual decline when the storied Erie Canal was finally filled- in with construction waste and the big laker ships passed us by through Welland in Southern Ontario.  The steel mills and grain elevators closed one by one, and the blue-collar community staggered.  Crooked and short-sighted politicians interested only in assuring their own futures led the city to its present state of decay.  No one is really saying, but somewhere between 12,000 and 18,000 vacant homes and buildings fill neighborhoods once alive with immigrants and families.  It looks like a war zone in some places.  In many ways, it is.

We've struggled to find a new identity.  The University at Buffalo has valiantly championed medical research downtown, though decades after short-sighted bureaucrats determined that the state's largest university's new campus should be built on swampland in the corner of an agrarian suburb rather than the city itself.  A well-recieved "Talkin' Proud" campaign fostering community pride roused up the masses for a while several years ago, but it, like so much else, has been all but forgotten.  We tout our moniker, the "City of Good Neighbors" while our streets are littered with the spent casings of bullets that kill and maim our children.  Oh, and we were once designated an "All America City", whatever that means. 

And so we cheer when Guy Fieri visits our chicken wing joints, fall over ourselves like babbling idiots when entertainers like Keanu Reeves come to town, and give keys to the city to dubious luminaries such as Terrell Owens.  Anything to get back in the limelight, to toot our horn to the world.  Yes, our smiling mayor in his now-infamous (among locals) "Urkel" suit handed a key to the city to T.O.  That just makes me want to take a run at Chara.  Head first.

Despite all that, we have our beloved Sabres.  We really want them to win.  They are a lot like us; they run on the small side, they don't play very physically with the big boys, and they suffer inconsistency and a lack of ambition.  They have never been more than number two, and most often not anywhere near that.  But sometimes, when everything is clicking, they really show up and knock our socks off.  They demonstrate a resolve, a level of play that is beyond themselves, and we are mesmerized.  We see a glimpse of greatness; but like our own, it is often all to brief.  Then a big goon like Chara knocks us down.

Buffalo as we know it is dying.  A quick drive through the "East Side" will prove that true; but with death comes resurrection.  We are not a big city any longer, if we ever were, and as we continue to shrink the time has come to prune.  We need to trim away the bureacracy that cripples us and replace it with intelligence.  We need to finally admit that industry is just not coming back, and find some other way to make a living.  We need to ask the unions that hold on to empty victories from a time gone by to step aside and realize that much of what they are is now irrelevant and obstructing real change.  We have created our own Goliath, our own Chara that keeps knocking us down.  He has to go.

Finally, we need to draw on our strengths.  We are a city of families and of faith.  We are, down deep, good people, willing to reach out like only those who have suffered can.  A city that hopes to live must foster the source of its growth: families.  Improve the schools.  Build an infrastructure that promotes business, and ultimately, creates jobs.  Clean up the streets and the playgrounds.  Force the drug lords out. Make it safe again. 

As I finish these thoughts the game has ended.  Boston 2, Buffalo 1.  The Bruins are up in the series 2-1, with the next game on their ice. 

Okay, so we could win it in six...

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Happy Dyngus Day

The pain in my lumbar spine of recent memory has been gone for one full week, and the lights of the gym across the street are once again mocking me. I have little regard for this, and even less shame; I am from Buffalo, and there are no illusions of grandeur. I am more than willing to try and try again. If the Bills can do it, so can I. After heaping plates of kielbasa and ham this weekend, my belly has grown to a size that screams nine months gestation. The baby's got to go.

After Mass this evening the spouse and I drove to Wegman's (the finest grocery store on earth) that I might purchase some low-calorie lunches for the coming week. You know the kind; It takes ten minutes to prepare them, thirty seconds to eat them, and ten seconds to realize that this is not enough food, for the love of God. We also purchased a lovely statue of St. Francis for the garden, and three six-packs of flavored water. You may ask, where did St. Francis come into this? Frankly, he was there standing among plaster squirrels, and appeared in need of a rescue. I am certain St. Francis is as annoyed by squirrels as I am.

My resolve is strong, but tomorrow will bring temptation in short order: Dyngus Day. Unless you are from Buffalo, South Bend or Chicago, you are probably wondering if I just swore. No, my friend, Dyngus Day is a bonafide holiday celebrating the end of Lent. Its origins can be traced to Poland, and the large Polish immigrant communities in the northeast brought the celebration with them. Buffalo proudly boasts the largest Dyngus Day celebration in the country featuring a big parade and lots of Polish cooking, and therein lies my problem: Polish food. Kielbasa. Pierogis. Czarnina. Kiszka. Golambkis. There is a theme for the Polish cook: lots of fat and meat; keep the vegetable matter from fouling it up. Wash it down with Tyskie beer and/or vodka. Follow it up with a cardiac angiogram for dessert.

For our dinner I have half a ham, five pounds of fresh kielbasa, five pounds of smoked, and a big bag of the sister-in-law's famous home-made pierogis made with potatoes, cheese and bacon, all sitting in my refrigerator right now. Not to mention the sour-cream cheesecake. There are cucumbers, but the missus plans on soaking their paper-thin slices in sour cream and half-and-half. Yum. For lunch? Lean Cuisine chicken and fettucini. Two words come to mind: why bother.

And so I join humanity in promising to change tomorrow, to indulge for just one more day and then finally take this all seriously. As I binge on pork products for one last hurrah I will pray for the strength to do what must be done to melt the flab from my straining frame. I think I'll ask for the intercession of St. Francis. He owes me for rescuing him from squirrels.

Christ is Risen, Alleluia

Friday, April 2, 2010

Holy Thursday - The Tradition of the Seven Churches

Enjoy this video created by Chris Byrd from Broadway Fillmore Alive as he visits the seven churches on Buffalo's East Side community on Holy Thursday, a tradition originating in the seven major churches of Rome.  The Seven Churches are located in Buffalo's historic Polish community, and St. Luke's Mission of Mercy is included in this wonderful pilgrimage. 

One Night and Seven Churches - 2010 from Christopher Byrd on Vimeo.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Welcome to my world.

Back in the early eighties I parted my flowing blond locks smack dab in the middle of my acne-scarred forehead, and spent considerable time and several dozen cans of my mother’s Aqua Net in a vain attempt to keep my dastardly cowlick flush with the rest of my coiffure. There were times that my hair was so hard from the hairspray that a blacksmith could have pounded out horse shoes on it. Despite my best efforts that little lock of hair would find its way to an upright position perpendicular to the crown of my adolescent cranium. I looked like Alfalfa in a velour shirt and Sergio Valente jeans.

I am now well into my forties and that doggone cowlick is still a problem. Of course, I now part my hair to the side, maintain a professional length, and all that Aqua Net has been replaced by Paul Mitchell Tea Tree Extract with Jojoba Oils and Cream of Lamb Innards, but it still makes my hair feel like fiberglass. My velour shirts are long gone, and my Sergio’s have disintegrated. I feel somewhat cheated to know, thanks to the magic of Wikipedia, that there never really was a Mr. Sergio Valente anyway. I guess he lives in make-believe land with Mrs. Butterworth and their love-child, Buster Brown.

That cowlick is one of the last vestiges of my youth to remain. So much has changed. Now I worry more about the hair in my ears than the thinning hair on my head. My belly looks like I gathered all my teen-aged memories on a big plate and ate them. My ankles swell at night, my back hurts, and when I collapse in a heap in bed after a night of partying I have to be sure to put on the CPAP. Not that I party all that often. Okay, not at all, but still.

I recently visited my doctor for my annual physical, which I religiously schedule every three or four years. Our conversation went something like this: “Yes, I know, I weigh too much. My pressure is up. I should take a multi-vitamin. Exercise is in the works, yes, as soon as my back feels better. I plan on cutting back on the calories, doctor, yes, starting this week. You’ve got to check what?!? Cough.” I then went to the lab to have the prescribed blood samples drawn, eight tubes in all. In the waiting room I sat next to an old man whose pants were pulled up just beneath the nipple line of his chest. He glanced at my prescription and stared at me in a way only an old person can do without eliciting an “excuse me” and said, “Welcome to my world.”

It was then that Ecclesiastes came alive for me. That is a book in the Bible I never quite got; it seems so…cynical. Yet, as my cynicism for all things political, economic, and narcissistic grows, the book seems to grow in meaning for me. “Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!” Eccl 1:2. He’s so right on – all the time we spend on our bodies, our achievements, our reputations, our cowlicks – vanity.

What matters in the end is dependence on God. He provides us with all we need, and in that provision we can enjoy the life we have been given. If that means I scarf down a nice plate of kielbasa and a glass of St. Pauli Girl every now and again, so be it. It all comes from Him who loves me. A hundred years from now memory of my accomplishments will join my Sergio Valente’s. For now, I’m going to love the ones I’ve got, enjoy a meal while the food is hot, and maybe even crack open a bottle of vino every once in a while. I’m going to honor the God who gives so freely out of His endless love for me. And I’m going to let that cowlick do whatever it wants to do. Aqua Net and Paul Mitchell be damned.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

A Holy Week Reflection

There is little in life that foments anxiety as much as being misunderstood. Our intentions belong only to ourselves, yet we make the common error of presupposing that our intentions can be clearly inferred by our actions or historical “goodness”. Reality finds us defending our activity and its meaning on a fairly regular basis.

To be misunderstood is a common cross for those who follow Christ. The way we choose to live, the decisions we make for our families and for ourselves, and the priorities we set can be seen by others as condemning and judgmental. Our fidelity to the Church carries with it the notions of all those who oppose her, who observe and note our words and actions to confirm their prejudice.

More disturbing are those circumstances in which we who should be of like mind and heart do the same to one another. A wise man once told me, “What we don’t know we make up, and it’s never good”. How often we speculate the intentions of others maliciously, yet we are indignant when the same is directed to ourselves.

We are not alone; as in all things the Bible teaches us that being misunderstood and misunderstanding others is a historical trait of our kind.  Who among those present at the Passion of our Lord understood the magnanimity of that moment? Who among those who mocked and spit comprehended the earth-shattering event taking place? I consider the centurion’s words: “Truly, this was the Son of God!” Mt 27:54. It took an earthquake, the opening of tombs, and an eclipse to get him to that epiphany. We have been given the meaning of that day as a great gift of grace, a gift we are meant to share and to translate into love. That’s where we fail – in the translation.

If God calls us to love one another, we need to learn to be gentle, kind, and patient. We need to presuppose the best in others, and respond with love. We need to endure personal attack with gentle reserve and reflect honestly on our intentions. Sometimes that is best done in silence, at other times in conversation marked with a generous spirit. Most of all, “what we don’t know” we should never make up…it only gets us into trouble.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Ill from the monotony of my suffering...

My wife has quite irritatingly lost somewhere near six gazillion pounds over the last year through no conscious effort of her own and has suddenly achieved the figure of her youth.  She smugly announced recently that she currently weighs the same that she did on our wedding day.   I, contrarily, weigh somewhat more than I did that blessed day; somewhere in the vicinity of a side of beef more.  I wear my wedding tux pants like leg warmers on cold Buffalo nights while dreaming of what my washboard abs might look like without all the wash piled on top.

Ironically, I live directly across the street from a gym.  I have stared with envy many a morning as lean, health-conscious men and women trekked from their Subarus to the elipticals, sipping their Evian and sporting pricey athletic shoes purchased with home equity loans.  I considered membership, but somehow felt my zubaz pants and Sabres sweatshirt stained with chicken wing sauce might contrast with the sculpted UnderArmour worn by the gym's "membres favorises."  Oh bother.  Angst is easily cured with a honey glazed cruller and a French vanilla cappuccino from the drive-thru at Timmy Horton's.

I finally tired of breathing like an emphysematic chain smoker after minimal activity about a month ago, walked the previously unfathomable chasm across the street (approximately fifty feet), and purchased a membership.  This was just six weeks ago.  So much has transpired since then.  Such pain.  Such agony.

After three weeks of frantic exercise, staring at the "no pain, no gain" sign emblazoned on the gym wall, sweating like Mike Tyson at a spelling bee, I have achieved two significant milestones:  I lost ten  pounds and herniated a disc in my lumbar spine.  I spent two days in the hospital enduring stern looking nurses injecting massive doses of steroids and narcotics in my veins like a major league baseball player on a Toronto holiday.  After nearly three weeks of walking like Quasimoto, I have finally regained the ability to walk erect, and to sit comfortably in the car while eating a cruller.

It has been about a week since the pain has gone, and the gym taunts me.  I tell my friends and family that I will go back, that it is only a matter of time before I'm back on the treadmill and perspiring profusely.  I have convinced myself that I have kept the ten pounds off.  But who am I kidding.  That gym is a house of horror, and I'm in the throes of post-traumatic stress.  I'm going to Timmy's.

Monday, March 29, 2010

My God, my God, why have You abandoned me?

I don't suppose there is any coincidence that the latest barrage of journalistic and political attacks against the Church and the Holy Father correspond with the final days of preparation for those receiving the sacraments at the Easter Vigil. Satan has perennially made this a time of struggle for candidates and catechumen, and this year he's going straight to the top to reinforce doubt. There are countless eager to assist him; some blindly, others with eyes wide open.
Then Jesus said to them, "This night all of you will have your faith in me shaken, for it is written: 'I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be dispersed'; but after I have been raised up, I shall go before you to Galilee." Matthew 26:31-32
As the attacks continue, the danger grows, not only for our beloved converts, but for the life-long faithful as well. Satan is counting on us behaving like skittish sheep; he's worked hard to instill anxiety. His greatest ally seems to be our penchant to resort to the base nature of our sexuality. With it he foments skepticism in the moral validity of the institution, and consequently the entire faith. He is striking at the shepherds; too many have been complicit. Others have misapplied mercy. The sheep are wide-eyed and fearful.

We are truly a Church suffering. We suffer for victims. We suffer those who misrepresent the love of Jesus. We suffer those who condemn, who mock, who despise. We suffer the reality that the vast majority of our shepherds are good and holy, but have been cast in a shadow of suspicion. We suffer marginalization in a society bent on reducing the image of the faithful to uneducated peasants clinging desperately to irrelevant myths. By far our greatest suffering is our own sinfulness. We expect so much of ourselves and our shepherds; we set ourselves up for disappointment.

Psalm 22 speaks to me.

My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Why so far from my call for help, from my cries of anguish? My God, I call by day, but you do not answer; by night, but I have no relief. Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One; you are the glory of Israel. In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted and you rescued them. To you they cried out and they escaped; in you they trusted and were not disappointed.

But I am a worm, hardly human, scorned by everyone, despised by the people. All who see me mock me; they curl their lips and jeer; they shake their heads at me: "You relied on the LORD--let him deliver you; if he loves you, let him rescue you."

Yet you drew me forth from the womb, made me safe at my mother's breast. Upon you I was thrust from the womb; since birth you are my God. Do not stay far from me, for trouble is near, and there is no one to help. Many bulls surround me; fierce bulls of Bashan encircle me. They open their mouths against me, lions that rend and roar. Like water my life drains away; all my bones grow soft. My heart has become like wax, it melts away within me. As dry as a potsherd is my throat; my tongue sticks to my palate; you lay me in the dust of death.

Many dogs surround me; a pack of evildoers closes in on me. So wasted are my hands and feet that I can count all my bones. They stare at me and gloat; they divide my garments among them; for my clothing they cast lots.

But you, LORD, do not stay far off; my strength, come quickly to help me. Deliver me from the sword, my forlorn life from the teeth of the dog. Save me from the lion's mouth, my poor life from the horns of wild bulls. Then I will proclaim your name to the assembly; in the community I will praise you: "You who fear the LORD, give praise! All descendants of Jacob, give honor; show reverence, all descendants of Israel! 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 him. 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.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Sunday Snippets - A Catholic Carnival!

I haven't snipped on a Sunday since November 1st, so please allow me the room to warm up my mouse and work out the kink in my keyboard...

This week I would like to highlight two submissions: first, a reminiscent look back at the Gong Show and, thanks to Massachusett's own Martha Coakley, a wake-up call that as a devout Catholic I should definitely consider getting out of the Emergency nursing business...

Have a great week, everyone.  Please visit our gracious host!

Apparently I have chosen the wrong career.

I am fond of the city of Boston.  There is a unique mix of history and youth.  Streets lined with edifices built by the very founders of our nation are traversed by young men and women studying in the many colleges and universities that dot the city, giving it energy and vitality. 

That being said, there are a few things about Boston I am definitely NOT a fan of.  First, the New England Patriots.  Go Ravens.  Second, Faneuil Hall does not impress me.  It's overcrowded, overly-commercial, and vaguely reminiscent of a colonial-era shopping mall, complete with a Ye Olde Cinnabon.  (I know that I've just uttered words that the Boston Chamber of Commerce would consider sacrilege; so be it.)  Finally, the bus ride from the airport is nothing short of hell on wheels.  The drivers are lunatics, the traffic is horrendous, and the passengers laugh as your knuckles turn pale gripping the seat in front of you in sheer terror. 

Still, it's an awesome town.  There are few sights as amazing as Fenway, the harbor, and those amazing penguins in the New England Aquarium; they are AWESOME! 

Much like the college students who fill the city and surrounding areas each fall semester spending mommy and daddy's hard-earned retirement accounts at institutions of higher learning, I come to Boston intrigued...but while they are intrigued by how many beers a person can drink until he is face-first on a historic sidewalk, I am more interested in the juxtaposition of a storied Irish Catholic tradition and the perrenial election of politicians who directly oppose the teachings Catholics hold dear.  What's up, Bean Town?  Of course, this seems to be a state-wide problem in Massachusetts, so let's not put all the blame on Boston.  Liberal New England politicos are born and raised in this state.

I am most especially excited today because Martha Coakley, Democratic candidate to fill the recently expired Ted Kennedy's senate seat, has cleared up an obvious error I have made.  In an interview on WBSM with host Ken Pittman, Martha brought to light an issue I had previously not considered.  Here is the text:
PITTMAN: Right, if you are a Catholic, and believe what the Pope teaches that any form of birth control is a sin, uh, you don’t want to do that (work in an emergency room).
COAKLEY: No, but we have a seperation of church and state Ken, let’s be clear.
PITTMAN: Yeah, in the emergency room, you still have your religious freedom.
COAKLEY: [stuttering] The law says that people are allowed to have that. And so then, you can have religious freedom, but you probably shouldn’t work in the emergency room.
PITTMAN: Wow. Okay.
Wow. Okay. So here is the problem: I am a devout Catholic; worse still, I not only WORK in an Emergency room, I pretty much run the whole dang thing. I guess I should have thought the whole thing through a little better. Thank you Martha, thank you Massachusetts, and thank you Democratic party for setting me straight. I will be filling out the matchbook cover Sally Struthers sent me to become a dental assistant. Hopefully Catholics are allowed to clean teeth.

What lunacy.  Maybe we should hang signs on the front of our Emergency Departments that read, "Catholics need not apply".  Does that ring a bell?  Would the Irish Catholics of Massachusetts please wake up?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Please help.

The devastation of Haiti and particularly in Port-au-Prince is a grim reminder of the tightrope we walk upon, the delicate balance of life that can so quickly be upturned by the realities of nature and poverty.

What will be done in Haiti? Millions are homeless in the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere. There is no water, electricity, shelter, food, or medical care to be had. As the U.S. and others gear up to provide assistance thousands stand on street corners and in public spaces with no where to go, nothing to eat. As the screams and cries of those trapped are silenced in the coming days the enormity of the situation will be fully realized. It is a scenario rife with possibility for violence, disease, starvation and death.

We must move quickly.

I live in a city. I have often considered the impact of a major disaster or man-made catastrophe on my life and the lives of those I love. If the infrastructure that sustains us was destroyed and could not be restored in a reasonable amount of time we would have to leave, migrate to escape conditions not amenable to life. I would pray that my nation would come to our aid, help us to re-establish our lives and that we would persevere through tragedy.

Haiti is a tiny island nation. There is no where to go. Its government is morally and economically bankrupt.

Pray for our brothers and sisters in Haiti, and please do what you can. Here is a link to Catholic Relief Services.  Please pray for the soul of Monsignor Joseph Serge Miot, the archbishop of Port-au-Prince who was killed when the archdiocesan offices collapsed during he quake. 

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Gong Show

In 1975 Morris Albert recorded a song that left an indelible mark on my psyche, much like a hot branding iron leaves a blistered, burning flesh wound on the rear end of a cow. Just one year later Chuck Barris would pick open the scabs by dedicating an episode of the then-ubiquitous “Gong Show” to performers offering their ghastly renditions of the song, performances that would have made Simon Cowell consider William Hung a master at his craft. It has become a prototype for all the overly-sentimental lounge songs that spewed forth from the gullets of polyester-clad slime-balls so prevalent in the decade that gave birth to face lifts, Watergate, Bob Barker and the Love Boat.
Nothing more than feelings.
Trying to forget my feelings of love.

Most people remember the song’s most identifiable lyrics: “whoa, whoa, whoa”. Yes, it was that good. And Morris Albert, along with radio stations across the fruited plain made sure we all shared his painful agony over and over and over and over.

I am fully aware that somewhere out there in cyberspace someone is feeling insulted. Someone cried through a break-up singing that song. Someone was served divorce papers while it played on their AM transistor radio. Someone had a Tiger Beat poster of Morris Albert in their locker. I know not everyone shares my nausea. But I think most do, and so, as a self-appointed spokesman for the masses, I propose we erase all evidence it was ever produced. I fear that two thousand years from now some archaeologist digging in the ruins of what was once a thriving “Record Theatre” franchise will find an old 45 and base their understanding of our age on “whoa, whoa, whoa”.

This past December I began my forty-second year of existence. As I age, hopefully in wisdom and age and favor before God and man, I begin to see the enormity of wasted time and energy all around me: grudges and enmity…Gossip and hatred…anger and animosity…prejudice and conceit. I do not present myself simply as an accuser: I stand before God guilty of all this and more. As I begin what I perceive as the mid-point of my life I look at my weaknesses with certain sadness, recognizing the losses I have suffered by concentrating on…nothing. Like a stupid song playing over and over I have filled much of my time with meaningless garbage.

Feelings. Nothing more than feelings.

Much of our day is dominated by our feelings of anger, hurt, jealousy, envy, and disappointment. We beat ourselves up, and worse, others, too. We assume the motivations and thoughts of others. We judge actions and form opinions in complete ignorance and act on them as though they were fact. We hurt those we love most and isolate others with our words. We, "the daughters and sons of Him who built the valleys and plains"...who should know better.  So much time lost.

If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing. 1 Corinthians 13:1-3
Habits are a hard thing to break, but I want to love more. I want to separate myself from the fleeting emotions that cloud my thinking. I want to share in the lives of those I love and mend the fences that I have broken. O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love; for it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

Back in 1976 every one of the contestants on that shining Chuck Barris contribution to society heard the mighty clang of the gong and were sent away packing. They were all that bad. It would be a funny thing if there was a gong on judgment day. Well, not really all that funny.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Night Shift

I saw a dear old friend I worked with for many years this morning.  She is a nurse in labor and delivery, and has been lobbying for me to work there for years.  Yes, I am quite certain that will never happen.  While I know that most women would be tickled to have a mildly overweight (mildly put) middle-aged guy with a five-o'clock shadow and a case of reflux that produces untimely musical outbursts peering twixt the stirrups and shouting "PUSH" like Mike Ditka on a blitz, I will pass.  Definitely not my cup o' tea; lost me at the whole "mucus plug" thing.  So I gently repeat my mantra, "I don't know nothin' bout birthin' no babies".  Okay, so I borrowed that line.  But it fits.

It was good to see her, and some of the old gang from the night shift.  It brought back memories of incredible camaraderie.  The night shift, unlike their day and evening counterparts, is a different animal entirely.  When the managers, directors, movers and shakers are all snug in their beds with visions of meeting minutes dancing in their heads the night crew carries on with the business of healing, relying not on decision-makers paid to interpret spread sheets and budgets but on one another, becoming a cohesive team that rarely gets the credit it deserves.  For many years I enjoyed the company of wonderful nurses, nursing assistants, physicians, and rad techs.  Each one of us had our idiosyncrasies, but we overcame any impatience and grew into friends.  That was a gift, and one I miss dearly.

The world bathed in sunlight can be a frightening place for a boy raised in the dark hours of the night.  There are protocols and proper channels to follow.  Decisions are made by those paid to do so.  Innovation can be viewed as overstepping bounds.  The critical thinking one became accustomed to may be reserved for someone with more experience, more education.  There are adjustments that must be made...but, oh, to sleep at night, to wake up with the world and drink coffee when it was meant to be enjoyed...these things are so wonderful that the race becomes tolerable, and one can convince himself that the challenges are offset by the increase of vitamin D coursing through his veins...but there are difficulties, to be sure.

Of course, the grass is always greener...

So to all those who toil when the rest of us slumber, I honor your work, and offer my thanks.  To the nurse who tends to the sick and the broken, the policeman who patrols the streets, the soldier standing watch, and the baker making them sweet tastin' Krispy Kremes, I salute you.  I know most folks think you're a bit odd and a little pasty looking, but I know the truth - you are innovative and independent, creative and confident.  You deserve a lot more recognition than you get.

Besides, who else is going to know what pizzeria delivers at 3AM?  I mean, c'mon, that's gotta come in handy.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Fortune Cookies, Debbie the Cat, and the Buffalo Sabres

When you believe in things

That you don't understand,
Then you suffer,
Superstition aint the way.
      -“Superstition”, Stevie Wonder

The Marciniak ranch is well known as a center of culinary excellence in the Western New York region. Born of a need to cater three meals a day for eleven and the magic of Food TV, techniques have developed and flavors previously unknown have been vaulted to the forefront of contemporary cuisine from our humble and inadequate four-burner stove. Greats such as Mario Batali, Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay, and the grossly underweight Giada de Laurentis have seen their exquisite recipes, albeit tweaked to reflect Buffalonian modesty, presented to eager children with hypersalivation issues at regularly scheduled intervals. That being said, when there’s a few rubles in the coffers, we make a bee-line for the China Star, purveyor of fine Oriental take-out.

After the delectable cartons of General Tso’s chicken, shrimp lo mein, mei fun noodles, and such are exhausted of their high-cal, sodium-enriched contents and the satisfying release of gastric air is complete (forcefully if you are male, by our experience), the obligatory fortune cookies are dispensed. It is a tradition repeated often at Sterling Avenue estates, and shared with many, both the lay and ordained. Fr. Dennis Mancuso, an aficionado of (in his words), “vast quantities of Chinese food” (spoken with a definitive Monty Pythonesque accent) has shared this epicurean explosion more than once and can verify that the experience is just shy of gluttonous. Nonetheless, if gluttony is achieved, he is more than happy to offer the sacrament of reconciliation at a moment’s notice. After a few more dumplings. Others of lesser fortitude have run from our home clutching their offended, weak stomachs while vowing a return to boxed macaroni and cheese and to never stray. Not the Marciniaks. We’ve got gullets of steel. Szechuan’s not Szechuan unless it leaves welts on your tongue.

Of all the possible difficulties of these events (perforated ulcers, colonic inflammation, barking at the sidewalk), only one has emerged: fortune cookies. One guest is offended by them. As the children crack their little cookies tasting faintly of flour and corrugated cardboard, she looks suspiciously at the my wife and I. She relates the messages, such as “Industriousness will mean success” or “Happiness brings long life” on the tiny strips of paper baked in the cookies as on par with tarot cards, palm reading, and black magic. To our westernized American kids from an age marked by technology, unprecedented information access and a window on every corner of the world via the simple act of typing on a keyboard, this attitude is seen as relevant as Greek mythology. Our guest, an Eastern Catholic (a tradition that, in personal interpretation, has been known to express itself occasionally in superstitious practices) has grown to believe that the insidious nature of the occult as expressed in superstitions is never innocuous and to be avoided even in its most benign forms.

It would be my nature at this point to argue that the superstitions of the ages are circling the drain, so to speak. Are there any educated individuals who really believe black cats are unlucky (if so, please don’t tell my cat, Debbie. She’s quite sensitive)? Is the act of walking under a ladder really a harbinger of evil, or just an opportunity to have paint drip on your head? Does breaking a mirror really cause seven years of bad luck, or just a risk for a bad hair day? As I access the suffering of the world on the very screen upon which I prepare this essay, is it reasonable to wonder if the victims of violence and misfortune throughout the planet may have perhaps stepped on a sidewalk crack, or bragged of their youth? I think of Jesus questioning whether those killed in the collapse of a tower were more sinful than others; he recognized the danger of man judging cause and effect in unexplained suffering, and the negative consequences this can have among the faithful. Death and suffering, misfortune and tragedy are the wages of sin. These wages are distributed among us all, a reality that cannot be diminished by adherence to superstitions.

As sure as our bodily death is, our eternal life is another matter…the God of our fathers has given us an example, a guide and comforter, and a mother. Jesus, whom we emulate, the Holy Spirit who guides and encourages, and mother Church in combination with our Blessed Mother’s gentle hand can lead us to salvation. Superstitions cannot. They deny the power of God and place undue regard for meaningless objects and actions. Satan loves that. Why, then, do we have them? Why do we adhere to superstitious practices in direct opposition to the reality of God’s saving grace? Perhaps it all comes down to trust. We just don’t have enough. We need concrete assurances that God just doesn’t seem to provide; places like Lilydale, New York, crawling with “seers” and psychics and, unfortunately, Catholics seeking their assistance, rely on our lack of trust for their livelihood. So does Satan.

Let us pray for trust; trust in a God who loves us, who has sent His only Son, who by His life, death and resurrection purchased for us the rewards of eternal life; trust in the Holy Spirit and the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church He leads.

Now, on a lighter note, I am going to put all this into immediate practice by uttering taboo words equated with a perennial jynx. Here goes: STANLEY CUP. There. I said it. Those horrified by that statement in the Buffalo area may now re-read the above essay. STANLEY CUP, STANLEY CUP, STANLEY CUP!

Go Sabres!