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".