Monday, March 2, 2015

Blessed by Fr. Ted

This blog has set idle for over a year. It's not that I haven't been writing - I have an occasional burst of inspiration over at fullercommunication.com. It's mostly that I haven't found much that's elicited a personal response strong enough to carve out time to write about it. Call it equal parts apathy and busyness and boredom.

Or call it a testament to how much abject trash fills my content channels every day. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, television, you name it - all have a unique way of curating the ridiculous and casting it as worthwhile. Avoiding it is possible in the same way the American Ninja Warrior course is possible. And for someone who still needs to stay in the know, the mental and organizational contortions and feats of will required to find the good stuff are no less challenging than the physical obstacle course.

Sure, every so often a piece of news will pique my interest, but it is usually buried quickly under a mountain of distractions, or just...life. And maybe, if it isn't impactful enough to survive life's next ebb, it really isn't worth writing about anyway.

***

I met Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., just once. It was two years ago, about this time. Our boss had arranged for a group of us to spend a few minutes with him, to gain from his perspective on this place we talk about every day in our nine-to-five. I read Fr. Ted's autobiography a couple months prior. I'm glad I did, because it added a significant layer of context to the words he spoke to us. He didn't say anything completely surprising. He mostly spoke about his beloved University, and its place in the world, and what needed our collective attention in the future. But hearing Fr. Ted say these things gave me the overwhelming sense that I was now able to chronologize chicken and egg. This man, who for 35 years was Notre Dame, had set a course for the University that was still being followed. So to hear him speak of these things was to hear something delivered from its point of origin, not tradition.

At the end of the meeting, we received a blessing from Fr. Ted. The moment was a significant one, and even this son of an evangelical minister was moved. We spent a few brief minutes in his office, though far less time than any of us wanted. And we went on our way.

***

News of Fr. Ted's passing wasn't surprising, per se, but it came down heaviest on those in the Notre Dame community who knew him best and worked with him closely. And on the former students who had the immense privilege of attending during his time as president. As happens, anecdotes and reflections began pouring in when the news of his passing broke - first in the form of pre-packaged obits from outlets such as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Washington Post, then from individuals who had cherished memories of the man and his work.

Some of the stories are so well-told that we risk overlooking their significance. Like when Fr. Ted was invited to a rally in Chicago held by Martin Luther King - the same event to which the archbishop and mayor had declined their invitations. Fr. Ted looked at his watch, and asked, "What time?" Then he drove from South Bend to attend.

Or the fact that it was Fr. Hesburgh who opened Notre Dame to co-education in 1972. At a mass at the Grotto, Fr. Ted famously looked up to the statue of Mary on the Golden Dome, and said, "Mary...I'm sorry it took us almost 140 years, to bring your daughters to your University."

Other stories are less well-known, but no less impactful for those who lived them. Like the student who talked about coming back to campus at 3 AM, after a night at the bars with some classmates, and Fr. Hesburgh "jumping" from the bushes outside the Morris Inn to chat with them.

Fr. Ted's passing received its share of press, to be sure, but if you read about it at all, it was likely that you sifted it out from amongst the chaff populating the Internet that day.

The web that day was frantically searching for a multimillion-dollar dress a starlet had worn to the Oscars. Then it was furiously debating the color of another dress. Then it moved on to an outpouring in response to the death of another famous individual, Leonard Nimoy of Star Trek fame.

I don't decry the remembrance of Nimoy and his place in television history. And heaven knows I appreciate a good distraction. But these events, juxtaposed with the news of Fr. Ted's death, served as a poignant reminder of what's important.

The contrast couldn't be clearer. Amid the photos of Nimoy dressed in ridiculous costumes, one outlet sought to extol his work on behalf of women...whom he photographed in the nude. You would be hard pressed to find much in the way of charitable service. Nimoy's legacy is a photo shoot;  Hesburgh's is co-education. While one offers the scripted line, "Live long and prosper," the other says that he, "hoped to live and die a priest. Nothing more. But nothing less, either." Sure, Nimoy never claimed to be a Hesburgh. But it's worth remembering that so few ever could aspire that high in the first place.

The passing of Fr. Ted reminds us that so much is unimportant in our world. His death brings us back to this realization because it causes us to pause and consider his life's work to advance the work of justice on so many topics of critical social and moral importance. When the brilliance of his enduring light is held against the momentary and dim flashes of popular whim, Fr. Hesburgh only stands brighter, larger, and more significant. So does his work and the values he championed. To me, Fr. Hesburgh made a final, enduring statement in his death that very few ever communicate in the entirety of their lives. It's worth remembering. It's even worth writing about.

You feel me?

AF

Sunday, December 29, 2013

We'll leave the light on for ya

One of the best parts of being a parent of three kids under the age of ten, is watching their imagination at work. They all have their things. Brynn favors role playing with her dolls. Isla makes up songs. Aislynn, meanwhile, tends to create rather elaborate scenes and stories. I mean elaborate.

To wit, an unassuming Playmobil resort hotel. It has all the trappings of a calm, quiet getaway for the mop head looking to relax.


But a closer examination reveals this quaint inn has some rather intricate storylines. 
Note, for instance, the boy left alone to play with his snorkel in the bathtub...


...while mom decides it's time to unwind on the deck.
Lucky for her, we don't yet have the Playmobil Child Protective Services playset.



Elsewhere, heaven only knows what befell this poor chap. 
He was found just outside his room, with his room key on the ground next to him...


...but his friend inside appears to have trouble knowing when to say, "when."


One would think the hotel staff would intervene at this point, given the state of affairs.
But judging by the blank expressions on the faces of the workers at the front desk, we're not hopeful.


Someone better warn the folks arriving via the hotel shuttle about what's going on around here.


You feel me?

AF
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Thursday, November 28, 2013

I'm fine skipping Thanksgiving

Wikipedia
Thanksgiving is here, and you'd be forgiven if it snuck up on you. Or if you had forgotten it falls between Halloween and Christmas at all. "Thanksmas" has slowly yielded to just Christmas more and more among the consumerist majority, evidenced by everything from retail stores opening on Thanksgiving itself to a palpable lack of enthusiasm for A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving relative to A Charlie Brown Christmas. (But that one makes sense. Sorry. You can't top "I've killed it.")

Not that the lack of notice paid to Thanksgiving is going...unnoticed. A vast swath of my social circle is quite vocal about the short shrift given to Turkey Day. Some are downright belligerent about it. And they're not alone. "Christmas is too commercialized!" they say. "Whatever happened to being grateful?!"

Black Friday(Mansfield)
(Photo credit: George Artwood)
And they're right. For a broad brush of the population, Christmas is about gorging our lust for stuff. It's about scratching the materialistic itch. So the entire notion of skipping a holiday in grateful reflection for what we have, to focus with petulant impatience on what we don't have, seems...shameless, at best. Especially when we consider the extreme nature of the behavior of some people in this regard.

To the degree that the Thanksgiving defenders seek to simply contain the greed and commercialism now associated with one of the most sacred dates on the calendar, I say, fight on. But can I be honest? There's something that's been weighing on me this year that makes me feel I'd be ok if we skipped Thanksgiving and got right to Christmas.

I've talked to a lot of people this year. Many, hurting. I've read a lot of news this year. Often, troubling. I think of the little girl in my daughter's kindergarten class who lost her mother to cancer this year. I remember I have friends struggling to piece together broken relationships and families. And I consider all that we see on television and read in the news - the ugly face of a world that has seemingly lost all control. It occurs to me that many more who I encounter in my everyday routine are living a life of quiet desperation, as Thoreau would put it.

It all leads me to the conclusion that, for all its merits, we don't need just a healthy dose of gratitude.

We could use hope.
Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.
 
We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.
 
So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel,
 
“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
                              - Thomas Hardy, The Oxen

Thomas Hardy, a renowned fatalist, penned this poem during World War I. He was someone whose works, by and large, betrayed a personal philosophy devoid of hope. Yet in the midst of an apocalyptic conflict - one that had the effect of snuffing out optimism among those who lived through it - Hardy goes to the occasion of Christmas to look for a glimmer of hope.

And he's right. The Christmas story is the ultimate narrative of hope. In the Nativity, our otherwise grey existence comes face to face with a bold vibrancy that assures us things can be different. The Nativity should remind us that hope was born 2,000 years ago. It predates us and the trouble we see in our time here, and will outlast the fondest memory our loved ones hold of us.

Hope gives gratitude its context. Where it is present, it provides a superseding reason why we're grateful for all the things we normally give thanks for on this day - family, friends, our material blessings.

Thanksgiving is great in its place. I'm certainly not one for skipping the time to express gratitude. But for those who really can't find much of real consequence for which they are thankful, for those whose hearts ache at the thought of another - or a last - Thanksgiving, I say let's start with the hope.

Bring on Christmas.

You feel me?


AF
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Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Dude. My bad.

'Tis the season for outdoor recreation. The recent weather in South Bend has been ideal for breaking the surly bonds of indoor exercise, and taking advantage of the city's underrated trail system. And I have.

Though the next time I do, I think my fellow outdoorsmen would like a heads up.

It was a picture-perfect day for a run. I was blazing along my normal route on Riverside Trail. As any runner can tell you, there's a cathartic freedom that comes from the activity. For me, it's freedom from distraction. It's a chance to clear the head. Some days, that feeling is especially powerful. Even when sharing the trail with a host of other people, I can literally feel like it's just me and the asphalt. 

And my music.

And that's a problem.

Trail of tears.
Credit
I had just crossed the halfway point of my route, and I was in a zone. A groove. Another place. I approached a stretch of Riverside that bends precariously close to the St. Joseph River. So close, in fact, that sediment will often wash up onto the trail after a period of heavy rain, not unlike the one we experienced recently in Michiana

I normally keep to the right of the trail as I run - no need to be European about it, after all. But the ebbing of the river had left a pile of crud directly in my path. Naturally, I veered left to avoid it. 

And then it happened.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a rollerblader falling flailing completely losing all dignity as he fell - and rolled - in the grass. Oh, how he rolled. His shoulder-length hair visually amplified the sheer violence of the event as it went akimbo with each rotation of his unsuspecting body. And while I am admittedly not the fastest runner, it is worth noting that for approximately five yards, the pace of the blader's fall was equal to that of my jog. The obvious difference being that I was traveling by foot, and he was traveling...by everything else.

I stopped, out of concern for my fellow trail blazer. He gathered himself on all fours, and looked up at me, panting.

"You didn't hear me yell, 'Pardon me?'"

Whoops. Apparently my little leftward veer had an unintended consequence. I cut directly into his path, and caused the ensuing barrel roll.

"Uh, no. Sorry. Are you ok?"

"You really didn't hear me?" 

In hindsight, I don't know why he asked again. Was he hoping I'd say, "Yes, but dude, I was in a zone. I figured better to keep pace and you risk certain death than break stride"? Also, while I appreciate good manners as much as the next guy, who yells "Pardon me" on a trail?

Nevertheless, in the moment, I restated the obvious. "No, I didn't. Sorry about that."

"Guess we both had the music going," he said. Indeed.

He lumbered upright, and examined the deep mud stains on his arms, legs and clothes. I let him leave the scene first. No need to risk that again. He slowly began along the trail again, examining his body while he coasted for the next 50 yards or so, no doubt pleasantly surprised he still had everything he started the trail with.

I kept a safe distance in following. 

There's probably some metaphorical lesson on life here, but the whole thing was just too jarring for circumspection. Let it be enough for this to be a cautionary tale: Please practice safe jogging. Middle-aged rollerblading men with long hair are depending on you.

You feel me?

AF
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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

A dim view of "Bright Young Things"

Victoria's Secret Black Friday at Westfield Sa...
(Photo credit: Steve Rhodes)
I'm a parent first, and a marketing communicator second. Sometimes the knowledge of the latter disturbs the former.

Marketing, from a certain perspective, is about communicating to your audience the ways you'll solve their problems. It's a well-crafted, attractive set of solutions, offered sometimes in response to problems we didn't know we have, other times to those with which we are all too familiar. Marketing isn't a blindfolded throw of a retailing dart at the bullseye of customer demand. With few exceptions, it's a carefully researched strategy of effective itch-scratching. Especially when the marketer in question is a major, multi-billion dollar brand.

All of this is important to keep in mind as you consider the new campaign to broaden the appeal of Victoria's Secret's Pink line, a series of loungewear and underwear ostensibly marketed to college-age women. It's wildly popular among that set, to the tune of $1.5 billion a year.

But the only thing better than a billion dollars is a little more. This week, the company's CFO Stuart Burgdoerfer hinted that Victoria's Secret is after the girls who want to be the girls wearing Pink. Specifically, Burgdoerfer mentioned 15 and 16-year olds. What he knows and what we all know is that girls start wishing they were older long before age 15. So if the implied objective is to capture the imagination of young girls who want to be older, Burgdoerfer is really saying they'll target any girl near the onset of puberty. It explains why the company hired Justin Bieber to perform at its fashion show. The company says the new tagline to accompanying the strategy shift is "Bright Young Things."

To be clear, selling underwear to girls isn't intrinsically sinister. Target, JCP, Wal Mart - they all do it. And if Victoria's Secret were simply peddling innocuous undergarments, there wouldn't be a debate. But when news spread that the garments in question at VS included thongs and cheeksters with provocative messages such as "Feeling Lucky?" among other things, the entire complexion of the issue changed. Gone was any pretense this is about selling clothing. This is about selling a solution to that most glaring problem faced by our young girls today.

The problem, of course, is the painful insecurity that can come from simply being a girl in 2013 America. There is a hovering feeling of inadequacy that haunts at every turn: at school, in the magazine section at the grocery store, in television, in movies, and so on. Everywhere girls turn today, it seems someone is getting attention for being thin and beautiful... and sexual. The solution - as peddled by the likes of Victoria's Secret, apparently - is to join in. The attention these other girls receive could be yours, if you just make yourself thinner, older, more available, more sexual.

Which is where the parent in me steps in. In about five years, my oldest daughter will be squarely in the crosshairs of companies like Victoria's Secret who urge her to hit fast forward on her life by becoming more sexualized. My middle daughter will hit that age about three years later. And so on. My daughters' list of top concerns at present includes navigating the imminent long division that will come in grade school and whether we have enough Honey Comb in the house. While I'm not naive enough to believe it could or should stay this way, I am certain I don't need more of the kinds of messages communicated by "Bright Young Things."
This photo was taken
four years ago. I
know times change; I just
want to ensure it's for the
better.

Because this steps beyond just marketing. Selling the promise of enhanced maturity by equating it with sexuality has consequences that will last long beyond Victoria's relatively short-term sales bump. If we allow our girls to be taught that their self-worth is dependent not just on what others think of them, but also on the degree to which they are sexually attracted to them, we'll reap the whirlwind in the decades to follow. A generation of women who are trained to think of themselves as sexual beings first will struggle to find meaning or fulfillment in their professional or personal lives.

Am I reading too much into an otherwise innocent marketing strategy? Possibly. Perhaps this whole thing is a result of clumsy spokesmanship on the part of a CFO. And it seems Victoria's Secret has already responded to the backlash over "Bright Young Things" by pulling some of the racy items. But it seems there is so much that is so damaging demanding the attention of our young girls, that at some point, it warrants over-caution.

We know the problem. Here's to finding a solution.

You feel me?


AF
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Monday, December 31, 2012

Newtown, Predictability and Resolve

Friday, December 14, I heard a remarkable story. I relay it now recognizing I can't do justice in a re-telling of the account.

A woman who seemingly had it together found herself very quickly in despair. She lost her husband through divorce, became ill, and moved to South Bend, IN. with her children to stay with family. Unable to find a job or any kind of traction in life, eventually, she wore out her welcome.

One day she took a walk to gather her thoughts. She came to a busy road in the city, and paused. She found herself studying the pattern of the traffic, and noting the frequency and kinds of vehicles that used this street. She spent some time there, seemingly an eternity.

Her observations were not the manifestation of some random curiosity. Her purpose was all too real: She was calculating the number of steps it would take to walk into the path of an oncoming truck and end her life. She knew if this was going to work, it had to work on the first try. Finally, she summoned the nerve to put her desperate studies into practice. As she began to shift her weight from one foot to another to take that first step, she happened to look across the street, where she saw a simple sign on a bus bench.

It was a sign for St. Margaret's House, a center that provides help for women in South Bend. And for reasons known only to God, she stopped mid-step. She found her way to St. Margaret's, where she found the help she needed.

While it may sound overreaching for a marketing guy to say this, it's true: a piece of advertising likely saved a life. Something so small turned out to have the greatest impact possible.

I admit that I only heard about half of the above story as it was told during a Christmas reception at work. The other half of my attention was fixed on my phone, shaking my head as I consumed update after heart-breaking update on the tragedy in Newtown, CT.

Writers far better than I struggle to describe the unprecedented jarring nature of the reality of the Sandy Hook massacre. Maybe it's the fact I'm a father of a first-grader that makes it hit so close to home. Of all the senseless mass shootings in recent memory, this one makes the least sense. For all our vices as a society, the thought of violently ending 20 young lives this way shakes us to the core. Even with the security of our schools on the national radar since at least 1999 (and in urban areas long before that), what happened at Sandy Hook seemed unthinkable. Up until December 14, it seemed unpredictable.

Which is why it is so disappointing to me that our national response has been utterly predictable. We've heard the same old arguments, set forth to cover the same ground. Many say now is finally the time to talk seriously about gun control in America. (We already have.) There are those whose national self-loathing causes them to declare that crimes in this category are on the rise, and that violent crime in general is a uniquely American problem. (They aren't, and it isn't.) Others say the time has come to round up all the guns, as if it was as easy to do as to say. Still others say that a citizenry with more guns would actually decrease the number of mass shootings, or at least the number killed in those incidences, as people would be able to defend against an indiscriminate killer in a public place. (While that certainly appears to have borne out in the recent Oregon mall shooting, the conclusive data to prove this seems to be lacking.)
jim with AR-15 at Cabazon Range_4868
 (Photo credit: SkinheadSportBiker1)

We've heard all these ideas before. Debating these positions has yet to produce the kind of collective solution for which most of us are striving. They fail because legislation will never be comprehensive enough to account for each singular individual intent on doing evil.

So where does that leave us? In a rather predictable spot, I'm afraid. But if we agree the status quo is no longer acceptable, then it is time to resolve to do something that has been, up to this point, unpredictable. Perhaps it is appropriate that this is when people vow to make changes in the new year. And in that spirit, risking crude simplicity in light of the horror of Sandy Hook, here's a suggestion for a resolution for us all in 2013:

Take care of each other.

It sounds like such a trite and naive thing to say in the wake of a tragedy like this. That is, until you start to recall some of the things that have become all too predictable about the perpetrators of these mass killings. To one degree or another, they were people who led lives cut off from society. They withdrew into themselves - or were aided into the withdrawal and subsequent loathing for all that's in this world. Their isolation fed an apparent disregard for humanity and must have contributed to their capacity for carrying out their attacks.

Too often, we see the warning signs in hindsight. "He was kinda a loner." "He mostly kept to himself." "He spent days at a time in his room."

So in addition to supporting action that may work toward our desired end through the means of the state, I propose being the means that lead to the end ourselves. Is it possible that there could have been enough inclusion, enough "Hey, come sit with us!" to have made a difference in Lanza, Cho, Harris, Klebold, and others? Could there have been enough, "No, how are you really doing?" to save Javon Belcher and the mother of his child? No one knows for certain. But at least one individual, with a better grasp on the mindset of the Adam Lanzas of the world than most of us, seems to think it's a good place to start.

As a society, we are moving deliberately away from the pursuit of real relationships, aided by a digital age that engenders and emphasizes surface-level interaction, and a culture that moves at breakneck speed in which there is often little time to figure out what is troubling people, to paraphrase Belcher's teammate Brady Quinn.

There will never be legislation that mandates genuine caring for our fellow man. We may indeed cobble together a tightly woven legal safety net around the guns and ammo we feel are at not safe for mass possession. But it is up to us to pick up where the letter of the law leaves off, and enact a deterrent to evil that is derived from the unwritten law of human compassion.

As we've seen, even the smallest acts can have a monumental impact. I'm not privy to the marketing discussions that led to the placement of that St. Margaret's House sign on that bench, on that street, at that time. But I'm willing to bet no one said, "We'll save a life if we put a sign at X and Y." Similarly, you never know what your act of kindness will touch off in a soul. By choosing the unpredictable path of consistent kindness and genuine heartfelt empathy for those who cross your path, you may find out your action began to bring someone back from the brink.

Now that's a story I want to re-tell.

You feel me?



AF
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Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Be not afraid

Zechariah & the angel
Zechariah & the angel (Photo credit: Lawrence OP)
We've heard the biblical Christmas story so many times that we can miss some of its nuance. Or even some of its obvious appeal.

Worse would be keeping the story to ourselves, somehow thinking that we are the rightful custodians of the narrative, that others would be incapable of grasping its gravity.

To me, an often missed theme of the Christmas story is also what gives it its global appeal: That is, the assurance that we need not be afraid. On no fewer than four different occasions, God apparently sends angels to tell characters in the story not to fear. We first are told of the angel's encounter with Zechariah, then Mary and Joseph, and finally, on that first Christmas night, the shepherds in the fields.

If we're not careful, we can read too quickly and accept the characters' fear as just an extraneous detail in the story. But that would be a mistake. The element of fear makes the Christmas narrative imminently relatable and provides the ultimate reason for the angels to characterize their news as "good." Fear would be a natural reaction, not only for coming face-to-face with a supernatural being, but also because of what that meeting often meant. It would have been perfectly expected for anyone to assume such a visit portended punishment, even death. But in fact, just the opposite was the case. Hence the angels' reassurance.
English: Holy Family, Mary, Joseph, and child ...
English: Holy Family, Mary, Joseph, and child Jesus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Christmas is the ultimate declaration that we no longer need to be afraid in the presence of God. From the prestigious among us (like Zechariah) to the lowliest (like the shepherds), none have reason to fear.

But I also believe the repeated command to reject fear in the Christmas story applies to everyday life as well. To be sure, there was much to fear at the time of Jesus, just as there is today. In either time period, it could be easy to miss the presence of God in day-to-day affairs. Whether Roman persecution or the manifestation of pure evil that we saw in Newtown, CT this month - it is easy for our belief in the omnipotence of God to be shaken, and for fear to creep in.

Which makes it all the more important to observe Christmas in all its applicable facets each year. We need to be reminded that there is no reason to fear. From that old Christmas carol:

"Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: God is not dead, nor does he sleep. Wrong shall fail, and right prevail..."

Be not afraid.

You feel me?

AF


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