Monday, November 26, 2012

Cyber-Monday Meets Its Match: Generosity and....

I was prepared to pick up where I left off—raising serious questions of concern about materialism, consumerism and the one thing that scares me more than Black Friday—the increased attention to Cyber-Monday.  The Christmas season that has been in full effect since Starbucks released their red paper cups on November 1, has met its match. It shouldn’t be of any great shock or surprise.  Its name is generosity. And its twin sister? Her name is love.
It’s hard to see generosity at times, especially when at least 80 e-mails in my inbox entice me to buy.  I’ll be the first to admit, for every gift I seek to purchase for a family or friend, I find at least two that will suit me.  The markdowns and free shipping make it deceptively easy.  With Notre Dame  completing an undefeated season and a ranking of #1 that will be with us (at least for the next 7 weeks) my urge to purchase that #5 hat (honoring both M'anti T'eo (LB) and Everett Golson (QB) is very strong.  But my conscientious consumption always gets the best of me.  A voice inside my head says Do I need this hat?  No, but I  want it.  What do I really need?  These are simple questions, but  I also think they are important. 

Material goods weigh me down.  And I find that the generous person is remarkably free.  Be it with money, time or resources, the generous person gives without counting the cost.  They are “yes” people.  They make the weight of this world just a little lighter.  I was reminded of them several times in the past week.

One responsibility I seek to avoid is passing around the collection basket at Mass.  A friend asked me at the ninth hour to assist.  It was a lesson in humility for me.  I could not believe how many people gave for not one but two collections!  People went out of their way to make the eye contact I was afraid of making.  Looking at the person handling the basket is awkward when a person doesn't have money to give.  With the tables turned, I was encouraged by how many people looked up with a smile and a donation.

And for the past 15 years, members of the SI community kick start the Thanksgiving holiday with a Turkey Trot around Lake Merced.  All proceeds from the event go to the
St. AnthonyFoundation—a soup kitchen that serves the poor and marginalized in the Tenderloin.  I once heard that St. Anthony’s doesn’t accept any federal funding—they want to be entirely dependent on the generosity of others. They fulfill the Gospel message, Matthew 6:26  Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.  Are you not worth much more than they? Indeed, it is an organization that people love to support—I hear it repeatedly as I collect the entry fee.  St. Anthony’s makes it easy to be generous! 
I believe that speaks to the beauty of generosity—it looks so easy (even though its often very hard!)  For example, the man who screens all the Turkey Trot T-shirts shirts sells them to me "at cost."  Not only is he generous with his time and talent, he includes a very generous donation of his own to St. Anthony’s with the invoice.  His generosity humbles me.   He doesn’t have to give with our donation, but he does.  That’s generosity.

But how is generosity so closely related to love?  Just today I learned that
they have found a bone marrow donor for my former student Ben Aguilar ’11. He was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia, after his first year at University of Arizona. As I wiped away profound tears of joy, I was able to read this “it is a 9 in 10 match. The donor is located in Europe and has agreed to the donation. The marrow will be brought in by the “Be the Match” and Ben's procedure is scheduled for early December.”

This donor is giving something that Black Friday or Cyber Monday could never market or sell. He is giving of himself—literally, figuratively and totally.  And that’s made possible because of generosity and love. 
When I asked a coworker about her experience as a bone marrow donor she said:  You are confronted with a life saving choice—how can you not do it?  I have never looked at her the same way again.  The reality is, you don’t have to.  You never had to take the time to sign up to be a donor.  You never had to give consent.  But you do…she did…Ben’s donor did.  What could be more generous or loving?

I thought of others who had given of themselves and I didn’t have to look far.  I remembered the person who we celebrate in the Christmas season gave of himself literally, figuratively and totally upon the Cross.

So on this Cyber Monday, I have put down my boxing gloves.  Rather than rail against the cost of $90 for a ticket for Row 91 (of 93) in the LA Coliseum (a venue that holds 93,607) or my beloved alma mater who requires even a "baby in arms" needs a ticket in Notre Dame stadium, I’m going to give more thought to how I can be more loving and generous this Christmas season.

Please pray for Ben.  Prayers are being answered!  
And I think I still want that hat...

Photo Credits
Thank you E-Castro for Turkey Trot!
Ben Aguilar
Thank you Jim B for the 1962 Ticket
#5 Hat

Friday, November 23, 2012

Orange & Black Friday: Dynamic Disappointment

I’m not sure what to make of Black Friday. I suppose it was intended to serve as a “jump start” to the hectic holiday season, which we simultaneously loathe and enjoy.  With stories like the stampede of 200 people into a Long Island Walmart that resulted in the death of a security guard and injury to four others, including a pregnant woman, Black Friday certainly lives up to its name.  I can’t say I was surprised, but even my beloved San Francisco Giants joined the frenzy.  I was however disappointed because they are marketing much more than material goods.  Orange and Black Friday extends now to game day —it’s all about your ticket!

Black Friday brings to light the moral issue of consumerism.  John Paul II said"Christ alone can free man from what enslaves him to evil and selfishness: from the frantic search for material possessions, from the thirst for power and control over others and over things, from the illusion of easy success, from the frenzy of consumerism and hedonism which ultimately destroy the human being." --Homily, March 1, 1998
“I consume, therefore I am” is a popular quote that my students include in their essays about consumerism.  In and of itself, materials goods are not bad.  But when the pursuit for them is at a cost of our personal time, money and resources, we have a problem.  It’s hard to deny it reveals a side of humanity that we all find troubling. 

To a fair degree, I try to be a consumer with a conscience.  I do what I can to get information about the products I purchase, how they are made and spread the word.  I read in one of the hundreds of books on “happiness” that experiences rather than material goods make people happy.  Therefore, I make a concerted effort to put my money toward a sporting event, a concert or an outing of some sort as a gift for family and friends.  With a team like the San Francisco Giants, the choice should seem like no choice at all.
But the Giants challenge my commitment. I know it’s a business and obviously their business model has yielded the kind of results San Franciscans are more than proud of.  But underneath the orange and black veneer is a system that has me scratching my head.  Dynamic Pricing.

According to the Giants website, Dynamic Pricing is understood as “Market pricing applies to all tickets. Rates can fluctuate based on factors affecting supply and demand. Lock in your price and location today!”

What this means is that those games most fans want to attend—against their rivals, on a weekend, or with a great giveaway—are more costly to attend than others.  I took a quick look at what a simple bleacher seat costs under Dynamic Pricing.  Whereas a Monday night game against the Colorado Rockies will cost $18 for a single bleacher seat, a Saturday day game against the Los Angeles Dodgers sells for $50.  $50 for a seat with no back, that isn’t that high off the field.  Thanks to Orange and Black Friday, I had the chance to purchase either ticket today.

But in the same way that Black Friday has reared its ugly head in Walmart, Dynamic Pricing reared its own during the World Series.  On October 15, 2012, KCBS reported that

For the first time, the San Francisco Giants are using a dynamic pricing system for playoff tickets, meaning higher prices for premium seats This is the first postseason that Major League Baseball has approved dynamic pricing for all of its teams. That means instead of a set value, ticket prices fluctuate based on demand.

I now understand why my friend paid $375 FACE VALUE for an upper reserved ticket.  During the regular season, this ticket for a Dodgers game will cost $49 face value.  My friend was able to purchase his ticket through on-line sales run by the Giants; he won the opportunity in a lottery.  And why shouldn’t he be?  It’s the World Series. 
But I found this price to be an abomination.  There was no time for “hate” during the World Series, so I kept quiet about my feelings that ticket prices are in fact a moral issue.  I cannot justify or fathom why it’s okay for a regular fan of “America’s pastime” to pay what is nearly a week’s wages of minimum wage for one ticket.  My coworker left me a copy of his 1962 World Series ticket.  To sit in the a Lower Reserved seat cost $8.  Using the pricing index for such an item, this ticket should cost $87 today. 

I don’t have the answers to Dynamic Pricing or to Black Friday.  Both leave me wondering how it can and should be different.  I’ll start by watching the "Advent Conspiracy"  

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Thankful for our Veterans: Sources of Inspiration

Who do you look to when you need inspiration?
How might you cope with PTSD?

I hope you never have to answer one of these two questions.  And I’m sure Clemson’s oldest football player, a 24 year-old walk-on football player, Daniel Rodriguez, never thought he would serve as an answer for both.
I came across Rodriguez’s story thanks to a friend who wished to share it on Veteran’s Day.  ESPN’s Daniel Rodriguez: Promise to Play reveals the sacrifices that men and women who serve in the armed forces make.  I am grateful we honor them on the same day of the same month every year.  In a small way, that attribute signifies but an inkling of the honor and dignity our Veterans deserve. 

On one account, Daniel’s story is not unique.  He enters conflict and confronts the enemy.  He lives and yet he dies.  His resurrection however is a source of inspiration and it is one that his teammates now share.  It is found in a promise he made to a friend; a promise that involves his passion—football.   
On Oct. 3, 2009, Rodriguez was deployed in Nuristan Province, in the far northeastern corner of Afghanistan along the Pakistan border. He was a sergeant and had experienced a year of fighting in Iraq. About 50 United States and Afghan soldiers manned Combat Outpost Keating, a forward operating base near the remote town of Kamdesh. 
Keating, surrounded by towering mountains, was in a place that “just bred terrorists,” Rodriguez said. Just after dawn, while Rodriguez was checking a computer, a coordinated attack, involving at least 175 enemy gunmen and perhaps twice that number, was mounted. 
Shortly before, Rodriguez had promised his close friend, Pfc. Kevin Thompson, that if he made it home, he would chase his dream of playing college football. When the battle began, Thompson was killed almost instantly, one of eight Americans to die in a day of intense fighting. Rodriguez was wounded in his leg, neck and shoulder. 
When Rodriguez completed his mission, he returned home with a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star and the psychological effects of war, which amounted to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  In the video he says, “I couldn’t sleep at night.  I was waking at night in a sweat.  Sleeping on the couch with firearms under my pillows. I couldn’t live.  I was basically drunk for the first two months I was home. My leveling point was when I went to Arlington National Cemetery and then my life doesn’t seem so difficult." 

"I have to live my life with a desire to do better."  Wise words.

Rodriguez regained his purpose by remembering his promise—the promise he made to Thompson. Rodriguez committed to getting back in shape, pushed on by his pledge and a friend who used creativity and inspiration to further that dream.  His friend, Stephan Batt teamed with his cousin who said, "If you trust me to shoot and edit as a short fil, rather than as a standard recruiting video, it'll have a better chance of catching the notice of coaches."  “

Fortunately, Clemson coach Dabo Swiney took notice.  Taken by his work ethic, his drive to chase a dream and the fact that he wasn’t asking for a scholarship, but rather for a chance to fulfill a promise--Coach Swiney offered him a spot as a preferred walk-on. 

In addition to the 85 players who are guaranteed a spot on the team roster, the NCAA allows for up to 20 additional players, known as walk-ons.  It’s hard for me to imagine working out, practicing and suiting up next to a person who had “suited up” in combat.  It’s hard for me to imagine what I might learn about teamwork, dedication, selflessness, and integrity from a teammate who had to implement these virtues to stay alive.  It’s hard for me imagine what carrying a flag on the football field might be like for a teammate who gave of his life to defend all that it stands for. 

But the story of Daniel Rodriguez is one that could be entitled: The promise kept; the dream realized. And it inspires all of us to remember how our promises have power; our dreams can bring us out of darkness.

November is a month to give thanks—for saints and souls for freedom and those that defend it.  Although Veteran’s Day was over a week ago, in the spirit of Thanksgiving, it’s never too late to extend gratitude to men and women who give their lives in service of our country.  Thank you Daniel Rodriguez, Kevin Thompson and thousands of other men and women as well as your families back home for your promises and your dreams.

Photo Credits
Freedom isn't Free

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Every "Game ND Day" is a Spiritual Homecoming

Something is happening today in South Bend and I’m not talking about Senior Day or the final home game of an undefeated season.  No, a conversation is taking place on campus that reflects the truly unique game day experience that happens at only at Notre Dame.  
Director of Game Day Operations Mike Seamon said, “The University believes that Notre Dame home football weekends are a special experience, and we realize how important they are to our alumni and fans.”  And they are.

People often ask me if I go back to campus for Homecoming.  Answering this question should be easy, but for me—it’s not.  Notre Dame doesn’t have a Homecoming game; every home game is considered “Homecoming.”  I try to relay that message without sounding preachy or pretentious.  Homecoming is a wonderful fall tradition.  But when every home game is a sellout, it’s impossible to designate one game with that intention and that title.
The Football weekend experience at Notre Dame is a great summary of the “Five Pillars of the University” on display. Those pillars are Academic, Athletic, Family, Service, and Spiritual.  People come from far and wide to see an athletic contest, but those that make the pilgrimage September through November get so much more. 

The list of spiritual opportunities is impressive.  At the Basilica of the Sacred Heart alone, one can avail themselves for the Sacrament of Reconciliation from 9:00 a.m. to noon before the game, attend Mass 30-minutes after and partake in Vespers—Evening Prayer of the Church at 7:15 on Sunday evening.   A large number of dorms and Stephan Center both host Vigil Masses as well.
But what caught my eye was a new opportunity under the Academic arm: Saturdays with the Saints. Indeed, it is the marriage of Sports and Spirituality.  The Game ND Day web page reports:
“Now you can spend one hour with the saints before the game on selected weekends this fall. Come nourish your Catholic faith and your mind at the same time with talks by distinguished members of the Notre Dame faculty. 
In September, we will remember Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador and St. Hildegard of Bingen, who will be declared the 35th Doctor of the Church this fall. In October, we’ll celebrate the angels and Joan of Arc, and in November we’ll explore Benedict XVI and the saints.” 
This says a lot about the Notre Dame community, both that the University is willing to host this and that fans attend.  No wonder we call them “the Notre Dame faithful.” Mass is packed after the game, despite the outcome.  I love that a number of dorms, the Basilica and Stephan Center make room for us to come as we are. Consequently, it’s difficult not to understand James Joyce when he said Catholic means “Here comes everyone!” Indeed here we come—to learn about holy men and women, to pray together and to complete a perfect a season (hopefully). Ah yes, Here come the Irish!
Photo Credits

Sunday, November 4, 2012

3 Overtimes, 2 Truths, 1 Lucky Team: Life Lessons from Football

The road to a 9-0 season has been colored by four words—Luck of the Irish. The Notre Dame vs. Pittsburgh game on Saturday, November 3 was no exception. The Fightin’ Irish overcame a 14 point deficit as they entered the fourth quarter to tie the game. Three overtimes later, the scoreboard confirmed a win, 29-26.  As the Irish prepared to respond to a field goal that put Pitt ahead by 3 points, I wanted to tell the team two simple things:
  1. Keep Moving Forward
  2. Total Ball Security
The more I repeated these mantras, the more I believed it.  And the more I said these words, the more I began to realize they don’t just apply to driving an offense into the end zone. 

Keep Moving Forward
In 2008, my application was accepted to run the Dipsea Race.  According to the race’s official website, “First run in 1905, the Dipsea is the oldest trail race in America. The scenic 7.4-mile course from Mill Valley to Stinson Beach is considered to be one of the most beautiful courses in the world. The stairs and steep trails make it a grueling and treacherous race.”

On race day, the only advice my colleague, a former cross-country coach, and competitive runner gave me was to “keep moving forward.” It seemed like no advice whatsoever—that’s what a runner in a race naturally does.  But the challenges of Dipsea--the three flights of stairs as tall as a fifty-story building, the plunge down into Muir Woods across Redwood Creek, the tough grind up through the trees over trails named "Dynamite" and "Cardiac" and the discouragingly steep climb up "Insult Hill" close to the finish taught me his advice isn’t something to take for granted. 

Those three words resonate with the game of football.  In the final overtime, the Irish needed to get the ball into the end zone.  Keep moving forward! First and ten yards….keep moving forward. Second and seven….third and three.  Touchdown!!! 

In life, it can be difficult to keep moving forward. Sometimes, we are stuck in the past; moving forward is too hard.  Moving forward may bring change or new challenges, but it’s necessary.  We are called to build the Kingdom here and now. So many of our brothers and sisters are in need. Natural disasters, personal loss, illness, and injury run their course.  When they do, keep moving forward. One step at a time.

Total Ball Security
I had the good fortune of touring the Maria P. DeBartolo Center, t
he office, and training facility of the San Francisco Forty-Niners (when Mike Singletary was head coach).  In the theater where the team reviews game tape hangs a sign that reminds players to focus on five fundamentals.  The one that stood out to me was “Total Ball Security.”  This task isn’t as basic as “keep moving forward” but it’s certainly just as important. Cierre Wood fumbled the ball at the goal line. The final call was reviewed to determine that Golson even had possession.  
The role of the quarterback and his receivers is to maintain total ball security. Amen. A good player knows how to handle and hold the pigskin in a way that ensures total ball security. As players mature and improve, many master this task. 

In life there are but a few, precious gifts or responsibilities that demand “total ball security.” For me, it’s a reminder to hold on to what you value—your word, dignity, your heart. The longer I live, I have learned not just how to maintain total ball security but why it’s important. My heart helps me to love God, others and myself. My word reveals who I am; I never want my word to lose value. It’s fundamental to the relationships I value most. And dignity, although inherent is what I believe society is all too often seeking to compromise.   

The next time you watch a close game, take a moment to think about what you might tell the team.  I wonder what life lessons it might provide.