Sunday, February 28, 2010

Farewell, Olympics

What an unforgettable and amazing seventeen days. I got to hear and tell the faith story of a former Olympian. I got to see so many edifying examples of fortitude, courage, and sporting spirit.

I got to play tourist in my own town and see it through the eyes of the world. I got to witness history being made, from that first gold ever won on Canadian soil, to that last one which had this entire country on its feet and screaming. I got to sing the national anthem in unison with all my fellow countrymen from coast to coast and beyond.

I got to make a million memories.

But tonight I'm thinking of the Canadian consul who, thirty years ago, offered my grandfather a visitor's visa so he could "see how he liked it." It's because of that consul I'm here right now in this great country, in this great city, savouring this great moment.

Thank you, Mr. Consul, whoever and wherever you are. Thank you to my grandpa for being brave enough to cross the ocean and start a new life in a new land. And thank you, Canada. I've never been happier or prouder to call you home. 


Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The fourth B

You’ve likely heard of the classic trio of desirable qualities in a prospective partner: beauty, brains, and bankbook. To this I would add a fourth “B”: backbone. Because a person could be drop-dead gorgeous, or smart as a whip, or rich as Croesus, or even all three at once. But if you want dependability, initiative, staying power, you’ll need to find someone, or be someone, who has that fourth B.

Everything else is just gravy.

So what exactly is backbone? How about starting with what it’s not? Backbone is not the same as stubbornness, or pride. It’s not about being right all the time, excelling in everything you do, or being some kind of superhero.

Literally speaking, the backbone is your spine…something that helps you stand erect. So having backbone means, primarily, getting to your feet when you need to. Like when the alarm clock rings (instead of hitting snooze and rolling over for another five, ten, twenty minutes of sleep). Or when someone needs a helping hand. Or up from the table when you've had enough to eat. Or out the door when you find yourself in a bad situation. Or whenever you stumble, fall, or fail.

It means having fortitude and integrity: showing up when you say you will, doing what you say you’ll do. It means honouring your promises and following through on your commitments.

It means having wisdom and courage: making decisions based on the understanding that every action has consequences, and accepting those consequences once you have acted. It means not just knowing the right thing, but also doing the right thing, even when you run the risk of being laughed at, criticized, ostracized, or fired. It means defending people who can’t defend themselves.

Backbone is what makes any kind of relationship work, whether it’s a business partnership, a friendship, a marriage, or a family. Without it, we’re all just a bunch of marshmallows.

We can’t all transform ourselves into supermodels, geniuses, or millionaires. But it’s never too late for any of us to grow a backbone. 


Sunday, February 14, 2010

The answer to so many questions

The Olympic motto is "Citius, Altius, Fortius (Swifter, Higher, Stronger)." Three words that capture perfectly the tenacity and transcendence of the human spirit. It seems that we all have an innate sense that we were born to soar, to go further and higher than we can see and reach.

No wonder, then, the frustration of our everyday encounters with our own limitations. Often, our cherished visions don't match reality. We struggle to achieve perfection and come up short. We give something our best shot, and still it's not enough. We try to find reasons why, and quickly realize that there are many things that we just can't know, explain, or fix.

In moments like these, it may help to remember something that a wise man once said: we understand more deeply through love than through knowledge. So many mysteries, so many incomprehensible, heartbreaking things, suddenly become simple and easy when we try to grasp them with our hearts instead of with our minds.

Our earth-bound bodies may not be able to touch the stars. Our limited minds may not be able to contain all there is to know. But we do have the ability to do one thing with no limits: we all have an infinite capacity to love. 


Saturday, February 13, 2010

I am a proud Canadian

No doubt about it - it's a wonderful time to be in Vancouver right now. Even if I don't get to see any of the athletic events live, I still consider myself very blessed, to be able to be here in this city - my own backyard, as it were - and be a part of this great tradition we call the Olympics.

The city has a very special look and feel. Familiar landmarks have been transformed into pavilions and exhibits. Granville Street, after years of being torn up all along its downtown length, has now been re-sewn into a magical broad way of lanterns and light. Apartment balconies and office and store windows have blossomed with Canadian flags, and everywhere on the street are splashes of red, as people proudly sport Canada shirts, hats, scarves, and those famous mittens.

And of course there are those people from other nations...groups wearing the same jackets (maybe they're athletes?!) or waving the flag of their own country. They comment on how beautiful Vancouver is, and I say, yes it is, and yes - I live here!

For me, the thrill of the Olympics is not just about the athletic competition - it's about all these people from all over the globe coming to my city, my home. It makes me feel that the world is not such a big place, that distances are not as great as they seem.

This was brought home to me as I watched the Opening Ceremonies on television, with my cel phone to my ear as my parents watched it in Montreal. At one point during O Canada, there was a shot of our troops in Afghanistan standing and singing along, as we were in our own living rooms - as countless other Canadians undoubtedly were in their own homes across the country.

Later, we all paused for a moment of silence, remembering the Georgian athlete who died on our mountain that day. He was the same age as my brother. Rest in peace, Nodar.

It's one of those rare moments in the history of mankind when it's possible to believe that all men are brothers, when fraternity and unity are not just abstract concepts, but tangible realities. More than the triumphs, more than the memories, this is what I hope we will all carry home from these games.


Wednesday, February 10, 2010

In honour of the first born

Consider that the family is the cell, the basic unit of society, and usually it's the first-born girl who's helping to hold it all together.

In Filipino families especially, the Big Sister ("Ate" is the proper honorific) is second in command when it comes to household management and child care. She's expected to give a good example and make all the younger ones toe the line. In exchange for these awesome responsibilities, the Ate wields power and commands respect - sometimes even fear. (My younger brothers still flinch when I make any sudden moves in their direction.) At the same time, I also enjoy the pleasure and the privilege of being my siblings' confidante, counselor, and – now that we’re all adults – their friend.

I think there should be a First Born Girls Appreciation Day, don't you?

I'm reading a book called The First Born Advantage by Dr. Kevin Leman, who has done extensive studies as to how our birth order affects our lives and personalities. Dr. Leman has such a great appreciation for the strengths and abilities of the firstborn child, yet also has great insights about our potential weaknesses. I like his encouraging, positive tone, and practical suggestions as to how we first-borns can change some of our attitudes and habits in order to be even stronger and happier.

In the book he also features a group called the First Born Girls Social Club, an interesting and vibrant group of first born women "dedicated to discovering, sharing and celebrating the unique contribution that first born girls make to the world!" Sounds like fun - I think I just might join!

"People refer to us as bossy, but we are number one on speed dial if someone is in crisis or wants a project done to tight specifications. We know how to take charge and move through work. We know what to say and do to solve the problem. It comes naturally to us. It's what we've been primed to do since day one. The firstborn's slogan is: 'I'll take care of that for you.'...

"Responded to voices in the womb. Walked at 6 months. Spoke in complete sentences before age 1....Inspiration for three photo albums by age 8....

"You are pretty, smart, talented, and wise beyond your years.

"You love and are loved. You do everything and you do it well.

"If this is your history, then you are a firstborn girl."

~ Laura Carter, founder of the First Born Girls Social Club 


Saturday, February 06, 2010

Remembered roses

Valentine's Day is approaching, with all the attendant symbols...Cupids, hearts, and bouquets. Perhaps this is why lately I find myself thinking about roses.

There are three roses that stand out in my memory: one was given to me to say thank you, one to say sorry, one to say Happy Birthday. All three were pink, because pink ones are my favourite and the givers knew this. All three came with no tender sentiments or declarations of devotion, but with great affection and respect.

A friend of mine, a father of daughters, observes with some worry that boys nowadays don't seem to know how to treat girls properly. I would venture to say that perhaps part of the problem is that some girls don't demand or even expect better behaviour from their male friends.

I count myself blessed that all the men in my life, from my grandfathers down, knew how to treat women right. I grew up knowing I deserved to be treated like a lady, with affection and with respect, and gravitated naturally towards boys - and later, men - who understood this.

It's a lesson that needs almost no words, because it's most powerfully imparted by a father's tangible love for his wife, and his combined gentleness and strength in his dealings with his children.

I wish all girls could be so lucky, and sadly know that a lot of them aren't, so I have only this advice to give. Girls, please don't be fooled by the counterfeit that modern society calls love. And don't think that you need to debase yourself in order to be esteemed.

And during this amorous time of year, when people tend to get a little carried away, remember that romance is like a lightning flash - intense, but pretty short-lived. True love lasts a lifetime, and can even be stronger than death. Until you find a love like that, you'll want and need real friends to stand by you. And if you never find love here on earth, you'll still have those friends. Just because friendship isn't passionate doesn't mean it's any less strong, or any less real.

In the end, I won't be remembering dozens of red roses...just three pink ones. 


Friday, February 05, 2010

My conversation with an Olympic athlete

I will never cease to be amazed by the wonders of modern technology, which has put me in contact with so many friends, both old and new. I connected with Katya Antaniuk via research on the internet, then email, and finally a conversation on Skype. She is an amazing woman with an incredible story.


Imagine a place covered with snow for eight months of the year, and you’ll have the Russia of Katya Antaniuk’s childhood. “I was five years old when I first put on skis,” she says. “At ten, I started to train in cross-country skiing.”

She became a member of the regional team and participated in various competitions, at the local and then at the national level. After high school she was offered the chance to either join the Russian national ski team, or to study elsewhere. Antaniuk opted to go to university in Belarus, and joined the national team there.

It was about this time, when life was going very well for her and she thought she didn’t need anything else, that Antaniuk had her first encounter with the Bible.

“I visited another skier, and saw that she had a Bible. Coming from a Communist background, I had never seen one before. We were taught in school that the Bible contained only myths. She offered to lend it me. I was skeptical, so I said no.”

After about a year, she started to train with the same girl. “I visited her at Christmas, and she invited me to church. I was surprised to find that there were more than just old ladies…there were all kinds of people. Men, women, children. Young people. And they didn’t look crazy. They looked normal.”

She agreed to attend a Bible study. “It was very strange at first to hear all this talk about Jesus. There were many people, and I was straining to hear the pastor. The next time, I came early. I listened, and I started to realize that the Bible is not something out of this world. It’s a story about people who existed here on earth, and about a God who is real.

“It was so touching to me, this new discovery. I started to read the Bible and other books. I had no chance to go to church – the team was travelling all the time – so it was just me and the Bible, and God leading me. My life, my priorities started to change. I started to see the world from a different perspective.”

The Bible opened her not only to God, but also to history, archaeology, and other cultures and languages. “When you are in sports, you need to stay so focused on one area, with no time to explore other things,” she notes. “Reading the Bible inspired me to learn and study more.” In addition to her degree in physical education, Antaniuk did a major in English and a minor in religion at a theological seminary. Later she completed a Master of Arts in theology at a Christian college in England.

A special moment for Antaniuk during the 2002 Nagano Olympics was encountering the world of sports ministry. For her, it was another first.

“I didn’t know that sports chaplains existed. Some teams, like the Americans, even bring their own chaplains," she says, noting that the care of a ‘spiritual coach’ is just as important and necessary as that of a medical doctor or physical trainer. "For the first time I saw that it was possible to combine my athletic abilities with my faith.”

When the Olympics came to Turin in 2006, Antaniuk was there as a sports chaplain. 2010 will find her in Vancouver, not to compete, but to minister and counsel as she did in Turin, as part of a multilingual pastoral team at the service of all the athletes.

Being a sports chaplain is an experience Antaniuk says she finds very rewarding and fulfilling. “I can help the other athletes because I understand them, I can speak their language, and I know the pressures and difficulties they are going through, so I can share their worries. I help them to trust, and to pray.

“And when things are going well, success can open another door to have a conversation with athletes,” she notes. “I congratulate them, tell them I’m happy for them, that I prayed for them.”

One other thing Antaniuk will be praying for during this Olympiad is the weather. “I visited in Vancouver three years ago, and it rained all the time!” she says with a laugh. A nice balance of sun and snow? Amen to that.

(This story ran in the February 1, 2010 issue of the BC Catholic.)

Monday, February 01, 2010

The Original "Fear Factor"

I wrote this a few years ago, so some of my readers might already be familiar with it. Let it be noted that I'm posting it here at the request of my mom, who has such a great sense of humour that she enjoys a good laugh even if the joke is on her.


A few weeks ago I read that putting iodine and alcohol on cuts and scrapes is a home remedy that doesn't actually work. In fact, these substances can be quite caustic on raw, broken skin and nerves, and therefore shouldn't be used on wounds at all.

This major scientific discovery has come a few years too late for me. My mother used both alcohol and iodine in equal and copious amounts on my four siblings and me in our time. But I couldn't resist showing the article to my mother, who sniffed and said, "So? You're still alive, aren't you?"

I thought back to the time when I was four years old, playing in the backyard while my pet rooster Charlie pecked busily nearby. Despite repeated warnings from my nanny, I tried to get Charlie to eat grain from my hand. Now I know that roosters can be quite aggressive – another discovery that came too late. But you have to understand: Charlie was my pet. I had watched him grow from a fluffy yellow ball of feathers to a handsome young rooster. We had always had an amicable relationship. So I was totally unprepared for the hissing, angry beast that suddenly flew into my face, clawing and scratching.

I don't remember the actual attack. I do remember my nanny shrieking curses at Charlie and my mother scolding and dragging me into the house. I had my eyes shut tight, a reflex which had probably saved them, but which also prevented me from seeing my mother brandishing the iodine until I felt her dousing my face with it. I don't think I started crying until then. At one point I finally opened my eyes and saw myself in the mirror. My face was covered with blood and iodine.

I thought I was going to die.

So, in response to Mom's question: yes, I'm still alive. So are all my brothers and sisters, but it's a miracle we've lived to tell the tale of our childhood. We all learned how to treat our own cuts and scrapes fairly early in life, how to clean up our own blood quickly and quietly, without fussing, crying, or getting squeamish. We knew that at the first whiff of blood, Mom would appear, vampire-like, with either the dreaded green bottle (alcohol) or the dreaded brown bottle (iodine). What Mom didn't know wouldn't hurt her, and more important, it wouldn't hurt us. That is, unless we died of gangrene or blood poisoning. But we figured that if infection resulting from our inept first-aid measures didn't kill us, the pain from Mom's vigorous scrubbing of the wound with her favourite antiseptics would, and we all agreed that blood poisoning was the easier way to go.

Sometimes when I'm at the pharmacy I find myself looking wistfully at all the fancy first-aid products that have been invented. Kids these days definitely have it easy. The no-sting antiseptics, soothing ointments and multi-coloured bandages that are available today seem to come with the moms to match. You know the type. "Come on honey, take this itty-bitty pill for Mommy," they coax.

My mother would stand over you and say just two words. "SWALLOW IT." And you would. You wouldn't dare gag, either.

She took the same no-nonsense approach when it came to toothpaste. Now that I'm an adult, I rather like the sharp, stinging sensation of minty-fresh toothpaste in my mouth, but it's not so pleasant when you're a kid. Candy-flavoured toothpaste had been invented by then, but my mother saw no reason to buy two kinds of toothpaste. In this situation, one word sufficed. "BRUSH."

And brush we did.

The truth is, my childhood was the original "Fear Factor." The only difference was that there was no prize money waiting at the end. If there were, I'd be a millionaire by now, because there were challenges to be met at every turn.

Take dinner for example – for most people, a nice, relaxing meal. But if you've ever had a Filipino friend, chances are you know that we eat some pretty weird food. Most foods that I disliked as a child I've actually grown to enjoy, but to a little kid, Filipino dishes can be intimidating, to say the least. (You try choking down blood stew, or whole fish with all the bones still in it, or squid cooked in its own ink.)

But even more intimidating was – you guessed it – my mother, looking at you across the table. She didn't have to say a word in this case, but you knew what she was thinking. "EAT IT OR ELSE."

Did I eat it? You bet I did.

Just like the contestants on Fear Factor, I also had to deal with gross and slimy animals - and I'm no longer talking about the ones that sometimes ended up on my dinner plate. I'm talking about toads. Live toads. I hate them and they are one thing I have not learned to like. Behind our house was a grassy field where toads abounded. At night they came hopping out onto our street – you could see entire families of them in the pools of light from the street lamps. I never went outside at night –except when we were coming home late from a party or from my grandmother's, and I was the one who had to get out of the car to open the gate so my dad could drive in. I felt faint and sick every time I did it. If I hadn't been so scared and disgusted I'd have noticed that the horrible creatures hopped away from and not towards me as I approached. Anyway, my biggest fear – that one would hop onto me – never did materialize. Still, I would rather have gotten out of the car to face a pride of lions than those toads.

I may not have won any prize money for facing up to these challenges, but I have realized a few things that will probably go a longer way than any amount of riches.

First, what doesn't kill you does indeed make you strong. My mom learned her mothering techniques from her mother, and they are the strongest women I know. I don't know if I'm as strong as they are, but I do know that if I have to do something difficult, all I have to do is imagine my mom saying "DO IT" – and I take a deep breath and go for it.

Second, my mom's love may be tough at times, but it is real. If she is hard on me it's only because she loves me and believes in me. I'm sure this is true for all mothers. So the next time your mom pushes you, don't fight her, because chances are she is pushing you in the right direction.

Third, I've learned that all things eventually come full circle. Mom cut her hand while working in the garden the other day, and she asked me to help her clean it up. I went for the no-sting antiseptic – yes, this is what we use now. It lives in the medicine cabinet right beside the bottle of alcohol. Although she hardly uses alcohol anymore, I guess Mom thinks her household wouldn't be complete without it.

I couldn't resist saying, "I'll get the alcohol."

Mom said, "No! This….isn't a wound for alcohol."

I raised an eyebrow. "What exactly is the kind of wound for alcohol?"

She smirked. "Your wounds."

Today we're changing her dressings, and I say to her, "You know, if I were really evil, I'd have replaced this no-sting stuff with alcohol."

"You wouldn't," she says, pretending to be horrified. She's right, I wouldn't, no matter how sweet the revenge would be.

Then I start grinning. At least I can enjoy the idea for a while.

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