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In the very first column I wrote for this blog, more than three years ago, I described the things I would do “if I were a rich man,” as Tevye sang in Fiddler on the Roof.

While a couple of items were rather indulgent (new house, cars for everyone, lots of overseas travel), I realized that many could be accomplished without a fortune. The list empowered me to do the things I love, such as spend more time with my family, develop my skills as a writer, and communicate more often with family members who live hundreds of miles away.

It was the same feeling of empowerment felt by the main characters in the film The Bucket List, though they had, if you’ll pardon the pun, a real deadline to meet.

bucketlistposter250Carter Chambers (Morgan Freeman) and Edward Cole (Jack Nicholson) find themselves roommates in the cancer wing of one of Cole’s hospitals. Both men receive news that they only have six months to live.

Carter expected to feel liberated once he heard how much time he had left on this earth. It turns out he doesn’t feel liberated at all. He’s depressed by the news, burdened by his responsibilities to his family and mired in the regret of not following his dreams to be a history teacher.

Edward, however, seizes the opportunity to go out with a bang.  He convinces Carter to leave his family behind for awhile as they live out the wishes on their bucket list – the list of things they desperately want to do before they “kick the bucket.” After lots of excitement, trips to faraway lands and luxurious accommodations, Carter reaffirms the love he has for his wife and family, and his new best friend.

If someone could tell you the exact time and date of your death, would you want to know? I don’t think I would—the big, red circled date on the calendar would be too much of a hindrance on what happens today.

I prefer the outlook put forth by John S. Dunne, CSC, my freshman theology professor at Notre Dame. As he writes in his book A Search for God in Time and Memory, Father Dunne believes that man fears what he can’t control. Man will pray for strength to change the things that should be changed, but he lets God deal with everything else.

(Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer” comes to mind: God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.)

In this ideology, God is no more than a high powered executive who handles problems passed up the ladder.

However, if man takes the time to examine his/her own life, and compare it to the lives of great writers and philosophers from the past, man will find similarities and truths that resonate through everyone’s life. These truths illuminate another dimension of man, one that reaches beyond the self and one’s individual life story. In this dimension, beneath these life experiences, lies the possibility of companionship with a compassionate God.

This compassionate God is much more than a super CEO; he is Abba, my Father, who loves me today for who I am. He knows what’s best for me, including how long I should stay on this earth.

He has cleansed me of my sins and wiped away the fear of death. I trust that he has my best interests in mind and will keep me on this earth as long as he needs me to be here. Now unburdened of deadlines, I’m free to live fully in His love and to share that love with others.

As for my own bucket list, I have written a few items. Some are things I can probably do: run a half marathon, watch a Cubs’ spring training game in Arizona, take future grandchildren to Disney World. Some are things I dream about: take Linda to Hawaii and Rome, write a song that’s sung on the radio, and sing at Mass with the Holy Father.

Looking back over my first 50 years, I’ve already been very lucky, like Forrest Gump, to enjoy some unique experiences. I’ve gazed upon the Sistine Chapel, enjoyed beer in Munich, eaten fish and chips in London and bent backwards to kiss the Blarney Stone. At the stroke of midnight one New Year’s Eve (before I was married) I kissed a former Miss America. President Nixon patiently waited for me to take his photograph. I sang the National Anthem at Wrigley Field, chatted about baby girls with Billy Joel and Christie Brinkley, and was beckoned on stage by Tim McGraw to help him connect with a young fan.

But NONE of these events mean more to me than taking Linda’s hand in marriage, watching baby Kristin open her eyes at the sound of my voice, celebrating with Connor after his marching band’s victories, or “high fiving” Tommy after he struck out the last two batters to beat the undefeated Indians.

Like in the film, all our life experiences should be judged by two questions: “Did you find joy in your life?” and “Did your life create joy for others?”

How will you answer? Your answer will be the true measure of your riches.

CF
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First published in the August 8, 2008 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2008 Christopher Fenoglio

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In 1965, 20th Century Fox released the film John Goldfarb, Please Come Home. A comic spoof on the Cold War, the film depicts the mad-capped events after a spy plane flown by John Goldfarb, a former Notre Dame football player, crashes in the fictitious Arab country of Fawzia.

John GoldfarbThe King (Peter Ustinov) keeps Goldfarb (Richard Crenna) prisoner, forcing him to teach a group of Fawzians how to play American football. Jenny Ericson (Shirley McLain) is a reporter who goes undercover as a member of the king’s harem.

Ambitious to make Fawzia known around the world, the king blackmails the U.S. State Department into arranging a game between his team and the icon of American college football – the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. Jenny and the harem become the Fawz U. cheerleaders for the big game.

In the closing zany minutes, Shirley McLain’s character enters the game as quarterback and scores a touchdown to defeat Notre Dame (while simultaneously striking oil to scatter all the players, belly dancers, camels and goats). The university unsuccessfully tried to stop the release of the film, especially because the way-out plot depicted the Notre Dame players “as undisciplined gluttons and drunks.”

Some people say that the film is one of the most embarrassing moments in the history of Notre Dame football – at least until this season.

This was a tough year for Notre Dame football fans. The young Irish team struggled most of the year, losing many games by lopsided scores.

For me, the low point of the season was the loss to Navy, snapping a 43-game winning streak by the Irish over the Midshipmen.

Afterwards, the TV announcer asked Coach Charlie Weis what the end of the winning streak meant to him. Coach Weis responded by saying “I don’t care about the streak. I care about these young men.”

“Don’t care about the streak?” I yelled at TV? For us alums, “that’s our history too!”

The words hung in the air as I gave more thought to Weis’s care about the players. Earlier that week, the older brother of one of the freshman players had been shot dead in Chicago. Coach Weis spent hours consoling the family. On Friday, the day before the Navy game, more than 50 players and coaches traveled to Chicago for the funeral. They went to pay their respects and support their teammate, a member of their Notre Dame family. Years later they may not remember the tough games, but they’ll remember the valuable life lessons taught by Coach Weis.

In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul wrote “we, though many, are one body in Christ.” We should not “grow slack in zeal,” but “be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord, rejoice in hope, endure in affliction, and persevere in prayer.”
(Romans 12:5, 11-12)

I learned the lessons of family and Notre Dame at a very early age. Dad and I would drive from Illinois to campus to watch the games during the “Era of Ara,” the great years under coach Ara Parseghian. While Dad never attended Notre Dame, he was a devoted fan of the football team.

Later, a month before I entered the university as a freshman, we visited my grandparents in Indianapolis. Grandma was baking Snickerdoodle cookies in the kitchen and Granddad was sitting in his favorite chair, writing in a black scrapbook.

He then called me over and gave me the scrapbook. It was filled with newspaper clippings about the life of Knute Rockne, his amazing career at Notre Dame and his death from a 1931 plane crash.

Inside, Granddad had written “To Christopher Fenoglio (on the occasion of his acceptance by Notre Dame); the first born grandchild of our first born, this scrapbook is presented in the hope that his sojourn under the Golden Dome will increase and nourish his faith in Christ and His Mother Mary. – His proud Grandfather, A.D. 1976”

While Granddad never attended Notre Dame, his devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mother created a strong tie with the university.

Notre Dame football ticketsThe scrapbook included a ticket stub to the 1935 football game between Northwestern and Notre Dame. I figured that Granddad was a fan and had gone to the game in his youth. I stuck the ticket stub in the scrapbook and forgot about it. Eight years later in 1983, Granddad passed away.

Just this past September, twenty-four years after her husband preceded her in death, Grandma passed away at the spry old age of 92. They are now reunited in heaven after so many years.

A couple weeks ago, I received a letter from my aunt after the family sorted the collections of my sweet, pack rat grandmother. Inside was a ticket stub to the same football game. On her ticket she wrote “I had a good time – but did it rain.”

A call to Mom brought to light more details about these two tickets, now reunited after so many years.

Since my grandparents married in June 1936, they must have traveled together to the game during their courtship. They probably stayed with Granddad’s sister, who married a Notre Dame graduate in the Log Chapel. I had no idea there was another family connection to Notre Dame.

The Irish lost that game in 1935, but our family has thrived. Now there’s an even stronger family connection to Notre Dame. I graduated in 1980, my sister Cathy and husband Joe graduated in 1981, brother Andy graduated in 1988, nephew Rory is a current freshman and aunt Peg is working on her Master’s from the university.

The future looks bright for our team, as they won their last two games of the year. We just need to continue to support the coach and the team. The rain will stop one day; the sun will glisten again on the Golden Dome.

Stay strong and keep the family united. We are ND.

CF
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Originally published in the November 30, 2007 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2007 Christopher Fenoglio

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A Profile of Faith

In love and work, you often have to make a choice.

For best-selling author Nicholas Sparks, the choice was easy – create characters in his novels with many of his own faith-driven values.

The NotebookIn Sparks’s novel The Notebook (also a film from New Line Cinema), Allie has to choose which man to marry. Does she play it safe and follow through with her engagement to Lon, a wealthy, powerful lawyer? Or does she follow her heart and go back to Noah, with whom she shared a romantic summer?

These choices, says Sparks, are what life is all about.

“Everybody confronts these issues on a daily basis – what kind of person we want to be, the kind of life we want to lead, which values are more important to us,” says Sparks in a 2004 interview. “Sometimes you make the right decision and sometimes you make the wrong decision. In Allie’s case, she made the right one.”

Sparks has made many choices since he graduated with honors from Notre Dame in 1988. A business finance major who ran cross country and track (he helped set an Irish school record in the 4 x 800 relay), Sparks held a number of jobs before renewing his interest in writing novels. After selling The Notebook to Warner Books and feeling good about his work on Message in a Bottle, he chose writing as his fulltime profession.

But he still makes choices about his writing, especially what he won’t include in his novels.

“I don’t write about adultery or profanity. I don’t write gratuitous love scenes. If there is a love scene in the novel, it’s between adults. It’s not lust, it’s love based. There’s a sense that the couple will end up together in the long run anyway. They’re not perfect, but introduce me to the perfect Christians and I’ll write about them.”

The characters in his novels are usually Christians with strong faiths that play important roles in their lives. Sometimes that faith is front and center, such as in Jamie, the daughter of a Baptist minister in A Walk to Remember. In other works, the faith is reflected in the character’s values toward family, community and doing the right thing.

In The Notebook, Allie’s faith is reflected in trusting herself to make the right choice, despite the hurt it will cause another. She ultimately makes up her own mind, drawing upon her values to guide her decision.

This instinct, a strong belief on one’s own values, is similar to what Sparks uses to make decisions about his novels and his life.

Nicholas Sparks“I rely a lot on intuition, but my intuition is based very strongly on faith and morality. This all comes from being raised in a very value-driven household. I was born and raised Catholic, my wife is Catholic and our kids go to parochial school. I think about the values I’d like to instill in my kids, how I want my wife to view me as a person, how I want friends and other family to view me as a person. I’m very well read in the Bible, having read it about seven times from cover to cover.

“It’s the same thing as asking me how I write. You have a lifetime of experiences drawn from a number of areas and then the answer comes. Hopefully you have a deep well [of values and experiences]. If you have a shallow well, you have nothing.”

For example, Noah writes a love letter to Allie every day after their summer together. Similarly, Sparks wrote his future wife “about 150 letters” during the two months after meeting her during Spring Break. “You have to draw your characters from somewhere. You draw them from yourself, from people you know,” says Sparks.

The Notebook was originally inspired by the story of his wife’s grandparents. “They had a truly magical relationship, one that withstood the test of time and circumstance,” says Sparks. “But The Notebook is a novel, not a memoir of their lives. Above all, it is the story of everlasting, unconditional love. It is a story about a couple that loves each other through every challenge that life throws at them, from the beginning of their lives, through the middle of their lives, to the very end of their lives.”

Based upon his success with eight best-selling novels and some very popular movies, Sparks has made a number of good choices with his writing. Millions of readers would agree.

CF
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Originally published in the July 18, 2004 issue of Our Sunday Visitor.
©
Christopher Fenoglio

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Singing in church choirs has given me many opportunities to travel and meet people of different races, colors and creeds.

As a member of the Notre Dame Glee Club, we once traveled by planes, trains, buses and boats to perform concerts in Western Europe. There’s nothing like traveling overseas to give you a new perspective of our own country. But the true value was meeting people with entirely different life experiences.

Sometimes we stayed in peoples’ homes, other times we met the locals after the concerts. We listened to their stories, enjoyed their customs and saw the world from a different point of view.

Their buildings were old, some still scarred by war. Their family histories were deep, some still scarred by oppression and conflict. Many do not enjoy the personal freedoms we take for granted. I could see the differences with my own eyes.

You believe because you can see me. Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe. (John 20:29)

Dachau TowerA memorable stop during this trip was at Dachau, the Nazi’s first concentration camp in Germany. Built to hold 5,000 individuals, Dachau’s barracks during the Holocaust once held more than 30,000 Jewish people. Many did not stay very long.

Today, the mechanical components of the genocide remain the watch tower, the gas chambers, the crematorium. The old foundations of the barracks are now filled with glistening white rocks. Mass graves at Dachau are covered with flowers, memorials and reminders that we should “Never Forget.”

JeffreyIn an old photograph, my college roommate Jeff Rubenstein stands in front of a large plaque written in Hebrew. He said later that visiting Dachau, where so many Jewish people who shared his faith were indiscriminately murdered, made him both sad and angry.

I learned about different faiths because I was there. But for the students of Whitwell Middle School, an extraordinary program teaches them the lessons of tolerance and diversity, even if most of them never leave the hills of rural southeastern Tennessee.

Paper Clips is an award-winning documentary that describes how a school program reached around the world to touch countless communities, people of different faiths and even survivors of the Holocaust.

Principal Linda Hooper said they had a distinct need to teach their students about tolerance and diversity. “Our entire town is only 1,600 people. There are no Jewish people, no Catholics. The school has only five black students and one Hispanic student. (In 1998) we didn’t have a clue what different people were like,” she states.

Assistant principal David Smith and 8th grade teacher Sandra Roberts had a goal: “to teach the students what happens when intolerance reigns and prejudice goes unchecked.” They decided to teach the students about the Holocaust.

During their classroom discussions about the six million Jews killed by the Nazis, one of the students asked “what does six million look like?” They decided to collect six million of some object to better comprehend the number.

After searching for an object small enough to collect, they settled on a paper clip, which was used by Norwegians during World War II as a symbol of unity against Nazi Germany.

So began the campaign to collect six million paperclips, one for each of the victims.

But instead of placing a large order at Wal-Mart, the students wrote letters. They sent letters about their program and asked for a paper clip from famous individuals. They received letters and paper clips from Presidents George Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and entertainers like Tom Hanks, Bill Cosby and Tom Bosley.

The next year, national journalists discovered the program and wrote articles for The Washington Post and the NBC Nightly News. Within the next six weeks, the school was inundated with millions of paper clips.

Most shipments included letters from Holocaust survivors, their family members, even the soldiers who liberated the camps at the end of the war. The authors praised the students for learning the valuable lessons of respect and tolerance. They were pleased to send a paper clip so that the memories of their loved ones could finally rest in peace at Whitwell. The program indeed changed the lives of many students and teachers.

The “Children’s Holocaust Memorial and Paper Clips Project” is open to the public. It is located behind Whitwell Middle School in an authentic German railway car used to transport the victims to the camps.

The lessons of tolerance and diversity are just as important today as any day. We should support efforts to stop the genocide in Darfur. We should celebrate our country’s diversity, not segregate people into separate camps.

Our leaders will do well to remember this lesson. If not, they should visit Whitwell Middle School and learn a few things.

Whether you believe by faith or learn by sight, the path to enlightenment is worth the journey. Our society needs tolerance and respect. The price of ignorance, intolerance and racism is way too high.

CF
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First published in the August 10, 2007 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2007 Christopher Fenoglio
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Purchase from Amazon.com:
> Paper Clips DVD

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Three months after Rudy Ruettiger graduated from Notre Dame, I arrived on campus as a freshman. I remember hearing comments about a walk-on who got to play during the previous season, but not much was made of it at the time.

Thirty years later, the film Rudy is now as much a part of the lore and legend of Notre Dame football as the stories of Knute Rockne, the Gipper and the Four Horsemen.

And since it is a contemporary story with endearing qualities that transcend football, more people probably know more about Rudy than the Notre Dame legends listed above.

That’s a good thing, because the film’s message of working hard to achieve your dreams, despite the odds, setbacks or negative comments from others, is an important theme to live by.

Even though he was “five foot nothing, weighed 100 and nothing, without a speck of athletic ability,” Rudy had a heart that would not quit. He had nurtured a dream since he was a boy – to play football for Notre Dame.

With this dream came another – he wanted to be different than other Ruettigers and get a college degree.

He was not a good student in high school, but he worked very hard at Holy Cross Junior College to pass his college courses. Eventually, he was accepted to Notre Dame. At football tryouts, he worked extremely hard during practice, even though he was pounded unmercifully by All-American players. His hard work and desire impressed the coaches enough to land himself a spot on the practice squad.

He never dressed on Saturday afternoons during that first year, but he held on to his dream. Finally, in the last home game of his senior year, Rudy was given a uniform and ran out of the tunnel as a true player on the team.

RudyNear the end of the game, with a victory assured, Rudy was inserted into the game on the kick-off team. His dream of playing football for Notre Dame had finally come true. As the end of the film shows, Rudy made the most of his opportunity to play.

I met Rudy last month at a fundraising luncheon downtown. Shorter than me, in college he must have looked a lot like Sean Astin, the actor who portrays him in the film.

Yet despite his short stature, his voice and his spirit created a commanding presence. Speaking to 500+ business leaders and executives, Rudy summarized his story and laid it out very clearly for us parents.

“Having a dream is what makes life exciting. Never underestimate the power of a dream. It will change your life. It will change your children’s lives. A dream gives you the ability to determine the future.”

We all have dreams. Some of them are foremost in our daily thoughts, while others are just vague longings for something different, something better.

How do you determine whether your dream is worthwhile? What’s the difference between a dream that is full of purpose versus one that is just a hollow, human fantasy?

Rick Warren in the best-selling book The Purpose Driven Life says simply, “It’s not about you. The purpose of your life is far greater than your own personal fulfillment, your peace of mind, even your happiness….If you want to know why you were placed on this earth, you must begin with God. You were born by his purpose and for his purpose.”

He goes on to write that many self-help books, even Christian ones, usually offer the same predictable steps: Know your dreams. Understand your values. Set some goals. Aim high. Believe in yourself. Never give up.

These steps often lead to great success – they certainly worked for Rudy. But as Warren writes, “being successful and fulfilling your life’s purpose are not at all the same issue. You could be a great success by the world’s standard and still miss the purpose for which God created you.”

By simplifying our lives and focusing on what is most important, we can understand the purpose God has for our lives.

For me, the highlight of Rudy is not his final tackle or the players carrying him off the field. It’s the note at the end telling us that five of Rudy’s brothers and sisters followed him and graduated from college.

For ten seconds during one November day in 1975, Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger used his God-given talents to be a success on the football field. Since then, however, he has been living out his God-given purpose to inspire others to know themselves and to become the best individuals they can be.

Imagine a world in which we all use our God-given talents and purposes to help the world be a better place in which to live. It would truly be heaven on earth.

CF
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First published in the November 3, 2006 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2006 Christopher Fenoglio

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There are places I remember,
All my life, though some have changed.
Some forever not for better,
Some have gone and some remain.
– “In My Life” by Lennon/McCarthy

The football stadium in Bristol was just as I remembered, built of stone and shaped like a castle. In the cool autumn night, students and people from the surrounding community quickly filled its seats.

Thirty-one years ago I ran out onto this field with my teammates, full of spirit and focused on a single purpose – defeat our opponent by playing hard and by the rules.

Last Friday night I walked onto the field again, pitch pipe in hand, ready to begin the game by singing the National Anthem. I was happy to be back, despite burdensome thoughts of work, family and bills.

stonecastle.gifMy football games were played in simpler days when I thought there was a clear contrast between black and white. Today is more complicated, grayer, hazier, with many more teams competing against each other. Who is the opponent today? Is it Evil? The company? Apathy?

Students start cheering, the band warms up on the sidelines. For a moment, I’m back in high school, the coach’s commands ringing in my ears. I am ready to play.

In the film Patton, General George Patton is riding in a Jeep on the way to the front. The sergeant behind the wheel ably navigates the rocky road and directs the car towards the passage ahead.

The general yells “Turn right.” His lieutenant assures him that the driver knows the route, as he was at the battlefield yesterday. “No,” the general commands, “turn right.” Despite his officer’s objections, they turn right and come to rest overlooking a great plain, a wide open area with no tanks, soldiers or armaments.

The general pauses and listens to the earth, to the sky, to the memories in his head. “The battlefield was here. The brave Carthaginians were attacked by three Roman legions….Two thousand years ago and I was here.”

Full of purpose and convinced that he has led many earlier lives as a brave soldier, Patton turns away to concentrate on the battle at hand.

The cold metal kneelers at the Grotto are tough on my knees, but I don’t care. I’m back at Notre Dame for a football weekend. In the quiet of the night, the campus feels like it did when I was a student.

The triangular water fountain, the hundreds of burning candles, the simple lights on Bernadette and the Blessed Virgin – all of these elements unite to remind me of confusing times.

Where should I go when I graduate? Should I return to Tennessee even though my parents are back in Illinois? What career path should I follow? Please, Holy Mary, give me guidance and peace as I decide what to do.

Tonight my children are kneeling beside me, offering their own prayers to Mary, and I see that my prayers have been answered.

In the film Everything is Illuminated, Alex thinks his grandfather is not right because he acts “like he is dreaming all of the time.”

Alex works for Heritage Tours, the family business that helps Jewish individuals find traces of their lost families in the Ukraine. Alex is a premium dancer and digs American culture, especially the Shaq and Michael Jackson.Illumination

Today they are helping Jonathan Safran Foer (Elijah Wood), an American who wants to find the town where his grandfather lived.

Suddenly they stop beside a massive field of yellow sunflowers. Alex saunters up to the elderly woman washing clothes on the porch. “We are looking for the town of Trachimbrod.”

“I have waited for a long time,” she says. “You are here. I am it.”

They follow her to the clearing by the river, down to the memorial slab surrounded by stones. The Jewish town of Trachimbrod is no more, defiled and destroyed by the Nazis during World War II.

Yet that place still has meaning for Jonathan, who collects items related to his family. He picks up a handful of dirt and neatly places it in a plastic bag. Once he returns to America, he will place this dirt on his grandfather’s grave.

The past is always inside us, providing a deeper sense of who we are. Returning to a special place will often give us a view into that past and into ourselves. By looking deeper and deeper, we will find not only ourselves, but also the real presence of God.

The task, then, is to live one’s life inside out, reflecting the good inside to all those around us. This is the good that is illuminated when we visit the special places in our lives.

Where is your special place?

CF
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First published in the October 6, 2006 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2006 Christopher Fenoglio

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