Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas Letter/Blog: Reflections on a #Winning Year

As some of you may recall from last year, a desire to save time, money, and environmental resources - not really on the last point but it sounds good - led me to turn my annual Christmas letter into a blog. It's an opportunity to wish you and your loved ones a great holiday season but also reflect on some things.

Every year begins with hopes, aspirations, and goals. Among the goals successfully pursued in 2011 which allowed me to often hit "Like" on Facebook:

- I was blessed to be invited to do more speaking engagements than ever before and am thankful that people are still interested in my life story and philosophies of Swinging for the Fences (yes, a shameless plug even in a Christmas letter).

- One of those invitations led to the fulfillment of another goal, which is travel somewhere fun. As readers of this blog know, in early December an invitation to speak at a fundraising luncheon for the Center for the Homeless in South Bend, Indiana allowed me to take Mama to see my undergraduate alma mater, the University of Notre Dame. It was a trip I'll treasure for the rest of my life.

- Baseball also allowed for some travels. Entering my sixth season as Manager of Latino Affairs for the San Diego Padres, February saw a visit to Major League Baseball's offices in Phoenix for some planning meetings. There a cool thing happened where by chance in the hotel I met Cincinnatti Reds manager Dusty Baker - all because he liked the "Padres Filipino Night" t-shirt I was wearing. I had some sent to him a few weeks later and his thank-you call was one of the coolest things I've experienced in sports. 

- Baseball also allowed for a trip to spring training in Arizona a month later with my closest friends Nick Golden, Shawn Rossi, and Katie Rose Barba. That same crew drove to Anaheim later that month to see an exhibition game between the Pads and Angels.

- I also set out to see some of my other favorite teams live, and this year granted the opportunity to watch the Lakers and Chargers record victories. I also went to Lake Elsinore for the first time to root on the minor-league Storm baseball squad. I have to say none of those matched, however, the wintertime thrill of catching several San Diego State Aztec basketball games amid their 34-3, Sweet Sixteen campaign - a first for their program.

- Another successful goal was completing three endurance walks: the Stephen Strasburg 5K in January with my Padres teammates and KRB; the Kidney Foundation 5K in May with my sister Ann and longtime friend Vanessa; the Mothers Against Drunk Driving 5K with co-workers in October; and being part of the Team MADness relay team with Karen (Madden) Kawachi for the San Diego Rock 'n' Roll Marathon in June.

- That June one reminds me of another aspiration reached: receiving an offer to publish The Finish Line, my second book which will be about competing in the Rock 'n' Roll Marathon last year and what it taught me about the marathon of life. I have to shamelessly plug again and tell you that we will be having a pre-sale in January 2012 and I'll need your support in order to cover printing costs. I'm a second-time but unknown author; that's just what I have to do at this point in my life.

Now, I could sit here and recount all the great things that happened to me in 2011, and probably paint a picture of a smooth and seamless life. But that's not reality for any of us. Quite frankly, my low point was probably the beginning of summer when there were changes at work and I just didn't know where I fit or what direction some things were headed. Add to that, and I'll be even more frank here, when you see friends leaving for other jobs, getting married, or moving away, it can be tough and I felt like that was all happening at once.

So what'd I do?

Well for one, I honed in on a blessing that came my way, which was a switch to a role that was more community-oriented. I'm still learning but enjoy helping the Padres be active partners in the community. And my boss is a great motivator and leader. I look forward to just trying to get better in this role.

But beyond that I learned the best moments are the simple ones. I learned to appreciate moments that may not be life-changing but can be the best memories of a lifetime.

A reunion get-together with my old Hispanic Chamber mates in early spring. Weekend nights at Bub's and Basic in the East Village or Miller's Field and Shore Club in Pacific Beach. My cousin Natalia and her husband and kids visiting San Diego for a fantastic week, which happened to also be during my birthday and family birthday dinner at Casa Guadalajara. All the get-togethers my family had, from holidays to birthdays to Charlie's high school graduation. The weddings of Sol & Anthony, Logan & Heather, Kat & Ben, Rudy & Carolina, and I hope I didn't forget others. (My apologies if I did.) Seeing concerts like Maroon 5 and Coldplay with my friend Lisa; Pitbull and Calle 13 with K-Mad; Ozomatli and Boyz II Men with Valerie; and Brian McKnight (and a slew of other 1990s stars) with my pal Colleen - who created one of the most amazing memories by kidnapping me on December 11 for the Kanye and Jay-Z show in L.A.

Friends like that are priceless. Friends with whom you can celebrate Mardi Gras, St. Patrick's Day, and - like him or not - Tebowing as you tailgate in the Qualcomm/Snapdragon Stadium parking lot. Friends who will convene some twenty-strong to welcome home other friends who have new jobs or cities. Friends who are nice enough to come see me speak - or in the case of Tom Larimer, drove me to San Bernardino in July so I could speak -, or see another friend who is in a band or beauty contest.

I've learned to appreciate trips to the movies with Frankie and days watching football with Mama. I relish barbeques at Ann and Dean's in Eastlake.

You know, one of my favorite nights was when a group of us gathered at Rossi's to watch the Comedy Central Celebrity Roast of 2011 newsmaker/bad boy Charlie Sheen. I was a bit hesitant to attend only because I knew it'd be a late Monday night amid a very long week. Well, we laughed so hard and so often I had tears streaming down my cheeks. I couldn't tell you what date that was or what time we left Casa de Rossi. But I can tell you it was one of the most enjoyable nights of the year, one we'll always remember. 

Of these memories are great years made. I am blessed with absolutely phenonemal family and friends. I thank them for the incredible memories generated this year. I pray that you will likewise take time to reflect on your circle of close ones and that this upcoming year is wonderful for you. "Like!"

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

We Are Now Watching the Throne

So this past Sunday I'm sitting at home enjoying what had been a remarkably relaxing weekend. The weather was cold and football was on TV so I was content. Suddenly my BlackBerry goes off.

Colleen McDonald is blowing up my phone with calls and texts. By the time I can get to my phone, she has typed an invitation / command: 'Come on a roadtrip with me. It's in the SoCal region. You won't be sorry.'

Now, as much as I love enjoying some Adventures Being Alex, I am unabashedly a creature of habit. I like routine. I like structure.

But sometimes you just gotta say f--- it and accept an opportunity for spontaneity. Three nights earlier, at our company Christmas party, I turned down the chance to jump in on a dance contest because I didn't think I had enough moves to really be entertaining or have a shot at winning. I felt it was the right decision but I still partially regretted it.

This time I said yes and within 20 minutes I was piling into Colleen's car. I threw out some guesses, none of which she would confirm or deny: Legoland? Disneyland's Main Street Electrical Parade? A basketball game played by UCLA or - gasp! - USC?

Two hours later we're in L.A., thereby negating any guesses south of Culver City, and traffic is so crazy we see one guy cut off another, scratch the car he passed up, and engage in a road-rage chase. It was insane.

Quite suddenly I realize we're in downtown...near Staples Center...where a concert is being held that night...OH MY GOSH, JAY-Z AND KANYE??? ARE WE GOING TO THE JAY-Z AND KANYE CONCERT?!? Colleen said yes and I shrieked, literally shrieked.

It was one of the happiest, most unbelievable moments of my life.

We parked, saw a couple argue until they split up - why all the drama in L.A.? - and then went to the nearby Yardhouse, where good friends Jonathan and Jonas awaited with "Watch the Throne" tickets. I couldn't believe it.

We all went inside the arena and Jono, who works for AEG's sales dept., had us strategically placed near a walkway. That allowed him to high-five freakin' Jay-Z and Kanye as they came out. And it provided good vantage points to watch entering celebs like Pharrell, Jermaine Dupri, and John Salley (who sat and cheered just like when he was a Laker).

The show was ridiculous. Best hip-hop concert I've ever witnessed.

The atmosphere was electric. The drive back was long and I couldn't fight my sleepiness. The next day was a grind. But it was all so worth it, three hours sleep was so worth it.

It was one of the best surprises of my entire life.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Golden Memories: Yes, You Can Go Home Again

I believe in second chances. I believe in redemption and I believe that God often allows opportunity to knock more than once.

Redemption, in the form of a second chance, was the emotion I felt this past summer. That's when a classmate of mine from undergrad, Paul Berrettini, told me he was on the Board of Directors for the South Bend Center for the Homeless. Would I, Pauly asked via e-mail, be interested in speaking at the Center's annual fundraiser - the "Holiday Miracle Luncheon" - on December 1st?

Would I?! Is the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana? Is it cold there in December? Yes and heck yes!

Actually the latter point made the prospect of visiting the Midwest a bit daunting but I still accepted the invitation without hesitation. You see, although there was no Irish football game attached to this junket, and the weather was sure to be bone-chilling, for me it offered a second chance.

In my collegiate years, my family in San Diego had some challenges. There were disagreements; there were strained relationships; there were financial hardships. I went to Notre Dame in the summer of 1992 knowing that my family just could not be the frequent visitors to campus like other families who were wealthier or lived a short drive away. There were just challenges, one of them being that my brother's wedding fell on the same date as my graduation.

Now, I felt a strong sense of gratification, as did Mama, when she and my nephew attended my graduation from the University of San Francisco Master's in Sport Management program in May 2008. My sister attended my undergraduate graduation and mom and Cory were there for my post-graduate one. (I'm interested in a doctorate, perhaps in something like literature or writing, but that would be in the future.)

But still I've felt an emptiness and a lack of fulfillment. As much as I love USF, Notre Dame is a place I care about deeply and my fervor for it is very much part of my personality. It remains one of my life's passions. Mama gets that and supports it - she has said "Go Irish!" on more than one occasion - but I've never felt she fully understands it. Because she's never been there.

This invitation from Paul, which came with the blessing of another classmate, Steve Camilleri, who now runs the Center, was a chance to accomplish many things at once: give me a speaking engagement and book sale outside of San Diego; bring along a caretaker whom I greatly trusted and needed; and show that caretaker a city and campus that is as much a part of me as dark hair and corny jokes.

In some ways, I was almost retracing my freshman year experience. Like I did right after my immigration-rights court case in '92, we flew to Chicago, trudged through cavernous O'Hare Airport, endured a nerve-wracking "puddle jumper" flight to South Bend, and landed as darkness was descending. Greeting us at the terminal, as he did for me nearly 20 years earlier, was the man who'd become my mentor and father figure, Bob Mundy.

We grabbed a bite at a sports bar called Between the Buns, which has a questionable name but great taste in decór - all vintage Fighting Irish athletics memorabilia. It really did feel like being a wide-eyed new student because this was a new restaurant for me. There was definitely a sense of reunion, though, because Mama marveled that Bob and I couldn't stop chatting and catching up.

Nostalgia did not immediately flood me because our hotel next door, though across the street from my old watering hole, the Linebacker Lounge, was a newly renovated inn called the Ivy Court. Everything in that vicinity was new, from the restaurants to gift shops, to oh, the street itself. Mama was amused that I said, "Wow. Notre Dame is all grown up and fancy now."

Actually, our primary concern in checking in to the Ivy was the room they assigned mistakenly had only one bed and had not been cleaned. The TV was on and the bed was unmade. I felt like Goldilocks discovering an invaded abode. Once again, Bob salvaged this situation, getting us a two-room suite with the requested two beds. What I loved too was it had all the modern amenities but everything from the paint to the furniture to the pictures of campus adorning the walls had a 1970s or '80's feel. It was modern yet old-school.

And that's what Notre Dame is. Old-school. Timeless.

We were reminded of that the next morning, when Paul picked us up on a cold, cloudless day for the luncheon. It was one of many intersections of past meets present. Here's Mama and I riding and checking out an old, brick-lined city, with my old friends Derrick Mayes and Pauly B. - both of whom are dads and we're in a minivan Paul has just picked up off the lot that day because he and wife Katie have a five-month old to go along with two other kids.

I'm not at that stage in my life yet. Where I am is very blessed that I can stride into the Century Center, a massive banquet facility in downtown South Bend, and get excited as I am whisked away to put on a lapel microphone. We meet the staff of the Center for the Homeless, plus my co-panelist, two-time cancer survivor Paqui Kelly, and Mama's mouth literally flies open. "I just heard how many people will be here today," she says after laying out copies of my book on a table in the foyer, "700 people! Are you kidding me?!"

I laugh. I am genuinely excited. Mom, who has certainly seen me speak before, is earnestly impressed. That makes me feel good.

The luncheon is a combination reunion with old ND friends and staff; networking with ND's former president Father Monk Malloy and current prez Fr. John Jenkins; bonding session with the very impressive Paqui (whose husband Brian is the Irish head football coach); and of course a presentation in a talk-show format that was part philosophizing, comedy, story-telling, and poignant thoughts.

I was nervous certainly but it was a nervous energy - meaning, I was making sure to enjoy it. Here I was, in the city of my alma mater, in front of 700 people who were stilled at the right moment and roaring with laughter on all the hoped-for cues, in front of Bob and his beautiful daughter Clare, and Jen Laiber, and Joe Russo, and people from the Kelly Cares charitable foundation, and Frs. Malloy and Jenkins, and my buds Pauly/Cammi/D-Mayes, and of course my amazed Mom...and I loved it. I absolutely loved it and, as Phil Jackson often advises Kobe and the Lakers, allowed myself to live in the moment. It was a day and moment of realization I'll regard as one of my life's best.

The next couple days were a whirlwind of vacation and entertainment and again of my past intersecting with my future. My pal Karen Madden had strongly suggested I take a pad of receipts for future book orders, lest we sell out, and K-Mad was right.  We absolutely did. We sold books. We exchanged stories with Paqui, who is awesome, and met Coach Kelly's (actually she coaches, too, volleyball) parents. We toured the Center with my new friend, the delightful staffer Taya Groover. We went to a ridiculously filling restaurant in Buchanon, Michigan, "Wheatberry's" with the Mundys. We went to Rocco's Pizza, a South Bend legendary joint since 1951, with my close friend Brian Uetz, his wife, Reneé, and their kids Lily and Owen. I went to an Irish bar called Fiddler's Hearth, with real live fiddlers and amber beer, with Clare, who is like ND's expanded campus - all grown up and sophisticated and just beautiful now.

Two very special occurrences for me were on Friday, the day after my speaking engagement. In our hotel room, we called Atlanta, current home of my birth mother and birth sister, Elizabeth. Both are ailing but seemed enlivened by our tales of our current visit. Maybe someday my mother can see campus, which will be interesting because she's sick and Mama - her sister - I've come to realize is physically breaking down too. My past intersecting with my present. But to have them talking by cell phone, and for me to simultaneously thank both of them for their sacrifices, was pretty incredible.

The other was simply when Mama and I finally got to tour campus. Bob, through his contacts in the MBA Admissions Office, hooked us up with a covered, triple-decker golf cart, and a tour guide who was unabashedly in love with Notre Dame. And God hooked us up with a third straight day (including our Wednesday evening arrival) of blue skies, gleaming sunshine, and a chilly but dry 40 to 45 degrees that was completely devoid of snow. Apparently it had snowed a mere 20 minutes away in Elkhart. But not in South Bend or its Golden Domed campus. I'll take that as a generous divine gift.

We scooted all around campus. I showed Mama my dorm, the Dome, the Grotto, the Basilica, the Touchdown Jesus mural, the Stadium, fat squirrels, and old friends who worked there like Gil, Iris, and Ramzi. We spent money at the Bookstore, of course. Dave, our charismatic tour guide/photographer, had Googled me (!) and was curious about my book so I bought him one. He was stoked.

Finally, finally my mom saw where I went to school. Some parts were unchanged. Timeless. Others certainly had continued the university's gargantuan rise in size and scope. But it was like a dream sequence, this whole crisp afternoon, at once surreal yet familiar as if I had been there all year.

I hadn't been to Notre Dame since 2008, when Jim Ponder and Rudy Lopez came with me for my very first book signing and the SDSU-ND football game. I'm glad they've been there. And Ann and another mentor, Bill Kuni, and now Mama.

Today as our flight left, she looked out the window and could see what we couldn't see on our descent in, three days prior: campus and the Golden Dome. "It's beautiful," she remarked, "I'm glad I got to see it."

Me too. It'll rank right up there with visiting Colombia in 2002.

It's nice to go home again.