Saturday, December 3, 2022

‘That’s What Christmas Is All About, Charlie Brown’

One of my favorite holiday traditions is watching the iconic television special “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” I loved that show when I was a little kid; I loved it when I was a young adult, even though I was an atheist; and I love it more than ever now.

The Charlie Brown Christmas show is one of the few holiday programs that actually mentions the true meaning of Christmas: the birth of Jesus. There are many enjoyable animated TV specials, such as the Grinch, Rudolph, Kris Kringle, Garfield, Scrooge McDuck, etc. All of these, plus many others, have become holiday favorites. But other than having decorated trees and other secular aspects of Christmas, these shows make no mention of Jesus. 
On second thought, there is one old favorite, “Pee Wee’s Christmas Special,” that actually gives a brief description of the Nativity, with a quick video clip of kids in a church dressed as Mary, Joseph, wise men, etc. (There’s also a scene with animated dinosaurs playing dreidel to celebrate Hannukah.) So, kudos to you, Paul Ruebens, for not avoiding the religious aspect of the holidays.

Anyway, the climatic scene in “A Charlie Brown Christmas” begins when Charlie Brown desperately exclaims, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?!”

In reply, Linus says, “Sure, Charlie Brown. I can tell you what Christmas is all about.” Then he walks to the center of the stage in the school auditorium, dragging his trusty blanket, and calls out, “Lights, please.”

When the spotlight shines on him, Linus starts to recite a passage from Luke’s gospel, chapter 2: 

     And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field,
     keeping watch over their flock by night.
     And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord
     shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

     And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, 
     I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

     For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour,
     ‘tis Christ the Lord.

     And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped 
     in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

     And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude
     of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, 
     Glory to God in the highest,
     and on earth peace, good will toward men.
After a brief pause, Linus shuffles back to Charlie Brown and says, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

I don’t know about you, but even after seeing that scene a zillion times in my life, I still get a little teary-eyed when Linus says that last line.

Can you imagine a production company making a Christmas special for network TV nowadays and deciding to include a scene that quotes the Bible? No chance. In fact, way back in 1965, when Charles Schulz wrote Linus’ scene for the show, he faced a lot of resistance from the production staff and network executives. But Schulz insisted on including it. 

The final version of the show was considered so odd — with Vince Guaraldi’s avant garde jazz soundtrack, actual children recording the voices rather than adults pretending to be children, and no laugh track — the network executives were convinced the show would bomb. To their chagrin, they had committed to broadcasting the show, and figured it would air one time and quickly be forgotten as an awkward and ill-advised attempt to bring a comic strip to life. The show was broadcast on December 9, 1965, and the rest, as they say, is history. Fully half of America’s TV sets tuned in that night, and the poignant show became an instant classic.
During this hectic time of year, please try to find time to make a little hot cocoa, sit down with your family, and watch “A Charlie Brown Christmas” together. And when Linus says, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown,” I dare you not to shed a tear.

Eminent Domain is Imminent 

A while ago, I discussed in this column the joy of traveling on Interstate-84 every day. (I am, of course, using the definition of the word “joy” that means: “root canal level agony.”) I mentioned that, in my view, Audi drivers have surpassed BMW drivers as the most reckless and obnoxious motorists on the road. In that particular paragraph, I wrote this sentence: “Don’t fret Beemer lovers.”

No one took issue with my negative characterization of Audi and BMW drivers (so it must be true). However, I did receive a note explaining that “Beemer” is the incorrect word. The proper nickname for a BMW car is “Bimmer,” while a BMW motorcycle is called a “Beamer,” with an “ea” rather than “ee.” The email writer told me that countless discussions have taken place over many years on high performance car websites and blogs, and now Bimmer and Beamer are the agreed upon proper terms.
When I read this, my first thought was, “Well, I drive a Chevy Equinox, so how am I supposed to know BMW lingo?”

Then, after realizing there’s a multitude of car enthusiasts who spend years having intense online discussions to settle on proper vehicle nicknames, I had a second thought: “Hmm, I don’t feel so bad wasting three-quarters of my brain cells memorizing baseball statistics. Compared to these car guys, I’m making good use of my time.”

In my column about I-84, I wrote this sentence: “Whether it’s Hartford, Waterbury, Danbury, Newburgh, Scranton, or hundreds of towns in between, each of these communities has an east-west gouge through its very heart, altering forever the particular burg’s character and charm.”

I wrote that sentence mostly to fill some space, and partly because I haven’t used the words gouge and burg in a while. Little did I know it would strike a nerve with readers. I received numerous emails, each lamenting how cherished neighborhoods were obliterated to make room for highways.

A friend sent me information about a biography called The Power Broker. The book won a Pulitzer Prize in the mid-1970s, and it chronicles the life of Robert Moses, the driving force behind highway, bridge, and tunnel construction in the metropolitan New York area. 
I was going to purchase the book, until I noticed it’s 1200 pages, which is about 900 more pages than I prefer. There are, however, some interesting internet articles about Moses. From the 1930s to the 1960s, he was the most powerful person in the State of New York, despite never having been elected to any office. It seems Mr. Moses was the king of eminent domain, and would not hesitate to bulldoze entire neighborhoods to make room for his grand highway projects.

Personally, I was a toddler when all the Interstate construction in Connecticut took place. Even back in those less-regulated days, toddlers were discouraged from getting drivers licenses, so I have no memory of what things were like before the Interstates were built. Based on the emails I received, a lot of folks had their lives turned upside down as their cherished family neighborhoods became nothing more than memories.

One email writer said, “Mr. Dunn, you obviously don’t like Interstate highways. What do you propose we do instead to meet our transportation needs?”

Um, I have no idea. I didn’t write a column about I-84 to solve major societal problems. I wrote that column to make some goofy comments about Audi and BMW drivers (and to use the words gouge and burg). 
I never thought my essay would dig up a bunch of painful memories. I guess the lesson is that progress comes at a price. I just never realized how many people had to pay a very steep price.

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Spontaneous Prayer is Good

Some of the best prayers ever prayed are spontaneous prayers. That’s when people just blurt out whatever it is they need to say to God. 

For Catholics, we’re not very good at spontaneous prayer. As children, we memorized certain prayers, such as the Our Father and the Hail Mary, and then as adults, when a crisis occurs, we instinctively start reciting those prayers. 
And you know what? That’s a great thing. Those prayers are indeed powerful, and in a crisis situation it’s better to pray something than to be paralyzed with fear or despair and pray nothing.
However, spontaneous prayer is great, too. It’s just that we Catholics have little experience with it. I remember years ago being with an Evangelical Protestant friend. We heard that a guy named Dave was sick, and so my friend said, “Let’s pray for him.”

I assumed we would recite something like the Our Father, since my friend was Protestant, so I figured he was not familiar with the Hail Mary. But then he held out his arms, looked up, and just started talking. “Dear Lord,” he said, “We heard about our friend Dave, and so we lift him up to you. Please heal him and fill him with hope and joy.”

As my friend was praying, I thought to myself, “You can do that? You can just talk to God without reciting something specific you learned in Catechism class in the 2nd grade? That’s wild.”
My friend kept on praying, and it was such a normal conversation, he even said things like, “Umm,” and, “You know,” as he paused to come up with the next words. Can you imagine Catholics saying, “You know,” while reciting the Hail Mary? “Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is, you know, with thee.” Of course not. That’s because we’re reciting something we memorized decades ago.

The key, I believe, is the difference between rote recitation and true communication. In the Bible, Jesus warned, “When you pray, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words” (Matt. 6:7).

I acknowledge that my prayers often turn into rote recitation, just many words being babbled. For example, if I’m praying the Rosary while driving on the highway, sometimes I’ll realize that I’m on the fourth mystery but I haven’t paid attention to anything I said during the previous 10 or 15 minutes.
Other times while praying the Rosary, I’m focused intently on each of the five mysteries, and when I’m finished I can feel that I’ve just had a profound interaction with Almighty God.

So, rote prayers are good, especially if we focus on what the prayer means and Who exactly we’re praying to. But once in a while we should try a little spontaneous prayer. Now, I know for Catholics, this is kind of like asking a classically trained trumpeter with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra to start playing some jazz music. For many of us, free-form improvisation just doesn’t come naturally.

(By the way, I have no idea if classically trained trumpet players avoid jazz music. For all I know, they could wail like Maynard Ferguson when not in a tuxedo at Carnegie Hall. I was just trying to come up with an analogy.)
We need to remind ourselves that God is a person — an eternal, all-knowing, all-powerful person, yes, but a person nonetheless. (Actually, three persons in one divine Being, but let’s save Trinitarian theology for another day.) This means we can have conversations with God. We can open our arms, look up, and just start talking to the Lord. It doesn’t have to be anything we were taught in Catechism class. It doesn’t have to be anything we’ve memorized. It’s simply good ol’ conversation with a loved one, where one person says what’s on his or her mind, and then listens quietly for the reply.

Both types of prayer can be useful. The prayers we memorized as children are powerful, especially the Rosary. And spontaneous, free-form praying is good, too. And when you’re having a spontaneous conversation with God, don’t worry if you often say, “Umm,” and, “You know,” because God doesn’t mind at all. 

Friday, November 25, 2022

Cryptocurrency Is Very Cryptic

Did you hear about the cryptocurrency exchange, FTX, that crashed and burned recently? News reports say FTX was a massive Ponzi scheme, and investors lost billions of dollars. I was planning to comment here on what exactly happened with FTX, but then I discovered the more I tried to understand what cryptocurrency is, the more confused I got. 

As far as I can figure, people invest real money into cryptocurrency, where it is then turned into virtual money. This means a person’s real money has become part of a complex, internet-based video game, and at that point the value of the money can either skyrocket or become worthless. It all depends on, um, apparently no one really knows.

The main thing I know about cryptocurrency is what Matt Damon told me a year ago in his now infamous TV commercials: “Fortune favors the brave.” I guess while Matt was trying to convince people that it’s courageous to invest in cryptocurrency, he forgot to mention that destitution favors the gullible. 
Wouldn’t it be ironic if it turns out Matt insisted on being paid in real dollars from the crypto company he was shilling for? If that’s how he was compensated for making the commercials, it shows he was a lot smarter than the many foolish people who took his advice. (Remember “Good Will Hunting”? See, I knew Matt was a genius.)

So, instead of examining exactly what happened to FTX (because criminal prosecutors and bankruptcy courts will be sifting through that train wreck for the next three decades), let’s talk about something equally as shocking: in this day and age, there are still people named Ponzi. No, I’m not kidding! Can you believe it?

Now, let me say up front that there is nothing wrong with the name Ponzi. I’m sure it’s a fine, traditional name dating back centuries. However, in our modern culture, the name is now synonymous with stealing money. Can you imagine being a youngster, and your parents insist on keeping the Ponzi family name? Starting in about second grade, and for the rest of your life, what do you think your nickname will be? Lefty? Chuckles? Booger Brain? Nope, your nickname for the rest of your life will be Scheme. As in, “Very nice to meet you, Senator. Let me introduce you to my colleague, Dr. David Ponzi, but you can call him ‘Scheme’.”
To avoid a lifetime of ridicule, it would be so much better to change your name to something less larcenous, such as Bernie Madoff. Oh wait, that one might not be so good. If it were me, I’d go with something simple and unassuming, like Camembert McDoodleyboop, Jr.

As we come down the homestretch of this column, I bet you’re wondering how I’m going to tie together the topics of  FTX, Matt Damon, Ponzi Schemes, and McDoodleyboop, and then stick the landing. Well, I’m wondering the same thing, too.

Actually, I’m not going to tie those topics together at all. One of the benefits of adult-onset ADD (caused by too much channel surfing and social media) is that I can change topics in mid-sentence. So, I’d like to conclude this essay by pointing out that our entire modern monetary system is virtual. I mean, when’s the last time you bought anything with real cash (unless you’re a drug dealer or user)? Nowadays, all of our payroll, banking, and credit card transactions are digital, nothing more than a bunch of flickering images on a computer screen. 
Maybe our financial system is just a larger version of FTX. Oh boy, I don’t want to think about that. To paraphrase Matt Damon, “Peace of mind favors the ignorant.”

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Advent: A Good Time to Examine Priorities

This week is the first Sunday of Advent. Our modern culture tells us the Christmas season kicks into high gear on Thanksgiving afternoon. We are encouraged to go overboard — overboard decorating our homes, overboard eating and drinking, and overboard shopping until we drop.  

The Church takes a slightly different approach. First, on the official Church calendar, the Christmas season doesn’t even begin until sunset on Christmas Eve. Then it continues for the following 12 days until the feast of Epiphany on January 6th.The real Christmas season is still over four weeks away. So relax. Stay away from the mall. Order a few gifts online so you’re not accused of being a total Grinch, and then take a nap.
Starting this Sunday we are officially in the season of Advent. The theme of Advent is anticipation. (Cue the Carly Simon song.) We wait expectantly for the coming of the Lord. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, “When the Church celebrates the liturgy of Advent each year, she makes present this ancient expectancy of the Messiah, for by sharing in the long preparation for the Savior’s first coming, the faithful renew their ardent desire for his second coming” (CCC section 524).

The main message of Advent is fairly basic: get ready, get serious, get excited!

If God is truly God, then the one thing we as believers never should be is complacent. Think about it: the Almighty Creator of the Universe loved us so much He sent His only Son to save us from sin and death and make it possible that we can live in heavenly joy for all eternity.

And how do we often react to this phenomenal reality? With a yawn and a glance at our watches, as we mutter, “When is this Mass gonna be over? Doesn’t Fr. McGuillicuddy know the football pre-game show is about to begin?”

When you stop to think about it, if we really believe God is God, then this type of behavior borders on insanity.
My favorite living Christian writer is Dr. Peter Kreeft, who teaches philosophy at Boston College. In his book, Jesus-Shock, Kreeft discusses sloth, one of the Seven Deadly Sins. He explains sloth “does not necessarily imply any physical laziness.” Instead, sloth “means the passivity…of the will…even in the presence of the true good.”

In other words, sloth can exist even among people who go to church every week and do all the churchy things they’re supposed to do. If they do all these religious activities with an apathetic, half-hearted attitude, then they are guilty of sloth.

During Advent, we should take a personal spiritual inventory. What exactly do we love with all our hearts and souls and minds and strength? Is it football on TV? Is it our new car and our fancy wardrobes? Is it the 50-megawatt Christmas light display adorning our house and yard that can be seen from outer space? Is it getting drunk at office parties? Is it shopping trips to the mall?

We’re not going to be perfect in this life, but maybe during Advent we can pause and evaluate our priorities. Maybe we can redirect some of our enthusiasm, excitement, and dedication toward the God who created us and who loves us. Maybe if we take the time to think about it and pray about it, we will draw into closer communion with the Lord and be better prepared for His second coming, whenever it occurs.

And maybe this year will be a little bit different than previous years. Maybe we'll fill our hearts with joy rather than emptying our bank accounts of money. Maybe we'll fill our souls with peace rather than be consumed with anxiety and stress, which are so prevalent this time of year. Now, wouldn't that be a nice new holiday tradition? 

Sunday, November 20, 2022

‘Are You Ready for Some Futbol?’

Last week I mentioned that I’ve become quite interested in the English Premier League, the top division of football in Great Britain (or as we call it here, soccer). As someone who has been a big fan of American football for decades, and who regularly referred to soccer as “more boring than a PBS pledge drive,” no one is more surprised than I am that I’m actually enjoying futbol games on TV.

And even more surprising, the primary reason I got interested in the Premier League is the TV series “Ted Lasso.” If you’re not familiar with the show, it’s on the Apple TV+ streaming service. Here is the premise, as summarized by Wikipedia: “Ted Lasso, an American college football coach, is unexpectedly recruited to coach an English Premier League soccer team, despite having no experience coaching soccer. The team’s owner, Rebecca Welton, hires Lasso hoping he will fail as a means of exacting revenge on the team’s previous owner, her unfaithful ex-husband. However, Ted’s charm, personality, and humor begin to win over Rebecca, the team, and those who had been skeptical about his appointment.”
So far, there have been two seasons of “Ted Lasso,” with Season 1 being absolutely charming and Season 2 very entertaining but a bit more grim. Season 3 is expected to be released sometime in the next few months.

Actor/comedian Jason Sudeikis plays Ted brilliantly, infusing the character with the innocence of Forrest Gump, the witty repartee of Hawkeye Pierce, and the relentless optimism of SpongeBob SquarePants. 

I thoroughly enjoyed watching the show, but I am firmly ambivalent about recommending “Ted Lasso” to anyone else. You see, since it’s a show on an internet streaming service, all the FCC guidelines about TV profanity do not apply. And the fact is, the dialog on the show, however witty it may be, sounds a lot like some of the crude and rude conversations I’ve heard on construction sites, except with British accents. (Even though certain words have different meanings depending on whether you’re American or British, most cuss words apparently are exactly the same on both sides of the pond.)
It’s a shame the show’s language is so profane, because there are some really important lessons that people of all ages should hear. For example, besides being relentlessly optimistic, Ted always respects other people, no matter how nasty they are to him, and he forgives easily and often. And really, in our current cultural climate, wouldn’t a little dose of tolerance, respect, and forgiveness be a welcomed change?

Anyway, the TV show offers a behind-the-scenes look at a fictional Premier League football club, including the team’s passionate and loyal fans. And that’s one of the things I’ve always enjoyed the most about sports: the dedicated fan bases, such as Red Sox Nation, the Cameron Crazies, and the Green Bay Cheeseheads. 

When I came to understand that the football clubs in England have just as much history and are just as big a part of the community’s identity as, say, the Red Sox, Yankees, or Dallas Cowboys, I decided to watch a couple of PL games on TV. I was pleased to discover that it’s not boring at all. Like Ted Lasso, my understanding of the rules is minimal, but it’s kind of fun to learn.

Right now, the Premier League has taken a break because the World Cup is in full swing. (From a global perspective, the World Cup is kind of like the Super Bowl combined with the World Series — times 50.)

I never thought I’d say this, but if the choice is between watching football or futbol, I prefer to watch the most popular sport on planet earth. Cheers, mate. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

The King is Dead – Long Live the King

This is the last week of the liturgical year. Next Sunday, the first Sunday of Advent, begins a new church year. (It also unofficially begins the Christmas season, which means this year has gone by WAY too fast!)

We close out this liturgical year by celebrating the feast of Christ the King.
In the second reading this week, a passage from St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians, it is very clear why we are proclaiming that Christ is king. Paul explains that Jesus “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth.” Paul continues: “All things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

Since Jesus is part of the Trinity, He has all of the attributes of God. He is omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent — which means He is all-present, all-knowing, and all-powerful.

I’d say those are fairly good qualifications for being a king, wouldn’t you? So, as long as we believe Paul’s theological description of Jesus, as long as we understand that we owe our very existence to Jesus, we have no trouble bowing down in worship and proclaiming that Christ is the king. Then we come to the gospel reading. Do we find our sovereign king sitting on a glorious throne? Is our divine Lord and ruler resplendently attired in His palace as faithful subjects bow before Him? Not quite.
In the gospel reading our King of kings is bloodied and beaten, nailed naked to a cross. The soldiers who drove the nails and the religious leaders who manipulated the death sentence took turns mocking and jeering. At that moment on Calvary, He looked nothing like a king.

It requires eyes of faith to look past the obvious and see the underlying truth of a situation. One of the other criminals being executed that day, siding with the soldiers and religious leaders, did not see a king. Scripture says this criminal “reviled Jesus.”

But another criminal, hanging from his own cross, had eyes of faith. He replied, “Have you no fear of God?” Then he turned to Jesus and said, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

This criminal looked at the bruised, bloodied, and dying man hanging next to him and saw a king. He knew that our natural world is not the only realm of existence.

The faith-filled criminal did not have St. Paul’s theological grasp of Jesus’ cosmic identity. But he knew there is more to existence than just this natural life. He knew death was not the end, but rather a transition to the next life. He had the faith to realize that Jesus had a special connection with that next life.

Jesus rewarded his faith by promising, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
We know what happened three days later when Jesus conquered death once and for all and burst forth from the tomb. And we know what happened forty days after that when He ascended into Heaven to be seated at the right hand of the Father. Knowing this, the irony is not so obvious when we read of Jesus’ utter humiliation during a feast called Christ the King.

But the faithful criminal did not know any of that. He put his trust and hope in Jesus anyway. His natural eyes saw a fellow criminal being put to death. But his supernatural eyes saw a heavenly king. Because of his faith, at this very moment and forevermore, he is in Paradise. We should all be like that faithful criminal and proclaim that Christ is indeed the king. If we do, we can one day join Him in Paradise.