Friday, March 22, 2019

Time to Retreat from Digital Technology

Recently I went on a weekend retreat with other men from my parish. It was a very interesting and spiritual experience, and I think the Holy Family monastery in West Hartford should have a new motto: “We feed you to within an inch of your life!”

I only gained five pounds in three days, but that’s because our retreat was during Lent. If we went there during a non-fasting time of year, I would’ve put on at least 10 pounds. Carnival Cruise Line has nothing on those Passionist priests.

Anyway, while on retreat I decided to take a much-needed break from the digital world. No TV, no streaming videos, no emails, and no Internet. I did turn on my smart phone twice each day just to make sure no emergency messages came in from my family, but then quickly turned it back off.

The prayers and meditation and discussion groups were designed to help us learn something important about ourselves. Here is the spiritual lesson I learned about myself: I am totally addicted to my cell phone.

All during the retreat I kept reaching into my pants pocket for my phone, and for that brief moment before I remembered the phone was stored away in my suitcase upstairs, I panicked and muttered, “Where’s my phone? Did I lose my phone?!” My hands quickly slapped at all of my pants and shirt pockets, desperately searching for the phone. I kind of looked like a guy doing the Macarena after 17 double espressos.

Then I remembered, “Oh yeah, no phone this weekend.” I would then sit down with a sad and lost feeling in the depths of my soul, which I’m pretty sure was not the feeling the retreat weekend was intended to produce.

Here is a list of the reasons why I regularly reached into my pocket for my phone: 
  • Check the weather forecast.
  • Check the Red Sox score.
  • Check email.
  • Check news app for latest headlines.
  • Check the Red Sox score (again).
  • Check Google Maps to see how far Denver, CO, is from Boulder, CO. (It came up in conversation during lunch and I suddenly just had to know.)
  • Check UConn basketball score.
  • Do Google search to see if Sean Connery is still alive. (It came up in conversation during dinner and I suddenly just had to know.)
  • Check weather radar.
  • Check Red Sox score (again).
  • Check email (again).
  • Do Google search to find out how many metric tons of bananas are eaten in America each year. (It came up in conversation during breakfast and I suddenly just had to know.)
  • Check UConn basketball score (again).
  • Check Red Sox score (again).
  • Play an E-flat on a keyboard phone app. (I was sitting in the chapel before a prayer service, and while looking at the first song we were scheduled to sing, I thought, “Hmm, I know this tune. The first note is an E-flat. Maybe I can hum it if I can hear the first note. But with no phone I couldn’t do it — a major blessing for the guys nearby.)

The retreat occurred in early March. This means the Red Sox games in question were meaningless spring training games. The UConn basketball game in question was a contest between the Lady Huskies and East Carolina, which meant UConn was going to win by at least 30 points even if Geno ordered his team to play in flip-flops. So, there really was no reason for me to reach repeatedly for my phone.

This is the spiritual lesson I learned that weekend: the next time I go on retreat, instead of giving up my phone for the whole weekend, I’ll give up something much easier, like breathing.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Jesus Says Repentance Is Important

Here’s a concept that will shock you: Satan, the devil himself, knows more correct theology about God than even the most brilliant saints in Church history. It’s true! Satan, after all, is a supernatural being with an intellect far greater than mere mortals. He is a powerful angel who was in the very presence of God until he rebelled because of pride and then was cast out of Heaven. Satan has seen God in action—from the inside—and he knows exactly what God is like. So, he knows more about God than even St. Thomas Aquinas or Saint John Paul II.

However, the difference between Satan and a devout Christian is that Satan would never, ever consider repenting.

It’s not enough merely to know about God or to believe in God. St. James wrote in his epistle in the Bible, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder” (James 2:19).

In this week’s gospel reading at Mass, Jesus declares a very bold statement, and then for emphasis He repeats it. He says, “But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish!”

Repentance is so important. It was the primary message of countless Old Testament prophets. It was the message preached by John the Baptist as he called people back into a relationship with God. It is the message Jesus is proclaiming to us this week.

If we don’t repent, we cannot be forgiven. If we’re not forgiven, then we’re still stuck in our sins. And if we’re still stuck in our sins, then we can’t enter into Heaven. So as Jesus said—twice—if we do not repent, the end result is that we will perish. Repentance is that important.

Unfortunately, in our modern society it is very difficult to repent—and not because we have nothing to repent of. On the contrary, our society just might be committing more sins per minute per person than any other culture in human history. If you don’t think so, just consider the Seven Deadly Sins: pride, anger, lust, greed, envy, gluttony, and sloth. In bygone generations people were taught to avoid these seven attitudes that invariably lead to sin. In our modern generation, these seven attitudes are encouraged, celebrated, and even rewarded. The result is a multitude of sin just exploding all over society.

It’s certainly not a lack of sin that makes it hard for us to repent. The problem is that we refuse to acknowledge that sin is sin anymore. We are now steeped in moral relativism, which insists that people can define right and wrong for themselves. Nowadays, the only real sin is to claim that sin is real.

But there’s one big problem here. Jesus says if we don’t repent, we will perish. I suspect Jesus said the same thing to Satan back when the devil was throwing his prideful hissy-fit in Heaven. At that moment, when Satan possibly still could have repented and been forgiven for his rebellious arrogance, he instead defiantly proclaimed that he had done nothing wrong except stand up for his right to make his own choices and define right and wrong for himself.

As a result, Satan was cast from Heaven because of his sin and his lack of repentance. He now prowls the world in a seething rage of agony, looking for unsuspecting souls to deceive and devour. (See: 1 Peter 5:8.) He is apparently having a bloody field day in our modern world.

What a crying shame that we find it so hard to repent. It is, as Jesus said—twice—absolutely necessary to keep from perishing. Without repentance, even great theological knowledge about God is not good enough. Without repentance, we’re no better than the devil.

Friday, March 15, 2019

An Explosion of ‘Comfort Pets’ on Planes

It’s been quite a while since I’ve received a lot of hate mail. (Who can forget the historic Bagpipes Debacle of 2018?) So, I thought it might be time to write about a topic that is sure to anger many people. This topic was suggested to me by a reader, after I wrote two columns last month about my vacation trip to Florida. I focused mainly on the trials and tribulations of traveling nowadays on commercial airlines, and when those essays appeared in the newspaper, the email note said, “You didn’t mention the most annoying aspect of air travel — the explosion of comfort pets on airplanes.”

Well, if comfort pets are indeed exploding on airplanes, that would be very annoying, not to mention a real challenge for the cleaning crew once the plane landed. But I think the reader was using the word “explosion” to mean the “proliferation” of comfort pets on airliners. (Unless I just missed the news story about dog, cat, and cockatiel bits being splattered all over the cabin.)

During my recent trip to Florida, I observed a few comfort pets, mostly small dogs inside nylon bags, out of which they occasionally popped their furry little heads to startle people like me, who assumed the bags were filled with non-living items, like underwear. I suppose these dogs provided comfort for the humans carrying them, but I don’t know if anyone asked the dogs if their travel ordeal was all that comfortable.

If you do a Google search for the phrase “comfort pets on airplanes,” you’ll get many links to news stories with titles such as, “Following peacock fiasco, United Airlines tightens policy for comfort animals,” and, “Is that dog (or pig) on your flight really a service animal?” and, “Comfort pets do not belong in an aircraft cabin, regulators say.”

Here is a quote from one news story, published in Forbes Magazine: “Many passengers traveling with ESAs (Emotional Support Animals) are not ‘disabled’ at all….The passengers’ motivations are obvious: they want their animal to travel in cabin rather than in the cargo hold. They also want to avoid paying the airline a pet fee.”

And a few paragraphs later we read this: “In June 2017, a window-seat passenger was trapped and mauled by a 40- to 50-pound pit bull traveling as an ESA. The passenger required 28 stitches to suture facial injuries. Recently, an ESA bit a child on the forehead before the plane even left the gate.”

I don’t want to come across as an unsympathetic ogre (are ogres allow onboard as ESAs?), because I suppose there are some people who need to travel with a comfort pet to avoid an anxiety attack. But it sure seems to me, and let me see if I can phrase this gently, that a lot of selfish bozos are scamming the system. And in the process, I bet they’re making it more difficult for those who really need an ESA.

I admit I don’t have a lot of knowledge about this topic, other than reading a handful of online news stories. Of course, offering my opinion without a lot of knowledge is kind of my thing — just ask the bagpipes folks.

So, I would appreciate some feedback from my loyal readers (all seven of you). Do people really need to bring emotional service animals on airplanes, or is it just a big scam to save money when someone wants to bring a pet on vacation?

Personally, if I had to choose between sitting on a plane next to someone holding either a dog or a set of bagpipes, I would choose the bagpipes. I could not find a single news story online about bagpipes biting people.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Envy is the Joyless Deadly Sin

We don’t hear much about the Seven Deadly Sins these days. Well, actually, we hear a lot about these seven sinful attitudes, but just not by that old-fashioned title.
Rather than avoiding these destructive behaviors, our modern culture now embraces pride, anger, covetousness, lust, envy, gluttony, and sloth. Just watch TV for a while. The primetime shows are filled with lust; the commercials are filled with covetousness and gluttony; and the cable news talk shows are overflowing with anger.

Of the seven deadly sins, envy is the most joyless. At least with the other six, a person will get a brief feeling of satisfaction—before all the negative aspects overwhelm him. But with envy, there is no satisfaction at all. Medical researchers tell us that envy is one of the leading causes of unhappiness.

And in my view, one of the most powerful sources of envy—and therefore a major source of unhappiness—is Facebook. Do a Google search for the phrase, “Facebook leads to depression.” You’ll get a mere 145 million search results, many of which link to articles describing the undeniable connection between Facebook usage and unhappiness.

What exactly is envy, anyway? Well, the dictionary defines it as “a feeling of discontented or resentful longing aroused by someone else's possessions, qualities, or luck.”

The key with envy is making comparisons. And I hate to admit it, but I know about this first-hand. As someone who is well into my middle-age years, and as someone who has very little retirement savings set aside right now, I keep hearing about old schoolmates who went to work for the government, and now in their late 50s or early 60s, they’ve retired with a guaranteed, lifetime pension that often pays them more each year than I currently earn. And they will receive this steady income for as long as they live.

In my case, if I retire right now, I can live very comfortably—for about seven months. After that, I’m in big trouble.

So, when I compare my situation to these retired state employees, especially when I consider that I could have gone to work for the government back in the early 1980s, I get frustrated and sad, and most of all, envious.

Envy, of course, is not limited to financial comparisons and personal possessions. People are envious of other folks’ good looks, their youth, or their musical talent. Any particular aspect of a person’s life can be the source of envy in another person. The possibilities are unlimited.

The thing about envy—and again, this is from first-hand experience—is that when a person is comparing himself to someone else, and resentfully longing for what that other person has, he is not focusing on his own blessings.

For example, when I think about a particular former classmate who is now collecting his big government pension and playing golf every day, I have lost sight of the all the good things in my life, such as: I have a job that I really enjoy. Even if I could afford to retire, I probably wouldn’t right now. Also, I’m relatively healthy, I have loving family and friends, no mortgage on the house, and many other wonderful things.

Our culture encourages us to be envious, often with the relentless political demand for “fairness!” But as a result, we have become a very unhappy society. We must stop the constant comparisons we make with others. It just makes us miserable. Instead, we need to count our blessings. Literally. Go make a list of all the good things in your life. And number one on that list should be this: God loves you and offers you eternal life in Heaven through faith in His Son Jesus. It doesn’t get any better than that.

Then the next thing to do is delete your Facebook account. No, really. Do it today. You’ll be amazed at the major reduction in that terrible deadly sin: envy.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Driving in the Snow, Part 2

Last week I wrote about my fear of driving in snow. It’s not just a fear of driving IN snow, it’s serious trepidation about driving whenever the forecast calls for “possible flurries,” even if nothing has yet to fall from the sky. It seems to me this feeling of unease began when I turned 50. Before that age, I viewed snow like a Siberian Husky views snow: something to get excited about and frolic in, even if I occasionally sideswiped a mailbox or two while zig-zagging in my car on slippery roads. (I’m referring, of course, only to those Siberian Huskies who have their drivers licenses and who own rear-wheel-drive Oldsmobiles.)

However, a reader sent me an email and suggested my fear of driving in snow is not due to my age, but rather it is because of Scot Haney. The TV weatherpersons, the reader explained, have scared the bejeezus out of everyone. (I’m hoping bejeezus is not a blasphemous word; if so, sorry.)

The TV weatherfolks, it seems, treat every instance of “possible flurries” as if it’s another Blizzard of ’78. And even if you weren’t alive or living in Connecticut in 1978, you certainly know about that cataclysmic event because every time we’re faced with a possible snowstorm, all the local TV stations replay that classic grainy video of then-governor Ella Grasso famously riding on the back of a Siberian Husky as she delivered food to stranded citizens. (OK, that may not be exactly what Governor Grasso did, but the story has become somewhat of a Paul Bunyanesque tale, with another layer of exaggeration added every time it’s told.)

It is true that TV weather forecasters get a bit excited whenever snow is expected. (I am using, of course, the definition of the phrase “a bit excited” that means: screaming hysterically at the top of their lungs and tearfully pleading with viewers never to go outside again for the rest of their lives, because if they do so, they will surely suffer a painful and horrible frost-bitten death.)

The reader also mentioned that the over-the-top hype by TV weather personalities is the reason school superintendents cancel classes so frequently, even if the predicted flurries never materialize. I disagree. I think school superintendents are not influenced so much by histrionic weather forecasters as they are by calm and cool trial lawyers, who quietly growl in a perfect Clint Eastwood voice, “You wanna risk having a school bus slide into a telephone pole? Go ahead, make my day.”

Well, I appreciate all the feedback and analysis from that reader, not to mention from Governor Grasso, Clint Eastwood, and the Siberian Husky behind the wheel of his Delta-88. But the fact is, my unease with driving in snow nowadays is caused by something entirely different. You see, driving in snow often means traveling no more than 15 MPH on a 45 MPH state highway. This means it will take a lot longer to drive by a McDonald’s, Dunkin Donuts, or other place with a public restroom. This was not a problem back when I was 30, as I could wait hours, sometimes even days, it seemed, between bathroom breaks. But now? Forget it. So, my reluctance to drive in snow nowadays is not caused by a fear of having an accident, it is instead caused by a fear of, um, having an accident, if you get my drift.

If you do get caught out in the snow, have no fear: Governor Lamont will ride to your rescue on the back of a Siberian Husky. At least that’s what he promised during his campaign, and we all know he would never break a campaign promise.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Church Has Lost Moral Authority

Last week I mentioned that the Catholic Church has lost her moral authority in our culture. There was a time in recent memory when the Church was a beacon of morality in American society. Those days are long gone.

There are a couple of reasons for this. First, the ongoing clergy sex abuse scandal keeps getting worse and worse. There’s nothing more infuriating than powerful prelates living sinful lives in secret and then proclaiming moral standards that everyone else should live by. Nothing crushes credibility more than hypocrisy.

The other reason the Church has lost her moral authority is the fact the Catholic Church is one of the few institutions that still holds to the traditional, biblical view on two contentious topics: abortion and same-sex marriage. These issues have become the litmus test for whether a person or organization is considered acceptable in the popular culture nowadays. Whoever refuses to embrace the progressive, secular viewpoint on these two sexual revolution topics becomes an instant outcast.

This was made very clear during recent judicial hearings. Judge Brian Buescher was nominated for the U.S. District Court in Nebraska, and during confirmation hearings, two U.S. senators attacked Buescher because he’s a member of a sinister organization known as—wait for it—the Knights of Columbus.

Just check out the wording here. Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) stated that “the Knights of Columbus has taken a number of extreme positions” regarding same-sex marriage. Extreme? In other words, the K of C holds the exact position the entire civilized world has held for the past 5,000 years of recorded human history—including Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton up until about ten years ago. Sen. Hirono then went on to ask Buescher if he would quit the Knights of Columbus, “to avoid any appearance of bias.”

Next, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) asked Buescher if he was aware when he joined the Knights of Columbus that the group was an “all-male society” that opposed “a woman’s right to choose” and “marriage equality.”

(Let’s rephrase that: “Judge Buescher, are you aware the K of C is a fraternal service organization that frowns on the murder of innocent babies and prefers the 5000-year-old traditional definition of marriage?” There, I fixed it for you, Senator.)

Just pause for a minute here and think about how wacky this is. These U.S. senators are acting as if the good ol’ Knights of Columbus organization is an extremist hate group, no different than, say, the Ku Klux Klan. The only thing “extreme” about the Knights are those feathery Captain Crunch hats they wear during parades and other ceremonies.

What exactly is going on? It’s actually rather simple: the Catholic Church has lost her moral authority, and as a result, it is now open season on anyone who holds to the Church’s doctrines, especially regarding sexual revolution issues. Or as website so eloquently put it: “Liberals get angrier and angrier that the Church keeps resisting their demands to accede to the latest fads in human sexuality.” The behavior of those two U.S. senators clearly demonstrates that this is true.

So, how can we Catholics regain our moral authority? First, by BEING moral. When the behavior of the average Catholic is no different than that of the average self-centered atheist, our hypocrisy is obvious to all. And Catholic hypocrisy is not just a clerical problem.

Second, we must always proclaim the truth in love. Catholics do not hold traditional moral values in order to win arguments and dominate other people. We hold these values because they were handed down by Jesus Himself, and therefore they are true and good and beautiful.

This week is the start of Lent, which is a great opportunity to practice humble penance. The season of Lent is not just about avoiding cheeseburgers on Friday. It’s a time to renew our commitment to holiness and biblical morality.

Who knows, maybe someday the Catholic Church will regain her cultural authority and once again be considered a beacon of morality. But in the meantime, we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Former Snow Warrior Now Frightened by Flurries

I can vividly remember the good ol’ days. I’d wake up in the morning and hear on the radio that it was snowing outside, and the forecast was for another six to eight inches before it would stop. “Oh boy!” I’d exclaim, “This is gonna be great!”

Then I would hurry to get dressed so I could begin my journey to work. Back then, I just loved driving in the snow. For many years I had a company car, a gorgeous 1984 Oldsmobile Delta-88. It was a massive hunk of Detroit steel with rear-wheel drive and a powerful V-8 engine.
The car was so front-heavy, the back tires barely touched the ground. It was perfect for driving in snow — perfect, that is, if your goal was to spin your wheels furiously, wiggle back and forth like a mackerel on a hook every time you drove up a hill, and do “doughnuts” in every unplowed parking lot you happened to pass by.

Back when I was a young lad, in my late 20s and early 30s, driving in the snow was an exciting adventure. I would invent new Winter Olympic sports, and do the “play by play” commentary as I competed for the gold medal.

“This is Jim McKay at the Automobile Giant Slalom Bobsled track here in Calgary. Our final contestant today is the tan Oldsmobile from the United States. He needs to break his own personal best time to overtake the blue Volkswagen from West Germany and win the gold. And there he goes! He’s making his way down Route 4. Just look at his trunk slide back and forth. He’s pushing the RPM to the red line.

"Now he’s approaching the treacherous intersection with Route 202. Let’s see if he takes this turn cautiously. No! He’s accelerating through the downhill turn! I think the light was red. Ooh, he’s going to lose a couple tenths of a second for side-swiping that mail box. Now he’s back up to full speed and it’s time for the icy on-ramp to Route 8. Look at his split time! He’s 1.2 seconds ahead of his personal best! The gold medal is within reach if he can just keep from hitting any guardrails on his way to Waterbury!”

But then something weird happened. One night when I was 49 years old, I went to bed. And the next morning when I woke up, I was 50, and my desire to drive in the snow had completely evaporated. In fact, the idea of getting behind the wheel when the forecast called for even a “slight possibility of flurries” now struck dread into my heart.

“Oh no, not flurries,” I would say, and still say to this day. “It could get slippery. Maybe I should work from home today. I don’t want to get into an accident or get stuck somewhere. Let me look at that weather radar again. These flurries sometimes turn into blizzards, you know!”

The funny thing is, my company car now is a Chevy Equinox, a modest sized hunk of Detroit steel (via the Ontario, Canada, assembly plant with parts from Mexico), which has 4-wheel drive and operates fine in the snow. The back end doesn’t fish-tale, the wheels rarely spin too fast, and it goes uphill in the snow without a problem.

The only problem is in my head, where I’ve lost my nerve and my sense of vehicular adventure. Good thing we have the Internet now, so I can get work done without leaving the house. And while in my basement office, typing away on my computer, I occasionally look up and gaze at a shiny object hanging on the wall: my gold medal from Calgary.