Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Writing for the ‘Hep Cat’ Crowd

Last week’s column discussed my views of the presidency. Here’s a summary: I have nothing against the presidency, just the egomaniacs who want to hold that office.
 
In the essay, I concluded that the best person to be president is Groucho Marx, because he famously said, “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.” In other words, the President of the United States should be a person who is humble enough not to want the job. All the folks who desperately desire to be president are automatically disqualified, in my view, by the very fact they crave the job. And if you think I’m referring simply to the two old white guys who will be on the ballot in November, be aware there are at least 30 power-hungry people frantically working behind the scenes right now to position themselves to run in 2024. They all should have their heads examined.
 
Anyway, after last week’s column was published, it was pointed out to me that every single person I mentioned was famous ages ago. Today, their names are unknown to everyone except geezers like me. Hmm, I didn’t realize that.
 
Here is a list of the people I mentioned last week, what they are famous for, and when they were famous:
 
James Buchanan, President of the United States, 1857 to 1861.
 
Groucho Marx, comedian and movie star, 1920 to 1960.
 
Major Strasser, sinister character in the movie “Casablanca,” 1942.
 
Ed McMahon, sinister sidekick of Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show,” 1962 to 1992.
 
Richard Nixon, sinister President of the United States, 1969 to 1974.
 
Joe Biden, comedian and sinister character The Joker in the movie “Batman,” 1989.
 
One alert reader sent me an email note that said: “How do you expect young adults to read your column when all the people you mentioned died decades ago?” The note continued, “You should mention celebrities and politicians that young people can relate to, such as Madonna, Bill Clinton, Elton John and Harrison Ford.”
 
Um, OK. I think this particular loyal reader might define “young people” as anyone who was born after World War II. I’m surprised he didn’t use the expression “hep cats.”
 
Here’s the thing: I did some extensive research recently, and discovered that of all the people who read my column on a regular basis, the average age is 77. I didn’t plan to be the official Western Connecticut AARP humor writer. It just kind of worked out that way. Even when I started this column almost 20 years ago, back before I was a geezer myself, the people who enjoyed my essays sent me notes — not the email kind, but the ones that are written on paper and delivered by the U.S. Postal Service — telling me I was a pretty clever fella, for a youngin’.
 
I kept waiting for feedback from readers in their 20s and 30s, but nothing came. Then it dawned on me: folks in their 20s and 30s don’t read newspapers anymore. They get all their information from social media. (Which is a polite way of saying they don’t get much information at all, just a mish-mash of biased rantings masquerading as news.)
 
As the years progressed, I aged right into my demographic, and now it would never occur to me NOT to refer to bygone celebrities such as Groucho Marx, Ed McMahon, and Joe Biden, because most of my readers can remember following their antics decades ago.
 
However, just in case a young adult accidentally stumbles across this column, here is an up-to-date, modern reference: Hey, how ‘bout that new singer, Elvis Presley? He can really shake his hips. Quite a hep cat, huh?

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Jesus Says Hell Is Real

There are many misconceptions about Christian doctrine. One of the most pervasive fallacies is the idea that Jesus taught nothing but love and forgiveness, but afterward a bunch of intolerant, mean-spirited Church leaders added all that hell-fire and brimstone rhetoric to scare folks and keep them in line.
 
The thinking is that Jesus was so meek and mild He wouldn’t even harm a fly. He came to offer unconditional pardon to everyone and bring them all to Heaven, no questions asked, no requirements necessary.
 
In reality, Jesus talked about Hell more than He talked about Heaven. In this week’s gospel reading, Jesus told the parable of the weeds and the wheat. This is one of the few parables that Jesus explained to His disciples afterward. He clearly described each symbolic point: (1) the sower is the Son of Man, (2) the field is the world, (3) the good seed represents the children of the Kingdom, (4) the weeds are the children of the evil one, (5) the enemy is the devil, (6) the harvest is the end of the age, and (7) the harvesters are angels.
 
Jesus then said, “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all who cause others to sin and all evildoers. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.”
 
Remember now, this was Jesus’ explanation of the parable. He was not speaking in symbolic language at this point. He was plainly explaining the true meaning of his previous symbolic language.
 
In His explanation, Jesus acknowledged the existence of the following: the devil; the devil’s evil followers; a future final judgment; and a place where evildoers will be sent, which is, shall we say, not very pleasant.
 
But how can that be? How can a loving God send people to such a terrible place as Hell?
 
Professor Peter Kreeft offers an interesting idea: “Maybe Hell and Heaven are the same thing: God’s own truth and goodness, loved and enjoyed by the people in Heaven and hated and feared by the people in Hell. Maybe the fires of Hell are really the light of God. Like two people at a concert: for one it’s heavenly music, for another it’s hellish noise.”
 
Certainly, if someone was self-obsessed, and found himself in a place where everyone forgot about themselves and focused all their attention and devotion toward God, that would be agonizing. The point, however, is not whether Heaven and Hell are separate places or the same place experienced differently by different people. The point is that Jesus clearly taught that the final judgment and Hell are real.
 
Yes, Jesus certainly is meek and mild, loving and forgiving. But there’s a lot more to Him than that. He is righteous and just. He abhors evil and makes it clear there is no place in His Heavenly Kingdom for chronic and unrepentant evildoers.
 
If Jesus said there really is a devil, and that “children of the evil one” exist in this world, we can be sure it’s true. (I mean, come on, watch the evening news for 10 minutes. You don’t need Jesus’ words to be convinced that evil is flourishing in our world.)
 
The first step to winning a battle is to realize that you are in a battle. Far too many Christians are not even aware that an intense struggle between good and evil is raging at this very moment.
 
At Mass this Sunday, listen to Jesus’ words—whether you’re at church or still watching Mass on TV. Listen carefully. Now is the time to make sure that when those harvesting angels appear, you’re not bundled up with the weeds and tossed onto the flames. Jesus is all-loving, but we have to embrace His love and let it transform us into holy people.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Groucho for President?

While discussing membership in a fancy country club, Groucho Marx once quipped, “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.”
 
That quote came to mind while pondering the presidential election. To be honest, I don’t care to vote for anyone who actually wants to be president.
 
It’s kind of a Catch-22: anybody who really wants to be president should be immediately disqualified, while the person who should have the job ought to be someone who absolutely does not want it.
 
It’s not that the President of the United States is an evil occupation. And it’s not that we don’t need someone talented and dedicated to fill the position. It’s just that in our day and age the process of running for and winning the presidency has become the most shameless display of political prostitution imaginable. No, I take that back. There are now aspects of running for the presidency that are simply unimaginable.
 
Anyone who thinks the ultimate goal — the presidency — is worth all the pandering and lying and begging for money and allowing the media to do a cavity strip-search on national TV day after day is, in my view, a person who is either a raging egomaniac or certifiably insane. And I don’t think having egomaniacs or crazy people running our country is such a good thing.
 
Just ask the folks who had to live through the tumultuous reign of President James Buchanan. Well, since he was president from 1857 to 1861, most of the folks who lived through his administration are probably a little forgetful these days. (Or as Major Strasser might say, you would find the conversation a trifle one-sided.)
 
Buchanan was known as Ol’ Nutzo, but only to his closest friends, a couple of whom were actually not of the imaginary kind. To his political opponents, however, Buchanan was known as Ol’ _____  ____  ____. Regrettably, newspapers during the 1850s had a policy of deleting obscene words. And since most mid-19th century politically-oriented Twitter accounts had yet to discover the joy of profanity-laced, foaming-at-the-mouth rants masquerading as enlightened discourse, no one knows exactly which words filled those three blank spaces.
 
It is suspected by historians that the three blank words might have referred to Ol’ Nutzo’s sex life. Since Buchanan was the only U.S. president who never married, one can only imagine what the late-night comedians of that era had to say about him. (Again, because of technological limitations with television networks in the mid-1800s, all of those shows have been lost to history. The only thing we know for sure is that Ed McMahon was there.)
 
While the nation was being torn asunder by the issue of slavery, Buchanan apparently spent most of his time holed up in the White House, screaming in a paranoid rage about countless unseen enemies supposedly out to get him. This style of governing was successfully adopted many years later by Richard Nixon.
 
For the good of the nation, somehow we need to get the loonies and the pompous posers out of politics. We need a president who is humble, self-effacing, and most of all, doesn’t really need or want the job. We need Groucho Marx for President of the United States. (At first, I was thinking of Joe Biden, but Groucho is a bit younger.)
 
Yes, I admit Groucho’s health situation has rendered him about as talkative as the folks who lived through James Buchanan’s administration. But on the other hand, the media won’t be able to pick apart everything he says and twist his words out of context.
 
Say the secret word and win a hundred dollars.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

I Believe, Help My Unbelief

Do you ever wake up in the morning some days and think, “Ugh, I’m not even sure if God is real”?
 
Life can be a grind, and sometimes we feel that our entire existence is so painful and futile, a good God would never let us suffer this way. Maybe He’s not even there.
 
It’s not a crime to admit your faith gets weak at times. Living in our modern, secular culture, where most expressions of religious faith are mocked and ridiculed, it’s perfectly normal to wonder whether God is real, or if it’s all just a curious myth passed on from previous generations that knew nothing about science.
 
But here’s the thing: if you’re ever tempted to abandon faith in God, please understand that not believing in God is a hopeless worldview.
 
Now, of course, unbelievers will never say that. They proclaim their views are based on science and reason, and it’s very liberating to know the truth about reality and dismiss once and for all those ancient religious fairy tales. And, of course, they never hesitate to remind us that the most brilliant people in society do not believe in God.
 
However, the fact is, rejecting God is hopeless. When you boil it down, it offers no hope whatsoever. This is because the core principle of this viewpoint is that the natural world is the only thing that exists. There is no spiritual dimension to reality; no gods, no angels, no Heaven, and no human soul.
 
It may seem there is something behind our eyes, an “I” or “me” or unique person with thoughts and dreams and feelings and relationships and vivid memories. It may seem the core of our individual being is somehow within our bodies but yet much greater than mere flesh. Theologians call this our soul or spirit.
 
But people who reject God insist it’s all an illusion. Our unique personality and consciousness are nothing more than electro-chemical activity taking place inside that complex lump of gray mush know as our brains. It’s all natural, and there is no spiritual aspect to it.
 
Additionally, when we die, it all comes to a screeching halt. No life after death, no continuation of our consciousness. Just complete annihilation. Our bodies become worm food in a cemetery and our minds and sense of individual awareness cease to exist. We’re gone. Forever.
 
That’s why not believing in God offers no hope at all. Our accidental existence here on earth is terribly fleeting, and when it’s over, we are gone for all time.
 
When you wake up on those painful mornings and wonder if God even exists, be aware that if you go down this secular path, you are siding with meaninglessness and despair, which will only increase your pain. If you at least cling to the idea that God might be real, and admit you don’t know why a good God would let so much suffering occur, you at least have hope. Hope that someday it will make sense to you; hope that all the injustice of this world will be made right in the next world; hope that our fleeting time on earth is not an exercise in futility; and hope that joy and love will again fill your heart.
 
The desperate man in Mark 9:24 is a wonderful example. This man’s son was very ill, and he came to Jesus begging for help. When Jesus said that faith is important, the man cried out, “I do believe, help my unbelief!”
 
When we’re feeling down and desperate, when our faith is slipping away, we need to pray this amazing prayer. “Dear Lord, I do believe. Help my unbelief!”
 
No matter how bad things seem, no matter how weak your faith is, do not despair. God is real, even if sometimes it doesn’t feel that way, and He loves you more than you can imagine. Don’t lose hope, because our God is a God of hope and joy.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

A Letter to My New Grandson

Dear Grandson,
 
I know you’re only a few weeks old right now, so you probably won’t understand much of this. But maybe when you get a little older you will read this and have a better idea of what I’m trying to say.
 
You see, you are only the third person in my entire life who I loved intensely even before I met you. The other two people are your mom and your auntie. Of course, there are many other people I love, including your Grammy Joy-Joy, but I didn’t love them until after I got to know them. You are different, little one. The minute I heard that your mom was expecting, I fell in love with you. And then when I finally saw you in the flesh and held you in my arms about a week after your birth, I just melted. Love is indeed, as the song says, a many-splendored thing. (Pop quiz: who else, besides me, thought the word was “splendid”? Thank you, Google.)
 
I have no experience at being a Grampy (but plenty of practice at being a Grumpy). However, I’m pretty sure my main duty as grandfather is to spoil you rotten, and then hand you back to your parents and let them deal with the aftershocks.
 
Hopefully, I can do a bit more in my grandfatherly role than just give you mini Snickers bars when your mom’s not looking and watch Red Sox games on TV with you. Maybe I also can impart a little wisdom, too, such as teach you how to throw a curveball.
 
Little grandson, you were born in a very interesting time in history. When you look at your baby photos years from now, you’ll notice that almost everyone is wearing a mask. I pray that when you look at those photos, mask-wearing will not have become the new normal. (I also pray that people will stop using the tedious phrase “new normal” by then, especially me.)
 
Some folks say planet Earth is so messed up these days that it’s not right to bring a child into this world. But you could make that argument about every moment in history. For example, when I was born in the late 1950s, the Cold War was on the verge of becoming hot, and people feared a nuclear war would break out at any moment. Those who were born during World War II came into an even more treacherous world. And what about the Flu Pandemic of 1920? Or the Civil War of the 1860s? Or all the various plagues and wars and natural disasters that have occurred?
 
The point is, during every moment human beings have been alive, people could make the case that it was a bad time to bring a child into the world. But this viewpoint is, and always will be, wrong for one simple reason: life is a beautiful and precious gift from Heaven. A new life, especially one you’re related to, fills you with joy and love and hope. How else can you explain falling in love with someone you haven’t even met yet? The sensation took me by surprise for the first time over three decades ago. I suspect your parents are amazed by it now. It’s quite a treat for me to feel it all over again so many years later.
 
If people have never experienced the phenomenon of falling in love with someone they haven’t met yet, nothing I can say will make them understand. And if they have experienced it, nothing needs to be said.
 
God bless you, little grandson. I look forward to being a part of your formative years. Just don’t tell your mom about the mini Snickers bars, OK?

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Seek God in Good Times and Bad

There are a lot of different ways people approach prayer. Some folks only pray to God when they have a problem. When a crisis occurs, these people drop to their knees and fervently beg God to make things better. But when circumstances are going well in their lives, these people completely forget about God and never pray.
 
Other people do the exact opposite. When things are going really well, they are so filled with joy and gratitude, they thank God profusely for all their blessings and good fortune. However, when problems arise, these people get so filled with anxiety and fear, they lose sight of God and do not pray. 
 
I have to admit, I am in this second group. When circumstances in my life are good, I feel so blessed, and I don’t hesitate to offer joyful praise and thanksgiving to God. But when serious problems arise, I get so flustered, almost on the verge of panic, that my entire focus is on what steps I need to take to solve the problem. It’s often not until the crisis has passed that I stop and think, “Wow, I never prayed once during that ordeal. I completely forgot about God.” 
 
I can just hear God at that moment saying to me in a sarcastic voice, “Hel-LO!! Remember me? The whole time you were panicking and losing sleep and feeling sorry for yourself I was right here. But I guess you were too busy trying to be a hero to ask for a little help.”
 
(Yeah, I know God doesn’t talk in sarcastic insults like that. But when I think of it this way it helps me to realize what a bonehead I was for not seeking His help.)
 
I’m really not sure why I find it so difficult to turn to God in times of trouble. Maybe it’s because I’ve been trained by our culture to play the role of the self-sufficient problem solver. You know, that classic Lone Ranger, Marlboro Man, John Wayne persona, which is an attractive—but quite false—ideal of American rugged individualism. When an unexpected challenge arises, maybe I think it’s my job to be a man and find a solution. So, the idea of seeking God’s help gets shoved to the back of my brain. 
 
Without a doubt my behavior is thoroughly foolish. When a particular crisis finally is over, I often shake my head in amazement and say, “I can’t believe it never dawned on me to pray. I was so focused on trying to make things right using my own skills and talents, God just never occurred to me. I’m such a bonehead!”
 
By the way, my particular problem solving “skills and talents” are so mediocre at best, it’s a miracle I get anything accomplished on my own.
 
The fact of the matter is, God is quite ready, willing, and able to help us in times of trouble. That’s what loving fathers do. They joyfully assist their precious offspring when problems arise. We are His beloved children, and all we have to do is sincerely seek Him and ask for His help.
 
The ideal situation is to turn to God in praise and thanksgiving whenever things are going right in our lives. This, of course, is proper because all of our blessings come from the Lord.
 
Then, when times are tough and we face serious problems, we need to turn to the Lord again, this time in fervent supplication, asking for His divine intercession. His Holy Spirit will calm our panicky nerves, and his supernatural power will give us strength to work through the problem until it is solved.
 
Afterward, when the ordeal has passed, we’ll be so thankful and relieved. Best of all, we won’t have to call ourselves a bonehead.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Watch Out for Email Scams

The “Nigerian Prince” email scam has been around a long time. Most people quickly delete those emails, but if you are not aware of this internet ploy, let me describe it. A criminal will send you an email claiming to be a Nigerian prince with millions of dollars he needs to transfer out of his country. If you will simply loan him $5,000 to cover international banking transfer fees, he will share his vast fortune with you.
 
Unfortunately, some folks fall for this con, thinking, “Wow, if I loan this prince five grand now, he’ll give me a million dollars next week!” Law enforcement officials estimate over $700,000 are stolen each year from gullible citizens this way.
 
This particular email scam plays on people’s greed. There are other scams that are even more insidious, which play on people’s fears or their sense of altruism.
 
Some criminals will impersonate IRS agents, either by email or telephone. They accuse the unsuspecting citizens of owing back taxes and then threaten them with arrest by the end of the day if they do not settle the debt immediately. Being marched out of your home in handcuffs by a team of federal agents is not exactly the kind of snapshot you want to post on Facebook or Instagram. And it definitely would make for a lousy Christmas card photo.
 
So, filled with fear and panic, far too many people scramble to pay the back taxes. In the process, they lose sight of the fact that in all the years they’ve filed tax returns and paid tax bills they never once were required to wire a money order to a post office box in San Diego.
 
This scam is most effective with those who are honest and law-abiding, and who always pay their bills on time. Other people are immune to this scam, those who reply to the fake IRS agent by saying, “Oh, you’re gonna arrest me today for back taxes? Get in line, pal, right behind the power company, the car loan company, and my landlord!” He then hangs up and mutters, “I’m surprised my phone hasn’t been disconnected yet.”
 
Another scam involves emails seemingly sent from someone you know. However, the crooks have hacked his or her email account and are sending their sneaky scheme to everyone in the address book. This one plays on our instinct to help friends in need. The email usually tells a tale of woe, describing a financial jam and requesting a little help, always with the promise to pay it all back right away.
 
But here’s the big red flag: this email scam almost always requests that you use gift cards to transfer the money.
 
I almost got sucked in on a scam like this a while ago. But the email message, supposedly from a friend, started out with “Hi William.” Nobody calls me William except my mother when I’m in trouble, so I knew something was fishy. Then when he requested that I buy $400 worth of Amazon gift cards and email him the serial numbers on the back of the cards, I knew the whole thing was bogus.
 
So, here’s a summary: the IRS or Social Security never request money or personal information over the phone; they always communicate with written letters via US Mail. And if someone sends an email requesting gift cards, you can be sure it’s a criminal trying to steal from you.
 
Even, for example, if your college-age son sends you an email in early December requesting a gift card for a Christmas present, just to be safe you should immediately report him to the police as an online thief. Unless, of course, he is a Nigerian prince.