Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Airbags are Great, Except When They’re Not

A few weeks ago, I described safe driving as having your hands on the steering wheel at the 10 and 2 o’clock positions. (That essay was about “Lizard Brains,” so if you can figure out how safe driving techniques had anything to do with the instinctive, impulsive part of the human brain, please let me know, because I often have no idea how certain ideas make it into this column. It must be when my Lizard Brain starts typing while I’m off looking for a glazed cruller.)

Anyway, if you learned how to drive when I did, way back when 8-track tape players were an exotic new feature in automobiles, then you were taught the classic “10 and 2” rule. That is, if you look at the steering wheel as if it were a clock, you should hold the wheel at the 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock positions. With your hands there, we were told, you have the best control of the vehicle.
However, in response to the Lizard Brain essay, an alert reader named Rich sent me an email note pointing out that the “10 and 2” rule is no longer correct. Rich explained, “The recommended position is now 4 and 8, due to the airbag in the steering wheel. If it detonates, it will most likely send your hands to your face breaking your nose or your glasses.”

I did a little research and found some information published by AAA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. What alert reader Rich wrote to me was indeed correct — although it was far from complete.

Yes, it’s true that if your hands are on the steering wheel at the 10 and 2 positions when the airbag deploys, the force could shove your arms back into your face and break your nose or give you a concussion. If that was all that happened to you, you would be getting off easy. The plastic center of a steering wheel, the part that splits open when the airbag inflates, can cause a lot of damage. Other injuries that have occurred in recent years when steering wheel airbags deployed include the following: amputation of fingers, amputation of entire hands, traumatic fractures, and an injury known as “degloving.”

Let me just say, I’ve got a fairly high tolerance for gross stuff, probably from watching too many Hollywood action movies over the years. But trust me, you do not want to look up the specifics of a “degloving” injury. No, I’m serious.
When you see commercials and the public service announcements about airbags, they always show them deploying in super slow motion. It looks like a nice fluffy pillow gently appearing, which cushions your head and chest, so you don’t bang into the steering wheel. It seems so pleasant and tender in those videos, like snuggling up with your favorite pillow for a nice nap.

In reality, superhot nitrogen gas flashes and inflates the airbag at a speed of between 150 and 250 mph. In other words, whenever an airbag deploys, an explosion occurs a foot or two from your face.

So, first off, I think we should outlaw the word “deploy” when describing airbags. It’s way too benign. Alert reader Rich’s word is far more accurate: detonate. Also, explode, blast, or KABOOM! are good.
After reading about airbag injuries, my interest in “self-driving” cars has increased greatly. A motor vehicle that will drive itself, so I can keep my hands a safe distance away from the steering wheel — preferably back in my sock drawer at home — sounds terrific.

If other alert readers have comments or experiences about this issue, please let me know. But remember, my tolerance for gross stuff has its limits.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Religious Faith Makes People Happier

Recently I heard a comedian on the radio, and he made a big deal about the fact that he was raised Catholic, but now he is an atheist. After making some snarky comments about the Church, he then said something very interesting. He freely admitted that he wished he could force himself to believe in God, because people who have religious faith are so much happier than he is.

He went on to say a few comical things about church-goers always having smiles on their faces no matter how bad the circumstances (which is not exactly true), and in comparison, how he is usually depressed, even when things are going well for him.

Now, obviously, he was trying to be funny, since that is the main goal of stand-up comedians (Amy Schumer notwithstanding). But there is a lot of truth to what he said. Religious people ARE happier than atheists. It’s just a fact.

Many research studies have proven that church-goers are happier and healthier than non-believers. They live longer and have more friends. And just in case you were wondering, these research studies were not conducted by churches or other religious organizations. In 2018, TIME Magazine (not exactly a faith-based institution) did a big story about the results of a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine (also not biased in favor of religious faith).

The TIME article quoted Tyler VanderWeele, one of the authors of the study and a professor of epidemiology at Harvard (an institution that is profoundly anti-religion, especially in recent decades). The study found that people with religious faith live an average of four years longer than non-believers. VanderWeele said, “Factors related to churchgoing—like having a network of social support, an optimistic attitude, better self-control and a sense of purpose in life—may account for the long-life benefits seen in the study.”

The TIME story also quoted Marino Bruce, a co-author of a different study that found similar results. Bruce is a research associate professor of medicine, health and society at Vanderbilt University. He said, “Having that sense that you’re not in the world alone, that you are part of a power larger than oneself, can give one confidence to deal with the issues of life. Biologically, if that reduces stress, then that means you’re less likely to have high blood pressure or diabetes or things that can increase mortality.”

The bottom line is: faith in God gives people better health, longer life, and greater happiness.

Regarding the fact that religious believers are happier than non-believers, atheists will point out (angrily) that the happiness of faithful people is based on fantasy. Churchgoers are merely soothing themselves, they’ll insist, by clinging to fairy tales about an all-knowing God who promises to give them eternal paradise if they just behave themselves now. And, of course, the comment expressed by the unfunny member of the Marx Brothers, Karl Marx, is often mentioned: “Religion is the opiate of the people.”

Some folks might be tempted to say, “If religion is a drug that makes people happier, then everyone should take a dose.” However, unlike taking a drug, faith is not something you can simply ingest or inhale or inject. You have to really believe that the doctrines about God are true. That’s what faith means: truly believing that God is real and living your life in fellowship with Him.

The great thing about Christianity is that it is, in fact, true. God is real; Jesus really rose from the dead; and eternal joy in Heaven is possible.

Maybe that sad, atheist comedian someday will come to believe in God. For the rest of us, let’s always seek the truth, and be glad that our faith in God is not only true, but it also makes us healthier and happier.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Finally Completed My ‘Bucket List’

Do you remember the movie “The Bucket List”? That 2007 film, starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson, introduced the term “bucket list” to American popular culture. It means a wish list of things you want to do before “kicking the bucket,” that is, before dying. The term “kick the bucket,” on the other hand, has been around for centuries, although no one quite knows where the expression came from.

Like many people, when “The Bucket List” hit the theaters, I made a list of things I’d like to do before dying. I’m happy to announce that I have crossed every item off my Bucket List.

No, I didn’t actually do those things. I crossed them off my list because now, 12 years later, I realize I no longer want to do any of those things.

My bucket list contained the obligatory daredevil items found on many other folks’ lists: skydive, parasail, zipline, bungee jump, and eat jalapeño peppers. Back then I had just turned 50, so I was pretty sure I was physically able to handle those activities, except maybe the jalapeño thing, which probably would’ve killed me.

To be honest, all those daredevil activities defy gravity (other than the jalapeños, which defy common sense), and I’ve never been a big fan of gravity. Well, let me rephrase that: I am a fan of gravity, because floating off into outer space would make it difficult to get to work on time. What I’m not a fan of is being in a situation where gravity might cause me to plunge downward suddenly and slam into the ground at 122 mph. So, even though I put those things on my bucket list, I wasn’t all that interested and never took any steps to make them come true.

One major item on my bucket list, however, was something I really desired to do. My goal was to someday accumulate enough vacation time to be able to take an entire month off during the summer, and then rent a Winnebago and travel all across the country going to major league baseball games. I would start on the east coast — Sox, Yanks, Mets, Phils, Nats, and O’s — and then head west toward the Great Lakes — Pirates, Indians, Tigers, Blue Jays, Cubs, White Sox, Brewers, and Twins. At that point, I would decide whether I had enough time and/or money left to cruise to the west coast. If not, then maybe I instead would head for KC, St. Louis, Texas, and Atlanta before returning home.

Twelve years ago, I really thought that would be a great “Bucket List” adventure. But now the idea of steering a raised ranch on wheels through downtown streets and spending a whole month sleeping on a 3-inch thick foam mattress while parked at highway rest areas is just not that attractive anymore.

I still have an abbreviated version of this dream, but it now involves Southwest Airlines, Uber rides, and lots of Hiltons and Hyatts. And no doubt it will require lots of Benjamins, too. Wrigley Field (Chicago), PNC Park (Pittsburgh), and Progressive Field (Cleveland) are still part of the plan, but all the other ballparks, well, I can always watch them on TV.

The other original Bucket List entries, especially the ones that involved the Great Wall of China, The Sydney Opera House, and the Galapagos Islands are just not that alluring anymore. Mostly because of how many hours I’d have to sit on a plane to get there. Again, I’ll just watch them on TV. There are great travel shows on PBS.

Unlike most people, I can honestly say I’ve crossed every item off my Bucket List. I consider it a victory — a victory for common sense.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Be Wary of ‘Savage Wolves’ in Priest’s Clothing

Do you ever get the feeling that there is a lot of dissension and conflict within the Church nowadays? Well, of course you do, because there IS a lot of dissension and conflict within the Church nowadays.

Do you ever wish the Church today was more like the Church during biblical times, when all the believers were in agreement on faith issues, and they showed compassion and love toward each other all the time? Well, if you wish for that, I’m sorry to inform you that the early Church was not all rainbows and lollipops. There was plenty of dissension and conflict back then.

We get a glimpse of this volatile situation in the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 20. St. Paul was speaking to a group of ordained priests from the city of Ephesus. After telling them to keep watch over the people entrusted to them, he offered this warning: “I know that after my departure savage wolves will come among you, and they will not spare the flock. And from your own group, men will come forward perverting the truth to draw the disciples away after them.”

So, in the so-called good ol’ days of the Church, when all believers supposedly were in agreement, St. Paul said that “savage wolves” would attempt to destroy the faith. And here’s the stunning part: he claimed these evil men would be “from your own group.” Now, don’t forget, St. Paul was speaking to a bunch of priests, the overseers of what we would call today the local parishes. In other words, Paul claimed that a serious threat to the faith of sincere believers would come from ordained priests who perverted the truth.

It pains me very much to say this, but a similar situation exists today. There are a significant number of ordained priests who have drifted far from the original deposit of faith, which was handed down by Jesus Christ Himself to the apostles and then to the Church. And I’m not talking about relatively minor things, such as whether Communion should be received on the hand or the tongue, or what style of music is appropriate for Mass.

I’m talking about really important Catholic Christian doctrines, such as: did Jesus physically rise from the dead? Is Jesus really present in the Eucharist? Does Hell exist? And especially in our current culture, does God really have any firm rules regarding human sexuality, or does He just want us to do whatever makes us feel good?

A big difference in today’s world compared to 20 centuries ago is mass communication. A priest who teaches heresy can get a large following quite quickly using Twitter and Facebook and YouTube.

At this point, many people might say, “Oh, don’t go overboard, Bill. If a priest starts teaching false doctrines, his bishop will stop him right away.” Well, don’t be so sure. Many bishops have a hands-off management style and give their priests a lot of leeway, and unfortunately, some bishops also have drifted away from clear Church teachings.

Don’t forget, in the wake of the Theodore McCarrick scandal, we have discovered that many bishops are—um, how shall I phrase this?—rather compromised, both in their personal holiness and in their acceptance of Church doctrines.

So, if this is the situation these days, what should we do? I have one suggestion: go to the Catechism. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, published in 1992, is the greatest gift given to us by St. Pope John Paul II. It spells out Church teachings in clear and simple language. If you hear a priest or bishop say something fishy, go to the Catechism and double-check it.

Thankfully, the vast majority of our priests and bishops are indeed faithful, holy men. But in this day and age, just like St. Paul’s time, we have to be very careful. There are “savage wolves” out there “perverting the truth.”

When in doubt, go to the Catechism. And then, of course, pray like your life depended on it—because it does.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Baseball, We Need to Talk

Major League Baseball knocked on the front door. “Who is it?” came a voice from inside. “It’s me, M.L.”, was the reply.

“Let yourself in. It’s unlocked.”

Major League Baseball opened the door and stepped into the living room. He was looking forward to spending the afternoon with his pal, Bob, watching a game on TV. He saw Bob across the room and started to lift his arm to wave, but then noticed there were other people in the room. He stopped in his tracks and looked around. His sister Bernice sat in a chair to his left and offered an awkward smile. Standing next to her was her husband Ben. On a couch across the room sat his mom and his Uncle Mike. They both forced smiles. To his right, his cousin Rita reached over, touched his shoulder, and said, “Hi, M.L.” Then she moved behind him and blocked the door.

“Hey, what’s going on?” Major League Baseball exclaimed. “What are you guys doing here? I was gonna watch the game with Bob.”

His mom slowly stood up, helped by Uncle Mike. She cleared her throat and said, “Son, we love you very much. But we need to talk.”

“Wait a minute!” Major League Baseball shouted. “Is this an intervention?! There’s nothing wrong with me!” He turned and headed for the door.

Cousin Rita flared out her elbows and growled, “No. You’re not leaving. Sit down and listen to us.”

“Oh, this is insane!” Major League Baseball wailed, looking up toward the ceiling.

“Son, please sit down,” his mom said quietly. “We’ve all written a short letter to you. Consider what we have to say, and then you can do whatever you want.”

After a long pause, he finally trudged across the room and sat in the only empty chair.

“I’ll go first,” his mom said, “because as your mother, I love you more than anyone ever could.” She lifted up a piece of paper, cleared her throat again, and read, “You probably don’t realize it, son, but you have become unwatchable. This obsession with home runs is ruining the game. Most of the time batters either strike out, walk, or hit a homer. And everybody seems to have a 3 – 2 count with a half-dozen foul balls. The games take forever!”

Uncle Mike unfolded his piece of paper and said, “The ball is obviously juiced. The strike zone is too small. The pitchers wait 50 seconds between pitches. And no one cares about playing defense anymore — because the ball’s never hit to them anyway!”

Bernice blurted out, “Yeah! When’s the last time you saw a double play?! That hardly happens anymore!”

“Bernice, please!” Bob said. “Wait your turn.”

“For crying out loud!” Bernice yelled. “I can’t wait!” She looked her brother in the eye and said, “Do you know how embarrassing those two games in London were?! I’m a Yankees fan, and we won both games, but I couldn’t stand it! Almost five hours for a 9-inning game?! Are you kidding me?! Who wants to watch a never-ending T-ball game?!!”

And so, the intervention continued for another 20 minutes. With every accusation, Major League Baseball offered a weak rebuttal. Then Cousin Rita started reciting hard facts about falling attendance and sinking TV ratings.

Major League Baseball jumped to his feet and exclaimed, “I’ve had enough of this! There is nothing wrong with me. Everyone loves me. People enjoy lots of scoring and home runs! I’m outta here!” He strode across the room and walked out the front door.

Uncle Mike said softly, “He’s in denial. Let him think about what we said.”

Major League Baseball’s mom sighed and said, “Well, at least football season will begin soon.”

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

The ‘Unauthorized Biography’ Tells All

Recently I read this question in a church bulletin: “How do you know that you need Christ as Savior?”

Well, for me the answer is simple. I know that I need Christ as Savior because of my unauthorized biography.

Let me explain. Typically, when a biography is written about a celebrity or sports star, there are two options, “authorized” or “unauthorized.” With an authorized biography, the subject of the book works closely with the writer to paint a rosy picture. All the good things about the person’s life are emphasized and all the bad things are minimized.

However, with an unauthorized biography, the writer does not consult with the subject. Instead, he or she interviews hundreds of people, especially the subject’s enemies, to uncover as much dirt as possible. The book becomes a salacious chronicle of all the nasty and immoral things the person has ever done. Not surprisingly, unauthorized biographies usually sell much better than authorized ones.

A couple of years ago I read an unauthorized biography of John Lennon. I assume most of the book was accurate because I did not hear that Yoko sued the author or attempted to keep the book from being published. While reading the book, I was at times enthralled and at other times disgusted by how selfish and cruel Lennon had been, especially to those who were closest to him. To this day, whenever I hear a Beatles song on the radio, I can’t help but think how unhappy and emotionally unstable he was, behind the carefully crafted image of carefree innocence during the heyday of Beatlemania.

Anyway, getting back to my original statement. I know I need Christ as Savior because of my unauthorized biography. Now, of course, I am not, nor ever will be, a celebrity or star athlete. (Unless the Red Sox finally realize they cannot live without a 62-year-old, left-handed first baseman with a good glove and mediocre bat.)

When I say “my unauthorized biography,” I mean the real story of my life without any rosy-picture editing from me. If a writer spent a full year interviewing everyone who has ever known me, from my high school teachers to my college buddies to my current co-workers—and especially my wife and kids—he or she would uncover a fair amount of dirt. (About 15 dump trucks full.)

It’s true I never did some of the things John Lennon did (or Frank Sinatra or Ted Kennedy or John Belushi or Errol Flynn, etc.), but that’s mostly because of a lack of funds and opportunity. The things I did were bad enough.

By the way, if you’ve been reading this waiting for me to describe in detail my deepest, darkest sins, sorry. That’s between me and the Lord within the Sacrament of Confession.

The point I’m trying to make is this: If I am completely honest with myself, I’ve done a lot of really selfish and cruel things in my life, and caused plenty of pain and heartache for others.

Some people claim that if your good deeds outnumber your bad deeds, then God will let you into Heaven. It’s as if God has a big score card and a pencil and declares, “Hey, you had 4,207 good deeds and only 4,206 bad deeds, so you’re in!!”

Nowhere in Scripture is that idea found. What is in Scripture is this: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” A single, solitary sin will separate us from the holiness of God. All it takes is one.

When I think back on my life, the number of my bad deeds is slightly more than one. (I am using, of course, the definition of “slightly” that means “one million times more.”)

This is how I know that I need Christ as Savior. I’m a sinner and I can’t be holy on my own. The Good News of the Gospel is that God loves us so much He will forgive us of our sins if we truly repent and ask for His mercy.

The other good news is that there are currently no plans in the works to publish an unauthorized biography of my life. (But I am a little nervous because I hear Hollywood wants to do a movie.)

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Fuddy-Duddy Advice About Tattoos

About 20 years ago, when my daughters were young, I remember giving them a very stern lecture, warning them not to get caught up in the passing fad of tattoos. I told them if they wanted to do something rebellious and weird, they could dye their hair green or pierce their noses. And if they wanted to do something completely off the wall and countercultural, they could study hard and get good grades in school.

My thinking was that dyed hair and piercings were temporary. If people later changed their minds, they could let their hair grow out to its natural color or remove the nasal jewelry and the holes would close up. But tattoos are permanent. If people later decided the image of a serpent on their neck was not so awesome after all, there would be no recourse. That reptile would be stuck there forever, and going to job interviews wearing a turtleneck sweater, especially in August, would be a real inconvenience.

Also, at the time, I was convinced that tattoos were a passing fad, and our society soon would realize that spending a lot of money and going through a lot of pain, just to have some mediocre art work imprinted forever, was not a very wise thing to do. I figured tattoo popularity soon would revert back to the narrow group of folks who dabbled in tattooery when I was a kid: bikers and sailors.

As you may have noticed, I could not have been more wrong. Tattoos are now so commonplace, I suspect that anyone under age 40 who does not have a least four very prominent tattoos is considered a weirdo among his or her peer group.

(Also, just so you know, about three decades ago, I thought that newfangled thing called the Internet was most likely a passing fad. So, make sure you don’t take my advice about, well, about anything.)

Now that it’s the height of summer, you can’t walk down the street without seeing zillions of tattoos. Some are very impressive artistically, while most are not. Some are located modestly on the person’s body, while most are not. Definitely not!

 (Again, just so you know, I hail from the fuddy-duddy region of the Baby Boom generation. These observations about tattoos are only my personal opinions, which I already warned should be ignored.)

My fuddy-duddyness aside, before a person decides to get a tattoo, I recommend doing a Google Image search for the following phrase: “Tattoo mistakes.” You will see some really stunning photos of bad tattoos, including ones with these statements forever marked on people’s bodies: “Too cool for scool,” “Nolege is power,” and “No Regerts.”

Here are additional phrases for Google Image searches: “Face tattoos,” “Too many tattoos,” and “I regret my tattoo.”

After spending time viewing all those cringe-inducing photos, if you still are excited about getting a tattoo, well, OK then, it’s up to you.

If tattoos were as popular back in the 1970s as they are today, I’m sure I would’ve gotten a few. But the trendy themes back then surely would be embarrassing nowadays. For example, some things I thought were cool back in the 70s, which might have been the images I picked for my tattoos, are Star Wars movies and Elton John.

Oh wait. They are more popular than ever right now. So, my tattoo of Chewbacca dancing on Elton’s piano still would be hip today, but not so much for my tattoo of Donny Osmond high-fiving Jimmy Carter.

In conclusion, I no longer care if my daughters choose to “ink up.” In fact, I’m going to look into getting a big 1970s tattoo on my chest: Richard Nixon singing a duet with Fonzie.