Friday, August 17, 2018

Snappy Rejoinders, Part 2

Last week I wrote about “comebacks.” No, I don’t mean when famous people come out of retirement to ply their trade once again, like Michael Jordan did three times and Cher did three-thousand times (and counting). I mean witty comebacks, such as when a person fires off a clever or funny or even insulting remark at the exact right moment during a conversation.

These remarks are sometimes referred to as snappy rejoinders. Hey, I went to college with a weird guy named Snappy Rejoinders. No wait, his name was Snappy Rejowski. Never mind.

In last week’s column, I related the key parts of an episode of “Seinfeld” titled “The Comeback,” which featured George Costanza as a frustrated, high-strung buffoon. (Yeah, I know, totally out of character.) If you thought “Seinfeld” was clever and entertaining, then it’s worth looking up that episode on YouTube. On the other hand, if you thought the sitcom was tedious and narcissistic, then you still should look it up.

Anyway, as I was doing my research for last week’s column — umm, why are you laughing? Surely, you don’t think I’m this brilliant and insightful each week without some plagiarism — uh, I mean, some research involved? Do you think I know off the top of my head that the French phrase “l’esprit de l’escalier” and the German “treppenwitz” both mean “stairway wit,” that is, the clever comment that finally comes to you at the bottom of the stairs, long after the discussion is over? Of course not. The only things I know off the top of my head are baseball statistics, and since the sports page of this newspaper already has plenty of writers with batting averages and RBI data pouring from their ears, I have to write for the Features section, which means doing a little research once in a while.

And during my research about snappy rejoinders, I discovered there actually are people whose job description is “Improv Consultant.” That’s right, these people get PAID to help clients become more adept at firing off witty comebacks. One such improv consultant is Jim Tosone, who developed a program called “Improv Means Business.” Another improv expert is Belina Raffy, the CEO of a company called Maffick. She, too, helps business people sharpen their clever comment skills. 

Improv experts focus on three main areas. The first is not to think too much. (If that’s true, then most of our modern culture is well on its way to success!) Raffy says people should not overthink a situation. Just listen to the other person, be in the moment, and fire off whatever comment feels right.

The second area is to develop your spontaneous mental muscle. Many professional comedians write down and memorize dozens of insults and clever comments, so they have a full arsenal of wisecracks at the tip of their tongue. The improv experts want normal business people to do the same. Reading some of the legendary comments made by Winston Churchill or W.C. Fields is recommended, along with watching episodes of clever sitcoms like “M*A*S*H” (or “Seinfeld”) and taking notes.

The third area is to work at muzzling your inner critic. This means to ignore those inhibitions or internal judgments we all make, while trying to discern if a comment is funny or offensive. The experts encourage their clients to suppress these cautionary feelings and just blurt out whatever pops into their heads.

I honestly can’t imagine how these clients are able to pay the improv consultants’ fees. Because if they truly follow these three steps, they’ll be fired (or indicted) by the end of the week. I’ve never heard of such nutty advice. It makes people like George Costanza and Snappy Rejowski seem normal.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Faith Adds Years to Your Life

A recent study published in the journal “Social Psychological and Personality Science” found that people who are religious live an average of four years longer than people who have no ties to religion.

A smart-aleck friend of mine made this comment: “Religious people don’t live longer; it just SEEMS that way because church is so boring.” Ha ha, very funny.

The researchers at Ohio State University were quite surprised at the findings, and they were not sure exactly why average lifespans increased so much for folks who are involved in their churches.

Maybe religious believers live longer because faith in God helps people cope better with the stresses of life. Or maybe it’s because if a person knows he’s going to church on Sunday morning it makes him less likely to stay out until the wee hours carousing on Saturday night. Or maybe the reason religious people live longer is because church potluck suppers serve only health food. Um, wait a minute. The church potluck suppers I attend serve the greasiest and fattiest—and tastiest!—food imaginable. So, it can’t be that.

Well, whatever the reason, it’s nice to know that faith in God and regular church attendance can increase a person’s longevity.

The government passes many laws and imposes countless regulations, which are designed to improve the health and safety of citizens. Some examples include seat belt laws, prohibitions against smoking in public areas, outlawing the use of certain toxic chemicals, and laws that prohibit the sale of alcohol and tobacco to minors.

Maybe it’s time for our politicians to pass a law that requires everyone to attend church each week. After all, if it adds an average of four years to people’s lifespans, it seems like the perfect opportunity for legislators to improve the health of the American public.

I think I’ll contact Senators Blumenthal and Murphy and demand they propose a bill that forces people—in the name of health and safety—to go to church every week.

OK, OK, I’m kidding. I would never do that. Our poor secular senators would probably have nervous breakdowns.

You see, I’m a big fan of the First Amendment’s freedom of religion, which of course, gives people the freedom not to practice religion if they choose. Throughout history, whenever societies forced people to get involved with religion, bad things usually occurred.

Besides, faith is not the kind of thing you can force a person to have. Faith in God is a lot like falling in love. It happens because of a powerful attraction, along with much hope and joy. Also, God is a gentleman who never forces Himself on us. He longs to be in a loving relationship with us, but ultimately, we must decide if we will enter into the relationship.

In addition to the benefit of living on average four years longer, faith in God can give us the most awesome benefit of all: eternal life in Heaven. That’s the real reason religion exists, to help us enter into a faithful relationship with the Lord, which is the path to eternal life. To paraphrase what St. Paul wrote to the believers in Corinth, if Christ has not been raised from the dead, then our faith is in vain and Christians are the most pitiful people of all.

However, Christ did rise, and He promised that if we put our faith in Him, we too can rise to eternal life. So, the four extra years of life here on this earth are a bonus. But dwelling in God’s heavenly kingdom forever is the real prize. In the meantime, feel free to indulge during those yummy church potluck suppers. Apparently, no matter how greasy the sausage and peppers are, we’re still going to live longer because we have faith!

Friday, August 10, 2018

The Comeback Kid

Have you ever been in a conversation and the opportunity arises for you to offer a really clever comment, but unfortunately the clever comment does not occur to you until about 20 minutes later?

Sure, we’ve all been there. The meeting has concluded and you’re on your way back to your cubicle. Or the person you’ve been speaking to has already said goodbye and left. Or you’re driving home, and suddenly your brain says, “Ooh ooh, I got it! If you just say THIS in reply to THAT, it will be so funny!” The only problem is, the moment for your witty rejoinder has come and long gone. It’s way too late now to employ your brilliant comeback.

There is a phrase that describes this situation: “l’esprit de l’escalier,” or in English, “the wit of the staircase.” French philosopher Denis Diderot came up with this phase after getting into an argument at a party. He was angry and flustered during the argument, and he didn’t begin to think clearly again until he had gotten to the bottom of the stairs.

In doing a little online research, I could not discover whether Diderot ran back up the stairs, located his adversary, and proclaimed his clever comeback. I hope he did not do that. The only thing worse than thinking of a witty comeback far too late is to say it out loud anyway after the moment has passed. When you can’t think of anything clever to say, you look like a dimwit. But when you return 10 minutes later and blurt out your witty reply, you look like a dimwit with serious emotional problems.

There was an episode of the sitcom Seinfeld called “The Comeback.” During a business meeting, hapless George Costanza is wolfing down free shrimp, and a coworker says, “Hey George, the ocean called. They’re running out of shrimp!” George becomes flustered and humiliated as everyone in the room laughs, but he can’t think of anything to say.

Only while driving home does George think of a reply, but it’s too late. The rest of the episode shows George frantically scheming to attend another meeting with the same person — including paying for a huge bucket of shrimp — so he can launch his clever comeback. Because it’s George, of course, it backfires big time.

The Germans have a similar term, “treppenwitz,” which also means “the wit of the stairs.” However, over the years the German phrase has evolved to mean the exact opposite, that is: something said in an attempt to be clever, but which is actually very rude and offensive.

This is what happened to George in the Seinfeld episode. He flies to Ohio to sit in on a meeting he really doesn’t need to attend. He brings an expensive bucket of shrimp and starts chowing down hoping to provoke the same comment from the same coworker. When the coworker obliges and says, “Hey George, the ocean called. They’re running out of shrimp!” George triumphantly stands up and exclaims, “Oh yeah? Well, the jerk store called, and they’re running out of you!”

For a few moments, George basks in his victory, until the coworker nonchalantly replies, “What’s the difference? You’re their all-time best-seller.”

Everyone in the room starts laughing and George turns red. Recalling an inappropriate suggestion from his oddball friend, Kramer, George blurts out, “Oh yeah, well, I slept with your wife!”

Oops. Treppenwitz.

The room goes silent, then someone whispers to George, “His wife is in a coma.”

Oops. Major League treppenwitz.

So, maybe we should just follow the advice our moms gave us when we were kids: If you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything until the jerk store calls.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Who’s Watching? Big Brother or Heavenly Father?

These days we hear a lot about surveillance video. The technology has improved so much, there are now tiny security cameras everywhere. Police have dashboard cameras and body cams. Most public buildings have dozens of small cameras recording everything that happens from multiple angles. More and more people are installing security cameras in their homes. And, of course, almost every time someone does something foolish, somebody else is standing nearby with a smart phone, recording the incident. If the behavior is especially embarrassing, the video will be posted to social media and by dinnertime approximately 50 million people will have seen it.

Conventional wisdom is that surveillance cameras provide information: who did what and when. In the context of law enforcement, this makes sense. If something is stolen or vandalized, or if someone is assaulted, we want to bring the perpetrator to justice.

Additionally, behavioral scientists tell us when people know their actions and words are being recorded, they act differently. They are more likely to be on their best behavior.

People being on their best behavior because they are being watched is not really a new phenomenon. Throughout history many people have modified their actions and words because they were being watched—watched be God.

Now, don’t roll your eyes. Think about it. What do we as Christians believe? We believe our Heavenly Creator is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. That is, all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-present. You think the surveillance system down at the bank is sophisticated? It can only record what we do and say. But God is aware, not only of those two things, but also of what we think! God can read the human heart and mind.

Speaking on behalf of sinners everywhere, I have first-hand knowledge that the human heart and mind are not exactly wonderful all the time. God being aware of our every thought, word, and deed can be a rather uncomfortable concept.

But the thing is, it should not be uncomfortable. You see, God is not the Big Brother of Orwell’s nightmarish police state. God is not spying on us to gather evidence so that we, the perpetrators, can be brought to justice. God is instead our loving Father. He knows what we are doing because He is God (that’s just part of the job description; He knows everything!), but since He is our loving parent, He longs for us to become more holy and good.

God wants us to grow in faith and love, and to become less selfish and cruel. When we sin—even if no other human being knows about it—God is not looking to condemn us. He wants to forgive us and send us forth with the words of Jesus: “Go and sin no more.”

This fact should make us more comfortable, rather than the modern high-tech surveillance society, which often makes people paranoid.

Think of that sappy song by Bette Midler, “God Is Watching Us.” When that song comes on the radio, no one changes the station because the idea of God watching us causes paranoia. (However, a person might change the station because they’ve had their daily quota of schmaltz.) The song lyrics say God is watching us from a distance. To be theologically correct, God is a lot closer than that. When we were baptized, the Holy Spirit—a Person of the divine Holy Trinity—came to dwell in our heart. So, God is watching us from as close as you can get, from right inside us.

They say character is defined as what you do when no one is watching. In our modern surveillance society, it seems that a security camera is watching most of the time. This may cause some people, out of fear, to act better. But people of faith have always known that our Heavenly Father is watching. We should strive to live holy lives all the time, not because we’re afraid of getting in trouble, but because it’s simply the right thing to do and it pleases the Lord.

Friday, August 3, 2018

The Travail of Traveling

“Hey Bill, you should go to that national sales meeting in Dallas next month,” my boss recently said to me.

Oh no, the only way to get to Dallas is to travel. And traveling means planning and packing and long security lines and dragging a suitcase through the airport and uncomfortable airplane seats and needing to use the airplane bathroom but then realizing we’re making our descent into DFW and no one is allowed to leave their seat during descent which means doing a painful leg-wiggling tap dance for the next 25 minutes until I can get off the plane and run to a men’s room in the terminal. Traveling also means getting lost in an unfamiliar city and lumpy hotel mattresses and dozing off during meetings because of a lack of sleep due to the lumpy mattress and going out to dinner with a bunch of obnoxious salesmen from Illinois and hotel wake-up calls that never happen and frantically shaving while in the shower and running to meet the shuttle bus with a hunk of toilet paper on your chin to stop the bleeding and then realizing you left your cell phone charger in the hotel room — again. And at that point, the whole painful cycle repeats itself for the journey back home.

The dictionary says the word “travel” originated during the Middle Ages in northern England, coming from the word “travail,” which means to toil, or to labor. So, the original meaning of travel is, “To make a laborious and painful journey.” Even 700 years ago, they understood that going to Dallas for a national sales meeting was sure to be a royal pain in the butt. There were no fun and games involved with traveling back in those days, and there are no fun and games involved with traveling nowadays.

For the past few months people have been asking me, “Where are you going on vacation this summer, Bill?”

When I reply, “Nowhere,” they say, “Oh, you’re not taking vacation this year?”

Then I say, “I didn’t say that. I’m taking time off, but I’m just not going anywhere.”

“How come?” they ask. To which I reply, “Because I want my vacation to be ENJOYABLE!”

OK, maybe I’m exaggerating a little. My wife and I have traveled on vacation fairly often over the years, and we usually enjoyed ourselves. But as the years go by, it seems like traveling is more and more becoming travailing. It’s turning into a genuine northern England Middle Ages laborious and painful toil. On my next trip, in addition to airport terminals, lumpy mattresses, and lost cell phone chargers, I won’t be surprised if I encounter oxcarts, bow and arrow-wielding bandits, and the occasional outbreak of bubonic plague.

Because traveling has morphed into travailing in my mind, I’m amazed at friends who excitedly tell me of their retirement plans. “Oh, it’s gonna be great, Bill!” they exclaim. “As soon as I retire, the missus and I are going to travel the entire country for at least six months!”

“Why?” I ask. “Do you want to keep experiencing the toil and drudgery of work?”

I bet after they return from that six-month retirement saga, he’ll be saying, “I’m so tired! I need to go back to work fulltime so I can get some rest!”

Luckily for me, a lot of financial procrastination during the past three decades means I won’t have to worry about retiring any time soon. I can relax and enjoy my 50 hours per week at the office. No risk of running into oxcarts, bandits, or bubonic plague for me. Unless, of course, they send me to Dallas again.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

‘Nitty Gritty’ Life and the Sacraments

The men’s group at my parish is doing a summer program called “The Bible and the Sacraments.” It’s very interesting and informative, and no, contrary to popular opinion, I’m not attending these sessions only because they feed us breakfast. That’s a nasty rumor started by, um, by everyone who knows me.

 Anyway, one of the presentations used an interesting phrase to describe our situation here on earth: “nitty gritty physicality.” This is the main reason the Lord instituted the sacraments. He offers us supernatural grace, but does it using natural elements, such as bread, wine, water, and oil.

We have to remember some things about our Creator and ourselves. As Scripture tells us, God is an eternal spirit. But He chose to create a natural, material universe, including our little planet. All the things on earth are material and physical, 100-percent natural.

The only exception is mankind. God, in His wisdom and by His love, created us with natural, physical bodies, but also gave us immortal, spiritual souls. Of all the beings in the universe, we men and women are the only “hybrids.” (And you thought the Toyota Prius was the first hybrid.)

God and the angels are all purely spiritual. The dirt and the grass and the animals roaming the forest are all purely natural. We human beings are both; we are part material and part spiritual, part natural and part supernatural. We are souls that have been enfleshed with physical bodies, or if you prefer, we are physical bodies that have been infused with eternal souls. This makes us unique.

Although we have eternal souls, oftentimes our souls are spiritually weak. God wants us to be in a strong spiritual relationship with Him, but we often focus all of our energies on the material aspect of life and neglect the spiritual component. The daily grind of life is “nitty gritty physicality.” Thankfully, God understands our weaknesses. He knows that we struggle with the spiritual part of our “hybrid” existence.

To help us draw nearer to Him, God makes His spiritual grace available to us through the part of our “hybrid” selves that is stronger: the physical, natural part. When God gives us His grace by way of the elements of earth, the Church calls it a sacrament, something sacred.

The Incarnation itself was the greatest example of God coming to us in a way we could better understand. The Second Person of the divine Trinity, Jesus Christ, did not take on human flesh just because He was curious about what it was like to be a man. No, He became a human being for our sake. He lowered Himself (completely humiliated Himself, actually) by entering into our natural, physical, nitty gritty, grimy, painful world. He did it because He knew human beings can relate more easily to natural things rather than spiritual things.

It’s God’s way of meeting us halfway. Sure, if God so chose, He could have hidden Himself away in the farthest reaches of Heaven and waited for us to become so spiritually enlightened that we ignored all the physical, natural aspects of our existence and entered into a vibrant and powerful spiritual relationship with Him. Throughout history some of the greatest saints and mystics have been able to do exactly that. But those folks are rare and special cases. For the rest of us, the natural, physical world is what smacks us right in the face every day; it’s what we can see and hear and smell and touch and taste.

So, the natural aspect of our lives, our “nitty gritty physicality,” is the main reason God gave us the sacraments. And one of the most nitty and gritty physical aspects of my life is breakfast, which is served when our parish men’s group gets together. You know, our study of “The Bible and the Sacraments” is so interesting, I would attend even if they did not feed us breakfast. Probably.

Friday, July 27, 2018

The Stain Conspiracy

A few weeks ago at a charity golf outing, I won a really nice raffle prize: a brand new white golf shirt. It looked just like something you’d see a professional golfer wear on TV. I tried it on and it fit perfectly. I felt just like a sweet-swinging tour pro, right up until the moment I grabbed a club and took a practice swing. Then I instantly reverted back to my old self, the left-handed lunging hacker. (Wouldn’t “Left-handed Lunging Hackers” make a good name for a rock band?)

Anyway, as I was enjoying fantasies of hitting the ball long and straight, engendered by my sparkling new white shirt, unbeknownst to me a series of urgent messages were being communicated across a high-speed network. The first message sent was this: “Whoa, the guy who got a C-minus in Freshman English just wrote the words ‘engendered’ and ‘unbeknownst’ in the same sentence. Whose work is he plagiarizing now?”

Unlike the plodding and congested Internet, with which we’re all familiar, this little-known network uses no wires and no computer servers. It operates exclusively with instantaneous telepathic thoughts shared between inanimate objects. As soon as I claimed my raffle prize, an observant bottle of ketchup at the banquet facility sent a message to his cousin, the bottle of ketchup in my refrigerator at home. Here is the message that was sent: “Alert! He just got a brand new white shirt!”

That bottle of ketchup then promptly sent out the word to other items in my house: the bottle of mustard to his immediate right, the coffee mugs in a cabinet above the sink, and the jar of spaghetti sauce on a shelf next to the oven. Everyone leaped into action. Both the ketchup and mustard bottles started forming crusty films at their tops, which would prevent anything from exiting smoothly. Then they started inhaling to build up pressure within each respective container, sure to cause a sudden and violent discharge.

The coffee mugs shifted on their shelf, clearing a path for one mug in the far reaches of the cupboard to make its way to the front. This long-forgotten mug has a slight crack on the rim, perfect for allowing coffee to trickle out and dribble down the side of the mug and onto the drinker’s chest.

The jar of spaghetti sauce took no action, other than offering a knowing smile. He understood there was nothing special to prepare, as the left-handed lunging hacker’s eating habits were just as hurried and awkward as his golf swing. As the various objects made preparations, high-pitched giggling filled the kitchen.

Other items in the vicinity were copied as the urgent messages flew back and forth. Many offered to assist if needed. The Chevy Equinox began to form a film of tree pollen and dirt on its radiator grille, and placed an isolated clump of dried leaves on the center of the hood, strategically arranged to attract someone to lean over and brush them off. Oily rags sitting high on a shelf in the garage unfurled themselves so that the oiliest edge was now hanging down at shoulder height right by the doorway connecting the garage to the basement.

Needless to say, within one week of winning that shiny new white golf shirt, I was standing by the washing machine, frantically rubbing a stain-remover onto various red, yellow, and brown splotches. A half-hour later, when I pulled the shirt out of the washer and held it up, colorful smudges still were quite visible. I shrugged my shoulders and said to myself, “Oh well, I guess I can still wear this while working around the yard.”

At that moment, I swear I heard high-pitched giggling.