Wednesday, January 22, 2020

A World-Class Napper

A good friend of mine possesses a skill that I envy very much. He has the ability to take a nap at any time and in any place. For example, we’ll be at a party, with loud conversations going on all around, plus a gaggle of kids running through the house squealing. My friend will sit on the couch, amidst all that noise, and tilt his head back slightly. Within 30 seconds he will be snoring. After a 10- or 15-minute power nap, he’ll be refreshed and ready to go for the rest of the day.
 
I am so jealous. Virtually every single day, I get bleary-eyed about mid-afternoon. A 15-minute nap would be perfect. But I only can fall asleep if certain conditions are met. First, I have to be lying down flat. Tilting my head back while sitting, even on a comfortable chair, will not work. Next, the room has to be dark. It doesn’t have to be pitch black, but if the lights are on, I won’t doze off no matter how tired I am. Finally, and here’s the reason I nap so rarely, the room must be quiet. And I don’t mean a muffled roar in the background. I mean silent, as in zero decibels.

If I’m in the process of drifting off to sleep and I hear a shrill sound — “shrill sound” being defined as anything noisier than, say, a butterfly flapping its wings — I will startle awake, and the surge of adrenaline that always occurs will guarantee that I won’t be able to fall asleep for at least the next three hours.

The only time I take naps is on the weekend. I go into the bedroom, turn off the lights, get under the covers, and hope to snooze for 10 or 20 minutes. Most of the time, however, I don’t fall asleep, usually because of some “shrill sound,” like an earthworm making a racket outside the bedroom window or a bird chirping in the neighboring town.
 
In case you’re wondering, my super-napper friend does not have narcolepsy. That unfortunate medical condition causes people to fall asleep suddenly during the day against their will. I know my friend does not suffer from this malady because recently he gave me a ride home late at night. (At our age, “late at night” means any time after 9:30 p.m.) During the entire journey home, he was wide awake.

I’m not going to say that I wasn’t a little nervous during that ride. After all, I am fully aware that he is capable of tilting his head back and being sound asleep within seconds. During the whole trip, I had my hands poised, ready to lunge to the left and grab the steering wheel. But there was no problem at all.
 
The bottom line is: my friend has an amazing skill. He can stay awake when he needs to be awake, and when the time is right for a nap, he can fall asleep instantly. As I said earlier, I am so jealous.

You might think it’s kind of silly to devote an entire newspaper column to the subject of napping. If so, I have one question for you: where have you been the past two decades? Every week this column focuses on something silly.

Also, if you think the topic of napping is silly, then you must be a young whipper-snappers, someone under the age of 55. For those of us who are, um, mature, we understand that a good nap is one of the joys of life. In fact, it’s now time for me to try to doze off. I hope the butterflies and earthworms shut up for a change.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Matthew Emphasized Fulfilled Prophecies

The Church’s liturgical year officially began on the First Sunday of Advent, right after Thanksgiving about two months ago. This current year is designated Year A, and most of the gospel readings are from Matthew. (In the three-year lectionary cycle, the Year B gospel readings are mostly from Mark, and the Year C readings from Luke. John doesn’t have an official Year, but readings from his gospel are interspersed throughout all three years, especially during the Easter season.)

As with each of the four gospels, the main reason Matthew wrote about Jesus was to prove that Jesus is the Son of God, whose death and Resurrection conquered sin once and for all and made it possible—finally!—for mankind to be reconciled with our divine Creator. Each of the four gospel writers, however, used quite different styles to prove that central point.
 
Matthew’s distinct style was shaped by the fact that he wrote his gospel primarily for Jewish readers. He knew his audience was well-versed in the Hebrew scriptures (what we Christians now call the Old Testament), and he repeatedly emphasized that Jesus’ life fulfilled the ancient prophesies. In fact, no less than 16 different times in his gospel, Matthew described something about Jesus and then used some form of the expression, “…that what had been said through the prophet might be fulfilled…”

In this week’s gospel, Matthew explains that Jesus left Nazareth and moved to Capernaum, which fulfills a prophesy by Isaiah. Now, I think it’s safe to say that it doesn’t really matter that much if Jesus began His ministry in Nazareth or in Capernaum or in, say, Waterbury, Connecticut. The important things are Jesus Himself and His mission, not whether He was in a location that was mentioned by Isaiah seven centuries earlier. (OK, maybe it would’ve been very difficult to reconcile the ancient prophecies with Waterbury, but you know what I mean.)

Anyway, this particular fulfillment of prophecy was certainly not a make-or-break issue—and Matthew never said that it was. But Matthew crafted his gospel sort of like a prosecuting attorney. He presented every possible bit of information that would bolster his case. It’s the preponderance of evidence that made Matthew’s case, and proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Jesus really was the long-awaited Messiah.
 
At some point the jury, er, I mean, Matthew’s Jewish audience, had to conclude, “Wow, what are the odds that so many ancient prophecies could be fulfilled in the life of one man? It must be true!”

As we go through this liturgical year, with most of the Sunday gospel readings coming from Matthew, be aware of Matthew’s style. He wrote for a predominantly Jewish audience and he repeatedly hammered home the point that Jesus fulfilled the ancient prophecies. If his audience had been Greeks or Romans, and thus unfamiliar with the Jewish Scriptures, Matthew would have been wasting his time. (Which may be a good reason for us to become more familiar with the Old Testament. When we better understand Israel’s long history, we can better understand that Jesus did not institute a new religion, He instead fulfilled what God had started many, many centuries earlier.)

The most important point, of course, is not Matthew’s technique, but rather his purpose for writing the gospel. He knew without a doubt—he saw first-hand with his own eyes—that Jesus truly is the Son of God and the Savior of all the world. And he knew that he simply had to spread that Good News to as many people as possible. Emphasizing fulfilled prophecy was the best way to communicate that message to a Jewish audience.
 
And the message in this week’s gospel is worth repeating: “The people in darkness have seen a great light, on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death, light has arisen.” Jesus came to conquer death and bring the light of life to all mankind. What great news! Thanks for telling us, Matt.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Insurance Ads: Lots of Mayhem, Not Much Humor

The recently concluded holiday season was a bonanza for sports fans. There were zillions of football and basketball games on TV, so you could watch at least four games each day from Thanksgiving week all the way through New Year’s.

It’s not like I’m addicted to television. I mean, I only watch TV when I’m awake. But I have to admit I did see a fair number of ballgames during that time period. (I am using, of course, the definition of the phrase “fair number” that means: requires more zeros than the national debt.)

Anyway, I noticed an interesting phenomenon while watching all those games. There are at least eight different insurance companies that run commercials during ballgames, and every ad campaign attempts to be humorous, but often falls short. (And if anybody can relate to the concept of attempted humor falling short, it’s yours truly.)
 
Here is the list I compiled:
  •  Progressive Insurance, with the character Flo, and her crew of odd coworkers.
  • Farmers Insurance, with that bald guy who I think I’ve seen on episodes of “Law and Order,” talking about the bizarre claims the company has paid.
  • State Farm, with the annoying insurance agents who apparently are roommates with a bunch of pro athletes.
  • Allstate, with the Mayhem Guy, who is constantly causing accidents for other people.
  • AFLAC, and their goofy duck character, which used to be voiced by comedian Gilbert Gottfried, until he got fired for sending offensive tweets.
  • Liberty Mutual, which runs some commercials featuring an emu (no, really) and others spots that have weird people doing weird things with the Statue of Liberty in the background.
  • Nationwide Insurance, with Peyton Manning and Brad Paisley, who appear in the unquestionably least humorous of all the insurance ads.
  • GEICO, which began the trend of funny ads over 20 years ago with their animated gecko character. Since then they’ve used a caveman, talking pig, camel, Pinocchio, woodchucks, and many other off-the-wall characters.
The production quality for these TV ads is high, the comedic actors are talented, and the humor writing is somewhat clever (except for the Peyton Manning spots, where everything about them is awful, especially Peyton). And yet, despite the huge investment of money and talent, none of these insurance commercials are all that funny. And I know the reason why, because a few years ago I taught a course titled, “The Basics of Humor Writing.” No, really, I did. It was part of an adult ed summer program in Torrington, and the six people who signed up for my class said it was life-changing. (I am using, of course, the definition of the term “life-changing” that means: almost as exciting as watching scabs heal.)

I’m going to offer you some valuable information, and you don’t even have to sign up for a summer class. Here goes: the key to all humor is surprise. This means if you see the same gag over and over again, even if it was funny the first time, by the 47th time you watch Mayhem Guy pretend to be a dog and lick Tina Fey’s face, it just ain’t funny.
 
The insurance companies should consider going back to their old way of marketing their product on TV: show a video of a house burning down, while the announcer solemnly says, “If this happens to you and you have insurance, we will rebuild your house. If you don’t have insurance, you will spend the next ten years living in a van down by the river.”

Or, they could just cut back on the weird animals, such emus, geckos, and Peyton Mannings.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

John the Quirky Baptist

In the gospel readings at Mass, for last weekend and for this weekend, we hear about John the Baptist. Last week in Matthew’s gospel, John baptized Jesus, although quite reluctantly. He said to the Lord, “I need to be baptized by YOU.”

This week, from John’s gospel (the other John, John the Evangelist, the brother of James; sometimes you can’t tell the players without a program), John the Baptist expands on his observation that Jesus is the real deal. (Um, I’m pretty sure you will not find the phrase “real deal” is Scripture, but you know what I mean.)
 
John points at Jesus and says, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. He is the one of whom I said, ‘A man is coming after me who ranks ahead of me because he existed before me.’”

John also says this about Jesus: “I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from heaven and remain upon him.” Finally, John concludes, “I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God.”

We read in Scripture that John the Baptist had a fairly unusual ministry. He lived out in the desert, eating wild honey and insects (I hear grasshoppers taste like chicken), and many people from the cities were coming out to be baptized by John. In other words, he was a little quirky, but he had developed a sizable following.

When Jesus arrived to be baptized, John very easily could’ve said, “OK, my friend, just get in line over there. And don’t forget to put your ‘love offering’ in the collection basket before you step into the water.”

John could’ve kept the focus on himself, as far too many religious professionals have done throughout the centuries. (Even though I’m not a religious professional, I admit that I keep the focus on myself occasionally. I am using, of course, the definition of the word “occasionally” that means: “99-percent of the time.”)
 
So, even though John the Baptist was loud and forceful and had a large following (without even using social media or a public relations firm!), he resisted the temptation to remain in the spotlight. He immediately stepped aside and said to the crowds, “Stop focusing on me, and instead give it up for this guy, because he is the ONE!” (I’m pretty sure he didn’t say the exact words, “give it up for this guy,” just as I don’t think he said the exact words, “He is the one of whom I said….” I mean, really, who uses the phrase “of whom I said”? Certainly not a dude out in the wilderness eating bugs.)

The point is, John the Baptist was humble enough to understand right away that everyone needed to focus on Jesus. John’s job was to set the stage—be the warm-up act that got the crowd excited—and then turn it over to the main attraction.

I’m sure it helped a great deal that John got some really clear messages from Heaven. Seeing the Spirit come down like a dove and remain on someone is the kind of event that’s hard to forget. John clearly understood that Jesus is the “Lamb of God” (which he said at the beginning of the reading) and the “Son of God” (which he said at the end of the reading).

People in first century Israel did not throw those phrases around lightly. In fact, you could’ve gotten yourself in trouble with the authorities using phrases like that. As we know, John never hesitated to speak the truth, even if it was risky. He ended up imprisoned and executed for his outspokenness.

The main message from these gospel readings is that Jesus is the ONE. He is fully God and yet fully man. No matter how talented and successful we are, we’re nothing compared to Him. John the Baptist knew that, and he quickly directed everyone’s attention to Jesus.

We all need to be more like John the Baptist. And thankfully, to do that, we don’t have to eat grasshoppers—even if they do taste like chicken.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Let Me Tell You About My Grandkid!

I’ve been writing this column for almost 19 years, and it’s not easy to come up with something to discuss every single week. At this point, I’ve written over 950 allegedly humorous essays (and based on reader feedback, at least 20 of them were, in fact, funny. If you’re curious — or a masochist — you can find many of them at my blog: MerryCatholic.com).

Recently, I’ve been wondering if I’ll make it to 1,000 columns or not, because it’s becoming more and more difficult to find interesting topics.
 
It’s true that politics provides a never-ending stream of insane activities to comment on. But the sanctimonious bloviating from elected officials these days is so infuriating, I’ve decided to steer clear of politics, just to keep my blood pressure in check.

Recurring themes over the years have included the adventures at my workplace, my affection for the Red Sox, and the completely unexpected fact that I keep getting older. However, I’ve pretty much beaten those subjects to death. And now, if I write one more time about my cranky customers, or the Sox’ lousy starting rotation, or my 3 a.m. bathroom visits, I will be the first one to fire off a nasty letter to myself.

So, it occurred to me that maybe it’s time to put this experiment to bed. I’ve said all I can say — and usually multiple times per subject. Maybe it’s time to pull the plug on this weekly column.

Just when I was getting ready to inform the editors that they should start looking for someone else to fill this space, one of my daughters called and informed us that we are going to be grandparents. Hurray! What great news!
 
After shedding some tears of joy, I grabbed a notebook and started scribbling ideas for new essays, all revolving around the theme of being a grandpa. In a few hours, I came up with 950 topics. So, it looks like you’re going to be stuck with me for at least another 19 years.

I have to admit I’ve rolled my eyes quite often whenever a friend or coworker started yakking about grandparenthood. “Um, sure,” I’d say with a forced smile, “I’d love to see another 50 photographs of your new granddaughter. After all, it’s been almost two days since you’ve subjected me to, er, I mean, shown me pictures of her.”

Also, when I would walk around town, I’d often see guys wearing hats that proclaim, “Let me tell you about my grandchildren.” I figured they must have lost a bet or were being punished for some egregious transgression. No one would wear something like that in public voluntarily, right? If so, there must be some kind of weird virus that afflicts grandparents and completely removes their self-awareness skills and causes them to act goofy. I already act goofy way too often, and my self-awareness skills are mediocre at best, but even then, I’d never wear a hat like that or harass my coworkers with an endless stream of photographs.
 
And then my daughter called. And then I cried. And then that weird virus must’ve gotten into my bloodstream, because all I want to do now is tell people about Little Monty.

By the way, my daughter’s last name now is Montecalvo, so I immediately started calling the unborn baby “Little Monty,” which makes my daughter very happy. (I am using, of course, the definition of the phrase “very happy” that means: has the urge to hit me in the head with a ball-peen hammer.)

Anyway, there are still five more months to go before he is born, but in the meantime (and for the next 19 years), let me tell you about my grandkid!!

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

A Review (or Maybe Promo): CT Catholic Men’s Conference

A few months ago, I attended the annual Connecticut Catholic Men’s Conference at St. Paul High School in Bristol. I’ve been meaning to discuss that terrific event, so this is either a review of the conference that is three months late, or a promotion for next year’s conference that is nine months early.

The best part of the conference, by far, is the simple fact that over 500 Catholic men gather in one place on a Saturday. The fellowship and camaraderie are wonderful, especially in our current modern culture, where it sometimes seems as if the last American man who took his Catholic faith seriously died of old age in 1987. OK, that’s an exaggeration, but you know what I mean: the percentage of men who are serious about practicing their faith has plummeted compared to a few generations ago.
 
As a wise old priest once said (and I wish I could remember his name), “Even if everybody stops believing in God, He is still God. The truth is not based on opinion polls.”

So, yes, God is still God, even if the majority of our population is too busy these days indulging in our consumer culture to give Him any thought. But it’s nice to gather with a bunch of fellas who know that God is God, and that the Church He founded—no matter how flawed—is still preaching the good news of the Gospel.

They’ve already set the date for the 2020 conference: Saturday, October 17th. Even though it’s about nine months away, go ahead and mark the date on your calendar, because I know you either use a digital calendar on your smart phone or computer, and you can easily scroll ahead to October; or if you are still a pen and paper kind of guy, you just received at least a dozen new 2020 calendars and it’s time to start filling in important events.
 
Besides the great fellowship, the one thing that never ceases to amaze me about the Catholic Men’s Conference is the quality of the guest speakers. I’ve attended at least nine or 10 conferences, and each year there were guest speakers I had never heard of, but then when they came on stage and talked for an hour, I was just blown away. They are such gifted communicators. Many of them were funny and entertaining, and in some cases, they were so energetic and inspirational, if you had walked into the auditorium in the middle of their talk, you’d have sworn you were at a Pentecostal revival meeting. Catholic men usually do not get that fired up—certainly not on a typical Sunday morning at the parish.

This past year, the guest speakers included Dan Burke from EWTN, Fr. John Bartunek L.C., and Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers. Each of these men gave fantastic presentations. In previous years we had Fr. Larry Richard and Catholic evangelist Tim Staples. They were fantastic, too.

In our modern, high-tech culture, people often complain that the Internet is nothing more than a cesspool of narcissism and nastiness, which is turning our brains into mush. And of course, this is undeniably true. But there are some silver linings in that vast wasteland of digital debris. If you go to YouTube and search any of the names I just mentioned, you can watch them in action. It is very inspiring.

While you’re at it, also search for other gifted Catholic speakers, like Dr. Scott Hahn and Bishop Robert Barron.
 
So, here’s our mission during the coming months as we wait for the next Conference: first, go to ctcatholicmen.org to learn more details about the conference. Next, mark October 17th on you brand-new 2020 calendar. Finally, while we’re waiting for October to roll around, go to YouTube on a regular basis and watch some of these great Catholic teachers and preachers.

Most of all, don’t forget: God is still God, and He wants us all to live our faith with joy and enthusiasm—even if the rest of our culture can’t be bothered.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Social Media: More Hot Water Than a Tea Kettle

Here’s a recent news headline: “Police advised to be careful with posts on social media.” Apparently, many cops have gotten into hot water because of foolish comments on various websites, such as Satan’s Book, er, I mean, Facebook. It’s not just police officers who are posting snarky comments that may seem funny and clever at the moment, but when read days later by the entire community, come across as completely nasty and hateful.

People in other occupations are losing their jobs, too, because of foolish posts. For example, a woman in Texas was about to start a new job at a daycare center. Before leaving the house for her first day of work, she wrote this on Facebook: “I just really hate being around a lot of kids.”

As soon as her new employer found out — surprise, surprise! — she got her wish: she no longer had a job around a lot of kids.
 
Teachers seem to be especially prone to ill-advised social media comments. A teacher in the Bronx, NY, visited the Facebook pages of his students, and when the students posted photos of themselves, the teacher would comment, “This is sexy.” The creepy teacher was fired, which is no small feat, given how hard it is to get rid of bad teachers in NYC.

Speaking of bad teachers in New York, a group of 6th graders from Manhattan went on a field trip to the beach, and tragically one of them drowned. Later that day, a teacher in Brooklyn wrote this on her Facebook page: “After today, I’m thinking the beach is a good trip for my class. I hate their guts.”

When someone responded, “Wouldn’t you throw a life jacket to [one of your students]?” she quickly responded, “No, I wouldn’t for a million dollars.”

Well, isn’t that sweet? This teacher was fired, but a New York court overturned her dismissal, and apparently, she is now back in the classroom molding the impressionable minds of the children she loves so much.

A quick internet search found stories about many teachers who posted photos of themselves on Instagram. However, since the photos clearly showed that the teachers were totally drunk but not totally dressed, there were serious repercussions when school officials found out. Also, I’m guessing the drug paraphernalia in plain sight made it a bit tougher for the teachers to plead their case.
 
Getting back to the news story I first mentioned, the warning to police officers in Connecticut to be careful with social media was prompted by a cop in Hartford. He allegedly posted a photograph of a busy city intersection and commented on all the “parasites” who live in that particular neighborhood. Then, just in case you weren’t sure about his attitude toward the people he is paid to serve, he added a suggestion that someone should “call in an airstrike.”

I think the chiefs of police in our state should not tell their officers to be careful when using social media. Instead, I think they should prohibit them from having social media accounts at all.

OK, you’re correct. That would violate a whole bunch of constitutional rights. But maybe the chiefs could let the officers know that if they insist on having personal social media accounts — whether they post anything nasty or not — they will be assigned to work only the 3rd shift and be forced to drive the clunky cruiser with no heat.

Or maybe the cops and teachers could simply realize that Facebook was invented by Satan. Well, that’s an exaggeration. Zuckerberg is only a junior demon.
 
I can think of no better New Year’s resolution than to delete your Facebook account. It just may save your job — and your soul.