Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Major Milestone: Column Number 1,000

 Today we’ve reached a major milestone. This essay is the 1,000th humor column I have written for the Republican-American newspaper. (Although the phrase “I have written” is not exactly correct, since I’m only on the third sentence, and I’ve got to type out about 550 more words before I can employ the past tense. On the other hand, I was an Engineering major who got a C-minus in the only English class I took, so I’m not really an expert at grammatical tensification.)

My first column was published in June, 2001. I was filling in temporarily for the talented Tracey O., who was on maternity leave. The editors told me that after my eight fill-in columns appeared, they would consider making me a regular columnist if they received some positive feedback from readers. So, I guess my campaign of begging all my family and friends to send glowing reviews to the editors was successful. Or maybe when the paper lost the advertising account of Big Lou’s Discount House of Army Surplus Beef Jerky, they realized they had some blank space that needed to be filled, and it was a toss-up between using either me or Bobby Wolff’s other card-playing strategy feature, “The Aces on Old Maid.”

When an editor informed me that my humor column would be a regular feature each and every week, my first thought was, “Hey, that’s great!” My second thought was, “Oh no, I’ve got nothing written for next week, and the eight fill-in columns used up all my ideas.” That was the beginning of my delightful relationship with insomnia, and the regular episodes of suddenly being wide awake at 2 a.m., and muttering to myself, “What am I gonna write about this week? Umm, I got nothing.” 
During the first couple of years, coming up with topics was a real challenge. But since then I’ve realized there is no shortage of topics about which to write, as long as I focus on two primary sources: wacky news events and wacky personal events. And if the various events aren’t particularly wacky, I use the technique I learned in that solitary English class: I wackatize them (otherwise known as embellishment and exaggeration). The hardest aspect of this column is finding a free hour to sit down with my computer and just write. No wait, the hardest aspect is forcing myself NOT to plagiarize something really funny I read online. 

I look at this column kind of like a baseball game. If three out of every 10 essays are funny, then I’m hitting .300 and I should make the all-star team. If four out of every 10 essays are funny, then I’m hitting .400, Hall of Fame material. I understand that three successes out of every 10 attempts does not apply to a lot of activities, for example, Lasik eye surgery, landing airplanes, or trying to keep the baby from rolling off the changing table.
If you think the percentage of funny essays should be much higher than three out of 10, well, at least my average is higher than anyone playing for the Red Sox this year. (And if you’re that gentleman in Naugatuck who regularly sends me notes saying I’m NEVER funny, I recommend you visit Big Lou’s Discount House of Lasik Eye Surgery, where his success rate is almost at the all-star level.)

Anyway, I think my percentage has increased a little bit over the years as I’ve been able to develop my craft, figure out what does and does not work, and most importantly, learn how to turn my computer on. Hopefully, the next 1,000 columns will be a little bit funnier — except in a certain home in Naugatuck.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

The Antidote for Envy Is Gratitude

A while back, I discussed the Seven Deadly Sins, specifically the sin of Sloth. I mentioned that as an American living in the 21st century, I am tempted by the other six Deadly Sins, too: Pride, Anger, Lust, Greed, Envy, and Gluttony.

For example, since the COVID-19 shutdown produced a concept known as “Quarantine Snacking,” I’ve been fighting a losing battle against the Deadly Sin of Gluttony. (Actually, I haven’t been fighting all that hard. My “battle” tactics have been a lot like the French army in 1940: lay down my weapon, and then wave a white flag with one hand while using the other hand to shove a glazed cruller into my mouth.)
Anyway, although I am tempted by all seven of the Deadly Sins, I’d have to say the sin that is the biggest struggle for me right now is Envy. And number one on my Envy list are government employees who retire in their mid- to late-50s with large lifetime pensions. 

Envy is incredibly destructive. It’s the only one of the Deadly Sins that produces no pleasure at all. The other sins, terrible as they are, make the sinner feel good for a brief time, until, of course, all the inevitable negative aspects of the sin come crashing down onto him or her.

Envy makes you feel miserable immediately. There's no happiness, however fleeting, with Envy. It's pure bitterness from the very start. 

Right now our society is consumed by Envy. For example, Envy is one of the most frequently used technique in advertising, even more so than sex. Just think how often people buy things they don’t really need, just because they’re made to feel envious of others who already own the items. If people stopped making economic decisions based on Envy, they’d have a whole lot more money in their bank accounts.  
Our society is overflowing with Envy. And without a doubt, that’s a major reason why so many citizens are miserable these days. Envy drives away happiness. 

And do you know what the worst thing about Envy is? When we are envious, we completely lose sight of all the blessings in our lives. Despite the economic turmoil caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, most folks in this country still have a standard of living higher than 99% of all the people who have ever lived (and that even includes those of us who do not have lifetime government pensions).

Imagine that someone from the year 1820 was suddenly transported to the year 2020, and then spent a few days following us around. After being flabbergasted by automobiles, iPads, microwave ovens, refrigerators, and electric lights, this colonial time-traveler most likely would exclaim to us, “You live like a king. Nay, better than a king! You have an abundance of food and clothing and shelter. You can travel easily and communicate with people in distant lands. And most of all, you have clean running water and flush toilets! How can you possibly be frustrated that you don’t have enough possessions? Why are you envious of others, when God hath blessed you so abundantly?!”

Hmm, good question, Jedidiah.
The antidote for Envy is gratitude. We need to count our blessings and focus on the wonderful things we have, rather than the things other people have. It’s the only way to get rid of the bitter unhappiness Envy produces. I’ll go first. I promise to be thankful for my job (which I enjoy, and which pays me enough to cover my bills), and stop whining about government employees and their generous lifetime pensions.

And I’ll try to stay away from the glazed crullers for a while, too. 

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Can 2020 get any worse?

 “Ugh! Could this year get any worse?!”

I’ve been hearing that lament a lot lately. No doubt, 2020 has been a doozy. We’ve had the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic and shutdown, a crumbling economy, riots and civil unrest, historic statues being destroyed, and recently a tropical storm caused over 800,000 electric customers in Connecticut to be plunged into darkness. And to make matters worse, once major league baseball finally started again, the Red Sox decided to field a team that would have trouble beating the True Value Hardware Tigers from the Torrington Little League.
Whenever someone starts saying, “Could this year get any worse?!” I immediately cut them off. “Don’t say that! Please!” I exclaim. “You’ll jinx us!”

The fact is, this year could get worse. A lot worse. For example, so far during 2020, we have yet to experience an earthquake, a flood, a plague of locust, or an extinction-level meteor crashing into North America. But even if these cataclysmic events do not occur during the remainder of this year, it’s a safe bet that 2020 will get worse for one simple reason: this is a presidential election year. (If you had blissfully forgotten about the election, I apologize for ruining your day.) 

During every election since I was a kid, the experts regularly predicted, “This will be the nastiest campaign ever.” This year, I finally believe them. I wonder if there is a pill that will make me sleep for the next couple of months? I could wake up in mid-November, and it would be all over. (All over? What am I saying? The lawsuits over mail-in ballots will continue well into the new year. The winner may be decided by a Silver Fox vs. Orange Man mud wrestling contest. Hmm, I’d pay to see that.)

We have to keep in mind, no matter how bad 2020 is, it’s not the worst year ever. Back in 1968, there were assassinations, civil unrest, an unpopular war, and general chaos. I was 11 at the time and definitely not paying attention to national news. My main focus back then was trying to get more playing time with the True Value Hardware Cardinals in my hometown of Clinton.

If you think the COVID-19 pandemic is bad, back in 1918, a flu pandemic began that killed close to a million Americans. And if you think our current economic situation is dire, look up the financial statistics for the 10-year period starting in October, 1929.

For a world-wide perspective, how about the years 1939 through 1945? Referring to Great Britain's valiant struggle against the Nazis in 1940, Winston Churchill said it was “their finest hour.” But the years from ‘39 to ‘45 were definitely not mankind’s finest hour. (It’s hard to advance to the next round of the “Finest Hour” playoffs when 80 million people get killed, most of them civilians.)
The important thing to remember is that people are resilient. Whatever happens, we will deal with it. We always have, and we always will. Now, it’s true that some of us might not make it to the other side of the chaos. Some of us were not going to make it much further anyway, regardless of whether our society experiences turmoil or peace. That’s kind of what happens after a half-century of preferring Snickerdoodles and glazed crullers to broccoli and lettuce — or so I’ve been told by my doctor once or twice or a hundred times.

I’m sure we’ll survive 2020, plus whatever unexpected craziness comes along in 2021. But please don’t wake me, as I plan to be asleep the whole time — unless the True Value Hardware Little League team needs a first baseman.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Priest Discovers He Is Not Catholic

Did you see the news story back in August about the young priest in Michigan whose baptism was invalid? Fr. Matthew Hood was watching old home videos from three decades ago, and as he watched his own baptism as an infant, he noticed the presiding deacon said, “We baptize you…” instead of the correct, “I baptize you…”

Fr. Hood mentioned it to his superiors, who told him not to worry about it. But then on August 6th, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a document stating that the baptismal formula cannot be turned into a community act. In other words, using the word “We” rather than “I” makes a baptism invalid.
This meant that Fr. Hood was technically not a Catholic, which invalidated all the other sacraments he received, including First Communion, Confirmation, and his ordination to the priesthood. In true domino effect fashion, this meant all the sacraments he had performed in his three years of ministry, especially weddings and Confessions, also were invalid. The 30 couples he married during his priesthood technically are not married. And the countless people who confessed their sins to Fr. Hood technically did not receive absolution. 

The Archdiocese of Detroit quickly began the process of trying to contact everyone affected, including the untold number of people who might have been baptized invalidly years ago by the deacon who improperly baptized little Matthew Hood. This man served as a deacon for 13 years. Wow, what a mess! Fr. Hood was quickly baptized, confirmed, and ordained as a priest, so now he is fully and officially authorized to perform priestly duties.

Now, if you’re like most people, your first thought upon hearing this story is, “Wait a minute. If everyone involved sincerely thought it was a valid baptism, God surely doesn’t mind. I mean, do we focus on the letter of the law or the spirit of the law?”
Just imagine if someone confessed a mortal sin to Fr. Hood during Confession a couple of years ago. This person thought he was truly forgiven, and then soon afterward he died. When his soul stood before the throne of God, did the Lord say to him, “Gee whiz, Bob, you know what? That confession wasn’t valid. So, you didn’t receive any sanctifying grace and that sin wasn’t forgiven. Too bad, but rules are rules. Sorry, but you have to spend eternity in Hell. See ya.”

In the wake of this bizarre situation, some people actually have commented that a person like our fictitious Bob is out of luck. If the absolution offered by Fr. Hood was not valid, then the mortal sin was not forgiven, and no matter how sincerely Bob wanted to confess, repent, and change his life, he was cast into Hell. All on a technicality. 

Frankly, if that’s the way God does things, I’m not sure I want to keep worshipping Him.

When we ask the question, “Do we focus on the letter of the law or the spirit of the law?”, the answer is: yes, we do both. We focus on the letter of the law AND the spirit of the law.

We focus on the letter of the law because the Word of God is important. Jesus instituted the seven sacraments, and the Church has determined the proper rules and regulations, rubrics and rituals, required to perform the sacraments properly. 

These rules are not used because the Church wants to emulate the nit-picky Pharisees. They are used for the simple reason that if every presiding minister at a sacrament is allowed to put his own personal “spin” on the ceremony, over the course of 2,000 years all the rituals would become unrecognizable. People in Boston would be doing baptisms with clam chowder. People in Georgia would be doing the Eucharist with cornbread. And out in California, well, who knows how they would’ve modified the sacraments? The ceremonies probably would include surf boards and hang-gliders.
However, as we know, God is loving and merciful. He wants our hearts. He wants us to enter into a loving and trusting relationship with Him. If everyone involved in a particular sacrament sincerely thought he was doing it correctly, do you think God would withhold His sanctifying grace on a technicality? Does that sound like the God we worship?

 If there actually was a “Bob” who sincerely confessed mortal sin to Fr. Hood and then soon after died, we can be sure the sin was forgiven, and Bob did not get cast into Hell because of some ridiculous clerical error. 

The Lord God Almighty is all loving and caring. But we still should do the sacraments properly.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Limping for No Reason

 For the vast majority of my life, whenever I walked with a limp there was a specific reason. When I was 12-years-old, I woke up one morning and went into the kitchen. I banged my bare foot into a table leg and broke a toe. For the next few days, I had a noticeable limp. When the kids at school said, “Why are you limping?” I had a specific and concrete answer: “I accidentally banged into a table leg and broke my toe.”

When they laughed and called me a klutz, I quickly changed the story and said I broke my toe during karate class while kicking wooden planks into pieces. No one believed that baloney — mostly because they all knew I didn’t take karate lessons — but I stuck with that story because it just sounded better. The point is, my limping was due to a broken toe, and the broken toe was caused by an actual incident when my foot smashed into something hard.
Years later, I played in a football game at the Yale Bowl, and while running back a kickoff, I cut to my left just as a guy on the other team cut to his right, and when we collided, two ligaments in my knee went ka-zing! — that is, they snapped like old rubber bands.

After surgery, I had a cast on my leg from hip to toe for eight weeks. When the cast finally came off, I had a noticeable limp for quite a while. When people saw me limping and asked why, I could point to a specific event: “Well, you see, during the Nutmeg Bowl game, I tore ligaments in my knee while karate-kicking wooden planks into pieces.” (It still strikes me as a more interesting story.)

There have been other times when a specific incident caused a minor injury and a temporary limp. When we first bought our house in Torrington years ago, I learned an important lesson: never build a deck while wearing deck shoes. (You’d think the name of the shoe means you HAVE to wear them when building a deck.) Even when a small piece of 4-by-4 wooden post falls onto the top of your foot, you definitely notice it. 
However, in recent years the situation has changed. Now, I find that I’m limping and I don’t even know why. For example, a few weeks ago, I was walking around fine, no limp, and then I went to bed for the night. The next morning, I woke up and my ankle was sore. When a coworker asked why I was limping, I said, “Oh, I injured myself while having a dream about karate-kicking wooden planks into pieces.” 

I’ve never actually had a dream about karate-kicking wooden planks, but at least that weird explanation distracted my coworker from the real story, which is, I have no idea why my ankle hurt. It just did. The following week it was my left hip. Then a few days later it was my right foot. I can’t wait for tomorrow morning to find out which body part is the latest winner in the Aches & Pains Overnight Lottery.
No one warned me that senior citizenship meant that stuff will start hurting for no discernable reason. And so far, I’ve only discussed ailments that cause limping. There’s a whole list of aches and pains that occur unannounced with the shoulders, elbows, neck, and back. (Sounds like a legal ad on TV: “If you’ve been in a car accident, contact the law firm of Shoulders, Elbows, Neck, and Back.”)

I don’t know. With all these body parts getting so sore so often, I might have to give up my beloved karate lessons.

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

What Is the Gospel?

 There is only one reason the Church exists, and no, it’s not to keep stained glass artists busy. Don’t get me wrong, stained glass windows are beautiful, and our worship experience is greatly enhanced when the sun shines through those gorgeous colorful windows. But that’s not why Jesus founded the Church.

The Church was not founded for the following reasons either: to give us a place to hold weddings and funerals, to provide an opportunity to show off our news clothes on Easter, and as a destination for folks to gather and have a potluck supper. (By the way, there is no one who enjoys potluck suppers more than I do. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, there have been no potluck suppers at any nearby parishes for more months than I can count—and it’s making me very sad!)
There is only one reason the Church was founded, and that one reason is to spread the Gospel message. That’s it. Everything else about the Church—the clergy, the fellowship, the food drives for the poor, the donations that support homeless shelters, the crisis pregnancy centers, the choirs, the pipe organ music, the flowers around the altar, the stained glass windows, etc.—are all good and noble and beautiful things. But they are not the main reason for the Church.

Jesus founded His Church for one purpose: to proclaim the Gospel message throughout the world for all generations. 

And what exactly is the Gospel message? Ah, good question. We’ve gotten so caught up in all the other activities of parish life that far too many believers don’t know what the simple and basic Gospel message is.

A straightforward explanation is found in the “Four Gospel Truths,” presented by the Life in the Spirit Seminar. (Some of our evangelical friends call them the “Four Spiritual Laws.”) Here’s a summary: 
Truth #1: God loves us and wants us to live full, happy lives.

Truth #2: Human beings are sinful and separated from God, and therefore we cannot know God’s love and share in God’s life with others.

Truth #3: Jesus Christ, the Son of God, died on the cross to pay the price for our sins, and then He rose from the grave conquering death once and for all.

Truth #4: If we put our faith in Jesus and seek to follow His commands, we can have our sins forgiven and receive the gift of eternal life.

That’s it. The Gospel message could not be any simpler. The Creator of the Universe loves His creation, us. But since by nature we are selfish and cruel, we commit sins, which cause a big gulf between the holy God and ourselves. Thankfully, God loved us so much, He sent a part of His own being, His Son Jesus, to take on human flesh. (Don’t get hung up on the mystery of the Trinity. It’s a mind-boggling concept, but the main point is that God is not constrained by the same 3-dimensional natural forces that limit us here in the material world. We take it on faith that the one, eternal, almighty, supernatural God can exist in three separate persons.)

Jesus did the most amazing act of love the world has ever seen: He willingly gave up His sinless life to pay the price for all the sins human beings ever committed. Then, three days later, the most amazing miracle the world has ever seen occurred: Jesus rose from the dead, conquering the stench of death once and for all.
That’s the Gospel. That’s the message that has transformed the world by transforming individual hearts from darkness to light, from anger to joy, from hate to love, from death to eternal life. All the other aspects of Church operations—the buildings, the programs, the stained glass windows, the fund-raisers, the potluck suppers—are merely tools to help perform the one and only job the Church has: to spread the Gospel message.

If you, like many believers, have lost sight of the basic Gospel message, this would be a great time to go back to the basics. The Gospel message can be summarized in those four simple truths. And as it says in Luke’s gospel: “Easy-peasy!”

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

How Many Online Accounts Are Too Many?

 I have a simple question: How many “user names” and “passwords” are enough? Out of curiosity, I counted up all the various online accounts and memberships I have that require login information, and my current total is 93.

Ninety-three! That is not a typo. I’m kind of afraid if I reach 100, my computer is going to burst into flames.
Before I counted all my user names and passwords, I guessed that I had around 40 accounts. But when I added them up, it was more than twice that number.

Some of the passwords are work-related, such as equipment selection and pricing programs from various manufacturers and access to areas of their websites that are not available to the general public. I have about 20 of these accounts.

The rest are personal, such as websites where I make purchases online: Target, Walmart, L.L. Bean, Home Depot, Dunkin Donuts, Panera, and Big Lou’s Discount House of Surplus Military Ordnance. (I’m kidding. I would never buy surplus military ordnance over the Internet with a credit card. It’s much better off the back of a stolen truck with cash.)

Then there are the various accounts I need in order to pay for all the stuff I buy online: two bank accounts, three credit cards, a debit card, PayPal, and Big Lou’s Discount House of Payday Loans at Only 30% Interest — Compounded Daily.

I have online accounts to pay other bills over the Internet: electric company, homeowner’s insurance, cell phone, and our Internet provider. (That’s an interesting arrangement: we pay for our Internet service via the Internet.)
There are many accounts related to travel: JetBlue, Southwest Airlines, Expedia, Hilton, Sheraton, Holiday Inn, Hertz, Enterprise, Triple-A, EZ Pass, Uber, and Big Lou’s Discount House of Forged Theme Park Passes.

The rest of my online user names and passwords are related to digital communications. They include a handful of different email accounts, my blog and Mailchimp accounts, a few wifi networks, access to the online versions of various newspapers and magazines, the MLB app, YouTube TV, and social media. By the way, I only have social media accounts with LinkedIn and Facebook. And yes, I know I’ve written many times in the past that Facebook was created by Satan, but I had to set up an account recently to watch Sunday Mass being live-streamed by my parish during the shutdown. I wonder if the Prince of Darkness had mixed feelings about having his invention used to proclaim the Gospel?

Then, of course, there are the accounts I have with the four corporations that run the entire world: Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon. I think when children are born nowadays, the hospital sets up user accounts for the infants with these companies. I guess that makes sense, since it’s impossible to be a member of modern society without this quartet of digital leviathans collecting personal data about every aspect of our lives.

To keep things simple, I use the exact same user name and password for every single one of my online accounts. It goes without saying that if someone ever got hold of this crucial information, he could purchase tens of thousands of dollars worth of products and charge it all to my credit cards, plus clean out my bank accounts in a matter of minutes. So, obviously I will never disclose that my user name is billyd and my password is abc123.

Uh oh. I probably shouldn’t have typed that last sentence. Now, I have to disappear from all the creditors. I’d better contact Big Lou’s Discount House of Getting a New Identity and Dropping Off the Grid. Also, I might need some discount surplus military ordnance.