Friday, February 16, 2018

Bagpipes, Part 2: Fast and Furious Feedback

Recently, I wrote a rather scathing column about bagpipes. [See: http://merrycatholic.blogspot.com/2018/02/neighbor-wanted-pipers-need-not-apply.html] Other than a few parades and brief scenes from movies, my entire experience with bagpipes has been this: two different neighbors over the years would shatter the tranquility of warm summer evenings by practicing their pipes outdoors, less than 50 yards from my house.

In my column, I wrote what I thought were some clever and humorous comments about bagpipes. But soon after I discovered two things: first, I’m not nearly as clever as I think I am; and second, there is a vast fraternity of bagpipe enthusiasts around the globe who DEFINITELY do not think I am as clever as I think I am.

Within about six hours of that edition of the paper hitting the newsstands, approximately 15,000 pipers on six continents wished to see my head on a platter. Wow, social media can be quite an amazing thing.

I fully admit I have a bad case of snarkolepsy (which is the ability to be sarcastic, even while asleep). Sometimes that is helpful, sometimes not. This instance was definitely the latter. Therefore, I now would like to offer a sincere and heartfelt apology to all those who were offended by my bagpipe column. To paraphrase one of my good friends, forgive me, for I knew not what I did.

In the wake of my column, I received many passionate email messages. By the way, every note I received was extremely well written. I don’t know if you have to be an English major to get involved with bagpipes, but these folks’ composition skills are top-notch.

Anyway, one sweet woman told me about her husband, who was an experienced piper. Now that he is deceased, there is a great void in her life. As she explained, “Believe me, when this music is taken away from you, it leaves behind an emptiness beyond imagining.”

Another message came from a gentleman in the U.K. who is the “Ex Piper Sergeant of Her Majesties 3rd Regiment of Foot, The 1st Battalion Scots Guards.” Whoa, how did he ever fit that on a business card?

This man, unlike some other writers, was a bit more gentle with me. Instead of accusing me of malice, he (correctly) accused me of ignorance. Some of his more interesting comments included, “Irish Regiments playing this instrument? NO!!!” and, “Please! BRAVEHEART is not a factual film and there were no bagpipes at that time!”

He did refer to my column as “inane scribbling,” which I think is a clever phase, and would make a great name for a rock band. But in the interest of accuracy, I compose my essays on a laptop computer, so the phrase should be “inane typing.”

One writer accused me of being a “a narrow minded, elitist, racist, cultural purist,” and asked why I thought it was okay to attack “another ethnic group as long as they have pale skin?”

Well, in my defense, the idea of insulting a particular ethic group, however pale, never entered my mind. I was harsh toward a very loud inanimate object, yes, but attacking an entire culture? No way. Also, since my ancestors came from County Kerry, and I am the palest person you’ll ever meet, if I did attack a culture or heritage, I attacked my own.

To remedy my obvious lack of knowledge regarding this topic, I have made arrangements to meet with members of the Police Pipes and Drums of Waterbury. They promised if I learn to identify various parts of the bagpipes — including the bass drone, tenor drones, and chanter — they will refrain from shoving those items up my nose. 

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Pope Denounces ‘Fake News’

Recently, Pope Francis made an interesting comment. (Well, obviously that’s not a news flash. Pope Francis is ALWAYS making interesting comments, which invariably cause part of the Catholic world to gush, “Yippee, he’s abolishing all the rules!” and another part of the Catholic world to ask, in all seriousness, “Is the pope Catholic?!”)

The interesting comment I’m referring to was made by Pope Francis in late January during a speech marking World Communication Day. He said the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden was caused by “fake news.” I guess it depends on how you define that popular term. In recent years the expression “fake news” has been used to describe journalists who frequently twist and distort details of a story in order to promote a particular political or social agenda. It is also used to describe certain YUGE public figures who are acquainted only marginally with the concept of honesty and who have spent their entire lives as tall tale-telling hucksters.

In a broader sense, fake news can be defined as any distorting of the truth—or especially an outright lie—for the intended purpose of manipulating others. Using this definition, the fall in the Garden of Eden was indeed prompted by fake news. If you remember from the book of Genesis, Adam and Eve had a really sweet gig. They had dominion over the entire garden, and Scripture tells us that somehow, in those early days manual labor was actually enjoyable. Can you imagine?


Anyway, the only restriction concerned the tree in the middle of the garden; Adam and Eve were not allowed to touch it. So, naturally, like most humans, this prohibition made Adam and Eve downright obsessed with that one tree.

One day the serpent came along. He didn’t outright lie to Adam and Eve at first. He instead caused them to doubt what they knew to be true. He said, “Did God really say you cannot eat from any tree?” This caused them to question the Word of God. (Something that is the root of many of our problems today, if you ask me.)

Then Satan shifted to an outright lie. He said, “Surely you will not die. When you eat of it, you will be like God! It will be YUGE! Let’s make Eden great again!”

And we all know how that ultimately turned out.

When you think about it, almost everyone who has ever walked the face of the earth has been guilty of spreading “fake news.” We often are tempted to twist the facts, or leave out key details, or even outright lie, to persuade others to do or think what we want. For example, my fulltime job is in sales. Um, enough said.

In his speech, Pope Francis said that disinformation and “manipulative use of social networks” can have “dire consequences.” He said fake news ultimately leads to the “spread of arrogance and hatred.” If we look at the various discourses taking place in our culture today—whether political, social, economic, or religious—the level of anger and hatred is frightening.

The main theme of the pope’s speech came right from Jesus’ lips: “The truth shall set you free.” And don’t forget, Jesus also identified Himself as “the way, the truth, and the life.”

So, if we cling to Jesus, we are embracing the Truth, with a capital “T.” And if we strive to make truth-telling a major facet of our lives, we’ll be pleasantly surprised at just how much our spirits will be set free. Oh sure, we may not be able to manipulate others quite as easily as we once did, and we may not close that sale quite so quickly (hello, mirror!), but the peace of mind that we’re doing God’s will, will more than make up for it. 

Give truth a try. Avoiding the spread of “fake news” will be YUGE!

Friday, February 9, 2018

Once Again Winter Olympics Scheduled During Winter

Ah yes, the Winter Olympics are here, that quadrennial frozen festival where five full days of athletic competition are packed into a 16-day period. For some inexplicable reason, they decided once again to schedule the Winter Olympics during the dead of winter.

This week the opening ceremonies will take place in Pyeongchang, Korea. I’m sure Korea is a lovely country (although it didn’t look all that great on the sitcom M*A*S*H). Of course, whatever beauty the country has will not be on display during the next two weeks. Think about it: during the winter, all northern hemisphere nations look exactly like desolate asteroids, only colder. Which brings us to the primary drawback of the Winter Olympics: they are always held when it’s cold and dark and snowy. Yuck.

I had to flee from the cold and snow for a few days last month just to keep from losing my mind. We spent five days in Florida, and it was great. So, despite the undeniable truth of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, which states: “Palm trees are ALWAYS better than frostbite,” the Olympic organizers insist on scheduling this international event at the worst possible time of the year. The off-season hotel rates can’t be THAT good.

Anyway, being a sports fan, if an athletic competition is on television, I’ll usually watch. This is true even for those Olympic events that are not actual sports, such as synchronized swimming, luge, curling, badminton, and figure skating.

What’s that you say? Oh please, don’t get me started. Figure skating is NOT a sport. It’s a dance recital on skates. There’s no ball or puck or stick or goal, and there’s no opportunity to knock your opponent on his or her butt (except in the dressing room, which I hear happens quite often). So, it may be lovely and graceful and athletic, but it’s not a real sport.

Figure skating is more like a NASCAR race. All the spectators say they’re there to watch the speed and power and precision, but what they really want to see is a crash. In either case, whether slamming into the wall on Turn 3 or tumbling to the ice after a missed triple toe loop, any chance of winning is gone.

The sad reality is that all Winter Olympic events must take place on either snow or ice. If I remember correctly from high school science class, I’m pretty sure for snow and ice to work properly, a major dose of coldness is required. Who in their right mind would want to travel to a place with all the ambiance of Antarctica and then sit outside on bleachers for hours on end just to watch some guys named Fritz and Sven go zipping by on the luge track? Not me, that’s who.

I’ve never been a spectator at an Olympic event, but over the years whenever the Summer Olympics were being held — Barcelona, Atlanta, Sydney, London, Beijing, etc. — I can remember watching on TV and thinking to myself, “It must be fun to be there in person, in the bright summer sun, enjoying the festivities and athletic events.” (Except in Beijing, where the spectators were enjoying the bright summer haze and smog.)

Whenever I’ve watched the Winter Olympics on TV — Sarajevo, Calgary, Salt Lake City, Sochi, Vancouver, etc. — I never once thought, “Boy, I’d like to be there in person to experience firsthand what a 30-below wind chill can do to my nose and fingertips.”


It is the Olympics, so I’ll definitely be watching on TV — inside my comfortable living room while wearing a sweater and fuzzy slippers. With any luck some of the figure skaters will spin out on Turn 3 and crash into the wall.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Read the Whole Bible in One Year

During 2017, I did something interesting. I read the entire Bible, from Genesis 1:1 all the way through to Revelation 22:21. Back on January 1st, 2017, I downloaded a smartphone app that laid out a very specific daily schedule. By reading 3 or 4 chapters each day, the Bible can be completed in exactly one year.

To be honest, when I began this endeavor, I suspected the odds of finishing it were slim. You see, I’ve never been a very good New Year’s resolution kind of guy. For example, it is now February 2018, and five weeks ago I made a resolution to lose 10 pounds. Well, only 15 more pounds to go!

So, I’m rather surprised I completed the task of reading the whole Bible. And I’m very glad I did it. While reading the grand saga of God’s dealings with His beloved yet rebellious creatures (that would be us), I learned many things I never knew before. I also refreshed my memory on numerous aspects of salvation history that I hadn’t thought about in years. But I have to admit, my eyes glazed over on more than a few occasions, as I was more concerned about completing a particular day’s chapter assignment than comprehending the words I was reading.

All in all, it was a beneficial exercise to read through God’s Holy Word. In addition to discovering some new things about salvation history, I learned a few other important lessons. First, the Bible can be very difficult at times. It was written over the course of many centuries, by dozens of different writers, all of whom had a unique writing style. For every Luke (“This is exciting and fun to read!”) there was an Ezekiel (“What in the world is THIS supposed to mean?!”)

Also, I learned that many Bible instructors are correct when they say, “Never read the Bible from cover to cover, as if it were a novel.” If I didn’t have the daily regimentation of the phone app schedule, and instead just tried to plow through the whole thing on my own, I probably would’ve given up around Groundhog Day.

Another thing I learned is that all parts of Scripture are not of equal importance. Now, don’t get me wrong. Every word in the Bible is divinely inspired and is part of the message that God wished to communicate to us. But there’s no doubt the parts of the Bible that describe Jesus’ ministry, His passion, and His Resurrection are far more important than, for example, the details of how the ancient Israelites were to weave cloth used in the dwelling for the Ark of the Covenant. (If you’re curious, it was woven using fine linen, with violet, purple, and scarlet colors, and images of cherubim embroidered on it.)

The most important lesson I learned from my year-long exercise is that the Bible is not a self-interpreting document. It can be exceedingly confusing at times. Therefore, we need the teaching Magisterium of the Church to explain what the Bible means and how it applies to our lives.

There is a popular notion nowadays called “Sola Scriptura,” which means the Bible alone. The idea is that the Scriptures are all we need to know God and live our lives according to His will. Besides the glaring Catch-22 contradiction that this concept does not appear anywhere in the Bible, it’s not a coincidence that the people who believe in Sola Scriptura have splintered into over 40,000 different denominations and sects, with each group convinced its particular interpretation of Scripture is correct.


For 2,000 years the Holy Spirit has guided the bishops of the Church to understand and teach the message of the Bible correctly. Which is why my project for 2018 is to read the entire Catechism of the Catholic Church. Maybe by December 31st I’ll finally learn what in the world Ezekiel was talking about.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Neighbor Wanted. Pipers Need Not Apply

The house across the street from ours is for sale. In recent weeks many prospective buyers have met the real estate agent and toured the house. From our kitchen window we can look out and see everything. (Now, I don’t want you to think we’re nosy. When we glance up, we can’t help but see what’s going on over there. It’s not like we hide in the bushes and peek through their bedroom windows — at least not yet.)

Anyway, whenever we see cars pull in to the driveway across the street, and then after a brief chat outside we see the real estate agent escort people into the house, my wife and I start speculating. “I wonder what kind of neighbors they’ll be?” “I wonder if they have any kids?”

Then we start saying things like, “I hope they don’t have wild parties on the weekend.” “I hope they don’t have teenagers who work on their motorcycles at midnight.” “I hope they don’t set up a meth lab in the basement.” Then we pause, stare at each other solemnly for a few moments, and say in unison, “I REALLY hope they don’t play the bagpipes!”

My wife and I are probably the only couple this side of Edinburgh who have had two different neighbors over the years play the bagpipes. We regularly fall to our knees in deep gratitude that they did not live on our street at the same time.

Because of a bagpipes’ unique tone and volume, it is a musical instrument (a phrase I use very loosely) that cannot be played indoors. Apparently, if that happens, windows will shatter, house pets will stop breathing, and any ISIS sympathizers who might be in the building will tearfully confess every detail of their secret plot.

Therefore, bagpipes must be played outdoors. Which means the entire neighborhood gets to enjoy every delightfully melodic note (another phrase I use very loosely). For many years we were serenaded in the evening by the young man who lived across the street. He actually was a very skillful piper and was hired often to play at funerals. But regardless of his ability, we’re still talking bagpipes here, so it was a lot like listening to fingernails dragging down a chalkboard, only infinitely louder.

After he moved away, we had a respite for a few years, but then a family moved in directly behind us, and the wife played the bagpipes. The first time she set up on her back porch and started playing, my wife and I turned toward each other and screamed, “Not again!!!” (Well, at least I think that’s what we screamed. We really couldn’t hear ourselves over the overwhelming decibel level of the pipes.) Our neighbor serenaded us many evenings, although she was not a very skillful piper. But regardless of her ability, we’re still talking bagpipes here, so, it was a lot like listening to a thousand cats being shoved into a wood chipper, only infinitely louder.

In the 17th century, bagpipes became popular with military regiments. Most people assume they were used for communication, since many times the Scottish and Irish armies were marching in areas with poor cell phone service. Actually, bagpipes were developed as a military WEAPON, because the intense sonic waves were far more deadly than the average 17th century cannon.


No one has purchased the house across the street yet. The other day I said to my wife, “When someone finally buys that house, which do we prefer: meth lab or bagpipes?” Without hesitation, we shouted in unison, “Meth lab!!!” Because there were no chalkboards, cats, woodchippers, or delightfully melodic sonic waves at that moment, we heard each other loud and clear.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Prayer Is the Source of Strength

In this week’s gospel reading, Jesus spent time at Simon Peter’s house. When the local villagers heard that Jesus was in town, they brought sick people to Him to be healed. It was non-stop work for Jesus, as a sizable crowd pushed and shoved around Him all day long.

If anyone deserved to sleep-in the next morning, it was Jesus. But instead of hitting the snooze button on His alarm clock, the gospel reading tells us: “Rising very early before dawn, [Jesus] left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed.”

For Jesus, prayer was how He recharged His batteries. It was the source of His strength and power. Throughout Scripture Jesus often went off to pray—sometimes for the entire night—before important events in His life. It’s how He communicated with His Heavenly Father.

For many of us, however, prayer is more like a chore that saps our strength. I’m reminded of dinnertime a number of years ago, when my two daughters were growing up. We would all sit down at the table and my wife would ask, “Whose turn is it to say grace?”

Immediately a chorus rang out: “Not mine!” “It’s her turn.” “I did it last night.” (Then, when I was finished whining, my two daughters also would insist that it was someone else’s turn.) It was as if reciting a ten-second blessing was the same as shoveling a foot of snow off the driveway with a teaspoon.

After dinner my dear wife occasionally would suggest we gather in the living room to read a Scripture passage and then pray for a few minutes. Suddenly, my daughters developed a keen desire to finish their homework early. Suddenly, I developed a keen desire not to miss a second of “Jeopardy!” (“But honey, it’s Celebrity Championship Week!”)

Cultivating a strong and vibrant prayer life can be tough. It can be hard work, especially when we view it as a chore we have to do.

However, we have to understand: prayer is not a speech we are forced to recite. Prayer is a two-way communication with God. It’s a conversation. At the very least, we should be listening as much as we are talking.

The best thing about prayer is that God helps us even when we’re not sure of how to do it or what to say. The key is that oft-forgotten member of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, who dwells within the heart of each baptized believer.

Some verses that explain this concept:

  • “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells within you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16).
  • “…the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ” (Romans 8:9).
  • “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express” (Romans 8:26).
So, if you think praying is a tedious chore, you’ve got it all wrong. It really can be a special source of power and strength.

If your prayer life is kind of dry and dusty and in need of a jump start, don’t think of it as “praying.” Instead, set aside a few minutes each day to have an informal conversation with God. No ritual, no rote recitation, just tell Him what’s on your mind, and then listen patiently to hear what He says in reply. 

If you do this each day, before you know it you’ll be looking forward to this special quiet time with the Lord. (And if you time it right, you can be finished before “Jeopardy!” comes on.)

Friday, January 26, 2018

A Mysterious Bedtime Story

Sleep fascinates me. One of the most enjoyable moments of my day is when I crawl under the covers, fluff up the pillow, grab a good book off my nightstand, and then read approximately seven words before I lapse into a deep unconsciousness and start snoring like Fred Flintstone, complete with window curtains being sucked one way and blown back the other way.

If this is one of the most enjoyable moments of my day, it means either I really love sleeping, or I have an incredibly boring life. Now, of course, it’s not that my life is boring. My life is jam-packed with excitement and fun. For example, I often, uh, let’s see, I regularly, umm….OK, fine. My life is boring. But I still love to sleep.

The thing I find most fascinating about sleep is the fact that despite decades of high-tech scientific research, we still have no clue as to WHY we sleep. Researchers have uncovered many amazing details about the sleep process. When we are asleep, our brains are busy little beehives of chemical and electrical activity. For example, while asleep, my brain often shows movies, starring me, which is very cool, except for the one where I’m about to give a presentation but I can’t find my notes, and then I realize I forgot to wear pants.

However, when those brilliant researchers and scientists are asked a simple question — Why do we sleep? — they shrug their shoulders and say, “I dunno.”

It’s not that sleep is a minor aspect of our lives. Human beings spend approximately one third of our existence asleep. This means that I have spent a full 20 years of my life totally incapacitated and oblivious to my surroundings. (Go ahead, say it: “And don’t forget to add in all the time you were asleep, too, Bill!”)

Although sleeping is one of my most enjoyable hobbies, I actually only enjoy the first few minutes, when I snuggle under the warm covers and then drift off. After drifting off, I don’t particularly enjoy all the other hours of sleep because, well, because I’m unconscious. If I could enjoy the cozy drifting off aspect of sleep and then immediately wake up refreshed and ready to go, I’d still enjoy the fun parts of sleeping without wasting so much time.

Occasionally I meet people who insist they can get along fine with only three or four hours of sleep each night. Can you imagine that? If you need only four hours of sleep per night, it’s like having an extra two months of consciousness squeezed into each and every year, but without having to make two additional mortgage payments! Nice.

If I had that much extra time each day, I could do so many special things with it. I could take on more assignments at work, or at least finish the ones I have on time. No, wait. I already work too much as it is. I don’t want any more assignments.

I could spend more time watching television. No, wait. I already watch too much television as it is. There’s nothing good on anyway. I could do more traveling and sight-seeing. No, wait. Those are expensive activities, so I’d have to work more to get extra money, and then I’d no longer have the extra time to travel.

I could do more projects around my house and yard. No, wait. I hate doing that stuff. I’d rather take on more assignments at work. 

Well, now that I think about it, if I had an extra four hours of free time each day, I probably would spend that time doing one of the most fascinating things there is: sleeping.