Friday, December 14, 2018

No One Gives Me Any Credit

A couple weeks ago I had a very strange experience. For seven straight days no one would give me any credit. No, I don’t mean that nobody acknowledged when I accomplished something. For example, at work, in reply to this bellowing inquiry, “Who the hell typed up this quotation and forgot to include the freight charges?!” multiple coworkers were always ready to give credit where credit is due and say, “Oh, that was Bill.”

And around the house, if all the dishes and pots and pans are sparkling clean and someone asks, “Who cleaned up the kitchen?” a family member will quickly say, “Dad did it.” (This scenario is mostly theoretical and describes something that may possibly occur in the future. But I’m confident that if and when it does happen someone will give me credit — right after being revived after passing out from shock.)

Anyway, when I say no one would give me any credit, I mean I went seven full days without a credit card. You see, something weird happened with our MasterCard account. Apparently, someone tried to hack into it, but before they could purchase anything, the credit card company detected unusual activity and froze the account. They contacted us and said they needed to cancel those cards and issue us new cards with a new number.

OK, fine, I thought. We certainly don’t want to be victims of identity theft — again. The last time that happened about five years ago, it was rather awkward. Someone stole my credit card number and used it to buy $10,000 worth of merchandise from an X-rated video store in Georgia. At the time the geniuses at MasterCard didn’t think that was unusual activity for me. (So, now you see why I describe that episode using the phrase “rather awkward.”)

Going without a credit card for a week or so didn’t seem like a big deal to me. After all, my wife has a couple of other credit cards. (By the way, she is allowed to have more than one, partly because she is the family C.F.O. and mostly because she is the one person in this marriage with a track record of NOT making impulsive purchases.) So, if we needed to buy something, we could just use one of her other cards. I hardly use my credit card anyway, I reasoned.

But then reality set in. My “reasoned” analysis was disproved by two things: first, my wife, who pays the bills, pointed out that I always use my credit card at least five or six times per week; and second, I experienced severe withdrawal symptoms every time I drove by a Walmart, Target, Staples, or Dick’s sporting goods store.

To make matters worse, all this occurred less than a month after the Red Sox won the World Series, and I’m pretty sure it’s right in the U.S. Constitution that all true fans must show their loyalty by purchasing every new championship hat, shirt, jacket, and commemorative beer mug that hits the store shelves, right?

Also, this happened right after Thanksgiving week, the time when the Christmas shopping season kicks into high gear. When it dawned on me that all of the online retailers I frequent — such as Amazon, and, uh, Amazon, and, um, occasionally Amazon — no longer have a valid credit card on record, I started to panic.

Somehow, I survived those seven painful days. Although during that time period the stock market took a big hit. Probably a coincidence. But now I have a brand new activated MasterCard in my wallet, so I think it’s safe to say the U.S. economy will continue to stay strong, at least until my wife opens the next credit card statement in January.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Christmas Pageant Brings Comfort and Joy

One of the best aspects of the Christmas season is the parish Nativity pageant. It also goes by other names, such as Christmas pageant, Nativity play, or Les Misérables (which describes the parents who have to explain to the pastor why they thought it was a good idea to bring live farm animals into the church sanctuary, one of whom just deposited some steaming tidings of comfort and joy right on the new carpeting).

The format for most Christmas pageants is similar. The younger children in the parish C.C.D. program volunteer to play the parts, oftentimes volunteering just like privates in the army when a sergeant points at them and says, “Congratulations, you just volunteered!”

There are many important parts in the play, none more crucial than St. Joseph. Although he has no lines and does not move from his spot next to the crèche, it takes a very special fourth grade boy to play this part. He must have a dignified appearance; he must refrain from suddenly running over to inspect the steaming pile of comfort and joy deposited by the farm animal, as all the other impulsive fourth-grader shepherds just did; and most of all, he must resist the urge to die of embarrassment while sitting right next to a fourth grade girl playing the part of his wife, who no doubt is infected with a severe case of the dreaded “cooties,” while all his shepherd friends point at him and giggle.

The role of Mary is important, too. Especially if one of the parents, usually the same parent who thought the live farm animals was a good idea, decides it would be wonderfully authentic if the part of Jesus is played by a real live human infant rather than a toy doll. Therefore, the fourth grade girl who plays the part of Mary not only must exude holiness, she has to know how to hold an infant without giving him whiplash, and how to keep her cool when the little tyke starts screaming at the top of his lungs—which definitely was not in the script, but you know how temperamental three-month old show business celebrities are.

When the infant starts screaming and flailing, the actual mother of the child, who has been nervously waiting in the wings wondering how she ever let herself be talked into this, tip-toes out to the center of the action to try and calm her baby. For some reason, adults who need to assist wayward junior thespians during the middle of a performance think if they tip-toe and bend at the waist while on stage then no one in the audience can see them. They are wrong.

The climax of the action occurs when the final three actors make their grand entrance. That’s right, it’s time for the Magi, the Three Kings, bringing their gifts of an empty shoebox wrapped in gold paper, an empty shoebox wrapped in silver paper, and an empty shoebox wrapped in the Sunday comics.

The great thing about parish Nativity pageants is that no matter how much the performance deviates from the script, no matter how much the farm animals or infants or distracted shepherds try to steal scenes by ad-libbing, the show is always a rousing success. This is because the story itself is so compelling: the Creator God of the Universe decided to take on human flesh in order to save mankind, and He did it in the most unexpected and humble manner.

So, make sure you attend your parish’s Nativity pageant this year. And watch out for that steaming pile of comfort and joy.

Friday, December 7, 2018

AARP Hates Birthday Parties

Earlier this year I finally joined AARP (The American Association of Rickety Persons). This makes me an official AARP-er, emphasis on “P-er,” especially at 2 a.m.

One of the main goals of the organization is to keep senior citizens healthy, and they contribute to this goal by sending every member about 75 pounds of mail each day. All that weightlifting certainly builds up elderly muscles, but an unfortunate side effect is a spike in worker’s comp claims by mail carriers.

AARP also likes to keep its members informed with regular email messages, approximately 75 pounds worth each day. (And this is rather hard to do, since emails don’t actually weigh anything.)

I recently received an email from AARP with the subject line — wait, let me rephrase that. I recently received 900 emails from AARP, one of which had a subject line that read: “Find Out What Really Sabotages Weight-Loss Efforts With This Quiz.”

My first thought was: “I already know what sabotages weight-loss efforts — shoveling food into my mouth.” But I was curious, so I clicked on the link and started taking the test. Here’s the very first question:

“It’s your grandson’s first birthday, and your daughter-in-law baked gorgeous cupcakes. You don’t want to offend her, but you also know you should not have one. What’s your strategy?”

I really don’t want to quibble, but I must. I have neither a grandson nor a daughter-in-law. News reports constantly tell us that huge organizations are compiling tons of personal data about everyone. If this is the case, why couldn’t AARP come up with a quiz that was more tailored to my personal situation?

OK, quibble time is over. Here are the four possible cupcake answers: 1) Put one on your plate just to be polite. 2) Tell her they’re beautiful, then politely say, “No thank you.” 3) Eat just the frosting. 4) Eat just the cake.

Well, now I know the quiz was not tailored to my personal situation, because there was no answer number 5: Eat four of the cupcakes and promise not to be a pig tomorrow.

I mean, think about it. This is my beloved (fictional) grandson. How many other times is he going to have a momentous first birthday party? This is the one and only opportunity to share in his joy. And AARP wants me NOT to partake of the gorgeous cupcakes lovingly prepared by my (fictional) daughter-in-law? Are they really in favor of family strife? Do they really want my (fictional) daughter-in-law to resent me for the rest of my life? They should be ashamed of themselves. (By the way, the quiz said answer #2 is correct.)

Here is one of the other quiz questions: “A few of your friends want to take you out for your birthday, but they tend to have big appetites. What’s the best way to avoid overeating with them?”

And here are the possible answers: 1) Pick a healthy restaurant. 2) Suggest instead an outing that doesn’t involve food, like a round of golf or a movie. 3) Go to a restaurant that has something for everyone — burgers for your friends, salad for you. 4) Any of the above.

The correct answer, according to AARP, is answer number 2: suggest an outing that doesn’t involve food.

So, two out of the nine questions on this cockamamy quiz directly attack the cherished tradition of celebrating birthdays. That’s so sad. These AARP “experts” are actually discouraging us from enjoying our (fictional) grandson’s first birthday — and insulting our (fictional) daughter-in-law in the process. And they’re telling us we can’t let our friends (fictional, in my case) take us out for a birthday lunch party.

Now I know what AARP really stands for: The American Association of Rotten Parties.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

A Special Season

It is early December, which means we have entered a special and festive and joyful season. We are once again in the season of … Advent.

Advent?! Who pays any attention to Advent anymore? Our entire American culture has been going bonkers for the Christmas season since about 2 p.m. on Thanksgiving afternoon. (This doesn’t include the retail industry, of course, which started focusing on Christmas the minute the Back-to-School sales ended on Labor Day weekend.)

Well, if we’re Catholic, we should pay attention to Advent. Advent is an entire season of its own. It’s the season before the season. And just like Christmas, Jesus is the reason for the season. (Actually, Jesus is the reason for ALL seasons.)

The word Advent means “coming.” We await the coming of the Lord, both His first coming, which we celebrate on Christmas Day, and His future Second Coming, which is the theme of the Gospel readings at Sunday Masses during Advent.

If you’re like me, when you attend Sunday Mass during December, you expect the gospel reading to touch on those famous biblical Christmas themes: such as Jesus’ birth in the stable, Santa Claus and Rudolph, the Red Ryder BB gun, Ebenezer Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Past, etc. (Hmm, maybe my cultural Christmas themes have been getting mixed up with the real biblical Christmas themes. Might be time for me to crack open a Bible again.)

Anyway, our culture has it all wrong. Nowadays, the Christmas season begins in earnest during halftime of the Detroit Lions football game on Thanksgiving afternoon. Then it continues at a feverish, frantic, and over-indulgent pace right up until the morning of December 25th. And in many people’s minds Christmas is over as soon as the last gift is opened—which in some households occurs at about 5:45 a.m. (The season of “How am I going to pay these bills?” begins in mid-January when the credit card statements arrive in the mail. This is followed in early February by the season of “Did I really spend twelve-hundred bucks on a treadmill for a Christmas gift that’s been used exactly twice and now has served as an expensive coat rack since December 28th?!”)

However, according to the Church calendar, the season of Christmas BEGINS with the Christmas Eve vigil Mass, and then the Twelve Days of Christmas continue until the Feast of Epiphany on or about January 6th. The four-week period leading up to Christmas Day is the season of Advent.

It might be a good idea if we embrace the concept of Advent once again. Let’s be honest: even those of us who love Christmas often find the month of December to be very frantic and frustrating, expensive and exhausting. Wouldn’t it be nice to lead up to December 25th with a sense of calm and serenity, rather than the usual throbbing headache, frazzled nerves, and volcanic heartburn?

Here are some good things about the season of Advent: Number one, candles. An Advent wreath with candles is such a quaint and cozy change of pace compared to those gaudy, blinking-light mechanical reindeer. Also, Advent calendars are pretty cool (especially the ones with chocolate).

Next, there is the music of Advent. OK, you’re right, there aren’t a lot of Advent hymns. But “O Come Devine Messiah” and “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” are so lovely, and much nicer than hearing for the zillionth time “Grandma got run over by a reindeer.”

Finally, during Advent we can invoke the Christmas Procrastination Rule, which states: If you observe the season of Advent during December, you have a legitimate excuse for putting off much of the typical holiday season stressful foolishness.

So, enjoy the true season. Ho, ho, ho, and Merry Advent.

Friday, November 30, 2018

How’d You Sleep Last Night?

First thing every morning my wife and I either celebrate or commiserate with each other, based on the answer to this question: “How’d you sleep last night?”

This is a question we never had to ask each other in the past. Up until recently, for our entire marriage we already knew the answer to that question each morning. If we went to bed at a decent hour the previous evening, then we knew that we each had a good night’s sleep. If one or both of us stayed up too late — usually me, watching some Bataan death march of an extra inning Red Sox game — then we knew the answer would be: “Nah, didn’t sleep enough. I’m gonna be dragging at work today.”

Nowadays, however, even if we go to bed at a decent hour (the definition of which keeps drifting earlier and earlier), it’s not guaranteed that a good night’s sleep will be experienced. During the past couple of years, for no apparent reason, one or both of us have been finding ourselves wide awake at 2 a.m., staring at the ceiling.

All kinds of random thoughts and worries will race through our brains, and we simply cannot fall back to sleep. No, that’s not correct. We usually fall into a deep slumber about five minutes before the alarm clock is set to buzz. In the meantime, we enjoy hours of these kind of thoughts: “Do we have enough money to retire soon?” “Is that pain in my rib cage a pulled muscle or a tumor?” “Is Odell Beckham Jr. really worth all the aggravation?” (I’m pretty sure my wife doesn’t worry about this one), and “What should I wear to work tomorrow?”

As you can see, some of these thoughts/worries are legitimate concerns, while others are ridiculous — especially the “can we retire soon?” question. We already know the answer to that one, a resounding NO. But no matter how serious or silly, these are the kind of thoughts that keep us up half the night.

Earlier I said our sleep woes are occurring “for no apparent reason.” That’s not exactly true. I know the reason. It’s because we are transitioning from middle-agers into “junior seniors.” (Let me explain that term. I can’t quite admit that I’m a senior citizen — although I don’t hesitate to demand the senior discount at Dunkin Donuts — so for now I prefer to describe myself as a rookie in the AARP world, that is, a “junior senior.”)

If you surf the Internet, you can find dozens of articles that explain in scientific terms why older folks have trouble sleeping. Some of these articles discuss changes in the complex brain chemistry of seniors. It’s all rather technical, so as a public service I’ve taken it upon myself to summarize the scientific findings of multiple research projects: “Tough luck, Gramps!”

While online, the one thing you don’t want to do is Google this question: “How can seniors sleep better?” You’ll get 37 million search results, 36.99 million of which are trying to sell you “sure fire” remedies for senior insomnia. Some of these “100% guaranteed” remedies are priced so that one of the thoughts/worries you’ll soon ponder at 2 a.m. is, “How am I going to pay for my ElderDoze pills, along with this new SlumberFine diesel-powered mattress pad?”

You can try some of these wild remedies, if you choose. But I prefer to take the natural approach to this problem: lose sleep at night and nap the next day at work.

If you, too, doze at your desk, here’s a helpful hint: put in ear plugs so the sarcastic “Hey sleeping beauty!” comments from younger coworkers don’t wake you up.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Do Your Relatives Think You’re a Religious Nut?

Are you the one person in your family who is serious about religious faith? Are you the one who goes to church every Sunday and who has to remind everyone to say grace before dinner? Are you the only person in your family who knows how to say the Rosary, who knows where your Bible is located (and who actually reads it)? And as a result, does this mean your relatives think you’re kind of weird, and call you names such as “Holy Roller” and “Jesus Freak”?

Well, if so, you’re in good company. I know a person who is very zealous about religious faith, and as a result his family thought he was insane. His name is Jesus Christ. Yup, THAT Jesus Christ.

In Mark’s gospel, we read about Jesus traveling around the countryside, preaching and teaching and performing amazing miracles. Then he and his disciples returned home to Nazareth. In the third chapter we read: “He came home, and again the crowds gathered, making it impossible for them even to eat. When his relatives heard of this they set out to seize him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind.’”

Whoa! Jesus’ relatives not only thought he was insane, they wanted to seize Him. They wanted to lock Him up. They wanted to do an intervention and send him away somewhere to be cured of his delusional ideas. I can see it now: He’s locked in a room in some faraway rehab center, and every afternoon a psychiatrist with a Ph.D. from Harvard comes in to chat. “Now, Jesus,” he says in a condescending voice, “when did you first start having thoughts about being the son of God? Was it while you were grieving the death of your father, Joseph? Did Joseph ever say things to you that made you feel bad about yourself?”

That must have been very frustrating to have his own family members think he was crazy. We all know Jesus faced opposition from the Pharisees and religious leaders in Jerusalem, but most people are under the impression that Jesus was loved and admired by all the common folk out in the countryside. Well, maybe many of them admired Jesus, but his own relatives did not.

The next time your relatives mock you with taunts such as “goody-goody” and “God squad,” just because you won’t join in their profane conversations, do what you always do—pray for them—and then be thankful they are not plotting to have you locked up. Having them only think you’re a weirdo religious nut is much better than what Jesus had to deal with. And it’s much better than what Christians in other parts of the world have to deal with for being a follower of the Lord: imprisonment, torture, and even death.

You have faith in the fact that God is real, and that it is important to worship and serve Him. So, don’t let your unbelieving relatives get you down. Who knows, they may turn out to be like one of Jesus’ relatives, a man named James. James is not mentioned in the gospels, and there’s no indication he believed in Jesus during the Lord’s earthly ministry. James may have been one of the relatives who thought Jesus was out of his mind.

But after the Resurrection, when the early Christian Church was growing, we read about James in the Acts of the Apostles. He became the leader of the Church in Jerusalem. He became a pillar of the faith. He became a passionate “Jesus Freak.”

It’s no fun to have your loved ones call you a “holy roller.” But don’t despair. You’re in good company.

Friday, November 23, 2018

NYC Stimulates the Five Senses

Recently, my wife and I spent a weekend in New York City (a place where you use the word “spent” a lot). It’s been a long time since I was in Manhattan, and while there, the phrase that kept coming to mind was “sensory overload.” The Big Apple provides relentless stimulation for all five senses.

First, the sense of sight. You can visit many other big cities, but there are certain sights you can only see in New York. For example, on Sunday morning we were at a church on Sullivan Street, and when we stood on the front steps and looked northward, we could see the Empire State Building rising above the skyline. When we looked south, we could see the Freedom Tower gleaming in the sun. I’m pretty sure there are no spots in either Torrington or Waterbury where one can view such landmarks simply by turning your head 180-degrees.

Walking the sidewalks in New York is a visual smorgasbord. The people, the buildings, the vehicles, the street vendors, the stores, the restaurants just keep coming at you, as if you put a video on fast-forward. For the sense of sight, I would grade NYC an A-plus.

Next, the sense of taste. Seemingly every five paces you’ll see another exotic restaurant. They say the best food in the world can be found in New York, and I believe it. In two days, we went out to eat four times, and each time the food was great. Although at Sunday brunch, we had to wait almost an hour to be served our omelets, which we had ordered “no cheese.” The waitress apologized and explained that the cook made them with cheese and had to redo our order. Then, oblivious to the irony, she offered us a free dessert for our troubles: cheesecake. For the sense of taste, I give a grade of A-minus.

The sense of touch also gets a full-scale workout in New York, especially on the subway. At first, it seems OK: everyone has their own seat or their own spot to stand while holding the rail. But then you come to a station and the doors open. Four people get out and 40 people get in. All of a sudden, you are squished shoulder-to-shoulder with a multitude of total strangers. If you are not a touchy-feely type of person, this can be a bit disconcerting. For the sense of touch, I give New York a grade of C.

Next is the sense of smell. While walking a couple blocks, you take in aromas that you haven’t smelled in years. In a matter of minutes, these are the thoughts you have: “Wow, what is that restaurant cooking? It smells great. Ooh, how long has that garbage been sitting there? Hmm, what is that chemical smell? Are there refineries in Manhattan? Ug, what kind of perfume is that girl, um, guy, um, person, wearing? It’s awful!” For the sense of smell, I give New York a D.

Finally, the sense of hearing. This is the most noticeable, profound, and relentless aspect of being in the city. Everything is loud: the people, the trucks, the construction crew’s jackhammers, the ambulances, the trains, and the freelance percussionists in Washington Square Park. An intense wall of sound assaults your ears non-stop. At night, even the 11th floor hotel room offers no respite, as the sirens and other street noises are quite noticeable. For hearing, I give a grade of D-minus.

All in all, we had a good time. But in my view, New York is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there. (Ooh, that’s catchy. I should copyright that phrase.)