Friday, January 20, 2017

Photographs Are Out of Control

During the past few months the camera on my cell phone has been getting quite a workout. There was a wedding and reception in Europe; a couple days of sightseeing in Venice; a second wedding reception here in the U.S.; and then the annual holiday frenzy that begins on Thanksgiving and continues straight through to Christmas and New Year’s. (Maybe we should just call it one big holiday: “ThanksChristYear.”)

During this time, I conservatively estimate that I took about 17 billion photographs. But unlike most people I know, I did not post every single one of them on Facebook. (By the way, I completely quit using Facebook about six months ago. I don’t have that many friends to begin with, and after the brutal presidential election campaign, if I had been using Facebook all along, by now I’d probably have no friends. I prefer this popular observation regarding Zuckerberg’s monster: “Do you want to make money from Facebook? It’s easy. Just go to your account setting, deactivate your account, and GO TO WORK!”)

Anyway, taking all those cell phone pictures got me thinking about photography when I was a kid. No, I never had my picture taken by Mathew Brady, but thanks for asking. I’m not THAT old, although I am old enough to know who Matthew Brady was, and if you think he was a character on The Brady Bunch, then the future of this country is even more bleak than I feared. (Just do a Google search, smart-aleck.)

You may find this hard to believe, but back in the day, we did not download zillions of digital images to our computers (or upload them to the “cloud,” whatever that is). We instead used rolls of film, actual strips of plastic, coated with light-sensitive chemicals. Each roll of film typically held 24 pictures, and when you took the 24th and final picture, you had to crank the film back into its canister, remove the canister, send it off to be developed, and then wait many days to get your prints — at which time you discovered that you forgot to remove the camera’s lens cap.

Film was not exactly cheap, and neither was the developing/printing process, so families were rather frugal about snapping pictures. This probably explains why there are a total of nine photographs of me covering the timespan from my birth to my high school graduation. In contrast, young people today have at least nine photographs taken each hour of their lives — and many more if they own selfie sticks.

I don’t mind that there are only nine photos of my youth. They were spread out evenly, about one every two years, so there is a good record of my progress as I grew up, for anyone who cares about that. And here’s the key point: no one really cares about seeing photos from my youth, not even me. Although, I have to admit, that eight-year-old bucktooth grin is a classic. (As is the 22-year-old drunken grin below.)

When people today take 17 billion photographs, does anyone really care? For example, when I was in Europe, I spent more time looking at the back of my phone, repeatedly pushing the “photo” button with my thumb, than I spent looking at the sights directly with my eyes. After I downloaded all the digital images to my computer, I quickly glanced at a few of them, and then I set it aside for later. I’m not sure “later” is ever going to come. During these recent busy months, taking no more than 24 photographs would’ve been plenty.

So, I’m not sure all our modern photographic technology is worth it. Although the photo that Mathew Brady took of Abe Lincoln and me is a classic.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Holy Family Was No Picnic for St. Joseph

The Holy Family is the model for all families. The household of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph was filled with peace, serenity, and love. For 2,000 years, the Holy Family has been the shining example all families strive to emulate.

But consider this: of the three people in the Holy Family, only Joseph was a sinner. That’s right. Jesus was sinless, of course, and the Church has always taught that Mary was uniquely blessed by God to be conceived without sin (the “Immaculate Conception”). Which means, when you boil it down, in that peaceful and loving household, only Joseph fit the biblical truth that “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
Wow! Talk about pressure! Anytime anything went wrong in that house, two sets of sinless eyes immediately turned and looked at the only family member who was not morally perfect. Poor ol’ Joseph must have struggled to maintain his self-esteem.

Early in their marriage, I wonder if Joseph, like all husbands throughout history, often blurted out the phrase, “I didn’t do it.” For men, that phrase is an instinctive defense mechanism, as involuntary as flinching when someone suddenly tosses something toward your face. When we husbands say, “I didn’t do it,” we are not actually declaring, “I. Did. Not. Do. It.” We are merely stalling for time so we can assess the situation and find out if we’re really in trouble or not.

After a few years, I wonder if Joseph realized the futility of offering that phrase time after time, and just resigned himself to saying with a sigh, “Yeah, I did it. I’m sorry.”

Well, maybe that wasn’t exactly how it happened. Maybe I’m just imagining what it would’ve been like if I was Saint Joseph. However, since the Bible clearly tells us that Joseph was a righteous man, let’s just say all of Christendom is a lot better off that God did not pick someone to be the husband of Mary and step-father of Jesus who spends way too much time hiding in a basement “man cave” watching baseball.

Since Joseph was indeed a righteous man, the occasions when he did do something morally suspect were few and far between. (And by “morally suspect,” I don’t mean the kind of sins that are rampant in our culture today. I’m thinking of things like gossip, discouragement, and mildly profane utterances whenever he hit himself on the thumb with a hammer. You know, what we now call venial sins.)

On the other hand, since Joseph was righteous, whenever he did do something wrong, he most likely admitted it right away and asked for forgiveness. And who better to ask forgiveness from than the two most merciful people in the history of the world? Can you imagine what it must’ve been like to have the Blessed Virgin Mary and/or Jesus say to you, “That’s OK. I forgive you. C’mere, big guy, gimme a hug!”? That must have been awesome. If I were Joseph, I’d be tempted to do things wrong on purpose, just to experience that unconditional forgiveness. (Yet another reason why God was so wise in not picking me for that job.)

Actually, even though we are not a part of the Holy Family, we can experience the same kind of unconditional forgiveness and love Joseph experienced. All we need to do is go to Confession. (Also known as the Sacrament of Reconciliation.) After all, we’re not asking the priest to forgive us. He merely sits in place of Jesus, the One who pours out His unconditional and total mercy on us.

The best way we can emulate the Holy Family is to do what Jesus, Mary, and Joseph did: share the love and mercy of God with each other. We won’t ever become sinless on this side of eternity, but we will be filled with peace and serenity and joy.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Mr. Fancy Pants

After making a one-hour presentation for a group of engineers, I was chatting informally with one of the attendees, when he whispered to me, “Bill, you’ve got a little hole right, um, right there on your pants.” He discreetly pointed toward my groin. Sure enough, the seam of my pants was split just below the zipper. Wow, that’s embarrassing.

What’s even worse, the pants were practically brand new. I only owned them for about two months, and had worn them to work maybe five times. So, you’d think I’d be pretty upset and proceed to do the following: 1. Return to the store in a rage, 2. Demand my money back, plus extra cash for pain and suffering, and 3. Write a column about it.

Well, it turns out only one out of those three things occurred. Or more accurately, the third thing is occurring at this moment as I type, and I hope a complete column will be the result.

You see, I purchased the pants on sale at a big box store for $14. Now, it’s not that I’m a cheapskate (OK yeah, I am, a little). It’s just that I like a bargain, and more importantly, on any given day at work I could be doing a presentation for a group of engineers in a corporate conference room, or I could be climbing on the roof of a building inspecting air conditioning equipment. Just brushing up against a section of metal ductwork can put a slice in your pants (not to mention in your forehead if you forget to wear a hard hat).

So, I’ve gotten in the habit of buying inexpensive clothing for work because it’s way too frustrating to have a brand new pair of $100 dress slacks from Joseph A. Banks get a tear or an industrial strength grease stain just because I had to make an unexpected visit to a building’s boiler room. On the other hand, if I rip or stain a pair of $14 pants, I shrug and head for the big box store to buy another pair.

However, choosing to wear cheapo clothes comes with a certain understanding: you simply can’t complain if the seam unravels on its own. If I returned the pants to the store and demanded my money back, the customer service clerk surely would say, “But you only paid 14 bucks. And you wore them FIVE whole times. What did you expect?”

It’s like that episode of Seinfeld, when they debated whether you can bring a piece of mushy fruit back to the store for a refund. Of course you can’t. It’s fruit. That peach cost 50 cents. It’s part of the inherent risk of being alive. You get a mushy piece of fruit, you throw it away and move on with your life. You get an unraveled seam in a pair of $14 pants, you use it as a rag to check the oil in your car and you move on with your life.

A few weeks later, after purchasing a replacement pair of pants for $14, I was preparing to give another presentation to a room full of engineers. As I bent over to plug my laptop computer’s power cord into the wall socket, a loud ripping sound filled the room. A couple of guys said, “What was that?” I shrugged, trying to ignore my rapidly reddening face, and replied, “I didn’t hear anything.”

The meeting went well, and I hope no one noticed that I gave the entire presentation while standing with my back firmly wedged into the corner of the room. I might have to upgrade and start wearing $16 pants.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

If God Is for Israel, Who Can Be Against Her?

There is no doubt about it, Christians and Jews have some major theological differences, centered primarily around the true identity of Jesus Christ. Christians believe that Jesus is the divine Son of God, the Messiah, while Jews believe the promised Messiah is still yet to come.

There is also no doubt about it, a lot of horrific anti-Semitism has occurred throughout the centuries, with much of the persecution of Jews being perpetrated by Christians.

In this week’s first reading at Mass, the prophet Isaiah wrote, “The Lord said to me: You are my servant, Israel, through whom I show my glory.”

The words of Scripture are clear: the Israelites are, were, and always will be God’s Chosen People.

In this week’s gospel reading, John the Baptist discussed his encounter with Jesus. John referred to Jesus as “the Lamb of God,” and added, “The reason why I came baptizing with water was that [Jesus] might be made known to Israel.”

Christians believe at that particular moment in history, early in the 1st century in Palestine, God set in motion His wonderful plan to offer salvation to all of mankind. The long-awaited Messiah finally appeared. The savior of the world, the Incarnate Word of God, came as a Jew; and He came, not surprisingly, from the nation of Israel. He first made Himself known to Israel, as John explained, and then to the whole world.

This is why Christians should be strong supporters of modern Israel. We know that our Savior was, is, and always will be a Jew. We know that God made a special covenant with Israel, His beloved Chosen People, and God never breaks His promises. We know God still very much loves His Chosen People Israel. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to conclude that if a person chooses to hate something that God loves, he is definitely making a big mistake.

At this point, a natural and obvious question is: But wait a minute, Israel rejected Jesus as the Messiah, so doesn’t that change everything?

Actually, no.

For a better understanding, we need to turn to St. Paul, whose preaching to the Jews was met with a great deal of resistance, primarily from the Jewish religious leaders. Paul was persecuted, beaten, and imprisoned. Some people plotted to assassinate Paul. If anyone had a good reason to conclude that the Jews were no longer God’s Chosen People because they had rejected Jesus as the Messiah, it was St. Paul.

But Paul never drew that conclusion. Toward the end of his life, after suffering much at the hands of the Jewish religious leaders, Paul discussed the Jewish people in his letter to the Romans. He wrote, “I ask then, Did God reject his people? By no means!....God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew” (Romans 11:1-2).

Paul summarized his message: “Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:25-26).

It is worth repeating: “And so ALL Israel will be saved.”

The divinely-inspired Bible clearly teaches that God did not reject Israel, which reminds me of a cute bumper stick I recently saw: “My boss is a Jewish Carpenter.” (I’m assuming the person who put that on his car is a Christian and not an employee of the Goldstein Brothers Construction Company in Jersey City.)

If you worship Jesus, you’re worshipping a Jew. If you’re devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary, you’re devoted to a Jew. If you follow the apostolic teachings handed down by St. Peter, St. John, St. Matthew, St. James, St. Paul, etc., well, you get the point: all Jews.

Yes, we have some major theological differences with our Jewish brothers and sisters. But if God loves His Chosen People, then we had better love them, too.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Total Laryngitis: Talk About Frustrating

It started as a scratchy tickle in my throat. Uh oh, I thought, feels like I’m getting a cold. By tomorrow I’ll have a stuffy head and runny nose.

However, this particular cold, instead of making my head stuffy and my nose runny, decided to take residence right in my throat. The next day my head was fine and my nose was dry, but my vocal cords had gone on strike. I was in complete Harpo Marx mode, unable to make a sound.

Talk about frustrating! Well, actually, I was unable to talk about frustrating. I was unable to talk about anything. If I had been able to utter any words, I would’ve said, “I knew I shouldn’t have signed that contract with Ursula the Sea Witch!” (C’mon, that was funny. Don’t you remember the movie “The Little Mermaid”? When Ariel traded her voice for the chance to be human? Well, if you had young daughters in the 1990s, like I did, you’d be familiar with that movie. And by “familiar” I mean: you viewed the video a minimum of 8,000 times, causing every song to be forever burned into your memory.)

By Friday afternoon the ol’ vocal cords stopped working. I kept busy at the office, but every time the phone rang I could only stare at it and let it ring. A coworker walked by my office just as my phone started ringing. He paused and saw that I was making no effort to answer it. He said, “You gonna get that, Bill?”

I shook my head no. He said, “Oh, I see. You already know who it is. One of your annoying ‘high maintenance’ clients, right?”

I shrugged to indicate maybe, although I had no idea who was calling.

He continued, “Yeah, and that’s the last thing you want on a Friday afternoon, to have one of your pushy customers start a new project that’ll keep you busy all weekend. Good thinking, Dunn. Let it wait till Monday.”

I smiled and nodded. He walked away with a knowing smirk, now fully aware of my devious scheme — a scheme I had no idea I was even planning.

Later that evening we went out to dinner with my daughter’s new in-laws, who had just flown over from Italy. Everyone was laughing and having a great time at the restaurant. At least 50 clever comments popped into my head during the evening (well, at least I thought they were funny), but all I could do was sit there and smile. Talk about frustrating! Oh right, once again I could not talk about frustrating, nor any other subject.

The next day was the U.S. wedding reception, for friends and loved ones who couldn’t make it to Italy for the actual wedding ceremony in October. I was supposed to give a little speech and a toast. But since my voice was toast, my other daughter delivered my speech/toast for me. To make sure everyone knew she was playing the part of me, she read the speech while wearing a Red Sox hat. She did a great job, and got far more laughs that I would’ve.

Then the next night, I was schedule to be the Master of Ceremonies at an awards banquet for Carolyn’s Place Pregnancy Care Center in Waterbury. This time I forced my wife to do all the talking while I stood next to her making goofy faces.

The next morning I woke up with a stuffy head and runny nose. I muttered, “Oh great, now the cold has moved to my head. Hey, wait a minute. I can talk again! Yippee!” 

I was never so glad to have a runny nose.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

What Will Our Heavenly Bodies Look Like?

The Holy Scriptures, along with Church Tradition, clearly teach that when (or if?) we get to Heaven, we will not be pure spirits like the angels. We will have bodies. Our earthly bodies will be resurrected, with all the decay of death completely removed. That’s very comforting, but I wonder what age our heavenly bodies will be? Will they be the same age we were when we died? I hope our bodies will be a bit younger, although age 13 might be a little too young; that was an awkward age. Since Heaven is a place of pure joy, I don’t suspect our bodies will be very old either. I mean, being in need of a walker, cataract surgery, and a pacemaker doesn’t sound like paradise. Even middle-age bodies are unlikely, since it’s hard to imagine heavenly saints being unable to find their reading glasses and needing to get up at 2 a.m. to use the bathroom.
Wouldn’t it be nice if in Heaven our resurrected bodies were a hybrid of various stages of life here on earth? How about this combination: our bodies have the experience and understanding of, say, a 70-year-old. But we also have the mental sharpness, focus, and drive of a 45-year-old. Finally, our heavenly bodies have the same physical strength and good looks we had when we were 20. Wouldn’t that be great? We’d be young and strong and handsome, but with the knowledge and experience that normally takes a lifetime to accumulate. That would be wonderful.
Except, there is one slight problem. Every single attribute I’ve just described—knowledge, mental sharpness, physical strength, good looks—are all attractive to us right now because of pride and vanity. We are imagining how great it would be to have all those attributes, but only because it would impress other people. C’mon, admit it. If your body was 20 years old, but you had the knowledge and understanding and mental skills of someone who has been an adult for many decades, that would be amazing. You’d get promoted at work; you’d be on the cover of magazines; you’d have members of the opposite sex begging to go out with you.
However, the reason that scenario strikes us as appealing is pure pride, the desire to be better and more attractive than everyone else. Some people are consumed with pride; others only have a small dose of it. But everyone on earth struggles with pride to some extent. Pride is the first and worst of all sins, and pride is the one thing that will not be in found in Heaven. In Heaven, the saints, with their resurrected bodies, joyfully focus all their attention and devotion toward God. The saints probably aren’t even aware of what their bodies look like. It doesn’t matter anymore. Pride and vanity are gone, and no one has the urge to impress anyone else, so who cares what bodies look like?

There is a place besides this earth where pride is abundantly present, and where people are very concerned about impressing others. That place is called Hell.
So maybe our resurrected heavenly bodies will be age 13. Or possibly age 90. It won’t matter to us then, because our time in Purgatory will have removed sinful pride from our souls. (Some of us, of course, who occasionally think we are the center of the universe, might need a couple extra millennia to root out that bad attitude.) 
Even though Scripture promises that we will have resurrected bodies in Heaven, the age and appearance of our bodies will be meaningless. The only thing that will matter is that we are awash in God’s love and joy for all eternity.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Time for New Year’s Resolutions

It’s time once again to make some New Year’s resolutions. But this year, instead of making resolutions impossible to keep, I will make resolutions that are quite doable. The key is to make sure none of my resolutions have anything to do with dieting or exercise. So, for the year 2017…

I resolve to spend less time and effort being concerned about the lives of people I’ve never met — celebrities, athletes, politicians, fictional characters on television — and more time and effort being concerned about the lives of my family and friends.

I resolve to pray more and complain less.

I resolve to complain less while praying. (God will be happy to hear this one.)

I resolve to count my blessings at least once each day, and especially whenever I feel a “pity party” coming on.
I resolve to stay at the table during the entire dinner and not suddenly get up during the middle of the meal to go into the living room and check the score of a ballgame on TV — unless, of course, the game has important playoff implications.

I resolve to do Christmas differently in 2017 and not go out frantically on December 24th to begin my Christmas shopping, as I’ve done for the past 30 years in a row. Oh, who am I kidding? Waiting till the last minute has become as much a cherished holiday tradition as figgy pudding (whatever the heck that is).

I resolve to do Christmas differently in 2017 and stop trying to recapture a warm and pleasant childhood emotion about the holiday — an emotion that hasn’t occurred since age nine — and instead focus on creating a warm and pleasant emotion about the holiday for a wide-eyed nine-year-old in my community — an emotion he or she can nostalgically try to recapture many decades from now.

I resolve to be less obsessive about sports — unless the Red Sox, Giants, UConn, Notre Dame, Celtics, Phil Mickelson, Bucknell, Torrington High School, or Moe’s Tavern softball team are in contention to win a championship.

I resolve not to mention my wife or daughters in my column — as they’ve requested repeatedly — unless I can’t think of anything else to write about. (And I resolve not to end a sentence with a preposition.)

I resolve to tell my wife and daughters more often that I love them. (At the moment, I couldn’t think of anything else about which to write.)

I resolve to stop complaining about the weather around here — unless it’s too cold, too hot, too humid, too windy, too sunny, or too snowy.

I resolve to appreciate and enjoy the six days each year when the weather around here is not too anything, except too beautiful. (I believe the next one of these days is due to arrive about the third week of April.)

I resolve not to spend the first three months of the year wishing it were the fourth month of the year every time I have to use the snow blower.

I resolve to be grateful I have a snow blower that runs. (At least as of right now. Trust me, if it conks out in, say, February, you’ll be reading about it.)

I resolve to skip playing golf this year to see if I can somehow live without an activity that is five-percent enjoyable and 95-percent frustrating, time-consuming, and ridiculously expensive.

I resolve to spend at least as much time reading the Bible as I spend reading Sports Illustrated.

I resolve to call my kids more often.

I resolve to call my kids more often to tell them we’re driving to Rhode Island to see them in person, and we just pulled into their driveway. 

Happy New Year!