Wednesday, September 25, 2019

How Can He Like the Sox and Jints?

Well, it’s that time of year again. The baseball playoffs are about to begin and the football season is in full swing. This is the time of year when I have to explain how it’s possible that my favorite teams are the Boston Red Sox in baseball and the New York Giants in football.

To me, it doesn’t seem like a big deal. But many people are absolutely stunned that I can like one team from Boston and another team from New York, as if there is some cosmic law of the universe that says sports fans must follow ONLY teams from the same city.

Now, of course, for a lot of people it makes sense that they follow teams from the same city. If someone grew up in, say, Quincy, MA, it is unlikely he would root for the Chicago Cubs, the Dallas Mavericks, or the San Francisco 49ers. If a guy grew up in the Bronx, it would be odd (and probably dangerous to his health) to let his neighbors know that he loves the Red Sox.

But I grew up in central Connecticut, halfway between two major league cities, Tewksbury and Yonkers. No wait, I mean Boston and New York.

For folks who grew up in central Connecticut, 45-percent like the Yankees, 45-percent like the Red Sox, and the remaining 10-percent, most likely because of some undiagnosed emotional disorder, like the Mets. (Just kidding, Alan and Adam!)

When it comes to football, for the past two decades the Patriots have been king. Brady and Belichick have put together an undisputed dynasty during this time. Which is why so many people, when they learn of my Red Sox devotion (usually by simply looking at my hat), will ask incredulously, “Why don’t you like the Patriots?! They’re awesome!”

Yes, I know they’re awesome. They’ve had a great run with Brady calling signals for the past 25 years, and they’ll probably be great with Brady at quarterback for the next 25 years. (I understand Tom wants to retire from football at the same age I want to retire from my job: 68.)

But here’s the thing: the Patriots were not even on the radar screen in Connecticut in the late 1960s. I was 10 years old in 1967, and that is when my lifelong bonds of sports fandom were formed. It would’ve been impossible back then to be attracted to the Patriots, because they were not only not on the radar screen, they were not on the TV screen.

In Connecticut in 1967, you had one viewing choice on Sunday afternoons in the fall: The New York Football Giants.

If you lived in the affluent part of town and had one of those newfangled, rotating TV antennas, then maybe you could pick up Channel 4 from New York and watch something called the Jets, featuring some gimpy loudmouth at quarterback. But if not, then the Giants (or as we say, the “Jints”) were your guys.

This October the Red Sox players and I will have something in common: we’ll all be at home watching the playoffs on TV. Since the Sox are out of it, it’s imperative that the Giants play well. Umm, right. Have you seen how they started the season?

It doesn’t matter. They’re still my teams. And even if many people think it’s odd, I’m perfectly comfortable wearing my navy blue hat with the red “B,” as well as my royal blue hat with the white lowercase “ny.”

They’re my favorite teams. Always have been, always will. And if you think it’s odd, as they say when the Dallas Cowboys are introduced at The Meadowlands, “Thbbbtttttttttt!” (By the way, that’s how you spell a Bronx cheer.)

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Keep Pulling that Rope; Keep Praying

Recently my pastor offered an interesting analogy about prayer during his homily at Mass. He said prayer is like a man sitting in a small boat, who is holding a rope attached to a large rock. When the man pulls the rope, the distance between the rock and the boat is reduced. But the rock is not moving toward the man in the boat, of course; the man in the boat is instead moving closer to the rock.

The rock is God, and the rope is prayer. When we pray, the distance between God and ourselves is reduced. But we don’t pull God closer to us with our prayer, we instead draw ourselves closer to Him.

This reminds me of a comment C.S. Lewis made about prayer. When his wife was dying from cancer, he often went into a chapel and prayed fervently. One of his friends saw him and asked, “Are you imploring God to answer your prayer and heal your wife?”

Lewis shook his head and replied, “No. I don’t pray so God will want to do my will. I pray so I will want to do His will.”

Lewis understood the boat-rope-rock analogy. He knew that his pulling on the rope (that is, praying), was drawing him nearer to the mind of God, not vice versa.

Prayer is a weird thing. (I’m pretty sure there is no Bible verse that phrases it quite that way.) I mean, think about it: Scripture has countless verses that say things like, “Pray without ceasing,” and, “Whatever you ask for in prayer shall be done for you.”

The story of the wedding feast at Cana, found in John’s gospel, chapter two, is a powerful example of God answering a fervent prayer when He did not originally plan to do so. Jesus flat-out said to His own mom, “Why does that concern me? My time has not yet come.” However, in response to His mother’s request, Jesus performed the miracle that was labeled His “first sign.” I’m pretty sure He did not show up for that wedding thinking, “OK, folks, tonight is ‘Sign Time!’ Let’s get this ministry off and running!”

But on the other hand, Scripture is very clear that God is sovereign, and He knows the past, present, and future of every person’s life. If we pray for something particular to occur, and it’s not part of God’s plan, then it’s not going to happen.

So, does that mean prayer is a waste of time? Does that mean the future is already carved in stone, so our prayer is just a futile exercise?

No, not at all. It is true that God is sovereign and omniscient. And it’s true that He already knows every single event of our lives, even the future. But He also knows that we need prayer. Prayer is not merely an activity where we “place our order” for the stuff we want. Prayer is not a cosmic version of Amazon. We don’t browse Heaven’s website until we find something that catches our eye, press the “Buy now with 1-click” button, and then wait for the delivery truck to pull up in front of our house.

Prayer is intimate conversation. Prayer is how two people get to know each other better and trust each other more. Prayer is how a relationship is formed and grows.

Since the relationship here is unequal—the Creator, by definition, is far greater than the creature—we must remember that prayer is not a technique to convince God to think like we do. Prayer is a way for us to grow and mature and begin to think like God does.

C.S. Lewis had it right. Prayer is the thing that helps us to know and do God’s will. And that analogy I heard from my pastor is right. Prayer is not pulling the rope to bring God to us, so He becomes more like us. It’s pulling the rope so we draw closer to Him and think more like Him.

We still should pray for the things we need and want, but most of all, we should pray to know God’s mind and make His will our will. Please tug on that rope, each and every day.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

AARP Advice Is a Stroke of Genius

A few months ago, I mentioned that my email inbox gets clogged with messages from AARP (the American Association of Rickety Persons). I realize AARP is just trying to do what every altruistic, non-profit organization tries to do: 1. Pay their executives exorbitant salaries, 2. Wield massive political power in Washington DC, and 3. Occasionally help out a few senior citizens.

So, I don’t particularly mind all the email messages, because some of them can be rather entertaining. For example, a recent email message offered advice about guaranteeing a financially secure retirement. In a nutshell, the article said the best thing to do is go back in time to age 25 and get a job with the Federal Government. Then at age 60, cha-ching!! Lifetime pension!

Other emails offered advice about changing to a healthy diet and starting a proper exercise program. Given the current level of self-discipline in America, I think it’s more realistic to go back in time to age 25.

Over all, the glut of AARP emails doesn’t bother me — that is, until today. This morning I received an email with this title: “8 Surprising Things That Increase the Chances of a Stroke.”

At first, I was expecting a genuine surprise. But when I read the article, I didn’t see any mention that broccoli or jogging or being skinny causes a stroke. That certainly would’ve surprised (and delighted) me.

As it turns out, some of the eight things were in the category of, “Duh, everyone knows that.” While the remaining things were, “OK, I never thought about that, but it makes sense.” There were absolutely no surprises on the list.

Here are the eight things that increase the risk of having a stroke: Not enough sleep. Bad oral hygiene. Irregular heartbeat. Binge drinking. Prolonged antibiotic use. Having the flu. Too much sitting. Too much red meat.

It never dawned on me that having, for example, bad oral hygiene specifically increases the risk of a stroke. But I already knew it’s bad for your health and increases the risk of a lot of negative things, like getting a new nickname at work: “Mr. Green Teeth.”

Too much sitting, red meat diet, and binge drinking? C’mon, everyone knows those things are bad for your health, even those of us who have a gift for denial.

The only thing surprising about the AARP article was that it didn’t mention other unhealthy behaviors such as: smoking, taking heroin, or wearing a MAGA hat in Portland, Oregon.

The reason this article really bothered me is because my greatest health fear is having a stroke. Obviously, there are a lot of bad things that can happen healthwise when you reach the AARP age range. And certainly I’m not looking forward to having a heart attack or getting cancer or being eaten by an alligator while playing golf in Florida. But when I ponder those things, I just shrug and think of a line from the movie “Platoon”: “Everybody gotta die sometime, Red.”

However, when I ponder having a stoke, ugh, that just makes me cringe. That’s my worst fear. I realize mentioning that out loud does two things: first, it offends people who have had stokes and are struggling to recover — and to those folks I sincerely apologize.

Second, saying out loud that a stoke is my worst fear is tempting fate. Now, I’m not a superstitious guy, but part of me thinks, “Don’t jinx yourself by admitting it, pal.” Well, too late. I already mentioned it.

I should stop dwelling on this topic. Sitting on the couch for the rest of the day with a plate of bacon and a bottle of vodka should take my mind off of it.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Why I Am an Ex-Atheist

Last week I discussed the event that convinced me that atheism was true. It occurred during biology class my freshman year in high school. This week I’d like to discuss the event that caused me to lose my faith in atheism. (And trust me, there is nothing more odd than a person who loses his firm belief in nothingness.)

This momentous event took place 14 years later, in a delivery room on the maternity floor of Yale-New Haven Hospital. Our first daughter had been born about an hour earlier. Everything went according to plan, and the doctor and nurses had just finished their post-delivery duties. My wife and I made a couple of phone calls to let family members know the good news, and then finally it was time to sit back and relax after a very stressful previous 10 hours. (OK, I admit: one of us did a whole lot more work during that time than the other, and it wasn’t me!)

I sat in a chair next to the bed, while my wife held the baby in her arms. I took a deep breath and basked in the euphoria of that moment. Suddenly, my sense of elation disappeared. It occurred to me that what I had just witnessed could not possibly be the result of an unplanned, purposeless, random swirl of molecules.

It was as if I had been whacked in the head with a two-by-four. I suddenly realized the lessons I had learned in biology class many years earlier—that life on earth was nothing more than the unplanned result of matter plus energy, shaped by blind, random chance—could not possibly be true.

What I had just witnessed, the birth of a healthy new baby, was biologically so intricate and so complex, it could not have happened “by accident.” For a baby to be conceived and develop in the womb, and then for the birth process to occur, requires hundreds of complicated systems to work in precise unison. It is incredibly complex.

At that moment, I knew the story I was told in biology class was wrong. The odds of life occurring on this planet without any outside guidance were not simply remote; the odds were zero. What I had just witnessed was a marvel of design and engineering. And if that’s the case, then there must be a Designer, with a capital “D”.
At that moment, it started to dawn on me that there must be some kind of Being that designed and created life. At that moment, I stopped being an atheist. It was the absolute last thing I expected to happen.

You see, I really enjoyed being an atheist. As Dostoyevsky wrote, “If there is no God, then everything is permissible.” If there is no God, then there is no transcendent, absolute moral code. All values and ethics are relative, based on personal opinion. And my opinion was this: being selfish and lazy and frequently drunk was perfectly fine.

Of course, my family and my employers weren’t too thrilled with my personal moral code, but I didn’t really care. Being an atheist, I truly believed that life was nothing more than a cosmic accident with no meaning or purpose. And since we’ll all be dead and gone soon enough, we might as well crack open another bottle of vodka and dull the pain until it’s over.

I know that sounds pretty pathetic, but in my defense, I was a lot of fun to be around when I was drunk. There were always plenty of laughs, especially if someone else was buying the drinks.

So, on that memorable April afternoon in New Haven, I stopped being an atheist. I came to accept that someone or something was out there, far more powerful than human beings. It was a far cry from the doctrines of Christianity, but I had made the massive leap from atheism to faith. I had taken the that first important step on the road to faith in Christ.

If you are not sure that God exists, just do the math. Here’s the formula I was taught in biology class: Chaos + Chance + Time = Intricate Precision. That formula is not, and can never be, true. The probability is zero.
Run the numbers, and then fall on your knees in worship of the One who created you. You’ll never regret it, either now or for all eternity.

(If you’d like to dig into this topic much more deeply, check out this essay by Yale professor David Gelernter: )

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Exact Time of Day Is Precisely Wrong

Nowadays people are so precise when it comes to time. We say things like, “Let’s have a meeting to go over the Fernwald account, tomorrow at 3:45 p.m. I’ll schedule it with the Calendar app on my iPhone.”

This is silly for many reasons. First, even if tomorrow is, say, Thursday, the screens on smartphones are small, while most adult thumbs are large, so it’s just as likely the meeting gets scheduled for exactly 3:45 p.m. — on Sunday. So, the time of day is correct, but it’s off by a mere 72 hours.

Secondly, roads and highways are so jammed these days, and with the state D.O.C. out in full force (Department of Orange Cones), to be on time for the meeting you’d have to leave your office before you even made the appointment. (“Margie, is the Time Machine broken again? Darn! That thing goes on the fritz more often than the copy machine!”)

And finally, being so precise about time is silly because not everyone thinks the same way. When you say “3:45 p.m.”, you probably mean 3:45 p.m. But to another person, “3:45 p.m.” might mean, “Hmm, that’s sometime after lunch, but before the end of the day — unless I go home early with a headache.”

(Oh, another reason why it’s silly to schedule a precise 3:45 p.m. meeting to go over the Fernwald account is because there is no Fernwald account. Mr. Fernwald took his business elsewhere three weeks ago — probably because someone screwed up the time of a meeting.)

In the “olden days,” that primitive era when there was only black and white TV, people did not worry about being so precise about time. If someone said, “Let’s meet at 3:45 p.m.”, the immediate reply was, “What are you talking about? No one says ‘3:45’ since they haven’t invented digital watches yet. You mean to say, ‘Let’s meet at quarter to four,’ in which case, what are you talking about? We’re never that precise because this is the ‘olden days.’ You should say, ‘Let’s meet in the late afternoon, around 4-ish.’”

And of course, by the time this was all straightened out it was early evening, and they had missed the meeting, which was fine because Mr. Fernwald took his business elsewhere three weeks ago anyway. But nobody got an ulcer about it since it was the stress-free “olden days.”

In the really old “olden days,” the era so primitive the only thing to watch was black and white radio, there pretty much were only two times: “day” and “night.” If someone said, “Let’s meet tomorrow at ‘daytime:45’ to go over the Fernwald account,” the immediate reply was, “What are you talking about? They haven’t invented digital sundials yet.” Then everyone would drag the guy to the village square and burn him at the stake for being a sorcerer — or at least a nonconformist — which was fine because Mr. Fernwald took his business elsewhere 21 moons ago anyway.

I’d like to be less precise about time. Doing so probably would reduce my stress level and prevent an ulcer (which right now is scheduled to appear in my stomach at exactly 3:45 p.m. next Tuesday). I think I’ll use no more than four different designations for time: morning, noonish, afternoon, and evening.

That’s about as accurate as I ever am anyway, what with tiny handheld screens, the state D.O.C., and Time Machines on the fritz. If someone calls me and says, “Let’s meet tomorrow at 3:45 p.m.”, I’ll confirm the appointment by saying, “Yeah, afternoonish sounds good.” (Unless it’s Mr. Fernwald giving us another chance. For him I’ll be at his office at EXACTLY 3:45 p.m., even if I have to leave yesterday to do it.)

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

The Making of a Young Atheist

Recently, some friends were surprised to learn that I used to be an atheist. “How can you NOT believe in God?!” one friend exclaimed.

“Easy,” I replied. “Especially nowadays, when skepticism is so trendy. It’s cool to look down your nose at religious people. And back in the day, I was convinced there was no God and I was convinced I was cool.” (Turns out I was wrong on both counts. Although in my defense, I’m pretty sure I was cool for a full 20 minutes one time back in 1975.)

Thinking back to those days, there was one moment that really convinced me that atheism was true. It was during biology class when I was a freshman in high school. While teaching the Theory of Evolution (although I don’t remember ever hearing the word “theory”; it was taught as a definite fact), my teacher made this statement: “If you could somehow go back in time to the very beginning and let everything play out again, you would never get human beings. The odds of life forming on this planet are so remote, it would never happen a second time.”

In that biology class, I was taught that everything in the universe is nothing more than matter plus energy, shaped by blind, random chance. After billions and billions of years, biological life just happened to form on planet Earth, and for millions of years, living organisms have been mutating and adapting and changing—all randomly, of course—to the point where we now have this vast diversity of life.

The key concept is randomness. Imagine taking a pair of dice and rolling them a thousand times and keeping track of what numbers appear. If you then roll the dice a second thousand times, you will never get the exact same pattern of numbers. It’s random.

My most favorite class in school was “Probability and Statistics.” (Which is why I never play the Lottery. I understand that state-run lotteries and scratch-off tickets are nothing more than an extra tax on people who did poorly in math class.)

Back in high school I totally grasped the concept of randomness, so I knew exactly what my biology teacher was saying. The existence of life on earth was the result of a cosmic crap shoot. It occurred randomly, against very high odds, and if we somehow could “play the game” a second time, biological life would never, ever occur again.

As a smart-aleck 14-year-old, I was already pretty skeptical of the stories I had been taught in Catechism classes at church. But after my biology teacher’s proclamation, I joyfully dismissed my remaining religious notions. I’m pretty sure I did not use the term atheist, but that’s what I had become.

The things I was taught in those Catechism classes—that a supernatural Being called God had designed and created life on earth, and that life had a purpose—were now complete foolishness in my mind. The words “design,” “create,” and “purpose” are not compatible with the concept of randomness. So, I became convinced religious stories were nothing but mythology, invented by scientifically illiterate people who did not know the truth about the origins of life. It would be another 14 years before I revisited this topic and discovered some gaping holes in my logic.

Ironically, my high school biology teacher was a parishioner in the neighboring town who went to Mass every Sunday. I have no idea if he’s still alive all these years later, but I’d love to ask him how he was able to reconcile what he taught in the classroom with what was proclaimed at Mass.

Next week I’ll tell you the story of how I lost my faith in atheism. Again, probability and statistics are key. Except this time, I ran the numbers correctly.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Blinded by the Night

I was driving home with my wife recently, and since it’s getting dark noticeably earlier these days, dusk settled in when we were still about 30 minutes away. Suddenly, I said to my wife, “Hey where did the road go? I can’t see anything!”

That’s when it hit me — a thought, I mean, not another car — that I finally had turned into my parents. For decades I would shake my head in disbelief whenever my parents announced they had to leave a party because, and I quote, “We have to get home before it gets dark!”

Whenever they said that, my brothers and I would make smart-aleck comments, such as, “What? Will your car turn into a pumpkin?” “Are your headlights broken, or something?”, and, “Oh, you’re just saying that cuz this party is boring!”

My parents’ “We have to leave” proclamation was especially awkward during Christmas gatherings. Because it gets dark so early in late December, occasionally they would make their “gotta go” announcement before we even sat down for lunch. My dad would say, “Sorry, but sunset is at 4:30 today, which means we really should be home by 4. And it takes 45 minutes to drive home from here, so factoring in some unexpected delays, we should get going no later than, um, 1:30.” (Hey, what can I say? He was a cautious fella.)

Anyway, after all this time, I’m now doing the exact same thing. After noticing earlier this year that the road indeed becomes invisible after sunset, I now make travel plans only after consulting a daily sunrise/sunset chart.

Last month we were visiting one of our daughters in Massachusetts, and when it got to be mid-afternoon, I said to my wife, “OK, sunset is at 7:45 today, which means we really should be home by 7:15. And it takes an hour and a half to drive home from here, so factoring in some unexpected delays, we should get going no later than, um, noon.” (Hey, what can I say? I inherited the cautious gene.)

When my wife pointed out that it was already after 3 p.m., I threw up my hands in despair and said, “Oh no, that means we’re gonna hafta spend the night here!”

(By the way, my son-in-law is from Italy, and it’s rather interesting trying to explain to him that the phrase “gonna hafta” actually contains four words. It’s almost as challenging as trying to explain “woulda, coulda, shoulda.”)

I did an online search about elderly night vision, and one article said: “The aging corneas and lens in the eyes become less clear as we age, causing light to scatter inside the eyes, which increases glare. These changes also reduce contrast sensitivity — the ability to discern subtle differences in brightness — making it harder to see objects on the roadway at night.”

Well, that explains why I’ve recently noticed that when I’m driving at night, the headlights of an oncoming car affect me just like that moment during an eye exam when the doctor shines a flashlight directly into my eyeball from about 1 inch away, which occasionally causes beams of light to shoot out of my ears.

So, when I’m driving at night, I get blinded by oncoming traffic, as the bright light scatters and glares through my rapidly disintegrating corneas and lenses (and occasionally shoots out of my ears). And then when the car passes and there is no oncoming traffic, it seems like I’m suddenly driving through a coal mine with two pairs of sunglasses on. But other than that, driving at night is no problem.

Just to be safe, however, I’m still leaving at noon, no matter how many smart-aleck comments my kids make.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Why Aren’t We More Grateful?

I have a big complaint, and here it is: people complain way too much nowadays. You must know a person who complains incessantly—probably more than one person. You may even be an incessant complainer yourself. I’m pretty certain I am, but I’m not quite sure what incessant means. And I have a complaint about people who use big words like that just to show off. Who do they think they are, anyway?!

Oh wait, sorry. I can slip into complaint mode very easily these days.

I think the problem is that we’ve lost our sense of gratitude. We seem to ignore all the wonderful God-given blessings in our lives and instead we focus on the negative things, which are usually quite minor.

Our modern culture really needs an attitude adjustment. What we need to do is imagine that instead of living in the year 2019, it is actually the year 1819.

Exactly 200 years ago, James Monroe was the president, there were 21 states in the Union, and most people lived an agrarian life. (Again, Mr. Big Shot with the fancy words! Agrarian means “of the land,” that is, they were farmers who grew their own crops, and rarely drove their SUVs to the local Stop & Shop supermarket to buy exotic food from all over the world and pay with their debit cards.)

Back in 1819, people routinely died in their 30s and 40s, often from infection, cholera, farm accidents, etc. If someone lived into their 50s or 60s, they were considered very elderly. Most families had at least one or two children who died before age five. And a significant number of women died during childbirth.

Two centuries ago, the following items did not exist: flush toilets, running water, dental care, antibiotics, electric lights, automobiles, refrigeration, air conditioning, and Kellogg’s Pop Tarts. Also, the wifi service was pretty weak.

So, what we need to do today is imagine what a typical day would be like if it were the year 1819. First, we rise at sun-up from our comfy mattress, which is stuffed with things like straw and corn stalks. Then we decide which shoes to put on—a fairly simple decision since we only own one pair of shoes—and go outside to use the outhouse. Then we draw some water from the well with a bucket, and bring it inside to the kitchen.

A little while later we get dressed for the day, another simple decision because we only own two sets of clothing: a Sunday outfit and a “rest of the week” outfit. After a delightful breakfast of possum sausage and corn meal fried in a pan of lard, it’s time to do our chores. The chores are grueling and pretty much non-stop from 6 a.m. until 7 p.m.

Finally, sundown arrives, and we light a flickering candle or oil lamp so we can (barely) see inside the house. We spend the evening doing one of three things: sit by the flickering light and read the Bible, sharpen the tip of a goose feather and write a letter, or go to bed. Watching Netflix on an iPad is not an option.

Speaking of writing a letter, communication in 1819 was rather interesting. After scratching down our thoughts on parchment with the aforementioned quill pen, we wait a few days until we can give the letter to a postal worker, and then confidently know that the letter will be delivered to the correct recipient within no more than seven weeks.

Of course, if the letter is being sent from, say, Connecticut to Ohio, and if the message in the letter is something like, “Grandpa is very sick. Hurry home before it’s too late,” then most likely it is, in fact, too late.

Please try this exercise. Every time you do something during a typical day that was not possible in 1819, offer up a quick prayer of thanksgiving to God. Am I saying that every time we, for example, flush the toilet, we should thank God? Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying.

When we become more grateful and less complaining, we’ll be amazed at how much more we enjoy life. Now if I can just get my wife to whip up a batch of possum sausage and corn meal. Mmm, boy, that sound good!