Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Shoe Box Memories

Do you remember back in the olden days when photographs were stored in shoe boxes in the closet? It was a great system for chronicling family history. Someone would take a few snapshots at various family events, and then after you got the film developed (oftentimes years later), you’d flip through the prints to make sure some of them were not completely blurry, and then you’d put them in the shoe box.
Whenever a family member passed away, you could run to the shoe box, select a bunch of photos, and quickly make a nice poster board of the dearly departed’s life, to be displayed at the wake.

Nowadays, it’s completely different. Photos are digital, and they are not stored in a single, central location, like the hall closet. Photographs now are stored all over the place: on various people’s phones; on multiple computer hard drives, including some old computers that don’t work anymore; on various cloud storage services, like Google Photos; and all over social media sites, such as Satan’s Book, er, I mean, Facebook, and Instagram. So, when a loved one passes away now, you need Gibbs and his entire NCIS crew to scour the internet looking for appropriate pictures. If enough digital photos are located and downloaded, someone, usually the smartest teenager in the family, is given the task of creating a slide show, which has replaced the snapshot-filled poster board at funeral homes.

This task is made more difficult because the sheer number of photos taken these days is slightly more than in the olden days. I am using, of course, the definition of the phrase “slightly more” that means: “seventy-six billion times more.”
I won’t be surprised if I see this comment in a person’s obituary: “A memorial service will be held next summer, because it will take that long to sift through all the photos.”

Even though there has been a complete revolution in photographic technology during the past couple of decades, two things still have not changed. First, whenever people look at photos, the first thing they do is look for themselves in the pictures. C’mon, don’t deny it. Everyone is instantly drawn to themselves in photographs. And I don’t mean just narcissistic social media addicts. Everyone checks themselves out when looking at photos. A couple of months ago, one of my nieces got married, and afterward I saw a really nice photo of the bride and groom walking down the aisle at the end of the ceremony. They looked great, but I quickly noticed that about 30 feet behind them in the background, very blurry, was me. And the first thing that popped into my head was, “Wow, is my hair really THAT thin on top?”

Which brings us to the second thing about photography that has not changed, despite advances in technology. When people look at recent photos of themselves, they usually say something like, “Gee, I look lousy.” Followed by specific comments, such as, “Are my eyes really that baggy?” or, “My teeth used to be white,” or, “Was this taken with a wide-angle lens? I’m not that chubby, am I?”

When we view recently taken photos, we cringe at how we look. But here’s the thing that never changes: if we happen to see that exact same photo three or four years later, we always say, “Wow, I looked great back then. I wish I looked that good now.”
I think one of the nicest things we can do for our family members is to dig through all of our photos and prepare our own slide show in advance. That way, when our time comes, the wake won’t have to be delayed for nine months.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Digital Sabbath Rest – Part 2

A couple of weeks ago I discussed taking a Digital Sabbath Rest, which I defined as abstaining from all computers, smart phones, and tablets for one day out of the week. After I wrote that essay, I thought, “Gee, if I’m gonna encourage people to do stuff like that, maybe I should try it myself.”

So, that’s exactly what I did: on a recent Sunday I went an entire 24-hour period without turning on the computer, looking at an iPad, or grabbing my cell phone.
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, let me point out that I did turn on my cell phone twice, at noon and at 6 p.m., just to make sure there were no urgent messages. With my luck, the day I shut everything off would be the day a loved-one needed to contact me because of an emergency. But on this particular day there was no problem—other than the problem of forcing myself to shut the phone back off after checking for messages, which was an extreme test of will.

This exercise taught me a few things about myself: first, even though I am old enough to remember when Mass was always said in Latin, when it comes to electronic gizmos, I’m no different than a high school sophomore. All day long during my Digital Sabbath I kept reaching for my pants pocket, and then when I didn’t feel my phone, I had a moment of panic. “Oh no! Where’s my phone?!” I thought in horror, before remembering my daylong digital fast. Then I had a feeling of relief, knowing the phone wasn’t lost, which was quickly followed by a feeling of genuine sadness, as I realized I could not look at my phone’s screen, the one thing my Pavlovian brain craved at that moment.
The second thing I learned about myself is that I’m pretty sure I’ve developed a case of D.A.D.D. (Digital Attention Deficit Disorder). When I tried to relax and enjoy my day of rest by engaging in some old-school media, such as a newspaper or a book, I had a tough time concentrating. My mind kept wandering and was filled with random thoughts, most of which gave me the urge to do a Google search because I suddenly needed to know a completely useless bit of trivia. I basically have the attention span of a chipmunk on crack.

However, after a few hours I finally settled down and began to enjoy the peace and quiet. By the end of the day, I had read a large chunk of a novel, took a nap, read the Bible for a while, went for a walk, worked on a new essay (using notebook paper and a pencil—what a concept!) and prayed a Rosary.

At one point, I went almost a full hour without reaching for my phone and panicking when it wasn’t in my pocket. By the end of the day, I had developed a noticeable increase in serenity. Now, to be clear, I did not turn into Thomas Merton in one day. I’d say I was more like a chipmunk after a couple of vodka and tonics.

(By the way, I am in no way trying to make light of the epidemic of substance abuse in the chipmunk community. Those furry little critters have their own crosses to bear, especially with winter coming, and it’s very sad whenever one of them succumbs to the lure of drugs or alcohol. I wanted to make sure you understood that it’s nothing personal; I’m just the king of really bad analogies.)
I truly believe my Digital Sabbath Rest was good for my soul and brought me closer to God. And I encourage everyone to give it a try. You have nothing to lose, except maybe a crack-like addiction to glowing screens and the attention span of a humming bird after four double-espressos. (See what I mean about bad analogies? It’s kind of my thing.)

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Cars Are More Reliable These Days

The other day I was driving to a meeting in Norwalk, and it dawned on me that my car is extremely reliable. There was no fear that my trusty Chevy Equinox would break down and cause me to miss the meeting. That wasn’t always the case with automobiles, at least the ones I owned when I was a young man.

Throughout my entire 20s and early 30s, for each car that I drove, I was at least the third or fourth owner. That means the vehicle was sold brand new to someone, who drove it for a few years and then traded it in to a dealership when they bought a new car. Then the dealership sold it as a used car. (This was before the term “preowned car” was employed, which allows the dealer to add 25-percent to the sale price.)

Then that owner drove it for another few years before putting it up for sale in the newspaper classifieds. (This was before the Internet took over the used car business, so instead of buying a lemon from some guy on the other side of town, we now can buy a lemon from places like Arizona or Guam.)

Finally, when the car was parked on someone’s front lawn with a sign on the windshield that said “$600 OR BEST OFFER,” it was my turn to step forward and become the proud owner of that gorgeous, high-performance vehicle. I am using, of course, the definition of “gorgeous, high-performance vehicle” that means: “bucket of bolts that may not even make it to the DMV office so I can get it registered.”

The very first car I ever owned was a 1971 Ford Pinto. By the time I bought it, it was eight years old and had 90,000 miles on it, which was about 30,000 miles past the average lifespan of a Pinto. If you remember the sensational news stories back in those days, when a Pinto got rear-ended by another car — even at low speed — the resulting fireball from the poorly designed gas tank would make the car’s (and the driver’s) lifespan about an additional 10 seconds.

My Pinto had an interesting quirk: whenever it came to a stop, the engine stalled and shut off. I had to yank up the emergency brake, press down on the clutch pedal with my left foot (I can’t even begin to explain what this means, as everyone under the age of 45 has never even seen a standard shift vehicle), start the car again, and keep my right foot on the gas so the engine revved enough not to stall again. And then when the light turned green, I’d have to simultaneously give it gas, let up on the clutch, and release the emergency brake so the car could continue driving. It was a very good hand-eye coordination exercise, and I got to experience that particular physical skills test EVERY SINGLE TIME the car came to a stop.

Of all the cars I owned back in those days, the Pinto was the most reliable. At least it always re-started. I had a ’74 Saab and a ’77 Datsun pickup truck that broke down so often I had the tow truck driver’s phone number memorized.

So, I’m not sure if the reliability of my current car is because the auto manufacturers are making better vehicles, or if it’s due more to the fact that I’m now usually the first or second owner of the car rather than the fourth. Either way, I am very grateful it’s been so long since I’ve experienced a vehicle breakdown. Uh oh, I think I just jinxed myself. I’d better go memorize a tow truck driver’s phone number right now.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Fruits of the Spirit and Self-Control

In his letter to the Galatians, St. Paul listed what are called the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Now, who wouldn’t want to experience love, joy, peace, and patience in their lives? And kindness, generosity, faithfulness, and gentleness? These are such wonderful traits. If our lives are filled with these spiritual gifts from God, it makes us happy and fulfilled. It truly makes our day-to-day lives a delight.

I can honestly say that I have experienced these eight fruits of the spirit—at times—and they really make a big difference.

But then there’s that 9th fruit St. Paul mentioned: self-control. Uh oh. I’m not sure Paul knew what it would be like to live in America in the early 21st century.

I mean, this is an instant gratification society we have here nowadays. I’m pretty sure St. Paul did not have all-you-can eat buffets on every street corner, like we do. And he probably wasn’t able to binge-watch his favorite TV shows on Netflix. Ah yes, there’s nothing like staring at 47 straight episodes of “The Office” over the course of a weekend. If we practiced self-control, we never would have the, um, interesting experience of walking stiffly around the house like a zombie on Sunday night with our eyes unable to focus, while being so overdue for a shower that the family dog takes one sniff of us and runs the other way.

They say the city of Corinth, where St. Paul spent a lot of time, was similar to Las Vegas. But I don’t think they had casinos open 24/7 with thousands of gaming tables and all your favorite entertainers appearing on stage. If Paul had the chance to see, say, Brittney Spears and Wayne Newton perform, and then spent the next 18 hours “doubling down” at the Blackjack tables, he may have decided to leave that 9th fruit of the spirit off his list.

Let’s face it, we do not like to delay gratification. We Americans have been trained from birth to desire something and then demand to have it—right away!

Which culture in world history invented fast food restaurants? And then when they weren’t fast enough, drive-thru windows?

Which culture in world history invented online shopping, where we can purchase anything and everything with one click on the computer? And then when having the item arrive at our house in three days wasn’t fast enough, demanded next-day and in some places, same-day delivery? Yup, that would be us, good ol’ America.

A lack of self-control is most likely the biggest reason so many Americans feel so unfulfilled and unhappy these days. When we wholeheartedly embrace the instant gratification mindset—as our culture encourages us to do—we quickly reach a point where nothing comes to us fast enough. It’s like being a drug addict. No matter what our particular indulgence may be—overeating, casino gambling, binge-watching TV shows, buying stuff online—we soon discover we are never fully satisfied.

Some people then turn to really destructive habits, like alcohol and drugs. Others just live their lives with an overwhelming sense of frustration and longing.

There is a big reason St. Paul used the words “of the spirit” when he listed those nine fruits. That’s because it’s virtually impossible for us to embrace and live out those traits without God’s help. We need to ask the Holy Spirit to take control of our lives so we can do God’s will rather than our own impulsive will.

If we do that, our lives will be filled with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and yes, even self-control. We will discover that we don’t need casinos, buffets, Amazon, and Netflix to make us happy. The spirit of God can do that better than any modern instant gratification.

Also, if we allow ourselves to be filled with the fruits of the spirit, besides experiencing God’s peace and serenity, we just might find that at the end of each month, we actually have some money left in our bank accounts!

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Winston Churchill: Statesman and Napper

My new hero is Winston Churchill. Not just because he was the forceful and courageous leader of Great Britain during the bleakest hours of World War II. And not just because he seems to have been one of the few powerful politicians throughout history who did not cheat on his wife every time she went out of town. (Possibly his prodigious eating and drinking habits kept him distracted? Who knows?)

No, the main reason Winston Churchill is my new hero is because I recently discovered he was a world-class napper. Ol’ Winnie knew the value of a good mid-afternoon nap. Churchill is quoted as saying, “You must sleep sometime between lunch and dinner, and no halfway measures. Take off your clothes and get into bed. That's what I always do. Don’t think you will be doing less work because you sleep during the day. That’s a foolish notion held by people who have no imaginations. You will be able to accomplish more.”

I’ve been practicing that quote, recited with a gravelly British accent, in the hopes of one day mustering up the courage to say it to my coworkers.

Churchill was known to abruptly walk out of important cabinet meetings without a word. Those in attendance who didn’t know him well wondered where he went and when he might return. Those who did know him smirked and whispered, “Nap time for the Prime Minister.” An hour or two later Churchill would return to the meeting, refreshed and rejuvenated.

During those afternoon naps, just as he advised other people, Churchill would disrobe completely and put on a nightshirt. Occasionally he would awaken from his nap with a brilliant thought, and then charge into adjacent offices barking out instructions. If his nightshirt happened to flutter upward, heads of state and other political power brokers would get a full view of the Prime Minister’s bulbous British bum, in all of its pink glory. And he didn’t care a bit. Napping was that important to him.

During the war, Churchill famously gave strict orders that he was never to be awakened in the middle of the night, with one exception: only if Nazi forces were actually invading England. Anything short of that — like bombing raids or crises in far off battle theaters — could wait until morning. Now that’s my kind of guy. He knew the value of sleep.

Unfortunately, in our current fast-paced society, sleeping is considered a sign of laziness. Many people think naps are for bums (not the pink British ones, I mean). I’ve heard guys brag about how little sleep they get each night.

However, science finally is backing up Churchill’s (and my) point of view. A study came out a while ago, published by the Harvard School of Public Health, which showed that a person’s chances of having a fatal heart attack are reduced by 37-percent if he or she takes a 30-minute afternoon nap at least three times per week. Sounds good to me.

Churchill wasn’t exactly known for being a health nut. He never watched his cholesterol intake; he smoked cigars constantly; he drank like a fish; he never went jogging; and just look at some old photos: he certainly did not give a flying fig about having six pack abs. And yet, the man lived to be 90. I think it was the naps.

So, I’m going to find out if it’s OK to bring a cot into my office. I’ll explain to my coworkers, “I have nothing to offer this company but blood, toil, tears, sweat — and sleep!”

And I’ll promise not to disrobe and risk flashing my pink Irish bum to the rest of the office.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Time for a Digital Sabbath Rest

A few months ago, I mentioned my friend in Israel, Alan. He is a devout Jew and faithfully observes the Sabbath each week. From sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday, he and his family detach themselves from the hectic, modern world: no work, no travel, no TV. They just rest and pray and enjoy each other’s company.

When I wrote that essay, I discussed the fact that Catholics used to honor the Lord’s Day, Sunday, by resting and refraining from work. Raise your hand if you can remember the “blue laws,” and the fact all the stores were closed on Sunday? (Uh oh, if you raised your hand, you’re showing your age!)

Nowadays, of course, for the average Catholic, Sundays are filled with shopping, traveling, catching up on office work, and the completely out-of-control youth sports activities. (Let me clarify: if parents have to be in Stamford at 9 a.m. for Sally’s soccer game, and then in Norwich at 2 p.m. for Tommy’s lacrosse game, and then in suburban Boston by 7 p.m. to pick up Davey from his hockey tournament, that’s is the definition of “out-of-control” youth sports. That is an insane schedule no matter what day of the week it is.)

It’s unlikely American Catholics will every return to the “good ol’ days” of honoring the Lord’s Day by staying close to home, enjoying a meal with family, and then taking a long nap. But maybe we could try something tailored for our modern age. I’m thinking of this: a digital Sabbath rest. What I mean is, we take one day of each week and shut off all the digital devices to which we have become so addicted.

Do you think that is possible? Can you go a full day without using your smart phone, your iPad, or your computer? Can you go an entire 24-hour period without the Internet, with no emails, and no text messages? Is that humanly possible? Whoa, I can hear you screaming “No!!” right now through my laptop computer. (And that would include no laptop computers, too.)

What I am proposing is this: on one day of the week, we should try living with only 1943 technology: radio, newspapers, magazines, books, note pads, pencils. And in 1943, there was gas rationing because of the war, so people did not drive far. They stayed close to home, and rested and relaxed. What a concept!

Here’s a compromise: at noon, you can turn on your smart phone and check to see if there are any urgent messages. After all, you don’t want to be completely out of touch if there is a family emergency. But no Internet surfing while you phone is on—and especially no Satan’s Book, er, I mean, Facebook. Just check to make sure there are no emergencies and then turn the phone off. You can turn the phone on briefly in the early evening to check again for urgent messages.

If the very idea of detaching from digital technology for one full day is making you feel anxious right now, then that is a clear sign you really need to do it. (And just so you know, every time I type the word “you,” I also mean “me.”)

Just think of how beneficial it will be for your body, mind, and soul to relax with a good book while the radio is playing soft music in the background. Then after a while, pray the Rosary. Then go outside and take a nice walk. After that, take a long nap.

If you feel the urge to connect with another person, try an ancient method of social media: speak to someone face-to-face. I know, I know, that is a bizarre concept nowadays. But it really works, and people used to do it all the time before the smart phone era.

I suspect there is no chance American Catholics will ever be as zealous in honoring the Sabbath as my friend Alan in Israel. But we have turned the Lord’s Day into just another hectic rat-race day, and that’s not right.

I know a digital Sabbath rest will be difficult. But we should give it a try anyway. It just might keep us from losing our minds—and our souls.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

World War II Bombers: an Emotional Experience

Back in September, I climbed through two vintage World War II bombers, a B-17 “Flying Fortress” and a B-24 “Liberator.” I would’ve signed up for the 30-minute ride on one of the aircraft if I had an extra $450 laying around, but the last time I had an extra $450 laying around was, um, never.

The planes visited Waterbury-Oxford Airport. It was a very emotional experience just being onboard these cramped flying machines, as it made me realize that an entire generation of Americans gave up their youth to defend our country.
A month later, there was another emotional experience when the very B-17 I had squeezed through crashed at Bradley Airport, killing seven of the 13 people on board. What a tragedy.

Seeing those World War II bombers prompted me to check out a book from the library, The Wild Blue, by Stephen Ambrose. The book follows the experiences of the late Senator George McGovern, who as a young man from South Dakota joined the Army Air Force. Eventually, he became a pilot and was sent to Europe to fly B-24s over Germany and Austria. Somehow, he survived 35 missions.

I’d like to relate the most poignant episode of the book: On a particular mission, one of the 500-pound bombs got hung up and did not drop from the aircraft. Whenever that occurred, it was very dangerous, since a hard landing when returning to base could detonate the bomb and kill everyone on board.

So, Lieutenant McGovern flew the plane at a relatively low altitude near the Austrian Alps as crew members desperately tried to dislodge the bomb. Finally, it was freed and fell from the plane. Then the crew watched in horror as the bomb made a direct hit on an isolated farmhouse, destroying everything in sight. McGovern looked at his watch. It was exactly noon. Being from South Dakota, he knew farmers always gather at the house at noon for lunch. He and the rest of the crew were devastated, and were haunted for years knowing the bomb most likely wiped out an innocent family.
Fast forward to the mid-1980s. Political statesman George McGovern was in Austria, and while there did an interview with an Austrian TV station. After explaining to the reporter that although he had been a strong critic of the war in Vietnam, especially the bombing campaigns against North Vietnam, he believed Hitler had to be stopped, so his B-24 bombing missions were justified. Then McGovern added, “There was one bomb I’ve regretted all these years.”

Curious, the Austrian reporter said, “Tell us about it.” So, McGovern told the story of the stuck bomb and the isolated farmhouse and the guilt and sadness he carried for so many years.

After the show aired, an old Austrian farmer called the TV station and said it was his farmhouse that had been destroyed. But he explained that when he heard the airplane approaching, he took his wife and children out of the house and they all hid in a ditch. When the bomb destroyed the house, no one was hurt. When the TV station called and relayed the story to McGovern, he was overwhelmed. He just collapsed in tears and relief. Four decades of guilt and sadness disappeared. He joyfully explained, “It seemed to just wipe clean a slate.”
In light of the tragic crash at Bradley, I suppose these vintage planes should not sell rides to the public anymore. But I hope these aircraft still visit airports around the country, so spoiled, pampered Americans — like me — can better understand the sacrifices an entire generation made in the 1940s.

In honor of Veteran’s Day next week, check out the book about McGovern from the library. And if you don’t know what a library is, Google it.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Which Worldview Makes Sense – Part 2

Our topic today is fairly simple: how did human beings come into existence, and what is our purpose in life? (Fairly simple? Yeah, right!)

In part 1 last week, I discussed the reason why there must be some kind of supernatural Being which designed and created biological life on earth. This week I want to explore which of the many religious worldviews offers the most plausible explanation about these important questions. In other words, of all the unlikely creation stories, which one is most likely?

First, we need to examine whether the Creator is an impersonal force or a personal being. Logic tell us that the created beings (humans) cannot be greater than their Creator. If we are personal beings, with the ability to communicate and enter into loving relationships, then it is impossible for our Creator not to have these same abilities.

So, the only conclusion is that the Creator of mankind is personal, and he/she/it possesses the ability to communicate and enter into loving relationships with other personal beings.

Now, the next step is to examine our situation as humans here on earth. I hate to say this, but the two most prominent traits of human beings are selfishness and cruelty. How do historians mark mankind’s milestones? By listing all the various wars and conquests. It’s in our very natural to be lustful, covetous, dishonest, and violent.

But at the same time, mankind instinctively knows that certain things are right and other things are wrong. We have a moral code built into our very souls. And yet, we regularly fall short of living up to this moral code.

So, here is our dilemma: some sort of supernatural Deity created us and instilled in us a moral code. But we regularly ignore this moral code and instead follow our selfish and destructive urges. This is called sin. There’s a huge gap between how we live and how we ought to live.

OK, let me now skip past years of personal study and cut to the chase. What I’ve just described about mankind’s situation can be summarized this way: human beings need a Divine Savior.

We were created by a holy Deity, but something about our very nature causes us to fall far short of holiness. One faith tradition claims that the holy Deity selected a small tribe of people and revealed Himself to them. A key component of this interaction was the transmission of the divine law, a set of rules and regulations that said, in effect, here are instructions on how to behave, and if you follow these laws perfectly you will be in perfect communion with Me.

From that point on, the history of those Chosen People was one long struggle to uphold the divine law, but they always fell short. Another faith tradition, which grew out of the first one, claims that at a certain moment in history, the divine Being took on human flesh and walked among us. He came from the Hebrew people—because they knew better than anyone how impossible it is to be perfectly holy—and He came to offer an answer to mankind’s biggest problem: forgiveness of sin. This God-man, who was sinless, offered up His life as payment for mankind’s sins. Then He rose from the dead, conquering death once and for all, and promised that if we put our faith in Him, we could do the same.

This, obviously, is just scratching the surface about Christian doctrine. But if you’ve studied it for three decades, as I have, you’ll understand that no matter how implausible it seems at first glance, it is the THE most plausible of all the explanations about human life.

We were created by a holy God. But our relationship with God was damaged by our sin. Jesus, the long-awaited Messiah, came to bridge the gulf between holy God and sinful man. If we put our faith in Him and accept His gift of forgiveness, our relationship with God will be restored.

I beg you, please, spend some time studying the fundamental claims of Christianity. Then compare them to the claims of the many other religious traditions. I think you’ll find that the person of Jesus Christ answers our most basic longings. You’ll also experience a joy and peace you never thought possible—now, and for all eternity!