Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Adventures in the Sunshine State

In early February, my wife and I flew to Florida for a week. The first four days were spent (and I emphasize the word “spent,” as in “cha-ching”) in Orlando, where I attended a trade show. Then for the remaining days we drove over to Cocoa Beach, on the Atlantic Ocean. We were just down the road from Port Canaveral, where the Disney and Carnival Cruise ship terminals are located. And if you think we went on a cruise, then you didn’t read my column on January 29th. (Hint: the word “terminal” is featured prominently. Look up that column.)
Here are some observations of our adventures in Florida:

The trade show and conference I attended is billed as “The World’s Largest HVAC Marketplace.” But it turns out that despite all the air conditioning and heating equipment on display, the event actually should be called “The Cholesterol Olympics.” (I won a gold and two silvers!) This year, my New Year’s resolution to avoid unhealthy food lasted the entire month of January. A new record! In past years, that very same resolution was broken by halftime of the Rose Bowl game.

However, during our four-day stay in Orlando, I had steak twice, barbecued beef once, fried calamari, fried shrimp, fried onion rings, and possibly a few fried Slim Jims. I also had some donuts, some bacon, and some donuts wrapped in bacon. Just to be safe, I called ahead and had paramedics waiting for me at Bradley Airport with an IV of Lipitor.

I had an interesting adventure with the EZ Pass highway toll device on the rental car. When I picked up the car, I said to the clerk behind the counter, “You have the EZ Pass device in the car, right? I’ll use that when I drive under a toll gantry, and then pay for whatever I use when I return the car, OK?” He nodded his head and smiled, and I thought we were all set. It turns out we were not all set. I was required to choose a “toll package,” and since I did not, every time I drove under a toll gantry rather than use the “cash lane,” the State of Florida took my picture and entered me into a database of known tax felons. (Let this be a lesson for my fellow Nutmeggers. Once those gantries are installed, it’s “game over.” Just sayin’.)
I’m still trying to hash out a settlement. I don’t know how much it will end up costing me, but I know I’ll never be able to slip this one undetected into my expense report. On the bright side, I hear that Florida prisons offer classes in Spanish as a second language, which will come in handy the next time I try to communicate with a rental car clerk in the Sunshine State.

When we arrived in Florida, I called home to say hi to my mother. Even though I qualified for Social Security last year, my mom ended our call by offering the universal “Mother’s advice,” when she said, “Don’t talk to strangers!”

Well, I was attending an international convention and sales conference, so I kind of had to talk to strangers. Since we’re all from the same industry, it’s really not like we’re strangers. Although, since we’re all in the HVAC business, the word “strange” is appropriate.

It turns out the biggest attraction of the entire trade show was my Hartford Whalers hat. I got more comments and entered into more conversations with hockey fans who remember the “good ol’ days.” (And yes, Mom, they all were strangers.)
Well, it was a fun trip, but now it’s back to winter in New England. (Unless Florida marshals drag me down there again. Which, based on the weather forecast for Connecticut, might not be so bad.)

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Catholic No-Meat Rule Is Fishy

This week is the beginning of Lent, a six-week period on the Catholic calendar when the faithful are supposed to engage in acts of abstinence and penance. I’m reminded of a lunch meeting I attended last year during Lent. I had to call the waitress back and change my order from a turkey club sandwich to the grilled salmon. Then I explained to the other guys at the table, “I forgot it’s Friday. Can’t eat meat during Lent.”

This prompted a discussion, which was summarized by one of my colleagues, who said, “So let me get this straight. To engage in personal sacrifice and abstinence, you Catholics can’t eat meatloaf on Friday, but you can eat lobster and shrimp?”
My brilliant and insightful reply was, “Um, yeah, sort of.”

The no-meat-on-Friday rule is such an ingrained Catholic tradition, I really hadn’t given it much thought recently. (I am using, of course, the definition of “hadn’t given it much thought recently” that means: never thought about it ever.)

To me, having to eat fish on Friday is a major sacrifice because I’m not a big fan of fish. Compared to a steak or a roast beef sandwich, in my view anything from the sea just doesn’t match up. (This reminds me of the observation made by my favorite comedian, Jim Gaffigan: “What’s the best thing to put on fish? Anything that kills the taste of fish!”)

Back when I was a kid, the rule was that you could not eat meat on Fridays all year long, which probably explains why I still break out in a cold sweat at the mere mention of the words “fish sticks.” Now it’s just the Fridays during Lent plus Ash Wednesday. When you add it up it’s a grand total of only eight days.
From what I can gather, the tradition against eating meat on Fridays dates back to a time when red meat was an expensive luxury, while fish was commonplace and cheap. I suppose a lot of faithful peasants back then proudly declared, “Hey, today is Friday, so I refuse to eat something I can’t afford anyway.”

The idea of abstinence, denying ourselves of something that we typically enjoy, is a pretty foreign concept in our modern-day instant-gratification culture. The motto of most Americans these days seems to be, “I want what I want, and I want it now!!”

American Catholics are not exactly standing in line to engage is special fasting and abstinence. We’re like most other people, immediately trying to figure out a loophole, such as the great “sacrifice” of substituting lobster for meatloaf.

On a Catholic website, someone offered this comment recently: “Forget the no-meat thing. The Church should declare that Catholics must abstain from television every Friday. Now that would be a major sacrifice.”
Whoa, let’s not go crazy. I prefer the peasant approach: refuse to do something I can’t afford anyway. On Fridays during Lent I think I’ll give up driving around in a BMW 760i Grand Coupe. That ought to show God how holy and reverent I am.

The Lenten rules about fasting and abstinence are not designed to see how clever we are in coming up with loopholes. Fasting and abstinence are tried-and-true methods that remind us just how dependent we are on God, which subsequently draw us nearer to Him.

This Lent, why don’t we try to find something that will be a genuine sacrifice, maybe giving up TV or doughnuts or coffee. But please let’s not fool ourselves by thinking that substituting lobster for meatloaf is a holy sacrifice. Because God surely is not fooled, nor is He impressed.

Parting (With Books) Is Such Sweet Sorrow

The other day I gave away approximately 90-percent of my book collection. It was one of the most painful things I’ve ever done, and I’d rank it on the pain meter right behind knee surgery and speaking in public for the first time.

We are trying to declutter the house, in preparation for another attempt to sell the place and downsize, and my books were starting to take on a life of their own. I think they were multiplying overnight, which might explain those weird noises at 3 a.m. Oh wait, that was just me, shuffling down the hall to the bathroom. Never mind.
Anyway, I’d wake up in the morning and say, “Hmm, where’d that pile of books come from?” Then my wife would say, “Why are there six books stacked up on the back of the toilet tank?” And I’d reply, “Um, I dunno. Maybe the Book Fairy came last night.”

To be honest, it was not the Book Fairy. It was me, needing something to read a 3 a.m. So, yes, it was definitely time to do something about the books all over the house.

We saw a notice in a church bulletin that an area parish was having a large book sale, and they needed people to donate books. This was the perfect opportunity to declutter the house without simply tossing precious books into the trash. Instead, the books would be placed in a new home with loving parents, who could nurture and raise them properly.

The process of deciding which books to part with was gut-wrenching. I looked at each book and asked myself, “Is there even a tiny chance that I will ever read this book again?” (Or sometimes the question was: “Is there even a tiny chance that I will ever get around to finishing this book?”) Given my age and my current lifestyle and lack of free time, the honest answer was, “Nope, not happening.”
The reason it was so sad is because books are really special to me. Yes, I know fewer and fewer people read books nowadays, and books are no longer considered valuable anymore. But for me, with each book I placed into a box, I would gaze at it for a moment, knowing that between its covers was hours of enjoyment, knowledge, excitement, humor and/or inspiration. I have to admit that not a few tears were shed during the process.

I parted with dozens of humorous books, written by Russell Baker, Lewis Grizzard, and Dave Barry. I also gave away countless books about Christianity and the New Testament, written by C.S. Lewis, Peter Kreeft, and Dave Barry. The third major category was sports books, especially about the Red Sox, written by Roger Angell, Dan Shaughnessy, and Dave Barry.

When I arrived at the church hall at the scheduled drop-off time, I don’t think they expected someone to show up in a Chevy Equinox with every square inch of interior space — except for the driver’s seat — stuffed with books.
With each box I hauled into the building, I’d get a glimpse of the book on top, and I’d gasp a little and say, “Oh, I’m gonna miss you!”

It reminded me of bringing my children to college for the first time — except with my children they were not about to live forever with a different, unknown family, preventing me from ever seeing them again.

Well, it’s done, and now the house looks decidedly less cluttered. It was a painful experience, but I’m glad I did it. Fortunately, my sadness was alleviated by — please don’t mention this to my wife — the Christmas gift cards I received to Barnes and Noble. Oh boy, I can’t wait to go book shopping!

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

John the Baptist Had Doubts About Jesus

A few weeks ago, we discussed John the Baptist, who said some awesome things when he baptized Jesus. At first, John was reluctant even to baptize the Lord, and said that Jesus ought to baptize him instead. Then he said that Jesus is “the lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” And finally John said, “I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from heaven and remain upon [Jesus]….he is the Son of God.”

So, it’s pretty clear that John the Baptist knew without a doubt that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and the Savior of the World. But we often forget what happened to John later on. After he was arrested and imprisoned by Herod, John sent some of his followers to Jesus with this question: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” (Matthew 11:3).
Whoa, wait a minute. John the Baptist doubted Jesus? He really wasn’t sure anymore if Jesus was the Messiah?

What a surprise. John actually had doubts about Jesus’ identity, even after earlier proclaiming forcefully that Jesus is definitely the one true Messiah Israel had been waiting for.

Instead of being shocked by John’s doubt, we should be glad. If someone as great as John the Baptist had occasional doubts about his faith, then we shouldn’t get too worried when our faith gets weak.

Now, of course, I’m not referring to situations where people completely lose their faith. Unfortunately, there are many folks in our secular, cynical culture who have decided that God probably does not exist and therefore all religious doctrines are silly fairy tales. They have rejected and renounced the faith and walked away from all church activities.

When I say we should be glad that John the Baptist had doubts, I mean it’s encouraging for us when we have temporary doubts, occasional confusion, or periods of listlessness regarding our faith. And let’s be honest: that happens fairly often. I’m not hesitant to admit that my faith gets weak at times. The primary reason I am not hesitant to admit it is because I’m in good company. Besides John the Baptist, we also know that Mother Teresa experienced times in her saintly life when she wasn’t sure if God was there for her.
Once in a while I wake up on a Sunday morning and say to myself, “Why bother going to Mass today? It doesn’t really matter.” I usually force myself to go, just out of habit. And quite often when I get to church, someone or something gives me an unexpected emotional boost, and I get a little bit inspired and glad that I went.

There are many reasons to have doubts nowadays. The never-ending Church scandals are very discouraging; the secular culture constantly preaches that religious faith is a sign of ignorance; and well, maybe it’s just really cold outside on a particular Sunday morning and you’d rather stay in bed than go to Mass.

Regardless of why we may have doubts about our faith, the important thing is how we handle those doubts. Some people simply choose to give up and stop thinking about it. John the Baptist was not one of those people. He sent messengers to Jesus with a blunt question: Are you the one or not?

Mother Teresa didn’t give up either. Even when she could not feel the presence of God at all, she carried on each day, serving the poor and doing what God had called her to do years earlier.
When we have doubts, we have to do the same. First, ask questions. The more you inquire about the doctrines of Christianity, the more you’ll realize they’re true. Second, continue to do what is right, even if you don’t feel like it. Eventually, the period of doubt will pass, and you’ll regain the joy and wonder the comes with knowing Christ. And if it’s really cold out on a Sunday morning, just put on an extra sweater and get your butt to Mass.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Jonesing For a Trivial Label

Just the other day I discovered that I am a member of a subset of the Baby Boom generation, a group known as “Generation Jones.” Traditionally the Baby Boomers have been defined as those born between the years 1946 and 1964. Generation Jones is the younger half of the Boomers, defined as those born between 1954 and 1964.

The term “Generation Jones” was coined by a man named Jonathan Pontell. He describes us as a “lost generation between the Baby Boomers and Generation X.” Unlike the older half of the Boomers, Jonesers were raised on “The Brady Bunch,” not “Leave It To Beaver.” We were too young for the Summer of Love and Vietnam war protests, but we do remember Watergate and gasoline shortages. The Beatles and the Stones were pretty good — for a bunch of old guys — but we really preferred Springsteen and Skynyrd.
Why “Jones”? As best as anyone can figure, the word was chosen for a number of reasons. First, Jones is a common, plain name, and kind of embodies the idea of a large, anonymous group. Another possibility is the idea of “keeping up with the Joneses,” a phrase that describes conspicuous consumption, the frantic consumerism that has been so prevalent during most of our lives. Supposedly, the older Boomers were more idealistic, with JFK and the Peace Corps and trying to change the world, etc. The Jonesers, on the other hand, were too young for that altruistic stuff, and we reached adulthood during the so-called Decade of Greed, the 1980s, and the era of Jimmy Carter’s “malaise.”

Still another possible reason for the label “Generation Jones” is offered by Pontell himself, who explains that “this generation has a ‘Jones,’ or longing, for its own identity and for the world it was promised as children but never received.”

Although I occasionally have heard the word Jones used as a synonym for desire or craving — as in, “I’m jonesing for caffeine,” or, “He’s got a basketball jones,” or, “Are you jonesing for a new BMW again?” — it’s not exactly a common expression in my circle of acquaintances. For example, I’m not sure what my customers at work might think if I called them and said, “Hey Lenny, I’ve got an accounts receivable jones. When are you gonna pay that past-due invoice?” Or if I said to my wife, “Honey, I’m jonesing for some meatloaf tonight.”
Anyway, my main concern is not that using the word “Jones” as a verb is dumb, nor that my generation is best known for conspicuous consumerism, nor that I now have yet another label to add to my already over-labeled self: white, male, Irish-American, Catholic, pro-life, Libertarian, recovering alcoholic, male pattern baldness, left-handed, Red Sox fan. No, my main concern is that until the other day, I had never even heard the term “Generation Jones.” Where have I been?

A Google search of the phrase turned up 279 million matches. Pontell wrote a book titled “Generation Jones” way back in the year 2000. The media has been identifying Generation Jones — by that exact name — for years, especially in the context of politics and national elections.

I’m really embarrassed that I was asleep at the switch on this one. I kind of pride myself on being a connoisseur of useless cultural trivia. This is as useless and trivial as it gets, and it applies directly to me (self-centeredness, of course, being a hallmark of all Boomers, and I suppose, all Jonesers). And yet I missed it.
Well, I’ll try to do my best not to miss any future trendy catch-phrases or silly labels. After all, I’ve got a useless cultural trivia jones.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

God is Not an Impersonal ‘Force’

The old Baltimore Catechism asked this question: “Why did God make me?” And the answer was: “God made me to know Him, and to love Him, and to serve Him in this world; and to be happy with Him forever in the next world.”

That is simple enough that young children can memorize it, and at the same time so profound that theologians can write volumes about it. it’s a summary of why we exist. God created us to know Him and to be in a loving relationship with Him.

But it’s important that we don’t confuse knowing God with knowing about God. Here’s an example: Geno Aurriema. Maybe you’ve heard of him?
As a sports fan here in Connecticut, I know a lot about Geno, the all-time greatest head coach in women’s college basketball history. But I do I really know him?

Let me tell you the story of my amazing personal encounter with Geno. It was three years ago at the Travelers Championship, during the Wednesday Pro-Am event. Geno was playing in a group with Rebecca Lobo, and they hit their tee shots and then started walking up the fairway. Geno walked within about four feet of where I was standing. When he got right next to me, I yelled out, “Hey Geno! We love you, man!” You won’t believe what happened next. Geno paused for a moment, looked back toward one of his playing partners, and then walked right past me like I wasn’t even there. Pretty amazing, huh?

So, it’s rather clear that I do not have any kind of personal relationship with Geno. I know a lot about him, but I don’t really know him at all.

There are a lot of people who know a lot about God, but they don’t really know Him. And some of them, deep down, really don’t want to know Him. I call these folks “Star Wars Christians.” What I mean is, they embrace the concept of “The Force,” from the Star Wars movies. If you remember, The Force is a mysterious spiritual power that helps the Jedi Knights. The thing is, The Force is impersonal. These “Star Wars Christians” believe that God is an impersonal power, like The Force. He or it is just out there, somewhere, available to help us when we need it, but when we don’t need any help, we can ignore Him or it.
However, if we give it some serious thought, we discover that God must be personal. First, we know that human beings were created with the ability to communicate. That’s obvious. Next, we know that we humans were created with the ability to enter into loving relationships with other persons. We’ve been doing that all our lives with our family and friends.

Now, basic logic tells us that the created beings—we humans—cannot be greater than the Creator. We cannot possess certain skills and talents that the Creator doesn’t possess. That’s just common sense: the Creator has to be greater than the creature. This means if we have the ability to communicate and enter into loving relationships, then our Creator certainly must have these abilities, too.

Here’s the key question: what are the odds that the Creator, who has the ability to communicate and enter into relationships, would go to all the trouble to create us, creatures with these same abilities, and then choose not to communicate with us at all?

That makes no sense. The odds are zero. The only conclusion is that God can and does communicate with mankind. He is able to, and He wants to, enter in a personal relationship with each and every one of us.

It’s possible to know God, not just know about Him. That’s what He wants, that’s what our souls crave, and just like the Baltimore Catechism said, knowing God is the first step in fulfilling the reason God made us.
If you enjoy the Star Wars movies, that’s great. But don’t make the mistake of thinking God is like The Force. He is not impersonal. He knows us and He loves us, and most of all, He wants to be in a loving relationship with us. Obi-Wan Kenobi should’ve said, “May the Lord be with you.”

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Notable Predictions Gone Wrong

Did you ever notice that many people like to make bold predictions? It’s just in our nature. But we should remember The Future rarely consults with us, and is not particularly influenced by our firm and confident declarations.

Here are some predictions, made by knowledgeable and respected people, that went spectacularly wrong:

In high school, Elvis Presley’s music teacher said he had no aptitude for singing. (Elvis? Elvis who? Did he ever end up doing anything notable?)
In 1955, Variety magazine wrote, “Rock n’ roll? It will be gone by June.” (Well, to be fair, they didn’t say June of which year.)

In 1962, after listening to an audition by the Beatles, the head of Decca Records, Dick Rowe, explained why he had no interest in signing the group: “The Beatles have no future in show business.” (Yeah, that sounds about right, other than the 600 million albums they’ve sold.)

In August, 1914, right after World War I began, Kaiser Wilhelm told the German troops, “You will be home before the leaves have fallen from the trees.” (Maybe he meant they’d be home in coffins.)

In 1861, Lt. Joseph Ives, after leading his soldiers to the Grand Canyon, said, “Ours has been the first expedition, and doubtless the last, to visit this profitless locality.” (I went there a few years ago, and somebody made a profit off me, that’s for sure.)
In 1903, the president of the Michigan Savings Bank advised Henry Ford’s lawyer, Horace Rackham, not to invest in the Ford Motor Company, by telling him, “The horse is here to stay, but the automobile is only a novelty, a fad.” (He was partially right because horses are still around. Somewhere. I think.)

In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell tried to sell his invention to Western Union, whose president, William Orton, replied, “This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication.” (I think Western Union wanted to wait for the iPhone to be released.)

Speaking of the iPhone, in 2007 the CEO of Microsoft, Steve Ballmer, said “There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance.” (By the way, I looked up this quotation on my iPhone.)

In 1916, two years into his career as a movie actor, Charlie Chaplin said this about motion pictures: “The cinema is little more than a fad. It’s canned drama. What audiences really want to see is flesh and blood on the stage.” (Maybe the cinema is a fad, after all, since everyone stays home and watches Netflix now.)

In 1998, Edmund DeJesus, the editor of popular computer magazine, Byte, wrote, “Y2K is a crisis without precedence in human history.” (I think that article is what prompted me to load up my basement with cases of Spam. Two decades later, I’m finally down to my last case.)
In November, 2016, New York Times columnist and Nobel Prize winner in economics, Paul Krugman, wrote that Donald Trump’s election to the presidency would cause an immediate global recession “with no end in sight.” (On the other hand, I’ve personally lived through at least six recessions, and we are way overdue. So, the Times’ opinionated “stopped clock” eventually will be kind of right, and then, of course, CNN will laud him as a brilliant visionary.)

Well, everybody likes to consider themselves an expert, and we enjoy making bold predictions. Just remember that most predictions, even by the so-called experts, are about as accurate as tossing a dart while blindfolded and wearing boxing gloves. But more importantly, who wants to stop by for my 400th and final Spam Party?

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Our Attitude Must Be Meek and Humble

In this week’s gospel reading, Jesus tells His followers, “You are the salt of the earth….You are the light of the world….your light must shine before others.”

It seems that Jesus is saying Christians must stand out. Christians must be noticeable. Each and every Christian must be so outstanding and so spectacular and so influential that other people will immediately see there is something special about us. And because our faith in the Lord makes us so interesting and alluring, these other people will be compelled to put their faith in the Lord also.
Um, sure. That sounds like a great plan.

Or maybe we’ll be a bit more effective if we follow St. Paul’s teaching in this week’s second reading. In a letter to the church he founded in Corinth, Paul explains that when he first came to that city with the Good News of the Gospel, he came with a meek and humble attitude. Paul writes, “I came to you in weakness and fear and much trembling, and my message and my proclamation were not with persuasive words of wisdom.”

In other words, Paul did not try to attract people to the Christian faith by showing off how smart and talented he was. And we know from Scripture that Paul was in fact very smart and talented, and a dynamic public speaker. Instead, Paul was humble. He freely admitted how sinful and weak he was. He explained in detail how the Lord had rescued him from sin and death.

Paul did not try to draw attention to himself. He knew he was just the messenger. His mission was to draw attention to God. Paul very easily could have put the focus on himself and developed a cult-like following. But he knew that was the exact opposite of what God wanted. Just as John the Baptist did, Paul ignored himself and aimed the spotlight onto the true star of the show: Jesus Christ.
In one of St. Paul’s other letters, the epistle to the Ephesians, he explains: “For by grace you have been saved through faith…it is not from works, so that no one may boast.”

If we are truly Christians, we must be thankful and grateful and humble about it, not proud and arrogant and boastful, as if it were something we accomplished on our own. Humility and meekness and overflowing gratitude must be the hallmarks of our attitude about our faith.

And by the way, Jesus doesn’t actually tell us in this week’s gospel reading to be flashy and flamboyant and thereby draw others to the faith because of our own personal attractiveness and accomplishments. It’s true that Jesus says, “Your light must shine before others,” but the rest of that sentence is, “…that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.” The focus, as always, is on the Lord and not on us.

Yes indeed, there’s no doubt about it: Jesus commands us this week to do something that will attract others to the faith. But the things we need to do must not be designed to draw attention to ourselves. They must be designed to draw attention to God. As Jesus says, we must do good deeds—in other words, serve others, not ourselves—and as Paul explains, we must do these good deeds with an attitude of humility and weakness.
If we remember that we are just the messengers, not the star of the show—and in some cases we are prime examples of how the Lord can rescue pitiful wretches from the clutches of sin and death—then others who need to hear the Good News of the Gospel will be drawn to a saving faith in Jesus. Not by how wonderful we are, but the exact opposite: by how thoroughly unimpressive and humble we are.