Wednesday, August 26, 2020

The Amazing Bic Pen – Part 2

Last week I wrote an ode to one of the most reliable and inexpensive products ever invented: the Bic Cristal ballpoint pen. Since I stopped eating cheese because of a severe case of lactose intolerance and stopped drinking alcoholic beverages, such as wine, because of a severe case of loudmouth-drunk-itis, I think the Bic Cristal pen is the only consumer product I currently use that originates in France. What I mean is, the Bic company was founded in France by Monsieur Marcel Bich. The pen, surprisingly, is manufactured in Mexico. (The surprise is that it’s not made in China.)

Anyway, in last week’s essay, I wrote that the Bic Cristal pen has not changed a bit since I first wrapped my fingers around one while in the 5th grade in 1967. I can’t think of a single item that has not been upgraded or revised during the last half-a-century. 

Well, it turns out I was wrong. (I know, total shock, huh?) The Bic Cristal ballpoint pen had a major modification back in 1991, when they put a hole in the top of the blue cap. This was done to reduce the risk of someone choking to death if they accidentally swallowed the cap. Two things came to mind: first, most product improvements, especially safety improvements, are made after someone has been injured or killed. I wonder how many people actually choked to death on a Bic Cristal cap? I wonder if the deceased’s family members still break out in a cold sweat every time they see someone, like me, writing with a Bic pen? 

The second thing that came to mind is that I’d better force myself to stop chewing on the cap of my Bic pens while pondering what to write next. In this era of COVID, it’s probably not a very sanitary habit, and if it’s possible to swallow the cap accidentally, even if the little hole allows me to keep breathing and not die, getting that thing out will be an embarrassing Emergency Room adventure. Not to mention the sharp edges of the cap will do some serious damage to my throat. (I told you not to mention that!) I definitely don’t want to join the “Rod Stewart Sound-a-like Club.”
In doing my Bic pen research (because, of course, these essays are always factual, without a shred of exaggeration), I discovered that in 2006, the Guiness Book of Records declared the Bic Cristal to be “the best-selling pen in the world.” This honor was bestowed on the product after the 100 billionth pen was sold. 

When I read that sentence, my first thought was, “That’s impressive. They’ve sold a lot of pens.” But then I thought about it and said, “Wait a minute. One hundred BILLION?!”

That’s approximately one pen for every single person who has ever lived in the history of Planet Earth. However, since the Bic Cristal wasn’t available for sale until the early 1950s, we can ignore the 80 billion or so people who lived prior to that time and never had the opportunity to use one. They instead were forced to do all their writing with sharpened feathers and ink wells, chiseling on stone, or iPads.
So, for discussion’s sake, let’s say approximately 20 billion people have lived when Bic pens were available. If Bic sold 100 billion Cristal pens, that’s an average of five pens per person — for every human being on the entire planet.

That’s way too many opportunities for people to choke on a pen cap. Personally, I need to find something else to mindlessly chew on when I’m writing with a Bic. Anything will do, as long as it’s not French wine or cheese.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Words are Funny Things – Especially in Church

 Have you ever noticed that many words sound similar, but have very different meanings? For example, a few years ago I was a Lector, that is, I was doing the readings at Mass. This is how I proclaimed St. Paul’s words from Scripture: “…our Savior, Christ Jesus, who destroyed death and brought life and immorality to light through the Gospel.”

Oops, the correct word was “immorTALity,” which has a slightly different meaning than immorality. But those two words sound so similar, I had no idea I had just told the congregation that we all should go out and, in Jesus’ name, embrace a life of sin. As I walked back to my pew, I didn’t understand why people were giving me funny looks. 
I forgot all about it, and when Mass ended, a friend approached me and said, “ImmoRALity? Really? That’s what the Bible tells us to do?” 

My puzzled expression told him I had no clue what he meant. So, he explained what I had said. At first, I didn’t believe him, until at least ten people confirmed it. “Oh no,” I said. “I hope there wasn’t someone at Mass today desperately looking for spiritual direction. If so, I just sent him to the casino to blow his rent money on Blackjack and booze!”

Two other words like this are selflessness and selfishness. They sound so similar, but have the exact opposite meaning. I’m pretty sure in my many years of being a Lector, there have been times when I mistakenly encouraged people to stop being so selfless and instead become selfish.

And I’m sure there were a couple of occasions when I declared that the Israelites were commanded to obey the Lord’s statues. I suspect statues were not really popular with the Israelites, especially after the golden calf debacle. But there were plenty of important statutes. It’s remarkable how one missing “t” can really change the meaning of a word.
This topic reminds me of a time a woman approached me after Mass and said, “I often read your column in the newspaper. I find it fairly humorless.”

To which I replied, “Oh, thank you. I try to make them as funny as possible.”

She paused for a moment, confused, then said, “No, I mean, I think they are humorLESS.”

“Why, thank you again, ma’am,” I said. “I believe it’s important to have something humorous to read in the paper.”

She threw up her hands in frustration, muttered, “Wow, this guy is dense,” then turned and started to walk away.

“Well, I usually try to avoid deep subjects,” I said to her, “but thanks for the compliment!” (I’ve found that sometimes during situations like this, it’s best to pretend to be totally dense. And sometimes I don’t even have to pretend.)
My most memorable word blunder at church was due to the unfortunate fact that two particular words begin with “t-h” and end with “o-u-g-h.” The words are through and though. They each are pronounced differently; they each have different meanings; and while standing in front of a large gathering and reading from a book, they each appear almost identical on the printed page. 

While reading the 23rd Psalm, this is what I said: “Yea, thru I walk tho’ the valley of the shadow death.” Ugh, as soon as I realized what I had said, it felt like I was walking through the valley of the shadow of Shameful Public Speaking.

The bottom line is: words are tricky. I’ve been writing and speaking publicly for over 25 years now. For all you folks out there who read my column or hear me on the radio and then send me nice notes, I really depreciate it.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

The Old Reliable Bic Pen

 My favorite writing instrument is the old-fashioned Bic pen. (I’m not sure why pens are called writing instruments, since no matter how hard I try, I can’t play a single note with one.) The official name is the Bic Cristal, and it has a clear plastic hexagonal tube with a blue or red plastic cap on the end. The pen is inexpensive and reliable, and for me, it fits very comfortably in my hand.

Bic Cristal pens have not changed at all since I first started using them, way back in the 5th grade in 1967. I can’t think of a single consumer product that has remained unchanged for such a long time.
Compare, for example, coffee makers in 1967 to coffee makers today. It’s not like I drank a whole lot of coffee in the 5th grade, but I vaguely remember those old silver metal percolators. They didn’t have timers or clocks or computerized push-button controls. The only “push” involved was pushing the short electrical cord into the wall socket, which caused the lights in the kitchen to dim. And of course, there were no Keurig machines back then, because in 1967 the fashionable way to ruin the environment was to dump a bunch of rusty old Buicks into landfills rather than fill up trash bags with zillions of little plastic coffee pods.

Have telephones changed much since 1967? Um yeah, quite a bit. Back then the rotary dial phones were mounted onto the wall, and you could get them in any color you wanted, as long as it was black. Nowadays, phones are fancy little computers in our pockets with countless applications, one of which is the telephone app — and if someone calls us without first sending a text to let us know they’re going to call, we get angry.

How about footwear? In 1967 we wore Converse All-Star sneakers, the exact same sneakers worn by college and NBA stars. Good ol’ “Cons” are an amazing feat (feat? Get it? Feet?) of engineering. Take a thin slice of rubber, connect it to an even thinner piece of canvas, add some laces, and voilĂ ! You have a basketball shoe that gives the same level of support and cushioning as if you wrapped your feet with Kleenex. On the other hand (or foot), today’s basketball shoes use space-age polymer foam, firm leather, lots of thick padding, and when you lace those babies up, it’s like your foot is encased in a ski boot. Although today’s Nike “Air Jordan” and Adidas “Harden” models cost as much as a 1967 Buick, they are a million times more comfortable than Converse All-Stars.
Here are other consumer products that also have improved dramatically since 1967: televisions, washing machines, automobiles, eyeglasses, wristwatches, radios, and medical testing equipment. It seems inconceivable to me if every product in the world has improved in the last half century, then why is the Bic Cristal pen exactly the same?

I suppose the folks at Bic would answer my question with a question: “Why tinker with perfection?”

Well, that’s the reply I would expect from a clever marketing executive, and I wouldn’t be using Bic pens all these decades later if they weren’t really good, but there is plenty of room for improvement. For example, when I misspell a word using a Bic pen, the pen does nothing to alert me. A spell-check function would be a cool feature, don’t you think?
Also, if they’re going to call the pen a writing instrument, it would be nice if I could play music with it. Nothing fancy, of course. But if I could sound like Clarence Clemons on the saxophone, that would be pretty cool.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

The New York Times are A-Changing

I recently read a book about the D-Day invasion of Normandy, one of the major turning points of World War II. On June 7, 1944, the day after D-Day, the New York Times ran a lead editorial, which read in part, “We pray for the boys we know and for millions of unknown boys who are equally a part of us….We pray for our country.” Then the editorial said the cause for which the U.S. military was fighting “is the cause of the God who created man free and equal.”

Can you imagine the New York Times writing an editorial today that mentions praying for our country and that God created mankind? Of course not. Nowadays, they wouldn’t even print a letter-to-the-editor that made those statements. 
It’s been a long time since the D-Day invasion at Normandy, approximately three full generations. But compared to all of recorded human history, 1944 was not that long ago. Many people alive today can still remember that historic day.

So, the question is, what has changed since D-Day to make the editors at the New York Times go from patriotic Americans who acknowledged the power of prayer and God as Creator to today’s situation, where people who sincerely believe in God are not welcomed on their pages?

Were the Times editors in 1944 church-going believers? I have no idea. I suspect some may have been, but even the ones who were atheist or agnostic understood the vast majority of Americans believed in God. Hence, the strong words of that editorial.

Since 1944, the percentage of Americans who profess faith in God, who go to church or synagogue regularly, and who consider religious faith important has dropped drastically. Why is that? Did something happen that offered strong proof that God in fact does not exist? 

Actually, no. If anything, the discovery in the 1950s of the double-helix structure of the DNA molecule, the basic building block of life, presented strong evidence that life is far too complex and intricate to have come into existence by accident. And don’t forget, the key foundational belief of the secular worldview is that life on earth was formed by unplanned, unguided, random chemical processes. It was all just an accident, as molecules randomly followed the laws of physics. One day there was a swirl of various chemicals banging into each other, and the next day there was a living organism that could take in nutrients, expel waste, and reproduce itself. All by accident. From that moment in time, secularists argue, a series of genetic mutations (that is, more accidents) and survival-of-the-fittest adaptations produced all the varied forms of life found in the natural world, including human beings.
In the years since 1944, this secular explanation of how life began became official doctrine among America’s ruling class. Any claim that a divine Creator may have been involved were at first politely dismissed. In our current culture, the politeness has disappeared. Claims that the God of the Bible is real and that He is mankind’s Creator are now either sarcastically mocked or angrily denounced. The editorial staff at the New York Times certainly is not the cause of this seismic shift in cultural thinking, but because of their high profile, it’s convenient to say they epitomize this intolerant point of view.

The reason the God-fearing, hard-praying culture of 1944 changed into the skeptical and secular culture of today is simple: religious faith went out of style. Nothing in all of science or philosophy came along and torpedoed Judeo-Christian belief; we simply drifted away from it. Probably because human beings wanted to be the center of the universe.

The thing is, God’s existence does not depend on our opinion about it. He is real, whether we want to acknowledge it or not. 
Please keep this in mind the next time you’re wondering why our society is such a mess. We are currently conducting an experiment to see if a civilization can survive without faith in God. The early results don’t look good.

And please do what the New York Times said in 1944: believe that God is Creator, and pray for our country. 

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Is Retirement Hazardous to Your Health?

 Recently I had some dental work done, and upon meeting the oral surgeon, the first thing she said to me was, “So, Mr. Dunn, have you retired yet? Or are you still working?”

Hmm, I guess my ploy of wearing my baseball hat backwards and not tying the laces on my sneakers is not fooling anyone into thinking I’m only 20 years old. I replied to the doctor, “Oh no, I didn’t win life’s lottery. When I got out of college, I wasn’t smart enough to go to work for the government and get one of those gold-plated, lifetime pensions. So, I’ll have to work another five years or so before I can afford to retire.”
Just when I was starting to feel sorry for myself that I am forced to work at a job I enjoy, which pays me enough to cover my expenses, I read an article about retirement. The title of the article was, “Want to Retire Early? How It Can Actually Kill You.”
Citing statistics from multiple studies, the article noted that for many retirees, “instead of crossing items off a bucket list, some are kicking the bucket.”
It seems the sudden shock of going from a very busy, purposeful life to just hanging around the house all day produces many adverse physical and emotional effects. Some people use their new-found abundant free time to sit on the couch and watch TV all day. If you think working in an office and eating lunch at the hotdog joint across the street is an unhealthy lifestyle — and it is — lounging on the couch for nine straight hours in your bathrobe while inhaling multiple bags of cheese doodles can make even the most vibrant cardiovascular system say, “Sorry, pal, I quit.”
Retirees often experience loneliness and depression. The hustle and bustle of work may be exasperating at times (especially when you’re in a meeting with Wendell from Accounting, who makes an annoying slurping sound when he drinks coffee), but it often is intellectually stimulating and invigorating. Going from that environment to one where you spend all day having one-sided conversations with the hosts of infomercials makes people long for the opportunity to hang out and chat with Wendell — annoying slurping and all. According to the article I read, “The likelihood someone will become clinically depressed rises by 40% after retiring.”
A big impact on mortality, according to the article, is this: “Once you retire, there’s a lot more time to think about death.” Many people view retirement as the last stage of life before it comes to an end. Making the move from active employment to retirement causes the perception of the end of one’s life to jump from a far distant future to right around the corner. Jack Guttentag, a professor at The Wharton School, said, “You always knew intellectually that life was short, but during the years when you were building a career and a family, the emotional recognition of that fact was kept at bay.” It’s often a type of self-fulfilling prophecy, as retired people now have plenty of time to worry themselves sick.
Experts recommend that retired people stay busy. It’s important to have a set schedule. Get involved with various groups and volunteer your time. Focus on helping other people. Keep your mind active and engaged. Hmm, that sounds suspiciously like having a job, but with no paycheck.
I think I’ll just skip the seismic lifestyle shift and the stress of retirement by staying at my job for as long as I can. Going to work every day seems a lot more enjoyable than the way retirement is described in that article. And that’s even factoring in Wendell’s annoying slurping.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Should Christians Watch Violent Movies?

 During the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offered this important spiritual observation: “Garbage in, garbage out.”

Well, Jesus didn’t say it exactly that way. The phrase is popular in the computer software world, and it means if you start with incorrect data, you’re going to end up with incorrect results.
This concept is mentioned in the Bible, sort of. In his epistle to the Romans, St. Paul wrote, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom 12:2). And in his letter to the Colossians, Paul wrote, “Think of what is above, not of what is on earth” (Col 3:2).
Paul meant that if we fill our minds with unwholesome thoughts, we will end up living unwholesome lives. In other words, Garbage in, garbage out.
This idea came up recently when I read an article on a Christian website that said believers should not watch movies with bad values. The article specifically mentioned James Bond movies.
Is it wrong for a Christian to watch James Bond movies? Um, asking for a friend.
It’s an undeniable fact that James Bond movies glorify violence, alcohol abuse, and sexual promiscuity. I guess you could make the same statement about three-quarters of all the movies and TV shows produced these days.
So, I guess the question is, can we watch popular entertainment without some of its unwholesome values seeping into our souls?
Well, I’ve watched a lot… er, I mean, my friend has watched a lot of James Bond movies over the years. And he doesn’t go around blowing things up and shooting people every 15 minutes. He hasn’t had a drink in 30 years, and he has never cheated on his lovely wife.
But can he really say he has not been subtly influenced by all the coarse themes depicted in James Bond films, along with all the other secular content he watches, reads, and listens to?
Hmm, that’s hard to say.
And speaking of “listen to,” what about popular music that is not very wholesome? I’m reminded of that classic song with a nice melody but horrible lyrics: “Imagine,” by John Lennon. The song opens with these words: “Imagine there’s no heaven. It’s easy if you try. No hell below us, above us only sky.”
The song is pretty much the Atheist Anthem. It’s about as ungodly as it gets. And this song is played frequently on my favorite Catholic radio station, along with many other well-known pop songs. I’m pretty sure faithful Catholics do not hear this song and suddenly renounce their religious beliefs and embrace Mr. Lennon’s dream of godless utopia.
In addition to enjoying James Bond movies, I also, er, I mean, my friend also likes listening to John Lennon and the Beatles. So far, my friend has not been tempted to try Eastern Mysticism, LSD, or comically odd hairstyles—as long as we ignore his 1975 high school yearbook photos.
As Catholics, we are not Bible-thumping fundamentalists who insist that watching any movie or having a single drink of alcohol are sinful behaviors and therefore prohibited. The Catholic Church teaches that alcoholic beverages are acceptable—in moderation. Alcohol abuse, however, is a sin.
The same, I suspect, is true for movies and music. If it’s occasional entertainment that doesn’t cause us to “conform to the pattern of this world,” as Paul described it, then it’s probably OK.
The Holy Spirit can help us discern what is best. If the only movies a person watches are in the James Bond genre, or if he or she only listens to coarse music, then maybe it’s become a “Garbage in, garbage out” situation, and it’s time instead to “think of what is above.” It might take some digging, but there is a fair amount of wholesome, uplifting entertainment available. 
I think I’ll give that a try… er, I mean, I think I’ll tell my friend.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

TV Addiction Is Getting Expensive

About two years ago, I signed up for YouTube TV, at a cost of $35 per month. It’s a terrific streaming service, owned by the digital behemoth Google, which allows you to watch television shows over the Internet. It includes all the major broadcast networks; a bunch of cable channels; and a plethora of sports options, including ESPN, NESN, Fox Sports, SNY, MLB, Golf Channel and about a dozen others. When I first signed up, I was so excited I blurted out, “With that much programming, YouTube TV is easily worth $100 a month!”
Well, it turns out, just as we all suspected, our dear friends at Google are in fact listening in on all of our conversations (and probably most of our thoughts). No sooner had I signed up for the service and made my joyful comment, they raised the price to $40 per month. Then last year, it went to $50 per month. And just last month, they announced another price hike, this time up to $65 per month.
On the one hand, you could make the case they’re still charging me less than what I said the service is worth. But on the other hand, this is, after all, an 85% price increase over the span of just a couple of short years. I mean, c’mon. Who would have the gall to treat their customers so shabbily (besides, of course, our delightful power company here in New England, Eversource)? 
I suspect YouTube TV is following the same business model developed by Joey “Dr. Mellow” McGillicuddy, who was the resident drug dealer in the town where I grew up. Dr. Mellow would sell his products to the high school freshmen for WAY below market prices. Then, when the kids were addicted — boom! — the clever doctor would jack up the prices and make a fortune off the newly minted pot heads.
Speaking of newly minted pot heads, is anybody besides me a little uneasy about the number of states that have legalized recreational marijuana? It’s turning into an industry that soon will dwarf Google for sheer size. The libertarian in me says, “Hey, people are going to get high anyway, so it might as well be regulated and taxed.” But the cautious senior citizen in me says, “Hey, get off my lawn!” No, wait. I mean, the cautious senior citizen in me says, “Hmm, do we really want to send the message to young people that becoming a ‘fog-brain’ is no big deal?”
Take it from me, a former 1970s fog-brain. I know using a substance that ruins a person’s ability to concentrate is not a good thing. Or to paraphrase Dean Wormer, “Fat, high, and stupid is no way to go through life, son.”
OK, enough about drug addiction. Let’s return to my original theme: TV addiction. When I complained to a coworker that YouTube TV raised their prices yet again, he said, “Well, then just cancel the service.”
A half hour later, after the smelling salts revived me, I realized the sad truth: I am addicted to TV. Just cancel the service? At the exact time when live baseball games finally are being televised? I can’t do that. The withdrawal symptom would be too painful.
So, whether it’s Dr. Mellow or Dr. Google, those drug dealers really know how to get someone hooked. Because it’s been so long since I’ve had anything to do with Dr. Mellow’s product, my concentration has never been better. And tonight, I’m going to concentrate on the baseball games, using, of course, YouTube TV. (Assuming Covid hasn’t shut them down again.) But if they ever raise the price above $100 per month, I definitely will cancel the service. Maybe.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Spiritual Sloth is a Deadly Sin

One of the Seven Deadly Sins is “sloth.” I always thought this meant physical laziness, and since I’ve been gainfully employed for the past 40 years and I do chores around the house on a semi-regular basis, I was certain sloth was the one Deadly Sin I didn’t have to worry about. (The other Deadly Sins, by the way, are Pride, Anger, Lust, Greed, Envy, and Gluttony. Since I’m an American living in the 21st century, I most certainly DO have to worry about these sins.)
However, I recently read an article that explained the concept of sloth, in theological terms, does not mean physical laziness, but instead it means spiritual laziness. The deadly sin of sloth is a lack of spiritual hunger.
When people have spiritual sloth, they get bored with God and all things religious. There’s no real passion or desire to engage in prayer, read Scripture, or be involved in church activities. Some people abandon all religious endeavors entirely. Others go through the motions: they recite rote prayers blandly; they skim through a few pages of the Bible without letting the words touch their hearts; they show up for Mass or church services on a regular basis, but their minds are a million miles away.
In short, their faith life is dry and dusty and sterile. These folks have more emotional passion when they watch a mediocre movie on Netflix than when they bow their heads and communicate with the Divine Being who created the Universe.
Some people lacking in spiritual hunger eventually walk away from all faith-related exercises. At least they’re being honest about it. God is not important to them and so they don’t waste their time with anything religious.
Other people who also lack spiritual hunger, continue to go through the motions out of inertia or a sense of obligation. They actually might be in worse shape. This is because they THINK they’re doing all the right things, and therefore God must be pleased with them. After all, they can boldly mark all the key items on some unofficial Christian Checklist: Recite prayers? Check. Read the Bible once in a while? Check. Go to church each week? Check. Throw a few bucks in the collection basket? Check. Refrain from robbing banks? Check. Avoid committing murder? Check. Never root for the New York Yankees? Check.
We are in a very strange moment in human history. For the first time in 2,000 years, Catholics are NOT obligated to attend Mass. During the past four months, the bishops said it’s OK not to attend Mass because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Remember the good ol’ Sunday Obligation? When I was a kid, the nuns who taught our Catechism class told us that maybe someone could be excused from going to Mass on Sunday if they were in a coma or locked in a North Vietnamese prison camp. Maybe.
I think I’m not exaggerating when I observe that many American Catholics have been spiritually slothful for quite a few years, long before the pandemic occurred. Now that we have this unprecedented experience of being excused by the bishops from having to attend Mass, I have a question: Once public Masses are in full swing again, how many Catholic will respond by saying, “When I went to Mass, I didn’t get anything out of it. When Masses were cancelled, I didn’t miss it. So, why bother going back?”?   
Spiritual sloth is real. A lack of hunger for God is why the Church has been so lukewarm for most of my adult life. If we only realize how awesome God is, and how much He wants to be the center of our lives and fill us with joy and passion, we won’t be spiritually slothful. It may be hard to believe, but the Divine Creator of the Universe is actually a lot more exciting than a mediocre movie on Netflix.