Wednesday, November 25, 2020

On a ‘Quest’ for a Flawless Online Appointment

Recently I had to get blood drawn before my annual physical. In the past, this task always has been quite a “quest.” For the blood test to be accurate, you have to fast for at least 12 hours. When going that long without food or drink, time goes by anything but fast. Instead of a “fast,” they should call it a “slow.”

Because of this fasting requirement, every morning at 7 a.m., when the testing facility opens, there are usually eight or 10 people waiting impatiently to begin their “quest” to scribble their name on the first-come, first-serve sign-up sheet. Last year, I got there at quarter to 7, but I didn’t get my blood taken until after 8 o’clock. By the time I was done, the snacks in my car (coffee and a glazed ham) had gotten cold.
This year I began my “quest” by going to the facility’s website, to confirm that it opened at 7 a.m. I discovered they now have an online sign-up procedure. By clicking on a calendar and searching for an open time slot, I could make a personal reservation. I found an open spot, 7:30 on the following Wednesday, and reserved it. The website immediately sent me confirmations via email and text message.

My first thought was, “This is never going to work.” You see, I’ve done online sign-up and ordering in the past. Once I ordered six grinders for a Saturday afternoon party, using the website of a local deli. When I went to pick up the food, they had nothing ready. The guy behind the counter apologized and said, “The computer thinks your order is for next Thursday.”

Another time I placed an order online for a pharmaceutical product, and when I went to the drug store to pick it up, the clerk searched his computer and finally exclaimed, “Oh, the computer says you’re gonna pick it up at our Torrington, Wyoming, store.”

So, I was convinced my blood sample “quest” was going to be another high-tech, online disaster. The possibilities for a screw-up were endless: wrong day, wrong time, wrong location, wrong procedure. I mean, maybe instead of giving a blood sample, the computer decided I needed a kidney transplant.
Finally, the day of my “quest” arrived, and 15 minutes before my scheduled appointment I received a text message. It contained a link so I could inform them I was in the parking lot, and it said they would send another text when it was time for me to go inside to get my blood drawn. 

“Oh sure,” I said to myself. “I’ll probably be here for hours waiting for a text message that will never come.”

I began outlining a newspaper essay in my mind, which would chronicle this high-tech disaster, and how computers and the internet are ruining everything nowadays, even something as simple as getting a blood test.

Well, at exactly 7:29 a.m., I received a text message saying they were ready for me. I hoped this didn’t mean they were ready for me at the Torrington, Alaska, facility.
I went inside and they ushered me into a small room, where a very pleasant young man took my blood sample. I was never so relieved to have someone stab a needle into my arm. I was back in my car by 7:40, washing down a warm glazed ham with hot coffee.

The only problem with this whole adventure is that I had to ditch all the sarcastic and critical things I was going to write. Now, instead of saying I was on a frustrating and futile “quest,” I can say I had a terrific experience at Quest. And I don’t mean Jonny.


Tuesday, November 24, 2020

A Holiday Season Unlike Any Other

 Here we are, at the beginning of America’s unofficial six-week long Holiday Season. Thanksgiving Day is Thursday of this week, and on Sunday the liturgical season of Advent begins. Then at the end of December the two big holidays of Christmas and New Year’s occur. However, this is 2020, the year when nothing is normal. And our traditional holiday festivities are going to be quite different compared to anything we’ve experienced in recent times.

I remember when the Coronavirus appeared back in March. One so-called expert on TV said this virus, like most flu viruses, would just fizzle out when the warm weather of summer arrived. Well, that never happened. Another expert predicted the virus would not be under control until an effective vaccine was developed, which might take 12 to 18 months. Unfortunately, it seems like this is the way things are panning out.
Anyway, the pandemic surely has altered our way of life in unprecedented ways. This holiday season will be a prime example. Health officials advise that people should not gather in large groups for Thanksgiving dinner this year. Only members of the same household should dine together. So, for the first time since the horse knew the way to carry the sleigh to grandmother’s house over the river and through the woods, large extended family gatherings will not be taking place. There will not be houses full of people feasting on turkey, stuffing, pumpkin pie, and football games on big-screen TVs. (Back in colonial times, when folks traveled by sleigh to grandmother’s house, obviously they did not watch football games on big-screen TVs. Instead, they streamed the games on their iPads.)

This means the recommended Thanksgiving feast this year will be with two or four or maybe five people at most. Or in a lot of cases, one person. Don’t forget: there are plenty of Americans, especially among the elderly, who live alone these days.

The same goes for other cherished holiday traditions, such as Christmas shopping, workplace holiday parties, Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, and New Year’s Eve celebrations. With the cancellation of office parties and New Year’s Eve parties, at least there should be a reduction in DUI arrests and liver damage. However, a different kind of damage is being inflicted by this COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s only going to get worse during the holidays. I’m referring to emotional damage, as the social isolation we’ve endured the past eight months will be magnified during the Christmas season.
For many people, the time period from Thanksgiving through New Year’s is the only opportunity they have to see their loved ones face-to-face. It’s a fact that a lot of people now live and work far from their original hometown.

Because this is 2020 — the year when nothing is normal — the holiday season also will be anything but normal. A lot of folks are just starting to realize that they will not see many of their loved ones in person this year, and this realization is increasing the emotional damage already inflicted by the pandemic.

As Catholic Christians, it is our duty to comfort those in distress. This year, some of the distressed people in our society very well may be our own relatives. Since it is risky to see them in person, we have to do the next best thing: pick up the phone and give them a call.
In his letter to the Ephesians in the Bible, St. Paul wrote, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called” (Eph. 4:4).

St. Paul used the word “called” twice, and I think it’s pretty obvious he was referring to telephone calls. Because there is one Spirit and because all believers make up one body, it is imperative that we call our lonely relatives during this holiday season. See? That’s irrefutable proof right from the Bible.
And don’t forget, if you take the time to phone relatives and cheer them up, God will reward you. In Romans, it says, “For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Rom. 11:29). But keep this in mind: if God does call you, don’t let it go to voicemail.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

LinkedIn Is Far Out

Last week I discussed the “digital media” initiatives at my place of work. We have a new, slick website, and as the Engineering Marketing Manager, it’s my job to do multiple blog posts each week and to be actively involved with social media each day.

In the business world, the primary social media platform is LinkedIn. If you’re not familiar with LinkedIn, it’s basically Facebook for business, except without all the demonic influences. That is, you can go weeks at a time on LinkedIn without seeing a single comment equating Trump with Hitler (except that Trump is more evil), or equating Trump with Jesus (except that Trump performs more miracles). 
It’s quite refreshing that wild-eyed, foaming at the mouth political screeds are not present on LinkedIn. It almost makes the shameless self-promotion and product marketing tolerable. Oh, by the way, my main mission on LinkedIn is shameless self-promotion and product marketing.

However, since my jobs during the past four decades all have been sales and/or marketing related, I was able to fit right in quite easily.

There is one thing about LinkedIn that cracks me up. One of the main thrusts of the website is helping people connect with other business folks with the goal of getting a new and better job. So, in addition to all the sales and marketing info posted on the website, I constantly get reminders from LinkedIn to check out new job openings that are “a perfect fit” for me.

LinkedIn already knows that I graduated from Bucknell University in 1979. Which means, barring the possibility that I was a child prodigy who got through college at age nine (well, that’s certainly not the case), LinkedIn knows that I’m approximately 63 years old. And since LinkedIn is supposedly so savvy about the world of business, it certainly must know that not a single employer on Planet Earth has any interest in hiring a person my age. Yeah, yeah, I know, there’s a law against age discrimination during the hiring process. There also is a law against driving 40 mph in a 35 mph zone, too. Both laws are routinely ignored.

On the bright side, I don’t WANT anyone to want to hire me. I like my job, and I hope to keep doing it for another five years or so, and then retire.
Another humorous aspect of LinkedIn’s constant push to find a new place of employment for me are the actual job openings themselves. I’m not sure how LinkedIn defines the phrase “a perfect fit,” but some of these jobs are doozies. Here are just a few:
  • Customer Service Representative at an animal hospital in Wethersfield. Sorry, but I’m not bilingual. I don’t speak Cat.

  • Event Marketing Coordinator at WWE in Stamford. This is the professional wrestling outfit, and even if I were interested in that job, my wife would divorce me in a heartbeat because she thinks the popularity of professional wrestling is all the proof we need that our culture is about to collapse.

  • Senior Consultant, Product Development, at Lincoln Financial in Hartford. If their products include heating and ventilation equipment, then maybe I could help. But if it’s anything to do with money and finance, then my only input would be, “Hold on 17 while playing Blackjack.”

  • Director, Software Development, in Windsor. If these guys saw me on the phone for two hours with Tech Support a few months ago, when I purchased a new computer but couldn’t get the stupid Microsoft Office software to load, they wouldn’t even hire me to sweep their floors.

  • Special Agent, FBI, Hartford office. Well, this position is right up my alley. I watch so many crime and detective shows on TV, I won’t even need any training. And when I turn 93, I can retire with a full pension. 
Well, that’s enough commentary about LinkedIn. I have to get back on the website and do more shameless self-promotion and product marketing.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Jesus’ Relatives Thought He Was Insane

 Sometimes when I listen to the Gospel readings at Mass or read the Bible at home, the stories are familiar enough that I just gloss over them without thinking very deeply. After all, I’ve heard the various events described in the gospels dozens of times during my life.

Well, once in a while something in the gospels just jumps out in a new and different way. That’s what happened to me recently when I was reading from Mark’s gospel, chapter 3. Jesus was healing people and big crowds started following Him. There was a lot of “buzz” around Jesus, and when one particularly large crowd gathered to see Him, this is what we read in verses 21 and 22: “When his relatives heard of this they set out to seize him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind.’ The scribes who had come from Jerusalem said, ‘He is possessed by Beelzebul,’ and ‘By the prince of demons he drives out demons.’”
So, the religious authorities from the Temple were trying to discredit Jesus and claimed He was demon possessed. That’s nothing new. We know the Pharisees and scribes from the big city didn’t like Jesus and were upset at the large crowds that came out to hear Him.

But did you catch that first sentence about Jesus’ relatives? The Bible says that Jesus’ aunts and uncles and cousins thought He was nuts! They are quoted as saying, “He is out of his mind.” Also, it says they wanted to seize Him, which means have Him locked up!

Well, I’m not completely sure about the locked up part, since I’m not familiar with the state of mental health services in first century Palestine. I suspect emotional counseling wasn’t very impressive back then, even if you had a good health insurance plan through your employer. (That’s a little joke, by the way. There was no such thing as health insurance back then, and no such thing as mental health services, either.)

Years ago, if someone was suffering from mental health problems, the family probably brought the person home and prevented him or her from going outside. The person likely was a major embarrassment to the family, and they did their best to keep the afflicted soul out of sight so the neighbors would not gossip so much. (By the way, this is just another reason we all should be thankful we live in the 21st century, where mental health problems are better understood and can be treated successfully, rather than the old method of assuming the person was possessed by a demon and needed to be banished from community life.)
Anyway, Jesus’ own relatives were convinced He was out of His mind. They were so embarrassed they wanted to drag Him home and lock Him away so no one could see how insane He was. Wow, and I thought it was uncomfortable to have some of my relatives think I’m a “religious fanatic” because I go to Mass each week, write these essays, and occasionally give talks at churches. 

The impression I’ve always gotten from the gospel accounts is that the common folk in the countryside were attracted to Jesus and His message, while the sophisticated religious rulers in Jerusalem were unimpressed and wanted to stop Him. But this episode from Mark’s gospel makes it clear that not everyone in the rural regions were attracted to Jesus, especially His own blood relatives.
How do you think that made Jesus feel? Sure, He already knew the leaders in Jerusalem would oppose Him. But what about Uncle Lou? Auntie Helen? Cousin Lenny? Did Jesus expect these loved ones He’d known His whole life to completely misunderstand His divine mission and try to stop Him?

I guess this Gospel story is meant to teach us a couple of things. First, if God calls us to do a particular task, we must do it even when we face opposition. Second, if even Jesus had difficulties with His relatives, we shouldn’t be surprised if we don’t see eye-to-eye with our relatives once in a while.
At least in my case, my loved ones don’t claim I’m out of my mind. I think.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Time to Upgrade the Digital Presence

 Recently, my employers made the decision to increase our online “digital presence.” Apparently, the guys who own the company have concluded this Internet thing is not a passing fad.

At first, I thought “digital presence” was an odd way of saying someone flipped you the bird. But it turns out the phrase means a major upgrade to our website, along with new opportunities for blog posts, which then are linked to popular social media platforms, such as Face-Chat, Linked-Out, Insta-Scam, or whatever they call those time-wasting, soul-sucking things. (Oops, someone’s bad attitude accidentally leaked out again. What I, of course, meant to say is: “Or whatever they call those innovative, brilliant, business-enhancing networking and marketing tools.”)
Well, anyway, since my official job title is “Engineering Marketing Manager,” guess who is most responsible for utilizing these brilliant networking and marketing tools? That’s right, it’s me, also known as “Mr. why can’t we do everything with a Bic pen, legal pad, and typewriter, just like we did in 1981?”

So, in addition to all my regular duties (and if anyone actually knows what my regular duties are, please drop me a line), I now am responsible for three new activities: 1) Create and send out an email newsletter each month to every engineer in our territory; 2) Create and upload short blog posts onto our website three times each week, and then link them to the aforementioned Face-Scam, Insta-Linked, and Chat-Scat social media sites; and 3) Go on those social media sites multiple times each day and “Like” various industry related articles, along with offering my “comments” wherever appropriate.
The net result of all this extra work, or so I’ve been told, is that our “brand” will have a greater “digital profile,” which in turn will create “synergy” and make us an “industry trend-setter.” (Again, if anyone knows what any of that actually means, please drop me a line.)
Now, many people might think the real net result of all this is that I no longer have time to do my regular work. After all, who cares how many “links” and “likes” I have online if I can’t get a fan-coil unit selection and dimensional drawing to a consulting engineer on time? Or, does it really matter if an HVAC contractor in Arizona is impressed by the photo I took and posted of a roof top air-conditioning unit, when our sales territory stops at the New York border?

However, there is one saving grace that will get things back to normal very soon. Alert readers may have noticed an oxymoronic phrase a few paragraphs back. I mentioned that one of my new duties is to go online and offer my comments wherever appropriate. If you’ve been reading this column for any length of time, you know the idea of “my comments” and the word “appropriate” should never appear in the same sentence.
I’m sorry, but I just can’t help it. Whenever I perceive an opportunity for a snarky or sarcastic remark, it just spills right out of my mouth — or in this case, just spills right out of the tips of my fingers onto the computer keyboard.

After only a few weeks doing my new digital duties, I’ve received a lot of, um, interesting feedback, half of which is along the lines of, “Hey, that was funny,” and the other half more like, “Are you allowed to say that on Linked-In?” 

I’m pretty sure that quite soon I will be suspended from all these social media platforms for violating their “terms of service.” Then I’ll be able to do my job once again. I’ve got my Bic pen, legal pad, and typewriter all ready to go. I’ll drop you a line.

Saturday, November 7, 2020

The Church Teaches: Purgatory Is Real

A few weeks ago, the topic here was the Communion of Saints, the fact that those who have gone before us in faith are now in the presence of the Lord and they can observe us as we struggle here on earth. These saints actually pray for us and encourage us in our difficult journey of faith.

An aspect of the Communion of Saints is the Church’s teaching on Purgatory. Whoa, wait. You’re not really going THERE, are you, Bill? I mean, c’mon. No one still believes in the silly medieval story that was meant to scare people into signing up for a sleazy fund-raising scheme. Most Catholics today are smart enough to know there is no weird place between Heaven and Hell where believers are sent to receive a fiery punishment for their sins before they are allowed into Heaven. When’s the last time you heard a homily on Purgatory, huh? Even the priests know it’s baloney and refuse to preach about it.
Well, the fact is, regardless of how many people, including priests, don’t believe that Purgatory exists, Church teachings are very clear. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “Those who die in God’s grace and friendship imperfectly purified, although they are assured of their eternal salvation, undergo a purification after death, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of God” (section 1030).

The doctrine of Purgatory is based on some key biblical verses, such as “Nothing impure will ever enter [Heaven]” (Revelation 21:27), and, “Without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14).
Scripture also implies there is some kind of third possible destination after death, which is neither Heaven nor Hell. In his first epistle, St. Peter wrote, “[Jesus] was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago” (1 Peter 3:18-20). 

The souls Jesus visited and to whom He preached, during that time between His death and Resurrection, were not condemned (Hell), but they also were not yet in glory (Heaven). At that point in time, those souls were in a mysterious third destination.

Finally, in his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul describes the good works of believers, using the analogy of constructing a building. He says, “If any man builds…using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay, or straw, his work will be shown for what it is….It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work” (1 Corinthians 3:12-13).
Paul continues in the next two verses: “If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames” (emphasis added).

The specific word Purgatory is not used here by Paul, but it sure sounds like Paul is describing it. He says if someone’s earthly Christian works do not meet the test, he or she will suffer loss, but ultimately will be saved.

A logical way to describe Purgatory is to use a parable. Imagine spending the day outside doing yard work. When you come into the house, your clothes are covered with dirt and sweat. Your spouse, dressed impeccably, grabs your arm and says, “We’re going to a fancy banquet. Come on, get in the car right now and let’s go.”

Knowing that you would be quite embarrassed to walk into a fancy banquet dressed in dirty work clothes, you instead say to your spouse, “Give me 45 minutes. I’ll take a shower, put on my best clothes, and then I’ll be ready for the banquet. I might be a little late, but at least I’ll be prepared.”
Purgatory is kind of like that. But instead of cleaning physical dirt and sweat, it is our bad attitudes and unrepentant sins that are cleansed. If people are honest with themselves, most will admit that despite their faith in God and regular church attendance, deep down inside there still lurks occasional bouts of selfishness, anger, envy, dishonesty, and pride.

So, the Catholic Church still believes in and teaches the doctrine of Purgatory. It is not a place of cruel, arbitrary punishment. It is instead an opportunity for spiritual purification and cleansing. All sincere Christians should be thankful that it exists. And yes, priests should give homilies about Purgatory once in a while. 

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

No Business Trips This Year

Because of the pandemic, this is the first year in two decades that I will not be flying out of town to visit a factory. Part of my job is to bring consulting engineers and HVAC contractors to visit manufacturing facilities for some intense product training and a little hospitality. 

I would be lying if I said these trips were always a wonderful experience. The factory tours, training seminars, and dinners at local restaurants are usually quite enjoyable — especially one particular barbeque joint in Springfield, Missouri. I’d like to retire in the apartment building right next door to that restaurant. If I did, my heart would only hold out for six months tops. But their brisket is so good, it still might be worth it.
The process of getting to the various locations around the country can be quite an ordeal. On one trip a few years ago, thunderstorms caused us to miss a connecting flight, so we had to scramble to find a couple of rooms in a seedy motel near the Atlanta airport. When we finally reached our destination a day late, the rental car company no longer had the van I reserved, but the guy at the counter assured me six adult males and their luggage would fit comfortably in a different vehicle. By the time we all piled in, it felt like we had been hired by Barnum and Bailey to perform in the clown car show. One of my guests was sprawled across the little shelf next to the rear window. I suspect when he was studying hard to get his mechanical engineering degree, he never envisioned that his professional career would include being the first ever 5’ 10”, 175-pound bobble-head doll.
Another aspect of these factory trips is the likelihood that one of my guests will suddenly decide he is not a 49-year-old Project Manager with a large contracting company, but instead is once again the 21-year-old fraternity brother he was in 1992. Which means his new mission for the next three days is to see how much alcohol he can consume without throwing up. (He usually makes this determination by indeed upchucking and then muttering, “OK, 19 shots of Jack Daniels is one too many. Tomorrow night I’ll only have 18.”)
Although everyone involved on these trips is a highly trained and skilled professional, as the host and organizer, it sometimes seems like I’m a Cub Scout den mother trying to corral a half dozen hyperactive second graders. I have actually shouted the following statement in an airport bar more than once: “Alright, fine! But if you’re not on the plane in time, you’re on your own getting back to Connecticut!” 

When the pandemic halted most business travel back in March, I felt a bit relieved that I would get a break from these factory trips. But now that it’s been many, many months without a trip — and it looks like they won’t resume anytime soon — I recently realized that I miss them. I miss the camaraderie and the adventure.
I never thought I’d say this, but I miss the traveling part of it, too. I miss dragging my suitcase two miles from Gate C-12 to Gate M-22 at O’Hare. I miss being startled when the guy in front of me suddenly leans back in his seat and turns my kneecaps into guacamole. I even miss those spacious airplane bathrooms. Obviously, this pandemic has had an adverse effect on my ability to think rationally.

No one is looking forward to our society getting back to normal more than I am. When I’m finally able to schedule another factory trip, I’ll start grumbling like always, but with a smile on my face. 

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Be Prepared for Your Most Important Day

In this week’s gospel reading, Jesus offered a parable about being prepared. He used a wedding feast to symbolize Heaven, and a bridegroom to symbolize Himself. No one knew when the bridegroom would arrive and begin the feast. Half the people were ready; the other half were not (“foolish,” Jesus called them).

When the bridegroom finally came, Jesus explained, “Those who were ready went into the wedding feast with him. Then the door was locked” (emphasis added).

Later on, those who were unprepared came to the feast and knocked on the door. They yelled, “Lord, Lord, open the door for us!” The bridegroom replied, “Amen, I say to you, I do not know you” (again, emphasis added).
Although we may not fully understand 1st century, middle-eastern wedding customs — with friends of the bride (the virgins) and lamps and oil and waiting up all night for the groom to arrive and start the party — we still can understand Jesus’ main message. He is telling us that we do not know when the most important day of our lives will come, but when it does come we had better be ready. If we’re ready, we’ll be invited in to an awesome party. If we’re not ready, the door will be locked and Jesus will say to us, “I do not know you.”

The most important day of our lives is a day most people dread, and a day many people can’t even admit will occur. It is the day we end our journey here on earth and stand face-to-face with God. It is the day of our death.

The letter to the Hebrews is crystal clear: “Man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Heb 9:27).

More often than not, people do not know when this most important day will arrive. It comes without warning. For some unfortunate souls, this most important day arrives with striking suddenness: a deafening crash on the Interstate or massive chest pains while shoveling snow. For others, this most important day arrives with a quiet whimper: a bedside vigil at a nursing home or hospice facility.
However it comes, that day will arrive for every single one of us. And when it does arrive, we either will be ready or we will not be ready.

Now, here is the most important question about this most important day: What exactly does it mean to be ready?

There are two clear aspects to being ready. The first is knowing Jesus. Not knowing about Him, but rather, having a personal relationship with Him. God created us in the first place to be in fellowship with Him, as the Baltimore Catechism said, to know Him, love Him, and serve Him.

Putting our faith in the Lord is much more than acknowledging His identity and accepting that He did what the Bible claims He did. Faith involves trust, it involves reliance, it involves relationship.

The second aspect of being ready is putting that relationship — that trusting faith — into action. This is not to say we have to work our way into Heaven; no one is holy enough to do it on their own.

It means instead that our gratitude toward God — our loving response to His incredible love and mercy toward us — transforms our hearts and minds, and is expressed in righteous living. We do good things because we want to, not because we have to.

We don’t need to be frightened of that most important day. If we have a relationship with Jesus, if we put our trust and faith in Him and let the Holy Spirit guide our lives, we can be confident the door will be opened and we will be invited in.

Ironically, the more we understand that our time here on earth is exceedingly brief and the more we are prepared to meet God, the more we can relax and enjoy these precious days and years. It’s a win-win situation: joy and peace during this life, and a heavenly wedding feast for all of eternity in the next life.