Saturday, December 31, 2022

Some NEW New Year’s Resolutions 

Most people are not very fond of the first full week of January. It’s dark and cold, and the post-holiday letdown has kicked in. All the Christmas decorations have been packed away and returned to the attic, or basement, or if space is limited, behind the couch. Also, the credit card bills for December will be due soon. And when we check our credit card balance online, we’re sure to exclaim, “Why did Amazon and those stores at the mall FORCE me to spend so much money?!” 

Yes, this time of year can be quite depressing. To add to the gloom, we also may be frustrated by the realization that we’ve already failed to keep our New Year’s resolutions. 
New Year’s resolutions are good — in theory. As the Christmas season concludes, we likely have developed a fair number of bad habits, such as eating and drinking too much, sleeping too little, and whipping out the credit card so frequently and forcefully that the plastic is starting to melt. So, as we turn the page on a brand new calendar year, it seems proper to resolve to cut out some of the unhealthy habits we’ve developed. 

We vow to stop drinking, to stop eating bad food, and to lose ten pounds. We vow to get to sleep by 9:30 each evening, and to join a health club and work out every day. But then reality sets in. The health club idea falls through because our credit card gets rejected because we spent too much at the mall. The diet vow is broken when we realize the fridge is stuffed with leftovers from multiple holiday parties, and of course it would be a sin to throw out perfectly good lasagna, pumpkin pie, and those three glazed hams. So, we take the edge off our post-holiday blues by having an occasional snack or two or twelve. 

May I suggest that instead of focusing on physical things — food and exercise and curbing our credit card addiction — we try a different approach to New Year’s resolutions. We should try a spiritual approach and resolve to develop some good habits of the soul. 
I have two suggestions that may seem a bit daunting at first, but compared to going to a health club every day and giving up our favorite food and drink, my suggestions are a piece of cake (or possibly a piece of pumpkin pie, assuming we haven’t eaten all the leftovers by now). 

The first suggestion is to spend a few minutes each day reading the Bible. I know, I hear you. “It’s too confusing!” “I don’t know where to start!” “I thought Catholics weren’t allowed to read the Bible!” 

Here’s a simple plan: read one chapter of a Gospel each day. It takes less than five minutes. Pick one of the Gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke, or Bob — and begin with chapter one. (Yeah, I know there’s no Gospel of Bob. I just wanted to see if you were paying attention.) 

The four Gospels have a total of 89 chapters. So, it takes about three months, at a rate of four or five minutes per day, to go through all four. By April it will be time to start over again. It’s a very easy habit to develop, and it’s very rewarding. 
The second suggestion also is simple: go to Confession at least once every three months. Oh please, stop whining. Confession is NOT scary. The priests are very gentle and helpful. Confession is an awesome sacrament that completely refreshes us from the inside out. And considering how we behaved at the company Christmas party (yes, everyone was watching…and capturing it on video), it’s not like we have nothing to confess. And best of all, after Confession, feel free to have a piece of pumpkin pie.

‘It’s the Most Miserable Time of the Year’

Welcome to the first week of January. This is by far the most depressing time of the entire year. Why? Because the holiday season is over, and we’re back to the regular routine. 

By the way, I’ve tried for years to remind people that in the Catholic tradition, the Christmas season begins on the evening of Dec. 24th and continues until the Feast of Epiphany (Jan. 8th this year). So, technically we’re still in the holiday season. But my efforts have been about as successful as a guy trying to teach algebra to chipmunks. In our modern culture, virtually everyone accepts that the Christmas season begins in earnest the moment you push away from the dinner table on Thanksgiving afternoon, and it ends promptly when the last present is opened on the morning of Dec 25th. (This occurs in some homes around 6:15 a.m.) All the abandoned Christmas tree carcasses by the side of the road, stripped bare save for a few sad pieces of tinsel, are evidence that in most people’s minds Christmas is a long-gone distant memory. 
Anyway, for all intents and purposes (or as some people say, for all intensive purposes), the holidays are now over. Here in the first week of January, the only thing we have to look forward to is 12 straight weeks of dreary, cold winter — which, obviously, is not exactly something a sane person looks forward to, except for those ski weirdos, who actually get excited when arctic weather arrives. For normal people, the next three months are something we all try to endure and hopefully survive.

At least there’s some good news. At this point in time, most people have ceased that silly charade and admitted their New Year’s Resolution plans are just not going to happen. It was a good 48-hour fantasy while it lasted. Some folks almost convinced themselves that this year would be different and a much-needed lifestyle change was really going to occur. Oh well, at least the $2700 piece of shiny, new exercise equipment in the den will make a lovely, if slightly overpriced, coat rack.
It's important that we don’t dwell on how dark and cold and dismal it is right now, nor the fact that it will take an eternity for the next 12 weeks to pass by. What we need to do is focus on the positive aspects of early January. Yes, despite what I’ve been saying here, there are some positive things. The first is that old expression: “Adversity builds character.” 

We are smack-dab in the middle of character-building season. For example, imagine you are running late for work on a bitter cold morning, and you’re frantically scraping ice off your car’s windshield with a credit card because you misplaced your ice scraper. Just as you lose all feeling in your fingers, you step into a small snow bank, causing a large glob of ice to fill up your right shoe. That is how you build character.

People who live in Florida or California have no character. They walk around in shorts and flip-flops during January. They’re soft and pathetic, and they think true adversity is when the barista at Starbucks only includes two sugars when they asked for three. To quote Douglas Neidermeyer, they are worthless and weak.
We, on the other hand, are hearty and strong. OK, I can tell by your expression that you’re not buying my baloney. (That’s right, I can see you through the newspaper.) Well, frankly, I’m not buying it either. The best thing we can do to lift our spirits and survive the next 12 weeks is make fun of people in Florida and California. After all, they are certainly making fun of us.

Monday, December 26, 2022

TV Mass Is a Great Blessing

Last month I came down with a nasty cold, which, by the way, was my first cold since before COVID began. So, all that social distancing and washing my hands once a month really paid off! Thankfully, it wasn’t COVID, but I felt fairly lousy, so I decided not to go to Mass on Sunday morning. Instead, I watched Mass on TV, courtesy of the Hartford Archdiocese’s Office of Radio and Television.
It’s wonderful that the Archdiocese offers televised Mass every single day. For people who can’t get out of the house, such as the elderly and those with chronic illnesses, it’s a wonderful way to keep close to a crucial aspect of our faith. I have to admit, though, it felt a little weird being in my living room in my bathrobe and slippers, and trying to concentrate on the Mass. It was a sunny morning, so I had the blinds open, and when my neighbors went out for a walk, I noticed a puzzled look on their faces when they saw me standing in the middle of the room with my arms upraised, reciting the Our Father.

I was very grateful the Mass was available on TV, but the experience reminded me that there is nothing like being at church in person and worshipping as a group. (Keep this in mind, all you folks who never went back to church after the pandemic ended. If you’re in good health, the risks are virtually non-existent and the rewards are infinite.)

Anyway, as I was following along with the Mass on TV, I thought to myself, “I’m not in the same room where this Mass is being celebrated. It’s taking place about 20 or 30 miles away. But since it’s happening live and I’m praying along with the priest at the exact same moments he’s praying, it's like I’m actually there.”
Then, a few minutes later, I remembered how the ORTV operates. “Wait a minute,” I said to myself. “The daily Masses are televised live, but the Sunday Mass is recorded a few days in advance, because the priests need to be at their parishes rather than in the studio on Sunday mornings.”

So, I really was not praying along with the priest at the exact same moments he was praying. The Mass I was watching was just a recording. It was not actually occurring at the same time I was trying to participate in it. Hmm, does that make it invalid? Does that mean my thoughts and prayers and attention were not really a part of that Mass, since my involvement took place two or three days after the Mass was celebrated?

Well, the good news is, the answer to those questions is no. The Mass was not invalid, and my thoughts and prayers and attention were indeed a real part of that Mass. The reason this is true is very simple: The Almightly Creator of the Universe is completely outside of time. For God, every moment that’s ever occurred in history – past, present, and future – is as if it’s happening now. If a priest celebrates Mass on a Thursday, and if I follow along with a televised recording of that Mass on a Sunday morning, in God’s mind, I am praying along in complete unison with the priest. That’s how amazing our God truly is.

Now, if you think I’m going to explain how God can perceive every event of history as if it’s happening in the present moment, you are mistaken. Just thinking about God being outside of time gives me a headache.

The important thing to remember is that if you do follow along with a Mass on TV, regardless of when it was recorded, you are participating in that Mass. The other important thing to remember is that being at Mass in person in church is by far the best way. So, if you don’t have any health issues and now that I’m over my nasty cold, I’ll see you on Sunday! 

Is ‘Messed’ the Best? Surely You Jest

A couple of months ago, I wrote about a problem with a company called “Messed Diagnostics.” I didn’t use the firm’s actual name because I didn’t feel like getting sued for bad-mouthing the company in public. But on the other hand, it’s not libel if you’re telling the truth, and the truth is, this particular lab testing outfit sent me an invoice for services my insurance company already paid in full almost a year earlier. In my column, I wondered whether this huge corporation sends out duplicate invoices every month. 

After that column appeared in the newspaper, I was surprised to discover I had really struck a nerve. Dozens of readers sent me angry emails — and for once they were not angry at me! The readers let off so much steam about their experiences with billing nightmares, my computer was able to heat my whole house for three days. (No, I’m kidding. When people blow off steam via email, it doesn’t actually turn my computer into a radiator. That was, um, kind of a joke.)
The emails I received fell into one of three categories. The first group were those folks who had problems with the same lab testing outfit. Just like me, they had to embark on a grueling “quest” to resolve billing errors. I guess that big green letter in the company’s logo could stand for queasy, quirky, quixotic, quagmire, querulous, or what people wanted to do after being put on hold for the eleventh time: quit.

One reader said my column triggered PTSD, as it brought back painful memories of her ordeal trying to resolve an $896 erroneous invoice. Another reader noted the pain “Messed” inflicts on you while drawing blood is nothing compared to the pain of dealing with their billing department.

The second category of emailers complained about other aspects of the healthcare industry’s billing and payment system. Hmm, I suppose the previous sentence is incorrect, since using the word “system” implies there is an actual plan involved. If you’ve ever tried to figure out the healthcare billing and payment process, you no doubt discovered that it makes about as much sense as Kanye West giving a lecture on World History.
Another emailer explained that he received a bill for $2,200, many years after his daughter went through physical therapy for a knee injury. The insurance company and the healthcare provider wrangled over certain excessive fees, so the provider finally decided just to send a huge bill and a threatening “past due” letter to the patient’s father. Luckily, he told them to go pound sand, with the help of the State Attorney General’s office.

The third group of people who wrote to me were peeved about the customer service shortcomings of other industries, primarily cell phone and cable TV companies. From what I can gather, most people would rather get a root canal with a rusty drill than to hear this recorded message for the 74th time: “Your call is important to us. Please stay on the line for the next available customer service representative.” 

One reader said, “Sometimes I think it would be better to go through life without a phone or TV, if it meant I’d never have to wait on hold for two hours again.” 
Unfortunately, nowadays in this era of computerized billing systems and over-worked customer service operators, step 1 of the grueling, 100-step, year-long “quest” to resolve a problem is waiting on hold for two hours. Step 2, of course, is finally hearing a real person’s voice on the line, and then having the call get disconnected.

Hmm, going through life without a phone or TV or any healthcare services is starting to sound more and more attractive.

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

A Christmas Story Wonderful Life Carol

I love the Christmas season, especially the traditional Christmas movies. I’ve watched those old movies so many times now, they sort of blend together. Without a doubt, my favorite is the classic film with the young boy, Ralphie, who wants to get a BB gun for Christmas, but his Old Man is really frustrated because he works for a mean old miser, Ebenezer Scrooge, down at the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan in the Bedford Falls section of London, a mid-sized city in northern Indiana.

One day Ralphie gets a Little Orphan Annie decoder ring. As he’s trying to decode a message, he goes into a trance and suddenly the Ghost of Christmas Past appears, whose name is Clarence, and he shows Ralphie what London would be like if he had never been born. Ralphie is horrified to discover London has been renamed Pottersville. Also his school, Warren G. Harding Elementary School, is now named Old Fezziwig’s. Ralphie’s spirits are raised a bit when he sees that his 4th grade class is having a joyful Christmas party, but then he gets sad again when Harry Bailey falls through the ice and drowns and his buddy Flick gets his tongue stuck to a frozen flagpole. The clincher is when he sees that Schwartz’s desk is empty, with just his crutch there. The Ghost shakes his head sadly and says, “I see a crutch without an owner. And Mary is an old maid.”
Then the Ghost of Christmas Past brings Ralphie to another scene, and he sees his Old Man slaving away in Scrooge’s office, trying to fix the furnace by the faint flickering light of a single leg lamp. Scrooge’s partner, Jacob Marley, lies at the point of death, but Scrooge refuses to call an expensive doctor because Uncle Billy misplaced $8,000 in cash earlier that morning. Even though Sam Wainwright (hee haw!) sent a telegram pledging up to $25,000 to help, Scrooge still decides just to sit there, reading the Sunday comics and cursing out the Bumpus hounds, and waiting for Mr. Martini to show up with some wine.

Outside Scrooge’s office, Bert the cop, Ernie the cab driver, and Scrooge’s nephew Fred sing “I Love You Truly” in the rain, but their singing is interrupted when Scut Farkus and Grover Dill jump them from behind, and twist their arms until they cry, “Uncle!”
Ralphie can hear his Old Man grumbling about his longing to leave Bedford Falls and travel the world. But ever since that day when he married Mary Cratchit, the same day there was economic panic and a run on Higbee’s department store, the Old Man was destined to be stuck in that boring town forever.

Then the Ghost leaves Ralphie all alone in a dark cemetery, where Raphie sees the graves of Scrooge, Harry Bailey, and the sad remains of the Old Man’s shattered Major Award. He thinks he hears the sound of taps being played, gently.

Ralphie is frantic that he has missed Christmas, but then suddenly he is back in his house. He sees his brother Randy sleeping on the floor, cradling a toy zeppelin, while Zuzu is playing with her petals and ringing a little bell on the Christmas tree. In the kitchen, Mary Cratchit prepares a large turkey that was delivered to them courtesy of an anonymous gentleman. So it’s a wonderful Christmas after all!

In the final scene, Ralphie takes his Red Ryder BB gun and shoots Mr. Potter in the butt, and says, “God bless us, everyone!” Then he quickly runs through the Minnesota snow to his school, where he will play the part of a shepherd in the Christmas play, directed this year by Charlie Brown. 

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Mary’s Perfect Submission to God’s Will

Christians talk a lot about God’s will. We seek to know God’s will, we try to do God’s will, and many of our prayers conclude with, “Thy will be done.” 

Theoretically, most Christians accept the idea that mankind is flawed. As St. Paul wrote, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Therefore, we would agree that, generally speaking, God’s will for our lives is much better than our own will for our lives. 
But when we shift from the theoretical to the personal, when we stop talking in broad terms about God’s will vs. mankind’s will, it gets much more difficult. When we honestly confront the question, “What is God’s will for ME — right here, right now?” we find that major conflicts arise. 

The reason is simple: God’s will is almost always much tougher to do than our will. It requires more effort, more discipline, and it yields much less instant gratification. Most unpleasant of all, doing God’s will requires us to abdicate our position as the center of the universe (at least in our own minds). We have to put God at the center of the universe and direct our attention toward him, rather than sit on our little imaginary thrones and expect others to direct their attention toward us. 

This is why so many otherwise sincere Christians go to such lengths to convince themselves that they are really doing God’s will, even if it’s glaringly obvious to everyone around them that they are not. 

Now that it’s just days away from Christmas, we can ponder once again the most courageous, selfless act of submitting to God’s will in the history of mankind — except, of course, for Jesus’ submitting to the Father’s will and offering up his life to pay the price for our sin. 

This is the time of year when we hear the amazing story of the Annunciation, that miraculous moment in history when the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and announced that she had been chosen to be the mother of the incarnate Son of God. 
During the Annunciation, the angel told Mary that her offspring would be a holy and powerful leader who would rule over all Israel. Not bad. But there was one slight problem. Mary was not married yet, and she was a virgin. She asked the angel, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” 

Certainly Mary was puzzled about  the “how” of her getting pregnant. But she probably was equally as confused about the “why” of it. Why me? Why now? Why this way? And no doubt she also was very concerned about what would happen when the rest of the community found out an unmarried girl was pregnant. Her family would be scandalized, Joseph would never believe her explanation, and the villagers would be more than happy to gather up stones and mete out a little bone-crushing justice. 

No matter how you slice it, Mary was in a bind. But she never once hesitated or requested that God find someone else for the job. She immediately said, “I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” 
What amazing courage. What perfect submission. Mary was focused totally on doing God’s will rather than her own will, even though following her own self-centered, personal will would’ve been the easy way out. By the way, we should note a couple of important things. First, since Mary was conceived without original sin (as Catholic doctrine teaches), her personal will most likely was not self-centered. Second, she definitely had the freedom to say no to Gabriel. Some folks think she had no choice here, but God would never force someone to do something like this.  

So, Mary’s submission to God’s will should be a shining example for us all. Submitting to God’s will is difficult, but in the grand scheme of things, it is by far the best course of action. When we pray, “Thy will be done,” we really have to mean it.

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Santa Tradition Teaches Unconditional Love

In some Christian circles, there’s a lot of debate about whether parents should emphasize the Santa Claus aspect of Christmas. The thinking is, when the kids get older and realize the mythological nature of that story, they might also wonder what else is folk legend. The concern is that kids will conclude the stories about Jesus and the Gospels are not true.

I suppose this is a valid concern, but I’d like to offer a different point of view from personal experience. When I was young, I loved my parents, I respected them, and I obeyed them (most of the time). But I also feared them. I mistakenly thought their love for me was conditional; that is, when they were disciplining me (deservedly, I admit), I thought they hated me. When I behaved and they were nice to me, that’s when I thought they loved me. So, I concluded their love for me waxed and waned based on whether my behavior was good or bad.

By the way, I was completely wrong in my understanding of my parents’ love for their children. They raised five kids on a meager teacher’s salary, and they did a fabulous job. Looking back, it’s understandable why they were often so stressed out. But as a confused seven-year-old, I didn’t know any better.

It reminds me of comedian Jim Gaffigan’s description of raising five young kids, as he and his wife are doing now: “Just imagine you’re floundering in the water, trying to keep from drowning, and then someone … hands you a baby.”
There must have been times when my parents felt like they were drowning, as they struggled to tread water while juggling five babies.

Even though I was a confused and anxious seven-year-old, when it came to Christmas, I instinctively knew I was going to get some presents on the morning of December 25th, no matter how I behaved. For some reason, I was certain all the talk about Santa’s “naughty list” was a bunch of baloney. I just knew Santa’s love for me was unconditional. 

Later on, when I came to understand the reality of the situation at about age 10, I didn’t feel deceived. I thought it was a pretty cool tradition, and when I realized how much my parents had sacrificed for us over the years to keep the story going, I had a new-found respect for them. This is one reason why I like the Santa Claus tradition: it helped me be more grateful toward my parents.

Much later in life, after spending over a decade trying to find some meaning to my life as an atheist (and failing), I came to believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the same God the good nuns tried to explain to me in my childhood catechism classes.

As an adult, after my lost decade in the faithless wilderness, when some Christian friends tried to re-introduce me to the Creator God, the part about Him loving me unconditionally clicked right away. I understood it and I embraced it. Why? Because I had already experienced that feeling years earlier with Santa Claus.
A lot of people struggle with the idea of God being our Father. This is because they had lousy relationships with their own earthly fathers. My relationship with my dad was not bad, but it wasn’t perfect either. If I had never experienced the Santa Claus tradition as a child, I might have struggled accepting God as my loving Father. But I didn’t have a problem with that concept for one simple reason: Santa!

So, I’d say it's quite all right for kids to get excited about Santa Claus. It won’t ruin their faith later on. And it just might help them understand that God the Father, the Almighty Creator, truly loves them unconditionally. Ho! Ho! Ho!

Saturday, December 10, 2022

You Like Wisconsin Sushi, Doontcha?

Recently, I flew to Wisconsin for a three-day business trip. One evening, our hosts took us to a fancy Japanese restaurant that is renowned for its sushi.

“Wisconsin sushi?” I asked. “Do they pour melted cheese all over the raw fish?”

Neither the traditional style of sushi nor the imagined Wisconsin style appealed to me very much. I’m lactose intolerant, so cheese-covered anything is a problem, even if it makes raw fish taste better. By the way, in Wisconsin, they seemingly put cheese on everything, from cupcakes to bananas to cheddar-flavored glue on the back of postage stamps.
My business trip was a non-stop exercise in dairy vigilance, and I carefully examined every morsel of food I ate. I’m happy to report that I successfully avoided consuming any cheese-laden cuisine during my 72-hour stay in the Cheese Capital of America, despite multiple wait staff personnel who insisted, “Ooh, but ya just gotta have some cheese curds when ya visit Wiz-KAHN-sin, doontcha?”

I’m relieved to report that no one at the fancy Japanese restaurant thought it would be a good idea to pour melted cheese on the raw fish. In fact, our waiter didn’t even think the idea was remotely humorous, even when I added an exaggerated, “Ha ha!” after playfully asking the question. He just kind of stared at me with a “And these guys from the East Coast think WE’RE rubes” smirk on his face.

So, there was no cheese on the sushi, which was good. But that still left the sushi, which was not so good.
Let me digress for a moment. I am at the stage in life where I freely acknowledge that I am not in the Cool Kids Club. And I’m at peace with it. There were times in my life when I desperately wanted to be classy and stylish, and I tried really hard to act the part. But no more. 

Even back in the days when I wanted to be hip, I could never bring myself to embrace sushi. I certainly tried. I would listen attentively when my fancy friends and associates gushed rapturously about sushi, and then I’d look on in wide-eyed wonder as they emitted an ecstatic “Mmm!” while placing a piece in their mouths.

To me, raw fish and rice tasted exactly as I expected it to taste: like nothing. Dipping it in soy sauce helped to add a little flavor, and that green wasabi really cleans out your sinuses in a hurry. But every time I’ve eaten a piece of sushi, I did not offer a Meg Ryanesque moan. Instead, I smiled politely at my dinner companions and thought, “One minute each side on a gas grille would make this thing taste SO much better.”
Based on the cold reception my first attempt at humor received, I decided not to ask the waiter, “Hey, can you bring some ketchup?” Even though I don’t care about being classy anymore, I knew a ketchup crack in that fancy restaurant would be a Jethro Bodine-level gaff.

Out of curiosity, I did a Google search for the phrase, “Wisconsin sushi.” To my surprise, there is such a thing, but it has nothing to do with fish or fancy restaurants. The expression is kind of a joke. Wisconsin sushi is made by taking a little pickle and wrapping layers of cheese and ham around it. Then, you slice it into small pieces so it kind of looks like real sushi. 
It’s the type of thing someone would serve to friends while watching a Packers game on TV — with everyone proudly wearing their oversized cheese-head hats.

Those are my kind of people, and that’s my kind of sushi — except, of course, for the cheese.

Saturday, December 3, 2022

‘That’s What Christmas Is All About, Charlie Brown’

One of my favorite holiday traditions is watching the iconic television special “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” I loved that show when I was a little kid; I loved it when I was a young adult, even though I was an atheist; and I love it more than ever now.

The Charlie Brown Christmas show is one of the few holiday programs that actually mentions the true meaning of Christmas: the birth of Jesus. There are many enjoyable animated TV specials, such as the Grinch, Rudolph, Kris Kringle, Garfield, Scrooge McDuck, etc. All of these, plus many others, have become holiday favorites. But other than having decorated trees and other secular aspects of Christmas, these shows make no mention of Jesus. 
On second thought, there is one old favorite, “Pee Wee’s Christmas Special,” that actually gives a brief description of the Nativity, with a quick video clip of kids in a church dressed as Mary, Joseph, wise men, etc. (There’s also a scene with animated dinosaurs playing dreidel to celebrate Hannukah.) So, kudos to you, Paul Ruebens, for not avoiding the religious aspect of the holidays.

Anyway, the climatic scene in “A Charlie Brown Christmas” begins when Charlie Brown desperately exclaims, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?!”

In reply, Linus says, “Sure, Charlie Brown. I can tell you what Christmas is all about.” Then he walks to the center of the stage in the school auditorium, dragging his trusty blanket, and calls out, “Lights, please.”

When the spotlight shines on him, Linus starts to recite a passage from Luke’s gospel, chapter 2: 

     And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field,
     keeping watch over their flock by night.
     And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord
     shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

     And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, 
     I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

     For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour,
     ‘tis Christ the Lord.

     And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped 
     in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

     And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude
     of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, 
     Glory to God in the highest,
     and on earth peace, good will toward men.
After a brief pause, Linus shuffles back to Charlie Brown and says, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

I don’t know about you, but even after seeing that scene a zillion times in my life, I still get a little teary-eyed when Linus says that last line.

Can you imagine a production company making a Christmas special for network TV nowadays and deciding to include a scene that quotes the Bible? No chance. In fact, way back in 1965, when Charles Schulz wrote Linus’ scene for the show, he faced a lot of resistance from the production staff and network executives. But Schulz insisted on including it. 

The final version of the show was considered so odd — with Vince Guaraldi’s avant garde jazz soundtrack, actual children recording the voices rather than adults pretending to be children, and no laugh track — the network executives were convinced the show would bomb. To their chagrin, they had committed to broadcasting the show, and figured it would air one time and quickly be forgotten as an awkward and ill-advised attempt to bring a comic strip to life. The show was broadcast on December 9, 1965, and the rest, as they say, is history. Fully half of America’s TV sets tuned in that night, and the poignant show became an instant classic.
During this hectic time of year, please try to find time to make a little hot cocoa, sit down with your family, and watch “A Charlie Brown Christmas” together. And when Linus says, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown,” I dare you not to shed a tear.

Eminent Domain is Imminent 

A while ago, I discussed in this column the joy of traveling on Interstate-84 every day. (I am, of course, using the definition of the word “joy” that means: “root canal level agony.”) I mentioned that, in my view, Audi drivers have surpassed BMW drivers as the most reckless and obnoxious motorists on the road. In that particular paragraph, I wrote this sentence: “Don’t fret Beemer lovers.”

No one took issue with my negative characterization of Audi and BMW drivers (so it must be true). However, I did receive a note explaining that “Beemer” is the incorrect word. The proper nickname for a BMW car is “Bimmer,” while a BMW motorcycle is called a “Beamer,” with an “ea” rather than “ee.” The email writer told me that countless discussions have taken place over many years on high performance car websites and blogs, and now Bimmer and Beamer are the agreed upon proper terms.
When I read this, my first thought was, “Well, I drive a Chevy Equinox, so how am I supposed to know BMW lingo?”

Then, after realizing there’s a multitude of car enthusiasts who spend years having intense online discussions to settle on proper vehicle nicknames, I had a second thought: “Hmm, I don’t feel so bad wasting three-quarters of my brain cells memorizing baseball statistics. Compared to these car guys, I’m making good use of my time.”

In my column about I-84, I wrote this sentence: “Whether it’s Hartford, Waterbury, Danbury, Newburgh, Scranton, or hundreds of towns in between, each of these communities has an east-west gouge through its very heart, altering forever the particular burg’s character and charm.”

I wrote that sentence mostly to fill some space, and partly because I haven’t used the words gouge and burg in a while. Little did I know it would strike a nerve with readers. I received numerous emails, each lamenting how cherished neighborhoods were obliterated to make room for highways.

A friend sent me information about a biography called The Power Broker. The book won a Pulitzer Prize in the mid-1970s, and it chronicles the life of Robert Moses, the driving force behind highway, bridge, and tunnel construction in the metropolitan New York area. 
I was going to purchase the book, until I noticed it’s 1200 pages, which is about 900 more pages than I prefer. There are, however, some interesting internet articles about Moses. From the 1930s to the 1960s, he was the most powerful person in the State of New York, despite never having been elected to any office. It seems Mr. Moses was the king of eminent domain, and would not hesitate to bulldoze entire neighborhoods to make room for his grand highway projects.

Personally, I was a toddler when all the Interstate construction in Connecticut took place. Even back in those less-regulated days, toddlers were discouraged from getting drivers licenses, so I have no memory of what things were like before the Interstates were built. Based on the emails I received, a lot of folks had their lives turned upside down as their cherished family neighborhoods became nothing more than memories.

One email writer said, “Mr. Dunn, you obviously don’t like Interstate highways. What do you propose we do instead to meet our transportation needs?”

Um, I have no idea. I didn’t write a column about I-84 to solve major societal problems. I wrote that column to make some goofy comments about Audi and BMW drivers (and to use the words gouge and burg). 
I never thought my essay would dig up a bunch of painful memories. I guess the lesson is that progress comes at a price. I just never realized how many people had to pay a very steep price.

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Spontaneous Prayer is Good

Some of the best prayers ever prayed are spontaneous prayers. That’s when people just blurt out whatever it is they need to say to God. 

For Catholics, we’re not very good at spontaneous prayer. As children, we memorized certain prayers, such as the Our Father and the Hail Mary, and then as adults, when a crisis occurs, we instinctively start reciting those prayers. 
And you know what? That’s a great thing. Those prayers are indeed powerful, and in a crisis situation it’s better to pray something than to be paralyzed with fear or despair and pray nothing.
However, spontaneous prayer is great, too. It’s just that we Catholics have little experience with it. I remember years ago being with an Evangelical Protestant friend. We heard that a guy named Dave was sick, and so my friend said, “Let’s pray for him.”

I assumed we would recite something like the Our Father, since my friend was Protestant, so I figured he was not familiar with the Hail Mary. But then he held out his arms, looked up, and just started talking. “Dear Lord,” he said, “We heard about our friend Dave, and so we lift him up to you. Please heal him and fill him with hope and joy.”

As my friend was praying, I thought to myself, “You can do that? You can just talk to God without reciting something specific you learned in Catechism class in the 2nd grade? That’s wild.”
My friend kept on praying, and it was such a normal conversation, he even said things like, “Umm,” and, “You know,” as he paused to come up with the next words. Can you imagine Catholics saying, “You know,” while reciting the Hail Mary? “Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is, you know, with thee.” Of course not. That’s because we’re reciting something we memorized decades ago.

The key, I believe, is the difference between rote recitation and true communication. In the Bible, Jesus warned, “When you pray, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words” (Matt. 6:7).

I acknowledge that my prayers often turn into rote recitation, just many words being babbled. For example, if I’m praying the Rosary while driving on the highway, sometimes I’ll realize that I’m on the fourth mystery but I haven’t paid attention to anything I said during the previous 10 or 15 minutes.
Other times while praying the Rosary, I’m focused intently on each of the five mysteries, and when I’m finished I can feel that I’ve just had a profound interaction with Almighty God.

So, rote prayers are good, especially if we focus on what the prayer means and Who exactly we’re praying to. But once in a while we should try a little spontaneous prayer. Now, I know for Catholics, this is kind of like asking a classically trained trumpeter with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra to start playing some jazz music. For many of us, free-form improvisation just doesn’t come naturally.

(By the way, I have no idea if classically trained trumpet players avoid jazz music. For all I know, they could wail like Maynard Ferguson when not in a tuxedo at Carnegie Hall. I was just trying to come up with an analogy.)
We need to remind ourselves that God is a person — an eternal, all-knowing, all-powerful person, yes, but a person nonetheless. (Actually, three persons in one divine Being, but let’s save Trinitarian theology for another day.) This means we can have conversations with God. We can open our arms, look up, and just start talking to the Lord. It doesn’t have to be anything we were taught in Catechism class. It doesn’t have to be anything we’ve memorized. It’s simply good ol’ conversation with a loved one, where one person says what’s on his or her mind, and then listens quietly for the reply.

Both types of prayer can be useful. The prayers we memorized as children are powerful, especially the Rosary. And spontaneous, free-form praying is good, too. And when you’re having a spontaneous conversation with God, don’t worry if you often say, “Umm,” and, “You know,” because God doesn’t mind at all. 

Friday, November 25, 2022

Cryptocurrency Is Very Cryptic

Did you hear about the cryptocurrency exchange, FTX, that crashed and burned recently? News reports say FTX was a massive Ponzi scheme, and investors lost billions of dollars. I was planning to comment here on what exactly happened with FTX, but then I discovered the more I tried to understand what cryptocurrency is, the more confused I got. 

As far as I can figure, people invest real money into cryptocurrency, where it is then turned into virtual money. This means a person’s real money has become part of a complex, internet-based video game, and at that point the value of the money can either skyrocket or become worthless. It all depends on, um, apparently no one really knows.

The main thing I know about cryptocurrency is what Matt Damon told me a year ago in his now infamous TV commercials: “Fortune favors the brave.” I guess while Matt was trying to convince people that it’s courageous to invest in cryptocurrency, he forgot to mention that destitution favors the gullible. 
Wouldn’t it be ironic if it turns out Matt insisted on being paid in real dollars from the crypto company he was shilling for? If that’s how he was compensated for making the commercials, it shows he was a lot smarter than the many foolish people who took his advice. (Remember “Good Will Hunting”? See, I knew Matt was a genius.)

So, instead of examining exactly what happened to FTX (because criminal prosecutors and bankruptcy courts will be sifting through that train wreck for the next three decades), let’s talk about something equally as shocking: in this day and age, there are still people named Ponzi. No, I’m not kidding! Can you believe it?

Now, let me say up front that there is nothing wrong with the name Ponzi. I’m sure it’s a fine, traditional name dating back centuries. However, in our modern culture, the name is now synonymous with stealing money. Can you imagine being a youngster, and your parents insist on keeping the Ponzi family name? Starting in about second grade, and for the rest of your life, what do you think your nickname will be? Lefty? Chuckles? Booger Brain? Nope, your nickname for the rest of your life will be Scheme. As in, “Very nice to meet you, Senator. Let me introduce you to my colleague, Dr. David Ponzi, but you can call him ‘Scheme’.”
To avoid a lifetime of ridicule, it would be so much better to change your name to something less larcenous, such as Bernie Madoff. Oh wait, that one might not be so good. If it were me, I’d go with something simple and unassuming, like Camembert McDoodleyboop, Jr.

As we come down the homestretch of this column, I bet you’re wondering how I’m going to tie together the topics of  FTX, Matt Damon, Ponzi Schemes, and McDoodleyboop, and then stick the landing. Well, I’m wondering the same thing, too.

Actually, I’m not going to tie those topics together at all. One of the benefits of adult-onset ADD (caused by too much channel surfing and social media) is that I can change topics in mid-sentence. So, I’d like to conclude this essay by pointing out that our entire modern monetary system is virtual. I mean, when’s the last time you bought anything with real cash (unless you’re a drug dealer or user)? Nowadays, all of our payroll, banking, and credit card transactions are digital, nothing more than a bunch of flickering images on a computer screen. 
Maybe our financial system is just a larger version of FTX. Oh boy, I don’t want to think about that. To paraphrase Matt Damon, “Peace of mind favors the ignorant.”

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Advent: A Good Time to Examine Priorities

This week is the first Sunday of Advent. Our modern culture tells us the Christmas season kicks into high gear on Thanksgiving afternoon. We are encouraged to go overboard — overboard decorating our homes, overboard eating and drinking, and overboard shopping until we drop.  

The Church takes a slightly different approach. First, on the official Church calendar, the Christmas season doesn’t even begin until sunset on Christmas Eve. Then it continues for the following 12 days until the feast of Epiphany on January 6th.The real Christmas season is still over four weeks away. So relax. Stay away from the mall. Order a few gifts online so you’re not accused of being a total Grinch, and then take a nap.
Starting this Sunday we are officially in the season of Advent. The theme of Advent is anticipation. (Cue the Carly Simon song.) We wait expectantly for the coming of the Lord. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, “When the Church celebrates the liturgy of Advent each year, she makes present this ancient expectancy of the Messiah, for by sharing in the long preparation for the Savior’s first coming, the faithful renew their ardent desire for his second coming” (CCC section 524).

The main message of Advent is fairly basic: get ready, get serious, get excited!

If God is truly God, then the one thing we as believers never should be is complacent. Think about it: the Almighty Creator of the Universe loved us so much He sent His only Son to save us from sin and death and make it possible that we can live in heavenly joy for all eternity.

And how do we often react to this phenomenal reality? With a yawn and a glance at our watches, as we mutter, “When is this Mass gonna be over? Doesn’t Fr. McGuillicuddy know the football pre-game show is about to begin?”

When you stop to think about it, if we really believe God is God, then this type of behavior borders on insanity.
My favorite living Christian writer is Dr. Peter Kreeft, who teaches philosophy at Boston College. In his book, Jesus-Shock, Kreeft discusses sloth, one of the Seven Deadly Sins. He explains sloth “does not necessarily imply any physical laziness.” Instead, sloth “means the passivity…of the will…even in the presence of the true good.”

In other words, sloth can exist even among people who go to church every week and do all the churchy things they’re supposed to do. If they do all these religious activities with an apathetic, half-hearted attitude, then they are guilty of sloth.

During Advent, we should take a personal spiritual inventory. What exactly do we love with all our hearts and souls and minds and strength? Is it football on TV? Is it our new car and our fancy wardrobes? Is it the 50-megawatt Christmas light display adorning our house and yard that can be seen from outer space? Is it getting drunk at office parties? Is it shopping trips to the mall?

We’re not going to be perfect in this life, but maybe during Advent we can pause and evaluate our priorities. Maybe we can redirect some of our enthusiasm, excitement, and dedication toward the God who created us and who loves us. Maybe if we take the time to think about it and pray about it, we will draw into closer communion with the Lord and be better prepared for His second coming, whenever it occurs.

And maybe this year will be a little bit different than previous years. Maybe we'll fill our hearts with joy rather than emptying our bank accounts of money. Maybe we'll fill our souls with peace rather than be consumed with anxiety and stress, which are so prevalent this time of year. Now, wouldn't that be a nice new holiday tradition? 

Sunday, November 20, 2022

‘Are You Ready for Some Futbol?’

Last week I mentioned that I’ve become quite interested in the English Premier League, the top division of football in Great Britain (or as we call it here, soccer). As someone who has been a big fan of American football for decades, and who regularly referred to soccer as “more boring than a PBS pledge drive,” no one is more surprised than I am that I’m actually enjoying futbol games on TV.

And even more surprising, the primary reason I got interested in the Premier League is the TV series “Ted Lasso.” If you’re not familiar with the show, it’s on the Apple TV+ streaming service. Here is the premise, as summarized by Wikipedia: “Ted Lasso, an American college football coach, is unexpectedly recruited to coach an English Premier League soccer team, despite having no experience coaching soccer. The team’s owner, Rebecca Welton, hires Lasso hoping he will fail as a means of exacting revenge on the team’s previous owner, her unfaithful ex-husband. However, Ted’s charm, personality, and humor begin to win over Rebecca, the team, and those who had been skeptical about his appointment.”
So far, there have been two seasons of “Ted Lasso,” with Season 1 being absolutely charming and Season 2 very entertaining but a bit more grim. Season 3 is expected to be released sometime in the next few months.

Actor/comedian Jason Sudeikis plays Ted brilliantly, infusing the character with the innocence of Forrest Gump, the witty repartee of Hawkeye Pierce, and the relentless optimism of SpongeBob SquarePants. 

I thoroughly enjoyed watching the show, but I am firmly ambivalent about recommending “Ted Lasso” to anyone else. You see, since it’s a show on an internet streaming service, all the FCC guidelines about TV profanity do not apply. And the fact is, the dialog on the show, however witty it may be, sounds a lot like some of the crude and rude conversations I’ve heard on construction sites, except with British accents. (Even though certain words have different meanings depending on whether you’re American or British, most cuss words apparently are exactly the same on both sides of the pond.)
It’s a shame the show’s language is so profane, because there are some really important lessons that people of all ages should hear. For example, besides being relentlessly optimistic, Ted always respects other people, no matter how nasty they are to him, and he forgives easily and often. And really, in our current cultural climate, wouldn’t a little dose of tolerance, respect, and forgiveness be a welcomed change?

Anyway, the TV show offers a behind-the-scenes look at a fictional Premier League football club, including the team’s passionate and loyal fans. And that’s one of the things I’ve always enjoyed the most about sports: the dedicated fan bases, such as Red Sox Nation, the Cameron Crazies, and the Green Bay Cheeseheads. 

When I came to understand that the football clubs in England have just as much history and are just as big a part of the community’s identity as, say, the Red Sox, Yankees, or Dallas Cowboys, I decided to watch a couple of PL games on TV. I was pleased to discover that it’s not boring at all. Like Ted Lasso, my understanding of the rules is minimal, but it’s kind of fun to learn.

Right now, the Premier League has taken a break because the World Cup is in full swing. (From a global perspective, the World Cup is kind of like the Super Bowl combined with the World Series — times 50.)

I never thought I’d say this, but if the choice is between watching football or futbol, I prefer to watch the most popular sport on planet earth. Cheers, mate. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

The King is Dead – Long Live the King

This is the last week of the liturgical year. Next Sunday, the first Sunday of Advent, begins a new church year. (It also unofficially begins the Christmas season, which means this year has gone by WAY too fast!)

We close out this liturgical year by celebrating the feast of Christ the King.
In the second reading this week, a passage from St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians, it is very clear why we are proclaiming that Christ is king. Paul explains that Jesus “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth.” Paul continues: “All things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

Since Jesus is part of the Trinity, He has all of the attributes of God. He is omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent — which means He is all-present, all-knowing, and all-powerful.

I’d say those are fairly good qualifications for being a king, wouldn’t you? So, as long as we believe Paul’s theological description of Jesus, as long as we understand that we owe our very existence to Jesus, we have no trouble bowing down in worship and proclaiming that Christ is the king. Then we come to the gospel reading. Do we find our sovereign king sitting on a glorious throne? Is our divine Lord and ruler resplendently attired in His palace as faithful subjects bow before Him? Not quite.
In the gospel reading our King of kings is bloodied and beaten, nailed naked to a cross. The soldiers who drove the nails and the religious leaders who manipulated the death sentence took turns mocking and jeering. At that moment on Calvary, He looked nothing like a king.

It requires eyes of faith to look past the obvious and see the underlying truth of a situation. One of the other criminals being executed that day, siding with the soldiers and religious leaders, did not see a king. Scripture says this criminal “reviled Jesus.”

But another criminal, hanging from his own cross, had eyes of faith. He replied, “Have you no fear of God?” Then he turned to Jesus and said, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

This criminal looked at the bruised, bloodied, and dying man hanging next to him and saw a king. He knew that our natural world is not the only realm of existence.

The faith-filled criminal did not have St. Paul’s theological grasp of Jesus’ cosmic identity. But he knew there is more to existence than just this natural life. He knew death was not the end, but rather a transition to the next life. He had the faith to realize that Jesus had a special connection with that next life.

Jesus rewarded his faith by promising, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
We know what happened three days later when Jesus conquered death once and for all and burst forth from the tomb. And we know what happened forty days after that when He ascended into Heaven to be seated at the right hand of the Father. Knowing this, the irony is not so obvious when we read of Jesus’ utter humiliation during a feast called Christ the King.

But the faithful criminal did not know any of that. He put his trust and hope in Jesus anyway. His natural eyes saw a fellow criminal being put to death. But his supernatural eyes saw a heavenly king. Because of his faith, at this very moment and forevermore, he is in Paradise. We should all be like that faithful criminal and proclaim that Christ is indeed the king. If we do, we can one day join Him in Paradise. 

Sunday, November 13, 2022

Watching Football from a Different Perspective

Last month I went to a college football game with some friends, one of whom grew up in Europe. This friend, let’s call him Wolfgang, had never seen an American football game in person. He has seen football on TV a few times, and wasn’t terribly impressed. But when he saw it up close, he was startled by the level of violence.

“With our football,” he said (meaning soccer), “when players bang into each other it’s an accident. Here, they do it on purpose!”

Well, yes, Wolfie, they certainly do. As Vince Lombardi famously said, “Football isn't a contact sport, it's a collision sport. Dancing is a contact sport.” 
Personally, I started following football when I was about seven years old. I played in the youth football leagues in town, and then played four years in high school followed by three seasons at college. (OK, it was a small college and I hardly saw any playing time, especially after wrecking my knee.) Since then, I’ve faithfully watched football, mostly on TV and sometimes in person, for the past 40-plus years. I mention this to make it clear that I am a fan; that is, I know the intricacies of the game, its history, its teams, its traditions. 

As I sat there watching that college game, I tried to put myself in Wolfgang’s place. I tried to watch the action on the field, and the spectacle surrounding us, as if it were all new to me.

The image that kept popping into my head was the Roman gladiators. Modern American football and ancient gladiators actually have a lot in common. There are, of course, major differences. Nowadays the losing combatant gets carried off the field by medical professionals, rather than being decapitated by the winning combatant with a large sword. (Although I’ve heard that Alabama and Ohio State have asked the NCAA if they can try this on an experimental basis, since it could increase fan interest. For some odd reason, Northwestern and Vanderbilt expressed reluctance.)

During the game, Wolfie kept muttering the same phrase: “Carnage piles.” I asked him what he meant. “They keep forming a large pile, and then they try to kill each other until the whistle blows,” he explained. “See, just like that!”

It was a running play up the middle, and there was no hole. About six guys from each team were in a big scrum, trying to push the pile, but there was no forward progress and the play ended.

“Actually,” I said, “guys rarely get hurt on plays like that. Wait till they throw a slant pattern to the wide receiver and the middle linebacker drills him just as the ball arrives, or the strong safety dives at his knees. That’s when the carnage happens: torn ligaments, broken bones, major concussions.”

As soon as those words left my mouth, I realized I was explaining the game to a young man from Europe with a twinkle in my eye, as if the moment when a player gets seriously injured is the highlight of the day. And as I spoke, my bad knee started aching from not stretching it out in a while.

I sat back in my seat, somewhat confused. “Hmm,” I thought to myself, “from an outsider’s point of view, what we’re doing here is kind of … savage.”

Next week, I’ll discuss a very surprising development. After decades and decades of referring to soccer as “a sissy sport” (which is the description our high school football coach required us to use back in 1974), I have become quite interested in the English Premier League, the top division of football (soccer) in Great Britain. Until then, cheers, mate.