Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Thanks in Advance for Reading This

Recently, I read an article in a business journal that was titled, “10 common phrases that make you sound passive-aggressive in the workplace.” The gist of the essay is that these phrases can cause a lot of tension and hard feelings among coworkers and clients.

I’ve worked in many different environments over the past 43 years, so I know first-hand that good workplace communication and cooperation can be rather tricky. It doesn’t take much to cause a lot of tension and acrimony, which leads to inefficiency and ultimately has a negative impact on the organization’s bottom line. 

I read the article with interest, but was quickly disappointed because the 10 so-called passive-aggressive phrases didn’t strike me as being a problem at all. In fact, one phrase is something I use regularly, especially in emails: “Thanks in advance.”
How can that phrase possibly cause tension and hard feelings? When I conclude an email with, “Thanks in advance for your help,” I am genuinely offering thanks and gratitude to the other person who will assist with my request. I’m expressing my trust in that person, and I’m not in any way putting pressure on him or her to accomplish an unrealistic task. In my mind, “Thanks in advance,” is not passive-aggressive; it’s really passive-passive. It’s an extremely polite way of communicating.

To be passive-aggressive, the phrase would have to be more like, “Thanks in advance for getting this resolved promptly for once in your life.” Or, “Thanks in advance for not screwing this up like you did the last time.”

Then there is the all too common aggressive-aggressive behavior, when someone will say something like, “That report better be on my desk by 2 p.m. or else you’re fired!” I used to work with a guy who would motivate his employees with comments such as, “Get this done immediately, or you’ll need to make an emergency visit to a proctologist to remove a size 12 shoe from your butt!”

No, I’m kidding. He never said that. He, of course, used a different word for “butt.”
I took a little break from writing this essay to get a snack, and I mentioned the topic to my wife. She said, “What is the definition of ‘passive-aggressive’?”

I replied, “I dunno. But that’s never stopped me from writing about something before.”
She said, “Why don’t you go look it up?”

I mumbled, “Sure,” and walked away, and then I did NOT look it up. (Which I found out afterward is classic passive-aggressive behavior.)
After grumbling for a while because I didn’t feel like doing research, I finally did look up the definition. Passive-aggressive is defined as “behavior that is seemingly innocuous, accidental, or neutral but that indirectly displays an unconscious aggressive motive. It is a pattern of indirectly expressing negative feelings instead of openly addressing them.”

People often engage in passive-aggressive behavior because they are insecure or lack self-esteem. One main reason is a strong desire to avoid conflict. Uh oh, that one describes me. 
Passive-aggressive behaviors include not completing assignments on time and being chronically late for meetings. Well, that does not describe me. Other P.A. behaviors are using sarcasm a lot, and being agreeable when face-to-face with people but then complaining after they’re gone. Hmm, that does kind of describe, uh, let’s just say someone I know well. 
Well, once again I’ve messed up. Instead of just writing something goofy off the top of my head — whether I know anything about the topic or not — I went and did a bunch of research on the topic. And now I realize that “Passive-Aggressive” should be my middle name.

Thanks in advance for ignoring everything I’ve written here. 

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Suspicious, Sarcastic, and Cynical? Who, Me?

Last week, I discussed Jesus’ teaching that we all should have childlike faith. That means we should trust the Lord completely and look at His wonderful creation with wide-eyed wonder. I mentioned that as adults, we often get suspicious, sarcastic, and cynical, which are attitudes that keep us from trusting God the way we should.

After I wrote that essay, the mirror in my bathroom said to me, “Hey pal, have you looked at yourself lately?”

I replied, “No, why?”

The mirror said, “Well, if you’d take a minute to look, you’d see that you are one of the most suspicious, sarcastic, and cynical people on the face of the earth.”
“No, you’ve got it all wrong,” I said. “Sure, I occasionally assume a cynical attitude and use sarcasm in my writing, but that’s just for comedic effect.”

“Oh, so you’re only that way when you write?” the mirror said. “What about when you’re talking to your wife, kids, co-workers, clients, friends, neighbors, and that young lady working the check-out line at the grocery store who gets flustered easily?”

“Um, now wait a minute,” I mumbled. “She charged me twice for a bag of Fritos. What am I supposed to do, let her rip me off?”

“Well,” the mirror said, “you certainly put that ‘sinister thief’ in her place, didn’t you, tough guy?”

“Now, c’mon!” I exclaimed. Then I paused and said, “Hey, wait a minute. Since when do mirrors talk?”

“Oh, are you getting suspicious, Mr. holier-than-thou religious writer?”

Hmm, maybe my mirror has a point.

I think I was correct when I wrote that the trials and tribulations of life often wear adults down and cause them to get suspicious, sarcastic, and cynical. But if it came across as if I was accusing other people of this, while it’s not a problem for me, then, of course, it’s all your fault for not being smart enough to understand what I meant. 

No wait, I’m kidding, I’m kidding! If it really came across that way, then it’s my fault, especially since I do indeed have a talent for suspicion, sarcasm, and cynicism. 
The childlike faith Jesus calls us to have can be tricky. We need to trust the Lord wholeheartedly, but we do live in a fallen world. So, that means we can’t be so trusting in our dealings with other people that we become gullible rubes.

For example, I read in the paper the other day about an elderly woman in western Connecticut who was scammed out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. A con artist called her and said she won the multi-million dollar Publishers Clearing House contest. All she had to do was pay the taxes on her winnings — up front, of course — and then she would receive her big prize. Sadly, she sent the scammer a boatload of money before her family or the bank realized what she was doing. 

Jesus is meek and mild and forgiving, but I think even the Prince of Peace would not mind if everyone told phone scammers to, “Bugger off, jerk face!!” as loudly as possible, in the hope of damaging their hearing.

It’s true that people can become suspicious, sarcastic, and cynical after many years of struggling with the trials and tribulations of our sinful world (even if they don’t have a natural gift for those traits, like me). These negative attitudes then make it difficult for us to have childlike trust in our heavenly Creator. 

Don’t forget, besides teaching that we should have childlike faith, Jesus also said this: “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16).

We need to find a happy medium. We must have childlike faith and enthusiasm toward the things of God, but at the same time be careful and cautious toward the things of earth. 

By the way, my mirror doesn’t actually talk to me. Everyone knows mirrors can’t talk, except in fairy tales. However, my mirror does giggle occasionally, especially when I grab a hairbrush and try to convince myself that my bald spot isn’t noticeable. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

What Is Childlike Faith?

In the Bible, Jesus says we must have childlike faith. That’s great, but what exactly IS childlike faith? 

Well, think about your children or grandchildren, especially when they were young. Remember how they trusted you implicitly? Also, they were so excited whenever they discovered something new. Every day was an adventure, and they looked at the world around them with wide-eyed wonder. 
That’s what Jesus meant when He said we must be like children. We should look at each day as an adventure, and look with wide-eyed wonder at God’s amazing creation. And we should trust the Lord implicitly, knowing that He loves us more than we can comprehend and that He is in charge of our lives.

But is that the way most adults go through life? No, not even close.

Years ago, I heard a horrible story. A man put his 5-year-old son on a bed, and then told the boy to jump off the bed into his arms. When the boy jumped, the father quickly stepped aside and let the child crash to the floor. As the boy lay there crying, the father said, “Now you’ve learned an important lesson. Don’t ever trust ANYONE!”

Hopefully, most of us have never experienced such terrible treatment at the hands of a parent, but the day-to-day grind of life often does two things to us: it erodes our sense of wonder and excitement, and it makes us far less trusting than we used to be. Our personalities are dominated by the “Three S’s,” as we become more suspicious, sarcastic, and cynical. (Yeah, I know cynical begins with a C, but it sounds like an S, so for alliteration purposes, it’s included.)

It certainly is possible for a cynical person to have faith in God, that is, to believe God is our Creator and that our souls will live on after our bodies have died. But it’s possible to have an “arm’s length” faith, where we keep God at a distance since we kind of trust Him, but not fully. We’ve been hurt by the trials and tribulations of life, and we look at the world through jaded eyes. We know God is real, but it’s often in the same way that we know the IRS is real. In other words, we’d rather not have any close encounters.
Having this type of cynical adult faith, with its weak level of trust, is better than having no faith at all, of course. But it’s so much less than what the Lord wants for us. That’s why Jesus taught that people must have childlike faith. 

There is one aspect of this that is important to understand. Being childlike is very different than being childish. When someone, regardless of age, is childish, they are selfish and impulsive and quite willing to make everyone around them uncomfortable so they can get what they want. When two-year-olds act this way, we realize they can’t help themselves and we understand they eventually will grow out of it. 

However, when full-grown adults act childish, it makes everyone miserable and it is the furthest thing from God’s will. Childlike behavior is completely different, and it is the exact attitude and approach God wants from us.

To be childlike, just remind yourself periodically who is in charge: it is the Lord, and certainly not us. Next, practice gratitude on a daily basis, thanking God for His awe-inspiring creation plus all the wonderful gifts He gives us each day. These gifts include the gift of life and the gift of forgiveness, two things we don’t deserve at all.

Most of all, trust in the Lord with the same unreserved love and joy of toddlers who trust their parents and grandparents. Not only is “being like a child” fulfilling the clear teaching of Jesus, it’s also the way to have your life overflowing with serenity and peace. It’s so much better than being suspicious, sarcastic, and cynical. 

Saturday, September 17, 2022

Recycled Email Jokes to the Rescue

On a recent Saturday morning, it was my little window of opportunity to write this humor column. I like to write a couple of weeks in advance, so I have a chance to proof-read and check the spelling. (I give myself the chance to clean up these essays, but I never actually get around to it. So, a tip of the hat to the editorial staff for tidying up these literary dumpster fires.)

Anyway, it was Labor Day weekend, and I just didn’t feel like stringing together 600 original words. Not that the words I string together are literally “original.” I mean, every word I use is in the Dictionary and has been used by other people countless times. (The only original word I ever came up with is fleenerectomy, but it never caught on, mostly because it doesn’t mean anything.) What I’m trying to say is, it was a holiday weekend and I wasn’t in the mood to come up with new thoughts or observations.
Luckily, that very morning an email was forwarded to me with a whole bunch of recycled jokes. You may not get emails like this, but I receive them once or twice — per hour. To avoid laboring on the Labor Day weekend, I decided to let the world’s anonymous email circulators take care of this week’s column. Here are some that made me giggle:
  • “How do you milk sheep? Bring out a new iPhone and charge $1,000 for it.”
  • “To get rid of unwanted junk during the holidays, put it in an Amazon box and leave it on your porch.”
  • “If you’re sitting in public, and a stranger takes the seat next to you, just stare straight ahead and say, ‘Did you bring the money?’”
  • “When you ask me what I’m doing today and I say, ‘Nothing,’ it does not mean I am free. It means I am doing nothing.”
  • “Interviewer: Tell me about yourself. Me: I’d rather not. I kinda want this job.”
  • “Remember, if you lose a sock in the dryer, it comes back as a Tupperware lid that doesn’t fit any of your containers.”
  • “Sixty might be the new forty, but 9:00 is the new midnight.”
  • “When one door closes and another door opens, you are probably in prison.”
  • “When I say, ‘The other day,’ I could be referring to any time between yesterday and 15 years ago.”
  • “I had my patience tested. I’m negative.”
  • “If you answer the phone with, ‘Hello, you’re on the air!’ most telemarketers will quickly hang up.”
  • “That moment when you walk into a spider web and suddenly turn into a karate master.”
  • “When I ask for directions, please don’t use confusing words like ‘East’.”
  • “I remember being able to get up without making sound effects. Good times.”
  • “My luck is like a bald guy who just won a comb.”
  • “I run like the winded.”
  • “Don’t bother walking a mile in my shoes,that would be boring. Spend 30 seconds in my head, that’ll freak you right out.”
  • “Sometimes someone unexpected comes into your life out of nowhere, and makes your heart race and changes you forever. We call these people cops.”
  • “When you get out of bed in the morning, are your knees supposed to sound like a goat chewing on an aluminum can stuffed with celery?”
So, thanks to all the internet email forwarders out there for writing the majority of this week’s column for me. Now that there are no more holiday weekends for a while, I’ll get back to the regular routine of coming up with my own original literary dumpster fires. That is, of course, unless I have an emergency fleenerectomy.

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

St. Michael the Archangel

When we think of angels, what comes to mind? Often angels are depicted in sacred art as cute infants with wings, floating around the periphery of the painting. Or sometimes in movies, angels are played by pretty young ladies with sweet voices.

Then, of course, there is everyone’s favorite angel, Clarence Oddbody, from the movie It’s A Wonderful Life. (Actually, until the very last scene, Clarence's rank was “AS2” — Angel, Second Class — as he told George Bailey, explaining the embarrassing absence of wings.) Clarence was goofy and friendly, and he had a heart of gold.
So, quite often, we think of angels as small and cute and completely harmless. But that’s not how the Bible describes angels. For starters, virtually every time an angel appears to a human, the angel has to declare, “Fear not!”

I don’t think fluttering babies or cute little ladies or kind-hearted Clarences would need to tell people to stop cowering in fear. There’s a good reason why people freak out when an angel appears. (By the way, I’m pretty sure “freak out” is a well-known biblical expression.) It’s because angels are described in Scripture as large warriors, often wielding a sword approximately the size of a City Hall flagpole.

Angels are spiritual beings, unlike we humans who are spirit and flesh hybrids. The main duty of angels is to be the Lord’s messengers, often issuing important declarations during key moments in salvation history. But angels are also in charge of heavenly security and military operations. 

We don’t hear about angels too often at Mass. In recent years, though, many parishes have reinstituted the practice of reciting the St. Michael Prayer after Mass has officially ended and before the closing hymn.

If you’re not familiar with St. Michael the Archangel, he is a very impressive guy. We read about him in the book of Revelation, where it describes what happened in the heavenly realm before the world began: “Then war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels battled against the dragon. The dragon and its angels fought back, but they did not prevail and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The huge dragon, the ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, who deceived the whole world, was thrown down to earth, and its angels were thrown down with it” (Rev 12:7-9).
In the gospels, Jesus mentions that He “saw Satan fall like lightning from Heaven.” This is the same event described in that passage from Revelation, when the rebellious angel Satan and his followers were defeated and thrown out of God’s kingdom. Any guess who was at the head of the victorious army? Yup, it was St. Michael the Archangel.

When we pray the St. Michael Prayer at the end of Mass, we are calling on a spiritual warrior who has a track record of fighting evil and winning. Here is that powerful prayer: “Saint Michael the archangel, defend us in battle. Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the Devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray, and do thou, O Prince of the Heavenly hosts, by the power of God, cast into Hell Satan, and all the evil spirits who prowl about the world, seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.”

If you don’t believe that evil spirits prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls, well, I guess you haven’t watched the news in a while. But if you do understand that a cosmic battle between good and evil is being fought in our world today, then asking for St. Michael’s help is a smart move. 
St. Michael the Archangel is not a cherubic infant with wings; he’s not a pretty young lady with a sweet voice; and he’s certainly not a goofy elderly fellow with a kind heart. St. Michael is a warrior. And his battlefield is the spiritual realm, where good and evil have been clashing since the beginning of time.  

Please pray the St. Michael Prayer. Nowadays, we need all the help we can get. 

Saturday, September 10, 2022

A Half-Century of M*A*S*H

This Saturday, September 17th, marks 50 years since the first episode of the sitcom M*A*S*H aired on TV. Very few people actually saw that episode, or any other episode that first season. In the Nielsen prime time ratings, M*A*S*H finished a dismal 46th that year. That’s the kind of ranking that would make even the New York Jets say, “Whoa, dude, that’s embarrassing.”

That first year, CBS ran M*A*S*H in the 8 p.m. Sunday timeslot, opposite popular shows “The Wonderful World of Disney” on NBC, and “The FBI” on ABC.
If you’re under age 40, you’re probably wondering, “But what about Netflix and on-demand streaming services? Did M*A*S*H compete with those, too?” No, this might be hard to believe, but back in 1972 there were pretty much only three choices on TV (and if your dad didn’t want to invest in a better antenna on the roof, when the weather was lousy there were only two choices).

There have been many terrific TV sitcoms over the years, but my favorite is M*A*S*H, the story of Army doctors and nurses trying to save lives only a few miles from the fighting during the Korean War. Featuring memorable characters such as Hawkeye, Trapper, Hot Lips, Radar, and Klinger, the show was clever and witty, and successfully balanced war-time horrors with wacky hijinx. 

Legend has it the show was going to be cancelled because of poor ratings, but the wife of CBS founder William Paley told him she liked the show, so it stayed on the air. M*A*S*H finally started drawing larger audiences by the third season, and it became one of the most popular TV shows of all time, running for 11 years. (Which is kind of interesting since the Korean War lasted three years.)

The thing I loved most about M*A*S*H was the witty dialogue. As a socially timid high school kid, I thought it would be so cool to be able to fire off quick and hilarious comments, just like Hawkeye. At the time, I didn’t realize his clever comebacks were painstakingly crafted by a team of writers. 
Fifty years later, I still wish I could fire off clever comments, but alas I have a bad case of “30 second syndrome.” That is, while engaged in conversation, I think of a brilliantly funny comment — 30 seconds too late. I used to blurt out the comment anyway, even after the conversation had shifted to a different topic, but that was awkward. Now, I’m a lot older and a little wiser, so I just keep those comments to myself, and see if there might be a way to incorporate them into one of these newspaper columns. (So far, I’m batting about .095 when it comes to successfully translating clever thoughts into print, but if nothing else, I’m persistent!)

I’d love to be able to say I was one of the few people who watched the pilot episode of M*A*S*H back in September, 1972. But like most folks, I never even heard of the show until a year or two later. However, between the blizzard of M*A*S*H reruns over the decades, and my prized collection of DVDs, I’ve seen that episode — plus every other one — countless times.
As a teenager, I learned a simple lesson from the show M*A*S*H: war is bad and laughter is good. A half-century later, I still think that’s a pretty terrific philosophy.

This Saturday, I plan to break out the “Season One” DVDs, just for old times sake.

Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Is it OK to Clap at Mass?

Most parishes have a music ministry. And most music ministries are staffed with dedicated, hard-working, and talented people, who put in long hours and get paid very little to enhance the liturgy with sacred music.

I really appreciate church music ministries, and having been a member of a parish choir a while ago, I understand how much effort goes into preparing the music we hear at Mass. (I also appreciate that my choir director was willing to accept a baritone with a weak voice and a six-note range. I think it helped that I knew which notes to lip-sync, realizing that no sound was better than the wrong sound.)
However, I do have a couple of problems with parish music ministries. The first is that, once in a while, there will be a song that is obviously the music ministry performing for the congregation, rather than the music ministry leading the congregation in song. You can always tell when this happens because the lead vocalist starts doing some Whitney Houston or Aretha Franklin-type riffing, and the improvisational phrasing doesn’t match the notes and cadence in the hymnal. So, even if people in the congregation wanted to sing along, they couldn’t. 

Every time I’ve heard one of these “performance” songs at Mass, it was done by fabulously talented singers and musicians. And you can tell it required a lot of rehearsal time. The thing is, I’m not sure music at Mass is supposed to be a “show time” event.

The other thing that kind of bothers me is when the congregation applauds the music ministry. Don’t get me wrong, many of these folks are so musically gifted they should be performing on Broadway. But again, I’m just not sure Mass is the place for that.

A website for the Catholic Answers organization posted a Q&A about this topic. The question was: “When is it appropriate to applaud at Mass?”
Here is their answer: “There is no Church document specifying applause as an appropriate liturgical response to music (or) singing….Now that society has generally lost the sense that applause is inappropriate in church…the Church may soon have to speak on the matter before people take the idea to its logical conclusion and begin to boo when they are insufficiently entertained at Mass.”

Back before he became Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had this to say: “Wherever applause breaks out in the liturgy because of some human achievement, it is a sure sign that the essence of liturgy has totally disappeared and been replaced by a kind of religious entertainment.”

Don’t get me wrong: I love Mass. It’s the time we draw nearest to our Lord and Savior. But if the word “entertainment” is part of the equation, Mass is always going to lose out compared to a zillion other options in our society.

I guess what’s most important here is the true purpose of the liturgy: to worship Almighty God as a community of believers. Music can inspire us and elevate our worship to a higher level. But if our focus shifts from God to the musicians and singers, then we’re not doing it right.

I have to admit, there have been times at church when the music was so amazing, I’ve wanted not only to applaud, but to shout and hold up the glowing screen of my cell phone (since nobody has a Bic lighter anymore like we used to hold up at concerts back in the olden days). 
As a barely mediocre singer, I appreciate good music; I really do. But I just don’t think holy Mass is the place for talented singers to put on a show so the congregation will applaud. 

However, if those parish musicians and singers schedule a concert outside of a liturgical setting, I’ll be the first in line to buy a ticket. And during the show I’ll make a lot of noise, hold up my glowing cell phone, and yell, “Encore! Encore!”

Saturday, September 3, 2022

He’s a Regular Rip van Tinkle

A few weeks ago, something happened to me that was so shocking I’m still talking about it to everyone I meet. I mean, I haven’t had this “Can you believe that actually happened?!” feeling since the Red Sox won the World Series back in 2004. 

What occurred, which still has me walking around in stunned disbelief, is this: I slept for eight hours. No, really. I’m not kidding. I haven’t slept for eight hours in one night since Bill Clinton was president, way back when I was a young pup, long before I became an official Medicare-enrolled senior citizen. 

Now, of course, at my age I did not sleep for eight STRAIGHT hours. I still had the regular 3 a.m. bathroom break, which from what I gather, is a common occurrence for just about everyone over the age of 55.

However, on this one glorious night, when I got back into bed I did not lay there staring at the ceiling until sunrise, like usual. Nope, I fell right back to sleep! It was a Christmas miracle in the middle of the summer!

In the morning I woke up at 6:15. At first I was disoriented. I usually lay in bed from 3 a.m. until about 4:30 or 5, when I finally give up on the possibility of falling back to sleep and get up to start the day. I had never seen the green glowing digits of my alarm clock show “6:15”, so I wasn’t quite sure what was going on. 

By the way, although it’s technically an alarm clock, I haven’t had to set the alarm in about 15 years. Even if an early meeting is scheduled that requires me to leave the house earlier than usual, I’m always awake in plenty of time. I’m not sure I know how to set the alarm anymore if I had to.

I laid in bed and did the math in my head. “OK, let’s see, I went to sleep at 10, and now it’s 6:15, minus about 15 minutes for the bathroom break. So that means… oh my, I slept eight hours!”
Because I was asleep until 6:15, I got to the office later than usual. As soon as I walked in, I announced loudly, “Yes, I’m late. But I’ve got a good reason: I slept eight full hours last night!”

All the employees in their 40s or younger shrugged their shoulders, as if to say, “Yeah, so?”

But the handful of guys in their late 50s or 60s stopped in their tracks, stared at me for a moment, then rushed over to congratulate me as if I had scored the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl. They were slapping me on the back and giving me high fives, and if they all didn’t have bad backs and if I weren’t 30 pounds above my college playing weight, they would’ve lifted me onto their shoulders in celebration.

The guys peppered me with questions. “How did you do it?” “Did you take any medication?” “Do you have the flu?” “Are you dying?”

I replied, “No, nothing like that. I just … I just SLEPT for eight hours!”

They cheered once again, then one of the guys said, “Let’s order a cake, and we’ll have a party in the conference room!”

Well, it certainly was a wonderful experience. I fully understand it probably will never be repeated, but that’s all right. My eight hours of sleep in one night gives me hope that maybe, just maybe, later this fall when I’m driving home after dark, at least once I’ll be able to say, “Hey, tonight I’m not being blinded by headlight glare!”