Wednesday, April 26, 2023

An Avalanche of Junk Mail

My mom passed away last year at the age of 92. I am the Executor of her estate, and I had the Post Office start forwarding all of her mail to my address, because I needed to pay any outstanding bills and collect her monthly bank statements and other important documents for the Probate Court.

However, I did not realize just how much junk mail my mother received on a daily basis. Now, all of it gets delivered to me. Besides the usual catalogs, store fliers, and credit card offers, my mother’s name apparently is entrenched in the databases of literally hundreds of non-profit organizations, all of which beg her for money on a regular basis.
During her last few years of life, my mom looked forward to getting the mail each day. It gave her something to do. Looking back, I now realize she got a LOT of mail every day. Now, all that mail comes to me.

Pretty much every organization that raises money for wounded veterans, police officers, and abandoned dogs has my mom on their mailing lists. And if you do a Google search for the phrase, “every disease known to mankind,” there is a charity associated with each and every one of those illnesses, and each and every one of those charities sends an urgent request for a donation to my mom every single month.

If my wife or I do not empty our mailbox each day, there will not be enough room to fit the next day’s mail. And I understand the lady who delivers our mail is just thrilled that an official probate Executor is on her route now, causing hundreds of pounds of extra letters, brochures, and catalogs to get loaded onto her truck each week.
The thing is, my mother was generous; she would donate money to worthy causes. But she grew up during the Depression, so in her mind a generous donation was five or 10 bucks. And that was a one-time donation, not a regular, monthly thing.

So, many of these charitable fund-raising outfits received exactly 10 dollars from my mom once, back in, say, 1997. And since that time, the charities have spent hundreds and hundreds of dollars to send urgent letters every month to my mom, begging for more. Often they include little gifts, like a high quality pen inside the envelope. (I am, of course, using the definition of “high quality” that means: it will write for almost four minutes before it stops working.)

There are many fund-raising organizations that my mother never donated to. And yet they all have her in their databases, too. I suspect the business of selling mailing lists to charitable organizations generates more revenue than the entire automobile industry. 

I have discovered that there are at least 47 different religious outfits named after St. Jude. He must be the patron saint of begging for donations. My wife informed me that St. Jude is the patron saint of lost causes. Well, it certainly is a lost cause for these organizations to keep asking for money from a woman who died a year ago.

My new hobby these days is sending back donation forms with a note saying my mom passed away and please remove her from the mailing list. It takes up about an hour of my time each evening. I figure I have to do it, or else they’ll keep sending letters addressed to her for the next 50 years. That wouldn’t be fair to letter carriers. Someone will have to create a charity for postal workers who get injured lugging around so much junk mail. And, of course, each month they’ll have to send out urgent requests for donations. 

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Life’s Most Important Question

What is the most important question in the whole world? No, it’s not “Do the Red Sox have enough pitching this year to make a run at the playoffs?” (Although that’s a pretty important question for me personally. And the answer, by the way, is “no.”)

The most important question in the entire world is: “Did God create mankind or did mankind create God?”

The way a person answers this question shapes everything about his or her life. I mean EVERYTHING.
If a supernatural Being created life on earth, then it means there is something much greater out there than mere humans. There is something or someone present in the Universe with a mind and power much greater than we possess. This means humanity is not the pinnacle of life on earth, nor are we the last word on the definition of right and wrong. If there is an all-powerful Creator out there somewhere, the only logical thing for mankind to do is try and discover who this Being is and what he, she, or it wants from us.

Also, if there is a supernatural Being called God who created life, then there must be a supernatural dimension to existence, which means there might be some kind of supernatural destination for us once our natural, physical bodies die.

However, if mankind created God, that is, if fearful and ignorant people centuries ago invented a concept they called God -- but there’s really no such thing -- then we are going to approach life much differently. We are going to conclude that there is no great power or mind in the Universe, and therefore human beings are the pinnacle of evolution and we need to decide for ourselves what is right and what is wrong. We, and we alone, are the sole source of values and morality.

If God is just a myth, then the natural world is all there is, and when we die we cease to exist. So, making the most of this brief period of time when we are alive and conscious (however we personally define “making the most of”), is our main motivation. Thinking of this life as just one phase that leads to a completely different and eternal phase once we die is totally out of the question. We have to live for today, not for some fictitious heavenly reward in the future.

So, as you can see, the way we answer that all-important question changes our whole understanding of who we are, why we are here, and what we ought to do.
If a person answers the key question by saying mankind created God and there is no supernatural dimension to reality, then he or she has to explain how life on earth got here in the first place. The most common answer is what our high school biology teachers told us: simple forms of life accidentally occurred billions of years ago, and then genetic mutations and the power of natural selection caused new species to emerge, and eventually the vast diversity of life on earth we see today developed. It all happened without the need for a supernatural Creator.

Well, that explanation might have made sense when Charles Darwin lived. Back then people had no clue about the stunning complexity of biological life at the molecular level. They didn’t know about DNA, and they thought cells were just little blobs of tissue.

Now that we know how incredibly complex even a single-cell organism is -- with dozens of interconnected systems that must work in perfect harmony to keep the organism alive and allow it to reproduce -- that old high school biology explanation isn’t very tenable anymore.

Here is the equation for that high school biology explanation: Chaos + Chance + Time = Intricate Precision. 

For this to be true, we have to believe that it’s possible for a tornado to blast through a scrap metal yard and leave in its wake a perfectly functioning Honda Accord. 

To make it fair, let’s say millions of tornados blasted through millions of scrap metal yards over the course of millions of years. Would at least one Honda Accord emerge from that? You know the answer. It’s “no.” No matter how much time we allow chaos and chance to interact, it will never produce intricate precision. (And by the way, the complexity of biological life is WAY more intricate and precise than even a Honda Accord.)
If this makes us conclude that if might at least be possible that God created mankind, does that mean the Christian Gospel is true? Oh, not even close. Coming to that conclusion requires another thousand steps in the search for Truth. But realizing the likelihood that mankind created God is not nearly as certain as our modern culture relentlessly tells us, is an important first step.

As Jesus said, “Seek and ye shall find.” Building on this first step and honestly seeking to find out who we are, why we are here, and what we ought to do, is the most fulfilling journey anyone can ever take. 

Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Readers Write to Say ‘High’

Back in early March, I expressed my views in this column about the many cannabis dispensaries opening up all over Connecticut, now that the state has legalized the recreational use of marijuana. That essay generated a lot of feedback, with many people agreeing with my observation that government officials don’t seem to be offering any warnings that the pot being sold now is much more potent than the stuff young people smoked in the 1960s and ‘70s. I mean, the dope available today can put you right in the stratosphere. It’s nothing like having a couple of beers after work. I quoted one senior citizen who was floored (literally) by the pot being sold today: “This ain’t Woodstock weed!”

Other people contacted me to disagree with my views and point out that I am obviously a grumpy old poop who doesn’t know how to have fun. That’s not true. I am not grumpy.

The two or three days after my column appeared in the newspaper were kind of odd. Every time I looked at my phone, I saw that another batch of emails had arrived. With my particular smartphone, when I look at my email inbox, it lists all the most recent emails that I’ve received. For each email, my phone shows the name of the sender, the subject line, and then the first four or five words of the message. I have to tap on an individual email for it to open up and allow me to see the whole message.

Sometimes it was pretty obvious what a message was going to say. The subject line would read, “Great column today,” or, “I totally agree.” And other ones would have a subject line like, “Couldn’t disagree more!” or, “Why do you hate happiness?” (For the record, I don’t hate happiness. It’s one of my top three goals in life, right behind glazed crullers and afternoon naps.)

For a while there, I was getting a little skittish whenever I looked at my phone. “Oh boy,” I’d think to myself, “What kind of venom is coming at me this time?”

One of the email messages that appeared on my phone listed the person’s name, and it was someone I did not know. The subject line said, “Your column today,” which didn’t give me a hint whether it was an “Attaboy,” or a “You stink,” message. And the first few words of the message itself displayed as, “Mr. Dunn, I want to compl…”

In the one-and-a-half-second time period between when I looked at the abbreviated message and when I tapped on the phone’s screen to see the full message, a zillion thoughts ran through my head. “‘Compl…’? What is that word, and what is this person trying to say to me? ‘I want to complain’? ‘I want to compliment you’? ‘I want to complicate your life’? ‘I want to complete my tax returns by April 18th’? ‘I want to comply with all town zoning regulations’? ‘I want to compluferate the electric grid’?” (I didn’t know any other words that began with C-O-M-P-L, so my brain started inventing words.)
When I tapped the email and it opened up to reveal the entire message, I was relieved to read, “Mr. Dunn, I want to compliment you on your recent column.” However, the message concluded with this warning: “Please do not compluferate the electric grid.” (No, just kidding.)

I do appreciate feedback from readers. It helps me know whether I’m making any sense or not. (The answer is usually: NOT.) But I thought the days of getting lots of negative feedback were over. Especially since I vowed never to repeat the mistakes I made during the world-famous “Bagpipes Fiasco of 2018.”

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Sad and Confused? Open Up the Word 

This week’s gospel reading at Mass is the fascinating story of Jesus’ appearance to two of His followers on the road to Emmaus just after His resurrection. 

The two disciples (not members of the 12 apostles, but other followers of Jesus) were heading home after the Passover feast in Jerusalem. They were at the same time sad and confused. Sad because the man they thought would redeem Israel had been put to death by the Romans three days earlier, and confused because some of the women disciples had reported that the tomb was empty and angels had announced Jesus was alive. 
As the two men walked, Jesus Himself came alongside and began to walk with them, but they did not recognize Him. Why didn’t they recognize Him? It’s hard to say. Maybe they had been crying and couldn’t see clearly. Maybe everyone’s head was covered to protect against the sun and the dust. Maybe they had only seen and heard Jesus from a distance and did not know what He looked like face-to-face. Or maybe Jesus’ post-Resurrection appearance was, as Scripture implies in a few places, somewhat different compared to before His Passion. 

To remedy their sadness and confusion, Jesus immediately began to explain the Scriptures. Well, not exactly immediately. The first thing He did was say to the two men, “Oh, how foolish you are!” (Ouch, I hate it when the Creator of the Universe calls me a fool. But in my case, at least it only happens on days that end in “Y”.) 

The gospel explains, “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, [Jesus] interpreted to them what referred to Him in all the Scriptures.” 

Wow, that must’ve been quite a lecture, to have the Incarnate Word of God interpret the written Word of God. 

When they reached the village, the two disciples invited this mysterious teacher, whom they still did not recognize, to stay with them for the night; He accepted their hospitality. As they sat down to eat dinner, Jesus “took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them. With that their eyes were opened and they recognized Him, but He vanished from their sight.” 

In one of the key verses of the gospel reading, the two disciples said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while He spoke to us on the way and OPENED THE SCRIPTURES to us?” (emphasis added). 

The answer to spiritual sadness and confusion is to open the Scriptures. 

However, it’s important to have a plan when reading the Bible. For example, I’m sure many people can relate to what I did a few decades ago. Realizing finally that the Word of God was important, I picked up a Bible and started reading it like a Tom Clancy novel. I figured I would simply start with the first chapter, “Genesis,” and read it straight through to the last chapter, “Maps.” 

I muddled through Genesis and Exodus, recognizing and enjoying some of the famous stories about Adam and Eve, Noah, Moses, etc. But when I got to all those genealogies in Numbers and confusing laws in Leviticus, I got so confused I put the book down and concluded two things: I was a moron and the Bible was written only for theologians. (It turns out I was half right. The Bible was NOT written only for theologians.)

If you’re not familiar with the Scriptures, a good plan is to read the readings that will be proclaimed at Mass on Sunday. This will achieve two things: first, you’ll get a taste of some Old Testament events; some New Testament epistles (usually written by St. Paul); and most importantly, stories from the Gospels, which chronicle Jesus’ earthly ministry. Second, you’ll already be familiar with the readings when you show up for Mass, which will help you understand and appreciate them better.
After a while, you’ll realize that you’re actually more familiar with the stories in Scripture than you thought, and you’ll be ready to dig in and read complete chapters on your own.

An understanding of God’s Word has the power to change sadness and confusion into joy and hope. Just as happened with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, if the Sacred Scriptures are opened up, we will be filled with faith and joy, and our relationship with the Lord — our ability to recognize Him and know Him — will be greatly improved. And after all, that’s the only reason God created us in the first place: to enter into a loving relationship with Him. 

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

Should We Bring Back Extinct Species?

A couple of months ago, there was a news story about a Dallas-based company called Colossal Biosciences that announced ambitious plans to revive extinct species, such as the woolly mammoth and dodo bird. The firm has raised over $225 million in funding from investors, and will use state-of-the-art genetic technology to try and recreate these long-lost animals.

I don’t know about your situation, but I’m pretty sure my condo association’s list of approved pets does not include woolly mammoths. And what do these creatures eat, anyway? I’ve got a feeling a couple of cans of Purina ONE are not going to impress Mr. Mammoth. 
At the same time the “extinct species” story was making headlines, there were many articles about Artificial Intelligence, specifically the online program called ChatGPT, which can quickly compose essays using all the knowledge available on the Internet. You just type a simple request or question and the program instantly spits out a 500-word narrative that is filled with facts and figures, and is written with excellent grammar.

It has become commonplace nowadays for published writers to instruct ChatGPT to compose a short essay. The writer begins an article with the computer-generated prose, and after five or six neatly-worded paragraphs, reveals how those words actually were written. Usually the author wonders whether anyone could tell the difference, and then playfully speculates whether ChatGPT can write all future articles, freeing up lots of time. If you read between the lines, however, there is a palpable undercurrent of unease, as both the author and the readers are fully aware that editors and publishers are asking the same question. There will be plenty of free time if computer software can replace all writers and journalists.
Recently, a friend asked me if ChatGPT can write my columns for me. I replied, “Well, I heard that Artificial Intelligence software doesn’t really have a sense of humor.”

My friend replied, “What’s that got to do with your columns?” to which I said, “Remind me again, why are we friends?”

I read a couple of articles that claim ChatGPT is only the beginning. Quite soon, it is said, Artificial Intelligence will be so powerful that it will monitor and control all aspects of our lives, such as what we eat, where we work, and what entertainment options are available. It will all be controlled and operated by high-speed computers.

These two prominent news stories — scientists trying to bring extinct species back to life and super-intelligent computers running everything — make me ask a simple question: didn’t anyone watch movies during the 1980s? 

A couple of the most iconic films in Hollywood history tell us everything we need to know about how these scientific innovations will turn out: “Jurassic Park” and “Terminator.”

If you’re not familiar with those movies, Jurassic Park tells the tale of brilliant genetic scientists who bring dinosaurs back to life and put them in a festive, family-friendly theme park. Not surprisingly, halfway through the film a lot of people become hors d’oeuvres for a T-Rex.
In “Terminator,” high-speed computers start running everything in society, and then one day the computers decide human beings are expendable, and embark on a systematic program of genocide. Except it occurs in the future, when the computers also develop a method of time travel, and, well, it’s really hard to explain. Please download the movie and watch it, before the computers decide no one is allowed to see it anymore.

And in case you’re wondering, this column was NOT composed by ChatGPT, even though, as my friend noted, the level of humor is minimal. You can tell this is not computer-generated because, as usual, the run-on sentences and poor grammar are noticeably of human origin. 

Tuesday, April 11, 2023

What Did You Give Up for Lent?

Back on the morning of Ash Wednesday, I made an impulsive decision to give up donuts for Lent. I immediately regretted that decision when I arrived at my office and saw that a salesman was visiting us. He brought with him two dozen of the most mouth-watering donuts I had ever seen (well, at least since the previous morning, when I was the salesman who brought boxes of mouth-watering donuts to the office of one of my clients).

But I was able to muster up my courage and withstand the temptation to ignore my Lenten sacrifice. In fact, now that Easter has arrived and Lent is over, I can report that I successfully went the entire six-and-a-half weeks of Lent without eating any donuts.
By the way, in recent years I’ve heard people at church say that Sundays in Lent don’t count. In other words, if you give up something for Lent, it’s OK to indulge in that particular thing each Sunday. I had never heard that before. When I grew up, a person’s Lenten sacrifice started on Ash Wednesday and continued straight through until Easter morning. If you decided to give up, say, candy bars for Lent, then you could not have even a single bite-sized Snickers for 40 consecutive days.

When I was a kid, if I had tried to tell my parents that my Lenten sacrifice of not eating ice cream did not apply since it was Sunday — and that explains why I was shoveling some Fudge Ripple into my face with a large spoon right out of the carton while standing in front of the open freezer door — it would not have gone over too well. Which reminds me of the time I had turned age 13, and was becoming rather obnoxious, even for a 13-year-old. As my parents did every Ash Wednesday, they lined us up and asked each of us what we planned to give up for Lent. One of my brothers said candy, my sister said ice cream, and when it was my turn, I said, “For Lent, I’m giving up going to church!” About an hour later, when I regained consciousness, I realized that might not have been the best thing to say to my dad.

Anyway, I really enjoy the Liturgical cycles of the Catholic Church, with the various seasons that help us enter into the grand story of salvation history. And even Lent, with its somber themes of sacrifice and penance, is good for the soul. That’s why I still give up something I really enjoy each year during Lent.
But before you submit my name to Rome for canonization, be aware that even though I successfully avoided donuts for 40 straight days, I’m still a Pharisee at heart. You see, when I vowed to give up donuts back on Ash Wednesday, I didn’t say anything about pastries, muffins, cookies, cupcakes, or Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. When Lent began, I thought, “If I give up donuts, maybe I’ll lose 10 pounds by Easter.” Well, now that Easter has arrived, I only have 15 more pounds to go.

One of the most important aspects of Christianity is the fact that we are all sinners, and we need to repent and ask God for forgiveness. I’m reminded of this every Lent when I sincerely want to be holy and draw nearer to God, and yet as soon as I embark on that journey, my first impulse is to try and find a loophole so my chosen sacrifice won’t be too painful. By the way, I can say with first-hand knowledge that a couple of jumbo blueberry muffins really help you forget your donut craving. 

Then, as I drive away from the bakery, I can only laugh at how weak my will is. I’m forced to look heavenward and repeat the words of the tax collector in Luke, chapter 18: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” 
Repentance and asking for mercy are the main themes of Lent. And rejoicing that Christ loves us so much that He paid the price for our sins and conquered death once and for all at the Resurrection, is the main theme of Easter.

Alleluia! He is risen! And feel free to celebrate with a donut.

Wednesday, April 5, 2023

English Letters ‘U-G-H’ Have Got to Gough!

America has a strange relationship with England. They have given us Shakespeare, Dickens, Julie Andrews, and The Beatles. In return, we have given them dental hygiene, Meghan Markle, and Ted Lasso. Not a very equal exchange, I must say.  

However, there is one thing the English have given us that we simply do not need, and should return to them right away: a proliferation of unnecessary Us, Gs, and Hs. These letters cause me to exclaim, “Ugh!” one of the few words, by the way, that properly uses the letters U, G, and H. 

There’s a town in Massachusetts called Marlborough. Because they insist on using the British spelling with the useless “-ugh” at the end, the exit signs on the Mass Pike are larger and more expensive than necessary. On the other hand, the cigarette maker by the same name, Marlboro, doesn’t waste our time with a silly “-ugh,” mostly because they need those letters for one of the primary results of using their product: cough. (Which should be spelled, “coff.”) 
There are many other words that employ these irrelevant letters: though, through, thought, thorough, thoroughly, although, tough, rough, enough, borough, bough, dough, doughnut, draught, and ought. Well, I say enough is enough! (Actually, what I really want to say is, “enuff is enuff!”) 

It’s bad enuff these words waste our time and effort, causing average people to type thousands of extra letters on their computer keyboards throughout the year. (I mean “thruout” the year.) Just think of how many extra doughnuts (I mean “donuts”) we could enjoy during the business day if we didn’t have to type so many extraneous letters. 

Even worse is the fact that these words are almost impossible to read aloud without making a mistake. Trust me, I know. Recently I had to recite from the 23rd Psalm at a religious event. And because I thought “through” was “though,” and vice versa, I totally bungled the reading.  As soon as I realized I had just proclaimed, “Yea, thru I walk tho’ the valley of the shadow of death,” I felt like I had just taken up residence in the valley of the shadow of death — or at least the valley of the shadow of incompetent public speaking. 
My son-in-law grew up in Italy. Now, he speaks English better than I do. (That’s not really saying much.) But when he was learning English years ago, he was quite baffled by those useless Us, Gs, and Hs. When he asked me about it, all I could do was shrug and say, “I dunno. I’m from America, which means people in London don’t even think I speak English.” 

If Homer Simpson can use, “D’oh,” why must we use “dough”? If we get milk from a “cow,” why is a branch a “bough”? 

If we own “stuff” and sit on our “duff,” why are other words spelled “rough” and “tough”? I suspect if we were instead “ruff” and “tuff,” we would be more “buff” and take less “guff.” 

The donut that is dunkin’ is skyrocketing in sales, while the other doughnut — the one that doesn’t even know how to spell the words crispy or cream — is hurting financially. Not a coincidence, I do believe.  
We should communicate more succinctly and directly, and get rid of all these irrelevant letters. I suggest we load up a cargo ship with all of our useless Us, Gs, and Hs, and then dump them into the English Channel. 

We have successfully turned the English plough into an American plow. We can legally order a draft instead of a draught (as long as we’re 21 years old). We surely can do the same with these other annoying words. Let us begin right nough. 

Tuesday, April 4, 2023

The Resurrection Makes Holy Week Holy

We are now in Holy Week. The gospel readings for both Palm Sunday and Good Friday end this way: the apostles have scattered in self-centered cowardice and fear; the women who had followed Jesus (including his poor mother) are in mourning, inconsolable over the death of their master; Jesus Himself is dead, deader than a doornail; and His battered and broken body is wrapped in linen and laid to rest in a borrowed tomb. 
It is a tragedy. It’s an abject failure. It’s a defeat, a flop, the total destruction of so many hopeful plans. This charismatic young teacher, this man some called the long-awaited Messiah, is dead. Up until that moment, they were so certain He was the one who would change everything. Surely He would gather a powerful army around Him (as His forefather David had done centuries earlier), and drive out the hated Romans. He would usher in a new era of peace and prosperity for all of Israel. He would rule with justice and might, commanding armies and expanding His empire, and then die at a ripe old age after many decades of rule. 

And then, in less than a day, between the evening Passover meal and the following afternoon, He was gone. He was dead. 

Not only was He dead, but He died in such an ignoble manner. He was mocked, beaten, spit upon, scourged, and humiliated. He was nailed to a cross beam and perched for hours above the town garbage dump, in total agony as the life forces slowly ebbed from His body. 

That is where we stand at the end of the Passion gospels during Holy Week: Failure. Defeat. Evil triumphing over good. The man who taught about love and truth was dead. 

If that’s where the story ends, then there is no way we can call the Gospel the “Good News.” There’s no way we can that day “Good” Friday. The Passion and death of Jesus are an abject failure without Easter. As the apostle Paul wrote: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile…If only for this life have we hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.” 
Without the Resurrection, Christian faith is futile and pitiful. Without the Resurrection, the good guys lose, the bad guys win. The whole story turns out to be a gruesome tragedy. 

This reminds me of one of my favorite musical productions: “Jesus Christ Superstar.” I love the songs in this show. It’s classic ‘70s rock with a splash of Broadway story-telling. But regardless of how good the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice compositions are (at least in my opinion), the ending of the show is terrible because Jesus ends up dead and stays dead. Also, throughout the show, Jesus is portrayed as self-doubting, unsure, and somewhat wimpy. Judas Iscariot, on the other hand, is the determined, level-headed driving force of the story. 

The musical is certainly a captivating, engaging modern version of the life of Jesus, but it ends on Good Friday with no mention of Easter Sunday and the Resurrection. So, that means it ends in tragedy.
This is why it’s so important to take the Holy Week Passion gospels and the Easter Sunday gospel as a matched set. Only through the lens of Easter can we see that the Passion was necessary. Only when we understand that Jesus’ resurrection conquered death once and for all, can we see that He had to die to pay the price for our sins. Only if Christ is risen can the terms Good News and Good Friday rightfully bear the moniker “good.”

Don’t forget the most important part of the Greatest Story Ever Told: He is risen! He is risen indeed!