Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Country Bumpkin Visits the Big City

I freely admit that I’m a suburbanite/country bumpkin kind of guy. So, if I spend any time in a big city, it’s a major adventure. Chicago is an amazing city. In January, Chicago is an amazingly cold city. I was there six weeks ago for a tradeshow, and overall my trip was great.

However, I stayed in a very fancy hotel, and the country bumpkin in me was rather baffled by some of the high falutin’ amenities. For example, my room had an ultra modern coffee machine. It operated similarly to a Keurig coffee maker, except with nine extra levels of complexity. 

My coffee maker simply would not work. I hesitate to claim it was broken, because maybe I was doing something incorrectly. The machine had a sticker that listed the 11-step process required to brew a single cup, so maybe I did one of these steps out of sequence. Maybe it was my fault. Maybe a person needs a Doctorate in mechanical engineering to get a cup of coffee in a downtown Chicago hotel. 

The coffee maker situation was not insurmountable, since I could go down to the hotel lobby and get a Starbucks coffee for $8.50. (I suspect the Starbucks baristas were a bit shocked that I was in my underwear with a towel draped over my shoulder. But hey, that’s my standard attire whenever I have a cup of coffee in a hotel room.) 

The other thing that puzzled me about my ultra-fancy hotel room was the shower. As a country bumpkin kind of guy, I’ve always thought a bathtub with a shower curtain was more than adequate. But nowadays all the classy hotels — no doubt inspired by trend-setting cities such as Paris, London, and Naugatuck — have replaced the good ol’ tub and shower curtain setup with The Glass Box.
In the Chicago hotel, The Glass Box was a narrow rectangle with the glass entry door on the far left side and the plumbing fixtures on the far right side. The shower head itself was about the size of a dinner plate and was suspended from the ceiling, about 18 inches in from the wall. In order to reach the handle to turn on the water and set the temperature, you had to stand directly under the shower head. The Glass Box was too narrow to stand off to the side.

Now, at this point, if you are a celebrated architect or interior designer, you see no problem with this scenario, since The Glass Box is so beautiful. But if you are a lowly suburbanite/country bumpkin, you already understand that when you rotate the handle to turn the shower on, all the water that’s been sitting in the pipes overnight — which is no longer anything resembling “warm” — comes gushing down right onto your head.

The first morning that happened to me, I thought, “Whoa, I must’ve done it wrong. Just like the coffee maker, there’s gotta be a correct way to do this that I haven’t figured out yet.”
Well, even though I had two more mornings to try and figure it out, it seemed the only way to keep from getting a blast of cold water on my head was to track down a maintenance guy, borrow a broom, and use it to turn the shower handle from a distance. But based on the baristas’ reaction earlier, I decided not to wander around the lobby in my underwear looking for a maintenance guy. 

All in all, it was a fine trip to the Windy City. But in the future, if any hotel wants to offer a “Country Bumpkin” travel package, with a simple coffee maker and a tub with a shower curtain, they’ve got my business.

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Does God Help Those Who Help Themselves?

Do you know people who are really needy and dependent? You know the type: they’re always getting into trouble and they expect other people to bail them out time after time. I certainly know a bunch of folks who are like that. What these irresponsible slackers really need is for someone to remind them of that famous Bible verse: “God helps those who help themselves.”

Oh wait. You know something? That saying is not in the Bible at all. And it doesn’t fit in with the Gospel message either. The main message of the Bible is this: God helps those who CAN’T help themselves.
Please don’t forget the overarching theme of salvation history, as chronicled in the Bible: God created Mankind to be in a loving relationship with Him, but we messed up big-time. We chose to go our own way, ignoring God’s love and instead sought fulfillment on our own. This decision led to a boatload of pain and heartache — which is the inevitable result of being separated from our divine Creator.

So, even though we deserve our sad fate because of selfish and foolish thoughts, words, and deeds, God loves us so much He did not want to see us lost for all eternity. That’s where the glorious Gospel message begins. The Almighty and Eternal Creator of the Universe sent a piece of Himself — His one and only Son — to take on human flesh. This stunning event provided a way for us to be reconciled with the Lord.

The entire history of the Old Testament tells the remarkable story of God’s Chosen People, the Jews, and their sincere attempts to be righteous and to follow the Law of God. But no matter how hard they tried to do the right thing and measure up to God’s high standard, they always fell short. (And just in case you aren’t sure: if any other group of people in world history were chosen by God instead of the Jews, they would’ve fallen short, too.)

Human beings are not capable of being morally perfect in this fallen world. We cannot earn our way into Heaven. That Old Testament lesson — learned at the School of Hard Knocks — set the stage for the Messiah, the One who could save us with forgiveness and mercy rather than legalism and our own meager efforts.

When you look at the big picture of salvation history, the undeniable message is this: God helps those who CAN’T help themselves. This is the exact opposite of that familiar saying so many people think comes from the Bible.
Now, this is not to say that all we need to do is sit back passively while God pays all our bills and refills our snack bowls as we gaze at TV all day. We have to cooperate with God and do our share, using the skills and talents He gave us. 

It’s obviously better for people to be more self-reliant, if they are able. It certainly boosts folks’ self-esteem to take responsibility for various aspects of their lives rather than be dependent on someone else for everything. But an awful lot of people nowadays are hurting, both physically and emotionally. Some people simply are not able to be self-reliant at this time for a multitude of reasons.

Our job as Christians is not to harshly tell people to “Get a job!” or “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” or that old favorite, “God helps those who help themselves.” Those comments don’t do anything except make them feel worse than they already do. 

If someone is capable of being more self-reliant, our duty as believers in Christ is to lovingly encourage them and mentor them to reach their full potential. All during this process we should never lose sight of the fact that God helped us when we couldn’t help ourselves, so who are we to suddenly turn into a cold-hearted drill sergeant? 

The message that God helps those who CAN’T help themselves — rather than the well-known statement that is NOT from the Bible — is the key. God showed us abundant love and mercy and patience back when we were struggling. Now it’s what He wants us to show towards others who are presently having a hard time. 

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

The Creed Has a Notable Omission

At Mass each Sunday, the entire congregation stands and recites the Creed. The word creed comes from the Latin credo, which means, “I believe.”

The Creed is a summary of doctrines and fundamental Christian beliefs. Most of the time we recite the Nicene Creed, which is short for its full name: the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. If we were required to refer to that creed by its full name, I suspect we would always recite the Apostles Creed instead, just to avoid that tongue-twisting phrase.
(The Apostles Creed, by the way, was developed earlier, and is acceptable to recite during Mass once in a while, especially during Lent and Easter time.)

Anyway, after reciting the Nicene Creed thousands of times during my life  while actually paying attention to the words about 5% of the time  I recently noticed something interesting about the Creed. As we are listing all the truths about who God is and what He’s done, we say this about Jesus, God’s one and only Son: “...he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became Man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate…”

Without skipping a beat, we go from Jesus being a newborn baby to Him being crucified by the Romans. The Creed completely skips 33 years of Jesus’ life, including His three-year public ministry. Doesn’t that seem kind of odd?

(The Apostles’ Creed makes a similar jump, using a mere comma instead of a new sentence: “...who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried…”)
I get it that the Nicene Creed was written to summarize the key aspects of our faith, which was very important in the early centuries of Christian history. (Come to think of it, it might be even more important nowadays.) The Creed declares: God is the Creator of all; Jesus is His only Son, who became Man; Jesus was crucified to pay the price for our sins; He rose from the dead, according to the Scriptures; He ascended into Heaven; He will come again to judge the living and the dead; the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, and is also adored and glorified; there is one, holy, catholic (universal), and apostolic Church; there will be a resurrection of the dead; and there will be life in the world to come.

All those statements of faith are very important. They define what it means to be a believing Christian. But don’t you think they could’ve squeezed in a line or two about Jesus’ ministry years, rather than going directly from “baby in a manger” to “man dying on a cross”?

After all, if you read the gospels in the Bible (and you should), there are 12 chapters that focus on Jesus’ birth and crucifixion. That means there are 57 other chapters devoted to His earthly mission, which is almost 83-percent of the gospel writings. Now, I’m not saying that 83% of the Creed should be devoted to Jesus’ ministry years, but it would’ve been nice if they included a couple of brief items, such as, “For three years He taught people about God’s kingdom and did many miracles to prove He was divine.” 
Before you get the wrong idea, I’m not claiming I know better than the early Church Fathers who wrote the Creed. I’m just saying it probably would not have hurt for the Creed to acknowledge some of the amazing things Jesus did.

We should look at it this way: we are very lucky to have the Creed to remind us of the core doctrines of the faith. Plus, we have the Bible, where we can read about all the remarkable things Jesus did during His public ministry. 

Here are two important goals: first, let’s really pay attention to the words when we recite the Creed at Mass; and second, let’s read the gospels in our Bibles on a regular basis. After all, that’s how we’ll really get to know the Lord who loves us and saves us. 

Friday, February 16, 2024

Is Some Technology Really ‘Outdated’?

Recently, I read an article that described “outdated technology that people still use.” Some of the items were definitely outdated, such as typewriters, cameras that use actual film, floppy computer disks, rotary dial phones, and unpowered hand tools. 

For those devices, I definitely understood why they were labeled “outdated,” and why the author of the article expressed shock that anyone would use them nowadays. Some of those items require a lot more time and effort to use. And for a couple of those things, like the computer floppy disks and rotary phones, I’m not sure it’s even possible to use them anymore. I mean, who still has a computer with a floppy disk drive? And will the modern telecommunication system even recognize a rotary phone’s unique sound: “Shhhhick, tickatickatickatick. Shhhhick, tickatickatickatick”?
However, the article went on to list other items, while also expressing shock that they are still in use today. These devices included: CD and DVD disks, corded computer mice (or is it mouses? meeses?), paper road maps, wired earphones, analog wristwatches (especially ones that need to be manually wound each day), actual car keys (as opposed to key fobs with buttons and radio signal transmitters), and notepads & pencils.

Now wait one minute. Every one of those items I own, and occasionally use. Yes, I subscribe to online streaming services (far too many, actually). But I still break out the old CDs and DVDs once in a while. I have cordless computer accessories, but one of our computers at home has a corded mouse, and it works fine. Once in a while I use my wired earphones (usually when I’ve forgotten to charge my Airpods). A wristwatch I own is analog and needs to be manually wound each day. And one of our vehicles uses an old-style car key. What’s the big deal? It’s not like I’m using a first-generation computer running DOS, or have a sundial attached to my wrist (like Fred Flintstone), or drive to work in a 1932 Packard.
The item that really surprised me was the notepad & pencil. Since when has THAT become a technological fossil? 

I decided to conduct a test. I went to a Panera Bread restaurant one afternoon. Everyone in the place was busy using a laptop computer, a touchscreen tablet, or a smartphone. A few were using all three devices at the same time. I bought a coffee, then sat down at a table in the middle of the room. I opened my shoulder bag and pulled out a spiral notebook and a wooden pencil. Then I took a sip of my coffee and started to write. 

Periodically, I glanced up just in time to catch someone quickly diverting their gaze. It was clear many people were observing me, similar to National Geographic scientists observing wildlife in its natural habitat. I suspect many had never witnessed a person using a wooden pencil and notebook before.

One young man, who I’m guessing was in his early 20s, got up to retrieve his sandwich after his name was called. But instead of walking straight to the counter, he purposely took the long way around, just so he could walk past me and get a closer look. I saw him coming, so I sat back in my chair to give him a clear view. He walked by slowly, then nonchalantly looked down at my notebook.
I heard the young man audibly gasp. He then walked briskly to the counter for his sandwich. When he returned to his chair he seemed visibly upset. I think I know why. When that naive Generation Z young man looked at my notebook, this is what he saw: cursive writing! 

After that trauma, I bet he needed some counseling. 

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

This A.I. Guy Is Hurting for Intelligence

The other day I received an email from LinkedIn with this subject line: “Top Job Picks for You! A.I. Integrated Marketing Director.”

If you’re not familiar with LinkedIn, just imagine Facebook for business people. Instead of photos of someone’s breakfast (plus political screeds), LinkedIn has photos of someone’s products being marketed (plus political screeds). One of the most common comments on LinkedIn is, “Hey, this is not Facebook. Post your nasty rants somewhere else!”
I assume LinkedIn generates a lot of its revenue through job recruiting, because when they’re not asking me if my company is hiring, they’re showing me job openings that would be “a perfect fit” for me. Most of the time I ignore this stuff, and move on to the photos of various products being marketed, especially the ones from our competition.

However, when I received the note informing me about the Artificial Intelligence Marketing Director position, I just had to laugh. The job opening is with Microsoft, the parent company of LinkedIn. If they actually think I might be qualified for that position, then they really need some Artificial Intelligence to run their employment recruitment office.

Since LinkedIn is owned by Microsoft, they know everything about everyone. They know I’ve been in the HVAC industry for almost four decades, and that my knowledge of computer software can be summarized by the following common workplace scenario: I push away from my desk in frustration, and shout out, “Why won’t my computer work?!” Which prompts coworkers to reply, “Maybe it’s not plugged in. Again.”

Therefore, the odds that I am even remotely qualified to be an A.I. Integrated Marketing Director are the same odds that I will be selected as the next pope.
In addition, Microsoft also knows that I was born when Eisenhower was president and the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn. This means Microsoft knows my exact age and that I am actively planning to stop working soon, rather than begin a new career in A.I. marketing.

The position with Microsoft, according to the email, pays between $125,000 and $264,000 per year, and the person they hire can work remotely. I’m tempted to apply for the job. If they hire me, I’ll collect a nice paycheck for a while until they figure out I have no idea what I’m doing — you know, similar to what the most recent general manager of the Boston Red Sox did. 

I know what you’re thinking: how are you ever going to convince them to hire you, Bill?

That’s easy. For decades I’ve been paid to make stuff up (my full time job is sales, after all, plus this part time humor column gig), so at this point I’ve gotten pretty good at spinning interesting stories. I’ll tell them a wild story about my vision for marketing A.I. across the globe. 

Also, I already know the three most important things about Artificial Intelligence: 1) it’s artificial, 2) it’s intelligent, and 3) it will someday try to destroy all mankind. I know this third item because it was the plot of a famous Shakespeare play. No wait, it was a Schwartzenegger movie. I always get those two literary geniuses mixed up.
Since Microsoft is owned by Bill Gates, who has desired to be the Emperor of Earth for many years, I’ll play right into the company’s ultimate goal of world domination. If they hire me, great, I’ll collect a fat paycheck for a while. If they don’t hire me, I’ll just keep scrolling through LinkedIn posts to see what my HVAC competition is up to.

Either way, it doesn’t matter in the long run, since A.I. is going to zap us all very soon.

Monday, February 12, 2024

Ash Wednesday Is a Busy Day This Year

Ash Wednesday occurs this week. It marks the beginning of the Liturgical season of Lent. Once again this year, Ash Wednesday falls on a Wednesday, which works out well because otherwise they’d have to change its name. Call me a traditionalist, but I don’t think I’d be comfortable with, for example, Ash Saturday.

This year Ash Wednesday has to share the spotlight with two other important holidays. February 14th also is St. Valentine’s Day, a day that may or may not have religious origins, depending on which website you read. The website I stumbled across, called The Conversation, explains that a priest named Valentinus was executed in the 3rd century by Roman Emperor Claudius Gothicus, during a time when persecutions against Christians were common. The priest was decapitated on or about February 14th. Many legends developed over the years about this murdered priest, and a church in Cosmedin, Italy, even displays a human skull relic, which is claimed to be the decapitated head of the original saint.

Then, over 1,000 years later, English poet Geoffrey Chaucer made the connection between birds that mate in February and the feast day of St. Valentine, and that’s all it took for February 14th to become a day devoted to lovers. Soon after, greeting card companies, chocolate manufacturers, and florists got involved, and the rest is history.

Because the origin of the St. Valentine legend is so sketchy, in 1969 the Church dropped St. Valentine’s Day from the Roman calendar of official, worldwide Catholic feast days, explaining that those special days are reserved for saints with more clear historical records. But by that point in time, the holiday was ingrained into the secular culture, and it continues unabated to this day.

The other important holiday that occurs on February 14th each year is the start of baseball Spring Training in Florida and Arizona. This holiday is not celebrated by very many people nowadays, but for those of us who are baseball nuts, it is a time to rejoice. Winter is on the wane, nice weather is coming soon, and the “Boys of Summer” are getting ready for another memorable season on the diamond. The start of Spring Training always puts a smile on my face, as it brings back nostalgic memories of childhood, when I ran around sundrenched fields of green with my classmates, playing the National Pastime. 

Now, just imagine how excited I’d be about Spring Training if the Red Sox actually had a good team this year.
So, we have three important occasions this week that all fall on February 14th. The most important of these, of course, is the start of baseball Spring Training. No wait, I’m sorry. That’s wrong. My brain just blurted that out, overcome by the desire for winter to be over. 

The most important aspect of February 14th this year is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the penitential Liturgical season of Lent. Ash Wednesday is one of only two days on the entire Church calendar that requires fasting and abstinence. If you’re confused about those two terms, as I was, here is a definition from “‘Fasting’ is the word used when the amount of food eaten is limited. ‘Abstinence’ is when you completely give something up, like meat, for a set period of time. Both ‘fasting’ and ‘abstinence’ play a role during Lent.”

The Church says all Catholics should fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday – with many age and health exceptions allowed. On those two days, our food intake should be the equivalent of one-and-a-half full meals spread out over the day, with no snacking in between. (Wow, my stomach started grumbling just from typing that sentence.)

For abstinence during Lent, the Church instructs us to avoid meat on Fridays. In addition, many people will give up something for Lent, such as alcohol, candy, or donuts.

This year’s convergence of multiple important days on February 14th presents a quandary for those folks who love to celebrate St. Valentine's Day with chocolate, but who usually give up chocolate for Lent. In my opinion, I think if you sprinkle ashes into your candy-filled, heart-shaped box, you should be OK. (The chocolate candies might not taste so great anymore, though.)
The important thing about Lent is to take it seriously (unlike this essay), and to understand that it’s preparing us for the pinnacle of the Liturgical year: the Passion, death, and Resurrection of Our Lord.

As St. Valentine so eloquently put it each year when Ash Wednesday arrived: “Play ball!”

Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Pay Attention to the Homilies

The homilies I hear at Sunday Mass are generally very good. You can tell the priests and deacons put a lot of time and effort into preparing their sermons. I can’t imagine how hard it must be to come up with something each and every week. 

Oh, wait. Maybe I can imagine that, since I write these Merry Catholic essays every week. What I meant to say is: I can’t imagine how hard it must be to come up with something INTERESTING each and every week.
Personally, I really like it when the homilist at Mass has his sermon written down. There are some priests and deacons who memorize their presentation, and while I admire and envy that skill, it often causes one of two problems. First, sometimes he forgets a key point, and so the homily isn’t nearly as effective as it could’ve been. The second problem is that he forgets that most people can’t pay attention for more than seven minutes, and when he drones on and on, sharing every random thought that pops into his head, half the congregation keeps glancing at their watches and muttering, “I can’t believe he’s been talking for 20 minutes! What are we, Baptists?!”

Maybe the main reason why I like it when the homilist at Mass has his sermon written down, is the fact that if I were up there talking, I would be so nervous I would forget all my key points, and then I’d fill the time by sharing every random thought and every personal story that popped into my head. No doubt my awkward, rambling, far-too-long performance would guarantee that half the congregation goes home after Mass and investigates other church denominations to join. (“Let’s try this church next week, Louise. I know they’re Baptist, but at least their ministers PREPARE their sermons in advance.”)

Anyway, as I mentioned earlier, I have been hearing some very good homilies at Mass lately. And I appreciate how much hard work goes into composing an essay that explains one or more important theological points — and in a manner that people of varying ages and educational levels can understand — all-the-while being based on that day’s Scripture readings. That is not an easy thing to do. Especially considering there is an acute priest shortage nowadays, and the priests we do have rarely have adequate time during the week to fine-tune and rehearse their compositions. 
I’ve noticed something in recent years. Depending on the parish, the ordained permanent deacon may only have an opportunity to preach once per month. When the weekend rolls around when it’s his turn to give the homily at each Mass, the deacon is usually very, very prepared. I’ve known many deacons over the years, and one told me he often begins to work on his homilies three weeks in advance. I’m sure very few parish priests have this luxury, since their schedules are way too busy. Plus it’s tough to think about a sermon topic three weeks from now when you haven’t prepared anything for three HOURS from now.

We all should be listening attentively to the homily at Mass. After all, the homily is supposed to explain and build upon the divine message contained in that day’s Scripture readings. And of course, the Scriptures are the inspired Word of God. So, the homilist has been given the solemn responsibility of preaching and teaching the Good News of the Gospel; that is, the awesome story of God offering salvation to a sinful world. It really is, as the old movie title declared, “The Greatest Story Ever Told.”

Please pay attention during the homily, especially when it’s the deacon’s turn to preach. Don’t lose sight of how difficult it is to write something inspiring and then present it in front of a crowd. And when you hear words that help you grow in your faith, don’t hesitate to tell the priest or deacon that you appreciate his efforts. You have no idea how much that will mean to him. 

Friday, February 2, 2024

Quit TV? That’s a Novel Idea

Recently, I was cleaning up some files on the hard drive of my computer and I found a folder titled “Manuscript ideas.” I created this folder about 15 years ago, back when I genuinely thought I had enough spare time to write some books. However, the last decade and a half turned out to be devoid of spare time, so my hope now is that maybe I’ll find time to write a book or two after I retire.
Anyway, in that long lost computer folder, I found a document labeled “Television,” which contained an outline for a book idea. Frankly, I don’t remember creating that document, nor do I have any recollection of thinking it would be a good idea to write a book about television.

I started reading through the outline, curious to discover what I had in mind back then. The first few chapters would describe my life-long love affair with TV, beginning when I was just a baby. I’m the first-born in my family, and my younger brother came along when I was 10 months old. We were born in different calendar years, but I'm pretty sure we meet the classic definition of “Irish twins.” My mom was kind of preoccupied, so according to family lore, the television was my babysitter.

Mom would push my playpen right up against the TV. This was back when televisions were heavy pieces of furniture, sitting right on the floor. I would stand up in the playpen, holding on to the bars like a baby jailbird, and put my face about six inches away from the flickering black-and-white screen. I’m told that I would just stare at that screen for hours on end, giving my mom time to take care of my brother. Throughout my entire childhood and beyond, I’ve pretty much watched TV whenever possible for as long as possible.
In the document I found on my computer, one of the book chapters would discuss how I’ve learned more about life from TV characters such as Hawkeye Pierce, the Fonz, and Bugs Bunny than I ever learned from my parents, teachers, or catechism instructors.

As I read through the old outline, I thought, “This is kind of weird, but it might make a good book, if I ever get some spare time.”

About halfway through the document, it discussed what the second half of the book would cover. Here is the entry I read: “These final chapters will describe what it was like to go one full year without watching television – the health benefits, better sleep, financial savings, more free time, etc.”

I paused when I read that, completely stunned. I said to the 2008 me: “Wait a minute, Bill. Are you really serious? Did you actually think you could go without TV for a full year and then write a book about it? Wow, I don’t even know you anymore.”

It goes without saying that over the past 15 years, the timespan since I wrote that outline, I did not go an entire year without watching TV. I’m pretty sure I did not make it through an entire DAY without gazing at my beloved television.
I should write a book about how deluded I was back then to think I could go a full year without television. But the only way I’ll have enough spare time to write the manuscript would be to make a major change in my usual routine, such as, um, giving up television for a year. Yeah, fat chance.

Well, don’t look for any publications from me in a bookstore anytime soon. After all, a UConn basketball game is about to begin, and watching without playpen bars in front of my face is a beautiful sight.