Failure Is a Teacher

This is not a news column. I write here about my family. Sometimes I report on my own struggle to be a good and faithful man in an increasingly weird world. My goal is to do it with a dash of style and a dollop of humor. I never, ever, want to be accused of laying it on too thick. My nightmare is that I’ll come across as preachy.

Occasionally a news story comes along, however, that practically stands up on its spindly hind legs and screams: Preach Brother Matthew!

So, settle in. Here comes a sermon.  

The hardest thing to do is watch your kids fail. It goes against every parental instinct. To sit back and watch them fail at something they want to be good at, that you want them to be good at, or that you and they think they need to be good at, is excruciating.

I am lately reminded of this on Saturday mornings at a local school gym near our house. Here Patrick and Sally train for the upcoming Gaelic football season in our new neighborhood. They have no idea what they are doing, and it shows. The kicking, the passing, the dribbling–it’s all bad. No bueno. I find it hard to watch.

But as excruciating as it is to stand by and do nothing while your child flails away, it’s nothing compared with the upswell of pride you feel when they figure it out. The two things are related: If you can’t handle the pain of failure, you can’t enjoy the thrill of success.

Some things come easily to some people. That doesn’t change the fact that greatest satisfaction in life comes from overcoming obstacles. Earned success tastes better, even if you have to take a few Gaelic footballs to the face.

God put us here to be fruitful and multiply. He wrote on your heart and mine how to do it: Have children, love them with all your heart, push them to be the best they can be, forgive them their trespasses, give them an example of goodness to follow. We know this intuitively.

Sometimes, though, because our lives are chaotic, our intuition goes screwy. We read the instructions upside down. We scramble God’s commandments and feed them back to ourselves in simplified form. Usually it amounts to this: Don’t hurt anyone. Fine. It’s what comes next that that’s the killer: Make sure your kids get into good colleges.

It would be so easy to mock the parents who were recently indicted as part of the college admissions scam. They bribed college officials and paid to have people take the SATs for their children. They embarrassed themselves. They conspired to cheat the system because they had the money to do it and the system was open to being cheated.

How easy to laugh, shake your head and say, “What a bunch of idiots!” It’s easy to think yourself better than them.

But are you? Am I? Really?

Saying I’d never pay $500,000 to get my kid into USC isn’t difficult. I don’t have that kind of money, and I’m betting you don’t either. It’s also quite within my power to say I wouldn’t cheat on a test, because cheating is wrong. That’s obvious.

What’s not obvious is when to stop yourself from hurting your kids in the guise of helping them. To succeed, first we need to fail. That’s the paradox.

Put aside for a moment that those college-scam parents were rich. Put aside that some were famous. Put aside that people get into elite colleges because their grandparents endowed the dining hall.

All true, but put it aside. These parents aren’t really so different from the rest of us. They love their kids and want the best for them. They wanted to help them and did the only thing they could think to do, which was to protect them from failure.

That was a mistake, but I’m guessing they realize that now. Failure is a teacher. Failure is a motivator. Failure teaches humility. It even works for parents.

Don’t get me wrong. You shouldn’t deliberately put obstacles in a kids’ way (says the guy who signed his up for Gaelic football). But if you insulate them from failure, you’ll insulate them from happiness.

I told you it was going to get preachy around here. I hope I didn’t lay it on too thick.

From the March 2019 issue of Fairfield County Catholic.


Shake the Hand That Shook the Hand

We’re having some work done on the roof of the new house. The chimney is twisted and needs to be rebuilt. Friends gave us the number of a guy we could call to fix it.

McNulty is from Ireland. He told me he did “finishing work” for Guinness. I know what Guinness is. What finishing work is I have no idea.

McNulty came one windy weekend to asses the chimney’s twist. We stood together in the driveway, eyes on the sky. We both saw the problem but McNulty saw what I couldn’t: How to fix it.

I only know how to fix sentences.

The meeting took five or ten minutes. “It’s no good Matchoo,” he said, pronouncing my name in what I took to be Dublinese. “You don’t want one of them bricks coming loose and falling down into the driveway while the kids are playing and all.”

We agreed that was something I did not want. “I’ll talk to my brick man—Billy from Kildare—and we’ll get you sorted straight away.”

We shook hands on the sidewalk and parted ways. As I watched him leave I thought, “My goodness my hands are an embarrassment.”

McNulty is a slightly built man but his hands were like cinderblocks wrapped in sandpaper. Shaking my hand must have felt, to him, like meeting a man-size chinchilla with opposable thumbs.

I am inadequate in the hands department.

Pinkish, uncalloused, and prone to cracking in winter, mine are the hands of man who has only ever worked indoors. My palms are like pillows; my fingers like sausage links.

Ever see a tree that has grown around a chain-link fence? That’s what my wedding ring looks like.  

Years ago I worked in bars. I sliced lemons with sharp knives. I tossed around kegs and dunked pint glasses in scalding hot water. The enemy then was small nicks and cuts, which were annoying and could let in bacteria that could get me sick and unable to work.

No one wants a drink served by a bartender with a scabby hand or a runny nose. I used lotion and other manly emollients to care for my hands.

These days may hands do nothing more dangerous than hunting and pecking. My desk is ergonomic. My keyboard has a wrist rest. I still get little nicks and cuts, but mostly from the sharp corners of Post-it notes.

I have one callous—on the tip of the finger that does my most aggressive deleting.

When I was a kid the joke was that plumbers made more than guys who worked in offices. Now I hear you can make a good living as a welder. My hope for my sons is that they have manlier hands than I do. Maybe I’ll send them to welder’s college.

Jesus was a carpenter’s son. Some scholars say the Greek word tekton, usually translated as “carpenter,” really means “builder.” It’s possible that Joseph was actually more of a stone mason.

Either way, if Jesus worked alongside his father, his hands must have been rough. Like McNulty’s, not like mine.

Jesus swung a hammer. He knew his way around a workbench and a toolkit. He was fit for a job using chisels. So many familiar images of Our Lord convey a different vibe.

Arms outstretched and surrounded by divine light, the Jesus of our time is a softie. We see him in hippy robes, cuddling a lamb. He hammers out justice, not stone blocks.

We see Jesus sad-eyed at the Last Supper. We see his thin, broken body on the cross, his hands bloodied by the nails, his lean torso twisted. But Jesus was a working man.

Yes, the message of his public ministry was mercy, but his day job was building houses.

Wouldn’t it be nice to see an icon of Our Lord that makes him look like what he was? Some artist should render his misshapen fingernails and tough, calloused palms.

If he needs a model, I can give him McNulty’s number.

From the February 2019 issue of Fairfield County Catholic.

One Flu Over the Foosball Table

My dad has a little ditty he recites during flu season:

Had a bird, name was Enza.

Opened a window, in flew Enza.

But the flu is no joke. Before last January I don’t think I’d ever really had a proper case. Like most people I’ve referred to a bad cold as “a touch of the flu.” I was wrong to do that.

The real flu is a widowmaker.

Last January I was flattened. Four days of high fever, bone chills, dead legs and hacking cough. Desperate not to infect the kids, I donned a surgical mask and rubber gloves and confined myself to quarters.

The children thought I looked funny. I heard them laughing.

“The flu is no joke,” I huffed through a crack in the door.

They were all spared, thanks be to God. So was my wife, who cared for me—and them—with the patience of a saint. She didn’t laugh, nor did she treat me like a leper.

“The flu is no joke,” I wheezed as she adjusted my pillow pile.

“I know, honey,” she said. “We all know.”

I adore her so. There are many marriages in a marriage, moments when trust and devotion are cemented into place, made firmer, made finer.

Love is ne’er truer than when infirmary-reinforced.

Patience, turns out, is the best treatment for the real flu. They tell you to rest, of course, but that’s not really a problem because you have no energy anyway.

They tell you to drink fluids. That’s good advice. Do it.

When you’re in and out of sleep, sweating through your pajamas, and hallucinating Bruno Mars playing foosball with Pliny the Elder you can get a little dehydrated.

Tamiflu helps, but only a little. The sum total of medical knowledge on fighting the flu doesn’t amount to much. All you can do is wait for it to get better.

The influenza virus has been with humanity since the beginning—maybe even before the beginning. Cities, farms, villages, hamlets: It goes everywhere we go.

“Flu is certainly not the ‘emperor of all maladies,’ as cancer was described by the oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee, but it is the malady of all empires,” writes Dr. Jeremy Brown in his just published history of the dreaded virus.

“Influenza: The Hundred Year Hunt to Cure the Deadliest Disease in History” is a fun read, if you can handle words like “sputum.”

Its pages also contain death and suffering on a large scale, so be prepared. More Americans were killed by the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918 than in all the 20th century wars combined. That’s the kind of factoid that my Depression-era dad enjoys collecting.

We have vaccines now but flu still kills more than 30,000 people every year in the United States. The vaccine isn’t always effective. Viruses mutate. They “drift”—genetically.

Epidemiologists say there’s no doubt that another deadly pandemic is coming. It will kill millions when it does.

One great nugget: Dr. Brown thinks treating the fevers of flu-sufferers with Tylenol and Advil may actually help spread the virus. When your fever goes down you feel better. You get up and at ‘em though you’re still a dish of ‘enza.

When the meds wear off and the fever spikes, you’ll be back in your hot, sweaty bowl. Pliny and Bruno are waiting.

The question for a religious person has to be: Why? Where exactly in God’s plan does influenza fit? Most of the available Christian literature on illness relates to the challenge of enduring pain and discomfort with a faithful heart.

“To become philosophical about one’s illness is to stand apart from it and to see the challenge of suffering as an opportunity for purification of our hearts and souls,” wrote Rod Dreher a few years back. His 2013 book about his sister’s death from cancer, “The Little Way of Ruthie Leming,” was so good it knocked me out.

“To put it another way, illness is an invitation to grow closer to God, and to our loved ones, and to think about how the law of love works itself out in the mystery of human suffering.”

That’s fine. But the “why” I’m interested in is not the why of the suffering. I want the why of the virus. Call it the theology of biology.

What are these microscopic mutants doing here—living among us, invading our bodies, feeding off of us, replicating like mad, killing us in large numbers?

I believe in God. I believe God has his reasons.

What could possibly be the reason for the flu virus? Drop me a line if you happen to know.

My sister once came down with the flu while reading a book about the flu (I suspect she had a cold.) In light of this, and remembering last January, I handled Dr. Brown’s book with care.

I held it as far away from my mouth and nose as possible while reading. I washed my hands before picking it up and after putting it down. I kept it in a cool, dry place.

The flu is no joke. But I might be.

From the January 2019 edition of Fairfield County Catholic

You’re In Good Hands

Steve Largent was my hero.

For a hot second in the 1980s a lot of kids like me looked up to the Seattle Seahawks wide receiver. He was short (for a football player) and not too fast or well-built. Despite these obvious disadvantages, Largent had something special that set him apart. He had good hands.

Steve Largent was the perfect role-model for the 12-year-old me. I was a decent athlete, pretty good hands, but I had no chance of ever playing collegiate sports, let alone professionally. I was too small and too slow.

Neither reality ever stopped me from dreaming that I would one day quarterback Notre Dame to a national championship.

Although an All-American college player at the University of Tulsa, Largent barely squeaked into the National Football League in 1977. The league had expanded the year before and the Seahawks, a new team, needed every pair of good hands they could get.

Another inspiring thought for semi-soft suburban strivers: Numbers don’t always tell the whole story. Some guys bring the intangibles.

Largent’s small stature and slow feet really didn’t hold him back. When he retired in 1992 he possessed all the NFL’s receiving records, including the one that started me following the career of a flyweight on the far side of the country in the first place—177 consecutive regular-season games with a reception.

Fourteen seasons as a pro and he almost never dropped the ball. Those aren’t good hands; they’re great hands.

I was so enthralled by Steve Largent that in 1985 I told my parents what I wanted more than anything for Christmas was a Seattle Seahawks jersey with #80 on the back.

That may sound like a reasonable request in 2018, but it wasn’t 2018. It was 1985. And we didn’t live in the Pacific Northwest. The stores in our part of New Jersey weren’t exactly overflowing with branded merchandise for NFL teams on the west coast.

Needless to say there was no internet, no Amazon, no NFL store then, and wearing sports jerseys wasn’t as common a thing as it is now. Still, my parents somehow pulled it off. They scored a Steve Largent jersey for me and got it under the tree in time for Christmas.

The happiest kid in North America that day was the only kid in New Jersey repping not Big Blue but the Blue Wave.

I asked my dad recently how he managed such a trick, but he has no memory of buying the #80 jersey. He remembers Steve Largent, and he remembers my fascination with him, but whatever strings got pulled to find me that shirt have receded into the mists.

His best guess, he says, is that he bought it at a store. But we all know that no such store existed in New Jersey circa 1985. Something extra was involved.

Now that I’m a parent, I know what it feels like to worry that your kids are going to be disappointed on Christmas morning. Children have outrageous expectations. I did too, once upon a time, and that was long ago.

The outrageousness of the expectations has evolved exponentially. Kids today want drones, phones, and smart homes.  

But I also see now what my parents also surely saw then—none of the stuff that goes under the tree really matters. The only thing that matters are the intangibles. If the family is together, it’s a good Christmas. If the Holy Spirit fills the home, then the baby Jesus smiles.

If Christ is at the center of the family celebration, then nobody should worry too much about dropping the ball. You’re in good hands.

Most of my childhood Christmas memories have blended into one. When I look back on those magical mornings, I don’t see piles of presents or overstuffed stockings.

I see my parents drinking coffee in their bathrobes. I see my brother and sisters sitting cross-legged on the rug eating homemade cinnamon buns.

I see Darby O’Gill, our inexplicably morose black lab, curled up under the boughs of the tree, tinsel draped across his forehead. It was the best day of his year, with all his favorite people gathered in one place.

And I see myself, with a 100-yard smile, pulling Steve Largent’s jersey over my pajamas and saying, “Thanks mom! Thanks dad!” And them, giving nothing away about their extraordinary achievement, smiling and saying, simply, “You’re welcome son.”

From my family to yours, have a Merry Christmas and a blessed New Year.

From the December 2018 issue of Fairfield County Catholic.

Take a Penny, Leaf a Penny

I saw a penny on the kitchen floor the other day while I was sweeping up. The temptation came over me to knock it into the dustpan along with the hair ties, shrunken peas, and dried-out Rice Chex.

I was on my way to the trash can to pitch the whole shebang, penny and all, when Sally, my 5 year-old, piped up.

“Hey, you’re not going to throw away that penny are you?”

“No, sweetie, Daddy would never do such a thoughtless and wasteful thing like throwing perfectly good money in the trash. Here, you take it.”

I offered her the dustpan and winced a little as she plucked the coin from among the fuzz and fur. Letting out a squeak of joy, she held the dull copper coin to the light and smiled.

“Thanks Daddy!” she said. You’d have thought the child had won the lottery.

When did I become such a grinch? A penny’s still a penny after all, even one that isn’t pretty. To Sally it was a windfall. To me it was a pain in the back, sitting there under the kitchen table amid the spilled milk, toast ends, and broken pencil tips.

I wonder sometimes how a thing goes from being so important to being a trifle. Have you looked at leaf lately? I mean, really looked at one? Amazing things they are—marvels of engineering and beautiful, too.

[Read more…]

Our Lady of the Lamp and Hammer

It is a dark and drizzly night. The Hennesseys are enjoying a convivial evening, socializing at the home of The Friendly Family.

All is going unusually smoothly. There’s always a hitch when the Hennesseys go a-visitin’. But tonight? No hitch. Just laughter and good cheer.

Curfew looms. Mr. and Mrs. Hennessey check in with each other. It takes only a look. The youngsters have reached the natural limit. Time to wrap it up. Declare victory on this lovely outing and head home.

Air kisses, handshakes, hugs, and goodbyes. “Everybody into the car,” croons Mr. Hennessey, a handsome fellow with a lovely Irish tenor voice. He slips so effortlessly from friendmode to dadmode.

See how he rolls.

[Read more…]

It Bears All Things

We call our family members “loved ones,” but the truth is we aren’t always that loveable.

The daily grind of home and hearth are not without friction. When you’re in a bad place, the ones you love best usually get it the worst. Who wakes up and thinks, “I wonder how I can make this house happier today?”

My knee goes out periodically. It’s an old injury that flares up once in a while and cripples me. Probably it dates back 30 years to the time I whiffed on a soccer ball and tore something important.

The episodes don’t last long, but while they’re ongoing I get ornery. Hobbling around like an invalid turns me into a mumbling crumbum. I get snippy with people who don’t deserve it—namely my beautiful wife and my innocent children.

“Who put these bowls on the bottom shelf!?” I bark like a mad dog. “Don’t you pork chops know how to load a dishwasher? There’s a right way and a wrong way you know”

Pet peeves get pet peevier when you’re in pain. [Read more…]

That Old House

My mother hated the house on Speedwell Avenue. She may have had her reasons. The kitchen was small, the sink was too far from the stove, one bathroom served six people, and the whole place drooped slightly so the bedroom doors wouldn’t close.

Then again, it was home.

We moved there in 1979. I was six. Before that we’d lived in the house where my dad grew up. It was built in 1886 by my great-grandfather John T. Murphy. My dad told us that John T.’s ghost still lived in the attic. I don’t think my mom liked that house much either.

I didn’t hate those houses. I loved them, especially the Speedwell house, which was quirky in the best way. [Read more…]

Darling Buds Are Here Again

The thing about spring is you forget how great it’s going to be. Life can be a drag. Winters can overstay. But spring is about hope, and hope is the thing that pokes its way out of a robin’s egg.

We take family walks. By the pond in the cemetery we happen upon a pair of turtles that are, um, trying to start their own family. I turn it into a teaching moment, but biology isn’t my best subject. What I can do is sing.

It’s a fact, it’s natural, everything is satisfactual.

[Read more…]

The Girl Who Cried Moose

New Hampshire, as my mother-in-law told me recently, has five seasons: summer, winter, fall, spring—and mud.

The tourists come in October to see the leaves change color. They come again in February to ski the White Mountains.

The Hennesseys come in early April to see the mud.

April is “off season” in the Granite State. The slopes are melting, the trees are leafless, and the lakes ice-bound, but the mud is in full bloom.

If you enjoy boots that sink to the ankles and splatter marks up the back of your pant leg, come to New Hampshire around Easter.

Spending time with my mother-in-law is of course the real reason for our visits. She and my late father-in-law moved up from New York City 15 years ago, before any grandchildren came along. They built a beautiful, sturdy house in the woodsy shadow of Mt. Kearsarge. It’s a great spot.

[Read more…]