Looking Back on 2016

It’s my custom to start the new year with a personal review of the year just ended1. While many people claim 2016 to be the worst year ever, it was far from that for us, although we did have quite a bit more upheaval than in past years, including a job change, new cars, and quite a few unexpected expenses.

Here’s what happened.

Old Job, New Job

In March, I was informed that I would be laid off from my job as Communications Director at the Catholic collaborative in Walpole, Mass. After the collaborative was pared down from three parishes to two, expenses were too high compared to income. I’m also sure that some people questioned why parishes need a communications director. Part of the problem is that communications director is a title you find in corporations and government. A more accurate and palatable title would have been evangelization director, which would have encompassed all the same duties and responsibilities.

I didn’t stay unemployed for long. In fact, within a few days I was in contact with my current employer at Massachusetts Citizens for Life, where I started immediately as Director of Community Engagement, where I’m working on reaching out to new demographics, primarily through online means. It’s been interesting and educational so far, and you might imagine that in Massachusetts, it’s quite a challenge.
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Looking Back on 2015

Continuing my annual tradition[1], here’s my review of the past year in our life. We end the year pretty much how we started it with no major changes in our family or my employment. We have no new children nor pregnancies, which is like last year, but unlike every other year of our marriage. I have the same job and we live in the same house, driving the same cars.

So what did happen?

1. Same Job, New Job

In addition to my work as Communications Director of a collaborative of two parishes here in the Archdiocese of Boston (down from three at the beginning of 2015), I have now also been hired part-time as the Managing Director/COO of SQPN, which is quite exciting as I’ve worked with them for a number of years on several projects and been a part of the listener community for even longer, back to the beginnings. We’re just getting started, but our main priority in the near term is to re-focus on the mission of Catholic new media and begin putting our resources there. On the other hand, Fr. Chip Hines and I ended our weekly radio program on the Station of the Cross radio network because it was too much for us both to keep up with while doing our other work.

2. Star Wars

We started the year with me showing the kids “Star Wars” for the first time, which resulted in it occupying a lot of their imaginary games for the rest of the year. At the other end of the year, we had an actual new Star Wars movie, “The Force Awakens”, which I saw first by myself on opening night and then a few days later again, with Melanie. Short review: Awesome. Everything I’d hoped for and more.

3. Vacation at the Lake

Maine Lake Vacation 2015

In 2014, our big vacation was a trip to Virginia and Washington, DC, to visit my mom and sister. This year we stayed a bit closer to home, although even up to relatively late in the year, we didn’t know what we were going to do. It turned out that we were able to rent a lakeside cottage in western Maine at a very generous rate and it was amazing. For a week, we lived in a beautiful well-appointed house on a hillside so that it had three split levels. The main level included a deck overlooking the lake that was a quiet spot for early morning coffee and prayer while listening to the loons cry. There was also a swimming dock and the kids and I spent time nearly every day in the water.

It was so amazing to be there that I kind of went in mourning when we came back to our smaller house without it’s open, airy floor plan and serene vistas.

4. Sophia’s First Communion

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While we had Sophia’s First Confession and First Communion in 2015, unlike Isabella’s sacraments, done by herself at our local parish, Sophia’s First Communion was done with other homeschoolers at St. Adelaide’s parish in Peabody, along with her cousin, my sister’s daughter, and other children.

She’s been so happy with receiving Communion, even if a bit less so with Confession. (She gets very nervous when we bring up the subject of Confession.) Just this past Christmas, she told me and Melanie that even better than going to Midnight Mass is going to Midnight Mass and receiving Jesus in the Eucharist.[2]

Since her First Communion, either Melanie or I have had to make sure to go up to receive behind her because she’s so tiny that often the priests or extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist just pass over her. I have to make sure they know it’s okay for her to receive.

5. Hospital Visits

We didn’t get out of 2015 without our share of bumps and bruises, but it could have been worse. Lucia had the worst of it. She got a cold last summer that really made her latent asthma so much worse that Melanie took her to the local emergency room. They were concerned enough that they sent her and Melanie in an ambulance to Children’s Hospital in Boston where they stayed overnight. That was a little nerve-wracking. Thankfully, my brother John and his wife Patti and my niece came to save the day by watching the kids and picking up my car that I left at the hospital as I went into Boston to bring Melanie and Lucia an overnight bag of essentials. Everything turned out all right, although Lucia does have to take a round of nebulizer medicine every night before bed now.

Ben also got a visit to the ER in December when leapt from one piece of furniture to another, not quite making it and splitting open the skin over his eyebrow. That one took 10 stitches but he was a trooper as well, very stoic about it. That’s good because a few weeks later, he had to go to the dentist to get a tooth extracted and a couple of cavities filled. Oy.

6. Some New Tech, But Not All the New Tech

While my favorite technology company, Apple, was pushing out a bunch of new products, I did not jump at the biggest debut, the Apple Watch. I think it’s a fine product that will continue to evolve into something that I will eventually need, but for what it does today and at the current price, I can’t justify it in my life. For others, it’s just the thing and I’m glad for them. And while my iPad 4 continues to decline slowly following the dropping mishap last year, I haven’t yet reached the point where I have to replace it.

The new iPhone 6s Plus might be the reason why. When the iPhone 6/6 Plus came out in 2014, I was torn over whether to get the larger screen. So many reviewers and pundits made such a big deal over how large it is and unwieldy for people with small hands (and I do have stubby fingers) that I had stayed away. But I finally decided that the bigger battery and video and photo stabilizations that it has and the plain old 6 doesn’t made it worth it. Then when I finally had it in hand, I realized all those size concerns were overblown. It’s such a great screen and so large that I use it for some of the things I used the iPad for.

As for other tech, I did spring for the new AppleTV 4, whose biggest distinction is the ability to have 3rd-party apps. With the addition of the Plex app and having a Synology network-attached storage, I can now drop ripped videos from DVDs and Blu-rays onto the NAS and play them on our TV in glorious HD with no muss or fuss. The combination of the three pieces have been a wonder.

7. Books and More Books

At the beginning of 2015, I signed up for the Goodreads annual reading challenge, in which I pledged to read 30 books last year. It wasn’t exactly a lofty goal, compared to some of my friends or to Melanie’s book-consuming rate or even to me in my reading prime, but for me now, this would be a substantial increase over my recent consumption of books in which I read three or four books per year.

I’m happy to say I managed to complete 32 books in 2015 and that’s how many I’ve set as my goal for this year. This is a pace of two or three per month. That’s a high rate for me even now, but possible, especially if I intersperse some of the denser non-fiction reading with some light science fiction like I did last year.

Some of my favorites from 2015[3] are:

The secret to my increased reading success has been my reliance on the Kindle for all but one of the books I read, which gave me the ability to read in bed in the dark without waking the baby or Melanie. Plus the impetus provided by gameifying the reading challenge. Nothing like a bit of competitiveness to get me motivated.

8. Family Visits

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Most of the usual host of out-of-town relatives came to visit this year. Melanie’s sister, Theresa, came in April for Sophia’s First Communion–since she is her godmother–and then again for Christmas and New Year’s. Melanie’s mom and dad also took turns visiting, her mom coming in August and then her dad in September for a week or so each.

These visits are so nice, not just because we get to see them and the kids get to spend time with their grandparents and aunt, but also because having another adult gives Melanie and me the opportunity to go out for a night. When her mom came in August, Melanie and I had an amazing dinner for her birthday at the Scarlet Oak Tavern in Hingham. We drive by it every time we go to the farmers market and have wanted to stop in. And in December, it was Theresa’s visit that allowed us to go out to dinner and then see Star Wars together.

9. Museums and Field Trips

We had a number of fun trips out and about this year. In the spring, once the great thaw actually began, we drove up north of Boston to Hollis Hills Farm to watch them make maple syrup. It was quite impressive to watch all the steam bubble out of the evaporator. They also raised other crops and animals and provided a full breakfast of their own eggs, pancakes, bacon and sausage and, of course, maple syrup.

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We also ventured out in April to Lexington Green the week before Patriots Day for the dress rehearsal for the re-enactment of the “shot heard ’round the world.” (The dress rehearsal is not as crowded as the actual re-enactment if not quite as polished.) It made quite the impression on the kids as later in the summer we found Lucia marching about with a stick, proclaiming, “Lay down your arms, you rebels!”

Continuing to revel in our Revolutionary War history, we took another day to walk the Freedom Trail in Boston. Even though I grew up here, I’d never done it, so we drove into Boston, parked under the Common, and then followed the trail from the State House to the old Granary Burials Grounds to King’s Chapel to Fanueil Hall with a couple stops in between. Despite all the walking, the kids handled it very well. The trail goes beyond Fanueil Hall into the North End and over to Charlestown so maybe we’ll do that this year.

#Hokusai at @mfaboston

We also returned to our old standbys as well. The Museum of Fine Arts, where we have a membership, had two great exhibitions this year, showing the art of the Japanese artist Hokusai and the Dutch masters in the age of Rembrandt and Vermeer. Both were phenomenal, going beyond just the art work to stimulate discussion of history, culture and society. The kids loved it as much as we did.

Our one-year membership to the New England Aquarium ran out this summer and so we made a last visit in July, taking the ferry boat from Hingham to Rowe’s Wharf as before. The boat ride is a much a highlight of the trip as the aquarium itself. While the animals and exhibits are great, the aquarium always seems to be so crowded so we tend to reach our limits early. And because we’re bound by the schedule of the ferry which runs with big time gaps in the middle of the day, we usually spend a lot of time waiting for the boat to come so as not to miss it.

Of course, we had a lot of other little trips to World’s End in Hingham and to apple picking and Melanie often takes them on school-related trips, but another big highlight for me came on an outing, not with the family, but with my work colleagues. One of my coworkers is a season-ticket holder with the Boston Red Sox and one of the perks is the ability to take part in a kind of public batting practice on the field when the team is out of town. So in late June, as a gift to the pastor, Fr. Chip, we boarded a charted bus, rode into Boston, and Fr. Chip took BP on the field. Afterward, we had the run of the place and were able to wander at will from the dugouts and locker rooms up to the luxury boxes and media suites and over to the top of the Green Monster. It was quite a day.

10. Catholic New Media Celebration in Atlanta

Also in June, I flew down to Atlanta to take part in the 10th anniversary Catholic New Media Celebration for SQPN. At that point I had not taken the job as Managing Director yet, so I was there as a friend and fan and contributor. I didn’t see anything of Atlanta beyond the airport hotel and convention center, but the weekend was well spent. I got to spend time with some of the most interesting people involved in Catholic new media, to brainstorm about ways we can continue our work, and to be inspired and entertained as we did so. This was my fifth CNMC and they’ve always been a delight, mostly because of the people I spend time with.

Last but not least…

11. The Winter from Hell

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At the start of 2015, it seemed like we were going to have a dry, mild winter. On the day after Christmas, we had gone to the park and walked in light jackets. But by mid-February, we’d already endured the third-snowiest winter on record, getting as much snow in three weeks as we average over two entire winters (October-April). By the time we were done, we’d not only broken the previous record for snow; we smashed it. Just like our poor patio table whose glass top collapsed under the snow. Or our snowblower which gave up the ghost halfway through.

And the snow wasn’t the end of it because even after the last measurable snow sometime in March, we endured week after week of frigid, Arctic temperatures, keeping the snow from melting. Even though Easter wasn’t particularly early this year, we couldn’t do our Easter egg hunt because of the snow. We got to the point where pools for when the last snow would melt included dates in June and even July. (The last official recorded snow on the ground in Boston melted in June.)

So far, this winter replicates the early parts of last winter, but the forecasters say that El Niño this year will keep it that way. I’ll believe when I see it.

The Future

I’m not much of a prognosticator, but I’m hoping that we can have more of the same this coming year (except for the winter). We don’t have any particular milestones that we’re heading toward, but it’s my hope that 2016 will see us remain healthy as we raise our children in a home that is loving and faith-filled and full of joy.


  1. See my posts reviewing 2013 and 2014  ↩
  2. Speaking of midnight Mass, for the second year in a row, I wasn’t able to go. Whereas in 2014, both Ben and Anthony refused to be woken and dressed for the Mass, this year it was Anthony who we couldn’t wake up even a bit. So Melanie and her sister took the three oldest while I stayed home with Anthony and Lucia. And then in the morning, it was just Anthony and me, which was nice in its own way.  ↩
  3. For reviews of most of these books, see either prior blog posts, my Goodreads entries, or my reviews on the Amazon product pages.  ↩

What I learned about fatherhood from the fathers in my family

My grandfather "Nanu" Bettinelli is on the far right and my grandmother "Nana" is to the left of him. The other couples are the captain of his fishing boat, another fisherman and wives.
My grandfather “Nanu” Bettinelli is on the far right and my grandmother “Nana” is to the left of him. The other couples are the captain of his fishing boat, another fisherman and wives.

It’s Father’s Day and I’m in a reflective mood, thinking of all the dads I’ve known, especially those in my own family, who’ve taught me so much about being a father. I thought I’d share some of those reflections.

First, there are my grandfathers, maternal and paternal. My mom’s father, Abraham Spiegel, died when my mom was just 7 so of course I never knew him. But from the stories I’ve heard I have learned about Judaism and the experience of Jewish immigrants from Eastern European areas controlled by the tsars and the progroms of the Cossacks (they emigrated pre-Bolshevik). I have a love for Judaism and my Jewish brothers and sisters that comes from family connections.

I did meet my paternal grandfather, Nanu, but he died when I was just eight so my memories are still hazy. “Nanu” Bernardo Bettinelli was not a tall man in physical height, but I remember him as stoic and strong. From my dad’s stories, I know he was touched by tragedy early in life: he was a child born out of scandalous wedlock, but adopted in love; then when he was still a child in a Sicilian fishing village, all his male relatives died in a terrible storm. He first came to the US as a 13-year-old boy working on a fishing boat at the beginning of the 20th century, even working in the Bering Sea on a sailing ship, before survival suits and electronic beacons provided even a glimmer of survivability in case of going overboard. He married my grandmother and when the influenza epidemic struck, he brought them from Sicily to America. When he wasn’t fishing, he was working any job he could find, even in a Ford motor plant in Boston. He was so short, he needed to stand on a box to work the assembly line, which once attracted the attention of a visiting Henry Ford and his acclaim. My father tells me that when my grandfather would return to port from days at sea, he would first stop at the Italian-American club to shower and change into a suit out of respect for his own appearance and for my grandmother. He eventually retired from fishing at 65 and my dad says the captain of the boat told my dad that he would have to hire two men in their 20s to replace my grandfather. Even then my grandfather continued to work as janitorial staff at Mass. General Hospital. From my Nanu, I learned the importance of hard work for your family and that a father’s behavior and appearance reflects on his wife and his children when he’s out in public.

My father and me in Piazza Navona, Rome, in 1999.
My father and me in Piazza Navona, Rome, in 1999.

My own father, Domenico Sr., has also been a hard worker his whole life, working several jobs and six days a week at times. Even now, in his mid–80s and retired after 40 years at Raytheon as a millwright, he still works to provide for his family. As an 18-year-old young man, my father was already working at Raytheon when he was drafted into the Navy. Four years later, he was honorably discharged and the day after getting home he was back at work. In addition to a good work ethic, I also learned that even in difficult times how a father still shows his children he loves them, all of them, even when the children are the ones having difficulties that might strain relationships.

From my father-in-law, Randall Scott, I have learned how a strong personal spiritual life becomes a support for living as a strong Christian father. Randy is a secular Carmelite and also serves his parish’s very active St. Vincent de Paul Society. Previously, when he was working full-time for the state of Texas, he also operated a Catholic bookstore on the side that provided a much-needed service to the Catholic community in central Texas. Randy’s strong faith has carried him through the ups and downs of life and now, I believe, provides a quiet yet visible example for his children and grandchildren.

My brother, Bernie, has taught me how a husband loves his wife in sickness and in health. His first wife, Kathy, died after a yearlong battle with cancer, and through it all Bernie showed grace and courage and love. He also sacrificed much of himself in caring for her and for their one-year-old daughter Mary who he then had to raise as a single dad for many years until he met his wife, Carol.

My brother, John, has been an example of a father raising a large family, struggling at times to provide for them all, but through it all placing a priority on raising them as solid and good Catholic men and women. I hope my own children grow up with as much character and integrity as I see in my nieces and nephews. He has also shown me how to be the strong center around which a family gathers for strength and guidance.

My brother-in-law, Peter Campbell, has been a good friend for many years, from even before he met my sister and I have learned from him how placing service to the Lord as a priority in your life is a way to serve your family. Peter is always looking for an opportunity to serve God, including organizing over many years a series of family festivals and concerts and youth events to help others to know the faith and know the Lord like he does. And I see in his eight children a recognition of the importance of serving the Lord first.

Of course, these aren’t the only men to teach me valuable lessons of fatherhood, but I’ll stop here with those in my immediate family. To them and to all the others, I give you my sincere thanks and wish you all a very Happy Father’s Day!

How I Work

Thomas McDonald has had his How I Pray series of blog posts in which he asks various people about their prayer life (including one of particular interest to me), modeled on Lifehacker’s How I Work series, in which people describe their work situations and tools and habits. Then, of course, Tom did a How I Work of his own. Jeff Miller[1] of The Curt Jester followed suit and so Tom challenged several others to do the same and I took up the gauntlet. So what follows are my answers to How I Work:

Location:

South of Boston

Current Gig:

Communications Director for a three-parish collaborative within the Archdiocese of Boston. In my role I manage all the communications platforms of the three parishes, including the bulletin, posters/flyers/programs for events, a weekly radio program with the pastor, web sites, and social media. My role also includes responsibilities for strategic pastoral planning, which involves the writing of a three-year pastoral plan for the collaborative.

One word that best describes how you work:

Focused

Current mobile device:

iPhone 6 (64GB); iPad 4 (64GB)

Current computer:

2011 MacBook Pro 15“, 2GHz Intel Core i7 with aftermarket 250GB SSD and 750GB HD replacing the optical drive (personal), 2013 iMac 27”, 3.2GHz Intel Core i5 with 16GB RAM and 1TB HD (work)

What apps/software/tools can’t you live without?

Why?

Omnifocus is where it all starts. It’s a project and task management app whose central methodology is built around David Allen’s Getting Things Done book. Everything must go into Omnifocus if it’s to get done. It’s where I offload my brain. I have hooks into Omnifocus from Mail, from the web browser, from my phone, through Siri, even.

Creative Cloud is the new kid among my indispensable apps. As Communications Director, I’m responsible for the weekly bulletin for our parishes and since I’m on a Mac, I can’t use Microsoft Publisher (and I’m grateful for that.) In addition to using inDesign to put together the bulletin each week, I also use Photoshop to create quick graphics for social media and Lightroom to organize all the photos of various parish events. I’ve been using a service called ParishDesigner.com to do some of the great graphic design we’ve had and I can use Creative Cloud to edit and even adapt the designs to other uses, like turning posters into pamphlet covers.

Evernote is my second brain. It’s where everything goes that I will need to find and remember someday and I use it for both personal and work storage. One key way that I use it is that I have a notebook called Parish Bulletin and every time I get something that needs to be in a future bulletin I store it there. I then give it a reminder date of the Tuesday before the Sunday it needs to be in. (I do the bulletin on Tuesdays.) I also precede the title with an acronym for one of the parishes (if it’s parish specific) or ALL, if it’s a general item. Then when it’s time to do the bulletin each week, I just call up everything with a reminder date of the current day. Anything that’s repeating gets a new date when I’m done with it and everything else has its date cleared. This is just one way I’m using Evernote.

All my files live in Dropbox (or nearly all; my archives live on a Transporter). This means not only that all my files are accessible from whatever computer or device I’m using, it also means they are backed up and versioned in the cloud. It’s not my only backup solution, of course, but it’s one of them. I do pay to get 100gb of storage.

I’m a fanatic about passwords. Just ask everyone I work with and live with. I use almost exclusively 20-digit passwords with numbers, letters, and symbols (unless for some reason the site or software requires a less secure password, which drives me crazy.) 1Password lets me have unique, secure passwords for every site and service and I only need to remember the one password (get it?) that unlocks 1Password itself. And since that password unlocks the software on my computer, it means it never has to travel through the Internet where it could be hacked. I also use the Vaults feature to keep separate vaults for personal and work.

I could go on and on about indispensable software and tools, but I’ll stop here.

What’s your workspace setup like?

My office has windows on three walls and so I have my back to the windowless wall, of course. The desk itself is an old wooden affair, probably older than I am. On top of it, I have a Varidesk Pro height-adjustable work surface that allows me to elevate the computer to work while sitting or standing.

Here’s my my view of my desk while working:
How I Work: My desk

And here are the home screens of my iPhone and iPad:
How I Work: iPad

How I Work: iPhone

What’s your best time-saving shortcut/life hack?

I have so many little hacks and shortcuts that I’ve incorporated into my daily workflow that I have a hard time pulling out one as best. I’ve recently implemented Brett Terpstra’s “Hyperkey” that allows me to re-purpose the caps lock key on my keyboard to become another command key alongside command, option, and control. I can now easily open the site in the current Chrome tab in Safari and vice versa with one key command which allows me to see how a site looks in different browsers. I use another Hyperkey command to create a new Omnifocus task using the currently selected file in the Finder or email in Mail.app. Using a combination of Apple’s Services menu (under the application menu), Automator, and an automation program like Keyboard Maestro allows you to really go far beyond what is normally possible.

What’s your favorite to-do list manager?

I named it above as one of my indispensable apps, but it is truly Omnifocus. I’ve been using OF since it’s early beta days and have since snapped up its iPhone and iPad versions. The developers have really embraced the idea of giving you a big inbox into which you can offload anything you need to do. One of my favorite features is the integration with Siri on my iPhone. I can be driving home and activate Siri and then, bam, it’s in my OF inbox. Or I’m emailing with a coworker or a vendor and I want to remember to check back with them at a later date. Every OF user gets a super-secret email address and when I put that in the BCC of the email, a copy of the email gets put in my OF inbox. It’s so powerful and versatile, which has been it’s Achilles heel in the past as well. That power has had the side effect of making it difficult for new users to get started. The developers have done a great job in the past year or so in fixing that and I think it’s easier than ever to get started with it.

Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without and why?

Besides those two things, I don’t think there’s a gadget I truly couldn’t live without. Certainly my iPad is very useful at both content consumption (e.g. my daily newspaper, Netflix and Amazon Prime movies) and content creation (e.g. mind mapping, project review, meeting notes). I now read almost exclusively on my Kindle Paperwhite instead of carting around paper books. In my car, I use a wireless Bluetooth headset (one ear only) to listen to podcasts on my phone while commuting every day. In the kitchen, I use the Keurig coffee maker daily to make my coffee, except on the weekends when I have a little extra time and use my Aeropress. But as much of a techno geek and gadget guy that I am, I wouldn’t say I couldn’t live without any of them. I think that’s perhaps a good thing.

What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else? What’s your secret?

Over the past few years I have realized that I have the ability to capture a spoken conversation in real-time, not word for word, but in its essentials, by typing it as it happens. I learned this skill while working behind the scenes on The Good Catholic Life radio program (which is no more, sadly). One of my duties included typing up a daily transcript of the show which was good enough that we had several deaf “listeners” who enjoyed the program through them.

A related but different skill is the ability to type out something while having a completely different conversation with someone at the same time. If I’m in the middle of writing something and a person comes into the room and starts talking, I can continue to write while looking at the person and engaging in conversation. I have no idea how or why I’ve attained these skills, but there they are.

What do you listen to while you work?

Most often, nothing. Our office is pretty quiet and even when I have the windows open (thank God, I once again work in a place where the windows open), I hear mainly the wind. I have tried listening to podcasts, but I either pay too close attention to them and stop working or pay too much attention to work and stop listening. This is especially true of technical podcasts, like Mac Geek Gab or Mac Power Users. More conversational podcasts like those from the SQPN network are much easier to multitask to, but even then I try to keep those for my commute. If I’m listening to music, I have a smart playlist in iTunes called “Lost Hits”, which is all my songs rated five stars that I have not listened to in the past 20 days. Given that I have over 12,000 songs in iTunes and I’m pretty rigorous about rating my music, that playlist can keep me listening for hours. But since it will necessarily only play the very best songs, I also have a playlist called “Lost Near-Hits”, which includes the 4-star songs as well.

What are you currently reading?

I’m on a Crusades kick lately so I’m currently reading The Crusades, Christianity, and Islam by Jonathan Riley-Smith, who is one of the foremost scholars of the Crusades. I’ve just started it, so I don’t have much to say about it yet. I recently finished a middling Star Trek novel called Paths of Disharmony and then John Scalzi’s Lost Colony before that, part of his Old Man’s War series. Other books I’ve recently read were Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples and The Sugar Season by Douglas Whynott, about the maple syrup industry, which is quite timely and relevant and was good.

I do nearly all my reading on a Kindle these days. For whatever reason, paper books have lost their allure for me. I just can’t seem to finish one in a reasonable amount of time. I don’t know whether it’s because I have to carry around the book or because the actual experience is different. And it has to be the Kindle, not the Kindle app on my iPhone or iPad. The iPhone is too small and the iPad is too heavy. The Kindle is just right and with the backlight set low, I can read in bed with the light off so as not to wake up the toddler.

What has changed over the years since you started and what do you do differently?

When I first started with Catholic World News back in 1996, I was working from home over a dial-up modem on a PowerBook 520c. There were no content management systems so all our news was emailed out every day to our subscribers through my email app and our web site was a series of HTML files I put together. I had no domain of my own for email, I just had an email address through my Internet service provider. Twenty years later, I’m no longer working from home on a daily basis, but I can essentially work from anywhere as I can connect to the Internet anywhere. My computer’s screen is as large as a large TV was back in 1996. I have a mobile computer in my pocket, a tablet computer on my desk, a portable computer in my bag, all synced automatically through the cloud. Frankly, I’m not sure I could have done this job twenty years ago with the technology of the time, not to the level of professionalism and innovation I work toward.

Over the years, I got a DSL line, then cable broadband. I started a web site under my AOL screen name, then bought my own domain. I started a web server in my home office running over the cable broadband then moved to actual offsite hosting for my blog, moving from static HTML files to a rudimentary CMS then to pMachine to Expression Engine and now to WordPress. I’ve edited an online news service and a print magazine, ran social media for an archdiocese, and produced a daily radio show. Each change was made possible through technological advancements that lowered the barrier to entry, but it also ushered in a new era in which doing these things on a shoestring budget with a small staff was possible.


  1. It’s interesting to see that despite our very different jobs, how many tools Jeff and I share in common: Dropbox, Markdown, Marked, TexExpander, Drafts, Brett Terpstra’s Hyperkey, Alfred. I don’t list them all above, but I use each of these every day.  ↩

Looking Back on 2014

Last January 1, I composed a post looking back on the previous year and its highlights and noted at the end my hope to make this an annual tradition. In that spirit, here’s a look back at 2014, its highs and lows, in no particular order.

1. Isabella’s First Communion

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Certainly the highlight of the year was Isabella receiving the Sacrament of First Holy Communion. In last year’s roundup, I wrote about how she made her First Confession in a somewhat spontaneous and unplanned circumstance, so once that was done, it didn’t make any sense to wait for First Communion. So we checked with our pastor and then set a date in early February when my mom would be up from Virginia and Melanie’s sister could come up from Texas. It was a beautiful day and she was so reverent and prepared. I could tell that she was taking this event very seriously, on her own initiative saying special prayers in preparation.

2. One Door Closes…

A lowlight of the year would be my departure from my job as Director of New Media for the Archdiocese of Boston. It’s a long story and I don’t care to burn any bridges at this point, but I explained it in a post in May. I was sad to leave when we hadn’t yet reached the full potential of what we could in diocesan new media, even as we’d once been hailed as leaders in that area. Unfortunately there was too much uncertainty surrounding my position and the future of my office and I needed to find something a little more stable for the sake of my family.

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Of course, leaving my job as Director of New Media also meant leaving as producer of The Good Catholic Life radio show, which consequently meant the end of the show, since no one was going to be hired to replace me. After more than 3 years and 750 shows, we’d had a good run. In that time, I’d gone from web guy and transcriptionist to occasional guest to occasional fill-in guest host to producer to co-host/producer.

It was a learning experience and frankly not one I sought out, but I did enjoy the people I worked with, both on the radio show and in my my role in new media, and I do miss seeing them regularly.

3. … Another Door Opens

Thankfully, just as I was thinking about leaving another opportunity opened. I’d been discussing my predicament with Fr. Chip Hines, with whom I co-hosted The Good Catholic Life on Fridays, when he said that he might have an opening at his new assignment as pastor of a collaborative of three parishes in Sharon and Walpole, Mass., operating under the archdiocese’s Disciples in Mission pastoral plan. As we discussed the idea, my role became defined as communications director for the collaborative, and I started officially on July 1.

In the following six months, we’ve been very busy as we developed a unifying identity as the Matthew 13 Catholic Collaborative, created four new web sites including one brand-new one for the collaborative, created a combined collaborative bulletin, revamped the email newsletters, and implemented a new process by which all of our marketing materials took on a new professional appearance. We’re still in the early stages of bringing the parishes together in the collaborative and I look forward to creating a communications strategy as part of the future pastoral planning process that serves an evangelization plan to raise up more intentional disciples in Walpole and Sharon.

As part of my new job, I’ve also made a return to the airwaves. Since November, I’ve been co-hosting on Mondays with Fr. Chip Hines Calling All Catholics, a one-hour call-in show on the Station of the Cross network that covers upstate New York and the Boston area.

4. Who

In 2013, I was excited to start co-hosting a podcast with someone who’s podcasts I’d long listened to, Fr. Roderick Vonhogen. The Secrets of Star Wars is a lot of fun with just me and Fr. Roderick geeking out over the fact that the movies near and dear to both us from our childhoods would be returning to the big screen along with the actors from them. And so when Fr. Roderick asked me last summer to join him in another podcast, I leapt at the chance.

I’d only recently become a fan of Doctor Who, catching up on the rebooted TV series most recent 7 seasons over the course of about a year or so. With a new incarnation of the Doctor imminent, the time was right for a new podcast about him. This time it would be an ensemble podcast including Fr. Roderick, Jimmy Akin, Fr. Cory Sticha, Stephanie Zimmer and me. Despite the challenges of coordinating all those schedules and managing such a large conversation each week, I think these podcasts have been both fun and informative and I look forward to many more of them.

5. Vacation at the Capital

At the end of July, we took a week to drive down to Virginia to visit my mom and sister who’d moved down there in 2013. We loaded all seven of us into the minivan, piled all our stuff under, over, and around everybody and set off on our 13–1/2 hour road trip. In addition to seeing my mom and sister, we visited George Washington’s boyhood farm, where Isabella was entranced by the archeologists and even found a brick that she altered the scientists to; visited the National Gallery of Art, where among other things we saw an exhibit of works by Cassatt and Degas, then found an amazing Texas barbecue restaurant down the street; had dinner at the home of one of Melanie’s college friends and her husband in the Navy; and saw the National Shrine of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception with one of our friends from Facebook.

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It was a whirlwind trip and we didn’t get to do nearly as much as I’d hoped, but everyone had a great time and it was worth it. Perhaps we can do it again this year.

6. Family Visits

Speaking of visits, we once again welcomed Melanie’s mother, father, and sister to our home from Texas, and Theresa even came twice! It’s always such a pleasure to have them here where they can enjoy the kids and experience all that New England has to offer. I do miss visiting them in Texas, but traveling with five little kids is both unwieldy and expensive and thus unlikely to happen again soon.

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7. Looking for a Parish

July came with some bad news on the homefront, namely that our beloved pastor, Fr. John Currie, would be getting a new assignment. For several months, Fr. Matt Williams, who was in residence at our parish, had to become temporary administrator before returning to his work at the archdiocese, but eventually a permanent administrator was assigned in the form of the pastor of a neighboring parish. Because of the necessity to juggle two parishes, the Mass schedules were changed and we lost the Mass we could attend at our parish. The reminaing 7:30am Mass was way too early and the 11:30 Mass would result in kids getting hungry for lunch halfway through, which would be a disaster.

We find ourselves back at St. Edith Stein Church. They have this lively statue.

So we decided to make lemonade from the lemons and start visiting the surrounding parishes on Sundays. This is the Archdiocese of Boston, which means that within a 5 mile radius of our house there are 15 parishes and many of them had a Mass that fell within the sweet spot of 9am to 10am. And so, over the course of the fall, we became the Mystery Worshipper family, giving us interesting insight into what it’s like to be a newcomer and stranger in six different parishes.

We might continue our wandering and visiting, but we seem to have settled into a new parish home at St. Edith Stein Parish in Brockton. It’s a very pretty and well-kept parish in a community that has experienced some rough times. The people are nice, the priests are good, and importantly there is no aggravating fluff in the liturgies, i.e. children’s Mass accretions such as childish songs, hand-waving and the like. It is good and homey.

8. A Tasty Ale

Another high point of the year came from via the monks of St. Jospeh’s Abbey in Spencer, Mass., who began distributing the product of their new brewery. The monks are Trappists and prior to last year, there were only eight Trappist monasteries brewing the famous Trappist beers, all of them in Europe. But recently two more were given permission to open, one in Australia and the other Spencer Brewery.

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At first, Spencer Trappist Ale was available only in limited quantities from certain specialty retailers and only in Massachusetts. It was nearly as much fun hearing friends from outside the state clamor for this long-anticipated ale as it was to try it. Nearly, because Spencer Trappist Ale is an amazing beer, unlike anything else I’ve tried. It’s not what most people think of when they think of Belgian abbey beers, but is a lot lighter and tastes of cloves and other spices. I know that many people who don’t like beer have tried it and really enjoyed it. Certainly the beer aficionado press has gone crazy for it.

Now the ale is available in 8 more states, most on the East Coast, but also in northern California, yet it remains as amazing as when it was first released. And it got me more excited about trying other craft beers, especially those brewed locally, which is only a good thing.

9. Field Trips

2014 was another year in which we took a bunch of field trips as a family. We continued our custom of buying family memberships to two local museums, this year transitioning from the Franklin Park Zoo and the Museum of Science to the New England Aquarium and back to the Museum of Fine Arts.

In the first half of the year, we made it to the zoo several times, and it became clear that this was an attraction we could reach very easily if we had a last-minute notion to go there. And we also realized that a trip to zoo in the winter can be nearly as fun as in the summer.

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We’ve been the MFA several times this year, seeing special exhibitions on quilts, where I got same great photos of these textile works of art, and on the works of Francisco de Goya, as well as their permanent collections of ancient Roman and American art. Unfortunately, we’ve only been to the Aquarium once because for six weeks in August and September, Melanie was in a walking cast. A day of walking on a field trip wasn’t going to happen. I hope to get another couple of visits there before our membership expires in July.

Looking Forward Again

Those are just a few of the highlights of the year, not including the usual birthdays and anniversaries, or our weekly trips to the farmers market, the holiday get-togethers with family and more. It is good to look back occasionally and New Year’s Day provides a good excuse to do so, but we also look ahead. In 2015, there are several events happening outside Massachusetts, which I’d love to attend and we’ll see if somehow I can attend at least one. We’re also looking forward to Sophia’s First Confession and First Communion this year and maybe another fun family vacation. Personally, I’m very much looking forward to the new Star Wars movie next December. We can sure there will be much else that’s unanticipated, for good and for ill. I wonder what next year’s retrospective will look like.

My 30 years with Macintosh

Apple 30 years of Macintosh

Today is the 30th anniversary of Apple’s introduction of the Macintosh computer to the world and what an amazing 30 years of technology it’s been. It really was the computer that changed everything. Although it wan’t the first Apple computer to introduce the desktop metaphor (that was the Apple IIGS), the Macintosh made it mainstream and that date marks the turning point from computers being specialized tools that required arcane text commands to operate to tools for the everyman.

I wrote about the 20th anniversary of the Mac in 2004 and my history with the computers to that point. But the 10 years since have been among the most monumental for Apple, even if much of the biggest and most disruptive changes wasn’t because of the Macs.

To recap: My first Apple computer was an Apple IIe that we got when I was a sophomore in high school, way back in 1983. After that we had an Apple //c and and then an Apple IIGS, which may have been my favorite computer of all. My first Mac was a PowerBook 520c that I got when I was at Franciscan University of Steubenville, probably about 1994 or 1995, and I was one of the early pioneers in taking notes on a laptop in a college classroom. Later, I had brief custody of a Macintosh Centris 610, when my roommate left school to join a mendicant religious order, but I eventually shipped that off to him at seminary in Africa of all places. By then I had joined the Apple’s brief flirtation with cloning when I had a PowerComputing PowerCenter 120, which served me well for many years.

After that there was a Power Macintosh G3 desktop, then a Power Macintosh G3 (Blue & White) tower. Around this time, I also won, through an online sweepstakes from Disney, an original model iMac, which was a lot of fun, but unfortunately my current Mac at the time was higher powered so I reluctantly passed it on to my brother’s family. (I have since received it back.)

The Power Macs were followed by a series of iMacs, including the iMac G4 and the iMac G5. About this time, I also started using a Macintosh laptop alongside the desktops, including an iBook G3 and then the white iBook G4. This is when I switched to using only portables for my personal Mac as I followed the MacBook with a 2007 MacBook Pro and then a 2011 MacBook Pro. Finally, at work I have a handful of different Macs at my disposal including a 2010 27″ iMac, a Mac mini, and a 13″ MacBook.

Whew! And I didn’t even tell you about the iPhones and iPads and the Macs owned by family. I suppose it’s clear how I feel about Apple computers and Macs in particular. Yes, I’ve used Windows and even Linux over the years and still do for work, and while Windows has gotten better in that time, it’s still just not as powerful. There isn’t another computer out there that can run OS X, Windows, and Linux on the same hardware at the same time, but Macs can. And OS X has grown into an amazing and capable operating system that will hold your hand if you want it (the graphical interface) or let’s you dig into the guts (the command line interface).

Here’s looking at what the next 30 years will bring us.

Snow Days

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The February 2013 blizzard

When I was a child, lo those many years ago, a snow day was a big deal. It still is, I suppose. I don’t ever recall school being called off before the snow started falling though.

In anticipation of the storm coming today and tomorrow, nearly every school district in eastern Massachusetts has called off school for both days. It’s not supposed to be bad today, but the thinking is probably that the schools have been stone cold since before Christmas and if the storm is bad enough to cancel school on Friday, why fire up the boilers for one day, only to leave them grow cold over the three days until next Monday?

Another big difference these days is the way the closings are announced. I remember sitting breathlessly by the radio as soon as we got up, waiting for the long list of school closings to be rattled off: “Abington, Acton, no school. … Brockton, Burlington …” CANTON, YAY!!!! Now, you go to a web page or read a Tweet or see a Facebook update. It lacks a bit of the anticipation. Of course, for us homeschoolers, there’s none of that. I sometimes wonder what cultural touchstones I had that my children will miss.

So, yes, we’re expecting a big storm over the next couple of days. I’ve surveyed all the local forecasts and the consensus generally is that we’ll have at least 10 to 12 inchces by the end on Friday. Not the biggest storm every, but the biggest so far this year and one that will put a crimp in all plans. Luckily, the radio show is still in re-runs and I won’t have to worry about getting to the studio to broadcast a show. I’m dreading the day when I have to deal with that.

Looking Back on a Good Year: 2013

2013 to 2014

A New Year is an opportunity to look back and to look forward and like many people I like to look at the year just completed to assess and to remember, especially the good times. Here, in no particular order, except for the first one, are the highlights of 2013:

1. Birth of Lucia

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The year 2013 started with a bang as Lucia Rose was born on January 3. She was a bit late, missing the tax year deadline by 72 hours, but nevertheless we were just happy to have her arrive. It’s been a year now, but like with all the kids, it’s hard to imagine a time before her.

2. Secrets of Star Wars podcast with Fr. Roderick

In the spring, Fr. Roderick Vonhogen of the powerhouse Catholic podcasting network SQPN asked me if I’d be interested in co-hosting a podcast about the new, upcoming Star Wars movies with him. Fr. Roderick and I are the same age and we were both captivated by Star Wars when it first appeared in 1977 and it’s been a part of each of our lives since then so I naturally leaped at the chance. Plus, I’ve been looking for a podcasting project for a while now and why not start with the master? We’ve only had a handful of episodes of the Secrets of Star Wars so far, partly due to Father’s madcap calendar, but also because there’s not a whole lot to talk about yet with the first movie due out in 2015.

3. Hosting the CNMC

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Boston holds the distinction of being the only city to host the Catholic New Media Conference twice (apart from Atlanta, where it was started as an adjunct of their annual Eucharistic Congress). The Archdiocese welcomed SQPN and the conference in 2010 and then we hosted again in October, 2013. A highlight of the event was the keynote by Msgr. Paul Tighe, Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, whose address on the Vatican’s efforts in social media garnered international attention. The VIP day which included a tour of Boston and hands-on workshops in the city added to the awesomeness.

4. Vacation to Maine

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In August, we took a family vacation to Maine. Wanting our kids to experience the whole package, we bought a family-sized tent and camping gear for our kids. We took the long way by driving up through the White Mountains and then east into Maine to arrive at my sister’s house. We picked up my mom there as well as her camper and then continued on to the Camden/Rockland area where we camped out, cooked outdoors, had campfires and made s’mores. They had such a great time that they wanted me to set up the tent in our backyard when we got home so they could continue to camp out.

5. Coverage of the resignation of Pope Benedict and election of Pope Francis

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While I didn’t actually get to go to Rome like my colleagues George Martell and Scot Landry, I was the point man back here editing and posting all the content they were sending back, including audio interviews, YouTube videos, blog posts, and hundreds and hundreds of photos. Much of it ended up on the website of The Good Catholic Life. With all the attention being paid to Cardinal Seán as papabile, the intimate access we had to him proved to be compelling for our many social media readers and listeners.

6. Coverage of Cardinal Seán going to the Holy Land

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Hard on the heels of his return from Rome and the conclave, Cardinal Seán headed back out again on a long-planned pilgrimage to the Holy Land with a large group of Boston priests. Once again, I wasn’t able to go so I stayed here editing and posting all the photos and blog posts he sent back. It was so compelling and interesting, that–at the risk of sounding clichéd–I felt like I was there. I was especially moved by the photos of them celebrating Mass in the Tomb of the Holy Sepulcher, although the FaceTime call from a boat floating on the Sea of Galilee was a lot of fun too.

The joy of the pilgrimage was cut short, however, by the April 15 Boston Marathon bombing that occured on the last day of the pilgrimage. I had to shift quickly from joyful pilgrimage photos to our prayerful response to the bombings, including the ecumenical prayer service attended by the President in Holy Cross Cathedral.

7. Isabella’s First Confession

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We’ve known that the time is approaching for Isabella to receive the next sacraments in the sacraments of iniation–First Confession and First Communion. She hasn’t been in any religious education class; we’ve just been forming her at home. But we hadn’t made any formal plans yet.

A few weeks ago, in early December, we were at Mass and stopped to chat with Fr. Matt Williams, who lives in residence at our parish and is the Archdiocesan director of the Office for the New Evangelization of Youth and Young Adults. We mentioned that Isabella was preparing for her First Confession and he jokingly asked her, “Would you like to go now?” I think he expected her to recoil at the thought, but instead she chirped, “Sure!” The adults were taken aback at her readiness and after making sure that she was really sure, off she went to the sanctuary (Fr. Currie, the pastor, was hearing confessions in the confessional already) and there she had her first confession. I have to admit to being a bit emotional at my daughter receiving this sacrament, the first sacrament she sought for herself, and that she was so grown-up.

We’re looking forward to her First Communion on the Feast of the Presentation.

8. Family visits: Granddad, Grandma, Theresa

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Until recently, all of my family lived close by us. The furthest was my mom and my sister Francesca who lived in Maine, but that was only a couple hours drive. (This fall, though, they moved to Virginia where my sister has a new job.) Melanie’s family, however, are all in Texas and while in 2012 we were able to fly down for her brother’s wedding, it is cost prohibitive and just plain difficult, especially now that we have five kids. (Much to my chagrin, because I really do enjoy Texas, especially in the winter.)

Thus her family–mainly her mom, dad, and sister–come to visit us. Melanie’s mom, as is the custom now, came right when Lucia was born in order to help as Melanie recovered from the c-section. Then her dad came after that. Theresa came to visit around Easter. Their visits are always times of joy, especially for the kids, who love getting stories read whenever they request and to go on walks and all the rest.

This past summer, Melanie’s dad had a stroke and his recovery was nearly miraculous. He was home within a couple days and the only lingering effects were trouble with hearing conversations and speaking, which were treated with speech therapy and a hearing aid. Still, it was quite nice to have him come back to visit us again this fall, especially for Melanie who so wished she could have been there with him when he was in the hospital.

9. Museums and zoos

Museum of Fine Arts: Maritime art, Audubon, musical instruments
It has become our custom to purchase one or two museum or zoo or other memberships each year. With a family our size, the cost of a yearly family membership is only slightly more than one trip to these places and with the membership the opportunity cost to go is pretty low. We can pack up at a moment’s notice, go for half a day and come home again without worrying about getting our money’s worth.

This year we had a membership to the Museum of Fine Arts at the beginning of 2013. When that expired, we got one for the Museum of Science. We also bought a membership at the Franklin Park Zoo. We were able to go to the MFA for some excellent exhibits, including one of Audobon prints and another of Japanese culture, including samurai arms and armor. At the Museum of Science, we saw the incredible Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit that included some of the actual scrolls, as well as a two-ton block of stone from the Western Wall of the Temple Mount. At the end of the year, we made another visit, this time seeing the new Global Kitchen exhibit that discusses food production, geopolitical issues surrounding food, personal nutrition, the ways that different cultures prepare food and more. It was quite good.

We also like to take advantage of deals available from the likes of Groupon and Living Social, which let us go to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, a truly quirky but excellent museum, the legacy of Ms. Gardner who was an amazing collector of art and who upon her death left her Italianate palazzo and all the art in it as a permanent gift to posterity.

The zoo was another kind of outing for us. It is a short trip for us from our home and nearly all outdoors so it’s almost like going to the park, just with lions and tigers and gorillas, oh my. We went a few times and I even took the four of them on my own once while Melanie stayed home with Lucia.

10. Going to Denver for the Catholic Media Conference

I had been invited to go to the Catholic Media Conference in 2013 and give a presentation on diocesan social media. It was just around the same time I was suddenly given the additional responsibilities of producing The Good Catholic Life, our daily radio program, so I almost cancelled. I’m glad I didn’t. While the conference itself was okay, I really appreciated the opportunity to catch up with friends, including some at the conference like Greg and Jennifer Willits (Greg works for the Archdiocese of Denver now and helped organize the event) and those who just happen to live in Denver like Jim and Meg Beckman, who I went to Steubenville with and who I hadn’t seen in more than 15 years. A highlight of the trip was getting a tour of the Augustine Institute, a very impressive place. I was drooling over the high-tech media production they have going there.

What might have been the best part of the trip was the most unexpected. I had an amazing conversation with my driver on the way to the airport. I believe he was Ethiopian Orthodox and he had a lot of questions about Catholicism and what I do for the Church. By the time we got to the airport, I feel like we had connected, not to proselytize one another, but like long-lost brothers getting to know one another again.

Looking Forward

It’s not a bad way to spend New Year’s Eve, looking back on the year that’s just concluded and this exercise has reminded me of some good times. I hope to do this again as 2015 dawns and, the good Lord willing, a tradition for years to come. And if I don’t make it that far, well, I hope and pray that the time I have is spent wisely and wonderfully.

8 Life Lessons I Learned from Navy ROTC

After graduating high school in 1986, I attended Boston University and was a member of their Navy ROTC[1] program in a non-scholarship status. I only lasted at BU for a year (long story, short: I was not mature enough for college yet), but I learned some important lessons in that brief time wearing the uniform of our nation’s Armed Forces. Ironically, while I wasn’t mature enough to handle the responsibility of college, my ROTC experience did give me some valuable life experience that I’ve tried to keep with me in the intervening three decades.

The 8 Important Life Lessons I Learned from ROTC are:

  1. Don’t make excuses.
  2. Apologize sincerely.
  3. Get it done.
  4. Stick together.
  5. Earn your honors and respect those earned by others.
  6. Discipline leads to success.
  7. A quick wit can turn a negative to a positive.
  8. Ultimately, success isn’t always what you think it is.

Don’t make excuses

One of the first lessons I learned was to not offer excuses when confronted with an error or challenged by a superior. Rarely does anyone care why you did what you did, and if they do that’s a question that they will ask you later. What they want to hear from you in the moment is how you will fix the error.

The first element of my ROTC experience was indoctrination week. We were loaded on a bus outside the ROTC house at BU and transported to the US Navy’s Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island, about a week or so before the start of my freshman year. As we arrived, the senior midshipmen– the upperclassmen who have leadership roles in the battalion–greeted us by running us off the bus and into formation standing at attention through the effective method of yelling in our faces. That was nothing compared to what we experienced next, which was a real-life US Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant[2], giving us an idea of the challenges we’d meet in the next week.

As for the lesson, I noticed right away that whenever even the smallest violation was brought to the attention of a 4th class (i.e. one of us freshmen), if the unfortunate soul tried to offer an excuse, the questioner would fly into an affected rage. “Bettinelli, you’re shirt is untucked.” “I’m sorry, sir, but I was dressing when you called us into the hall…” “WHAT?!!!! Drop and give me 20!” But if we just apologized and kept our mouths shut otherwise, well, we might still get punishment, but the reaction was milder: “Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.”

Even after Indoc week was over, and the boot camp atmosphere dissipated, the lesson was still clear. If you do something wrong, take responsibility and don’t make excuses. Even if it’s not your fault, suck it up and make it right.

In life, there are plenty of screw-ups who make excuses, but everybody remembers the guy who doesn’t make excuses, fixes his mistakes, and doesn’t make the same mistake twice.

Apologize sincerely

When you do make a mistake, make your apology sincere. Don’t just offer some weak, pro forma apology that crosses your lips without a second thought. As a corollary, just because you’re dressed down doesn’t mean you have to apologize. Sometimes the best response is “Yes” or “OK” rather than “Sorry”, if the apology would be unwelcome or meaningless.

I saw several instances where a midshipman crossed a superior or, heaven forbid, the Gunny, and when his response was a weak, “Oh sorry,” receiving a full measure in return because it shows such a lack of respect. In an attitude of respect there’s always a hint of fear, not necessarily fear of injury to your self, but fear of injury to the other. There should be a fear of offending, of letting the other person down, or of appearing not to give them their due. Respect is always earned and if you don’t pay what is due, then don’t be surprised if the person comes to collect.

On the other hand, a sincere and swift apology often mollified the offended party quickly, letting you go on about your business without further repercussions.

Get it done

A task or a deadline isn’t to be taken lightly. If you have a job to do, then do it. No excuses. You will be judged not necessarily on your capacity to do work, but on your willingness and tenaciousness in doing it.

This goes right along with making no excuses. My experience in NROTC was that the battalion’s midshipman officers expected that when you were given an order that it would be carried out. They didn’t come back to check on you to make sure you were doing it and when it was time for it to be done they assumed it would be. If you’re unable to finish the task, for whatever reason, then say so forthrightly, no excuses, with the proper sense of regret and apology.

Then if your failure to complete was the result of circumstances beyond your control, well, sometimes he didn’t care and took it out on you anyway. Life’s not fair, Francis. But don’t make excuses and make it worse. Certainly, don’t whine and snivel about it.

Stick together

No matter what, you stand with your teammates. One of the training games they liked to play was to find fault with one guy and make the entire squad or platoon do some sort of punishment for it. It’s not designed to make us resent the one who screwed up. After all, sooner or later, we’re all going to take a turn as the screwup. No, it tells us that we’re all in the same mess together and that we’re only as strong as the weakest among us so we better damn well make up for the weaknesses of each other.

There was one guy in my class who got under the Gunny’s skin for some reason. Maybe he was just a little too cocksure at first, a little too physically fit. Maybe Gunny just didn’t like his looks. Maybe he saw potential in him and wanted to test him. Whatever the reason, Gunny was constantly finding fault with him and that meant we all suffered a bit. But that didn’t lead to resentment. In fact, we ended up banding together behind him, boosting his spirits and helping him to overcome whatever deficits came his way.

I remember that on one of our last days in Newport, they marched us out to a field after a week of drills and standing at attention and not daring to express any emotion but eagerness. As we arrived, we saw a barbecue set up and we were ordered to “Have fun!” After determining this wasn’t just another training trick, we all fell to easy camaraderie and laughter. Pretty soon we were gabbing about our experiences and especially those of our classmate who’d suffered under Gunny. It wasn’t long before we were laughing hysterically over our friend’s misfortunes and vowing to stand beside him come what may.

That lesson would bear fruit throughout our year together as we helped each other, whether it was ensuring everyone got to drill on time, or helping with uniform troubles, or providing extra studying assistance in difficult classes.

Earn your honors and respect those earned by others

My goal when entering ROTC was to become a Naval Aviator and eventually go on to become an astronaut. When I was in high school, I found at an Army-Navy surplus store a pin that depicted the insignia of a Naval astronaut; which were the regular gold wings of the aviator with a comet flying through them. I put the pin in a plain ball cap and took to wearing it around as a sign of my ambition. Eventually, I just took it for granted.

So one day, I’m walking down the street at school and meet one of the officers in the NROTC unit, a US Marine major who happened to be a Naval Aviator. He gave me an odd look as he greeted me, but I didn’t think anything of it. Later on, I received a summons to a meeting with another of the officers. He asked me about the pin and showed it to him.

He explained to me that only those who’ve earned the right should wear insignia. I had not finished flight training, never mind been commissioned an officer in the Navy and so had no right to wear the wings of an aviator. Looking back now, it’s improper for stores to even be selling them.

It’s good to aspire to a goal and to have reminders that encourage you on the path, but that’s different from appropriating that which is earned by those who wear it. An aviator puts in many grueling hours of training to win his wings and then risks his life every day in the duty which they signify. An astronaut puts in even more training and takes even greater risks. If just anyone can wear those wings then it cheapens their meaning. When I see someone wearing the wings, it should be a sign of something.

A priest wears a Roman collar and it means something. If just anyone were to wear the collar, then it would lose its sign value. If I wanted to wear the wings, I would have to earn them.

Discipline leads to success

This was more of a negative lesson for me. My freshman year in college ended up essentially as a disaster, because the part of school I enjoyed and worked hard at was the military training, while the rest of my studies were neglected. In high school, I had skated by in my classes with only half efforts. I didn’t get all As, but mainly Bs, even though I know with more work I could have got As. Unfortunately, that didn’t work in college. You have to do all the work.

You also have to go to class. I was still living at home and commuting to school so it was a lot like high school still. But I was now responsible for myself. I had to get on the train and go to school. And once at school I had to go to the classes. I didn’t. I spent a lot of time in the computer labs on the primitive version of social networking they had in 1987. (One day I’ll tell the tale of how I romanced the beautiful upperclass girl through my words, and how shocked she was to find I was just a shy freshman in person.) I spent plenty of time reading novels and hanging out in the wardroom at the ROTC unit.

Eventually I crashed and burned. I flunked nearly every course. I was put on suspension from NROTC which didn’t matter because I also lost all my financial aid and had to drop out.

If I’d had the discipline and stuck to my studies with half the zeal I did drill and studied the military science topics, I might not have graduated at the top of my class, but I would have succeeded. I might even have won an NROTC scholarship.

A quick wit can turn a negative into a positive

One of the tricks the upperclassmen liked to play on the freshman during Indoctrination week involved some late night sneaking. As part of our formation as military men, each room of two freshmen on each floor of the barracks spent one hour per night on watch, walking up and down the empty hallway.

On this particular morning, my roommate and I woke up to something peculiar. There was trash all around me on my bed and on my roommate’s bed. Empty potato chip bags, candy wrappers, and soda cans. Even worse, our door was closed, which was a clear violation of regulations. In my sleep-addled state, I did recall that after our watch our door had been left open as required.

As we stared uncomprehending at the mess in our room, the door banged open and in rushed a gaggle of senior midshipmen, all screaming at us to stand at attention and then berating us for holding a party, for smuggling in contraband, for violating the orders about the door. Of course, this was all a ploy to rattle us and to have an excuse to mete out more disciplinary and character-building punishment.

It worked a little bit and we were on the verge of something unpleasant when one of the seniors asked me a fortuitous question:

“Do you deny all this, Bettinelli?”
“Yes, sir!”
“Really, so am I to assume instead that some Commie spies snuck in here last night, had a party while you slept, and left all this evidence behind?”
“That would be logical, sir!”

That was the fateful line that turned the day. While his tone remained outraged and perhaps his voice went up a few octaves, I could tell this amused the midshipman a bit.

“Logical! Who are you? Mr. Spock?” Before I could respond, he gave me an order. “I want you to grab the tips of your ears and go stand in the hall. And every time I call out for Mr. Spock, I want you to grab your ears and come running!”

And that’s how I was the first freshman to receive an official call sign, a cool nickname that could only be bestowed by an upperclassman. It’s a pretty cool call sign too, because often they’re determined by something stupid you do, a prominent physical trait, or even an embarrassing pun on your name. I thought being Mr. Spock was cool!

Ultimately, success isn’t always what you think it is

The most important lesson I learned comes from having dropped out of NROTC and college after all. For a long time, I’d had my life’s journey mapped. From the beginning of high school I’d known I wanted to become an astronaut and the way I’d do that would be by getting an engineering degree, becoming a Naval Aviator, eventually making my way to test pilot, then applying for NASA’s astronaut program, and so on. I didn’t even get out of the starting gate.

The next five years after that were not good ones for me. While all my friends were at college and then graduating, I was working in a factory in a dysfunctional work environment, getting drunk when I could, ditching work, barely socializing. I’d come home from work, and wouldn’t bother to change into something clean. I was wallowing.

After that, I got a job at a Christian bookstore and church supply store where my mother worked. That was a nice place for a few years, but I still wasn’t going anywhere. I couldn’t figure out what God wanted from me. I didn’t understand why He’d let me fail so spectacularly.

Let’s leap ahead to the end: If I’d stayed on my original path, I’d never have met Melanie and we wouldn’t have my five beautiful kids. My sister would never have met her husband and their eight kids wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t have my job working in social media for the Archdiocese. I doubt I’d have had the time to discover a joy in writing and a talent for it that could be honed.

In my freshman year at BU, I thought I knew what success looked like for me. It turns out that God had a better plan for me, something that I couldn’t imagine, and although I had to travel a dark road to get here (and I still have a long, undoubtedly bumpy road ahead), it’s well worth it.

So why did I have to endure all that in the first place then? I figure it’s because I needed to learn these eight lessons from my time in NROTC. I haven’t always correctly applied them, but they’ve been helpful nonetheless. And while I still experience a tinge of regret now and then, I’m grateful to have had the experience and that my life took the path it eventually did.


  1. ROTC is short for Reserve Officer Training Corps, a program by which college students study to become reserve officers in the military while attending school and taking a normal course load.  ↩
  2. As part of the Department of the Navy and the Naval Service, the Marines train their officer-candidates alongside the Navy’s in the Naval Academy and NROTC, although they have a separate Officer Candidate School for post-college officer training.  ↩

The Curry Favor

Ever since my bachelor days I’ve been a fan of Indian curries made at home for dinner. Back then, it was not unknown for me to eat tikka masala, vindaloo, or korma four or five times a week.

I’d picked up the habit after a series of priests from India had come for several summers and stayed in the rectory where I lived. At least a few were cooks and they introduced me to their native cuisine.

Now when I make curry it’s rarely from scratch but it’s also never straight from a box or jar. I use commercial curry paste but add other ingredients as well. And I almost never make it exactly the same way twice.

Lately I’ve been adding curry powder at the simmer stage. In order to boost that flavor. At the end I always add the traditional garam masala, which boosts the flavor depth. And tonight I grated a chunk of ginger and added with onions to sauté.

I love curry, as you might guess. Melanie claims I’m addicted. All I know is that on nights when I make it, the leftovers begin to call to me about 9pm and I can’t resist.

But who can blame me? I wish I could properly thank those priests who introduced me to homemade curry those summers. You might say they “curried” favor from me.

  Posted via email  from Domenico’s posterous 

 

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