Those Pesky Moral Curve Balls

Yesterday I had one of those moments that would have caused a Catholic school nun to pull me by the ear or a priest to demand a dozen Hail Marys. I faced a moral curve ball, swung lamely and missed.

It was just a venial sin, but it happened in front of someone who deserved a better example. So like all good (albeit lapsed) Catholics, I’m confessing it — and looking not for sympathy, but a conversation with those of who who’ve faced similar dilemmas.

So here is what happened. I took our 16-year-old German exchange student, Antonia, to our local mall to shop for a dress for her swim team banquet Sunday. She decided she wanted to poke around the shops by herself so we parted ways and she headed for Forever 21, the fashion mecca for the young, broke and fabulous. We met up an hour later.

On our way back to the car Antonia talked excitedly about her bargains, which didn’t surprise me at first because Forever 21 is known for their $7 jeans and $5.50 tops, prices unseen since my E.J. Korvette’s days in the 1960s. Three items – a flowered dress, yellow cardigan and jeans – cost Antonia just $17. We quickly came to the conclusion that this must be a mistake; a check of the receipt confirmed this. The sales clerk had forgotten to add the dress to the tally. The bill would have been twice as high without the mistake.

Antonia had spent her own scarce money on this, so part of her was glad. I could sense, though, that it was nagging her a little bit. It was nagging me too. The right thing to do would have been to return immediately to Forever 21, point out the mistake and offer to pay for the dress. But we were in a hurry to get home because we had dinner to make and things to do that evening, so I used that excuse for taking the easy way out. I’m sure the markup on their clothes is big enough that they won’t care, I told myself. Maybe there was a sale that we didn’t know about. And hey, how many times does a mistake in your favor get made? How many mistakes have you missed that were not in your favor? We packed our shopping bags and our guilt in the back seat and tried not to think about it.

On the way home we talked about the cheap labor that must make the clothing sold at Forever 21, and whether their minions at the sewing machines earn a living wage. Antonia said when she got older and had more money she’d gladly spend more on garments made by better-paid workers. I told her that she was young and didn’t have much money, and not to think about that yet…and that even higher-priced clothing sometimes did not come with a guarantee that the workers were better compensated.

But while we talked passionately about the issue of fairly treated workers, we danced around the moral dilemma of the innocently purloined dress. Antonia noted that the clerk at Forever 21 had remarked that the dress was a hot seller; so surely he should have noticed it as he rang her up, we both agreed. I can’t remember everything that I said about the matter, except that it was pretty lame. It would have been better for Antonia if I had demanded that we turn around and pay what we really owed, even if it meant dinner would be late. But I didn’t.

Now don’t get the idea that I make a habit of stiffing people. Many times, Bob and I have pointed out mistakes that were in our favor; we didn’t want a waiter to make up the difference out of his own money or the store clerk to get a lashing from the manager when accounts were tallied at the end of the day.

But sometimes doing the right thing is a pain in the ass, especially when it is inconvenient, like yesterday. And other times, sad to say, it is not your first instinct. Like the time 17 years ago when I was  out shopping with my children, Rachel and Ryan (then 11 and 8), and we parked head-in right next to a brand new Toyota that was parked head-out. One of the kids opened the back door right into the Toyota’s left headlight, smashing it to pieces. The first words out of my mouth were — in front of the kids — “Maybe we should move the car.”

Five minutes later, our shopping already underway, I turned to the kids and said, “You know, this isn’t right. We really need to write a note to the owner of that other car.” So we returned to the scene of the crime and did just that. When we got home I researched the cost of a genuine Toyota headlight and discovered to my dismay that it would be about $230 plus labor. Fortunately the Toyota owner, who called that night, was grateful, gracious and practical. She had her local mechanic do the job and it cost just $60. So it was a cheap lesson to learn.

Still, I felt guilty that I talked about moving the car in front of Rachel and Ryan. But now, 17 years later, I look at it another way: when you are scared or rushed the right thing isn’t as clear-cut as the Baltimore Catechism would have you believe. Is it OK for kids to see their parents struggle out loud with a moral decision and be seriously tempted to take advantage of a situation when the odds are in their favor? I think it is. It shows that we are human, doing our best when things are not always black and white.

So that is why, despite having many other things to do, today Antonia and I will do what it would have been far less time-consuming to do yesterday: we will head back to the mall with our sales receipt and the tag from the dress, and settle up with Forever 21.

Sometimes when we’re facing a moral curve ball, we swing and miss before we connect. Have any of you ever felt this way?

‘It Must Be Around Here Somewhere’

Is the above statement the story of your life? It’s the mantra for those who constantly misplace things. Are you one of them?

Today I murmured it when I couldn’t find a shopping bag filled with costumes that I promised to alter for an upcoming school play. They showed up in my car’s trunk after my husband had moved it from the back seat. Yesterday I said it when I couldn’t find the cottage cheese, which was right in front of me on the top refrigerator shelf, and the peanut butter, which was not on its usual shelf. Last week it was my wallet, which had been left at my desk when I ordered a book from Amazon.

Not long ago I was talking with our daughter Rachel from California, and I was trying to wrap up the call so I could get to an appointment. While I talked I bounced like a pinball around the house, searching every room, drawer, pocket and countertop for my cell phone, cursing my absent-mindedness. “It must be around here somewhere,” I kept saying. My frustration mounted, and casting aside my vow to keep my language clean in front of my kids, I blurted out to Rachel, “I can’t find my damn cell phone!” again and again — before I finally realized that the cell phone, not the land phone, was stuck to my ear.

A few years ago another cell phone went missing, this time for a solid week. The last time I had used it was when I was mailing a pair of shoes that my son Ryan had sold on E-Bay. I checked my pockets, my car, the garage floor, even called the Post Office. I was ready to report it as missing but I knew “It must be around here somewhere.”

Then one day the land line rang. “Hi,” said an unknown voice, “I bought your son’s shoes on E-Bay and a cell phone was in the package with them.”

Other things that have gone missing — thankfully temporarily — include bills due this week, hefty checks from my husband’s business clients, important school paperwork, school projects, notes for my work projects. Most of these disappear from the Bermuda Triangle of our house: the kitchen counter. I have a pathological aversion to cluttering it because I am fearful of appearing disorganized to random visitors, so any piles left on the counter migrate to a bigger pile of stuff that has been cleared from it — only I forget where that pile is.

“I can’t be responsible for anything that is left on the counter!” I’ve been known to thunder to my family. So my countertop may look like a pristine tundra but our closets, drawers and cabinets look like an episode of “Hoarders.” My mother-in-law, a compulsive organizer, is the yin to my yang.

I try to conceal my absentmindedness from my husband Bob, who always teases me by quoting our favorite line from that raunchy old TV cartoon, “Ren and Stimpy”:

“You eee-diot!”

Of course, Bob has his Stimpy moments as well. At least once a week I hear him scream, “Where the f*** is my g**-d*** (fill in the blank)?” For some reason I have no problem coolly tracking down any item that Bob can’t find; my absentmindedness somehow kicks in only when I am responsible for misplacing it. Indeed, Bob’s missing item is usually staring us in the face, a fact that I always relish pointing out. Bob is outwardly messy but is a human GPS for every scrap of paper, mysterious computer cable or obscure widget under his purview; his problem is that he melts down on the rare occasions when his tracking system breaks down.

That reminds me: We once had a magnetic word kit that let us make witty phrases on the refrigerator door, and our son Ben once affixed the words “no” and “patience” to a photo of Bob. Those words anchored Bob’s photo to the refrigerator for years and provided countless hours of family mirth. The rest of the magnetic words disappeared a long time ago, although I know they must be around here somewhere.

Most people raised Catholic will appreciate that my patron saint is St. Anthony, heaven’s version of Allan Pinkerton, who can make anything lost re-appear. He seldom fails me but usually makes me sweat first. I have a frequent buyer card with St. A., and it has been stamped often enough to redeem for Jimmy Hoffa’s body.

Am I losing my mind? Maybe…but it must be around here somewhere. How about you?

In Praise of ‘Casserole Catholics’

During vice presidential debates Joe Biden and Paul Ryan were asked what it meant to be a Catholic in public office. Biden talked about social justice; Ryan about religious freedom. I am amazed that this is still a hot topic 50 years after JFK, our only Catholic president, elected despite people’s concerns over his Catholicism.

I am a lapsed Catholic who hasn’t been inside a church in years. Like many others who’ve left the fold, I feel angry…at the church’s attitude towards gays, women and birth control; at the pedophile priests; at the crackdown on nuns who the Vatican thinks are too concerned with social justice and not toeing the line on Catholic dogma. Yet despite not being a practicing Catholic I still feel as if the church is a part of me. And I’m frankly angry that the most strident factions of the Catholic church have come to define its image.

As I write this I am looking out the window at our neighbor Ed, who is aerating our lawn. Normally my husband Bob would be doing this – Bob and Ed for the past several years have split the cost of renting an aerator for this annual fall ritual. But last week Bob fell down our deck stairs at night while trying to take our dog out for his pre-bedtime ritual, and now he is hobbled by a boot and crutches. Ed graciously offered to push this 200-pound aerator around our yard when Bob couldn’t.

Ed is what I describe as a “casserole Catholic,” those who wear their Catholicism like a humble brown robe rather than like a cardinal’s red cloak. He doesn’t preach or try to foist his ideals on everyone else. He and his wife Margie attend Mass every Saturday evening; Ed volunteers with the St. Vincent DePaul Society, which quietly helps people in need. Casserole Catholics quietly reach out to injured neighbors with casseroles, rides home from school for their children, comforting phone calls and offers of support.

This is the essence of the Catholic faith…not the fight over whether Catholic employers have the right to deny birth control, or whether a fertilized egg is a human being, or whether gay couples should have the right to marry. It’s in the Catholic nuns who work among the poor (as Nicholas Kristof, the brilliant New York Times columnist, pointed out, a few of them defy their church by handing out condoms in AIDs-ravaged African countries.) It’s in the story of St. Theresa, the saint who made it a habit to do good deeds in secret, without expecting a gold star or a feature story in the press.

Indeed, the best parts of all Judeo-Christian religions can be summed up not in Leviticus, or Revelations, or the story of Abraham, but in the Beatitudes:

• Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Verse 3)
• Blessed are the meek: for they shall possess the land. (Verse 4)
• Blessed are they who mourn: for they shall be comforted. (Verse 5)
• Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice: for they shall have their fill. (Verse 6)
• Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. (Verse 7)
• Blessed are the clean of heart: for they shall see God. (Verse 8)
• Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. (Verse 9)
• Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Verse 10)