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Archive for January, 2011

“What’s one piece of technology you can’t live without?  (Bonus topic:  What technology do you wish would disappear from the world?)”

I think I decided to respond to this one more for the bonus topic than for the original one.

There are forms of technology I actually do like.  Anything that reproduces music, for instance; so much would be lost without the ability to record.  I have a set of Rachmaninoff playing his own piano concerti, and believe me, nobody plays it like the original.  He just books through the music, and in some places, it sounds like the orchestra is a fraction of a beat off because they can’t keep up with him.  How else would you know that if not for recordings?

And of course, my computer.  But then, I began my professional life as a secretary, anyway, and it’s still what I enjoy best, so having the ability to edit documents at the touch of a Delete button is still a delight for me (yes, I learned on a manual — with carbon paper that produced copies — and that little metal plate that you stuck behind each sheet of paper whenever you made a typo and had to erase it).  In addition to which, I’ve met so many wonderful people I would never otherwise have known — they come not just from around the country, but around the world, too.

But what do I wish had never, ever been invented?  The telephone.  Words do not exist to describe my attitude towards the telephone.  I’ll wait forever before I book an appointment by phone — I’ve been known to drive miles out of my way to make the appointment in person.  I never call for information if I can help it.  I don’t know what it is about telephones that I can’t stand; maybe the fact that I don’t get a chance to compose my thoughts before I have to respond?

So you can imagine how I feel about cell phones.  I actually do have one, and it’s proved useful, now and again.  But people ambling down the street attached to this virtual umbilical cord just look silly.  That woman who fell into the fountain at the Pennsylvania mall?  She got what was coming to her.  Driving while talking?  Some day I’m going to get out of my car, grab the thing out of Donna Dimwit’s hand, and throw it into the woods.  Don’t you people ever take time out?!  The worst I ever saw was the guy in the restaurant with his teenage son, talking on the telephone while pretending to have lunch with his kid.  That’s just wrong.  That kid will be gone before you know it, and trust me, he won’t want to talk to you after he’s gone.

Put the damn phone down.  Turn it off, or unplug it.  (Yes, that is possible.)  Go outside and listen to the birds, or hunker down and listen to the sound of the rain/sleet/howling wind while you immerse yourself in a good book.  Life’s too short to spend it yakking about nothing.

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The original Post-a-Day topic prompt read, “It’s time to vent,” and my first thought was, “You mean I haven’t been venting all these years?!”  For me, it’s always time to vent.  Sorry.

A couple of days ago, I posted a comment about the State of the Union address, and ended it with the promise to explain “those $40 screws and $400 toilet seats.”  The short answer is:  Cost overruns.  But since I am now officially in the older-than-dirt category, I realize that not a lot of people understand the roots of cost overruns, so permit me a bit of history.

Thanks in part (in large part, I believe) to Lyndon Johnson’s “guns-and-butter” approach to Vietnam — i.e., the notion that it was possible to maintain a war without full-scale rationing — the government began running up a huge amount of debt.  At the same time, the American economy was growing at such a rate that inflation was inevitable, and it continued to spiral out of control throughout the Nixon, Ford, and Carter presidencies.  I believe i twas during the Nixon Administration that the term “stagflation” was caused, when inflation continued even during a period of recession (stagnation) in the economic cycle.

During the Carter years, the rate of inflation reached a now-unbelievable 18%.  Private contractors, hired to supplement government workers, began complaining that they couldn’t meet the specifications of their contracts because by the end of a project, the costs of raw materials had increased far beyond what was covered in the original contract; so the Carter Administration approved the inclusion of cost overruns in contracts, whereby a contractor could adjust the parameters of an original contract to reflect “true costs” — which was like writing a blank check for the private sector.

Enter Ronald Reagan.  I may be the only Conservative on earth who does not lionize Ronald Reagan.  While I’m the first to acknowledge the efficacy of his foreign policy — no one who lived through the Cold War ever once thought it would end the way it did — I trace this current depression (recession, my foot) directly back to his “voodoo economics,” to use the term applied by George H. W. Bush during the 1980 campaign.  Sure, the economy took off after the introduction of “trickle-down economics.”  Yes, inflation was tamed.  And yes, it was an era of great prosperity.  So was the era of the Robber Barons, and Reagan’s economic policies reminded me so strongly of that era that by 1984 I was privately predicting our current economic status.

So why the segue into this rant about Reagan?  Because it was Reagan who insinuated the idea into the American consciousness that “government is the problem,” and that all the country’s problems could be solved by reducing government spending to practically non-functioning levels.  Sure, it struck a chord in the American psyche.  For one thing, who likes paying taxes?  And for another, let us not forget that this country was established on a profound distrust of governments.  It’s part of our national psyche.

Back to that blank check.  Private contractors came to be hired to fulfill more and more of the functions of government.  This trend has continued.  At the same time, the government is required by law to accept the lowest bid submitted by a series of contractors.  So, if X Construction Co.,  Y Construction Co., and Z Construction Co. all submit bids for the same project, and Y’s is the lowest bid, Y gets the contract.  Sounds good on paper.  What goes unacknowledged is that contractors have gotten wise to that blank check, and also consider that they are “owed” a return portion of their taxes.  So contracts will be deliberately underbid in the interests of securing the government contract; then, all the contractor has to do is cry, “Cost overruns!” and the contract is automatically adjusted to reflect whatever he says his costs are.  Enter $40 screws and $400 toilet seats.

The cost-overrun principle made sense in an era of 18% inflation.  But this is the second year in a row that Social-Security recipients, and federal retirees, have not seen a cost-of-living adjustment in their checks, on the premise that there has not been a cost-of-living increase over the past year.  (There sure is now.)  Meanwhile, government contractors — that is, private, for-profit companies hired to fulfill government functions — merrily continue underbidding contracts, then making up the difference via vastly overstated readjustments to the original contract.

Well, of course it’s time to end this practice.  A contract is a contract, right?  Gee, ya think?!  What a novel concept!

Next up:  Federal benefits.

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“If you could live forever, would you? Why or why not?”

Which immediately reminded me of the theme song to Fame!, hence the title of this post.

I can’t picture not wanting to live forever.  I mean, there’s so much left to do in life!  So much left to learn!  So much music I haven’t yet heard, so many books I still want to read, so many people I’ve yet to meet.

Still, I suppose it helps to define “living.”  As many of my readers know, my father-in-law died last week (a week ago today, in fact), and the life he has been living for, really, the past fifteen years has been mere existing.  He couldn’t see, couldn’t hear, couldn’t drive, missed his wife; he kept telling my husband how much he wanted to go to a bar and have a drink and see a movie, which doesn’t sound all that unreasonable until you consider that he was 98 years old when he died, and the bars and movies he had in mind have long passed into history.  I think a modern sports bar would have driven him into a complete breakdown, he’d have been so confused.  And how can you compare a John Wayne flick with Social Network?!  That’s not living at all, and I don’t know anyone who wants to live that way, period, let alone forever.

Of course, if you’re a Christian the matter is settled.  One way or another, heaven or hell, you do live forever.  Every once in so often I think of that Bily Joel song, Only the Good Die Young:  Apart from being a complete trash on Catholics and Catholic practices, it has one line that horrifies me every time I hear it:  “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints, sinners have more fun.”  Yeesh.  This is obviously not a person who ever met an Orthodox monk, if he thinks saints don’t have fun.

Me, I do plan to live forever.  I live my life in the constant hope of attaining heaven — not the heaven of harps and halos, nor of streets of gold, but of something infinitely more interesting:   All the music I’ve yet to hear, all the people I’ve yet to meet, all the unanswerable questions answered — into infinity.

And the Presence of God.

By comparison, Fame is dust.

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I once knew a college professor at one of the Ivy League colleges who had the distinction (among many, many distinctions) of being one of the few college professors in contemporary America to have escaped being a raving Socialist.  Nor was he a raving Conservative.  He had a flamboyant and very witty personality, spoke and taught at the speed of light, and was so fluent in Russian that were it not for his appearance, he could have been mistaken for a native.  Towards the end of his life, he became a Russian Orthodox monk.

I forget now how we got onto the subject of politics — probably it was a presidential election year — and I expressed doubt as to the candidates proposed for elective office.  He remarked that nowadays, one didn’t have much real choice, since the only options were put up by either the Party of Evil or the Party of Stupidity.  Since he was from Boston, I was pretty sure which Party he had designated as the Party of Evil, but I was wrong:  When I asked him which was which, he replied, “What’s more evil than killing your own children?”  Good point.

So what makes the Other Party the Party of Stupidity?  Apparently, the fact that they refuse to recognize their true power base.  They insist upon carrying out Business As Usual, pandering on the one hand to the traditional power base of Big Money and Big Business, and on the other hand, they have caved in to an ultra-conservative platform with a distinct fundamentalist-Christian base; whereas their true power base lies in people who are of ordinary means, from many confessions of Christianity, some of whom are even sympathetic to supposedly “liberal” causes, like environmentalism.  (Let us not forget that the first American environmentalist, Theodore Roosevelt, was a dedicated Republican.)

I was reminded of this conversation while listening to the commentaries before and after the State of the Union address the other night:  Cutting federal spending levels to 2008 levels.  A local news report that  the Republican governor of Maine has decided to overturn all of Maine’s environmental protections.  Cutting all funding for Amtrak.  A senator who seriously proposed shutting down the federal government.  This last got me particularly hot under the collar, as I remember very well that the Newt tried this in 1995.  It went on for three weeks, and many people noted that life went on as usual; but had it gone on for another week or two, Life-As-Usual would quickly have degenerated into howls of deprivation.  And I can assure you that it wasn’t Life-As-Usual for federal civil-service workers, who don’t get the same outrageous benefits as members of Congress and whose families would soon have fallen below the federal guidelines for poverty.

So, is there any Party that really considers the Silent Majority of Americans, their needs and desires for conservative yet stable government?  For awhile I had great hopes for the Tea Party.  But there are many “Tea Partiers” in this current Congress, and it seems that their agenda is simply to roll back government spending, no matter at what cost.  We’ll see how far that goes when it comes to their own constituents.  I’m betting that it’s the same old Great They who will be expected to carry the burden; the Not-in-My-Back-Yard contingent will prevail when it comes to cutting pork in their own states.  It’s pointless to look to the Democratic Party for hope.  Despite their posturings, they haven’t been the Friend of the Working Class since 1968, when they opted to carve out a new platform based on what was then the Lunatic Fringe.

So, I repeat:  Would you rather be Stupid or Evil?  I hope, over the next two or three days, to share a couple of thoughts on the actual workings of government that come not only from a lifetime of conservatism, but also from a life lived with a mid-grade civil servant — and I do mean servant.  Next up:  Those $40 screws and $400 toilet seats.

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“If stranded on a desert island, and could only bring one music album with you, which would it be? What is it about this music that never gets old for you?”

OK, we must really be scraping the bottom of the barrel.  Yesterday’s topic was so off the wall, I didn’t even bother posting in response to it (aside from which, I had appointments up the wazoo).  But this one just leaves me shaking my head:

One music album.  On a desert island.  What is it about desert island that I’m missing?  Wait…it’s coming to me…could it be…electricity?!

Or am I just being too prosaic?!  I mean, what good is an album without something to play it on?!  Solar batteries, maybe?  It’s the only way this topic works.

And why do you need an album, anyway?  Are you so brain-dead that you can’t even make your own music?  ‘Cause that’s what I’d do.  If I were stranded on a desert island, I’d want enough water to keep my throat from getting dried out so I could sing to my heart’s content.  And I’d need food to keep up my strength, of course — singing is a workout, if you do it right.

All this assumes I would even put myself in a position to be on a desert island in the first place.  Not me, sister.  Day-to-day living is enough of an adventure, thankyouverymuch.  I don’t need Assistance.

Come on, WordPress — get real!

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“What’s your idea for a perfect Sunday? How would it differ from a typical Sunday?”

This is so easy, it’s almost embarrassing to blog about it; it’s also, nowadays, completely counter-cultural.

People who read my blog regularly will have picked up by now that I’m an Orthodox Christian.  Lots of other people have no idea what that means, until you tell them to stick the word “Greek” or “Russian” in front of the word “Orthodox,” and then they assume that you are Greek or Russian.  As it happens, I am of Russian extraction; but that’s not why I attend a Russian church.  I go because it’s where it’s easiest for me to talk to God and to worship Him (yes, there is a difference).

So my absolutely perfect Sunday would begin on a Saturday night, with the “all-night Vigil,” which doesn’t actually last all night, though I guess it could.  It’s a three-or-so-hour service that combines Vespers, Compline, Matins, and what the Catholic Church used to call Prime — in Russian practice, it’s called the First Hour.  For Orthodox Christians, the liturgical day begins in the evening of the day previous.

Having prepared myself for Sunday, I would then attend Liturgy at my parish church, St. Xenia Orthodox Church.  Having sung in the choir and received Communion, I would have a light lunch at church, sit and visit with fellow parishioners, and head back for home, where, if I had nothing else to do, I might be able to squeeze in a couple of hours’ cross-stitching.  And that would be my perfect Sunday.

It doesn’t work out this way, for a variety of reasons.  One is that my parish is actually fifty miles away from where I live, so I never attend Saturday’s All-Night Vigil.  I prepare as well as I can at home, but a lot of the texts at Vigil prepare you for the next day’s feast, and I don’t have access to those at home; so I always miss out on this aspect of worship.

Second, because St. Xenia’s is so far away, I can only get there every second or even third Sunday.  The rest of the time I attend church at St. Demetrios,  a Greek parish that’s almost as far away (40 miles) but a far less hair-raising drive.  On these Sundays, my husband and I go out for brunch after church — not that St. Demetrios doesn’t have a meal afterwards (it does), but the set-up isn’t as friendly as it is at St. Xenia’s.

In either case, I plan in advance by preparing a crockpot dinner, so fooling around with food isn’t something I have to worry about when I get home from church; this gives me time to spend reading or cross-stitching, as the mood strikes me.  No matter how we spend it, it’s always a day of rest and relaxation before tackling the week.  “Sufficient unto each day is the evil thereof,” as it says in the Bible; we take that seriously around here, and on Sundays, we look to keep evil outside the door as much as we can.

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“What is your favorite sound?”

The song The Sound of Silence, by Simon & Garfunkel, was actually written to suggest that silence is a bad thing, that silence equals oppression, a curtailment of freedom of speech, a lack of free thought.  I actually find silence restful.  To me it means I don’t have to think, I don’t have to respond, I don’t have to react, I don’t have to be Busy — or, if I am Busy, I can work at my own pace.  Sometimes even the gentle sound of classical music is distracting.

Silence is also the sound of reflection, giving you a “breather” in which to reflect on the day, its successes and failures, its discoveries and surprises, its uncharted waters or the progress you’ve made through those waters.  Silence is a gift.

It can be the sound of loneliness, especially at 3:00 in the afternoon, when children used to come storming in the door with their homework and their trials and tribulations and victories — at such times, silence reminds you that you are growing towards your own expiration date, as the fledglings you nurtured so carefully have “flown the coop” and are on their own.  You’re happy for them.  But the silence reminds you how much you miss them.

Or it can be charged with angry feelings, unspoken words, thoughts that are just inexpressible.  In music, silence has a dynamic quality all its own, as you wait for it to be resolved in one triumphant or pathetic or anxious or rebellious or triumphant chord.

But if whoever judges these things refuses to admit silence as a sound — it is, despite all its dynamic uses above, defined by the absence of sound —  in that case, my favorite sound is the sound of rain pouring down outside by bedroom window.  Nothing puts me to sleep faster.  And speaking of sleep — it’s been a long day.  ‘Night, all!

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