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Archive for February, 2011

“What’s something you never believed until you experienced it?”  The bonus question is, “What is something you believed in, until an experience changed your mind?” but the thing I never believed in — the love of God — far outweighs any of my disillusionments.

(I actually hate prompts like this:  It’s practically an invitation for every nut case to come out of the closet and either Witness to Jesus Saving Your Soul, or say that God let him down, therefore there is no God, accompanied by the (in)appropriate potty-mouthed expressions.  But I’m flat out of Experiences, except in the Shelf-Life Department.)

Unhappily, I do know someone who believed in God until he was in a coma for four days, and experienced total nothingness.  Why this should have changed his mind about God is beyond me.  I mean, it’s not like he was dying or anything.  What did he expect, a visitation?

Me, I expected nothing.  Well, not nothing; what’s the point of praying if you expect that nothing will come of it?  I knew that God loved Mankind, in an abstract, impersonal sort of manner, and that He was generally disposed kindly towards us lowlifes, provided we didn’t screw unto others or cheat on our income taxes (or spouses).  And I knew that it was okay to pray to Him for others, but not for oneself — that’d be selfish, and was practically daring God to Smite us.  It was infinitely better to pray to Saints, because they had God’s ear and could put in a good word for us; whereas we clueless idiots might actually trigger God’s temper, the Saints knew just how to approach Him to get a favorable outcome.  Catholicism is nothing if not structured on Hierarchy.

Trouble was, the Saints had never done anything for me, no matter how nicely I asked.  And the thing I wanted was important:  I wanted to know God’s will for my life, in a certain matter.  So I asked.  I didn’t actually expect an answer, like a thunderbolt or anything, but I thought something might happen to make things clearer to me.

I guess this state of affairs perked along for three months or so, me asking for just some kind of nebulous guidance, when one day, deep in prayer, I had a thought.  It was more than a thought, actually, and much less than a voice; Khouria Frederica Mathewes-Green describes it perfectly in her book Facing East.  In her case, Christ said to her, “I am your life”; in mine, He said simply, “Do you believe that I love you?” and then, “Will you let Me handle this?  Just give it over to Me?”

What did I have to lose?  Sure I gave it over.  I was sick of worrying about it anyway.  I won’t say what the situation was, or what the answer was, but I will say that the appropriateness of it, for all parties concerned, was its own thunderbolt:  It had never once occurred to me that the details of my life were so important to God that He would take the time to arrange them Himself.

This has continued to happen in my life from time to time, this sense of being utterly overwhelmed by the personal and detailed attention that God gives to my life.  You can’t overcome an entire upbringing with just one experience, although you can (and should) spend your life trying to eliminate the false ideas you may have grown up with.

I’ve come to recognize that this is what Orthodoxy calls the Struggle, the Combat.  You may not ever be what the world would consider a truly evil person, but when you get down to wrestling with your own demons, you come to learn a couple of things:  (a) They really are petty, mean little creatures, and (b) the hold they have over your life is so out of proportion to their size because you yourself have given them that power to enslave you.  There’s only one way to freedom, and that is to trust in the profoundly personal love that God has for you, deep within His heart.

Or, as one Orthodox priest puts it:  “Christ didn’t come to earth to make bad men good.  He came to make dead men live.”  Believe it.

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“Describe the worst teacher you ever had.”  Now, would that be in terms of the meanest, or in terms of a teacher I had who couldn’t teach the alphabet to a collection of Ph.D.’s, or some other definition of “worst”?

The worst one, in terms of not being able to teach, is actually a tossup among three of them:  two French teachers (one high school, one college) and an Accounting prof who was a real personality kid, and probably a good accountant, but who couldn’t get his point across to save his life.  I can remember sitting in his class at Week 6, bored out of my socks and tired because this was an evening class and I’m a morning person, and at some point I had had it with his ineptitude and burst out, “So [whatever the topic was] is [whatever he had said that was so obvious, even I could understand it]!  BFD!”  And the whole class erupted in laughter, except these three Very Good and Pious Christian Ladies who had never heard the term “BFD” before — it was left to a very red-faced former Marine to explain it (who was also on the floor laughing), and who did so using the euphemism for “F”.  I guess no one ever dreamed that I knew the term existed, either.  At least the class was memorable for the laughter, since I have absolutely no idea whatsoever what the topic of it was.  There’s a reason I don’t practice accountancy.

As for the French teachers — I’m sorry, what is it about French teachers?  Everything I’ve ever read about them suggests that they can’t control their pupils, and since that assertion is borne out by my own experience, I have to conclude that it’s something to do with the subject itself.  The one I had in high school used to stand there and whine ineffectually, “Girls!  Gi-irls!  Now I’m really going to get mad!”  To get the full effect, you have to recall the whiniest voice you ever heard, then lower the deciBel level by half. 

The French teacher I had in college was equally soft-spoken, and whatever I learned in her class stayed with me right up until the final exam, when it all flew out of my head for good.  That class never once stayed on topic because it was so easy to get her rhapsodizing about France and French life in general, that she forgot she was supposed to be teaching us the language.  I speak better Russian than I do French, and French is a much easier language.  And I studied it longer.  (I also speak fluent German, but that doesn’t count — I lived there for three years.  If you’re studying a language while living in the country where that language is spoken, I don’t think it’s possible not to come out speaking it fluently.)

But I have to close this post with a note about one of the “best” teachers I ever had.  The word “best” is in quotes because for the life of me, I can’t think why I liked this teacher so much.  And I’ve actually had better teachers.  But this particular one was built along the lines of Chester Nimitz (unfortunately, because she was a woman and a nun) and had the patience of a saint — and the sense of humor of St. Teresa of Avila, who famously once told God, “No wonder You have so few friends, when you treat the few You have this way!”  (In fact, I think I got the story from her.)

She was just a nice, nice person, and considering that her pupils were eighth-graders, and she could actually laugh at some of the off-the-wall things we came out with — I have to give her credit.  And I have to hope that her years of effort with her eighth-graders paid off for her, and that she is enjoying a good laugh with St. Teresa — today is the thirtieth anniversary of her passing.  I’d appreciate prayers for Sr. Agnes Therese, in this world Madeleine Fleck.  She wasn’t my all-time best teacher, but she was a great example of how to live life.

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“Could you live without the internet for a week? For a month?”

This prompt reminded me of an essay I read once that began, “All my friends are in a little box.”  The essay was, of course, referring to internet friendships.

Sad to say, many of my friends also live in a little box.  I’m not sure if that’s because we are all (or mostly) by nature introverted, or whether it’s because the people who occupy space around us are all so busy with their own lives that no one has any time for visiting anymore, but there it is:  With the exception of immediate family, all my friends live in a little box.  Physically, they live hundreds and thousands of miles away, the exception being people I know from church, who also live several miles away and have busy lives of their own.  I can only sympathize; I remember very, very well what it was like to be running a household with small children in it.

But now, at the other end of life, it was my friends in the little box who kept me from losing my sanity when the kiddos grew up and moved out.  It was my friends in the little box who helped me hold it together when “routine” surgery spiralled so far out of control that I nearly ended up on the other side of eternity.  (Interestingly, at that particular time, people who share the same geographic space with me were, without exception, too busy to fix a meal or come over and help with the housework.  Thank God for the Family Leave Medical Act, and for teleworking; we would have been up the creek otherwise.)

Could I live without the internet for a week, a month, or even a day?  Can you live without friends?

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“Describe the one who got away.”

He looked like Joe College of the 1950s, with his crewcut hair and nerdy glasses, and we met in the public library, when he reached for the same book I was interested in:  “The Rubiyat of Omar Khayyim.”  (I had no idea what it was about, but had read that it was “a good book of poetry.”  Bored the socks off me.)  We did the Alphonse-and-Gaston thing:  “Oh, I’m sorry.  No, go ahead and take it.  No, please, you take it,” etc.  I ended up with the book, and he ended up walking me home; and by the time he had dropped me off, we had a date for that Saturday.

Over the next few months, we had several dates.  He seemed a nice enough guy.  Like me, he liked classical music.  Like me, he liked books.  Like me, he was from a practicing Catholic family.  Like me, he was a political conservative, a Republican when young Republicans were an endangered species.  Unlike me, he was in college — sophomore year — but that was about the only difference between us.  Over time, the similarities began to weigh on me; it was like dating myself, frankly, and by Christmastime, I had decided that even though I didn’t have any other fish to fry, this was one fish I could do without.  I broke it off.

I didn’t stay unattached for long.  I had my share of good looks, and there were other clean-cut young men out there — it turned out there were a lot more young conservatives than I had ever dreamed.  I became politically active and involved, protesting the anti-Vietnam protestors, writing to friends who ended up in Vietnam, becoming romantically involved more than once, including with one of those young men in Vietnam. 

When he returned home, changed in ways I couldn’t possibly understand, I found my thoughts turning more and more to The One Who Got Away.  Surely he was married by now; after all, four years had passed, and in those days, it was fairly common for young men and women to marry right out of college.  I wondered how he had changed; had he grown out his hair?  Was he wearing contact lenses?  Well, we live and learn, I thought wryly.  Shoulda hung onto that one —

And then I saw his name in the local paper.  Graduated from USAF Tech School.  Son of Mr. & Mrs. So-and-So.  Residence at the same place where he’d lived four years earlier.  What the heck, I thought, took a chance, and wrote to him at that address, hoping that my letter would be forwarded.

It wasn’t, but as it turned out, his parents took it along when they visited him out in Texas.  He said that he took one look at the envelope and, even though I hadn’t written my name in the return address, he knew who it was from.  He wrote back.  He wasn’t married, wasn’t engaged, wasn’t seeing anybody at all.  Except for me.  We corresponded all that summer, and in September, when he came home on 30 days’ leave, we made plans to get together.  I couldn’t wait to see how he’d changed.  I had a dentist appointment the night he wanted to see me, so he arranged to meet me at the dentist’s office, and when he walked in the door —

He hadn’t changed a bit.  Same crew cut.  Same nerdy glasses.  And the date he wanted to take me on?  Watching airplanes at the local airport.  Who  stands around all night watching airplanes?!

Great, I thought.  Well, it’s only for this one evening.

To this day I don’t understand what changed.  We watched; we talked; at some point, he put his hands on my shoulders; I tensed, then something told me that this was a really gentle touch.  It wasn’t that I didn’t trust him to keep his hands to himself (as the norms of the time dictated) — I did — more that this had been a relationship I wasn’t interested in.  And then, suddenly, I was.  I wanted to know more about this man.

That Christmas, we became engaged.  We’ve been married for over 40 years.  Every day, I thank God that The One Who Got Away the first time, took a second chance.

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Well, yes, I’ve been absent for a few days.  One reason is that I had that 24-hour bug that’s been making the rounds lately.  But the primary reason is that the more recent prompts for Post-a-Day have been either irrelevant or ridiculous.  “If you could teleport yourself anywhere in the world…”?!?!  Beam me up, Scotty, there’s no intelligent life over at WordPress.

So this coming rant is not part of the Post-a-Day cycle, but a continuation of the thoughts sparked by the State of the Union address.  This one has to do with those overblown federal benefits, possibly also with the realities of federal employment.

When Barack Obama stated, as a candidate, that he would like to see every American worker get the same health insurance that federal workers get, he got a loud cheer out of this house.  We’d like to see that, too.  Maybe then, people would quit complaining about the overblown benefits that federal employees get.  See, here’s the reality of federal health insurance:  There are ten or eleven different companies that you get to select your health insurance from.  Once a year, you can change your coverage if you don’t like what you’re getting.  Regardless of what coverage you have (most of us have federal Blue Cross/Blue Shield), you pay a percentage of your health insurance out of your salary.

Now, when I worked in private industry, I never paid into my health insurance, and I find that whenever local government contracts come up for renewal — I’m thinking police, fire, and teachers —  the sticking point is always that the new contract has a provision that they should pay a nominal portion of their health insurance and retirement benefit.  Which means that they also are not paying anything out of their salaries for these benefits.  So as the wife of a federal civil servant, my question is, Where’s the beef?  What, you don’t want to pay for your own health insurance, as well as the co-pay that everybody has to pay up front?  Don’t apply to Uncle Sam for work, then — feds have always paid into their own health insurance and retirement funds.

Oh, yeah, retirement.  I’ll grant, federal retirement is a godsend.  We actually do get a pension, and it’s a nice pension.  Here’s a newsflash:  It’s a nice pension because federal civil-service workers used not to get Social Security, and those of us who retired under the Civil Service Retirement System still will never see a dime of Social Security — regardless of whether or not we paid into the system.  My husband, for example, paid into it all the time he served in the military, which was four years.  He also paid into it while he was working his way through college.  Somehow, and I have no idea how this is possible, he does not have the forty “quarters” needed to qualify him for Social-Security benefits.  So that’s money that he can kiss goodbye.  Meanwhile, just like all of you who are paying into 401Ks, he’s been paying into his own retirement fund for lo these past forty years.  He is also still paying into his own retirement fund, because he still pays taxes.

I also find that the public in general has no idea of how retirement works in federal civil service.  Everyone in my family, for example, was so excited when my husband got federal employment (incidentally, because at the time he was looking for work, no one would hire a veteran):  they all thought that he could work 20 years, retire, get his full pension, and then get a second job to supplement his income.  That’s how it worked for the New York cops and firemen (don’t know if it still does).

Here’s the reality:  You work either 30 years or until age 55, at which point you get half the average of your “high three” years — that is, the average of the three years when you got paid the most.  For every year you work over 55, or over 30 years, you get an additional 2%.  You cap out at 80% of your salary, which means, once you’ve been working for 42 years,  every additional year you put in will not make a difference to your pension (except insofar as it adds to your “high three”).

It sounds nice.  It is nice.  Remember, federal workers were not eligible for Social Security at all until the late 1970s, and anyone hired after that retires under a completely different system that gives him a lower pension to compensate for the Social Security he can also draw.

As to the ability to work at a private-sector job, sure you can.  It’s a free country.  Your pension will also be reduced by the amount you earn in that private-sector job, and once you retire from that, your federal pension will also continue to be reduced by whatever pension you draw from your post-retirement job.  In other words, conceivably you could lose your entire federal pension if you work for someone else afterwards.

So, dear taxpayer, rest at ease:  You’re probably getting richer off the federal government than federal civil-service workers are.  Because in addition to all of the above, plus the cost overruns mentioned in an earlier post, every dime a federal worker spends in the community is a dime of your tax dollars.  You do get them back, every time a federal worker buys groceries or gets a haircut or buys home-improvement goods from your store.  If that doesn’t help you sleep at night, then at least be grateful if you don’t have to pay for your own health insurance.  And if you don’t have health insurance — all I can say is, you’re not missing much.  But that’s another topic.

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Which, I am reliably informed, is how Russians say, “Let’s get back to work.”  Interesting that in the USA, we say, “Back to the salt mines” — which were always a feature of Russian life.

“If you could have any job in the world, what would it be?  Bonus: What is the worst job you’ve ever had? What did you learn from it?” is today’s prompt.  For the record, I skipped the last two days because there’s only one computer in this house, and it had been Commandeered.

If I could have any job in the world, I’d want my old one back.  I was a secretary for a church, and I loved it — not necessarily because it was church-related, but because the office was in such disarray that I constructed all the procedures from scratch:  the filing system, the way mail was processed, the way mass mailings were organized, year-end procedures for closing out the prior year and setting up the systems for the new year — the whole ball of wax was mine, all mine.  Till the Parish Council decided it didn’t want to pay a secretary.  (Well, initially they did.  They constructed a fairy tale about my retiring so they could hire someone of a more acceptable ethnicity, and no I don’t mean race, who didn’t even want the job and had never been a secretary in her life.  Three months later, they decided they couldn’t afford her, either.)

The fun of that job was that it was the culmination of thirty years’ worth of secretarial experience; I was able to pull together everything I had ever learned on the job, and put it to good use in an environment that worked.  Maybe that’s what Greeks find scary, an environment that works.  When you consider the current state of the Greek economy, it explains a lot about the treatment I got.

As for the worst job I ever had, ironically, that was also as a secretary.  I worked for an accountant, and I lasted exactly three weeks.  I had Issues with being required to inch my way across an ice-covered parking lot (the only spots cleared out were for clients), and having to stand in front of the copier catching photocopies as they came out of the machine because the accountant was too cheap to get the sorter fixed.  And what I learned from that job was to ask around about firms that were looking for help; turned out most of the people I knew, knew this accountant’s reputation for being stingy, and I could have saved myself a lot of embarrassment if I’d asked first — it’s the only job I ever walked out on after only three weeks.  But there are some things that self-respect requires, know what I mean?!

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