“Your dreams are within reach” “Yeah, right”

“Your dreams are within reach.” So promises a sign outside a church I pass every morning on my way to work. Some days I like to think this wish is true. This morning I rather hope that my dreams remain out of reach.

The earliest part of my dreams last night that I remember featured Elvis Presley berating me for the condition of my body. But afterward I was outside my house, trying to set up the grounds for croquet. (When I dream about “my house,” it generally resembles my childhood home, even though that building is no longer standing.) I found that I was unable to place the wickets as I wanted. From that I concluded that the house must have shifted, making the yard smaller. I then tried to hammer one of the stakes into the hard ground. My effort broke open a hole that led to the basement of the house. My father was in that basement, trying to fix the sump pump and not succeeding. The dream concluded with me driving to the grocery store, only to have the car stall at the entrance to the parking lot. By pressing the accelerator while turning the key, I was able to get the car to move forward. With considerable effort, I twisted the steering wheel and coasted into a parking spot. I went into the store and asked to use the phone to tell my family the car was broken. When I dialed, I got the voice mail message, which had been changed by a relative who does not live in our house and had no business messing with our message.

Why would I dream about so many things going wrong in my life? I was jittery yesterday over a number of small reasons. My daughter, who hurt her foot last month in a freak accident, was to have surgery yesterday morning. Her driver took her to the office early in the morning and they waited for a while, only to realize that the surgery is scheduled for Wednesday the 23rd, not Wednesday the 16th. My daughter called home to tell me about the mistake. While we were talking, I heard another voice in or around the house. At first I assumed that two neighbors were having a conversation near the house. When I returned to breakfast, it struck me that the sounds did not resemble a conversation between two people. (You can tell that I was not trying to spy on my neighbors.) For a while I considered that it might be one neighbor talking on a cell phone, but that still didn’t seem to match the sounds I was hearing. When I went into the living room, I found a cell phone on the table that was taking, repeatedly saying “hello” in several different languages. Last weekend my daughters recharged several old cell phones, prior to turning them in for a refund. They did not realize that alarms were still set on these phones. So I’ve been turning off music every morning this week. Hearing unfamiliar voices in the morning, though, left me with a very unsettled feeling.

Feeling unsettled made me overreact when I went on Facebook that morning. I don’t often visit Facebook any more, but sometimes I like to see what family members are saying. One of the first things I saw was a post by my sister which told how to cope with toxic family members. Because I was feeling jittery, my first reaction was to think she was putting me in that category. I know that is not the case; she tends to share things she thinks will help somebody somewhere, whether or not they are relevant to her own life and circumstances. In fact, when I went back later to read the entire article, I could see that it had nothing to do with me. But that’s the frame of mind I was in yesterday, ready to believe the worst about myself from even the slightest and vaguest suggestion.

One reason I am feeling so unstable is uncertainty about my career. I have two or three possibilities before me. One is that things remain as they are. Another is that I might be offered a full-time job in another state. The position has been open for nearly a year, and the committee in charge of hiring has had my name suggested to them, among others. I have yet to hear from them to arrange an interview, but I have good reason to believe that they have not quite reached the step of interviewing anyone yet. If I were offered the job, I would almost certainly take it. Some days I feel certain that it will happen, and I just have to trust God for the timing. Other times I feel as if it will certainly not happen. This winter when I saw cars with license plates from that state, I treated them as a secret message that the job will be offered. But on other days I rolled my eyes and said, “Yeah, right,” when I saw those license plates.

On one of the second kind of days I got a phone call with a new offer. This would be part-time instead of full-time. I would have to keep my current full-time job to have health insurance, but the net pay would increase, even though I would have to drop one current part-time job. The drive to this new position would be about an hour each way, but I wouldn’t have to do it more than twice a week, most weeks of the year. This offer is on the table, mine if I want it. But I don’t know whether to accept, particularly while the full-time possibility remains hanging in unknown territory.

For those of you who are so inclined, I would appreciate your prayers. I could use some wisdom, but also a lot of comfort and inner strength. Also, please pray for both these positions, that they would acquire the servants who are best for them. And while you’re at it, please don’t forget my daughter. She would really like this foot problem to heal, and to do so correctly. J.

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Privacy (and where yours has gone)

Never in history has personal privacy been more protected by law. Yet never in history have people sacrificed their own privacy so completely. 

If you confess a sin to your pastor or priest, that member of the clergy cannot tell anyone else that you have said—not even a police officer, or a judge and jury during a trial. Your confession remains private among yourself, your confessor, and the Lord. 

Health professionals are also required to keep your information confidential. They cannot even share your information among one another for your own good without your permission. If you are in the hospital and a family member or friend (or your pastor or priest) calls the hospital for information about you, the hospital workers cannot say anything about you—not even whether you are there. 

If you are a student, your teachers cannot discuss your academic progress without your permission. If you are under eighteen, your parents or guardians have access to that information; otherwise, even they cannot know your grades unless you allow them access. A professor, teacher, or instructor cannot even give you information about your grade by email or over the telephone because of the risk that some other person may impersonate you to get this information. 

Your financial information is similarly protected. Your bank, your lending agency, your credit card company, and anyone else involved with your money cannot discuss your finances without your permission. Even your tax returns are confidential and cannot be discussed unless you have given permission for that to happen. 

To protect all this privacy, the entities that use our information frequently inform us what they are doing with the confidential information we share with them. Medical clinics, banks, credit card companies, and the like constantly bombard us with written descriptions of what information they have and what they do with it. When we see the doctor or when we open an account or take out a loan, we sign documents about our personal information. How many of us read all those documents and remember what permission we have given these entities to share that information? How many of us are careful to restrict every bank and school and health-related facility to minimal sharing? How many of us acknowledge with our signatures that we have read the documents about privacy and approved their contents—without actually having read them or even received a copy of them? 

With all this protection, no one can stop you from sharing private information where and when you choose. You can put up a poster downtown telling anyone who reads it who you are, what your health and grades and finances are, and any other personal information you choose to share. You can write a letter to the newspaper or buy an ad and tell the newspaper’s readers anything you want to share about yourself. You can write a letter to a government worker—whether elected or appointed—and anything you say about yourself in that letter becomes part of the public record which any researcher may access. You may post information about your private life on Facebook, Twitter, WordPress, or any other social media platform, and what you have revealed about yourself is available to any person or computer in the world that has internet access. 

Even the research you conduct online is publicly available, unless you take extraordinary precautions to protect your privacy. Social media platforms and search engines and internet sites all keep track of your online activity, and the things you have done on your computer are available to government agencies, corporations, hackers, and anyone else curious about your life. Anything you tell your Facebook friends is public information. Prospective employers can read about your weekend parties. Prospective thieves can preview your vacation plans. Research an illness, and medical companies target you as a prospective consumer. Look on Google once to see if there was ever a purple Volkswagen Beetle (there was), and you will receive pop-up ads from Volkswagen for months. 

Some elements of this lack of privacy bother me less than they bother most people. If my neighbor is using the internet to learn how to make a bomb and then is using the internet to buy bomb-making supplies, I don’t mind the fact that law enforcement officers will be watching my neighbor and perhaps preventing a crime from happening, or at least shortening a string of potential crimes. For that protection from violence, I am willing to allow government agents to read about my political and religious views as I express them on Facebook or WordPress; the First Amendment protects me from any negative government reaction to my opinions. 

I am less content about my permanent record being open to private corporations whose interest in my life focuses on selling me goods and services I might or might not want. My on-line shopping and on-line research have created a public profile of my life that in some ways is frighteningly accurate and in other ways is comically distorted. Because I was curious about cerebral films starring Peter Sellers (having enjoyed Dr. Strangelove, Lolita, and Being There), I now see regular Facebook promotions for the Pink Panther movies. Similar searches for various actresses appears to have convinced some corporation that I am interested in dating Russian or Asian women.  

Ignoring advertisements for things I don’t want is easy. Sensing that news stories and other items are being sent my direction based on assumptions about my opinions bothers me more. Because I am comfortable with my own beliefs, I want and value access to a wide range of opinions and information. I prefer not to have amazon or Facebook or WordPress suggest to me what I might like because of previous online activity. I prefer not to have search engines tailor my results to choices I have made in the past. I prefer not to receive telephone calls or mail selected for me by a computer because of something I have viewed online. I prefer not to have computers monitor my thinking and try to predict my thinking, out of concern that their input today may well flavor my thinking tomorrow.

Since the 1950s (if not before), science fiction writers have warned of a future world in which machines think for people and tell people what to think. We are closer to that dystopia being reality than ever before. The machines that want to serve us—and that, along the way, may begin to control us—come not from a totalitarian government or a worldwide conspiracy, but from corporations that want our money, or at least that want to generate money by selling our information.

Can Congress or other parts of the government protect our privacy? Probably not. We tend to discard privacy for convenience far more often than legislation can prevent. The more we ask government to guard our privacy, the more likely we are to surrender that privacy to government. The more we reveal about ourselves to social media and other non-government agencies, the less privacy we keep to ourselves. Our best choice is not to legislate privacy, but to preserve privacy by our individual choices. J.

More than ten performances, and none of them a lie

I am not going to lie to you—particularly not about concerts I have attended and enjoyed.

If you spend any time on Facebook, you have probably seen those lists, “Ten concerts I attended (one of them is a lie.)” I don’t visit Facebook often—I got an account largely to keep track of my children’s lives, but it has helped me to reconnect with friends from high school and college. Seeing some of my friends reminisce about concerts brings back memories for me. But I then discovered that to list nine concerts I have attended (plus the obligatory lie), I would have to include symphony orchestras and municipal bands.

Not that I’ve never enjoyed a rock concert. I’ve been to a handful over the years, and I’m not sorry to have gone. But I’ve also let a lot of opportunities escape without regret. When I was in college, I could have gone to a Barry Manilow concert. Some of my friends were singing in his local back-up choir. I decided that I would rather catch up on homework than spend an evening with Barry Manilow. More recently I could have gone to a Pat Benatar concert. I enjoy her music, but it was an outdoor concert with summer heat and humidity and mosquitoes. I figured I would be happier at home, where I could listen to studio-made recordings of Pat Benatar in air-conditioned comfort. I also could have gone to a Paul McCartney concert. I’m a big Beatles fan; I have seen and heard Ringo Starr in concert. But I decided that even Sir Paul was not worth spending more than a hundred dollars for one ticket; I have other bills to pay.

Now if the Facebook meme was about live performances, and not just popular singers, I could name a lot more than ten. I’ve been to an opera; I’ve been to the ballet several times; and I’ve seen lots of live plays, including musicals. When I was in high school, I was even involved in some live performances. My high school put on a musical every spring with considerable success. For two years I was in the pit orchestra, playing the trombone. The first of those was Music Man, in which just three of us trombonists had to represent seventy-six trombones. I had the all-important part of creating the tuba blats for the children’s band at the end of the show. As a senior, I finally tried out for a part on stage and got to portray Horace Vandergelder in the classic Hello, Dolly!

I could list a great many musicals I’ve seen performed live over the years, from high school and college productions to community theater to traveling professional shows. Some I saw during the height of their popularity: Annie, and Phantom of the Opera. Others I saw as revivals—I once saw an aging Yul Brenner perform in The King and I. I saw Donnie Osmond in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

I have thought about writing a post describing my favorite musicals, but when I started listing them I passed fifty and was still thinking of more. So, no, I am not going to lie to you about a performance I’ve attended. But I definitely prefer musical theater to the standard rock concert. J.

Heavy hearted

The administration where I work discourages us from visiting Facebook while at work. Their biggest concern is not that we spend every minute while on the clock with our noses to the grindstone; their biggest concern is reserving enough bandwidth space for our patrons and our workers. Most of us cheat on this policy at least a little. I’m not going to worry about getting caught visiting Facebook briefly when I log in and see that my boss is also shown online.

Today was a bad day to glance at Facebook. One of the first posts I saw was from a close family member. Her post was personal and thoughtful, reminding me of the struggles she has been facing and the courage with which she has done so.

Right under that was a post saying that one of my friends from college has died.

I feel guilty not keeping in touch with this friend. Over the past few months he has been battling cancer, and he used Facebook to report his treatment and progress to all his friends. I regret that I never once responded with encouraging words. In fact, often I would skim his updates and then move on to someone else. (Can you spell TMI?) When I got home from work this afternoon, one of my first projects was to write a letter to his wife (also a friend from college) expressing my condolences and offering my prayers. I know this sounds odd, but I feel as though a mailed letter might atone for my lack of communication with them on Facebook.

When I first opened a Facebook account, my main reason to do so was to keep track of my children’s lives. Over time high school friends and college friends began emerging, and it was nice to be in touch. I’ve never been one to share much on Facebook, though—I’m more of a lurker, keeping tabs on other people in my life without reminding them too often of my existence.

The Big Chill was released when my friends and I were in college. We all saw the movie and speculated about the future of our friendships. Some of us were able to return to campus for Homecoming Weekend in the first years after graduation. I remember in particular one uproarious evening in a restaurant when most of the group was there. Over time, though, jobs and families made it harder for the group to assemble. If not for Facebook, by now most of us would be strangers to each other, with a few still making the effort to update one another with a letter at Christmas.

I won’t be able to make it to his funeral. I expect that most of the rest of our college group will also be missing. I feel bad about that absence, but it can’t be helped. Along with memories of past good times, I am also making sure to appreciate the people in my life today—especially the one who almost didn’t make it this far. J.