Experiencing technical difficulties (a rambling update for my online friends)

My WordPress presence has been somewhat limited these last few weeks because of assorted (and unrelated) technical difficulties. At times I wonder whether these difficulties are a Sign that I should curtail WordPress activity and focus more attention on other writing.

(On a related note, I am awaiting shipment of my latest book, much of which appeared on this blog as meditations on Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. I gave the book the title Blessed with Perfect Righteousness to emphasize the Gospel themes I identified in these meditations.)

As of the beginning of December, my job required me to spend considerably more time than before as a reference librarian in the research room. The new leadership of the library system decided that the department where I work was costing the library too much money, so our budget was cut, some employees lost their jobs, and the rest of us have to replace the missing workers on the schedule. Since I often spend two hours at the reference desk with no one to help, that seemed to be an opportunity to keep up with WordPress, both writing my posts and reading, liking, and commenting upon other posts. For a while that pattern was working. Then, one day, the computer at the desk stopped downloading WordPress correctly. I can still read posts, but all the interactive functions are kaput. Likewise, I can compose posts and publish them, but I cannot interact with readers through that computer. I don’t know what the problem is: it could be a security filter that IT has added, or it could be a fault within that one computer module. In either case, I hate to report the problem to IT since it does not impact the work I am paid to do for the library.

(Beginning today, the library computer is no longer an issue. To prevent the spread of Coronavirus, the library has closed its doors, locking out patrons and employees alike. We are being paid, just as if the library was temporarily closed for ice and snow. And some employees are still keeping the system functioning, but not in my department.)

Meanwhile, my home desktop computer is nearly eight years old, and it is very slow, especially connecting to the Internet. I can read a post, then might have to wait a minute or two before I can click the Like button. The frustration level with this computer was so high that my son donated his desktop as a replacement. It took a few days for me to transfer files from the old computer to the newer computer, but I finally got the new system up and running. I left the old computer assembled on a nearby piece of furniture in case any family members remembered something else that hasn’t been transferred. But last week the new computer began to malfunction. For some reason, the main computer is not corresponding with the monitor. When that happened on the old computer, I was able to fix the problem by removing the side panel and blowing out the accumulated dust. I did that this weekend with the new computer, and the first time I reconnected it, things started right away. Since then, it has become increasingly balky, to the point that today the computer system is not working at all. I am considering taking the computer to the nearest ubreakifix location to see if they can identify and fix the problem.

(Since I have competed the Sermon on the Mount book, my next project is to be a twelve chapter book, “Witnesses to the Lord’s Passion.” Each chapter will be the account of Christ in the latter half of Holy Week as seen from one point of view: Peter, Judas, Caiaphas, Pilate, Barabbas, etc. Years ago I wrote and presented some selections for this book; these I have to find and copy (while editing and improving them), while others I will write from scratch.)

I am doing what I can on this older desktop computer. I am scheduled to teach a college class this spring. Ten students signed up for the class, but only four came to the first session last Tuesday, and only two were there last Thursday. Over the weekend, the school announced that all teaching would be done online, so I have to figure out how to give quizzes and other assignments through the school’s web site. Most teachers do this already, and I have had training sessions for online teaching. But I have always preferred the classroom experience, and it seems that the students who sign up for my classes feel the same.

(Meanwhile, we have had a wet, gray, and gloomy February and March, which is not good for morale. And our family’s fifteen-year-old cat, who was getting more frail, suddenly took a turn for the worse and was essential on hospice care last week. Family members in the area were able to visit her by the end of the week. On Saturday she was taken to the veterinarian, who diagnosed renal failure and recommended euthanasia, which was then done. So yesterday I buried a cat in the growing pet cemetery behind our house.)

My prospects for a new job still seem good, although I have not heard directly from those in charge of a decision. My guess is that they will wait until after Easter before moving to the next step, which would include interviews of prospective workers. That probably means that the position will not be filled until June or July, leaving a few weeks between the retiring worker and the replacement—which probably is healthy for all involved. This delay has not stopped family members from scouting new houses in the neighborhood of the church, while making lists of what has to be done to sell the house we have now.

(And I needed to jumpstart my car after church a week ago, so I stopped by the auto parts store on the way home and bought a new battery, which they installed for me. Plus I’m trying to get my income taxes filed, which has been complicated by these computer problems. Yesterday a lot of churches canceled their services, although I did get to attend the one I had been planning to attend. I’m not sure whether the cancellations will continue for many weeks on Sundays and Wednesdays, or if yesterday was a one-time event.)

So I will try to return to WordPress when I can to continue building my political platform, to comment on current events and on the life of the Church, and to keep up with my friends. God’s blessings to you all: Keep Calm and Stay Healthy. J.

Prayer request

Last week I mentioned that some of my coworkers are retiring.

I neglected to mention that their retirement was not voluntary.

This is how that came to pass:

Four years ago, the director of the System for which I work retired. He was replaced by a new director, a former member of the Board that oversees the System. Clearly, they knew what kind of director they were getting.

The previous director was a visionary leader. The new director is a pragmatic leader. (One of his favorite words is “sustainable.”) Once he settled into his position, became familiar with the details of the System, and replaced most of the administrative leaders with his people, he then persuaded the Board to hire a consulting firm to determine how the System is operating and how it can be improved.

Now at this level of operations, one does not find a consultant by randomly looking in a phone book. Instead, one researches the various consultants in the field, studying the advice they have given other clients. One selects the consultant that has, in the past, given the kind of advice one wants to receive. The consultant then examines the System, interviewing employees and clients and people in the service area who have not been clients. Having done all this work, the consultant produces a report on the System with suggestions for improvements. Any unpopular improvements can be blamed on the consultants and on their research. So the System began developing a strategic plan, based on the recommendations of the consultant, and aimed at making the System more helpful to its clients and prospective clients.

The previous director—the visionary leader—created, over the years, a special department within the System to achieve tasks not done by other branches of the System. I was hired to work in that department. The strategic plan, based on the work of the consultants, treats my department as one of fifteen branches, similar to the others rather than unique. That same plan points out that my department is far more expensive to the System than any other branch. Although there was talk this past spring and summer about targeting our unique services to serve the branches, by the end of the summer it was obvious that our branch budget was going to be significantly smaller in 2020. The only way to meet that budget was to reduce staff. My division of the department was targeted for cuts, and so our size as we enter 2020 is about half of what it was a year ago.

And we already know that the branch budget for 2021 will be smaller yet.

The coworkers who were involuntarily retired happen to be workers who have served in the System for years at various capacities. They had scaled back to part-time, aiming toward eventual retirement; but they had hoped to continue working for a bit longer. The branch manager explained to all of us that no one had been singled out for removal, but that part-time positions were no longer considered “sustainable.” This explanation is, at best, a partial truth. Removing these positions without singling out the actual workers saves the branch money, and it also indicates that my division within the branch is least valuable to the branch and to the System and most likely to be targeted for future cuts.

That presents half the puzzle. Now that I have written more than five hundred words—now that casual readers have clicked off the post and only my friends are still reading—here is the other half. In the summer of 2016, I studied for, took, and passed a certifying exam, giving me full credentials for the position I currently occupy. But that same summer, I received a phone call from a pastor in the area (who also happens to be a friend). He said that two congregations were combining to hire a pastor and my name had been mentioned among the possibilities. Would I consider returning to full-time church work? I had not been thinking about returning, so I asked for a day to consider the question. My oldest daughter pointed out that I could say yes, I would consider it, and still be free to say no later; but that if I said no right away I would wonder later if I had been right or wrong. So I said yes, I would consider the position if it was offered. It turned out that I was the second choice of the committee choosing a pastor and their first choice said yes. But a hint was dropped that a new door might be opening.

I belong to a group of churches that are very congregational. No church official can assign a pastor to a congregation, nor can a pastor advertise that he is seeking a position. Congregations seeking pastors create a list of possibilities, study the qualifications of the candidates, sometimes interview the most promising candidates, and then offer a call to the one they believe will serve them best. Church officials can make recommendations, but they cannot place a pastor in a position. Any pastor who advertises himself for a position disqualifies himself for that position. “The office seeks the man; the man does not seek the office.”

But, having been considered for one opening in the area, I updated my paperwork and indicated to the regional church official that I was willing to be considered for a call. Several opportunities came and went, but no one contacted me to say I was being considered. More than a year ago, the regional church official, along with my friend, strongly urged me to accept a call to a congregation about fifty miles away, but it would have been a part-time position, so I told them no. Now, with the changing situation with my full-time job, I thought I had better act. I contacted the regional church official, and he set up a meeting with me early in October. I gave him the details of my personal position and encouraged him to recommend me wherever he thought I would be suitable. Commenting that adult members of my family were establishing themselves in the community, he suggested that he would be reluctant to recommend me for a position too far from where I live now. But he agreed to do what he could to help move me back into full-time church work.

On December 1, another friend of mine—also a pastor—announced his retirement, effective the beginning of May. I know his congregation well, and I am well-known there. Some of my children have joined that congregation. My family attends special services there, including Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve. I am very comfortable with their traditional style of worship, and I know that my theology and approach to pastoral work is much like that of the current pastor.

The regional church official met with the congregation’s call committee around the middle of December. On the last Sunday of December, the chair of that committee announced that the members of the congregation will be surveyed about the congregation’s need for a new pastor and that nominations will be accepted at the same time. (These steps are happening much faster than is typical for a calling congregation.) There is no way to apply for the position, no one who would accept a resume, no way of getting their attention that would not have the opposite effect of disqualifying me for the position.

All I can do is pray. I can bypass the congregation’s leaders and the regional official and go straight to the Lord of the Church. But even such prayers must be qualified with the phrase, “Thy will be done.” I see only part of the picture; the Lord sees far more than I see. To me it seems like an ideal match. I expect that at least some of the members of this congregation would agree. But the process must be left for the Lord to guide.

I invite your prayers for me and for this congregation. I know that getting other Christians to pray will not force God to do what I want. At the same time, we can always ask. And please also pray that I may be made worthy of such a position, that God would shape me to be the kind of servant he wants in his Church. And may his good and gracious will be done. J.

Addiction and the Internet

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) sometimes posts information in bars, knowing that the people who need their help are likely to be found there. But would you send a possible alcoholic into a bar to pick up information on AA?

Monday I came to work and opened my email. Being the first workday of the month, there was an email from Human Resources about health and wellness. The topic of the month is Internet addiction. The email included a link to read more information about Internet addiction, and that link led, of course, to the Internet.

So what about it, my WordPress friends? How many of us could be described as Internet addicts? Do we think about the Internet all the time, even when we are not using it? Do we resent things like work and meals and sleep because they require time away from the Internet? Has our use of the Internet caused damage to our relationships, our careers, or other important aspects of our personal lives?

I generally frame WordPress posts or responses to posts while I am off the Internet, whether driving or showering or mowing. That is less an indication of Internet addiction than it is a writer’s standard procedure for creating effective writing.

If I am addicted to any sites on the Internet, I am addicted to Sudoku and Nonograms. But that is more an addiction to games than to the Internet per se. If I had a hand-held version of either game, or a paper version, I would play just as intensely as I do on the Internet.

I cannot think of any way that the Internet has damaged my personal relationships. I might check WordPress or Facebook while at work, or sneak in a quick game. But when one logs onto Facebook and sees that one’s supervisor is posting while at work, it hardly seems worth worrying about getting caught.

If anything, I have gained important relationships through the Internet. Not through Facebook—I got a Facebook account mostly to spy on my children, and I have never approved a friend on Facebook whom I do not already know. My WordPress community, on the other hand, has become very important to me. I value my online friends and their ideas and interests as much as I value those of people I know in person. Moreover, I take attacks upon my WordPress friends as personally as I take attacks on people I know in person.

Gains and losses both come from making friends over the Internet. Some people pretend online to be someone they are not. At the same time, communities form sheltered existences where people can reinforce one another’s opinions and viewpoints, no matter how peculiar and uninformed those opinions and viewpoints might be. Trolls roam the Internet, looking for victims to verbally abuse. Internet addiction is real, and it can damage lives and relationships. This Wednesday I walked into a room and saw five members of my family sitting, each using a device, not interacting with one another at all—and this included family members who had traveled from other states to spend special holiday time with their family.

This summer, for several reasons, I have had less time to spend on WordPress and other social media. I am copy-editing a book for a publishing company and putting together another book of my own writing for publication through CreateSpace. At work I am filling in for other people who have taken vacations. I am also playing nonograms a lot more than I should. As a result, I missed some of the news that some of you have shared in the past couple weeks, catching up days later. I sincerely hope I have offended no one by my lack of response to their posts.

But what of it, my Internet friends? Are you concerned about Internet addiction and its effects on your life? Or do you feel safe and secure in your use of the Internet? J.

“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.

Coffee

In my life I have participated in most of the legal substance-abuse vices, with the exception of tobacco. I’ve been around smokers frequently, but I’ve not been interested in smoking. Some other time I might address the abuse of sugar, salt, and oils, but today I want to write about coffee.

My parents had the habit of drinking a cup of coffee with each meal–breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They drank it black–no sugar, no milk or cream. As a child, I didn’t like the smell of coffee and didn’t want to drink coffee. Even when I went to college, coffee held no appeal for me.

That changed my last year of college. I took a course in art history which met three afternoons a week, right after lunch. The professor turned off the lights and showed slides of paintings and sculptures on the wall. He had a quiet, monotone voice. His quizzes were very difficult. To keep awake in class, I started drinking coffee with my lunch those three days of the week.

By the time I started graduate school, I was in the habit of drinking coffee every day. During my internship, I even learned to drink Cuban espresso, which absolutely requires a lot of sugar because it is so bitter. Also during my internship, I learned that drinking a cup of coffee during Wednesday night Bible class was a bad idea. I was often awake for hours after Bible class, until I learned to stop drinking coffee that late in the day.

When I graduated and started working a steady job, I had one day off each week. After a couple of months, I began to wonder why I always had a headache by lunchtime on my day off. I finally realized that my headache was a symptom of caffeine withdrawal. Rather than giving up on coffee the other six days of the week, I started drinking coffee on my day off as well, and the headaches went away.

My habit became two cups of coffee a day: one with breakfast and the other with lunch. Most of the time I drink it black. On hot summer days, I sometimes prepare a cup of iced coffee, which includes sugar. On some winter days, I treat myself to a mocha, stirring a package of hot chocolate mix into a cup of coffee. I always fix my coffee at home, because I do not want to pay the coffee shop prices to soothe my addiction. I have been careful not to have coffee in the mid-afternoon or evening, because I want to be able to sleep at night.

This was not a scientific study with proper controls, but I have played video games while mildly intoxicated with alcohol, and I have played the same games while “buzzed” with caffeine. In matters of coordination and in matters of judgment, I found that caffeine created more problems for me than alcohol.

Over the years, I have given up alcohol for Lent, and I have given up caffeine for Lent. I found caffeine to be the harder substance from which to fast. Withdrawal symptoms, the desire for a drink, and the rush to return to the substance when Easter arrived all were stronger for coffee than for alcoholic beverages.

My doctor suggested that I cut my coffee drinking in half to help control my blood pressure. At first I resisted his advice, but after I was diagnosed with anxiety, I was willing to cut back to one cup a day. I still drink a mug of coffee after breakfast before I leave for work.

Some web sites list the dangers of caffeine, while others insist that caffeine is safe except in extremely high doses. Some mornings I savor my cup of coffee, while other mornings I worry about my addiction to caffeine. I sympathize with people who struggle with addictions, because I know how powerful my own addiction is in my life. J.

Microaggressions

This month I attended a workshop at work about microaggressions. I chose this workshop over others for two reasons: I knew that the presenters would lead a good workshop (they always do), and I wanted to learn more about what microaggressions are and how I can avoid doing them.

Microaggressions are the way we communicate—usually with spoken words, but also with gestures, facial expressions, and body language—our disdain or dismissal of other people because they are different from us. Deliberate insults and purposeful dismissals are not microaggressions—they are full aggression, easily recognized and easier to address. Microaggressions are usually unintended; they are the result of insensitivity rather than overt prejudice or bigotry. They are unplanned slights toward other people because of their race, language, gender and sexual preferences, age, economic status, religion, political beliefs, and the like.

Saying, “she’s pretty smart for a woman” is a microaggression. Assuming that the white middle-aged male is the head of his department is a microaggression. Choosing which customer to attend first based on skin color is a microaggression. I felt that the workshop gave too much attention to microaggression toward people of different sexual preferences or gender confusion—but my label “gender confusion” would probably be considered microaggression. On the other hand, we all hurt the feelings of other people without intending to be hurtful; sometimes we might even intend to be helpful.

One example was given by two people attending the workshop. A patron had approached the two of them gushing over a book about diets and weight loss. The patron had found the book very helpful, and she thought these two workers would also benefit from it. They were polite while she was near them; after she left, they turned to each other and asked, “Did she just say we are fat?”

I attended the workshop to learn how to avoid troubling other people. I also learned that I am sometimes the victim of microaggressions. An example that came to mind during the workshop was the wailing and gnashing of teeth in my department the day after the national election. Nobody went so far as  to claim that they were cheated or to organize a protest, but the conversations definitely reflected an assumption that everyone within earshot wanted Hillary Clinton to win, and that no one in the room considered her the greater of two evils on the ballot. A common expression was, “It was a terrible mistake, but we need to be calm and to live with it for the next four years.” I kept silent at work that day. I did not remind my coworkers that not everybody in the room supported Clinton. I did not even offer those words as an example of microaggression at the workshop, because I suspected that I represented a minority also within that group of people. Reticence to address a topic or a perceived insult is one of the signals that microaggression is in play.

An even clearer example of microaggression happened to me shortly after the workshop. One of my coworkers told me that a third coworker had needed to go home early that day because of a kidney stone. While he was telling me this, a fourth coworker approached us. The coworker speaking to me proceeded to share with the two of us an email from the coworker who was now at home. This coworker (who is an atheist) disparaged the poor design of the human body (making kidney stones possible) as evidence of the absence of a wise Creator. The fourth coworker responded, “I consider myself a spiritual person, but that’s pretty solid evidence,” or something to that effect. Both these coworkers know that I am a Christian, that my relationship with God is a very important part of my identity. Yet I saw no way to address their casual dismissal of faith—if I were to deliver a lecture on the problem of evil from a Christian perspective, it would not have been effective or well received at that time. Yet I had no short answer to show these two coworkers how disrespectful their conversation was toward me.

Sometimes you can’t win. Jews and atheists might feel dismissed by “Merry Christmas” greetings, while Christians feel slighted by “Happy Holidays” greetings. In the end, we do the best we can to respect one another’s identities and values. Meanwhile, we obviously need to find better ways of informing others of their insensitive microaggressions that trouble us. J.

A Day in the Life

One day last week another worker in my department declared a “hot dog day” and brought lunch for all of us—hot dogs and buns and condiments, and two of us provided potato chips. We sat together and visited while we ate, which was the reason for the gift of hot dogs. Generally, we are all introverts, focused on our tasks, more inclined to strive to complete a task than to stop and visit with each other. I know there have been days that I walked in the door, headed straight for my desk, and got to work, speaking to no one for most of the day… and I’m not the only person in the department who behaves that way.

The food was good, and I was able to take part in the conversation in spite of the fact that I started experiencing a panic attack as we were lining up at the food table. I would rate this attack at S2.5 on the SAPS.  My shaking hands made it hard to serve myself, and when I sat, I had to rest the hand holding my plate in my lap to keep from dropping it. I don’t think my voice sounded strange when I spoke—nobody looked at me as if it did—but I definitely felt all my muscles grow tenser through the course of the meal, as my insides churned. (And, no, nothing was wrong with the food.)

If I was writing a story about Carl, I suppose I would have to find some explanation for the attack. Maybe the morning traffic was bad because of a construction project which had just started. Maybe he snuck a look at some pictures of Rosa, his old flame, which he has hidden in a file on his work computer. Maybe he sat through a meeting about improving customer relations with the firm’s clients and wondered how much of the advice was being targeted personally at him. Or perhaps I could work in a problem with Number Seven—is she snubbing him now, avoiding conversations with him?

I am not writing a story about Carl, though. I am writing about myself, and I know enough about myself and my panic attacks to know that they do not always have an obvious trigger. Loud noises can make me nervous, but that was not a problem this noon. Anyhow, they would not be attacks if their origins were obvious.

All afternoon I wanted to talk to someone, to tell them what I was feeling. The truth is, I have never told anyone at work about my struggles with anxiety and depression. No one knows that a saw a counselor every other week for more than a year or that I have been taking medication for almost two years. If someone had asked me, “how are you feeling, J?” I would have answered, “I feel as though I drank six expressos about an hour ago.” After lunch, we all went back to our desks and focused on our own tasks as usual. No one had any reason to ask me how I was feeling.

I don’t even have a fitting conclusion to this post. Just another day in the life of Salvageable. J.

Three (or four) conversations

I suppose I could delay this post until the first Friday of November, but it seems fitting to continue last Friday’s untitled selection.

Esther May was seated at her desk when Carl arrived at work one Saturday morning. Carl didn’t usually work on Saturdays, but he had taken some time off in the middle of the week to see the doctor and to have the oil changed in his car. He was fortunate to have a flexible schedule in his job so he did not have to waste vacation time for mundane chores.

Esther was counting the weeks until her seventieth birthday, when she planned to retire. The number had recently dropped below one hundred. She also used her flexible schedule to come to work late on days when she started slowly and then catch up her hours on Saturdays.

Carl got himself a cup of coffee and settled into his work station. He was still reading emails from overnight when he heard Esther’s footsteps approaching. “Hi, Esther,” he said cheerfully.

“Hey, Carl,” she returned, smiling. She pulled a chair from a neighboring desk and settled heavily into it. “Could I talk privately with you for a few minutes this morning?”

“Sure, what’s up?” Carl swung his back to his computer and leaned back in his chair. One never knew what words were going to come out of Esther’s mouth. She was a wonderful storyteller with years of anecdotes to share. She was also remarkably perceptive about things that happened in the office. Their boss sometimes joked that Esther came with the building; she knew the details of the business in great detail, and her co-workers often consulted her for the benefit of her memory and her wisdom.

“This is about you and Number Seven,” Esther said. Of course she did not refer to their coworker as “Number Seven.” She used the young woman’s real name. Carl, however, preferred to think of her as “Number Seven.”

“What about us?” Carl asked casually, but he felt a sinking feeling in his stomach. He didn’t mind people talking about him, but he had no desire to make trouble for Number Seven.

“Oh, people are talking…” Esther’s voice trailed off.

Trying to be humorous, Carl leaned forward and whispered, “What are they saying?”

“They’re saying that you laugh just a little too loud; you stand just a little too close; you stare…”

Carl held up his hand. “You’d better stop right there,” he said. “You can only quote so many words from a song before you need to pay someone some money.”

“Even so, you get the idea. I remember how badly hurt you were when Rosa left. It took you ages to get over her.” Carl nodded. He had never mentioned anything at work about the counseling he had received or the medicines he was still taking. Yes, he had become overly fond of Rosa, and her departure had indeed been painful. Now, with Number Seven, he was starting to sense the same subtle and hidden euphoria that Rosa used to inspire. “Carl, I don’t want to see you hurt again.”

Nodding, Carl said, “Thank you for your concern. I don’t want to be hurt again.”

Esther patted his shoulder. “Well, just be careful then. You’re a big boy; you know how to take care of yourself.” Slowly she stood, returned the chair to its place, and started back toward her own desk.

Carl spent the rest of the weekend pondering what to say to Number Seven. Esther was right–he had been going out of his way to start conversations with her. He thrilled to hear her voice and to see her smile. More than that, she was knowledgeable and thoughtful about the same things that interested Carl. Even though she mentioned her husband, Ken, at least once a day, Carl did not sense that she was warning him to stay away from her. She never crossed the building to talk with him at his desk, but she also never seemed to mind when he stopped to share a few words with her. She didn’t avoid eye contact if he happened to look in her direction.

Carl wanted to ask her if he was making her uncomfortable. He wanted to ask if he was spending too much time with her. He wanted to ask her if she wanted him to change his habits. He could not think of any way of asking these questions that would not be awkward and possibly intimidating.

Number Seven spared him the trouble. When she arrived at work Monday morning, she walked straight to his desk and said, “Carl, we need to talk.”

“OK,” he responded.

“It’s kind of private,” she warned him.

“Let’s go for a walk, then,” he suggested. “As you know, there are no places to talk in this building where we won’t be overheard.”

Carl and Number Seven left the building, went around the corner, and strolled for about a block. Then, suddenly, Number Seven stopped, looked up at Carl, and said, “How did you get into my mind this weekend?”

Carl smiled. “Was I in your mind this weekend?”

“Most of it, yes. It started Saturday morning when I was driving to my parents’ house. Ken had to work all weekend, and I haven’t seen my folks since Mothers’ Day, so I thought I’d spend some time with them. All three hours of the trip, you were on my mind. It’s like you were there in the car with me.”

Still smiling, Carl joked, “Well, I’m sorry I ruined your weekend.”

“You didn’t ruin anything. In fact, I kind of enjoyed the company, not having to drive alone. But then Sunday morning in church I was thinking about you, and driving home Sunday night I was thinking about you.”

Carl gestured toward a bench. “Let’s sit,” he offered. When they were sitting, he asked, slowly and carefully, “Do you think I’ve spent too much time talking with you at work the last week or two?”

Number Seven shook her head. “No, I don’t. If anything, I wondered why you waited three years to start saying more than ‘hello’ to me. But I don’t think you’ve gone too far. Esther and Judy and Ruth all visit with me at least as much as you do. Judy and Ruth spend up to an hour talking to each other in the break room every morning, and Bob and Bob have long conversations that aren’t work related. So I don’t think we’re doing anything wrong.”

Carl swallowed. “But it bothers you that you were thinking about me over the weekend.”

“I didn’t say that it bothered me. It was kind of strange, but kind of sweet, in a way.”

“Look,” Carl exclaimed. “I want you to know this: I do not want to cause any problems in your marriage. I don’t want to come between Ken and you, and I don’t intend to wish him away. Even if you wanted me to, I wouldn’t start anything with you.”

Number Seven laughed. “Oh, Carl, you are no threat to my marriage. Ken and I are getting along great, and I’m not looking for any side adventures. Is that why you’re always so polite and proper and stiff? Are you afraid that I’d think you’re coming on to me?”

“I’m always careful,” Carl said, feeling a blush rise in his cheeks and ears. “I’ve got no social skills. I never know how I look or sound to other people. And I don’t want to make the wrong impression.”

“Carl, you can relax with me. I’m sorry—I wouldn’t have teased you just now about being on my mind this weekend if I thought you would take it like that.” She laid her hand on his arm. “If you say or do anything that’s inappropriate, I’ll let you know. Meanwhile, you can stop being scared of me—and keep on dropping by to visit me. I like that.”

“Listen,” Carl added, “I want you to know this: I will never allow anyone to hurt you in any way—and that ‘anyone’ includes me.”

“Alright already,” Number Seven laughed. “You have not hurt me in any way. Now just drop it and stop worrying, OK?”

Carl sighed and smiled. “OK” was all he could think of to say.

Number Seven stood and stretched out her hand to him. “Friends?” she asked.

“Friends,” he said, shaking her hand before standing to walk back to work with her.

Of course neither of these conversations actually happened, outside of Carl’s imagination. The following conversation, though, is very real, even though Carl did all of the actual talking.

“Holy God, your nature is love, and you created a beautiful world and filled it with people to bear your image, loving you and loving one another. But, like so many good things, love can become twisted and broken, which is why you gave us commandments such as ‘honor your father and mother,’ and ‘do not murder or commit adultery or steal,’ and ‘do not covet your neighbor’s wife.’

“The love I have for Number Seven feels like a beautiful thing, and it is making everything else in my life seem brighter and happier. Yet I dread the thought that I might already love her too much, or in the wrong way. I do not want to harm her marriage. I do not want to claim her for myself. I simply enjoy being with her, talking with her, hearing her voice, seeing her face, and learning more about her. And I enjoy her interest in me and the way she sets aside time to talk with me.

“Father, please guide me in this confusing situation. Help me to be a friend to Number Seven without coveting her or wanting her to myself. Steer me away from temptation and from unholy living. If it is your will, please let this friendship continue to grow, since it has already cleared away so much darkness and distress from my life.

“And, if I have done wrong, please forgive me for my sin. Thank you for the comfort of knowing that, if I have strayed from your path, your Son will pursue me and restore me to where I belong. I pray this in his name, the name of Jesus Christ my Savior. Amen.”

Carl listened for an answer. Whether or not he received it is hard to say. The next time he drove his car, the radio played three songs in a row. First it played Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Starting Something,” which seemed ironic in light of Carl’s prayer. Next came Queen’s “You’re my Best Friend,” which Carl had already heard once as a message that Number Seven wanted to be his friend, nothing more. The next song was Billy Joel’s “You May Be Right.” Carl thought, “Yes, I’m crazy in a lot of different ways. I wonder what the next song will be.” But he arrived home during a string of commercials and heard no answering song. J.

Strive to be…

I have seen a clever saying: “Strive to be the person your dog thinks you are.” While that would be good advice for many people, it doesn’t work for me. I don’t have a dog; I have two cats. I don’t know if I should strive to be the person they think I am. Sometimes they think I am a piece of furniture. Sometimes I distract them when they want to sleep, and sometimes I sleep when they want to be distracted. I provide them with food and water, and I clean their litter boxes. If it wasn’t for that, they might not notice my existence at all.

I do not need to strive to be the person they think I am. I already am that person. They see me as a bundle of contradictions. I leave the house for hours at a time, and always at the best times for getting a few naps. Then I sleep through the best times for exploring the house and having fun. I prepare food and eat food off of surfaces so disgustingly dirty that I won’t even allow my cats to walk across those surfaces. I spend long periods of time staring at objects in my hands instead of batting those objects across the room and then chasing after them. When they want to greet me in a natural way, I turn them around so their heads are facing me.

Maybe I should strive to be the person my cats want me to be. It would take effort, but I’m sure it could be done. I would have to develop ESP so I would know, without having to look, that their food dish was nearly empty, and I would rush to fill it again. (“Nearly empty,” by the way, is defined as, “the bottom of the bowl is visible in at least one place.”) I would walk around the house every hour flushing all the toilets so they had a ready source of fresh drinking water. I would open the windows every day. (The air is always fresh and near the ideal temperature every time I open the windows, so why don’t I do it more often?) I would let the songbirds into the house so the cats could play with them instead of just watching them through the screen. I would stay home every day, take frequent naps, and be ready to play at night. I would help them figure out how to catch that red dot of light that bounces around the walls and floor and never seems to stay captured, no matter how cleverly they trap it with their paws.

No, I will never become the person my cats want me to be. They will never understand that my hours away from the house somehow make it possible for me to put food in their bowl. They will never convince me that the best conversations are not conducted face to face. But we seem to have a working relationship, and that may be what matters the most. As in so much of life, vive la difference! J.