Saturday, January 9, 2010

"Confessions of a Church Secretary:" One From the Vault - March 2K

 Like many of us, I find myself going through old letters and papers at this time of  year - especially as I'm STILL (after 3-1/2 years here) unpacking the half-garage-full of boxes.  There are a lot of them, taking up nearly half of a smallish two-car garage.  And I know, having counted them when I was moving, that there are more than 70 boxes full of books.  I once counted them, and had over 800 volumes that I couldn't part with, mostly reference works, biographies, gay lit, English Lit, writing- and theater-related, American and World literature and letters, mysteries and horror (including a three-foot shelf of H. P. Lovecraft and other Arkham House works), and sundry art and occult/esoteric works.  Thank God mother's friend June suggested using clothing as packing material, otherwise each box would have required two people to lift it.  As it is, the boxes (stacked six high and four deep) are still quite heavy.

When I'd first met Robert, his family background in fundamentalist "Christianity" still influenced his views on my interests in witchcraft, Buddhism, Judaica, and other spiritual paths.  He was so disturbed by my foot-long expanse of books on witchcraft, Wicca, and early pagan religious survivals that I finally just dumped them all into a box that I left out in the alley garbage dumpster.  Ironically, a decade later he decided that Wicca was for him and started taking instruction in its history, tenets, and practices.  Over the next few years, he acquired book after book, despite not being a reader of much else (except John Christopher's "White Mountains" trilogy).  By the time he died and I moved, we had two half-sized bookshelves filled with witchcraft, Buddhism, Judaica, and other spiritual paths, etc.  The foot-long shelf of esoterica had become three feet, and one box-worth finally filled three.

As I'm going through the boxes, I'm finding all kinds of things, including some computer diskettes with letters and other information from 1999 onward.

The following was written to my aunt in March of 2000, so this is "One From the Vault."

Sharon –

Had a busy and productive day yesterday (usually they’re just busy), so I can finally sit down and write something more than a blip.  I’ve got so much to catch you up on that this may be quite lengthy . . .

You asked for a newsy note, but you should know by now that with me it’s either not enough, or too much.  So . . . why don’t you make yourself a cup of tea, put your feet up, and settle in for a visit.

MANY REASONS I’D CHANGE JOBS, despite loving it and having a great boss:

FIRST, I have to commute 45 minutes to an hour by bus(es) in the morning.

It wouldn’t be so awful were it not for the fact that the number 90 series buses that I take pass by Jefferson Middle (Jr. High) school, Wilson High, and Cal State University Long Beach.  The buses run every 15 minutes, but are still packed – especially during the AM and afternoon peak times.  Even the Zap (express) buses get pretty full.  The worst time so far we had two wheelchairs (loading and unloading of which throws off the schedule by about 5 minutes – not too bad), and 24 people standing for almost 30 city blocks!

Aside from the congestion, bear in mind that the buses are packed with children from the ages of 12 to 20 lugging backpacks and book bags – not enough lockers on campus.  Lockers are becoming rarer, in some instances being eliminated since they might conceal weapons or drugs.  Even when they’re available, there aren’t enough to go around, because the population has boomed while school construction has waned.  Thanks to Howard Jarvis and Proposition 13, which rolled back property taxes and gutted public services, we’re still playing catch-up in our schools 20 years later.

The children don’t know how to sit in a seat and keep backpacks on their laps.  Instead, they take up another seat with the bag. 

In short, I’m getting old and cranky because THESE KIDS TODAY JUST AIN’T RIGHT!  (why, in my day, I bicycled 2 miles to school . . . )  Oh, well, that’s life in the big city. 

It really wouldn’t be so draining if the little darlings weren’t so foul-mouthed.  I despair when I hear a conversation between young (16?  14?  12?)   African-Americans (both sexes) that’s filled with examples like:  “F***, niggah, his m*****-f***ing a**  best not even f***ing f*** with me.  Sh**, cuz, I f*** that niggah up good.”  The repetitive use of obscenities gets on my nerves, but I can pretty much screen it out – after a while a word repeated often enough ceases to have any meaning.  HOWEVER . . . the use of “The N Word” drives me up the wall.   Don’t these brats have a clue that it’s just not acceptable in public? 

Suffice it to say, my blood pressure could stand a change of commute, and I’ve developed a nostalgic longing for the good old days of high taxes and plentiful public school buses.

SECOND REASON:  My successor at Trinity Lutheran has put in her two weeks resignation notice.  She lasted exactly one year, before burning out just as I did. 

The problem was (and is) that Trinity’s senior pastor (WHO SHALL REMAIN NAMELESS) is autocratic, demanding, sneaky, dishonest, mean-spirited, gossipy, greedy, lazy, and runs the place as if it were a military base . . . follow orders, never presume to correct him or ask questions, etc.  In his ten years there, he’s had six (seven?  eight?) secretaries.  I worked there a year and nine months, and was miserable for a year and a half of it.

A shame really, as the associate pastor is worth his weight in gold . . . really walks the walk (and does three-quarters of the work), while the other one merely talks the talk, takes the credit, and continues to erode the congregational attendance and financial base.  

(Something about “practicing what one preaches” springs to mind)

Fortunately, the bad pastor may soon transfer to Florida, so that he can damage public perception of the ELCA in another state.  The congregational council, after years of putting up with him, buying his load of goods, etc., has finally started putting their feet down and demanding accountability.  Even his staunchest and oldest friend, after a year on the council, is ready to start agitating for a congregational meeting to oust him. 

(It’s been a long time coming – almost like Darwinian evolution – but the council has started to develop a spine.)

Particularly galling for me is that Trinity is Long Beach’s only RIC (Reconciling in Christ) congregation – a designation that Lutherans Concerned (organization of gay and lesbian Lutherans working toward full inclusion in church life) uses to denote congregations which welcome and affirm gay men and lesbians as members of their congregations . . . including acknowledging their long-term committed relationships.  “Acknowledging” DOESN’T mean holding “gay weddings,” “same-sex marriages,” or ceremonies of holy union.  It means that a church bulletin, for instance, might note that Howard and John have been together for 28 years now, and offer congratulations.

So, Long Beach’s only RIC congregation has a senior pastor who takes it for granted that he’ll be supported by the gay and lesbian members because Trinity’s the only game in town.  Meanwhile, he gives them a terrible impression of what it is to be Lutheran.  Eventually, they become resentful and decide the RIC designation is less important than real spiritual values . . . and they go elsewhere, to the Episcopalians, to the Metropolitan Community Church, to the Unitarians, or they simply abandon the church altogether and continue to drift.

Do you wonder that I left the place, and that the new secretary is ready to jump ship?

(Office politics is always nasty, and more so when it’s a church office)

So, if I were to take another position, Selma (my successor) would be immediately available for hire here.  I trained her at Trinity, where she was going to cover my vacation for 2 weeks, and have continued to help her by phone.  I’ve made it clear to her and my boss (Pastor Mary, a.k.a. “PM”) that I’d show her the ropes here and continue to be available for questions that come up. Selma has my fullest recommendation, and I think she deserves to work for more money in a position with fewer demands.  If nothing else, she deserves a loving and supportive boss after the year of hell she’s been through.

THIRD REASON:  St. Luke’s Episcopal church needs a parish administrator “yesterday.”  I know a half-dozen of the members already, and one of them (a member of their Vestry) brought my name up for consideration before I’d even learned that the job opening existed.  So, I have a slight inside edge, especially since I’d be willing to step in at the busiest time of the year.

I faxed them my resume last Thursday.  Knowing how church councils operate (way too often), I’m not expecting to hear anything for another week.

FOURTH REASON:  Ironically, St. Luke’s Episcopal is located a block from Trinity – 5 minutes by bus (or a 20 minute walk . . . and I could always use the exercise).

FIFTH REASON:  The new position would pay the same (or better), and be only four days a week instead of five.

The last reason is especially compelling because of Robert’s health.


Robert’s had been HIV positive for quite some time, but still working nine hours a day at Disneyland and commuting 1-1/2 to 2 hours each way by bus.  (Much better than when they wouldn’t schedule him during the hours the bus ran,  and for more than three years he bicycled 18-1/2 miles each way five days a week in all kinds of weather)  After years of experience, we aren’t Disney fans.  Great public image; lousy, hostile, working environment.  Pretty debilitating.

Last May, Robert noticed a swollen lump under one arm and began having trouble swallowing because of throat pain.  His primary physician did some blood work, found his viral levels through the roof and his CD-4 (T-cells) in the basement, found a fungal infection in the esophagus, and referred us to a splendid specialist.  Diagnosis:  all things taken in conjunction, Robert now “officially” has AIDS.

By June the swollen lymph nodes had kept him out of work until his sick leave had been exhausted while the new doctor began trying several combinations of anti-fungals, anti-virals, and running many tests (in and out of the office every two weeks like clockwork -- sometimes twice a week if there was a bad reaction to a medication).

In July, Robert was placed on state disability and I began hassling with the Human Resources people at Disneyland to try to find out what resources (if any) were available for an employee with AIDS.  Job protection?  Medical coverage continuance?  Support groups?  Viatical life insurance buy-out program?  COBRA health coverage information? 

They wouldn’t discuss it with anyone but “the employee.”  I’m not the employee.  I am, however, his registered domestic partner with the company (as well as in the City of Long Beach), share health insurance coverage, and am the beneficiary of his company life insurance policy.  I was told that, nonetheless, they couldn’t discuss employee benefits with anyone but the employee. 

So, while Robert’s semi-conscious, incoherent, and having fevers ranging from 102 to 104, I’m getting lots of exercise.  I ran around to an attorney friend who drew up a Statutory Power of Attorney (giving me power to discuss any and all financial matters with any and all agencies and companies including his employer), Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care, and Directive to Physician.  We then get to go (by bus, with Robert’s fevers diminished to 100-101) to the office to sign all the papers in mid-August. 

Thank God Stephanie (the attorney) did it all for free – she won the L.A. County Bar Association’s “Pro Bono” award last year, and no wonder.  Otherwise, we’d have had to have spent about $500.00 to get someone in Disneyland’s Human Resources to tell us what benefits and resources, if any, Robert (or any other employee with HIV or AIDS) would have available, or whether any kind of employee assistance program in place.  (Mind you, this is a company that gets a lot of publicity mileage out of giving a couple million dollars a year to the Pediatric AIDS Foundation)

Meanwhile, I picked the brains of five other friends, and we signed up at St. Mary’s hospital’s CARE (Comprehensive AIDS Research and Education) Program.  Within a week, Robert had been visited by a social worker familiar with available public and private resources, including daily meal deliveries if needed (so I wouldn’t have to come home in the middle of the day,); respite and/or regular housekeeping service once a week; various medical insurance continuance programs; rental assistance; transportation vouchers and/or public transit passes (including obtaining L.A. County Disabled pass).  She also told us what to do when the disability payments run out, helped to guide us through applying for long-term disability (Social Security) application, and has continued to help with information and moral support.  In addition, a nursing social worker visits him once or twice a month to monitor his status.

In mid-September, he developed anemia (family history?) and had to be hospitalized for 3 days while he was given blood transfusion (three units).  Fungal infection eliminated, lymph nodes (an atypical form of TB called MAI) beginning to respond to treatment; no appetite to speak of.

In October, just before we visited Merced, he was again hospitalized overnight for a second transfusion (2 units).  Turns out the anemia was a side-effect of one of his anti-virals, which destroys red blood cells.

Had a nice week’s visit with Mother and Bill, being very lazy and watching a lot of cable television. 

When I got back, I contacted Disneyland to find out who I should deliver copies of all the Powers of Attorney to so that I could finally get some answers . . . and I was told that because I’m already on record with the company as Robert’s registered domestic partner, ANYONE should be able to discuss ANYTHING with me AT ANY TIME – directly contradicting everything we’d already been told. 

In other words, we suffered the runaround for no reason at all.  I held my tongue and my temper, and politely told the lovely Ms. Browne what we’d gone through so far.  I further said that I hoped she or someone in Human Resources Management would see to it that the company’s domestic partnership policy was widely disseminated and clearly understood by all of Human Resources so that others would be spared this kind of frustration in the future.  She thanked me, gave me a contact number for the Employee Assistance Program (separately administered through an outside contractor in Boston, Mass), and also gave me the number of the woman at Disney World in FLORIDA! who administers the domestic partnership program . . . ye gods!

In November, reactions developed again.  Another round of tinkering with medications, adding this, subtracting that, substituting something else.  Received information from Employee Assistance in Boston, which boiled down to:  you should probably contact Social Security or a local AIDS information program about resources . . . doesn’t the Human Resources office at Disneyland have any information about local programs?”

I gave up.  We’re listening to CARE Program.  This is why I continue to boycott all Disney animated features.  In my opinion, the Great Beast 666 is Mickey Mouse . . . we already knew that Michael Eisner is the Anti-Christ.

We had a nice, quiet Christmas.   Robert’s viral load has continued to decline, but his CD-4 hasn’t increased (good news, overall).  He weighed 172 last May, and weighs 145 now.  His weight is seven pounds up from his all-time low in January.  Various problems with side effects continue to crop up, but they’re mostly minor.  He’s quite weak most of the time, but is steadily improving.

This past weekend, he came to the church spaghetti supper – his first big outing in months, other than doctor visits.

My boss has been great during all this, allowing me a completely flexible schedule to meet with doctors, lawyers, and social workers.  She and the intern pastor both visited Robert when he was in hospital.  (By the way, he’s the grandson of long-time members here).

HOW THIS TIES IN TO CHANGING JOBS:  Working at the other job would allow me to have a full weekday always set aside for doctor appointments, etc., and as it’s so much closer, I’d be available if an emergency arises at home.

This is the first time I’ve set all of this down in order all in one place.  Looking back, I realize I’ve had one of those rough years that’s so nice to have gotten to the other side of -- it’s been Job’s own year.  Mother and Bill have been wonderful during all of it.  Despite having had quite a tough row of their own to hoe, they’ve saved my sanity several times.  It would take several more pages to go into any kind of detail, so we’ll leave it at that.

During this past year, I’ve turned 40, gained 25 pounds, gotten a lot of grey hairs, acted in two plays and a church worship/drama service, and done too little housework.  I think I’ve gotten a few clues as to what things in life are important, and what aren’t, but I’m still not sure where housework falls in the grand scheme of things. 

Feeling fat, unattractive, and stressed-out in November, I started smoking again after being off cigarettes for 19 months.  Within a week, I was back up to nearly a pack a day of Camel Wide Lights; I’m now 2-1/2 weeks away from my projected quit date – thank God for Wellbutrin/Zyban.  I’m down to six True Blues a day.

Robert and I celebrated our twelfth anniversary last July.  (As one of the characters in Lanford Wilson’s “Love!  Valour!  Compassion!” says, “We’re role models.  It’s very stressful.”)  I’ll be 14 years clean and sober this coming May, and 41 next month.  Robert will be 35 in May.  We’ve been in the same apartment for eight years last month, and I’m ready to build the last two bookcases so we can “finish unpacking.”  After that, I’ll spend until about August re-painting the apartment (our landlady has approved the colors), putting in new blinds and cornices, and finally getting the place to look like “home.”  About time.

I’m helping Pastor John at Trinity (the good pastor) cast, organize, and do-direct this year’s Lenten worship/drama series, “The People vs. Judas Iscariot:  The Punishment Phase.”  Our first service is tomorrow night.

Unusual weather this winter (for southern California).  Lots of rain (which we need), regular thunderstorms – even hail the other night.  With all of this, Aunt Billie’s building project has doubtless been further delayed.

Your summer plans sound great.  We may hit Merced, Philadelphia, and Fort Lauderdale in a three-week blitz in late May/early June – regardless of whether or not I change jobs.

Love to you and Gene, and Tom and Mary . . . hope he won’t agonize too much about whether to stay in the chicken business or not.  On one hand, people will always need to eat, so it’s bound to be there for awhile.  On the other, most people will now change careers six or seven times in their working lives – as Mary’s already discovering.  As long as it’s honest work, not too horrible, and keeps a roof overhead, I hope they enjoy learning from the experience.

All right . . . there.  I’m finished now.  Now I can keep future letters down to a sane page or so . . .



This was written ten years ago, and in that time I've turned 50.  I'm smoking again, still weigh 168, and have more and more grey hairs.  Most are in my beard and chest.  I keep my face clean-shaven most of the time, and don't even want to contemplate dying my chest hair.  

I'm older, much wiser about some things than I ever wanted to be, and relatively happy.  Living in Merced, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) usually crops up, as we're virtually deprived of any direct sunlight most of the time from November through late February.  

I did one play last year, participated in mounting three others, and am rehearsing for "King Lear," which goes up next month.  I'm playing the Fool - appropriate, as I did my senior British Lit secondary source paper on "The Wisdom of the Fool in 'King Lear.'"  This will be my second time in a production of "Lear."  Thirty-two years ago, I played Oswald, the scheming steward to Goneril.  

Once again, it seems as though I've come full circle.

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