Saturday, March 29, 2014

Tales of Employment - The Layoff and the Bicycle

Photo: Jonathan Maus - Bike Portland
I had this bright idea back in 2011 that I would write a series of blog posts entitled "Tales of Employment". I kicked it off with one of my favorite stories from my teenage years, and then I never wrote another entry on that theme. Honestly, I only have about two other stories off the top of my head that are worth telling, so here's one of them, about two and a half years later.

I was reminded of this story just recently when I bought my wife her (much belated) birthday present: a new bicycle. She had been talking about how she wanted one for some time, so I figured that it would make for a good gift. Unfortunately, I had to wait until I had some money to spend. Luck also favored me, as I recently got a raise (expecting a back-pay check next month) and I was able to get one for myself as well. When I got mine, I rode it back from the bicycle shop, and my mind flooded with memories. Since I basically live in the same area in which I grew up, it reminded me of riding with my friends when I was a kid. However, it also reminded me of the day I got laid off from my dotcom job.

I worked a lot of different jobs before I became a teacher, the last of which was as an Assistant Product Manager at (At least, I think that was my job title - we're talking over thirteen years ago now.) I had been working there for about a year, as I had quit my previous job at LookSmart. (There is still a but I don't think that it has any connection to the company for which I once worked.) Basically what I did there was write a lot of copy, and I created pages for the merchandise section of the store. I'm sure that I did some other stuff, but my memory is getting hazy.

I'd probably never say it back then, even though I was thinking it, but my salary was ridiculously high considering my skill set. I'm pretty sure that they figured this out as well considering that I'm pretty sure that some of the folks who were hired after me weren't making quite as much. Still, I guess I must not have been a completely useless twit, as I survived the first big round of layoffs that the company had. The way I remember it, there were a few people trickling away from the company at first, one after another. Each time they laid a few people off, the CEO would make some kind of a speech about how we "finally have the team we need". Then there was a big cut - maybe about a third of the company. After that, there were a few more, and then one day...

At the time, I was living out in Martinez, California (that's the left side of America, for you non-'muricans) and the company was (still is?) in San Francisco (in the North Beach area). It would take me about an hour and a half to commute there by BART. Fortunately for me, I got to telecommute three days a week. I usually would go into the office on Mondays and Fridays. I suppose that I should have suspected something when my boss, Victor, (who was a cool guy - no knocks on him) emailed me to make sure that I was there on Friday, as there was going to be a "meeting".

Turns out that the meeting consisted of me, Victor, some other guy (can't seem to remember who - but I remember there being somebody else) and the CFO. They gave me a folder and let me know that they were letting me go. In the folder was all kinds of information about how to continue my health benefits and contacting unemployment. Plus, they gave me another two weeks pay. (And once again to Victor's credit, he even managed to hook me up with some freelance work for the company for some time after I had officially made my departure.)

This was a crappy day for me. Not long before that, Kirsti and I had bought our first house, so worries about paying the mortgage sprang instantly to mind. Plus, I absolutely detest job hunting. Something about it just feels so degrading, especially when I have to pretend that I care about stuff that I don't care about - because the truth is that I just wanted to make some damned money. It took me about a month until I finally got my first teaching job - but that's a story for another day.

The things that I remember are as follows:

1. I was listening to Weezer's "Green Album" when I drove home. I can never hear the song "Island in the Sun" without thinking of that day. I also can't think of that day and not think of this song.

2. I spent so much damned time looking through Craig's List trying to find a job, and I started falling into despair when I simply wasn't qualified for any of them.

3. It was a real blow to my self esteem. I'm intensely self-critical, and it basically made me feel like I was completely worthless. Even though I have the Most Supportive Wife in the World, I still couldn't shake the feeling that I was pretty much useless, and I dreaded the thought of working in something as horrible as retail again. (I'm okay now, folks. Teaching is the only job where thoughts of doing it until retirement don't scare the hell out of me.)

4. I knew that I would be stewing on it and slowly driving myself crazy if all I did was sit around the house. After doing a bit of job hunting online the first day, I went out on a long bike ride. (See! There's the bicycle connection.) I rode and rode and rode all over the town of Martinez. Also, it was in June, so it was hot, and I was sweating like crazy. I essentially rode myself to a point of exhaustion, as that was the only way I'd ever be able to get some sleep.

When I went for my first ride on my new bike, I remembered that day. It reminded me of what great exercise riding a bike can be, and what a great way it is to clear my head.  Even more importantly, it made true the words of Aeneas, as written by Virgil in The Aeneid: "haec olim meminisse iuvabit" or “Maybe someday you will rejoice to recall even this.”

That's a good thing to keep in mind the next time I'm faced with a hardship.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The power of Satan

When I was a kid, the idea of Jesus definitely resonated with me. However, when I look back at it all, it seems like the idea of Satan resonated even more. I'm not saying that I liked the idea, but the fear of Satan felt more palpable than the love of Jesus ever did.

As I've explained in past blog posts, much of the theology I grew up with came from the Jehovah's Witnesses, and they make a big deal out of old Lucifer and his band of demons. See, they're out there, and they're always looking for some kind of way to influence you, but if you just call upon God, then Jehovah/Yahweh/Jesus will send them packing. As a result, I spent many nights under my sheets saying "Jehovah" a few extra times just to make sure that all the demons were gone.

(Side note - I sometimes get grief from my fellow nonbelievers for supposedly wanting to take away the "comfort" of religion from people. That bears another blog entry on its own, but let me just say this - not every religious idea brings "comfort". In fact, some of them bring quite the opposite of that.)

Things are different now, obviously. I attended a church service a few years ago, and the pastor mentioned about how some of the folks there were currently undergoing struggles with Satan. I successfully managed to not roll my eyes, but it took some effort. Sorry, but it just seems funny to me now. I also find it oddly amusing when people on Facebook refer to him as "the enemy" as though he's flippin' Voldemort or something.

With all that said though, while I obviously don't believe in a literal Satan, I do believe that there is a lot of power in the idea of Satan.

No, I don't think that he works very well in the context of Christianity for several reasons. For starters, he's a mish-mash of concepts that don't quite come together. The whole thing with him being the serpent in the Garden of Eden, for starters, is a total retcon. Yeah, he's in the book of Job as well, but go talk to a Jewish friend - he's hardly the evil being who Christians make him out to be. He's more like an employee of Yahweh, tasked with bringing up challenges. Obviously, he's an evolved concept once he gets into the Christian scriptures, perhaps having an influence from Angra Mainyu of Zoroastrianism. (And let's not forget that his look is derived from a satyr, who represented sexual pleasure (often sporting an enormous phallus) that the pagan Greeks prized so much and the Christians poo-pooed.  Even within the context of Christian tradition though, his role has changed. According to the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law's Douglas O. Linder, it wasn't until the 13th Century that the role of Satan went from that of a "mischievous spoiler" to the Prince of Darkness we all know and love today.

Even if we take him at his present roll within the faith, he has to be the absolute lamest villain ever. He's supposed to be really smart, yet he's dumb enough to think that he can challenge an omniscient being and somehow win. When we take the prophecies at the meaning that many Christians would have us take them, the only thing Satan would have to do in order to beat God is to not do anything - thus nullifying any prophecies about what he's supposedly going to do and how God will ultimately defeat him. Shoot, Satan could devote his time and energy to feeding the starving, and that alone would make him beat God and even make God out to be a bit of a jerk in the process. But no, he's going to do exactly what God says that he's going to do - making him either stupid or a willing participant in some sort of epic farce that God has planned out for the universe. Seriously, it's not a very threatening ultimate villain when the average person is able to out-think him.

Speaking of Satan being a willing participant though, that's exactly how he works when it comes to propagating Christianity. (Or Islam, as I know that he plays a role in that religion as well.) For many Christians, when they come to start doubting their faith, Satan is a convenient entity to blame. In other words, it's a good way to stop questioning, as the very idea of it is evil, so why would you even want to go down that road?

If such an evil entity exists, and the only thing that can protect you from it is God, then why take chances on abandoning the belief that's protecting you from such a malevolent force? This is why many Christians will insist that there's a Satan who's a very real being indeed. I know that I used to be one of them. I would argue with people who claimed to believe in God but didn't believe in Satan. I remember thinking that the "The greatest deception of Satan was convincing people he doesn't exist" argument was really clever. (If you still think it's clever, try replacing "Satan" with "Darth Vader" and realize that it works just about the same.)

In an odd sort of way, I kind of hate Satan more now than I ever did when I actually believed in him. Obviously, I don't hate the being, but I hate the concept of him, as it's obviously designed to prevent people from thinking.

(And yes, I know that some Christians will protest and say that their faith allows them to question. And what are they told to do when they question? Go pray about it. In other words, go reconfirm your bias.)