Month: November 2014

Death with dignity

At a Sunday afternoon Mass in August, Deacon Bob approached the podium to speak.  “Over this past week, I went to the doctor and I got my test results back.  I found out that my cancer has returned, and I have at most six months to live.”  He paused.  I felt the anxious sadness ripple through the congregation, but Deacon Bob stood tall, his face serene.  “But you know,” he continued, “I found out my prognosis on Thursday.  But God knew on Wednesday, and God knew on Tuesday.  Nothing is a surprise to God.”  He continued to speak for several minutes, sharing his meditations on the end of life with us.  He spoke with great academic depth, but at a level that a layperson could understand.

What struck me was how even though this man was facing his imminent death, he was the center of strength for all of us as we grappled with the news together.  With his unshakeable faith that everything was right with the world, including his place in it, “Nothing is a surprise to God” was a supremely comforting way to accept the inevitable.

Through the fall and into the winter, Deacon Bob continued to serve at Mass, and he continued to give the homily from time to time, with his trademark blend of calm wisdom and approachable intellectualism.  Until one Sunday he stumbled, and then straightened up as we rose for the Creed, his face ashen.  He never served at Mass again.

One late January morning before Mass, a red-eyed Father Jim walked to the front of the sanctuary and addressed the congregation – “I wanted to let you all know that Deacon Bob passed away a little bit after 2 this morning.  Both his wife and I were able to be with him as he passed into the arms of Our Savior.  He was very thankful for all your love, support, and prayers over these last several months.”  All of us spent Mass either openly weeping or stifling tears – even Father Jim, usually so full of joy to say Mass, choked back tears that morning.

Time passed, one Sunday after another, and eventually Mass without Deacon Bob became the new normal.

The following January, on the first anniversary of Deacon Bob’s death, Father Jim took a few minutes to remember him – “Even at the end, he never doubted, not for one minute, that God loved him and that God was with him.”

Watching the end of Deacon Bob’s life was like watching the textbook definition of a good death.  The type of death that I wish for myself and for everyone I love.  If I am given the gift of knowing when my time is coming, I hope I have the courage to face it, accept it, and prayerfully await the end with half the wisdom of Deacon Bob.

For Brittany Maynard, Deacon Bob, and anyone else who has had to look death in the eye.

candle prayer

How to talk to clients

Or: A professional tutorial for the awkward.

I was reading a post by Elizabeth Esther some time ago in which she gives some great advice to a reader who is working on catching up to everyone else in knowing how to be socially normal.  And that reminded me – you know, I had to do something similar.  I was a bit of a loner growing up and I am naturally socially awkward; I had to teach myself how to be normal.  So if that is you, you are not alone.

I have also noticed, after a handful of years in the workforce, that even people who are more than fine socially are not comfortable handling themselves professionally.  So you have a situation where the awkward person (that’s me) has to teach the not-awkward person how to not be awkward at work.  IRL irony!  It’s the best.

I’ve found that having a basic script to work from can really help you develop your confidence because you have some stock phrases to fall back on.  Now, when you work as a CPA (an auditor in particular), you start at a disadvantage, interpersonally.  The client might be polite and pleasant enough, but the bottom line is that you are a nuisance to them, and you interfere with the timely completion of their job.  So your keys to success are to be the most likeable, pleasant, respectful nuisance you can possibly be.

Disclaimer: Some of this may be pretty female-specific, because I am aware that I have to walk that assertive-submissive tightrope in order to be effective in certain circles.  But I think the general principles still apply to males as well. 

Here’s how I usually begin:

1. Get their attention.

I usually do this with a knock on their door / cubicle or a verbal “knock, knock” if my hands are full, followed by, “Do you have a minute?”  Now, this opening gambit serves two purposes:

a) actually getting their attention while giving them a bit of time to shift their focus from (insert miscellaneous task here) to whatever insightful, brilliant question you have come to ask them.

b) showing them that you are respectful of their time (pleasant, respectful nuisance, remember?) by giving them the opportunity to say “no.” If they say “yes” right away, game on! If not, follow up with “When would be a good time to come back?”  And then make sure you arrange your schedule to accommodate them, if possible.

2. Open with some general background information that leads into your question.

Example question: “I was looking at the detail of your expenses for dilithium containment field generator maintenance ….”

Why do I do this?  Again, two purposes:

a) give them a bit more time to mentally shift their focus from (insert miscellaneous task here) to whatever insightful, brilliant question you have come to ask them. Yes, I know that was the purpose of “Knock, knock – do you have a minute?” but it takes a bit longer than that for most people, so you want to stall for a FEW more seconds before you jump into the heavy content.

b) show them that you are not lazy or stupid. You have started the work on your own to the limit of your understanding and while you need their help to fill in the blanks, you will not be asking them to do your work for you. You are well on your way to being the best likeable, respectful nuisance you can be.

3. Ask the question in a blame-neutral way.

Example question: (continued from above) “I was looking at the detail of your expenses for dilithium containment field generator maintenance, and I noticed an item labeled ‘JACK DANIELS’ for $5,000 – could you help me understand what that is?

Note that I do NOT ask – “Why are you running alcohol purchases through company expenses?  Did you REALLY think I wouldn’t see this?”  That would immediately put them on the defensive, and you would get zero cooperation from them for the rest of the job.  Which would of course be your fault because that’s how your company works.  So don’t do that.

If you phrase your question in a way that assumes they did everything right, you give them an opportunity to continue to be right and explain why this thing that looks weird to an external auditor (i.e. you) is actually totally cool.  Because let’s face it – they know their job WAY better than you do; if you assume that you can walk in there and in 30 minutes figure out that they screwed everything up, you have been reading too many juicy audit fantasy novels.

Wait, those don’t exist?  Huh.  Well, they should.  Maybe I’ll write one.

Like this

Like this

Anyway, moving on –

4. Listen to their answer and ask them to repeat key details until you understand what they are saying.  If necessary, ignore relevant details, interrupt with an “excuse me, could you please clarify?” – type question, and / or redirect them to the actual issue at hand.

Example dialogue:

Client: “Oh man, that project was a real doozy.  I gotta tell you, man, I was already running late that day because my frakkin’ dentist was SO slow, so I’m in a bad mood, but then Beuchamp across the hall just comes in practically skipping with glee, so I’m like, whaaat?  And then …”

Me: *Smile, chuckle* “That sounds really great, but could you tell me specifically about this ‘JACK DANIELS’ expense for $5,000?”

Client: “I’m getting there!  So we had this contractor who was just the worst.  Showed up late reeking of booze, did a crap job, we had to fire him …”

Me: “Okay, but …”

Client: “ … and then to top it off, I saw him hanging around the front desk a week later!  I told him, dude – GTFO or I’m calling the cops …”

Me:  “Wow, sounds like you guys had some issues with this guy.  But I just need to know what this expense item is – could you help me understand it?”

Client: “Oh sure!  Why didn’t you say so?  The contractor’s name was Jack Daniels, and we paid him $5,000 for his time and the work that he started.  See?  Here’s the contract, here’s the invoice, and here’s the memo from legal documenting the termination of the contract.”

Me: “Great – thanks for your help!”

Now, I just want to go on record and say that most clients are not as scatterbrained as this hypothetical guy.  But some of them are much, much worse.  I once worked with a guy who was every bit the stereotypical monotone accountant.  He would just go on and on and on …. And on … and on … A simple phone call with me trying to pick out the actual answers to my questions was exhausting.

“But Athena, how can I be a respectful, likeable nuisance if I’m interrupting them?”

Great question – generally they won’t react badly if you interrupt with a respectful “excuse me”; this is their expectation of you as a nuisance working in your favor.  Also, if you are successful in managing the conversation so you are out of their hair faster, they will dislike you less.

5. End by saying “Thank you.”

Example: See above.  Alternatively “Thanks for your time.”

Regardless of how helpful (or unhelpful) your client is, ALWAYS say thank you.

Why do I do this?  It just ends the conversation on a pleasant note.  Nothing more complicated than that.


Now, I wrote the above with examples from my job as an auditor, but the script is more broadly applicable than that.  For example, I use it every time I approach a store employee when out shopping, or a coworker in my office, or really anytime I need to approach someone in a professional setting.

Feel free to let me know if you have any suggestions!

Marriage from hell: the beginning

Or: Why I left.

I’ve posted all this before, but it was in a post where I was specifically responding to a post from someone else.  So I wanted to put it in a place that stands on its own.


I married a man that had been my best friend for a year and a half.  Would I have seen something in him to warn me to cut and run if we had dated longer before marriage?  I don’t know.  But I do know that if you don’t at least give yourself some time, you really limit your opportunities to see the red flags before it’s too late.  You want to know if that great guy you just met is actually a great guy or if it’s just a façade.  A really savvy abuser can say and do anything to convince you that he is The One.  Give to the needy?  Yup.  Go to church with you?  That too.  Have deep philosophical discussions about God, the universe and everything?  That as well.  He can also take care of you when you’re sick, cheer you up when you’re in a bad mood, explore your taste in movies and music, introduce you to his taste, and discover new passions and hobbies with you.  He can even be absolutely committed to marriage and lifelong love and putting every effort in to keep your marriage going strong.

Until you actually get married.

And you have a baby.

And you decide to stay home, because you both agree that it’s very important for children to be raised by a stay-at-home parent if at all possible.

Suddenly, the power dynamic in the relationship has changed.  You’re not working, plus you’re busy with the children, while he makes all the money and is free to come and go as he pleases.

And because he can go wherever he pleases, he finds himself in the arms of another woman.  And then another one.  And he comes home and tells you about it because he wants to be “honest.”  And then he asks for your permission to continue – “Don’t you want me to be happy?  I’m not happy with you.”  Of course you’re upset about this – he did promise to be faithful to you, didn’t he?  And funny enough, cheating was never even close to an issue while you were dating.  Knowing your spouse is unfaithful is painful enough; knowing your spouse is unrepentantly unfaithful is soul-crushing.  So you get upset, and you fight.  It gets physical.  You scream.  Neighbors call police.  Police come and find a quivering, shaking woman with not a scratch on her.  You’re a little fuzzy on what happened because it happened so fast, but you know you’re going to have some bruises, um, here, and you think over here, too.  He soberly and carefully points out the bites and scratches you made to desperately fight back against him, sadly telling the police that he doesn’t know why you did this to him but he loves you so he doesn’t want to press charges.  You try to interject that he unplugged the phone so you couldn’t call for help, shoved you across the room, threw you down to the ground, your neck narrowly missing the edge of a crate on the ground, pinned you down and started to choke you.  He had pulled back when you bit him which gave you enough air to scream.  He looks at you sadly, then shares a knowing look with the police, “She’s crazy – you see what I have to put up with?”  And of course he had found a second to put the phone cord back in the wall before they showed up.

And because you live where he is stationed, you have no family or friends to turn to for help.  No money of your own because you don’t work.  No one to take care of the kids even if you were to get a job.  Nowhere to go that you can get to on one tank of gas.  Any of the friends you do have were his friends first and guess whose side they take when it all falls apart?  That’s right – his.  You have NOBODY.

So you try, and you try, and you try harder.  Whenever you try to talk to him about that night, you want him to know how hurt you were and you want him to apologize.  He looks at you like you’re crazy – “that never happened.”  No matter what you say, he appears not to know what you are talking about.  So you start to wonder if you are crazy.  Maybe it was your fault.  Maybe you were just imaging things.  Maybe you were overreacting.  It’s not like you have any other options, right?  You try being the woman he wants.  You dye your hair, do your nails the way he likes, wear the clothes he likes, try to always cook dinner on time and always have the house clean.  You stop talking to the couple friends you managed to make because he doesn’t like them.  You act like a porn star in bed for him.  You do … things … that he physically forces you to do.  And the worst part is – you end up reprogramming yourself mentally into thinking that this is normal in order to survive.  Marriage changes you, right?  Marriage involves sacrifice, right?  Love keeps no record of wrongs, right?  You need to be committed to marriage as an institution because divorce is bad, right?  See?  Nothing to worry about – everything is fine!  It’s a feature of marriage, not a bug.

“Okay, Athena.  That’s all well and good … I guess … but what does this have to do with anything?”

The reason I’m telling you all this is because I want it to be absolutely clear that I didn’t leave my ex lightly.  I believed with my whole heart (and still do!) in the sacredness and permanence of marriage.  I married a man who had been my best friend; and being his wife nearly destroyed me.

Negativity is all well and good, but I think it’s very important to balance it out with the happy ending.  Part I is here.

Cartoon Roundup: Veteran’s Day 2014

Hi everyone – Happy Veteran’s Day!  An extra big thank you to all combat veterans – my thoughts and prayers are with all of you especially today.

I saw some really good cartoons for today, but I wanted to start with this –

Google shot

Yup – that’s what Google looks like today!  I will admit that it makes me a little nostalgic because the Air Force girl standing in for the letter “L” actually looks a lot like how I looked in uniform.

Yup you read that right – yours truly spent three whole years in the Air Force, which technically makes me a veteran.  But to be honest I don’t think I deserve the title.  I sat in a bunker with headphones and didn’t see a day of combat; my life was never actually in danger.  When I think of someone who has earned the title “veteran” I think of these gentlemen –

155928_600 156074_600

They are the ones who have truly earned today’s traditional social nicety –


Speaking of which, I read an interesting opinion on that phrase, “Thank you for your service.”  I was never sure what to say in response, especially since there are SO many people who deserve thanks for their service and their sacrifice before I do.  But I finally found the right response – “The honor was mine.”  Because that’s how I feel – every day it was a privilege to don the uniform and symbolically become a part of our indomitable national defense machine.

In no particular order –

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Just a couple images I thought were cool.  As someone who appreciates the military traditions of saluting the flag and other gestures of respect toward our national symbols, I like the image of Uncle Sam (and symbolically the whole country) turning the tables and saluting the veterans.


I picked this one just because it’s clearly a non-white soldier.  I didn’t see too many cartoons recognizing the racial diversity of our armed forces, so I had to grab this one.


A cynical juxtoposition of how we celebrate Veteran’s Day vs. what a significant number of veterans have to actually put up with.


And to finish it off – ever since I was introduced to the poem in middle school, I can’t read the poem In Flanders Fields without tearing up.

And on that note, I wish I could think of a graceful way to close, but instead I’ll just say to all the veterans out there – Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for your service!

Toddler tantrums

Everyone who has not had children knows that toddlers only ever scream or have tantrums while safely at home out of the public eye.  In the event that a toddler decides to start screaming in public, everyone knows that the parent ought to be able to calm the child.  In fact, plenty of parents will jump in here and agree that it’s always possible to calm or quiet a screaming child in public, because children with varying personalities and levels of development are magically all the same in this one regard.  But on the off chance that you fail as a parent and cannot calm your child, well then it is your Sacred Duty™ to remove the child so you don’t risk offending anyone else.

Never mind that you have no other opportunity to get your grocery shopping done or stop at the post office or pick up your glasses – thou shalt not, under any circumstances, remain in public with a screaming child.  It’s the 11th Commandment – look it up.  Why would you think it’s okay for you to finish up your errand?  How entitled are you?

Any parent out in public with a screaming toddler should be prepared (and grateful!) when strangers scold them for their inadequate parenting skills.  They should bow their heads meekly and accept an exhortation to “Go to hell!” as if it were the most benign of blessings.  It is, of course, the parent’s fault in the first place for even HAVING children.  It is further the height of irresponsibility to have children while single and without having at least two forms of backup childcare available whenever you need to go grocery shopping; how dare you inflict your irresponsible choices on me!

“But what does any of that have to do with anything?  The fact remains that I’m here, and my baby is here, and we both need to eat.  When exactly am I supposed to go to the store?”

You made your bed, now sleep in it!  Now that you’ve procreated irresponsibly, it’s on you to rearrange your schedule so that you’re not shopping at the same time that I am.

“But I can’t rearrange my schedule!  I only have daycare during the hours I’m in class, and I only have a very narrow window between class time and when the grocery store opens / closes!  I’m doing homework the rest of the time!”

Well you should have thought of that before you decided to breed.  Your kids are not my problem.  Period.  By the way, your defiant, entitled attitude isn’t earning you any sympathy.

“I don’t need your sympathy – your sympathy isn’t going to do my coursework, buy my groceries, or care for my children.”

*Scoff*  Parents these days.