Thursday, December 28, 2006

More Remebrances of Anastasia Titov

The following was sent to me by my friend John Granger of HogwartsProfessor.com:

My name is John Granger and I met Mrs. Titov when my family lived in Houston , 1996-2001. We were recent converts to Orthodoxy and went to as many services as we could at St. Vladimir’s Russian Orthodox Church. Mrs. Titov, or Anastasia as she insisted we call her, was the choir director there. On Feast Days that fell during the week, oftentimes there were very few people at the Evening Vigil services or the Morning Liturgy. Anastasia and Rustik and Barbara Karnauch, however, were always there at the kliros to chant in English and Slavonic, as frequently as not with only my seven children and a few adults to listen. These are some of our fondest memories of life in Houston because of the kindness and good times we shared with the Karnauchs, Mrs. Titov, and the clergy at St. Vladimir’s. We asked Anastasia to be godmother to our son Timothy, born in 1998, and she agreed.

I remember celebrating Theophany at St. Vladimir’s one year when it was the priest, the kliros regulars, and my family. After the blessing of the waters and before we left for home and work, Anastasia pulled me aside and said she wanted to show me something. She dug into what she called her “God-bag” where she kept the music books and notebooks for the choir and pulled out a photograph about the size of a postcard and of a similar feel. In the picture were thousands of people standing on a snow covered frozen lake. They surrounded a central group of Orthodox priests and hierarchs. Men in rason held processional banners and icons on either side and the back of this group and one held an oversized cross. There was a visible hole in the ice. The thousands of people faced the camera and their numbers filled the picture from edge to edge.

I asked her where the picture was taken. Anastasia explained that it was taken in Harbin , China , on Theophany when she was a little girl. “This,” she said, pointing out the picture and looking me in the eye while smiling, “this was Theophany!” As I looked around the church in Houston , empty then except for the priest and the large glass container of water he had blessed, I marveled at the difference in the two scenes – and was grateful once again for the opportunity we had to worship with people like Mrs. Titov and the Karnauchs whose faith and fidelity bridged this difference and united the two.

I asked Mrs. Titov once if she and her husband Paul had come straight to this country from China after the war. “Oh, no,” she said, shaking her head and laughing at my naiveté. “They wouldn’t allow me to come. I was, after all, a sparrow.” Paul nodded his head and smiled at their inside joke. It turns out Anastasia had gone to the American consulate in China for the visa paperwork necessary to escape the Communists taking over the country. The young man who reviewed her paperwork told her that, unfortunately, she could not immigrate to the United States because she was, as a Russian born in China , “White Chinese” and subject to the quotas set for Chinese immigrants.

Anastasia told me she stood up from the chair in front of this young man’s desk, and, with as much disdain as she could muster asked him, “If a sparrow is born in a barn, sir, does that make the sparrow a cow? Do I look or sound Chinese to you?” The American official, sad to say, did not appreciate the avian treasure before him or her brilliant analogy. Anastasia by good fortune and St. John’s intercessory prayers (he was then in the Philippines ) was only able to escape the Chinese Communists in whose barn she was trapped by flying to South America .

Two quick notes about her unfeigned piety: first, Anastasia, because of her bond with her patron saint, made it a point to go to every baptism held at St. Vladimir’s. At my boy’s baptism, though she was weak and not feeling well, she insisted as Timothy’s godmother that she had to walk behind the priest as he circled the baptismal font. These three trips around could not have been easy for her but she seemed almost to be running or dancing, her head well in front of her body except for the candle she held. This is the mental picture I will always have of Mrs. Titov. I think of her, though, each time I confess. Anastasia did not commune every week but she did confess and receive at least at every major Feast that I can remember. Stone-hearted and self-important as I am, I don’t often feel or think much of anything after I confess. I think of Mrs. Titov when the prayers of absolution are said over me in my callowness because she would always be crying quietly after confessing as she prepared to receive. Memory Eternal!

Monday, December 25, 2006

HHSC Reverses Course on Welfare Privatization





What do you do when you have to release a story that you don't want people to pay attention to? You release the week before Christmas. The following two articles tell the story, but in short, the Texas Health and Human Services Commission is at long last raising the white flag on its privatization plan. For more on the background of this story, click here.

It will be very interesting to see what those who are responsible for these decisions will have to say for themselves in the next legislative session. What an incredible amount of human misery they have caused in the name of saving money... and in the end they have only thrown money down rat holes, and the price to the tax payers will be much higher than they ever needed to be. It will also take years for HHSC to get back to the level it was even a year ago.

Texas cuts contract on benefits
Janet Elliott
San Antonio Express-News Austin Bureau


AUSTIN — Texas is drastically cutting a private contract for social services because of backlogs and errors in processing applications, state officials said Thursday.
The $899 million contract with Accenture to operate call centers to determine benefits eligibility will be reduced by $356 million and will end in 2008, two years early, said Health and Human Services Commissioner Albert Hawkins.

Under the restructured contract, the Bermuda-based company will be largely relegated to data entry, leaving judgments about whether Texans qualify for food stamps, Medicaid and other welfare programs to state workers.

"We didn't draw the line between vendor work and state work in the right place," Hawkins said. "As we rebalance the roles between the state and the vendor, we will be drawing that line in a different place."

For example, if a client applying for benefits fails to list an asset such as a car, and a check of public data indicates a car is registered to the family, the situation now will be investigated by state employees, not Accenture workers.


Additionally, a planned expansion of Accenture-run call centers from two Central Texas counties to other areas of the state won't occur, Hawkins said.

The state will charge Accenture $30 million through service credits and payment discounts to recover costs incurred by the state, which has had to hire extra workers to process applications.

Accenture will retain more control over processing applications for the Children's Health Insurance Program, but state employees will handle all appeals of its decisions. Currently, clients denied benefits must first appeal to Accenture before going to the state.

Critics of privatization seized on the announced changes as evidence that the state's experiment had failed.

"They should have never (embarked on privatization) in the first place," said Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston. "I'm glad they woke up from whatever episode they were having."

No one should interpret the contract changes as a failure of privatization, said Accenture spokesman Jim McAvoy. "Some of the technology and business processes we tried to apply did not succeed. This is why you do a pilot to determine whether new structures will work."

He characterized the $30 million in service credits and discounts as "an accommodation," not a penalty.

The state's announcement was good news for state workers and groups that work with low-income Texans. Hawkins said 900 temporary positions in eligibility offices will be converted to full-time to stabilize the state work force.

"We're glad to see that HHSC is acknowledging that its call-center experiment didn't work," said Mike Gross, Texas State Employees Union vice president.

Gross said the commission should restore staffing levels at its local benefits offices to levels that existed before the contract was signed in June 2005.

Scott McCown, executive director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, an Austin group that has advocated a more cautious approach to privatization, said Thursday's announcement served as a reminder that not all duties performed by state workers can be transferred to the private sector.

"There's a tremendous amount of expertise and skill in the public sector that the private sector could not replicate," he said.

Hawkins said the state eligibility workers for the most part are better trained and more experienced.

Neither of the authors of the 2003 privatization law, Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Lewisville, and former Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth, R-Burleson, could be reached Thursday for comment.

Hawkins said the state will continue to convert 8 million food stamp, Medicaid and welfare cases to the state's new computer system, which has had its own problems.

A state audit last month said that failed interfaces between the computer and the HHSC's Office of Inspector General have left investigators unable to check for fraud and overpayments in benefit programs.

Hawkins said he thinks the computer program is working as expected and will serve as the "backbone" of the eligibility-screening system when it is in place statewide in 18 months.

Hawkins declined to comment on a decision by HHSC Inspector General Brian Flood to drop recipient fraud investigations and withdraw pending fraud cases in the Texas Integrated Eligibility Redesign System pilot area.

He downplayed concerns raised by Flood that without electronic tools to ferret out potential fraud in food stamp, aid to needy families, or children's insurance coverage, the state would not know if fraud was being perpetrated and to what amount.


Houston Chronicle:
Dec. 24, 2006, 8:40PM
Undoing the damage
Texas Health and Human Services acknowledges the shortcomings of its privatization plan


When state officials negotiated a contract with private vendors to screen applicants for social service program eligibility, they made an expensive blunder. The privatization scheme caused thousands of recipients to be dropped from the rolls and did not produce the expected savings to taxpayers.

After repeatedly defending the $899 million deal with Accenture against criticism by legislators, Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn and child advocates, Health and Human Services Commissioner Albert Hawkins admitted the obvious. "We didn't draw the line between vendor work and state work in the right place," he said. "As we rebalance the roles between the state and the vendor, we will be drawing that line in a different place."

Accenture leads a consortium hired by the state to handle eligibility screening for Medicaid, food stamps, Children's Health Insurance and other state-managed assistance programs. Private workers at call centers were to replace state employees, but problems created application backlogs. Applicants complained that their documents were mishandled or lost. The Houston Chronicle documented one case in which dozens of applications, including confidential documents, were faxed in error to a Seattle storage warehouse.

Hawkins says his agency is slashing the Accenture contract by $356 million and the pact will be ended in 2008, two years earlier than previously planned. After previously telling state workers they would be laid off, HHS will now convert 900 temporary positions to full time. The state will also charge the contractor $30 million through service credits and payment discounts to recover the costs of rehiring state workers to process backlogged applications.

Unfortunately, Accenture will now handle eligibility screening for the Children's Health Insurance Program, which previously was conducted by a subcontractor, Maximus. Children's Defense Fund Texas Executive Director Barbara Best expressed concern that a privatization process that ended coverage for many children of low-income Texas families will still be handling CHIP applications.

The lesson of the Accenture debacle is that some state services, particularly those that provide a social safety net for the most vulnerable of Texans, should not be contracted out to companies more interested in amassing profits than serving needy citizens. The next time Commissioner Hawkins draws a line between public and private responsibilities, let's hope primary consideration is given for the people who depend on his agency for their health and welfare.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Handmaiden of God, Anastasia Titov



Anastasia Titov, January 2004, on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land


See also:

More Remembrances of Anastasia

A Talking Prayer Book

This past weekend I had the honor of serving at the funeral of Anastasia Titov, who reposed at the age of 92. She was one of the first faces I saw at St. Vladimir's Orthodox Church, when I moved back to Houston in 1992 as a young convert to the Orthodox Faith of not quite two years. Since then she has had a very special place in my heart, but although our relationship was special, I was not unique in having such a special relationship with her. In fact, after listening to the many warm tributes given at her funeral, I believe that she had a special relationship with just about anyone that she had half a chance to get to know.

I want to write more about her, but for now I will just lay out some of the basic facts of her life, and then quote from a tribute posted online from another of Anastasia's special relationships.

I am basing the following on things I have pieced together over the years... if I have remembered something wrong, I hope someone will correct me, and that others will help me to flesh out this story.

Anastasia was born just as the world was entering World War I. She grew up in Harbin, China, where a large number of Russians had fled in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution. In Harbin, these Russians recreated the best aspects of pre-revolutionary Russian culture. Anastasia was very well educated, was multilingual, but most of all, she grew up in a world that centered around the Church. When there was a feast of the Church, the first week of Lent, or Holy Week, school’s and businesses were closed, and the people were in Church… for all the services, which during the first week of Lent, for example, means about 10 hours of services... a day.

Unfortunately, the life that made her into the Christian lady that she became did not remain peaceful. World War II began with the Japanese invasion of China, and during this war her first husband was shot by Japanese soldiers. She moved from Harbin to Shanghai, where she worked in the administrative offices of St. John of Shanghai. (I use to say that she had been his secretary, but she corrected me and said that a bishop does not have a woman as his secretary – that is a position usually held by a priest. She told me I should say she was on his clerical staff. She was a lady, in the fullest sense of the term, and such proprieties were very important to her.) It was during this time that she came to know and love St. John.

At the end of World War II, the Soviets invaded northern China, and used the opportunity to forcibly repatriate many Russian refugees, and place them in prison camps… such was the fate of Anastasia’s younger brother.

After World War II, came the communist take over of all of China. St. John and most of the Russian community in Shanghai left before the Communists took control of that city, but Anastasia refused to go, because she still had her parents in Harbin, and would not leave the country without them. She told me how stern the Communists soldiers were… people would attempt to give them flowers, or food, but they would not accept anything from anyone. She talked about how they searched her apartment. She had a chicken on the stove, and so they wanted to know where, when, and from whom she had bought the chicken, and how much it cost; and then they wanted to know were she got the money to buy the chicken. She had sold something to get the money, they wanted to know what she had sold, where, when, and to whom she had sold it, and they then checked out every detail. She also told me how a Chinese Deacon (Fr. Photi) came to her one evening with the antimins and the holy vessels from the Shanghai Cathedral. She told him that she could not even touch, much less take these things because she was a woman. Fr. Photi told her that if she did not take them that the communists would, so she hid them, and then the next night he came back and picked them up. She never saw him again, and did not know what became of him.

She managed to get a visa out of China, at a time when the various embassies were packing up to leave the country themselves. After visiting several of them in an attempt to get a visa, and being refused, she finally came to the Brazilian embassy, and was again refused. However, her tears finally moved the ambassador to make an exception, and to get the necessary documents out the boxes they had been packed into, and he gave her (and I believe her family members) visas… and so this is how she found her way to Brazil. I can’t remember how many years she lived their, but she learned to speak Portuguese fluently. Eventually, she and her second husband Paul Titov moved to the United States, where she worked at the United Nations building in New York.

She once told me about how she and another Ukrainian Orthodox woman came out to meet a Greek Archbishop who was visiting the UN (I believe he was from Crete). They shouted out “Eis Polla Eti Despota!”, which means “Many years, Master!” in Greek, and is the traditional liturgical greeting of a bishop. A UN policeman wanted to get them into trouble. He demanded to know why they were insulting a guest of the UN by calling him a despot!

At some point in her UN career, she had occasion to visit Ethiopia before the Communist revolution there. While there she got to meet the Emperor Haile Selassie.

When she retired from the UN, she and her husband moved to Houston for some reason… I believe something related to Paul’s business dealings. When I met her she was already in her late 70’s.

One thing that always amazed me about her was that it seemed that every time I had a long talk with her, I would discover some new facet of her life, that I had not known before. At her funeral, I discovered many more facets – particularly the deep impact she had on so many lives, and what a witness for Christ she had been throughout her life.

If Anastasia could be in Church, she was. She continued to keep the fasts strictly until the end of her life, when she was no longer able to, because she was no longer able to get enough nutrition no matter what food she ate. She poured herself into her work as the choir director of St. Vladimir’s, and her work as the senior sister of the parish. She radiated the love of Christ to everyone she met.

As I said, I was a new convert when I met her, as was my wife. We had left an English speaking mission of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad in Oklahoma City, and found ourselves in a mostly Russian speaking parish here in Houston. It was a difficult adjustment. For the first few months, my wife was in the parish alone while I was staying in upstate New York. She was a stranger in a strange place… not only was she a new convert, but she was herself from China, but unlike Anastasia she was ethnically Chinese too, and even English was not her first language, much less Russian. Anastasia took her under her wing, made her feel at home, and often spoke of the two of them both being Chinese compatriots.

I learned so much about the faith from her, that I should probably save that for future articles.

Her funeral was like a second Pascha. Everyone who was there was moved by it. Nearly a week later, I am still moved by it in a way that I have never been by any funeral I have ever attended.

So with that lengthy introduction, here is what Matushka Ann Lardas had to say:

She was an amazing woman whose life spanned three continents. She warmly greeted everyone. She and Paul became godparents for many newcomers, and nobody was ever merely accepted, but rather was warmly embraced. Fr. George and I were not just Batiushka and Matushka. To her, he was "Batiushka Dearest," and I was "Matushka Rodnaya." She always addressed the children in the diminutive, so that John thought that "Vanya" was Russian for "John." She insisted on doing things properly but was the first to cover for those who did not, and maintained every year that the only proper way to serve blini was "by the hand of the hostess." She cooked just about every Sunday we were there, always fasting foods during a fast and festive foods the rest of the time. She sang. She conducted. She came midweek to iron vestments and clean the parish house and she cooked and fed anyone who came to the parish. If they were poorly dressed, the next time they came she would give them clothes, new and in their size.

She loved all the children of the parish, and gave them candy on every occasion she could. We have a photo of Anastasia among the children and their Pascha baskets, and she looks like guest host on the Muppet Show. She told funny stories and could have an earthy sense of humor, besides (when I chided her for not even taking time to sit down and eat one busy Sunday, she said held up the plate she had just served herself, arched an eyebrow, and said, "Don't worry. Didn't you know the Russian proverb? 'A good horse does everything standing.'") Even after we moved, she would call on birthdays and namedays to sing, and when we called for her birthday and nameday, she would say, "And now everyone is accounted for." On Annunciation, when I was a new conductor and she couldn't get to church from illness, we sang "Archangelsky glas'" in harmony over the phone, a thousand miles apart and yet together.

If you look at the Normal Sisterhood Bylaws, you will see that Anastasia made sure she covered them all:

The duties of the sisterhood are:

a) maintenance of the Church building, both during the divine services and apart from them; care for the vestry; and the adornment of the church;

b) visitation of the sick; inquiry into the cases of those in need and aid for them; visitation of prisons and aid for the imprisoned;

c) visitation of the dying and informing the priest of such cases; reading the services over the dying; moral support for the families of the dying and care for them;

d) concern for the un-baptized and the unwed; bringing them to the church, that the Holy Mysteries may be performed over them;

e) to aid, with all the means at their disposal, schools for children within the parish.

f) collection of materials and funds, in accordance with pledges distributed by the parish council, signed by the pastor: for the needs of the church (this is done outside the times appointed for the divine services), for the sick, the poor, invalids, etc.

g) to help the church's warden (starosta) in acquiring and distributing religious and liturgical literature, etc.


As sorry as we are to lose her, I am glad that her terrible trial of illness is at an end, and she can be with her beloved parents and husband once more.

May her memory be eternal!

In Christ,
Matushka Ann Lardas


*******************************
Update: 

Here is another story about Anastasia that I included in my spiritual autobiography "A Pilgrim's Podvig":

There are many aspects of Orthodox piety that are subtle, and not the sort of thing you are likely to read about in a book on Orthodoxy, and it is these subtleties that a convert can pick up from being around those who are more deeply rooted in the Faith. One example of this was at the Vigil of the feast of the Dormition. We were singing the sticheron of the feast, which is sung after Psalm 50, and we were singing it in Slavonic. My Slavonic being far more limited, I was not emphasizing the right words, and so since there is a long prayer immediately after this hymn, Anastasia Titov took the opportunity of the pause in singing to explain to me the meaning of the hymn in order to explain what words should be emphasized. She then did an on the fly translation from Slavonic into English which was remarkably accurate (which I knew because I had the Festal Menaion in English opened to this text, and was glancing over at it as she explained. As she read the words of the hymn, and got to the part in which it says “And Peter cried aloud to thee, weeping: “O Virgin, I behold thee clearly stretched out, the life of all, and I am amazed, for in thy body the Delight of the life to come, made His abode! O all-pure one, earnestly entreat thy Son and God, that thy flock be saved unharmed,”” she read it with such warmth and piety that I was almost moved to tears. Her point was that the awe of St. Peter should be reflected in how we sing the hymn, but in making her point she expressed a love and reverence for God, the saints, and the services in a way that a book cannot. My ability to sing that hymn in Slavonic had not improved, but my ability to appreciate hymns on a spiritual level had. I was fortunate to have had such instructors.

Friday, December 08, 2006

The Price of the Colorado Computer Meltdown Continues to Rise

Remember the Welfare computer meltdown in Colorado... well, it seems it's the gift that keeps on giving, even after two years have passed.

CBS4: Welfare Payment Mistakes Cost Millions
Colorado System Possibly Overpaid $98 Million

(Click on the above link to watch the video of this report)

Brian Maass
Reporting

(CBS4) DENVER CBS4 has learned Colorado taxpayers will probably have to pay millions of dollars to solve problems with the state's welfare system. The Colorado Benefits Management System (CBMS), installed more than 2 years ago, has been making more than 11,000 mistakes in an average month.

Critics of the CBMS called the new figures shocking and said it was unlikely taxpayers will ever get the millions of dollars in overpayments back.

"We've always known there were overpayments gong on, but these numbers are new to us also," said Susan Beckman, an Arapahoe County commissioner.

"This is completely unacceptable," said Tom Mayer, a Boulder County commissioner.

CBMS is used to manage the welfare payments for food stamp recipients, the elderly and poor.

"And if we continue to generate claims and overpay people, it's just throwing money away," Beckman said.

CBS4 learned that in the month before the CBMS was installed, there were 349 claims, or overpayments statewide.

In October of 2006, there were 11,300 mistakes and potential overpayments.

State figures show there may have been more than 234,000 suspected overpayments to welfare recipients in the 2 years since CBMS went live. That could account for $98 million lost.

"This system is not fixed, it is not getting significantly better," Beckman said. "We need to pour more resources into it so we stop handing out free money that really people aren't entitled to."

The state said it is unclear how many of the $98 million in claims have legitimate explanations and how many are actual overpayments.

"We will acknowledge we have a major issue to address and we are going to do what federal law requires us to do," said Liz McDonough, spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Services.

Federal law requires the state and counties to seek reimbursements over overpayments. Counties said it will cost millions of dollars to hire more people to sort through claims and figure out what was an overpayment and what was not.

County administrators think it is unlikely they'll be able to collect overpayments from poor and transient welfare recipients.

"If you don't fix the system, it's like pouring water into a bucket with a hole in it," Beckman said. "In 2 years, you'll have paid out another $98 million in taxpayers money and that's not right."

Before CBMS, annual overpayments to welfare recipients in Colorado totaled about $1.5 million a year for 30 years.

County human services departments estimate that over the next 2 years, they will need another $7 million to hire 180 people to work full time to go through the hundreds of thousands of overpayments and figure out which ones are worth trying to collect.