Monthly Archives: August 2006

Dead gull season

The many flat roofs of downtown New Bedford host a nesting colony of Herring Gulls. By this time in the summer, the young birds have been out of the nest for some time, and they’re trying to figure out how to make a living. Some of them still cry at the adult Herring Gulls, trying to coax an adult into regurgitating up some nice fish. Herring Gulls are not particularly social, and the adults want nothing to do with the young gulls once they’re out of the nest. The young gulls turn to foraging for garbage. I was driving up Acushnet Avenue the other day. A young gull stood in the middle of the intersection with William Street, trying to tear open what looked like one of those brightly colored bags fast food comes in. I tooted my horn and slowed down, expecting the bird to fly, or at least hop, out of the way. It didn’t, and I narrowly avoiding running it down. The young gulls haven’t yet learned to avoid cars and trucks. On my walk today, I saw two corpses of young Herring Gulls, one in the middle of the swing-span bridge with one broken wing pointing up, and another one completely flattened in the middle of Route 6. From what I’ve seen along the sides of the roads, this year’s crop of Herring Gulls will suffer its highest mortality rate over the next few months; the ones that survive will have learned to hop out of the way of cars, no matter how enticing the smell that comes from the brightly colored paper bag.


The laundromat I go to, Marianne’s Laundry out Route 6 almost in Dartmouth, is right across from a cemetery. I put my clothes in the wash, and stepped outside. It was a perfect late summer evening, a clear blue sky, just the perfect temperature. It’s supposed to rain all weekend. I decided to take a walk in the cemetery.

I’d never been in that cemetery before. Just inside the entrance there are trees lining the roads, and the gravestones, lined up in rows and columns and all of a size, had been softened by wind and rain. Not that they were old gravestones; the earliest one I saw was from 1920. At the top of a little rise, a statue of the Virgin Mary holding her baby looked down at me. She was made of some light-colored stone which had been darkened in places by soot and lichen.

Up ahead the graves looked newer and cleaner. The cemetery got much wider this far back, and there were no trees, just rows and rows of gravestones. A car passed me, stopped a hundred yards down the little road, and a white-haired woman got out and walked to one of the graves. I turned right down a gravel road to leave her in peace.

The far end of the cemetery backed up against an unmown strip of grass and goldenrod, with short scrubby trees beyond. I circled around the back edge, past some swampy ground. I could just see a family get out of their car to visit a grave, I could hear the voices of at least two children, and a black dog bounded through the gravestones.

It was time to head back to the laundromat. Back under the trees, I passed one grave with these words at the bottom: “Pray for us.” Why not? I offered a little prayer, for them and for everyone else. Of course it’s sad when someone dies, but it’s also inevitable. If hell is not part of your theology, death doesn’t seem so bad. Socrates speculated that either you get to go some place nice when you die, or you sink into an oblivion like the most perfectly restful sleep imaginable. Either option sounds fine to me.

A small flock of Cedar Waxwings chattered to each other in a small cedar tree off to the side of the cemetery. I watched a car speed out towards Route 6, going too fast for that narrow little road. By my left foot, a small bronze plate that marked someone’s grave was mostly covered over with grass now. Back at the Route 6, I pressed the button for the “Walk” signal, and while I waited for the traffic lights to change I realized that I felt refreshed. The sun was mostly gone, and I looked up at the moon, just a day or two away from first quarter.

Stupid alter ego Dan likes the cold rainy gray weather (when it’s gray he doesn’t have to put on sun screen), but rain just makes Mr. Crankypants even more cranky than usual. That means it’s time to tell wedding photographers about what they may and may not do during weddings.

Here are eight rules for wedding photographers to memorize:

1. Wear clothes that look respectable but do not stand out. Black is good. Blue-and-white checked shirts are not acceptable. Jeans are totally unacceptable. It doesn’t matter if you feel more comfortable wearing jeans, because this is not about your comfort — you’re getting paid to do this.

2. Once the ceremony starts, no flash photography. When you aim your flash directly at the minister’s eyes while crouching in front of the wedding couple, you will probably blind him or her — it’s not a good idea to blind the officiant, even momentarily. (Besides, if you were a real photographer, you’d have a camera that can take existing-light photos.)

3. No, you may not stand on pews. No one else is standing on pews. What makes you think you’re so special you can treat the church that way?

4. When the wedding couple are repeating their vows, you are not to stand up in the front pew to take their picture. If you do so, you will block the view of family and friends. They are there to see and participate fully in this religious ceremony, and religiously the ceremony requires their presence. But wedding ceremonies do not require your presence at all, so go to the back of the church, buddy. (Besides, if you were a real photographer, you’d have a good enough telephoto lens so you wouldn’t have to pop up in the front pew like a damned Jack-in-the-box.)

5. Just because that ill-behaved four-year-old is running up and down the aisle doesn’t mean that you may do so. Once the ceremony begins, the wedding photographer’s role is to be in the back of the church, and be entirely unobtrusive. The four-year-old’s parents don’t know enough to stop the little hellion from running in the aisles; as an alleged professional, you should know better.

6. Mr. Crankypants just made a new rule. If you take an intrusive close-up picture of someone in the congregation crying, that person is now allowed to smash your camera immediately after the ceremony.

7. Do not hum to yourself. No, not even under your breath.

8. The wedding photographer is not the center of the wedding. The wedding photographer is less important than the wedding couple. The wedding photographer is less important than the officiant. The wedding photographer is less important than anyone in the congregation (yes, even less important than that little four-year-old hellion). The wedding photographer is not essential to the wedding and is actually completely unimportant. The wedding photographer should therefore be just as unobtrusive as he/she is unimportant.

One last word: Since Mr. Crankypants is not a Universalist (unlike stupid alter ego Dan), he can assure you that there is a special place in hell reserved for wedding photographers who violate any of the above rules. Oh, the suffering you will undergo there will be far worse than the suffering that you have inflicted over the years on poor Mr. Crankypants, who will pray for you while you writhe eternally in hell’s stop bath of boiling acetic acid.


Sometimes you have those days where everything you do seems a little off kilter. Not that anything goes dramatically wrong, but nothing really goes right either. It was rainy and damp all day, so my joints felt stiff. Once at work, although I did lots of necessary things, I didn’t get anything done that I had thought I was going to do today. I walked home from work, realized I had to go shopping before I could eat dinner, walked over to the third floor of the parking garage where I usually park only to realize I had (for some obscure reason) driven my car to work this morning and then walked home. When I finally got home, I decided to bake bread. And even though the bread didn’t rise as much as it should have done, and stuck to the pan when I took it out, the very physical acts of mixing and kneading and then the smell of bread that now pervades the entire apartment restored some sense of balance to my life.

That’s New England for you

Carol and I went to a wonderful wedding this afternoon. Two friends of Carol’s, whom she had introduced, were married in a classic wood-frame New England church, painted white and surrounded by lush green grass and trees. The liberal religious minister managed to balance tradition and innovations like asking everyone gathered to hold the rings for a moment during the service to bless them, before passing them to the next person. The reception was held in a barn that smelled of hay. Of course there was contra dancing. At the reception, we talked to people who came from very different walks of life including a financial managers, a farmer, a builder, and a yoga instructor. Even though it’s still August, it was one of those grey rainy days where the temperature hovered around 60 degrees, which meant it got cold sitting in that barn for the reception. That’s New England for you.

Manager, or holy person?

While I was reading up on alternative worship, I happened to run across the following. It hit home for me….

In his book Dining with the Devil, Os Guiness writes of an alarming observation made by a Japanese businessman: “Whenever I meet a Buddhist leader, I meet a holy man. Whenever I meet a Christian leader, I meet a manager.”…

As CEO pastors, we are taught to lead the church as we would a corporation. We sit behind desks in our offices writing out vision and mission statements and lists of our church’s top ten values. We form management teams and executive steering teams. We run our churches efficiently like we would run a company, with cell phones on our belts and Palm Pilots in hand, walking with a purposeful CEO gait. –Dan Kimball, The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for New Generations (Zondervan, 2003) pp. 238-239.

Administration is central to who I am as a minister, so this caused me to ask myself some questions about what it means to be a manager-minister. I didn’t come up with any answers, but my questions reminded me of a talk Barbara Merritt gave in June, 2004. Merritt, the senior minister at First Unitarian in Worcester, Massachusetts, addressed the annual gathering of Unitarian Universalist ministers, asking us:

I am wondering, “Does being a religious leader work for you? Does it work for me? When you imagine religious leadership, what role does grace play? What is it that you control?”

That is the subject I wish to consider with you today. Is being a strong minister, or a responsive leader, or an entertaining religious leader enough? I don’t mean, “Is the ministry a satisfying profession?” or, “Does it pay your electric bills?” or, “Is it an honorable way to make a living?” I am not asking whether the liberal ministry is an effective or helpful agency of change in people’s lives, or to the larger community. (My answer to all those questions is “Yes.”)

What I mean by my question is: Does our ministry work as a spiritual practice?…Is the exercise of religious leadership a spiritual practice that is taking you where your heart and mind want to go?…

Merritt takes her questions off in a somewhat different direction than I want to go. But now I want to know what it is that manger-ministers are trying to control. I also want to know if we manager-ministers are exercising our leadership so that we are going where our hearts and minds want to go. And I would like to know why Christian and post-Christian leaders look more like corporate executives than holy people.

I’d love to know what you think. If you’re a minister, are you more likely to be mistaken for a corporate executive, or for a holy person? If you’re a member of a congregation, what about your minister(s) — corporate execs or holy people? If you don’t do organized religion right now, would you be more likely to join a religious institution that has a manager-leader, or a holy-person-leader?

On to part 2

Voice from the past

Three decades ago, my older sister, Jean, and I had summer jobs at a day camp in Waltham, Massachusetts, called Green Acres Day Camp. When we started working there, Peter Bloom was one of the campers, and when he was older he became a counselor. Now Peter has assembled a collection of photographs of the day camp, on view in Arlington Center until the middle of next week [link to article about the exhibit].

I just spent an hour talking with Peter Bloom, listening to him tell me about what happened after the camp closed in 1986, and about all the former counselors he had managed to contact. But in the back of my mind I was thinking about how much I had learned from Grace Mitchell’s educational philosophy.

Grace Mitchell was the dynamic educator who founded Green Acres Day Camp. Mitchell believed in child-centered learning, where activities and learning situations emerged from the interests and questions of children. Her educational philosophy continues to influence both my sister Jean and me [link to how that educational philosophy has influenced Jean].

From an obituary I discovered on the Web site of Tufts University:

Grace L. Mitchell, a pioneering day care provider who embarked on her career to remain close to her young son, lawyer F. Lee Bailey, died Jan. 27 [2000] in her home in Delray Beach, Fla.

Dr. Mitchell has been recognized as one of the most influential education professionals in the country. She founded Green Acres Day School in her apartment in Waltham in 1933 in order to remain close to her son and continue her career in teaching. “When Lee was only 5 weeks old, I was already missing teaching,” she said in a story published in The Boston Globe on May 17, 1976. “I said OK, that’s it, I’ll start a nursery school….”

…”Children learn more about emotions by experiencing them in a day care setting than they ever could from a textbook,” she said, and described the sound of children running and playing as “good noise” and a positive indication of the health of any day care center.

She owned and operated Green Acres Day School until 1987, when it became the Green Acres Foundation. In 1993, Dr. Mitchell established the Green Acres/Grace Mitchell Endowment at Eliot-Pearson, funding professional development for early childhood educators. Dr. Mitchell earned a bachelor’s degree at Tufts when she was in her mid-40s, a master’s degree at Harvard University when she was 55, and a doctorate at Antioch College when she was 70.

She was the author of The Day Care Book, based on visits to centers across the country at a time when there was not much nationally organized information about them. She served on the governing board of the National Association for the Education of Young Children from 1974 to 1978.

Her message to children, and to the adults who care for them, was always, “I am, I can.” She challenged adults to live up to their highest potential and stretch their awareness. She said, “Life is a process of becoming. My greatest satisfaction is the joy of having been a part in helping other people grow.”

Here’s to you, Grace Mitchell — you certainly helped me grow.

Sunset over the harbor

New Bedford rises up from the harbor to the west. It’s not much of a hill, but it’s just high enough that the sun disappears a quarter of an hour before it would if there were no hill. I walked down to the end of State Pier at about seven thirty, and the sun was no longer visible. One short month from now, the sun will have disappeared a whole hour earlier than. The days shorten so rapidly at this time of year.

Some big dark cumulus clouds had built up late this afternoon, and as I stood at the end of State Pier, they towered over the harbor to the east and south. But the light of the setting sun turned them pink and dark purple, softening them and rendering them less ominous. Straight overhead, a wispy line of cirrus clouds marked the end of cloudiness, with blue sky to the north and west.

It was that soft but vivid slanting light that characterizes New England seascapes. I felt as if I could see every little detail of the boats that were in Kelley’s shipyard, even though they were all the way across the harbor. There was some movement on the harbor: a slow-moving fishing boat, a small water taxi with its turquoise canopy, and way off by the Fairhaven side of the hurricane barrier flashing oars caught the last of the sunlight and showed the presence of one of the whaleboat teams practicing their rowing.

The clouds were amazing, but really too amazing to look at for very long. All the poignancy of late summer rose up in me, and I turned and walked home to cook some dinner. The bulk of the Whaling Museum loomed up as I got closer to home, its sperm whale weather vane now pointing its snout towards the north-northwest, or even north-by-west: the cold front had gone through.

Pickwick Papers

I’m in the midst of reading Charles Dickens’s Pickwick Papers. For years, I couldn’t stand Dickens’s wordiness — he makes it all too obvious that he got paid by the word — and I refused to even try to read his books. But there’s no real plot in Pickwick Papers, which means I don’t have to suffer through a hundred pages to find out how and if a character dies. And the wordiness of Pickwick Papers is devoted to anecdote, not to unbearably long descriptions of, say, the road from London to Paris. In short, unlike some of Dickens’s other books, Pickwick Papers doesn’t drag.

Not only that, but this is precisely the kind of book that I believe would make a good blog: memorable characters having episodic adventures, adventures which appear in a serialized format. I’ve seen something like this trying to emerge in a few of the more adventurous blogs, but so far bloggers seem to think that blogging can only be non-fiction; or perhaps more to the point, no one with Dickens’s immense talent is yet writing a blog.

Yet why not? Why wouldn’t a modern-day Dickens write a blog instead of a print-based book? It is worth considering that technology allowed Dickens to write the way he did. Technical advances leading to cheaper printing and binding, and a more efficient distribution system, led to the serialized writing at which Dickens excelled. Perhaps in time the World Wide Web will produce its own literary geniuses to equal Dickens; though it seems to me that we have a long way to go.

In the mean time, I’m reading Pickwick Papers. While I’m reading it I’m not reading much of anything on the Web. Dickens’s book scratches whatever itch of mine was getting scratched by reading blogs.