Monthly Archives: October 2006

NaNoWriMo starts in 1 hour and 25 minutes

Most of you probably think that what’s most important about October 31 is Hallowe’en. But around the world, thousands of people anxiously await the beginning of National Novel Writing Month, which begins at midnight tonight.

Yes, NaNoWriMo is the month when thousands of would-be authors sit down and churn out pages and pages of fiction. The idea is simple:– for people who have always wanted to write a novel, NaNoWriMo provides a structure for actually sitting down and writing that novel. The would-be novelist gets a deadline (November 30), a minimum number of words to write (50,000), and therefore a daily writing target (1,666 words a day). The point is not to produce a finished novel, but to get through the first draft of the novel.

Not everyone writes a novel, though. Last year, my older sister decided to produce a non-fiction book during NaNoWriMo. She figured non-fiction was harder to write than fiction, so she decided she only needed to write 45,000 words during NaNoWriMo — still enough prose to fill a book.

This year, I’ve decided to take on the NaNoWriMo challenge. I’m not exactly going to be writing a novel (no, I’m not going to tell you about my project here), but I do plan to write 50,000 words in all. I figure I have a one-in-two chance of actually reaching this goal. If things get crazy at work, I won’t be able to reach my goal. And writing 2,000 words a day is a stretch for me — my usual output is 500 words a day. On the other hand, I’ve already got 3,500 words written and November hasn’t even started yet.

Participating in NaNoWriMo is a stupid thing for me to do, really. My life is full enough as it is, I don’t need to write 1,666 words a day. But I’m thinking it’s maybe a kind of spiritual discipline, a kind of self-flagellation for a religious liberal. Or maybe it’s not a spiritual discipline at all, maybe it’s my descent from being blogging-maniakku into becoming a writing-otaku.

Storm warning

The storm warning went up on Friday, a red flag with a centered black square on the flagstaff over the Wharfinger’s Building.

At 3 a.m. Saturday morning, I was awakened by the wind driving rain against the roof and skylight.

David and I could feel the wind blow the car around on the drive out to Barnstable yesterday morning. The afternoon drive back was worse: vicious gusts of wind lashing rain against the windshield. I fought the steering wheel and complained out loud about the idiots who insisted on driving above the speed limit in spite of the weather.

This morning dawned bright and clear. I checked the NOAA website, and read the forecast discussion:

…Strong winds likely to cause damage today. Extremely strong center of sfc lopres located off SWrn Quebec as of 08Z this morning with sfc obs near the center reporting slp of around 969 mb. This will mean a very tight pressure gradient for southern New England today resulting in widespread wind gusts of 50 to 55 mph with locally higher speeds. Expect many reports of downed trees by late this afternoon and many folks without power. Driving will be quite difficult at times.

Carol called, saying she had started to drive back to New Bedford but the wind blew her car half into the other lane on the highway. She’s going to wait until tonight.

The wind stripped leaves off even the sheltered trees on William Street and piled them in an ankle-deep drift on the sidewalk in front of our apartment entrance. Small branches lay here and there on the street.

At church, I asked Ned if his boat were out of the water yet. Yes, he said. And he saw five or six boats blown up on the beach at Padanarum Harbor this morning. The wind kept blowing the inner doors to the church open. Ghosts, just in time for Hallowe’en, said Ned.

On the walk back from Pope’s Island this afternoon, I had to lean into gusts of wind. I watched one or two gulls beating upwind, but most of the gulls had found places to sit.

Forget broadcast TV…

…and check out Chasing Windmills, a Web-based video series. Pretty good concept, decent acting, interesting script (if a little too, shall we say, interior). Personally, I like the surrealism, and the contemporary black-and-white noir filming style. But the reason you should really watch Chasing Windmills is that it’s a whole new way of doing a video series, starting with the fact that it’s a daily video blog. But there’s more….

The second season of Chasing Windmills officially kicked off today. This is the biggest experiment we have taken on so far. We have 8 people who will play characters, and each character has a blog through which the audience can interact…. The audience interacts with the characters through their blogs, and the characters are influenced by the dialogue. Interactivity through influence. [Link]

A couple of warnings: First, remember that these are video files so if you have a dial-up connection, forget it. Second, this series is not for kids, with foul language, sex scenes, etc. (not as bad as The Sopranos though).

District conference

Off to the district conference today, a conference which focused on social justice issues. Vicki Weintein, minister at our Norwell (Mass.) church did a wonderful presentation on integrating social justice into your congregation. Vicki pointed out some things that should be obvious, but that we sometimes forget about (at least that I sometimes forget about). She said that if you want to get people to help you with your social justice project, guilting them into it won’t work as well as “evangelizing” them: telling them how working on your particular social justice project has changed your life, and by the way when you look at someone else you see something in them that is like what’s in you that was transformed by this work. She said that social justice can be fun (radical concept for us New Englanders for whom fun might be an alien concept). And she said that we have to be open to what we are going to get from the people whom we happen to be helping — because social justice is not a one-way process where the priveleged we help out the poor oppressed them, it’s a two-way process where we who do the social justice benefit as well (obviously, there are sometimes some boundaries that come with certain kinds of social justice work, but you get the idea).

On a less serious note — at lunch, I happened to sit beside an old friend, and I began talking about the new YouTube video featuring the bizarre purple alien being who promotes seven cosmic principles, which happen to be just like the seven principles from the Unitarian Universalist Association bylaws (here’s the YouTube link if you haven’t seen it yet). “OK, it’s really stupid, but it’s funny,” I said, “and what I like best is the fact that the bizarre purple space alien is standing in front of this U.S. Pentagon emblem, which is just surreal. It keeps you from taking the video too seriously.”

“Um, well,” said my friend, “I’m actually the guy who made that video.”

“You’re ‘alienhelper,’ the person who created that video?!” I gasped. “Of course, I should have known it was you! So… how did you make it?”

“It was easy,” he said. “One Saturday morning A—- was away, and I had this idea, so I got really wired on coffee and went to work. First I recorded the soundtrack, speeded it up, and raised the pitch. Then I used one of those cheapo $80 Web cams from Logitech. I used Vlogit software to edit the video and add titles. Vlogit has a green screen feature, so I set up some green construction paper, pointed the Web cam at it, and used this little purple alien finger puppet to sort of act out what was on the soundtrack. Then I substituted the Pentagon image for the green screen.”

End result? 200 views in 2 days. The Live Journal UUs picked it up: 2000 views in 13 days. Whoa. This is what we call viral marketing — inexpensive marketing that spreads like a virus.


Last Thursday, I bought a half gallon of apple cider at the downtown farmer’s market. I made sure it had no preservatives. On Monday, I took it out of the refrigerator, and broke the seal. By this evening, it was foaming nicely, and I just tried a glass: it’s lightly carbonated, tart, and much of the sweetness is gone. It’s still a little too sweet, though, so I’ll leave it out overnight to turn a little more. It is so nicely fermented that I suspect that our kitchen has now become well colonized by yeast that have escaped from our bread-baking.

What better way to celebrate the coming of late fall than by drinking home-fermented cider?

On reading Kenko

The colder autumn weather has finally begun. While I was on spiritual retreat in Wareham early in the week, I managed to take a couple of long walks. My morning walk on Tuesday took me through an old tennis court at the retreat center, now unused except for one small corner where someone has painted a classical, concentric labyrinth. A line of milkweed stalks had managed to grow up through a crack in the pavement during the summer. By the time I walked past them, the stalks were yellowed, and the few leaves that were left were gray, curled, and dead. I find milkweed plants to be most beautiful when they have died from frost:– the curled leaves take on fantastic shapes, the gray pimpled seed pods burst open releasing the seeds with their white downy parachutes that will enable the wind to spread the seeds far afield.

In the middle of the woods — I had gotten off the path chasing some small brown woodland bird — I came across a few ferns that still had a little green. Most of the ferns in the forest had been bitten by frost, curled and brown. Yet in this one clump, presumably more sheltered, I found one frond mostly green, another frond mostly yellow with a touch of faded green, another frond brown at the top and yellow lower down, and the rest of the fronds brown and curled and dead. A month of autumn visible in one clump of ferns.

On my way to Agawam Cemtery, a couple of miles away, I passed a cranberry bog looking reddish purple in the slanting afternoon light. The berries had already been ahrvested, but the bog had a quiet beauty nonetheless.

In 1330 in the Tsurezuregusa, the Japanese writer Kenko said:

Are we to look at cherry blossoms only in full bloom, the moon only when it is cloudless? To long for the moon while looking on the rain, to lower the blinds and be unaware of the passing of the spring — these are even more deeply moving. Branches about to blossom or gardens strewn with faded flowers are worthier of our admiration. Are poems written on such themes as “Going to view the cherry blossoms only to find they had scattered” or “On being prevented from visiting the blossoms” inferior to those on “Seeing the blossoms”? People commonly regret that the cherry blossoms scatter or that the moon sinks in the sky, and this is natural; but only an exceptionally insensitive man would say, “This branch and that branch have lost their blossoms. There is nothing worth seeing now.” In all things, it is the beginnings and ends that are interesting….

When I got to Agawam Cemetery, I searched out the oldest gravestones. You can tell the general age of New England gravestones from their shapes, and the type of stone from which they are cut. I found twenty or thirty slate stones that clearly dated from the last half of the 18th C., mostly from the Federal era but some earlier. Most of the 18th C. stones in Agawam Cemetery are shallowly carved and covered more or less in lichen, and in most cases the lichens completely obliterate the inscription. The inscriptions half seen, half guessed at and half covered in lichen, are just as fascinating as stones where the entire inscription is visible. On one of the most beautiful stones, the inscription was no longer visible, the inscribed surface was actually flaking away; the beauty lay in its deterioration.

Walking back from the cemetery to the retreat center, I walked through suburban houses on their tight little lots. Since this is a seaside town in which the population explodes in the summer, “No Trespassing” signs appear everywhere. I passed a new house going in, a bulldozer parked beside the house, the entire lot scraped clean, showing the poor, sandy soil. The pine and oak woods that used to cover the land here were cut down for farming, grew back up again when the farms failed, and now the woods are being cut down once again for summer houses and gated communities.

More than one sign at the beginning of a road declared: “Members and Their Guests Only.” If they didn’t have those signs, the pressure from the growing population would mean the property owners would have invaders constantly traipsing through their land, past their summer house, headed for the sea. Can we say that the suburban houses, the gated communities, the signs are any less beautiful than the pine and oak woods they replace? For how long can the houses and signs last — a century or two, at most, before they fall into rack and ruin and something else replaces them. Although with global warming, what may well replace these houses is the open ocean, raging under the influence of huge coastal storms. Kenko never anticipated global warming completely changing the normal cycle of the seasons, nor did he ever anticipate that cherry blossoms might stop blooming entirely in their ancestral range.

Church marketing in the business pages

“Prepare Thee for Serious Marketing,” an article about church marketing techniques in Sunday’s New York Times, appears on the first page of the Business section — an unusual place for a religion article in the Times. But that’s because this article looks at how churches are borrowing the latest marketing techniques from the business world.

Reporter Fara Warner starts out with Willow Creek Church, the granddaddy of evangelical mega-churches in South Barrington, Illinois. Warner visits an example of Willow Creek’s newest venture in marketing and member retention:– a program called “The Table” that sounds remarkably like the old Unitarian Universalist “Extended Family” programs from the 1970’s, which you can still find in some Unitarian Universalist churches (my dad belongs to an “Extended Family” group in his Unitarian Universalist church in Concord, Mass.). Warner tells about Randy Frazee, one of the many pastors at Willow Creek, as he hosts a “Table” in his home:

As dusk settles on this neighborhood of 1920’s bungalows and old farmhouses northwest of Chicago, Randy Frazee strums a banjo on his front porch, waiting for his dinner guests to arrive. No cars line his curb because everyone who is coming lives within walking distance.

Once the 12 guests — ranging in age from about 7 to 70 — and the Frazee family have gathered around three tables set end-to-end, they join hands, and Mr. Frazee says a prayer. A meal of barbecued brisket, cheese potatoes, and green beans follows.

Throughout the evening, conversation occasionally touches on favorite scriptures and “walking with the Lord.” The guests tell about their best and worst moments of the week. As dinner wraps up, Mr. Frazee asks one of the couples to talk about “how Christ walked in their life.”…

…a total of more than 6,000 people recently attended several hundred weekend “Tables” in the neighborhoods surrounding Willow Creek’s campus. These “Tables” supplement small groups that the church has already organized around people with similar interests — like mothers, singles, or teenagers. But the idea of “The Table” was based on [geographic] proximity, Mr. Frazee said, so that people began to meet neighbors who weren’t just like themselves….

I don’t think you’ll find much talk of “walking with the Lord” at a Unitarian Universalist “Extended Family” group — after all, we do use a different religious lanugage. But the point of “Extended Families” and “Tables” seems much the same: to get church people to meet in an informal setting. As usual, the Willow Creek folks are very aware of the marketing strategy that lies behind this program:

Corporate marketers have been using similar events for years to try to create closer connections with their brand. Nike, for example, has worked with gyms on new workout routines to make its brand visible beyond sporting goods stores.

For churches, events like the ones created by Willow Creek are meant to offer members a similar closeness, albeit for a more profound purpose: religious worship and discussion.

“In the early church, people didn’t get on their camels to go to Bethany to worship,” said Mr. Frazee, who created similar programs as pastor of a church in Fort Worth before he joined Willow Creek in 2005. “We have adults who seem to have suffered a spiritual stroke. They go to church, but they have forgotten that wonderful sense of hanging out, that basic expression of fellowship in their neighborhoods.”

In other words, church people seem to want some unstructured hang-out time from their churches.

Warner goes on to report that the mega-churches are watching generational trends closely. The Baby Boomers like big, corporate-style worship services with thousands in attendance, but the next generation (described as people born in the 1960’s and 1970’s) is looking for churches to be more “authentic.” Warner interviews Robert B. Whitesel of Indiana Wesleyan University:

“The younger generation sees the mega-churches as too production-oriented, too precise,” [Whitesel said]. “They want church to be more authentic. There is a feeling among this generation that there has been a waning emphasis on the spiritual.”

Mr. Whitesel siad this shift was changing the focus of what a religious leader does at a church. “The boomer church has the paster at the top who is supposed to figure out what the church is,” he said. But in the newer churches he studies, he added, “the pastor has more of a marketing function in understanding what the congregations wants and finding ways to provide that.”

“The pastor has more of a marketing function” — that sounds pretty mercenary and cold-blooded. But I’ve been thinking that it might be possible to take advantage of this generational trend in a way that doesn’t seem quite so mercenary. Maybe we can frame this marketing concept in terms of how leadership should happen in a church. Instead of having pastors as CEO’s, it looks like we need to develop an understanding of the pastor as “servant-leader” who helps facilitate grass roots expressions of spiritual needs. Corporations are finding out that they have less and less top-down control over their brands, as consumers make the brand their own. So too with churches, I think: with the newer generations, we’re going to have to move beyond a centralized top-down hierarchical control of a church or of a denomination, towards a new understanding of non-hierarchical shared leadership.

Translate that back into marketing terms, and you might find that instead of advertising in conventional media, churches might be better off using new participatory media like — well, like blogs — media where you can tell me what you think.

On retreat: Autumn watch

Wareham, Mass. I was sitting at the breakfast table talking to some ministers whom I hadn’t seen in a while, when Rachel, the program chair for this retreat, came around and said the morning’s program was about to begin. The other ministers filed in to hear the rest of the presentation by Connie Barlow and Michael Dowd. Even though I strongly disagreed with Dowd’s presentation last night, where he described an eco-theology grounded in a grand narrative of the universe, I felt that I should keep an open mind and go hear more. Then I thought to myself:– Would I rather sit indoors and listen to someone talk theology, or would I rather go outdoors to take a long walk? I went quietly upstairs to get my coat and binoculars, and slipped out the back door of the retreat center.

Cloudy and cold this morning, a real mid-autumn day. Birds filled the bushes along the edge of the retreat center’s lawn: Gold-crowned Kinglets, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Song Sparrows, catbirds, cardinals, and even a Hermit Thrush. I bushwhacked to the edge of the little estuary. As I came down to the edge of the salt marsh, a Great Blue Heron squawked, crouched, and leapt into the air, tucking his neck back and slowly pulling his long legs up against his body. Some of the trees surrounding the salt marsh were already bare of leaves; one or two maples still covered in brilliant red leaves; the white oaks shone dull gold in the subdued light; a few trees were still green. The tide was quite high, and I skirted the high water through the salt marsh hay. One high bush blueberry, a bush about five feet high growing right at the edge of the marsh, was covered in deep, glowing red leaves; I only noticed that small bush because the trees around it were already bare and grey.

After a long walk, I wound up on the Wareham town beach. A fisherman stood at the far end of the beach, where the sand ends in a little spit sticking out into an estuary winding up through extensive salt marshes.

“Catching anything?” I said.

“Not today,” he said. “Caught a little striper yesterday.”

I said that was pretty good; it’s late to catch a striper this far north.

He was feeling talkative, and we chatted idly for a few minutes. “What are you looking for?” he said, noticing the binoculars hanging around my neck.

“Ducks,” I said. “The ducks should be here by now. But I’m not really seeing any. Maybe because it’s been so warm, and they’re just not moving down onto their wintering grounds yet.”

“Yeah, that’s what they’re saying about the stripers this year,” he said. “They should be gone by now, but it’s still warm so they’re staying up here.”

Every year, the story is a little different. The fall migrants generally move on at about the same time, but a Hermit Thrush might stay a little later than usual. The striped bass run south, but one year that might leave a little earlier or later than another year. Some years a few maple trees hold their leaves a little longer, or a blueberry bush turns a particularly bright red. The same story is told year after year, and it’s always the same but always different. That’s the only grand narrative I care about, a grand narrative that’s not told in words.

Grand narratives at the ministers’ retreat

Wareham, Mass. At noon, I got in my car and drove down the interstate to Wareham, to a retreat center where the district ministers group is having its annual retreat.

The featured presenters at the retreat are Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow. Dowd and Barlow travel around the continent spreading a new gospel, the good news a religion based on evolution, which they call “creatheism.” Drawing heavily from the writings of Brian Swimme, Ken Wilbur, and Thomas Berry, Dowd started out his hour-long presentation tonight by asserting that their creathism is a “meta-religion” that can encompass any other religious position, including atheism.

My immediate thought was, who needs a new meta-religion? If we have learned anything from the post-modernist movement, we have learned that these grand meta-narratives, these grand stories that claim to encompass everything else, have tended to be more destructive than constructive. Postmodern thinkers point out that some of the greatest tragedies of the modern era come from meta-narratives — the grand narrative of Nazism, a story of a white Aryan race ruling all other “races”; or the grand narrative of a colonial power like Great Britain, a story of colonialism told to justify tiny Britain ruling over the entire sub-continent of India. I’d rather cast my lot with Mahatma Ghandhi than the colonialism of Edwardian England.

As Dowd talked, I began to realize that an implicit assumption of any meta-narrative is that everyone is going to agree with it, is going to buy into it. What happens if I don’t buy in to creatheism? I’m sure Dowd won’t try to forcibly convert me, but he did say that everyone else’e religious position is, in fact, a subset of his religious position. I’m sure if I told him about my version of Transcendentalism, he’d tell me that I was, in fact, a creatheist just like him. Except that I’m not.

I think Dowd has accepted a certain mid-20th C. idea that in the end all religions have the same goal; different religions may take different paths to get there, but they’re all trying to arrive at the same mountaintop. Dowd uses the metaphor of those Russian nesting dolls, and he says that all other religions can nest inside his meta-religion. I don’t buy that idea. Mark Heim, a theologian at Andover Newton Theological School, has said that different religions not only have different paths, they also have different final destinations; the Christian’s heaven is not the same place as a Buddhist’s nirvana. I tend to agree with Heim, that different religions are not necessarily commensurable.

I was bothered by a few other minor points. One example: Dowd gave an overview of his “evolutionary arrow,” which he said was such an important concept that he sometimes gives an hour-long presentation on it. But I feel his evolutionary arrow, which starts with bacteria evolving into multi-cellular organisms and ends with the United Nations evolving into a better form of world governance, doesn’t work. It is not accurate to say that the evolution of bacteria is the same as the creation of the UN. Nor does evolution in the strict Darwinian sense mean “change in directions which make me feel comfortable.” Dowd seems to believe in “progress onwards and upwards forever.” After the horrors of the 20th C. (genocide, ecological disaster, things like that), some of us now question whether we were making any progress at all. We also began to wonder if part of the problem with the 20th C. was that uniformly applied solutions, which supposedly would result in progress for everyone, really only benefitted a few powerful people.

Another minor point that bothered me was Dowd’s use of the terms “day language” and “night language” to refer to the difference between what I would call mythos and logos. It’s not a bad distinction to make, but Dowd’s terms don’t accurately reflect the difference between the two kinds of language.

More than anything, I was bothered by Dowd’s pedagogical style. He depends on attractive “Powerpoint” slides to create continuity through his presentation. I felt he used his slides string together a series of basically unsupported assertions. Many of his slides had stunning National Geographic style photographs of plants and animals and landscapes, but because the photographs had nothing to do with the text printed on them, they only served to distract you from careful evaluations of Dowd’s assertions. In short, Dowd uses a rhetoric designed to persuade you, and to prevent you from thinking too deeply about what he says. The result is a presentation filled with half-truths (and some outright inaccuracies) that sounds plausible, but that prevents deep thought, so that you can easily be carried away with what he says.

Although a question-and-answer session was scheduled for the end of his presentation, Dowd decided to skip the questions and answers in order to show yet another video. I slipped quietly out the back, and went upstairs to think and to write.