Monthly Archives: October 2007

Assabet Lumber: summer, 1980

An installment in a spiritual autobiography. For other installments, search tags for “assabet lumber“. Cast of characters here. Names have been changed, and some identifying characteristics and events have been fictionalized, to protect privacy. These are early drafts and may be a little rough; bear with me….

On the last possible day, I went over to the registrar’s office and turned in the paperwork that would allow me to officially take a semester away from college. I waited until the very last day because I was uncertain about a lot of things. I wasn’t certain that I wanted to return to that college. I wasn’t certain that I wanted to finish college at all. If I did finish college, I wasn’t certain what I wanted to study. The only thing I felt certain about was that I desperately did not want to return to that college in September. I have only the vaguest memory of stepping into an office and handing in the appropriate forms, but I have a very definite memory of walking outside afterwards. It was a beautiful spring day, the kind of perfect spring day that you get in Philadelphia, warm and sunny, but I remember feeling a little odd, as if I weren’t quite there any more.

That summer, I went back to my old familiar summer job working as a camp counselor in a progressive day camp near near Concord, Massachusetts, where we lived. But even that familiar summer job didn’t feel all that familiar. My older sister no longer worked at the camp, and she wasn’t even living at home that summer. And unlike the other counselors, most of whom were college and high school students, I would not be returning to school after camp ended. In fact, I had no idea what I would do after camp ended.

The last day of camp came. We counselors said goodbye to the kids, and then we said goodbye to each other, promising each other that we would return to work there again next summer. I stayed on for another week, working with the maintenance man and the assistant director to clean things up and close up the buildings for winter. Then I had to start looking for work.

Reading the Help Wanted ads in the local paper discouraged me. I had no real skills. About the only job I could imagine myself actually doing was working as a bank teller, so I applied for a job with Harvard Trust in the center of Concord. Then, on a whim, I walked over to Assabet Lumber Company, walked in to the office, and asked if they were looking for help.

Surprisingly, I was immediately ushered in to the office of the president of the company, an active, friendly middle-aged man with a reddish face, and a bit of a paunch. He introduced himself as Frank Pierce, and told me that they just might need some additional help. “Let me call in Henry Barrett,” he said, picking up his phone, and punching in an extension. While we were waiting for Henry Barrett to come in, Frank Pierce asked me why I was looking for work, and I told him I was taking a semester off from college to make some money; I did not tell him that I had doubts about ever returning to college. He asked me which college, nodded in appreciative recognition at the name, and said that he was a Harvard man himself.

Henry Barrett came in, looking hurried and frazzled. Frank Pierce talked to him about whether the paint department might need an extra hand this fall, and Henry, without really looking at me, said he thought it might. Henry was dismissed, and left in a rush. Next thing I knew, I was hired to work out in the yard, and maybe in the paint department, beginning the next Monday and lasting through the month of December.

Post 1000

Near as I can tell, this is the one thousandth post on this blog. That means it’s time for a look backwards and a look to the future.

Looking back

Back on 22 February, 2005, this blog made its first appearance. I originally called it “Yet Another Unitarian Universalist Blog.” In the winter of 2005, the Unitarian Universalist blogosphere had expanded to some forty-six blogs. Forty-six! I thought that was way too many Unitarian Universalist blogs, so my original title was meant to imply something cynical like “Yet Another Unitarian Universalist Blog, As If the World Needs Another One.” There was also just the faintest echo of geek jargon. (If you’re curious, you can see those 46 blogs on Philocrites’s “Guide to UU Blogs” as updated on February 14, 2005, from the Internet Archive Wayback Machine: Link.)

Beginnings: In the beginning, this blog was merely an experiment. I was at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Geneva, Illinois (UUSG), as a one-year interim associate minister, and we were trying to come up with new avenues of communication for that church. Just for fun, I set up a blog on my AOL account, to see if a blog might provide another useful avenue of communication. I didn’t announce the blog’s existence to the congregation, yet within days, members of the congregation found the blog, wrote comments on it, and told me that they liked reading it. Suddenly, it wasn’t an experiment any more. I found myself writing a church blog for people I knew, members and friends of UUSG.

A second-tier UU blog: When I moved to New Bedford, Mass., in August, 2005, to serve the First Unitarian Church here, I discovered that very few people from my new church read my blog. I began writing for a mainstream UU readership. I moved to my own domain name in October, 2005, and within a year my readership grew significantly, from 600 unique visitors a month, to over 2,500 unique visitors a month. For a short period of time, “Yet Another Unitarian Universalist” was a moderately influential blog in the UU blogosphere — not a first-tier blog, but definitely in the second tier. My readership peaked in May, 2007, at 3,600 unique visitors; my Technorati rating peaked at about the same time.

An online notebook: While my readership was peaking, I found my interests changing. Last srping, I stopped trying to be a mainstream UU blog, and began to write more for myself. Now I use this blog as a notebook where I can think through ideas in public. Last April, I started videoblogging, and even though very few readers actually watch the videoblog entries (typically, a videoblog entry gets about 50 views), I still do it because videoblogging is fun for me. With these changes in emphasis, my readership dropped dramatically, to about 2,800 unique visitors a month as of September. However, the number of comments has increased, and best of all some people from my own church here in New Bedford have begun reading the blog regularly. I feel much more connected to my readership once again.

Looking to the future

A few new directions for this blog may emerge over the next few months.

Right now, I’m in the process of outlining a major writing project. Back when I was nineteen, I left college and spent a year working in a lumberyard. Recently, for no apparent reason, memories of that year began flooding back, and after writing pages of notes on those memories I began to realize that I was looking at a book’s worth of spiritual autobiography. I don’t particularly want to write a book at this point in my life, so instead I may simply post some of that material here.

Another big writing project seems to be bubbling up as well. I’m idly working on writing out a coherent system for religious education in liberal churches. At the moment, this project seems to want to follow the format used in Christopher Alexander’s book on architecture, A Pattern Language. Maybe I’ll be writing a “pattern language” for religious education? We’ll see what comes of this.

You may see more and more of two these two big writing projects here on this blog. But I can guarantee that some of the old, familiar features will continue as well. I’ll still write long, nerdy posts about birds and other local critters. My irrepressible alter ego, Mr. Crankypants, will no doubt make periodic appearances. I’ll keep on videoblogging, just for the sheer fun of it. After all, this blog is my hobby, and it’s supposed to be fun!

As always, let me know what you think.

Email: [curse | blessing], part five

From the point of view of time management, email is an curse. Email seduces you into spending too much time on insignificant matters. A basic principle of time management is the 80/20 rule: you should spend 80% of your time on the 20% of tasks that are the highest priority. Almost never does reading any email message rank as one of our most important priorities; yet many of us routinely spend anywhere from a quarter to half our time each day reading and answering email.

I’ve been working on ways to apply basic time management principles to email, and here’s the strategy I have come up with so far:–

I check email only after I have outlined my daily task list, and prioritized my tasks for the day. As I check email, I skip reading all email listserves and other optional email; I also skip reading anything that doesn’t need to be read right away. I spend no more than half an hour checking email (well, OK, sometimes I spend 45 minutes). Once a week, I spend a couple of hours going through all the email that has accumulated — at which time, I find I can delete most of it.

I’m still working on my email strategy. If you have thought about email from the point of view of time management, I’d love to know what strategies you have developed for minimizing the time you spend reading inconsequential email.

Friday video: Autumnal tints video postcard

Another video postcard — this time “Autumnal Tints in New England.” It’s shamelessly pastoral, with however the realistic inclusion of passing SUVs and airplane noise overhead. All video shot in and around Concord, Massachusetts, in Minuteman National Historical Park and Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. (1:05)

Mr. Crankypants takes on Al Gore

Mr. Crankypants is so pleased that Al Gore has won the Nobel Peace Prize. What self-respecting liberal isn’t? All the conservative pundits are foaming at the mouth, rabidly furious at the thought that some crazy Swedes (who are probably Commies anyway) dared to give any kind of public recognition to Evil Al, the Climate Change Kid. Mr. Crankypants just loves the thought of conservative pundits foaming rabidly at the mouth.

However. While Mr. Crankypants is amused at his effect on conservative pundits, Mr. C. thinks Al Gore has missed a key point. The world doesn’t really need carbon offsets. The world doesn’t really need that Kyoto treaty they all talk about. The world doesn’t even really need hybrid automobiles. What the world really needs is about five and a half billion fewer human beings.

Stanley Schmidt makes this point in the November, 2007, issue of the magazine Analog: Science Fiction and Fact: “If population continues to increase, it will overwhelm any per capita decrease we make in any of the problematic variables associated with it, like resource use, increase in greenhouse gases, and other forms of pollution.” Elementary arithmetic will show you that this is a true statement. Schmidt goes on to make this statement: “All places will need to think about controlling population growth. It will be controlled, sooner or later, whether because of voluntary restraint, government-imposed limits, or catastrophic collapse because a stability limit has been passed.”

Three options: (a) voluntary restraint, (b) government-imposed limits, or (c) catastrophic collapse. Which one of these do you think is the most politically palatable option? Which option do you think Al Gore would choose? Remember that Al Gore has not publicly advocated for either voluntary population restraint, or for government controls on population growth. Therefore, if you chose (c), catastrophic collapse, as the preferred political option for controlling population growth, you are correct! Your prize will be ocean-front property in the state of Arkansas.

And which of those three options do you think is the most religiously palatable option for most of the world? A few religious liberals would vote for option (a), voluntary restraint of population growth — indeed, some religious liberals deliberately limit their offspring to one, or adopt children rather than procreate themselves, or have no children at all, as a matter of religious principle. But most of the world’s religions seem to prefer option (c), catastrophic collapse — presumably under the untested theory that their deity/deities, or other supernatural power, will come to rescue them.

Mr. Crankypants doesn’t want this to be completely depressing. So he will point out some more good news — after the sea level rises, Arizona might just have oceanfront property as well!

Church Web cam

Just back from three days at a ministers’ retreat, I can’t resist passing along a cool idea. The featured presenter for the retreat was Scott Alexander, senior minister at the Unitarian Universalist church in Bethesda, Maryland. He told us that not long ago, the Bethesda church was engaged in a major construction project, and some of the nerds and techies at the church installed a Web cam so members of the congregation could watch the progress of the building.

When the construction project was over, Scott asked if the Web cam could be moved to the main church. It now provides a live video feed of all worship services. A Web cam may not be super high quality video, but it’s perfectly adequate for Web streamed video. The video feed is in the section of the church Web site that is password-protected, in order to protect the privacy of worshippers who might appear on the video. With the Web cam, shut-ins and people who are traveling can watch the Sunday morning worship services live. But also, when there’s a memorial service or wedding, the church can give out temporary passwords so that those who couldn’t make it to the service can still watch it live.

I’ve been thinking it would be fun to install a Web cam in the public portion of our church Web site. We would turn it off during worship services, to protect privacy of worshippers. But the rest of the time, we could leave it on so that anyone could see the play of the sunlight at different times of the day — leaving our virtual doors open so that anyone could come in and sit (virtually) and meditate in a peaceful setting.

Gulls and crab

A few days ago, I was walking on Pope’s Island near the marina, seeing if any of the recreational boats had been taken out of the water yet. I happened to be watching as an adult Herring Gull suddenly swooped down and landed on the water right next to the rocks that make up the shore of the island. The gull stuck its head down in the water, balanced itself with a flurry of its wings, and came up with something in its bill.

The gull flew right in front of me, and landed in the marina’s parking lot about a hundred feet from where I was standing. It had a fair-sized crab, and it appeared that the crab was still moving. The gull lifted up its head, dropped the crab on the pavement, and quickly picked it up again. As far as I could tell, that drop was the coup de grace, and the crab no longer moved after that.

The gull shook its head with the crab in its bill, put the crab down, turned its head on the side, and pecked at the joint between the upper and lower shells. I walked a little closer as it repeated this maneuver several times. By now, it was pulling little bits of flesh out of the crab and gulping them down.

A second gull flew over, gliding in and landing a safe distance away, and watching the first gull eat. A third gull flew over to watch as well. But the first gull was very adept at eating the crab, and the other two gulls quickly gave up and flew away, either to search for food on their own or to find a clumsy gull from whom they could steal food.

Then a first-year gull flew over, awkward, with its drab brown plumage, and landed fairly close to the adult Herring Gull. It landed clumsily, hunched its shoulders, and gave the keening cry that baby Herring Gulls give when they’re in the nest asking for food from their parents. The adult gull shook the crab very hard a couple of times, and a couple of the crab’s legs flew off. The adult let the first-year gull steal one of the crab legs, which it quickly swallowed whole.

Pretty soon, it looked to me as though the adult had finished all the meat in the crab shell, so I ran over and chased the two gulls away to see what kind of crab it had been. All that was left was the top shell of a Green Crab (Carcinus maenas); its shell measured nearly six inches from point to point.

Down by law

Mr. Crankypants’ stupid alter ego, Dan, is off at some ministers’ retreat. Dan just called here to make sure no one was illicitly logging on to his blog to write something while he was gone, and he happened to mention that the focus of the ministers’ retreat is a workshop by some guy named Scott Alexander called “Exercising Health in the Practice of Ministry.” Dan was all excited by what this Scott fellow had to say….

Dan: “I’m all excited by what Scott had to say!”

Mr. Crankypants, muttering under his breath: “You are easily excited.”

Dan: “What? What did you say?”

Mr. C: “What are you excited about?”

Dan: “Oh, Scott is telling us what everyone knows, but won’t say — that most ministers chronically work far too many hours, that chronically overworking just makes them less effective as ministers, less healthy and less able to function effectively as religious leaders.”

Fine, Dan. But what Mr. Crankypants wants to know is who is saying the same thing for the Directors of Religious Education? Many congregations routinely expect Directors of Religious Education to work far longer than the hours they get paid for. Many congregations (especially small congregations) expect Directors of Religious Education to work miracles — to accomplish fifty hours worth of work while getting paid for only seventeen with no benefits and most often no vacation. No wonder the average tenure for a Director of Religious Education is only about two and a half years — Directors of Religious Education are not stupid people, and quickly pick up on the fact that they are being exploited, so they quit.

OK, Mr. Crankypants has something to say to you Directors of Religious Education out there, so listen up. The Board of Trustees of your church is not going to change. The Board of Trustees of your church is never going to say to you, Hey you work too many hours. They are never going to say to you, Hey since you’re charged with family ministry in this church we want you to model how to be a good family member by not working any extra hours. (These lines stolen directly from what Dan reported of Scott Alexander’s workshop.) But — everyone in your church is going to notice when you work more hours than you’re supposed to, and they’re going to think, Man I can’t live up to her/his standards so I’m just not going to teach Sunday school so I’ll never measure up. There’s only one way you can get out of this double bind….

Go tell the Board of Trustees at your church that you, the Director of Religious Education, need to set a good example for all religious families, by spending lots of time with your family, and not overworking at church. Tell ’em that Mr. Crankypants said so — so they just better listen up!

Down by law. Mr. C. has got your back, yo.


Thirty years ago this weekend, when I was sixteen, I climbed my first four thousand foot mountain in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The Whites were a very different place then. For one thing, you could drink the water from any mountain spring without needing any kind of purification; by 1978, giardia first started showing up in the Whites; and today you have to purify any water you drink, or risk giardiasis. For another thing, there were a lot fewer people on the trails back then; when my friend Will and I went hiking in the Whites in the late 1970’s, you could go a whole day without seeing another person, whereas today you’re lucky to go an hour without seeing another hiker. And for another thing, when you were up on a mountain top, you could generally see a lot farther then than you can today, because increasing pollution has cut visibility dramatically throughout New England.

It’s easy to lament, and wax nostalgic. But if you’re going to lament about what has been lost in the White Mountains since the 1970’s, why not go back further in time and lament the loss of the old-growth forests during the 19th century? Lamentation is all very fine, but it makes more sense to enjoy what we’ve got now, while we still have it, for as global climate change progresses, we’re going to lose all the rare arctic tundra plants that grow above the 5,000 foot line in the Whites; acid rain will continue to despoil the mountain tarns and streams; invasive insect species will decimate the forests even more than they have already. In this time of ecological crisis, lamentation seems like a luxury we can’t really afford.

One good thing about global climate change is that the warm-weather hiking season in the White Mountains has been extended by some weeks; it used to be that the winter hiking season began the weekend after Columbus Day. Maybe I’ll make a trip up there sometime soon, and enjoy the mountains before the weather changes.