Monthly Archives: December 2008

Not dead yet

Back when I was an art student, I spent a year when all I did was shoot Polaroid 600 film. I loved (and still love) the color and the depth of the film. But Polaroid film will soon be extinct. First, Polaroid went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Dec. 18, and then this is the last month they’ll make instant film. Of course B&H Photo is still selling some Polaroid film, for now. What to do? You can join Save Polaroid , or Facebook’s save-Polaroid group, or give up and buy a Fuji Instax instant film camera (the film is lots cheaper).

The year in review

There was good news and bad news in 2008.

First, lots of bad news:

The economy: From my perspective, it was already going downhill last January. I knew something was up when the minister’s discretionary fund at church was out of money, more people were asking me for money, and no one could afford to donate any more money. In September, Wall Street and the media finally woke up to the fact that our economy has been driven by predatory lending and Ponzi schemes for the past decade, and suddenly we were in a “global financial crisis.” The Dow Jones industrial average fell 34% in 2008, the biggest one-year drop since 1931.

War: The war in Iraq went nowhere. The much-vaunted surge didn’t seem to change anything except that the federal government was spending even more money over there, and the few people who were willing to be soldiers were going over for their fourth or fifth deployment. No improvement, just a slow ongoing decline. Blessed would the peacemakers be, if we had any peacemakers.

Climate: Summer was hot, hotter than ever. Yeah, I know that global warming is “just a theory” and “not really based on facts.” Even if it is true (and it is indeed a well-proven theory), we’re supposed to be calling it global climate change. Well, the result of global climate change here in New England is that it was hot last summer, and it is freakishly warm this winter.

But also quite a bit of good news:

Green technology: “On October 3, President Bush signed into law the Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 that included the hoped-for 8-year extention of the solar investment tax credit. The act also lifted the $2,000 cap on the tax credit for residential systems, granting both commercial and residential systems eligibility for a 30% tax credit…. The law will encourage rapid growth for the solar industry….” (Distributed Energy: The Journal of Energy Efficiency and Reliability, November/December, 2008, p. 50.) The lousy economy is driving us to become more energy-efficient, and to develop renewable energy sources.

Green religion: One of the more interesting things to come out of the presidential campaign was that about half the Christian evangelicals are now promoting what they call “Creation care.” It’s a little weird that they can’t bring themselves to say “ecotheology” or “environmentalism,” but at least they’re headed in the right direction, and are starting to catch up with liberal and moderate religious groups.

Personal: This marked year 19 with Carol, which is better than I can express. I have wonderful extended family, great friends, and a job that I love. I know 2008 was a tough year for many people, but from my selfish point of view it was a great year.

The president: Obama is no saint, by world standards he is pretty conservative, he has far too many ties to the corporate puppet-masters, but — he is Not-George-Bush. And as for George Bush, the shoe incident sums it up for me:

Yup. At great personal cost, Muntadar al-Zaidi became an instant folk-hero by summing up what many people around the world think about George Bush. (Image courtesy Dependable Renegade.)

Web site for walkers

They say it’s a Web site for runners, but really it’s a Web site for us walkers. Gmaps Pedometer let’s you calculate your fave walking routes using Google Maps. I used the hybrid satellite/map view at high magnification so I could map out all the little off-street detours I take. (Now I know that our regular walk to Slocum Park in Fairhaven is about 3.2 miles round trip, and our regular walk to the Fairhaven boat ramp is also about 3.2 miles.)

A year in a blog

A few year-end observations about this blog:

Readership continued to slowly increase this year. Late last spring I noticed that I had over 5,000 unique visitors to my Web site in one month, and probably four fifths of them visited this blog. I am mildly shocked that so many people visited this blog — that’s far beyond my most optimistic goals for this site. Oddly, I find I have stopped paying attention to readership statistics.

More numbers: The 1,500th post went up sometime in December. Even as my readership goes up, my Technorati ranking drops — it’s now at 23, half what it was when I started out — go figure. The index to this blog now contains more than 225 entries.

Historical factoid: This blog began its life as an AOL blog. For a long time after I transferred all the posts to this site, I maintained the original blog as hosted by AOL. But this fall, AOL finally did away with its blog hosting service, and the original blog is now finally gone.

Sturgeon’s Law predicts that 90% of anything is crap, which would imply that there were some 36 good posts on this blog this year. Some of the best posts were based on material sent in by blog readers, like this parody of “Spirit of Life”. I think one of my best posts was a video attack ad. One of my favorite posts documented local religious history. Another of my favorite posts simply documented ordinary life.

The absolute best part about writing this blog has been hearing from you, the readers. Some of your comments here on the blog have been extraordinarily insightful. Your email messages to me have ranged from intellectually stimulating to poignant to hilarious. And every once in a while, I get to talk to a reader face-to-face, which is most fun of all. I love hearing from you — that’s what really makes this whole endeavor worth my while.


A couple of days ago, Carol and I were walking down along the waterfront. Carol headed off towards the south side of State Pier. “Let’s go up here,” I said pointing to the north side of the pier, where the Martha’s Vineyard ferry docks. “I haven’t seen any seals yet this winter. Maybe we can see seals from up there.”

Carol turned, and started walking in that direction. She has already seen seals several times this winter.

It sounded questionable even as I said it. “Or we don’t have to go up there. I mean, we almost never see any seals up there.”

But Carol, being a good sport, was already heading up to where the ferry was docked. We got to the end of the pier, and looked out towards Fairhaven between the ferry on one side and the fishing boats on the other side. “Look,” I said, “It’s a seal!”

“Where?” said Carol. “Oh, I see it!”

The seal played on the surface of the water for a minute or so, and then slipped under the water and disappeared. We kept walking. It was a gray, raw, gloomy day. Inside, I was happily repeating to myself: I saw a seal! I saw a seal!

New book on religious naturalism

Jerry Stone, adjunct faculty at Meadville Lombard Theological School, and retired professor of philosophy at William Rainey Harper College in Chicago, sent this email message today:

“Friends — I have just found out that my new book, Religious Naturalism Today: The Rebirth of a Forgotten Alternative is now available from SUNY Press for orders placed in December for a 20% discount plus free shipping (WOW!). I apologize for the late notice. Orders can be placed at”

“Discounted price” means it’s US$60 instead of US$75. Big bucks for a book, but those who are interested in process theology (Bernard Loomer apparently looms large in this book), or contemporary humanism, or connections between religion and environmentalism, might want this book. I know my local library isn’t going to get it, so I just ordered my copy. (It’s also available in a downloadable version for US$20.)

If you want to know more about Jerry’s work in this area, try this article from Process Studies, or this article on the Meadville Lombard Web site, or my report on a 2006 lecture by Jerry. For those who might be interested, I’m placing Jerry’s abstract of the book below. Continue reading

How the Christmas tree came to New England

Hey, it’s Christmas day, and for the last hour you’ve been sitting and watching your cat rip ornaments off your Christmas tree. Suddenly you ask yourself, “But wait, how is it that the German custom of Christmas trees got imported to North America?” Well, different people brought it to different regions, but here in New England it was a Unitarian, Charles Follen (1796-1840), who introduced the huge green cat toy custom of the Christmas tree to us.

Follen was born in Germany, was a professor there for awhile but was too radical for the political authorities. He fled to escape political persecution, and arrived in the United States in 1824. By 1829 he was a professor at Harvard. Harriet Martineau, a prominent British Unitarian, visited him at his house in Cambridge, and she wrote this account of the first Christmas tree in New England (although as you will see, it was really a New-Year’s-Eve tree):

“I was present at the introduction into the new country of the spectacle of the German Christmas-tree. My little friend Charley [Follen], and three companions, had been long preparing for this pretty show. The cook had broken her eggs carefully in the middle for some weeks past, that Charley might have the shells for cups; and these cups were gilt and coloured very prettily. I rather think it was, generally speaking, a secret out of the house; but I knew what to expect. It was a New-Year’s tree, however; for I could not go on Christmas-eve; and it was kindly settled that New-Year’s-eve would do as well.

“We were sent for before dinner; and we took up two round-faced boys by the way. Early as it was, we were all so busy that we could scarcely spare a respectful attention to our plum-pudding. It was desirable that our preparations should be completed before the little folks should begin to arrive; and we were all engaged in sticking on the last of the seven dozen of wax-tapers, and in filling the gilt egg-cups, and gay paper cornucopia; with comfits, lozenges, and barley-sugar. The tree was the top of a young fir, planted in a tub, which was ornamented with moss. Smart dolls, and other whimsies, glittered in the evergreen; and there was not a twig which had not something sparkling upon it. When the sound of wheels was heard, we had just finished; and we shut up the tree by itself in the front drawing-room, while we went into the other, trying to look as if nothing was going to happen. Charley looked a good deal like himself, only now and then twisting himself about in an unaccountable fit of giggling.

“It was a very large party; for besides the tribes of children, there were papas and mamas, uncles, aunts, and elder sisters. When all were come, we shut out the cold: the great fire burned clearly; the tea and coffee were as hot as possible, and the cheeks of the little ones grew rosier, and their eyes brighter every moment. It had been settled that, in order to cover our designs, I was to resume my vocation of teaching Christmas games after tea, while Charley’s mother and her maids went to light up the front room. So all found seats, many of the children on the floor, for ‘Old Coach.’ It was difficult to divide even an American stage-coach into parts enough for every member of such a party to represent one: but we managed it without allowing any of the elderly folks to sit out. The grand fun of all was to make the clergyman [i.e., Charles Follen] and an aunt or two get up and spin round. When they were fairly practised in the game, I turned over my story to a neighbour, and got away to help to light up the tree.

“It really looked beautiful; the room seemed in a blaze; and the ornaments were so well hung on that no accident happened, except that one doll’s petticoat caught fire. There was a sponge tied to the end of a stick to put out any supernumerary blaze; and no harm ensued. I mounted the steps behind the tree to see the effect of opening the doors. It was delightful. The children poured in; but in a moment, every voice was hushed. Their faces were upturned to the blaze, all eyes wide open, all lips parted, all steps arrested. Nobody spoke; only Charley leaped for joy. The first symptom of recovery was the children’s wandering round the tree. At last, a quick pair of eyes discovered that it bore something eatable; and from that moment the babble began again. They were told that they might get what they could without burning themselves; and we tall people kept watch, and helped them with good things from the higher branches.

“When all had had enough, we returned to the larger room, and finished the evening with dancing. By ten o’clock, all were well warmed for the ride home with steaming mulled wine, and the prosperous evening closed with shouts of mirth. By a little after eleven, Charley’s father and mother and I were left by ourselves to sit in the New Year. I have little doubt the Christmas-tree will become one of the most flourishing exotics of New England.”

[Retrospect of Western Travel, Harriet Martineau (London: Saunders and Otley, 1838), volume III, pp. 182-184. I added several paragraph breaks for onscreen readability.]

And that is how the Christmas-tree (which was actually a New-Year’s-tree), was introduced to New England.

Not long after that, Charles Follen lost his professorship at Harvard because of his radical abolitionist views. Influenced by William Ellery Channing, Follen then became a Unitarian minister. He served for many years in East Lexington, Massachusetts, at what is now known as the Follen Community Church — it’s still a Unitarian congregation, they still meet in the octagonal meetinghouse that Follen designed for them, and every year they sell Christmas trees out in front of the church.

OK, now you can go back to watching your cat rip the ornaments off your Christmas tree.