Monthly Archives: June 2009

Final impression of GA 2009

I’m about to go to bed, because I have to get up at three in the morning (heaven help me) to catch my train back east. Before I do, though, here are a few impressions of General Assembly 2009:

— The weather was just about perfect: dry, warm but not too hot, and a couple of thunderstorms to keep it from getting boring. I have a theory that when the weather is perfect, there are fewer major conflicts at General Assembly — and indeed, this year I have heard of no erupting conflicts.

— The schedule was grueling. I had noticed that I was feeling particularly tired, but I hadn’t thought about why until someone pointed out that the GA schedule had no consistency. Plenary happened at odd times, workshop slots got thrown in when you didn’t expect them, UU University required an exhausting commitment of six hours Thursday afternoon and four hours Friday morning. I found the lack of regularity draining.

— The election for the next UUA president seemed to dominate everything else. I didn’t hear many people talking about their workshops, but everyone seemed to have something to say about the election.

— UU University (UUU) got mixed reviews this year. Some people liked their UU University track, some people thought it a waste of time (Doug Muder says much the same thing). Two years ago, I heard nothing but glowing reviews of UUU; maybe it didn’t scale up very well? It will be interesting to read summaries of the evaluations of UUU.

So ends another GA. Now off to bed.


Bzz bzz bzz

“Bzz bzz bzz” go the little sounds of rumor.

Last night from 10:00-10:45 p.m., there was a “Post-Election Celebration,” described in General Assembly Program Book as an “opportunity to meet and congratulate the newly elected UUA officers and trustees, and to hear from the new President.” Peter Morales, the newly-elected President of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) spoke. Several other people spoke, congratulating him. However, Gini Courter, the just re-elected Moderator of the UUA did not show up.

Gini Courter had endorsed Peter Morales’s opponent, so her non-appearance started people talking. “Bzz bzz bzz” go the little sounds of rumor.

Or maybe she was running a little late, and just happened to miss the 45 minute event. Or maybe some crisis came up to prevent her from coming. Who knows? (Update: Now we know. Gini Courter’s real simple explanation is up on her blog. It was a scheduling snafu — which has happened to all of us at GA.)

But this does raise a larger issue, the issue of endorsements. I don’t like the idea of endorsements in a denominational election. (I don’t look at endorsements, either; I don’t care who is supporting whom, I want to know what the candidates plan to do if they get in office.) I particularly don’t like it when an elected officer or Trustee of the UUA endorses one candidate or another. Stop the “bzz, bzz” of rumor before it starts: don’t endorse.

So I’m surprised…

Peter Morales has just been elected president of the Unitarian Universalist Association with 59% of the vote. And I’m surprised.

I was pretty sure Laurel Hallman would win, since she seemed to have higher-profile people endorsing her candidacy, and she seemed to have the better organization and more money at her disposal. But she didn’t win.

I thought it would be a close vote. I was expecting Laurel Hallman to win by two or three percentage points, or even less. But it was what Chris Walton of is calling “a decisive vote.”

Not only did this result surprise me, I was surprised to discover that I was relieved. I saw Laurel Hallman as offering more of the same — back to the same thing the UUA was doing before Bill Sinkford started to change the UUA’s direction ever so slightly — and I wanted a new direction. I don’t know if Peter Morales will be able to institute the kind of organizational change that I’d like to see, but at least I have some hope that there might be a little organizational change.

I’m still skeptical, but I’m relieved. I’m feeling a little more hopeful for the UUA.

So what are you feeling? Do you think it even matters who’s president of the UUA? Do you even care? Are you depressed that Laurel Hallman didn’t win? Conversation in the comments, if you feel so moved.

More local flavor from Salt Lake City

Lightning struck the glass tower outside the convention center today. It broke several windows in the tower. I just walked by the front of the convention center, and there were a bunch of city workers out there sweeping up the glass.

Behind the convention center, about three blocks away, I happened across the Salt Lake City Buddhist Temple. In front of it stand three amazing trees: some kind of pine tree with long needles and a delightfully convoluted trunk; a Japanese maple tree; and a tall mulberry tree covered with ripe fruit.

I took a walk this morning, and wound up walking past the local homeless shelter. Maybe thirty people were standing in front of the shelter or across the street. A block away there’s an upscale outdoor mall, complete with Abercrombie and Fitch and Gap stores.

Local flavor from Salt Lake City

Yesterday I found myself in Sam Weller’s, the oldest independent bookstore in Salt Lake City. It’s as good a bookstore as Powell’s in Portland, Oregon, which reveals something about the intellectual life of Salt Lake City. There was a television crew there conducting interviews, because Sam Weller, the owner of the store, had died that day. I overheard the interviewer asking a girl of about ten years old, “So what does Sam Weller’s mean to you?” Very eloquently, she told how important books were for her, and how much she likes to go to that bookstore. She sounded like a budding intellectual, with all that entails.

Later that evening, Rev. Tom Goldsmith, minister of First Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City, welcomed delegates to the first session of Plenary. Among other things, he said that some state leaders look askance at Salt Lake City, because of the intellectual ferment of the city. “They call it ‘Sin City’,” he said.

If you think of Salt Lake City as a dour theocracy, you’ve gotten a wrong impression of the city. In the neighborhood of the convention center, I have found not just Sam Weller’s, but also art galleries, a film center, ethnic restaurants, and more. After experiencing a little bit of Salt Lake City, my only surprise is that there are only two Unitarian Universalist congregations in the city.


Traveling companions

The last four presidential administrations poured money into highways and air travel, while starving passenger rail travel for funding. Indeed, the Bush administration made no bones about wanting to kill off passenger rail travel in the United States — not surprising when you realize that the Bush administration was run by oil company interests, and rail travel is the most fuel-efficient form of travel we have right now. So I was not surprised when the conductor announced that the dining car had to be shut down, but that they would get us sandwiches in Denver.

We had half an hour in Denver while they serviced the train, so I got out to stretch my legs. I wound up talking with Simon, and when the engineer blew the whistle and we trooped up to get our sandwiches, I followed Simon to the observation car to eat. Almost all the seats were taken, but there was only one person sitting at one of the tables.”Mind if we sit here?” we asked. He did not.

We introduced ourselves. He was Will, a high school student on the way to Salt Lake City with his family. He had a copy of The Two Towers, and we all got to talking about Tolkien’s fantasy trilogy. The train was rolling along and we sat there eating lunch and talking about other fantasy series we had read — Narnia, Harry Potter — and comparing them. From fantasy the conversation turned to education, and then to Australia (Simon was from Australia), and a whole host of other subjects.

Suddenly we realized that we were climbing up a steep slope via a series of switchbacks. We could look ahead and see the locomotive, look back and see the last car, and look down and see the last switchback we had just come up. We were going around the famous Big Ten Curve, ascending the Front Range of the Rockies. At some point, Will’s brother Wes joined us, and joined the conversation. When we passed by the most spectacular views, the conversation consisted of pointing out the beauties of the scenery through which we were passing; when we were in one of the many tunnels on the route, the conversation returned to more mundane matters.

After the Big Ten Curve, people started leaving the observation car. But the scenery kept getting better. We passed under the Continental Divide through the six-mile-long Moffat Tunnel, and into Glenwood Canyon, with thousand-foot canyon walls rising almost vertically on either side. We craned our necks back, and pointed out particularly marvelous rock formations to each other. And all this time, the conversation continued: two middle-aged men, and two young men in their late teens, carrying on an extended conversation that ranged from the trivial to the profound. Simon told us how he lost his leg, as a physician volunteering in Afghanistan in 2004 and Will told us about his artistic ambitions. We talked about what it’s like to be a man in contemporary society. We talked about other trips we had taken, or trips that we dreamed about taking. It turned out that Simon had never smelled sagebrush. Will, Wes, and I tried to describe the smell — an impossible task — and finally at one of the stops where they let us out to stretch our legs, I found some sagebrush, broke off a branch, and gave it to Simon.

At last it grew dark, and we saw the new moon rising over barely-visible buttes and mesas. Finally, at ten thirty, I said I had better get some sleep. We were due in to Salt Lake at three in the morning, and I needed to take a nap so I could be marginally functional when we arrived. Will and Wes said they were going to stay up until they arrived in Salt Lake. Simon, although he was continuing on to Emeryville, California, said he thought he’d go to bed, too. We shook hands all around, and went our separate ways.

Met while traveling

Written Monday, June 22, while on the train; posted Wednesday, June 24, and back-dated.

It’s what they call “community seating” in the dining car — they seat you with other people who come in at about the same time you do. Sure, you can take your food and go eat in your sleeping compartment, but it’s more fun to meet different people.

At dinner, I was seated with a family of three: mom, dad, daughter in mid-teens. They had been touring colleges on the East Coast, and were headed to Denver to visit colleges in that area. Upon finding out that I was from the Boston area, the dad turned to me and asked what I thought about Harvard College. I told him that I thought they were overpriced for what you got, unless all you wanted was the name on your diploma. “But,” I said, turning to the daughter, “it depends on what your filed is.”

“English,” she said, “writing, really.” So I asked what kind of writing she was interested in, and she said journalism and creative non-fiction. And then I asked what writers she liked, and she named Hunter S. Thompson and….

“Oh, New Journalism, huh?” I said.

“Yes,” she said, looking surprised that I knew what she was talking about.

So I told her that I love New Journalism, and besides my spouse, Carol, is a journalist, and my older sister has an MFA in creative writing, so like it or not I would know something about it. I told that Carol went to Newhouse School at Syracuse, and got good training in journalism; but what they told Carol at Newhosue was that you don’t need a degree in journalism, you mostly just need to write. So maybe it wasn’t so important which school she went to; maybe she should just find a college in New York City simply because it is the literary center of the United States. She had already thought about that.

Then the conversation meandered all over the place, and it turned out that the daughter had talked her parents into taking a side trip to drive past Woody Creek, where Hunter Thompson lived the last half of his life. Her parents didn’t quite roll their eyes, but obviously didn’t understand her passion. I love some of Thompson’s writing, especially Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, so I was far more sympathetic.

“Sounds like a good trip,” I said to her. “Literary pilgrimage is a venerable tradition. In fact, now that you mention it, going to Woody Creek a literary pilgrimage I should make.”

As we finished desert, I couldn’t resist asking her, “So how many words a day do you write?” “Well,” she said, and then admitted that she didn’t write every day. But wasn’t she was writing letters about her trip to a friend back home, which counts as writing, and writing in her journal? I said she should post those letters on a blog. She said that maybe she might do that some day.

5 hours in Chicago

Off the train from DC at 8:40. Breakfast in the DePaul University Bookstore Cafe (crappy bookstore, great cafe). Quick stop at Performance Classical Sheet Music (a couple of blocks south of Symphony Center) one of the few sheet music stores still in existence — the best part about Performance Music is that you get to ride up to the ninth floor in an old-fashioned elevator with and elevator operator sitting on a stool, a wooden floor, the hand-operated doors.

By then the Art Institute was open. I visited the new modern art wing, which wasn’t open when we lived outside Chicago. Then, just wandering around, I wandered into a small show of work by Hong Kong artist Wucius Wong — incredible work.

Ran back to Union Station, and they just called my train to board….