Monthly Archives: September 2009

Two moments

I’m at a minister’s retreat, which is being held in a camp and conference center located on a steep ridge forested with second-growth redwoods, California bay laurels (Umbellularia californica), and Canyon live oak (Quercus chrysolepis). Two moments from today:

As I was walking along an old logging road cut into the steep hillside, with a precipitous drop on my right side and a vertiginously steep slope on my left side, I startled a big brown juvenile bird hawk. It flew quickly and efficiently through the redwood trees, out over the valley to my right, and was gone in less than a minute. I can’t tell you what kind of hawk it was (Accipiter cooperii?), but I saw it for just long enough to give me a new understanding of the topography of the landscape: the hawk was not limited to roads cut into a hillside otherwise too steep for me to walk on; it wove through a band of tall trees into the open air of the valley.

At tonight’s worship service, I could not pay attention to the sermon. I heard enough to know that it was a pretty good sermon, but that’s all; the words were gone before my tired brain had time to recognize them. I sat there watching other people listen to the sermon, and from their reactions — their bodily stillness, their facial expressions, their lack of fidgeting — I got some of the meat of the sermon.

“Race mixing is communism”

My friend E pointed me towards a photograph that has been widely shared on the Web — a black and white photograph dating from 1959, showing a group of people outside the state capitol in Little Rock, Arkansas, protesting integration of the public schools. The protesters are holding signs that read “Race Mixing is Communism,” and “Stop the Race Mixing / March of the Anti-Christ.” Coincidentally, I’ve recently been looking through the Atlas of 20th Century History by Richard Overy (New York: Harper Collins, 2006), in which I happened to read the following sentence: “Many of those who hated communists hated Blacks as well” (p. 108). This reminded me that Ronald Reagan’s first campaign for presidency emphasized not only the fight against communism (the “Evil Empire” as his campaign called it), but also “state’s rights,” which in those days was a kind of political code word for opposing federal desegregation efforts.

While accepting the historical reality that anti-communism and segregationism were linked in the minds of at least some Americans, I remain unable to explain how the two are linked. Of course, liberal Web pundits offer plenty of explanation of how anti-communism and segregationism are linked, but such explanations are merely ad hominem attacks larded with such terms as “Retardlicans.” Notwithstanding such idiocy, somewhere there must be a considered and serious historical explanation of this link.

Our conversation ranges widely, from John Murray, to suicide, to free speech

Series of entries in my teaching diary about an experimental Sunday school class. First entry.

As is our new custom, all of us — children and adults — began together in the worship service in the Main Hall at 11:00. Amy, our parish minister, taught us a song called “Thula.” It’s a Zulu song, in 3-part harmony, and “thula” means hush — it’s a lullaby, but it’s also a great song for helping people become peaceful.

We gathered in a bigger room this week, and it was a good thing we did because we had twelve children this week instead of nine. Pete and Ari were not here this week, but Rawley and Chad (brother and sister) and Perry and Monty (brothers), and Lily joined us today (for privacy, I use pseudonyms for the children). All four of use teachers were present — Lee, Susie, Melissa, and me — as well as two parent visitors — Lucy from last week and Amanda.

It took us a while to settle down. We did not have enough space for the children to sit in a circle, so some of the adults and children moved tables around. I asked two children, Lily and Oliver, to put carpet squares down in a circle for our opening circle. They started to do so, got distracted by their friends, and then we realized we were going to have to move the circle again, by which time everyone was helping. While this was going on, Susie was taking attendance.

Most of the children got in the circle, but we were still settling in, and Susie was still trying to take attendance. I talked a little bit about regional accents — I had to explain what an accent was, because some of the children didn’t know — and then I had the children learn how to say some words in a generic eastern Massachusetts accent. “There’s a red thing that you eat, and it has claws, what would you call it?” I said. Rawley got it: “A lobster!” “Exactly,” I said, except that where I come from we’d say ‘lobsteh.’ ” The children and adults all said, “Lobsteh.” “And then where I come from we like to eat clams. Did any of you ever have clams?” Several people nodded. “We like to steam clams, and we call them ‘steamahs.’ And we like to dip our steamahs in buttah — you’d say ‘butter’.” All the children said “steamahs” and “buttah,” and most of them were smiling or even laughing by now. All this had nothing to do with my lesson plan, but it served to cover over the chaos of rearranging the room, and it also served as an icebreaker activity.

At last we were settled in our opening circle. “Who are the sixth graders here today?” I asked “One of you can light the chalice.” Monty, Sara, and Chad held up their hands. “Sara, you lit it last week, so Monty, why don’t you do it this week, and Chad, we’ll have you do it next week.” Chad lit the chalice, and in another digression from my lesson plan, I talked to the children about how hair burns really easily, so those of us with long hair have to keep our hair away from fires. Continue reading

Random toy memories

During a break today, I got up to take a walk around the block.I passed by a school with a sandbox in which there were a couple of toy dump trucks made out of metal. suddenly, I remembered an old toy I had once had, a metal Jeep — just like the old Jeeps you see soldiers driving in the old movies about the Second World War — a toy Jeep that was probably made by the Tonka Toys company. I remember that old toy Jeep could go anywhere, at least in my imagination. I had a GI Joe doll that I would sometimes try to put in the Jeep, but since GI Joe’s knees didn’t bend, that wasn’t very satisfying. GI Joe lived in a shoe box down in the basement, and in the show box he had a number of outfits. The only outfit I remember was his winter outfit: a set of skis, and all-white clothes. Somehow, that captured my imagination; in my memory, I can only remember playing with GI Joe in the summer time, when I would think how much fun it would be to take him outside in his ski outfit and set him loose on the snow. When I got older, I did get interested in winter camping, and somehow I feel that playing with that old GI Joe doll and his ski outfit was one of the things that got me interested in winter camping. Twenty years after I stopped playing with GI Joe and the Jeep, I was a Boy Scout leader, and one winter we took the boys on a winter backpacking trip in the White Mountains. It was one of the best outdoor trips I’ve ever taken — sharing with a bunch of boys the beauty of the mountains in the winter, the joy of hiking when the air is hovering just above zero but you’re working so hard you only have to wear an undershirt, the thrill of challenging yourself physically and mentally.


The young adult group here at our church happened to be meeting next door to my office this evening. I stopped in to say hi. They were playing the game Monsters Menace America. I was so fascinated watching them play that I stayed for nearly an hour.

Watching a monster war game for an hour. Yeesh. I am such a geek. I glory in my geekness.

Monday evening en route to Millbrae

I’m trying very hard to cut down on my driving, so when I needed to go to Berkeley last night, I decided to take CalTrain commuter rail to the Millbrae station, and transfer there to BART for the rest of the trip.

After we left the San Mateo station, we were scheduled to go express to Millbrae, so I got up to stand near the doors. Not far from the San Mateo station, the train came to a dead stop. I looked out the window, and we weren’t near any station.

Then one of the train crew made an announcement over the public address system: “Ahh, we are stopped here because the train has just hit a white male,” he said. His voice sounded a little unsteady. “We’ll have to stay here until the police come….” The man was under the fifth car of the train.

I sat back down again. Years ago, I was on the train heading into Boston when the train hit someone, and we had to wait for over an hour before we got going again. I remembered hearing then that the police treated the train as a crime scene, which they had to document before the train could move again.

I sat and read a book. Every once in a while, a member of the train crew would walk up or down the aisle with expressions that ranged from blank to unhappy and sick at heart. After a while, I saw police and EMTs walk by. They did not hurry, so I assumed the man was dead. A member of the train crew announced that we would have to wait for the coroner to come and make his investigation. We waited. A couple of southbound trains passed on the other track; there had been no trains moving at first, but now the dispatcher was letting the southbound trains go. I saw more police walk by, and a couple of people with the word “Sheriff” on the back of their shirts. We waited. I saw Amtrak personnel (I guess Amtrak had the contract to run CalTrain’s service) walked by, wearing hard hats and carrying clipboards.

Around me, people were talking. You could tell that we were all thinking about the recent spate of CalTrain suicides, and we were all thinking that this must have been another suicide. Some northbound trains passed us on the other track. Finally, more than an hour after we had stopped, the announcement came that we had a new train crew on board — presumably the other train crew had to stay to answer police questions — and we got underway.

I felt crummy the rest of the evening. It was like passing a really bad accident on the highway, only worse because I was pretty sure that whoever had died had committed suicide. In a way, committing suicide by throwing yourself under a train is an incredibly selfish thing to do — from the expressions of the CalTrain crew, you could tell that they were sickened by what had happened. And what a horrible way to go. I couldn’t get rid of the bad feeling all evening.

Cell phone conversations

Standing waiting for the train this morning, I became aware of a young man walking towards me, talking on his cell phone. I glanced at him: in his twenties, long black t-shirt with a fanciful design over his belly, long black shorts down to his knees, a set weatherbeaten face with a little bit of facial hair, intense dark eyes with bags under them.

He was speaking quite loudly and forcefully into his cell phone: “…and she’s on probation too, and she’s like, oh my God I’m going to jail I’m going to jail, and so I…”

Fortunately he walked by me so I could stop listening to his story.

“On the first Sunday the adventure is launched” [1]

At 11:00 a.m. this morning, children and teenagers and adults from the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto (UUCPA) gathered together in the Main Hall for the first fifteen minutes of worship service. Some of the teenagers didn’t quite make it into the Main Hall; they had cooked dinner for the homeless people who stay overnight in the church each night in September, and then they had stayed overnight at one family’s house. But when the children from our Sunday school group had gone into the Main Hall, some of the teenagers were there, and lots of adults of all different ages. Amy, the Parish Minister, had welcomed everyone, and invited everyone to stand up and greet each other. Then the pianist played Chopin’s Prelude no. 6 in B minor; from where I sat in the back of the Main Hall, I could see the children settle down and relax. A family with children lit the flaming chalice while Marianne, one of the worship associates, led the congregation in saying some words together. Amy read Eric Carle’s story The Mixed Up Chameleon, introducing it by saying that although the story is aimed at young children, older children are the ones who really understand the story. Then Amy led the congregation in singing the song “My Roots Go Down” while the children gathered to go off together to the newly-established 11:00 Sunday school class, called “Expanding Circles of Faith.”

By 11:15, nine children and five adults had gathered in Room 6 on the UUCPA campus. The children ranged in age from Dorit, who was 6 and in first grade, to Sara and Peter, both 11 and both in sixth grade; the other children were Oliver and Bill, both in second grade, Heather, Zach, and Andrew, all in fourth grade, and Ari who is in fifth grade. (These are not the children’s real names, of course.) The adults included Melissa, and Susie, and me, three members of the teaching team who will be teaching this group this year, and two parents who were visiting the class.

We sat around the low circular table in Room 6, and after attendance had been taken, it was time to light a flaming chalice. I asked Sara, as one of the oldest children in the class, to light the candle in the flaming chalice, while the rest of us said some words most of the children knew from other Sunday school classes at UUCPA: “We light this chalice, a symbol of Unitarian Universalism, the church of the open minds, the helping hands, and the loving hearts.”

Usually I like to allow time in Sunday school classes for the children to talk about one good thing and one bad thing that had happened to them in the past week.  But things were a little bit awkward, since most of the children and adults did not really know each other, so instead we took the time to play a name game called “The Grocery Store Game.” First we moved the table out of the way. “Pick an item that you can buy in the grocery store,” I said, “the name of which begins with the same letter or the same sound as your name. So I’m Dan Dog food.” Everyone smiled at that, and we went around the circle as the children and adults chose grocery store names for themselves: Sara Saran Wrap, Zach Zucchini, Melissa Marshmallow, Dorit Doughnut, and so on. “Now one person stands in the middle of the circle with a pillow,” I said, demonstrating what I meant, “and one person, let’s say Oliver Olives, starts us off by saying ‘I like…’ and then someone’s grocery store name.” Oliver got it, and said, “I like Bill Berries.” I continued with my instructions: “At this point, I will try to tap Bill Berries with the pillow before he can name someone else.” Bill berries said hurriedly, “I like Ari Asparagus,” who in turn said, “I like Heather Hair Spray,” who didn’t respond before I tapped her with the pillow, so she went into the center of the circle. Continue reading