90 seconds to midnight

Since 1947, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has maintained the “Doomsday Clock.” That mythical clock shows how close humanity is to total destruction. Originally, the Clock only looked at the danger from nuclear armageddon, but in recent years has included threats from ecological catastrophe, bio-security, and other controllable threats to humanity.

The Clock was advanced from its previous setting of 100 seconds before midnight (i.e., to destruction), up to 90 seconds before midnight. According to Rachel Bronson, PhD, president and CEO, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: “90 seconds to midnight is the closest the Clock has ever been set to midnight.” The Bulletin’s press release attributes most of the increase in threat to humanity to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and ongoing threats that Russia will use nuclear weapons.

Ten years ago, the Clock was set to 5 minutes (300 seconds) to midnight. When I first got active in the movement calling for reduction in nuclear stockpiles, back in the late 1970s, the Clock was set at 9 minutes to midnight, and we thought that was terrifying.

I still remember attending a Sun Ra concert in Philadelphia sometimes around 1983, when Sun Ra led his band in a snake dance through the audience while chanting, “It’s a motherfucker / Don’t you know / If they press that button / Your ass gonna go.” That chant was one of the things that helped me make sense of something you can’t really make sense out of. Nuclear war. It’s a motherfucker — and Sun Ra never used strong language, except in this piece, but that strong language is the only possible language for this topic — but there it is. Don’t get frantic about nuclear disaster, but don’t ignore it either. Confront it head on, in all its seriousness, with all the possibility of oblivion, while making music about it.

(For the record, the live version I remember hearing differs from the 1982 recorded version. Musically, the version I heard in Philadelphia is probably more like the live version recorded in Germany in 1984; though the words of the German recording differ from what I remember. There’s also the version recorded in Paris in 1983, which is quite different musically. No matter. If you’re looking to make sense out of nuclear armageddon, the effect of any of the recorded versions is the same: helping us make sense of the senseless.)

A screen grab from the 1984 film showing Sun Ra and his band, dressed in elaborate costumes, performing "Nuclear War." A subtitle in French reads, "S'ils appuient sur le bouton," i.e., "If they press the button...."
Screen grab from a 1984 film of Sun Ra performing “Nuclear War” in Paris.

Lake Shore Limited to Framingham

I woke up around seven o’clock. We were still in Pennsylvania. The sky was a dull gray. My roomette was on the north side of the train, and I kept hoping for a sight of Lake Erie. I finally thought I saw the lake in the distance.

A cloudy sky over a snow covered field, with a line of trees in the distance, and through a break in the trees perhaps a sight of a distant lake.
Near Freeport, Pennsylvania

It started snowing. The blowing snow made verything I saw out the window look faded. It was hard to tell the difference between the sky and the ground — both looked white.

A white sky overhead, trees in the distance partly obscured by snow, a snowy field in the foreground.
Snow near Buffalo, New York

We had a quarter of an hour layover at the Buffalo-Depew station, so I got out to stretch my legs. A few smokers got out and miserably puffed their cigarettes while the snow swirled around. The people getting on the train bent their heads down to keep snow out of their eyes.

People walking along a stationary train, which stretches into the distance.
Buffalo-Depew Station

The train passes quite near the lower end of Onondaga Lake. Through the falling snow, I saw a Bald Eagle sitting in tree near the water, and half a dozen Canada Geese swimming out in the lake.

Canada Geese in the distance, swimming on the lake.
Onondaga Lake, New York

The Lake Shore Limited seems to carry quite a few people in plain dress. Maybe they were Amish, but the Amish aren’t the only group that wears plain dress; there are Mennonite groups who wear plain dress, Hutterites, and still others. I asked one of the train crew about them. He said lots of Amish (as he called them) took the train, and sometimes they took over a whole car. I said I had heard at least one couple speking what sounded like Pennsylvania Dutch of Low German to me, but that wasn’t something he had noticed.

Couple wearing plain dress, Utica station (faces blurred to protect privacy)

When we got to Albany, I had to move to a different car. There’s a one hour layover in Albany. After I stowed my luggage in my new roomette, I stood outside the train, just to be outdoors. A young man was taking photographs with what looked like a film camera, and I asked him about it. He was shooting outdated Kodak Gold color film, which he processes and prints himself to get certain specific artistic effects. I was suitably impressed. He wandered off to take more photographs. I talked for a bit with the sleeping car attendant, who grew up in Dedham.

Then I fell into conversation with a man from Australia. He and his wife had taken the train from San Francisco, with a stop in Denver, and a two day layover in Chicago. He loved both cities, and was looking forward to seeing Boston, and then New York. It turned out that he was a retired air traffic controller, and so I asked him about the recent FAA shutdown of air traffic in the United States. He said that of course once you have a glitch like the FAA had, you have to shut down all air traffic. But he also said that problems like that do arise when you outsource certain functions.

We got back on the train a minute before it started up again. By now, it was starting to get dark. But the light lasted long enough for me to see the Berkshires off in the distance.

A river visible in the middle distance, and a low mountain visible through the snow in the far distance.
Near the Housatonic River, south of Hinsdale, Massachusetts, with mountains in the distance

The train arrived on time in Framingham. I got my car out of long-term parking just as it started pouring rain. I was thankful that it wasn’t cold enough to turn the rain to snow.

Now I’m home, and I still feel like there’s a train moving under me….

Chicago

I wound up with a 7 hour layover in Chicago. The nice thing about train travel is that when you have a layover, you can leave the terminal. And when you have a layover in Chicago, you’re downtown, right in the Loop.

The Art Institute is closed on Tuesdays, so I went to Exile in Bookville, a bookstore on the second floor of the Fine Arts Building on Michigan Ave. The Fine Arts Building still retains much of its 1898 decor, and it even still has elevators that need to be operated by human beings. Exile in Bookville turned out to be an excellent small bookstore. I passed over William Cronon’s environmental history of Chicago and the midwest (too bulky to carry on the train) and instead bought The Future Is Disabled by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha. I also stopped at the DePaul University bookstore, which is run by Barnes and Noble.

By then it was half past four. Time to start walking slowly back to Union Station. I stopped to take a photo of part of a public art work on Quincy St. at South State St.

A semi-abstract sculpture that looks vaguely like a tree or a very large plant.
Public art, Quincy Street at South State Street, Chicago

As I continued walking, I looked for more public art….

Photomontage showing two statues of women, one symbolizing agriculture and one symbolizing industry.
Photomontage, Chicago Board of Trade statues symbolizing agriculture and industry, c. 1885
A large bright red abstract sculpture standing in a plaza surrounded by skyscrapers.
Alexander Calder, Flamingo, Klucynzski Federal Building, Chicago, 1973
A large sculpture, about 100 feet tall, that looks like a huge baseball bat.
Claes Oldenberg, Batcolumn, Social Security Administration Building, Chicago, 1977

It turned out to be a very pleasant layover in Chicago.

Unexpected optimism

I remember sitting in an upper level undergraduate philosophy class back in 1982, when we were discussing nihilism. This was a time when the Cold War was frighteningly real to my twenty year old self. In this class discussion, I pointed out that there was a very good chance of a nuclear war wiping out human civilization within a decade. The point I was trying to make, in my inarticulate way, was that nihilism and realism were hard to tell apart at that moment in history.

I suspect quite a few people in my age cohort had similar feelings. Science fiction Charles Stross, who’s four years younger than I, appears to be one of those people. In a recent comment on his own blog, he writes:

“[In the 1980s,] I didn’t expect to live to see 1990, much less 2000.

“[Today] we’re nearly a year into an angry totalitarian Russian invasion of a western(ish) nation and the invasion stalled out badly before it got more than 200km in, and they still haven’t gone nuclear.

“Yes, that is an improvement. I mean, I’ll take dangerously accelerating climate change, rule by mad billionaire oligarchs, and neo-Nazis trying to make a come-back everywhere, over dying in a 50,000-warhead superpower nuke-fest — or worse, being one of the scorched and irradiated and starving survivors — any day of the week.”

I agree with Stross. I’m still somewhat amazed that it’s 2023, and I’m not yet reduced to radioactive ash. We’re still here.

Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002) was a German philosopher who lived through the First World War, the Nazi regime, the Cold War, and the beginning of the “war on terror.” Not long after the attack on the World Trade Center, someone asked him if he had optimism. Yes, he said — holding his finger and thumb a tiny distance apart — about this much hope.

So like Stross and Gadamer, I find myself optimistic. Yes, we face incredible problems. But we’re still here, which is pretty amazing. We’re still here, there’s still hope.

Eagles

We went out for a walk along the river that runs through Oshkosh, Wisconsin, today. A Bald Eagle soared overhead, landed in a tree, and soared off again when we got too close. Then a couple of minutes later, there was another Bald Eagle ahead of us, sitting in a tree.

It was breathtaking to see Bald Eagles that close. But we shouldn’t be seeing any eagles over the river in Oshkosh in January. Instead, the river and the lakes should be fully frozen over, driving the eagles to Lake Michigan to find open water for hunting. It has been such a warm winter, the river is almost completely ice-free. So while I love seeing the eagles, we’re seeing them because of global climate change, which is not a cheerful thought.

Stressed out

When a minister is removed from fellowship, or resigns from fellowship with the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Ministerial Fellowship Committee sends out email announcing the minister’s name, and the reason for removal from fellowship, or the reason for resignation. These emails go out to all other ministers, and also, I believe, to key congregational lay leaders such as Board presidents.

Starting last year, the Ministerial Fellowship Committee finally began maintaining a list of these ministers online at this web page: “UUA Clergy Removed or Resigned from Fellowship with Completed or Pending Misconduct Investigations.” This list goes back to the 1960s, although there is a specific warning that the list “is in no way a complete historic record.” I would assume it is fairly complete for about the last twenty years.

So I just received another email notice of a minister removed from fellowship. That makes four ministers out of fellowship since September. This seemed like a high number to me. But is it?

According to the online list, in the period from 2000 to 2020, twenty ministers either resigned from fellowship rather than face misconduct charges, or were removed from fellowship on misconduct charges, averaging one per year. (The list has not been updated for 2022.) Thus four ministers out of fellowship in six months is a high number compared to the historical average. However, four ministers went out of fellowship in 2019, the highest number in any one year. So having a high number of ministers out of fellowship cannot be blamed solely on the COVID pandemic.

Nevertheless, four ministers out of fellowship within six month is still a high number. I believe the pandemic has contributed to this historically high number. Which makes sense. We know that people in other helping professions are feeling burned out by the pandemic, so we should expect ministers and key volunteers to be feeling burned-out and tender. We also know that emotions are high in all workplaces, and “rage quitting” is a thing, another symptom of workplaces stress. I’m thinking the common thread running through all this is pretty obvious: both lay people and ministers are feeling stressed out after almost three years of pandemic.

What can we do to address all this stress?

Well, many ministers would probably benefit from talking with a mental health professional, to get an outside opinion about their emotional well-being (that is, if you can find a mental health professional to talk with, since there is a shortage of such people). I’ll be talking with a therapist myself in a week or so.

Congregational leaders, for their part, would probably benefit from talking with denominational officials or congregational consultants. Again, the point would be to get an outside perspective: How stressed out is the congregation? And where there is a lot of stress, then start thinking about how to reduce that stress.

To help reduce stress, I would also heed the advice of Scott Thumma, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Hartford International University, from a recent Religion New Service article. “Everything has to be hyper-intentional now,” Thumma said. “The focus should be, how can we become a better church — rather than, how do we re-create what we used to have?” In other words, let’s shift expectations away from what we used to do, and instead set expectations about what we can realistically do now. That should lower stress on lay people and ministers alike.

Innovation

In the September, 1829, issue of The Congregational Magazine, a cranky correspondent complains about an innovation of which he does not approve:

To the Editors.— … Many of your friends were surprised and amused to read, in your number for June, of a minister being ‘installed’ over the Congregational Church in Belfast, and of an ‘installation prayer’ having been offered on the occasion. We are familiar with the terms as connected with the different orders of knighthood among the nobility, and some of the higher functionaries in the national hierarchy, but for introducing them to describe the ‘installation’ of an independent minister, there surely exists no authority, and I am desirous of preventing your valuable miscellany being appealed to as countenancing such an abuse of words…. Yours, &c., Verbum Sat.”

The Congregational Magazine was a publication aimed at Nonconformists in the Reformed tradition who used congregational polity. In terms of their polity (i.e., church governance), they would have been fairly close religious relatives to mid-nineteenth century British Unitarians.

This seems to imply that “installing” a minister was a new practice in the mid-nineteenth century, at least among U.K. nonconformist congregations. So when did Unitarians and Universalists in the United States start talking about “installing” ministers? A quickie online search turns up plenty of mid-nineteenth century installation sermons, but nothing earlier than that.

Noted without comment

“In the United States, Protestantism has been both the privileged religious discourse and the discursive frame privileged in efforts to define both ‘religion’ and race,’ alongside a host of other modern categories. Such was the case even as race, framed as secular, modern discourse, was hailed as the principle of social organization that trumped religion — as an umbrella term for a host of ‘primitive practices’ associated with a previous epoch — under the sign of modernity. In short, to become a modern subject was not simply to become secular or to lose one’s religion. Rather, it was to acquire ‘good religion,’ which meant ascribing to a particular sort of Christianity (read: primarily ethical, literate, and reasoning). Good religion took on the form of white Protestantism. In contrast, black religion was ‘bad religion” in that it carried, by definition, evidence of earlier, African ways of being in the world….”

Josef Sorett, “Secular Compared to What?”, in Race and Secularism in American, ed. Johnathan S. Kahn and Vincent W. Lloyd (Columbia Univ. Press, 2016), p. 50

Lake Shore Limited — Hiawatha Service

I awakened in the middle of the night and looked out the window of the upper berth. Rain blurred the view. The GPS on my phone said we were in Buffalo, but I saw nothing distinctive.

A blurred photo of a dark night, with bright lights reflecting off rain-slicked pavement.
Buffalo, N.Y., at 12:45 a.m., from the train window.

I had gone to bed before nine o’clock, so it was no surprise when I awakened at half past six. I tried to doze, but I was awake. I washed my face and shaved, got dressed, and tried to read for a while. At last it started to grow light outside. I opened the curtains of the roomette to watch the world go by. We passed a brightly-painted, brightly-lit water tower in Bryan, Ohio.

The sky barely turning light, a brightly painted-and blurry sight of a water tower.
Bryan, Ohio

We mostly pass through farm fields, with a few patches of woodland, a few small towns, and a few areas of light industry.

Early morning, a grain tower appears through some trees.
Waterloo, Indiana

I saw no snow anywhere. I’ve taken the Lake Shore Limited several times before in January, and there is always snow on the ground at this time of year. But not this year. Global climate change is taking hold.

Elkhart, Indiana

Before I knew it, we were in Chicago, arriving at Union Station just before ten o’clock, ahead of schedule. I went up to the Great Hall, to see if it was as spectacular as I remembered it being. It was, and is. The sight was spoiled somewhat by the fact that Amtrak plays bad Muzak which sounds echo-y and terrible in that high space. I did my best to ignore the bad Muzak, and just enjoyed the light and space. It was a very peaceful place to spend a couple of hours while waiting for the connecting train to Milwaukee.

The Great Hall, Union Station, Chicago

Hiawatha Service, the service to Milwaukee, was delayed half and hour due to a computer glitch. At last we were on our way. I enjoyed looking down the streets of Chicago and trying to imagine who lived there.

Looking down a Chicago street from the window of the train.
Leavitt St., Near West Side, Chicago

I dozed off, and awakened again when we were in Wisconsin. It was a short ride, just under 90 minutes. The downtown Milwaukee train station was nothing special — it looked like a bus terminal, and actually it was a bus terminal as well as a train station.

Downtown Milwaukee intermodal station, passngers waiting to board the southbound Hiawatha Service (faces blurred to protect privacy).

Carol and her dad were waiting to pick me up outside the station. Supposedly there’s a move to extend train service all the way up the coast of Lake Michigan to Green Bay. That would have saved Carol an hour and a half drive down to pick me up.

While my trip took much longer than the two hour flight from Boston to Milwaukee, my carbon footprint was much, much smaller. And I enjoyed it more, because instead of being treated like animated cargo (that’s how TSA and the airlines treat you), I was treated like an actual human being.

Lake Shore Limited

I boarded the Lake Shore Limited at the Framingham station. I would have taken the commuter rail from Cohasset to South Station, except I have a complicated parking situation, and had to leave my car in overnight parking.

The section of the Lake Shore Limited that runs from Boston to Albany is a small consist: one sleeper car, a club car, two coaches, all pulled by one locomotive. I had no trouble finding the correct car to board.

I quickly settled in, and then I must have dozed off, because the next thing I knew we were in Worcester. The sun had gone away, leaving a harsh gray sky. I was glad to be inside my nice warm roomette.

View from train window showing freight cars on another track.
CSX intermodal yard, Worcester

I dozed off again, and awakened as we slowed down to enter Springfield. We passed a lonely-looking tent encampment in some trees next to the tracks. We stopped briefly at the Springfield station, where a few people got on and more seemed to get off the train.

View from the train window showing people walking along damp pavement towards a ramp.
Springfield station

We crossed the Connecticut River….

Connecticut River crossing

…and began to climb into the hills of western Massachusetts. We passed an old paper manufacturing plant.

Old Strahmore paper plant, Russell, Massachusetts

The route ran along the Westfield River for an hour or so. At times the train ran right next to the river, and then the river would wind away into the woods and disappear. Steep hills surrounded us.

Westfield River, Montgomery, Massachusetts

By the time we go into the Berkshires, it was dusk. We wound through the hills as night set in.

Albany Station platforms; the Boston section of the Lake Shore Limited is on the right (on the other side of the stairwell); Empire service is just leaving the station in the center

At Albany, we had a one hour layover while we were connected with the New York City section of the Lake Shore Limited. I walked up to the station, mostly to stretch my legs, and bought a copy of the Financial Times. Now I’m waiting for dinner, and before you know it I’ll be bedded down in the upper berth sound asleep.