The joys of pop fiction

Recently, I’ve been making my way through P. G. Wodehouse’s books. (You know, Wodehouse, the guy who wrote those books about Jeeves, the butler, and Bertie Wooster, the gentleman of negligible intellect for whom Jeeves worked. Yes, they were books before they got abducted by British television, and magazine serials in the old Saturday Evening Post before they were books.)

The real reason I’m reading P. G. Wodehouse is escapism, pure and simple: his books are worlds of delightful fantasy, with no particular relationship to reality, where everything turns out just fine in the end. But if you ask me, I’ll tell you that the reason I’m reading his books is because he’s such an excellent English prose stylist, and I’m reading him in hopes that I can learn to write better. Both are true statements, but the second statement is the kind of truth that’s so faded that it’s barely there at all.

Yet even though there is so little of substance in Wodehouse’s books, once in a great while, to my vast surprise, he actually has something to say that is more than mere gossamer fiction fantasy. When I read the following passage in the novel Picadilly Jim (Arrow Books ed., 2008, p. 85), I had to read it twice, because it actually said something of substance:

…But his father’s reception of the news of last night’s escapade and the few words he had said had given him pause. Life had taken on of a sudden a less simple aspect. Dimly, for he was not accustomed to thinking along these lines, he perceived the numbing truth that we human beings are merely as many pieces in a jig-saw puzzle, and that our every movement affects the fortunes of some other piece. Just so, faintly at first and taking shape by degrees, must the germ of a civic spirit have come to prehistoric man. We are all individualists till we wake up.

As I thought about this passage, a strange vision came to my mind: Ayn Rand and P. G. Wodehouse in a sort of literary fight club….

…They come out of their respective corners and meet in the middle of the ring, literary knuckles bared. Wodehouse says, “I published nearly a hundred books.” Rand sneers at this pathetic jab, and replies, “Yes, but they were drivel; my big serious novel has sold nearly 7 million copies.” Wodehouse winces; he feels this blow keenly; but he rallies, saying, “Yes, but I was knighted.” Rand reddens in anger, and replies, “I repeat, you wrote drivel, mindless musical comedies in sticky-sweet prose. Whereas I promoted a serious philosophy, an ethical egoism that rejects the ethic of altruism.” Wodehouse smiles faintly, pauses, and says, “Ah yes; so you did: we are all individualists till we wake up.” It’s a knockout blow: Rand grunts in pain, clutches her head, and hits the canvas, out like a light.

A little louder, please

A couple of evenings ago, Carol and I happened to be walking along the platform of the San Mateo Caltrain station on our way home. A woman sat on one of the benches, talking on her cell phone while waiting for a train.

“Tell her that you’re not going to have to talk with the D.A.,” she said in a clear, penetrating voice.

On the next bench over, another woman huddled into her jacket.

“No, tell her that the D.A. isn’t going to press charges,” she said, louder this time. “Just tell her that, OK?”

We walked by. In a low voice, I said, “That’s not the kind of conversation I’d want to have in public.” Carol chuckled.

Fantasy worlds

Back when we were children, one of my sisters had a book called The Lonely Doll. The author, Dare Wright, illustrated the story with photographs. She used a doll she had had since she was a child, and two teddy bears given to her by her brother, Blaine. The book was reissued a few years ago, and I remember picking it up in a book store and leafing through it. Looking at the photographs as an adult, they seemed a lot more psychologically intense than I had remembered, especially the one of the big teddy bear, named Mr. Bear in the story, spanking Edith the doll. The photographs made the toys seem eerily lifelike.

I found Dare Wright’s autobiography in a used bookstore today. It turns out that Dare Wright had an unusually strong fantasy life as an adult. Her friend Dorothy was present when her brother Blaine went to the FAO Schwartz store in Manhattan to buy Dare a teddy bear:

“Blaine got drunk and weird, as he always did when he drank,” she recalled. “In we went. But when he saw all the bears together, he said it would be terrible to separate them because they would be lonely. With that he directed the saleswoman to pack up the entire lot, all their Steiff bears, hundreds of dollars of bears. Dare’s apartment in those days was just around the corner. We walked over there, carrying all those damn teddy bears.”

Dorothy found the spectacle of a grown-up brother and sister sitting on the floor surrounded by teddy bears, telling stories in imaginary bear voices, disturbing. Soon, Dare added Edith [her childhood doll] to the party — and urged Dorothy to join in. Making no effort to hide her disdain, Dorothy refused.* (The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll: The Search for Dare Wright, by Jean Nathan [New York: Henry Holt, 2004], pp. 158-159.)

I can understand why Dorothy felt disdainful towards Dare and Blaine — that’s what we adults are supposed to do, we’re supposed to give up those fantasy worlds — but there is not much separating Dare and Blaine playing with teddy bears, and Anthony Trollope weeping uncontrollably as he wrote about the death of one of his characters. Nor is there much separating their fantasy world from the worlds that mystics encounter. I suspect we all have different levels of attunement to transrational worlds: some people are what we might call tone-deaf to fantasy, mysticism, and even fiction; others of us are not.

* For the record, Dare wound up keeping just one of the bears, who became the mischievous Little Bear in her children’s books.

Playing the numbers game

The deadline for congregations to certify with the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) is February 1. As they submit their certification data, the numbers appear on the following UUA Web page: List of Congregations That Submitted Membership Numbers. Some of us — those of us who are fascinated by numbers and hard data — think it is entertaining to watch this Web site, so we can see which congregations have moved up in membership and attendance this past year, and which have moved down.

It’s also fun to calculate average attendance as a percentage of membership; a quick scan of the larger congregations show percentages as low as 34% (West Shore, Cleveland) and as high as 95% (Vancouver, Wash.) — my own congregation here in Palo Alto stands at 71%. I’ve always felt most comfortable serving congregations where average attendance is a high percentage of membership, because I like to imagine that means members are more engaged and that perhaps the congregation is growing or ready to grow, but the reality is that membership numbers often have little relation to the actual size of the congregation. The other reality is that all too often congregational leaders play fast and loose with attendance figures, leaving out low attendance months, or simply guessing at attendance (and I’m betting they generally guess high).

Whatever. It’s still fun to watch the figures come in, and play around with them.

A truth about bosses

As much as we would like to believe otherwise, here’s some truth about leaders of organizations from Robert I. Sutton, an organizational theorist at Stanford University:

The truth is that bosses of everything from small groups to Fortune 500 firms don’t matter as much as most of us believe. They typically account for less than 15 percent of the gap between good an bad organizational performance, although they often get over 50 percent of the blame and credit. Bosses of small (and young) workplaces have the biggest impact, especially on human reactions like turnover, satisfaction, and health. Yet even those bosses are over-romanticized, and their impact is magnified in our minds. In fact, even when bosses have no influence at all, we still heap on the credit and blame. When experiments at Stanford and Caltech were rigged so it was impossible for leaders to influence team performance, members still gave the appointed ‘leader’ most of the credit and blame. Members of poorly performing teams were even willing to spend their own money to get rid of their ‘lousy’ (if irrelevant) leaders.

If you are a boss, this is your lot in life. You can’t change it, so you better learn to deal with it. [Good Boss, Bad Boss by Robert Sutton (New York: Business Plus, 2010), p. 49.]

Based on my own experience, all this is true of ministers. As a minister, I have gotten credit for successes that I had little to do with, and I have been blamed for failures that I had little to do with. I’ve seen the same happen to chairs of congregational boards. As Sutton says, that’s life — best to learn to deal with it.


I had to talk with someone in New England, who happened to mention all the snow on the ground there. I told them that here in the Bay area, we’ve been having warm days, with temperatures in the 60s. I did not tell them that as I was driving to work yesterday, I noticed that new green leaves are appearing on some of the deciduous trees; that for the last few days the evening air has been filled with the scent of flowers; that on Sunday I stood and watched a gorgeous male Anna’s Hummingbird (Calypte anna) in fresh bright plumage feeding at the hummingbird feeder hanging near my office.

Counting contacts

A couple of years ago, a special ed. teacher was telling me about a technique she finds is very useful to make sure she connects with every child in her classes. She counts the number of “contacts” she has with each child — each time she makes eye contact, etc. — and she attempts to make a minimum number of contacts with each child in each teaching session. This is a common technique for teachers, and other variations of it may use different terminology, and may have different criteria for what constitutes a contact. For use in Sunday school, my criteria for a contact is making eye contact or addressing a child directly in a positive interaction (addressing a child for misbehavior doesn’t count), and I’ve been aiming for a minimum of five contacts with each child in a group of 8-10 children, during a typical 50 minute session.

Yesterday, I was teaching the fourth and fifth grade Sunday school class. While I was presenting the story of Moses and the golden calf, I was also counting contacts. It’s easy to make contact with the bright responsive kids; it’s also easy to make contacts with the troublemakers (I tend to like kids who are troublemakers, so I tend to have quite a few positive interactions with them).

But about two thirds of the way through the session, I realized that I had made absolutely no contacts with one of the boys. He sat there quietly and didn’t cause any trouble, so he didn’t draw attention to himself like the troublemakers. He never participated in any of the discussions, so again he didn’t draw any attention to himself. He was, in fact, extremely adept at blending into the background and disappearing from view. Even after I noticed that I wasn’t noticing him, I found it difficult to make myself have any interaction with him — he was that good at deflecting attention from himself. At last, towards the end of the session, I was rewarded — he actually looked up at me, and looked me in the eye.

I think this boy is not all that unusual; I can think of other fourth and fifth grade boys who manage to remove themselves from the circle of adult attention in congregations. I know we lose a lot of boys from Sunday school at about fourth and fifth grade, and I wonder if this is part of the reason why. If you’re teaching Sunday school, especially with upper elementary children, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

The “Y.P.R.U. Song”

Scott Wells recently sent me a copy of Songs and readings: A book of hymns, responsive reading, meditations and other service elements for use in families and churches; Including Naming of an Infant Child, Marriage, Thanksgiving and Burial of the Dead, as compiled in 1937 at the First Unitarian Church, Salt Lake City, Utah, under the editorship of Jacob Trapp, then the minister there. This is an explicitly humanist hymnal, although it would not appeal to today’s fundamentalist humanists for Trapp is willing to use the word “God” in a metaphorical or symbolic sense.

As I paged through this little book, something caught my eye: the “Y.P.R.U. Song”; that is, a song for the Young People’s Religious Union, as the Unitarian youth movement was called in those days:

Y.P.R.U. Song

Forward shoulder to shoulder,
   Fling the banner of youth,
On through worship and service
   To the glorious truth;
Light of our torch wide shining
   Colors always unfurled;
Strength, vision, and courage
   We pledge to the life of the world.

Far horizons are calling,
   Here, humanity cries
Deep in unfathomed darkness,
   High in the radiant skies.
Forward, questing and daring,
   Mighty our chorus is hurled —
Strength, vision, and courage
   We pledge to the life of the world;
   We pledge to the life of the world.

These lyrics caught my eye because they sounded so very different from my own Unitarian Universalist youth experience. When I was in Liberal Religious Youth (LRY), the successor organization to the YPRU, I never heard these kind of sentiments expressed. My youth experience emphasized self-knowledge and individual expression in service of personal spiritual growth, rather than “strength, vision, and courage” in service of the “life of the world.” Yes, we in LRY were committed social justice, and yes we embraced the questing exploratory experience typical of liberal religion. But I can’t imagine us ever singing such a song. I remember us singing along to Suite: Judy Blue Eyes: “It’s getting to the point where I’m no fun any more/ I am sorry/ Sometimes it hurts to badly I must cry out loud/ I am lonely…” — but never anything like the “Y.P.R.U. Song.”

I liked my LRY experience. But a little introspection goes a long way with me. I think I would have liked LRY better if there had been less introspection and a little more of flinging banners of youth and hurling of mighty choruses.

Today’s current youth group model still favors introspection, which serves some teenagers very well indeed. But I’ve seen more teenagers drift away once they realize that introspection is the main course.

Creativity vs. religion

Just thinking out loud here; no final conclusions in this post, but merely the beginnings of some thoughts….

I’ve been thinking about the role of creativity within religion. Generally speaking, religion seems to me to take on an essentially conservative role; e.g., religion conserves a set of values that a group holds dear, and passes them on to the next generation. Another way of putting this: a religious group is a community of memory, where the group conserves important memories. These memories can be greater memories — Christians conserve the memory of Jesus’ death and resurrection; Buddhists conserve the memory of Siddhartha Gautama’s decision to return to this life after achieving nirvana — or they can be lesser memories — my home church, First Parish in Concord, Massachusetts, conserves the memory that many of its members fought in the Battle of Concord and Lexington, one of the early battles in the American Revolution.

And consisting as it does of groups and organizations that conserve memories, religion does not necessarily place a high value on creativity. I found this out personally when I went for my required psychological evaluation and career counseling while pursuing fellowship as a Unitarian Universalist minister. One evaluation instrument I filled out indicated that I placed a high value on creativity, and according to the psychologist who interpreted the test results for me, this was unusual in a minister; and it has certainly been true that one of my biggest challenges at having a job in religion is that I find it difficult to find sufficient outlet for creativity; which is one of the motivations behind this blog, and behind other creative endeavors in which I engage.

However, if religion is basically conservative and non-creative, it can provide a happy home for creativity. Many of the most creative works of European art during the Renaissance were supported by the Roman Catholic church. Stephen Hawking holds religious views that seem to tend towards fundamentalist humanism — his rigid disapproval of Christianity is in its own way just as conservative as the religion he disdains — yet he is perhaps the most creative scientists of his generation. King’s Chapel in Boston is one of the most conservative Unitarian Universalist congregations, yet for decades it employed Daniel Pinkham, a prolific and creative composer.

And what about the relationship between liberal religion and creativity? Liberal religion is more likely to accommodate itself to changes in society around it than traditional religion, although generally speaking liberal religion institutions seem to lag behind societal changes by a generation or so. So compared to traditional religion, liberal religion is less conservative. Yet I sometimes feel as though liberal religion is more stifling to creativity than is conservative religion; certainly liberal religion stifles entrepreneurial creativity; as for artistic creativity, with a few exceptions (Daniel Pinkham comes to mind) liberal religion doesn’t provide much in the way of either financial or institutional support.

As I say, I’m just thinking out loud here — I’d value your comments and criticisms.


   For a moment
   I was not
   from the world
   by a windshield
   or a screen
   or a person
   or a book
   or anything.

   And the moon
   lit up the
   sidewalk so
   it cracked me
   and slipped in
   to where it
   lives for good.