Harlan Ellison

It’s hard to believe that Harlan Ellison is dead.

If you know anything about science fiction, you know that Harlan Ellison was brilliant. At his best, he was a superb writer; not a writer in the genteel mode of The New Yorker, but a writer of smart, fast-paced pop culture genre fiction with strong plots and strong characters. His 1965 story “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” sticks in my memory: the Harlequin, a rebel against a society which enforces strict conformism, is finally brought under control by the uber-enforcer called the Ticktockman; yet at the end of the story, it appears that the Ticktockman may have been nudged into small acts of non-conformism through his interaction with the Harlequin.

In addition to writing science fiction stories, Ellison worked in Hollywood, writing for Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, and many other TV shows. He was also, by all accounts, a difficult individual. Take, for example, the best-known manifestation of his difficult character: an anthology he edited called The Last Dangerous Visions. He bought stories from many well-known science fiction authors, the book was supposed to have been published in 1973, but it remained unpublished at his death. This was not merely an extreme case of work avoidance: he retained all rights to all the stories he had received, refused to let anyone else publish the stories, and aggressively pursued legal action when he thought someone he trespassed on his rights as editor.

Yet in spite of his character flaws (and who am I to point out character flaws? heaven knows we all have character flaws), he inspired devotion in many people. In his autobiography I Asimov, Isaac Asimov called him “warm and loving.” According to Asimov, Ellison had a “miserable youth”: “Being always small and being always enormously intelligent, he found that he could easily flay the dimwits by whom he was surrounded. But he could only do so in words, and the dimwits could use their fists…. This embittered him and did not teach him to keep his mouth shut….” Will Shetterly, another science fiction writer, notes some of the things that Ellison did not keep his mouth shut about: Ellison participated in the civil rights march in Selma; he also went to great lengths to show his support of the Equal Rights Amendment.

It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that Ellison was a kind of living version of his character, the Harlequin: completely unwilling, maybe even unable to conform to societal norms. But unlike the Harlequin, Ellison never gave in, he was never brought under the control of the Ticktockman.

Brief obituary at Locus; full obit in their August issue.
A 1954 description of Ellison as a science fiction fan.

mOOn Over tOwns mOOn

mOOn Over tOwns mOOn

…begins a poem by E. E. Cummings. The poem ends…


…and the “o”s in the poem graphically convey what the moon does from the time it first rises to the time when it is overhead: it appears to grow smaller.

We were driving home as dusk turned into night, and Carol looked into the rear view mirror and said, “Look at the moon! It’s huge!” It had just appeared over the horizon. She wondered aloud, Why did the moon look so huge? Why did it get smaller?

I explained the optical illusion that makes the moon look big on the horizon. “If you hold out a piece of cardboard at arm’s length and put two marks on it showing how wide the moon is — and then hold that same piece of cardboard out at arm’s length when the moon is overhead and looks so small — you can see it’s exactly the same size all the time, even though it looks so much bigger near the horizon.” I actually did just that many years ago; even though I knew, intellectually, what was going to happen, it was astonishing.

Carol said that explanation takes all the magic out of it. But I disagree. How amazing that we see the world in that way! How amazing that there is more than one way to see the world!

When we got home, we walked out into the cemetery and watched the moon rise further into the sky, moving slowly up between two dark clumps of eucalyptus, just touching the point of a smaller Douglas-fir tree. You could see the distance between the Douglas-fir and the moon slowly grow greater. You could see Mare Ibrium and Oceanus Procellarum and Mare Fecuditatis and Mare Nectaris; you could also see the Rabbit in the Moon, grinding with its mortar and pestle; you could also see the Man in the Moon, with his lopsided grin. You could see the night grow darker and the moon grow brighter. Everything changed in a quarter of an hour. We stayed outside watching until it grew too chilly.


Back in mid-February, during a long drive up to Seattle, a blood clot formed in my leg, dislodged, and traveled up my veins to settle in my right lung. Or so it now appears, for this is somewhat hypothetical. But it was a long drive, and we didn’t get out and stretch every hour, as you’re supposed to do during long drives; and when I got to Seattle, I started coughing, and thought to myself how unfair it was that I was getting bronchitis again, since I had already had it in November and I never got bronchitis more than once a winter.

Thinking it was bronchitis, I didn’t worry when the cough and the general feeling of being tired stretched out for a month, then two months. So many people were having serious respiratory infections this past winter that what I was experiencing didn’t seem all that bad. Until finally it got so that it hurt to breath, and I was talking to Paul, who was also having pain while breathing, and he told me that he went to the doctor and found out that what he had wasn’t a respiratory infection at all. It was only then, in mid-April, that I decided to go to the doctor, and after a series of tests and a trip to the emergency room, I learned I had a pulmonary embolism. Mine was not a particularly serious case — I did not require surgery, and I didn’t even have to stay overnight in the hospital — but still, a pulmonary embolism can kill you. I actually took two days off from work.

The doctors put me on a course of anti-coagulants: I had to inject myself with one anti-coagulant for seven days, and then I started taking another anti-coagulant orally twice daily. I am still taking the pills, and will continue taking them until the doctor tells me to stop. And by the way, I thanked Paul, several times, for prompting me to finally go to the doctor.

Now that I had this diagnosis — a rather frightening diagnosis, if truth be told — I began to realize just how tired I felt. I had been pushing myself as hard as usual, both at work and in the rest of my life, but now I realized that I really couldn’t push that hard. (I wonder: had I not gotten the diagnosis, would I have just continued pushing myself until I collapsed?) I finally realized that I needed to slow down. I dropped several big commitments, including a big family reunion, and felt some guilt and shame for doing so. Then I dropped some smaller commitments. I worked at home whenever I could. I discovered that I needed to sleep ten to twelve hours a night, and still take a 3 hour nap in the afternoon most days. Basically I felt fine; but if I pushed too hard, or worked too long, I would become exhausted very quickly. This was an odd sort of illness: no pain, no real symptoms aside from some shortness of breath; I was mostly tired.

Thinking that once I started the anti-coagulants, I would be back to normal in a week or two, I told as few people as possible that I was ill, or what my illness was. But I did not recover very quickly. I had to get used to sleeping twelve hours a day, and not having enough energy to do any housework. in fact, once I came home from work I didn’t have much energy to do much more than sit and look out the window. It also began to sink in that I could have died. I had made my peace with dying many years ago, but I discovered that I was not so keen on dying of something I had never heard of before. I mean, a heart attack I could accept, but a pulmonary embolism? So I mostly ignored the whole “I coulda died!” thing; sometimes denial is a very useful tool for living.

Here I am, more than four months after this whole thing started, more than two months after I got a diagnosis. I’m getting better, and so far the doctor is pleased with my progress. But if I forget myself, and overwork, or go for a long walk, or do too much of anything, I’m exhausted for days afterwards. And while the line on the graph of my health is generally trending upwards, the slope of the graph is not nearly as steep as I would like. I have to remember how little I can accomplish: I can go to work, come home, and sleep; if I’m lucky, I can take a walk. It would be easy to become discouraged, or to get depressed; instead, I’m mostly able to enjoy this forced vacation.

The moral of the story? I don’t think there is a moral to this story. Things happen to you, you do the best you can — that’s not a moral. Nor will this even be a story until it comes to an end, and who knows when that will be.

No moral, but I do have some excuses: If I haven’t gotten back to you about something, it’s because I ran out of energy. If I haven’t done whatever it is you asked me to do, it might be because I’m so tired I forgot completely (my memory does not seem to be functioning as well as usual). That’s one very small benefit of an illness like this: I have an excuse for almost everything.

Adventures in grilling

It was hot today, so we decided to grill our dinner. I hardly ever eat beef any more (can’t afford it, it’s bad for me), but Carol had gotten some local grass-fed beef from a nearby farm, so we grilled hamburgers and potatoes. That wasn’t quite enough for a dinner. Carol saw that we had a small mild white bitter melon in the refrigerator — what about grilling that? She basted it in olive oil and rosemary before she grilled it. It turned out well — slightly crispy, nicely bitter, very yummy.

Anti-intellectualism among Unitarian Universalists

Kim Hampton nails it in a post titled “Anti-intellectualism in Unitarian Universalism”:

“Why is it, for all of our supposed intellectualism on a wide range of subjects, most Unitarian Universalist show absolutely no curiosity regarding religion itself? Part of the reason Unitarian Universalist social justice work can be so haphazard is because most UUs don’t understand that the only way to sustain oneself in the work of social justice is to have a firm religious grounding.”

Examples of our anti-intellectualism are easy to find: fundamentalist humanists who refuse to engage in thoughtful dialogue with angry theists (and vice versa); those who reduce Unitarian Universalist thinking to thoughtless recitations of the “seven principles”; those who conflate politics of the U.S. Democratic party with Unitarian Universalist social justice; etc.

I think Hampton makes an especially good point about the anti-intellectualism that pervades Unitarian Universalist social justice work. Yes, Unitarian Universalists should be opposed to the current practice of ICE separating children from their parents. But on what grounds do we oppose this human rights violation? — do we ground our opposition in natural law arguments, or in arguments from the Western religious tradition? The answer makes a difference. Back in a 2002 General Assembly lecture (see below), Prof. Carole Fontaine argued that Unitarian Unviversalists occupy a unique niche in human rights work: we should be able to talk with both secular and scripturally-based human rights workers, and thus we should be able to build alliances between these two groups, potentially a very powerful coalition.

But we can’t get to that point unless we get over our anti-intellectualism, and start thinking seriously about who we are and what we can do. And so, right now as Unitarian Universalists we are wasting an opportunity with the humanitarian crisis of the separation of immigrants and their children: had we been more thoughtful and less anti-intellectual, we could on the one hand challenge the completely incorrect Biblical justifications offered for what ICE is doing, while offering a liberal religious denunciation of the ICE abuses; and on the other hand build more effective bridges between religious progressives and secular human rights workers.

More about Fontaine’s lecture…. Continue reading “Anti-intellectualism among Unitarian Universalists”

Immigration detentions

This week, we’ve seen widepsread outrage on social media about the detention of children by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). This outrage is a good thing. We should all be outraged.

But I would like to remind people what happened in 2007 when ICE raided the Michael Bianco plant, a defense contractor in New Bedford, Mass. There was a quick surge of outrage, which quickly subsided. And nothing changed in ICE.

Not only that, but the full story of what happened was lost in the noise of the outrage. I was in New Bedford in 2007, where I occasionally served as a chaplain for labor unions, and from union members I heard parts of the story which didn’t get much publicity. Here’s what I heard from union members and other activists in New Bedford:

Just before the raid, ICE contacted state social workers. ICE knew that many of the people they were planning to detain had children, and they wanted the social workers to come take care of the children. The social workers refused: first of all, they knew they didn’t have the resources to take care of children (and, from what I heard, ICE was not offering funding to care for the children adequately); second of all, the social workers did not want to be part of such a ridiculous and inhumane raid.

ICE made the raid anyway. Today, ICE continues to assert that they did nothing wrong. On the 10th anniversary of the raid, WBUR, a Boston radio station, interviewed Bruce Foucart, the ICE official in charge of the Michael Bianco raid, who claimed: “‘We worked with [the then Massachusetts Department of Social Services], we worked with public safety, we worked with the New Bedford Police Department, we worked with the New Bedford School Department officials,’ Foucart says. ‘Our concern was we did not want to have children coming home to empty houses.'” That is not what I heard from union members, who included workers with the Department of Social Services and the police: social workers said children were not adequately cared for. Besides, parents were separated from their children, which is simply inhumane. Despite what ICE said and says, the whole thing was a complete mess.

Worse yet — and these things were barely reported in the news media or in social media — it turned out that the unscrupulous management of the Michael Bianco took advantage of the vulnerability of these mostly Mayan immigrants — because yes, the management knew quite well that their workers did not have proper documentation — by forcing the workers to work two consecutive eight hour shifts each day. Management avoided alerting the state labor department by giving each worker two names. A worker would punch out from their first eight hour shift under one name, then punch back in again with a time card that had a different name. The union members from whom I heard this story pointed out the management of the Michael Bianco plant violated the law in several ways: they forced workers to work hours per week more than the maximum allowed under Massachusetts state law; the workers did not receive overtime pay; and the workers were cheated out of at least some of their base pay.

To make matters still worse, the management of the Michael Bianco plant — the management of a U.S. defense contractor — got away with minimal penalties. A slap on the wrist. That’s all. ICE ruined the lives of the undocumented immigrants and their children, and the people who were really at fault were barely inconvenienced. And ICE learned that the outrage dies away pretty quickly, so they have continued making the same kinds of raids.

Yes, we should be angry at what ICE is doing right now. But please remember that this kind of thing has been going on for more than a decade now. I’ve heard a lot of people saying they want to do something to stop this human rights atrocity, and that’s great — but in the honesty of your own heart, please think back to March 6, 2007. Were you outraged at what happened in New Bedford? Did your outrage back then cause you to work to end the abuses of ICE?

And, as you answer in the honesty of your own heart, will your present outrage last long enough for you to do anything more than send a check to the ACLU? Will your present outrage extend beyond the commonly accepted narrative that the only place ICE commits abuses is along the Mexican border? — can your present outrage extend to ICE abuses in a down-and-out working class city in Massachusetts in 2007? — will your outrage be able to extend to ICE abuses that are happening in Iowa, North Carolina, and throughout the United States, most likely including where you live?

Now, here’s the most important thing I have to say:

Please remember that all injustices are linked. I assume you’re already working on another one of the pressing injustices of our times. Maybe you’re working for well-known campaigns like Black Lives Matter or #MeToo or global climate change. Or you might be working to address less well-known but equally important projects like ending domestic violence, or stopping toxics in the environment, or transgender rights, or nuclear nonproliferation, or literacy, or stopping elder abuse, or labor rights, or whatever. I would suggest that the most important thing for us to do is continue working on the injustices to which we are already committed. Continue that work, and find out how to make explicit connections between our present justice work, and the outrages that ICE is committing. This was the power in what Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was doing at the end of his life: making explicit the connections between racial justice, peace, and economic justice — making explicit the notion that all injustices are linked, and that working on one injustice helps the fight for justice everywhere.

It’s fine to feel outrage and anger and fear and discouragement, and all those other complicated emotions that we’re feeling now. But I’d suggest that we not let our present justice work slacken even one little bit. Mind you, if your community is subjected to one of these raids, then you may find yourself having to change your justice focus to immigration raids. But in any case, if your outrage over the border detentions causes you to lose momentum on your justice work, in other words if the outrage gets in the way of doing justice work, please let the outrage go. We need to find solace and support through our justice-making communities, through our congregations, wherever we can — get professional psychotherapy if you need it — but we don’t want to be consumed by outrage.

In fact, I’d suggest that instead of becoming obsessed with news media and social media accounts, you will feel better if you engage in any kind of justice work. Because all injustices are linked, you will be making a difference in the injustices that ICE is currently perpetrating.

Parama Pada Sopanam

I’ve written before about Moksha Patam, one version of the Indian board games from which the classic Snakes and Ladders game is derived. A few weeks ago, I decided to order the real thing — I ordered Parama Pada Sopanam, another version of Moksha Patam, from Kreeda Games in Chennai, India. Kreeda’s mission is to promote traditional Indian games, by “learning through play.”

I ordered two games for use in our religious education programs (plus one for my own use!), and they arrived today. I was more than pleased with the games. The cloth game board is beautifully designed. The traditional long dice are fascinating and satisfying to throw and use. The wooden pawns, though smaller than I would like, are a pleasant shape with good colors. The game box is made out of corrugated cardboard, which sounds cheap, but the bright printed designs on the box make it look exactly right. I liked the little cloth bag in which the pawns and dice are stored. And nothing in the game is made of plastic, which makes it all the more satisfying.

Kreeda’s games are aimed at modern families (and educational programs) who want to retain a connection to traditional games and culture. The best part of Kreeda’s version of Parama Pada Sopanam are the brief stories for each of mythological names of the “snakes.” If you land on a square where you are to slide down a snake, you can read aloud the brief story of that mythological figure. Thus, this game is not just fun, it is a way to become introduced to some traditional Indian myths.

Mind you, ordering a game from India is not exactly easy. The cost of shipping from India is more than the cost of the game; however, the game is inexpensive, so the overall cost is not prohibitive. The bank had a hard time when we wired money to Kreeda. And the U.S. staff of the international courier, DHL, proved less than competent in delivering the package: we saw the DHL truck drive right up to our house, then were notified that the driver could not find our house; when I called the national office in Arizona to straighten things out, the woman on the phone was less than polite, and wanted me to go pick up the package at their warehouse; and when the package finally arrived, one of the game boxes was partially crushed (which is OK by me, given that it will get wrecked anyway in our program, but it is annoying). If you decide to order a Kreeda game from India, be patient — and ask if you can pay Kreeda to pack the game in a sturdy box to prevent DHL from crushing it. What I really wish would happen is that someone in the States would import this game, and other games made by Kreeda — that would lower the cost, and make delivery easier.

I’m looking forward to playing this game with the early elementary children in our program. I expect the children in our program will have fun, and enjoy absorbing a little bit of one of the greatest cultures in the world.

Ecojustice Camp, year four

Friday was the last day of Ecojustice Camp. This is the fourth year our congregation has sponsored this camp, and each year has been more fun than the last (from the adult leader point of view).

On the plus side, the overnight camping trip went far more smoothly this year; we firmed up the curriculum and added some new camp songs that both campers and adults loved; and we were better about integrating age groups. For the finances, I’m still waiting for all expenses to be submitted but I’m projecting that we’ll run a modest surplus again this year (the surplus provides start-up funds for the following year).

On the negative side, camp took it out of me this year: camp typically means a ten-hour day for me, and my regular duties as a minister get piled on top of that; that’s usually not a problem for just one week, but this year I haven’t fully recovered from some health issues, so I’m pretty well tuckered out. Having said all that, I felt it was completely worth it — it wasn’t just the campers who had a great camp experience, we adults did too.

Above all, it feels like this kind of camp is critically important in today’s world. It’s important to teach kids to enjoy the outdoors, while not shying away from the intertwined issues of environmental justice, racism, sexism, consumerism, etc. I don’t think there’s much hope for the world unless we teach First World kids how to love Nature, and how to save it from ruin.

Above: 6 a.m hike on the Ecojustice Camp overnight. Not many of the campers got up to go on this hike, but those who did had a blast.