Archive for the ‘Social Action’ Category

It’s a buck, Jack

March 14th, 2014

What the hell is it with Spare Change News? or maybe their vendors? and Bostonians, Cantabrigians? and Somervillains?

For crying out loud in a bucket, as my mother used to say when she was disgusted. Buy the damned rag. Enjoy the unique content. Feel a wee twinge of compassion and humanity.

First for urbanites, if you have any sense of hipness, you’ll want to get every issue. They are rife with poetry and social-action news nobody else has or bothers to cover.

Second, it’s low output, small beer for the reward. The vendors pay 35¢ per copy out of pocket. They sell them for $1 each and keep the 65¢ per. They are working, earning money honestly. Give ’em a break.

There is no shame in honest labor.

I seek out the vendors. In case you are fastidious or a self-righteous type, you can check a vendor’s bona fides without dirtying yourself. They have ID tags they wear on their shirt, blouse, dress or jacket. You’re doing a good thing by buying and nobody’s scamming anybody.

Third, the vendors are to a man and woman sincere and jolly. Have a few words, connect with a human you didn’t know before and be human and humane yourself.

I see folk in Downtown Crossing, Harvard Square and elsewhere scurrying like Esplanade picnickers who have just noticed a rat crawling behind the Fiedler’s head sculpture. Honest to God, Spare Change vendors won’t transfer vermin to you. Instead, you might have the most genuine interaction of the day by buying a copy.

Do it.



Food for the hungry minister

March 5th, 2014

The hallmark of social-activist preachers is not complacency. Instead, they should inspire you to both think and act. You want it, you get it, in Twice-Told Tales: A Collection of 21 Sermons.

I am surprised to recommend a collection of homilies. If you pardon the expression, Lord knows that I have squirmed enough times listening to tedious, cliched, often repetitious preaching. While the author doesn’t have a recognizable first name among his Rev. Dr. Farley Wilder Wheelwright, he is an excellent minister, both from the pulpit and, as many have told me, for pastoral counseling.

Disclaimers: I have known Farley for decades, back to 1987, when he was interim Senior Minister at Boston’s Arlington Street Church. I was a board (Prudential Committee) member, then chair. We solved many problems together. I loved his preaching and we have been good friends since. I also wrote the book’s forward.

The book has some potent historical mentions. Farley is still, as he has always been, an egalitarian, free-thinking, atheist, activist. Ministers in general and UU ones in particuar divvy into a big bucket of the timid and a smaller one of the righteous. My chum was active in civil rights, knowing many of the leaders and being a friend of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In fact, Rev. King was to deliver the Rev. Wheelwright’s installation sermon, only to be assassinated a few days before that could happen.

Over my life involved as a worshiper and in various churches’ politics and polity, I have known many ministers. I have lost count of the boring and inane sermons I have heard. The winners are regular surprises and delights. Farley’s book is filled with those.

As a side note, the Arlington Street Church has an illustrious history filled with many noted Unitarian preachers. It is know as the mother church of American Unitarianism, as the base for Rev. William Ellery Channing (although he had to go to Baltimore to preach the sermon that defined his brand of religion, because the board found him too radical). I joined the ASC when the Rev. Victor Carpenter was senior minister. He did not believe in comfortable congregants and gave us social-action homework from the pulpit weekly. Following Farley and to this day the Rev. Kim Crawford Harvie holds the high pulpit. She can be insipid, but when she hits one, it is out of the proverbial park. She is the rarest of liberal preachers, a charismatic one.

Farley is a magnificent preacher. He is smarter and better read than any minister you are likely to have known. Yet, his sermons got you to the conclusions without letting his intellect get in the way.

When he began discussing this project with me, he envisioned it as a nice-to-have for new ministers. He knew that there are likely the roots of three to five sermons in each of his. He figured newbies would benefit. He says he’d be happy for them to built sermons from these and they’d only need give him credit if they lifted large portions or whole ones.

Drawing on my experience with ministers, I think more established preachers might gain more. As we all who visit various churches have noted, many of the same sermons reemerge. For UUs and beyond, I think immediately of the Rev. Clark Dewey Wells’ You be glad at that star.  Sure, it’s a good idea and sermon, but why have so many ministers modified or lifted it? The answer is simply that most run out of ideas. They are constantly reading their peers’ work and listening to their podcasts. They aren’t forever insightful and creative. They really couldn’t cut it as newspaper columnists who have to come up with three or five pieces a week. Although in fairness, sermons are not their only duties.

I have read or skimmed numerous books of sermons. They tend to the trivial and saccharine.  From my ASC days, I recall visiting the Boston Athenæum for research on my own church and board speeches. I rather loved the 19th Century monthly The Liberal Preacher. Many of those sermons were smarter and harder hitting than modern ones. I also have judged UU sermons for the annual Skinner Award; fortunately there were always deserving ones in a UUA-wide contest.

My prejudices aside, Farley’s collection is full of good ones. I heartily recommend it for your own reading and as a gift for ministers you know.


Tales of the Sisters Grimké

March 10th, 2013



I sat on it for a day. Yep, there was still stinky, strained stuff at the women’s tea in glorious downtown Hyde Park yesterday.

Almost entirely good stuff abounded. Angela Menino stood up and in for her hubby, that Tom guy.  The third annual presentation of the local version of women on the year presentations (a.k.a. “Women Amongst Us”) included pots of flowers and standing O’s. Petite tea sandwiches — curried chopped chicken, cucumber, and turkey/cheese — kept the early 20th Century flavor. Three City Councilors, Consalvo, Arroyo and Pressley, showed. The upstairs at Annabelle’s was ladies who lunch, but with tea instead of martinis.

I was one of perhaps six men in a room of roughly 100 women, and come to think of it all women waitrons. I enjoyed it mostly and intend to use my bar of suffragist soap they set at each place.

The unnecessary undercurrent of male bashing was a tad surprising, Women’s History Month or not.

Two authors were there to flog their books and comment on former Hyde Park residents, the Grimké sisters, Angelina and Sarah. One, Angelina biographer Louise Knight, had trouble with men, particularly her subject’s husband. The other, poet Amy Benson Brown, corrected Knight’s male bashing without making a deal out of doing so.

The living accomplished local women included:

  • Martha McDonough — among many other civic leadership feats was cleaning up the Neponset last year.
  • Tonya Grimes — whose volunteerism has long included Civil War reenactor and active member of the Colored Ladies Christian Relief Society.
  • Sharon Grimberg — WGBH executive producer, whose series include the PBS American Experience shows, such as the recent The Abolitionists.

The deceased accomplished were the sisters Grimké. While raised as privileged daughters of a South Carolina planter, replete with slaves everywhere, they turned. They were appalled by slavery and came to Yankeeland, where they devoted themselves to abolition and later to women’s rights, particularly suffrage.

I was pleasantly surprised when I researched our newest neighborhood four years ago to discover the Weld/Grimké history. Hyde Park seems fairly apolitically suburban. The legacy of the first black U.S. soldiers, abolitionists, suffrage fighters and more was a delight. I touched on the Fairmount Hill links several times, including here and here.


This will be a more Angelina year than most, both down here and downtown. On Monday, Oct. 7th, a celebration of Angelina’s speech will be at the John Hancock Hall, with a performance of part of her speech, Gloria Steinem reading her 1970 Equal Rights Amendment testimony to the U.S. Senate, and more. The event is in the works and will get publicity.

The spot near where she lived in the house her husband, ardent abolitionist Rev. Theodore Weld, bought for them will get a plaque this spring, Hyde Park Main Streets Executive Director Patrice Gattozzi told me. I hope she does follow up on my offers to work on this.

At the least, she should know that the house is gone. Where they lived at 212 Fairmount Avenue had a facing home, but the entrance was a carriage drive on then Pond (now Highland). We bought the 1876 map that hangs in our living room. A snatch of it here shows the old digs between Fairmount and Warren.

Rightfully the luncheon and particularly speaker Knight spoke of Angelina’s courage, conviction and accomplishment. Particularly, she was likely the first non-monarch female to address a legislative body anywhere. She spoke three times in a few days on abolition to the Massachusetts legislature. This was a time when women were forbidden or actively discouraged from speaking at all in public, and certainly not before “promiscuous audiences” as groups of mixed genders were known. She lacked neither clarity of vision nor courage.

There came the rub for me.

Knight published two works on Jane Addams and just finished a dual bio on the sisters Grimké. However, if the luncheon lecture is any indication, she can’t seem to get over the partnership between Angelina and her husband. As she spoke of Angelina, she repeatedly mentioned a letter or other contact with “her fiance Theodore.” Knight never once mentioned his name or honorific. She never said he was a renowned abolitionist (often referred to by historians of the period as “the lion of abolition”). She never spoke of how the pair complemented each other’s politics and worked together, first fighting slavery, then on to women’s rights. You’d think Rev. Weld was a groupie for this outspoken woman instead of an equal. Knight said that “her fiance” told Angelina not to speak of women’s rights at all.

I sat next to my wife, who also knows the Grimké and Weld story. I said that was a really sexist and dishonest lecture. She was a bit flippant (maybe it was the Earl Grey talking), Oh, it is women’s history month, and the other 11 months are for men.  That doesn’t cut it with me anymore than the YWCA (it is the Young Women’s Christian Association. snicker) excluding boys and men from everything while the YMCA went inclusive, becoming the family organization and having a much greater impact on the nation.

Fortunately the next author and poet was more historically accurate and not male exclusionary. Amy Benson Brown did not say, “Let me correct Ms. Knight,” but she did do that. She called Weld by his full name. She noted the partnership that led to marriage, as well as the then shocking ceremony where Weld refused to claim dominion over her and she did not say she would obey him. He was after all a Unitarian and proto-feminist. He did once before they married ask her to soft-pedal the dual message of women’s rights until the abolition of slavery was settled. He had devoted decades to abolishing slavery, knew how successful she had been in the effort, and did not want her to become ineffective with a double whammy…yet. Later, they became a powerful team fighting for suffrage and leading the first-in-the-nation protest where Hyde Park women (and their men) marched to the town hall to cast ballots that they knew would not be counted, but that had strong symbolism.

They were a team from their engagement through marriage. Better stuff than lies-of-omission history about a brave woman all alone, I say.

I grew up with a divorced mom raising two of us. Neither denigrating women nor bashing males was acceptable. That should be the order of things. I can pose my typical Unitarian and progressive self-examination. Am I clean enough to comment? I think so.

Sarah was somewhat important, particularly as the much decade-plus older sister of Angelina, who led the way in thought. Of the 14 Grimké siblings, 11 of whom survived to adulthood, the pair of sisters had the intellectual clarity and morality to fight slavery, leave their comfortable surroundings, and change a nation. Angelina was the front, the orator, and the one who partnered with a like-minded reformer/radical. What a pair! Yet, let’s not lessen Weld’s tremendous influence and dedication. Yeah, yeah, yeah, he was just a man, but pretty clearly his wife’s equal.


Sweeping Options for Boston Schools

October 15th, 2012

It could be huge, could be quashed, could be diluted, but right now, those in charge of the Boston public schools have a seminal plan to consider. We’ll be talking about it was the driving force behind it.

Spend a half hour with City Councilor John Connolly tomorrow, Tuesday, October 16th, from 2 PM Eastern here. If you can’t catch it live, go to that URL, to Left Ahead or our iTunes page any time afterward to listen or download his show.

As a parent who had nudged three sons through BPS start to finish, I believe in public education and have gotten the worst and the best of bureaucracy in evaluating schools, assignment games, dealing with teachers, and doing whatever was necessary to see my guys got the good end of the stick. I’m invested.

In the literal world of school boards and superintendents and teachers’ unions, the focus is almost always on discreet chunks, such as student assignment plans. Instead, what Connolly, along with another Councillor and four state Reps, have thrown into the process is a serious effort to drop the lines on the maps. Instead, they propose schools in every district with the features parents crave and a whole new set of 16 citywide schools.

This is big stuff, which you can see in detail here.

In our half hour, we can’t go through every detail, but as head of the Council’s education committee (and a parent of two young children), Connolly has put a lot of mind and heart into this plan.

Occupy Bar Stools 12/31

January 1st, 2012


Mirabile dictu! Shortly before the Grand Procession of Boston’s First Night (for God’s sake, don’t dare use the term loosely; they sue), the Parish Café had a couple of bar stools on the street side open. My wife and I grabbed two and got to see the parade perfectly, above the crowd and with drinks in hand.

My Flickr feed has some so-so snaps of the afternoon.

Of greater interest and a pleasant surprise to us was the Occupy Boston presence. They were well dispersed, as in the Common, Copley and more. They handed out 99% buttons, flyers, and conversation. In the Common, a little wagon symbolized the Occupy tents…and the mobility of the movement.

A good counterpoint to the crazed reactionary response to OWS and localized ones appears in the current Phoenix. Chris Faraone writes starkly and in detail about the evolution of Occupy and of the many proofs that the fantasy and hope that this is a leaderless, pointless, non-movement that is dead already are loopy. Dream on 1% and media.

As anyone who’s paid any attention or gone downtown in Manhattan, Boston or elsewhere would have predicted, the Occupy folk were cool about it all. They know absolutely that they have altered the political dialog. That’s not a mist about to dissolve.

UU Heroes Falling Like Old Trees

December 5th, 2011

Two friends whom I’ve enjoyed and admired for decades died within a few days of each other last week, one in the Boston area and one in Mexico. They were in their 90s. More than knowing each other, they shared the essence of Unitarian Universalism.

That is, Virginia Wheelwright and Dan Cheever were not checkbook dogooders. They used their energy, time, best efforts and ideas to make life better for others. For those of us familiar with their good examples and good deeds, they didn’t live long enough.

Even before the two groups joined into the UUA, they shared that pragmatic philanthropy that is social action. Virginia and Dan were relentless practitioners of it. (For some background on UU activism click here.)

I got to know both at the Arlington Street Church. Each in his and her way was a splendid example of how we should live. That does not involve lolling in front of TV or saying, “Too bad for them. Not much to do to help. (Yawn.)”

Both Dan and Virginia made things better for people they knew, for those they hadn’t met yet, and those they’d never come in contact with. They seemed incapable of any other way of living.

Dan (who did not use his PhD “Dr.” or day-job “Professor” titles away from BU) was a high-level secret Santa as well as concerned manager. In his largess distribution at the ASC and beyond, he did not ask for, nor expect, nor want praise or acknowledgment. Perhaps the minister or music director might thank him privately for his sharing of wealth, gifts that often kept programs running or starting.

Moreover, I am sure that the ASC might well have closed shop were it not for his guidance when he chaired the board, with its loaded, old-style name of the Prudential Committee. Along with decades of volunteer work, he had to manage groups and departments as professor at both BU and the University of Pittsburgh. He brought academic and management smarts to bear, along with his considerable personal financial savvy.

Known to many as either the mother church of Unitarianism or the UUA chapel, for the many staff members and ministers from 25 Beacon who attend, the ASC not all that long ago was a physical and financial mess. It could well have gone down. Not even the 999 wood pilings that keep it from sinking in the Back Bay would have been able to keep it figuratively afloat.

After and while reconstituting the church’s personnel committee, I worked closely with Dan as he served two years as Pru chair and still drew on him for the next two years I was chair. I would joke darkly with him and interim minister Farley Wheelwright (Virginia’s husband) that I should come to the building wearing a cowl and carrying an ax. I had the messy job of clearing out the dysfunctional staff, creating workable job descriptions, and helping Dan figure out how we could pay a decent wage. The ASC was so broke that the UUA subsidized the minister’s salary.

In ways, Dan was an anachronism, a true gentleman. In such a trying time and place, and dealing with the frictions and egos of volunteers, Dan was thorough but endlessly patient. In years of dealing with difficult people, he never seemed to yell or even snap.

Our board meetings might run five or six hours. We dealt with big issues, the future of the church paramount. Chair Cheever polled us all around the table on the big issues, he demanded both our best thoughts and our buy-in for the eventual decisions. He of course had done serious research and brought out possibilities that put the overwhelming within reach. He got us thinking and acting right. In the end the ASC was prepared financially and in systems for the new and charismatic new minister, Kim Crawford Harvie. She’s been there and the church has flourished in recent decades in no small part because of the preparation.

Virginia came in and out. She and Farley remained members after his interim ministry. They ended up in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. I had a very different, much closer relationship with them. We dined together at our houses and at restaurants. We then always were together when they visited Boston and we kept regular contact by email and phone.

Even before Farley took the spot at the ASC, Virginia had been a social activist. She served on many levels in UU organizations operating internationally, nationally and locally. Yet, the activism that may best define her started in Mexico when they allegedly were retired — neither Farley nor Virginia knew how to do that.

Virginia founded and at various points was president and other officers at Jovenes Adelante, which had drastically improved lives of the young and bright around her. As she noted, it started when she and a friend heard that a lad headed to college did not even have enough money to buy a pair of shoes to attend. Getting him shoes grew into an organization that raises the money to identify promising students, ensure they finish secondary school, and pay for college for them. Hundreds of youth have benefited, and of course, their families and towns have as well.

Virginia too didn’t know how to throw up her hands or just shrug. The impossible took a little longer for both her and Dan.

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Recycle Psych

June 14th, 2011

MA Rep. Marty Walz got me this morning. She posted on FB that she was heading to Casella, the company that does the single-stream recycling around here. She wants to see how it works.

Who doesn’t, I immediately thought. My quasi-intellectual self suddenly flashed mild shame that I had never bothered to do the same, even remotely.

I confess though, I’ve enjoyed the romance of rubbish here. Conflicting ideas include:

  1. They haul away the content of the big blue bins…only to end up dumping it into landfills anyway.
  2. There’s a rough sorting that extracts a little of the stuff they can actually resell.
  3. Something magic happens somewhere.

We had our own family history. In the way back, my paternal grandfather in Denver created a tin can crusher during WWII. Back then toddlers couldn’t squeeze and ball up a can, before those became thin aluminum. He was considered patriotic and tin went back into the war effort in easy to handle form.

When we moved to JP may years ago, the city began its pilot program for multi-bin and very limited recycling. A few things,  like newspapers wrapped and tied, or certain types of clean cans could go on the curb in separate BOSTON RECYCLES plastic boxes. It was a bit of a pain, which I accepted and my wife refused. Moreover, the pick-up crew seemed to delight in tossing the boxes as far and hard as they could. The street had many slivered and patched survivors on the curb.

tommytrashNext, the city liked the results and trialed single-stream recycling. Those came with boxes nearly as big as our mayor. Our area was a pilot. Here, many folk including my wife said, “Allllll right!” because it was easy to toss the many types of stuff into a big box.

So, the joke and question came whether the recycling elves really separated and used this diverse bunch of stuff.

Rep. Walz inspired me today. I headed over to the company site. There’s an overblown and self-serving set of talking heads in a five minute video. In snatches behind them, there’s a recap of the sorting process. If you stick through it, you see how the process works. There’s one minute of video behind the fluff (not sorted, eh?).

Another page has stills of the machinery in sorting and preparing. This could use a caption with each pic, but between the vid and these, I believe they honestly do recycle our materials. We aren’t wasting our time. There is money to be made, meaning it is worth everyone’s trouble.

I already like Walz. She is one of our few MA legislative bicycle champions. Now she made me debunk my elf fantasies about recycling.

On the 3rd Day, They Fudged

April 22nd, 2011

balanceFor well-meaning equivocation, it’s hard to outdo UUs on Easter. The wings of many Unitarian ministers stretch and strain as they try to include all, offend none, and somehow blend Easter, Passover, and jelly beans and Peeps.

Frankly, UU jokes are too common, too easy, too cheap. Having been a UU for decades, I attended and joined knowing what was up with liberal religious sorts, both in history and present. I also came from the stereotypical return-to-church-and-become-UU profile. Raised as a serious Methodist,  I was a devote little Christian, but as the Monty Python character says, “Got better.”

Younger folk should be aware that this was before the United Methodist Church. There were separate white and black churches, plus the white ones had both Southern and Wesley branches. Members of the former looked askance at those of us in the latter, also known as high-church Methodist. We were considered almost Episcopalian, which was almost Roman Catholic. Oooooo.

Regardless, my small self always attended both Sunday School and church, joined the youth fellowship, was in the choir and on and on. I knew the comfort of belief in a personal savior, an all-powerful, everywhere present God, life everlasting, Christ’s resurrection, and transubstantiation. To this day, I recall my young self rolling in the mystical sense of transformation in my mouth and throat during communion.

Now I am more typical of American UUs. Few are Christians and around here many of those are former Roman Catholics psychically roughed up by the clerics of their youth. Many say they are or were Jews. Others came from the camp of the amusingly condescending term of UUs unchurched.

Many UU churches specialize in social action, contributing self as well as money to good causes for the life, betterment and comfort of others. Most UUs I have known are not just write-a-check-and-praise-yourself types.

No Hell

So imagine being a minister on Easter Sunday carrying that many hearts and minds in your arms, not wanting to harm, damn, or offend any subcategory of congregant.  This exacerbates the weekly problem of including the Christian and specifically Protestant history of Unitarianism and the everybody-can-find-salvation heritage of Universalism with the current reality that most members are not Christians. Some even are affronted by Christ lingo. Too many UU churches give least consideration to Christian members.

I am to terms with my ex-Christianity in early adolescence. I got there on my own, struggling all the way, coming from a church-going family. It became an oft-told tale among my relatives and chums about confessing this to my mother. She was a long-time Sunday School teacher and her father has been in various offices in churches. She smiled broadly when I told her and said, “Finally, I can stop teaching Sunday School!” She had been doing that for me and was a closet humanist in her own right.

So there you are on Easter Sunday, in the pulpit before of the two most populated congregations of the church year. You make the wheezing joke about the church being open on other Sundays. You know that maybe half the folk don’t come regularly, that many have never been there before, that quite a few don’t understand what UUs are about, and that church members want that spiritual ambrosia. They want a sensitive blend of acknowledgement of Judaism/Passover with another joke about bunnies lugging candy about with cautious allusions to the Jesus story.

So the easiest mix has springtime/renewal concepts, equivocations about some believe a Messiah has never appeared, others that one is out of the question, and others that there was what today’s youth have profanely chosen to term Zombie Jesus. No one group will be totally satisfied — the universe in the pews is simply too diverse and stratified.

How much easier it would be to provide a homily for the religiously homogeneous. On Friday, Jews can hear a pure Passover message. On Sunday, Christians get the powerful message of hope for a heaven and permanent bliss.

Instead, most UU ministers stand before an often prickly crowd. They know they are sure to bore some, offend others, and leave out still others. Ministers tell me that typically congregants will let know them how they have failed on Easter Sunday.

Oddly, there seems to be less pressure on the services around Christmas. Even ex-Christians or lapsed Catholics let the infectious joy of the season compensate for loose talk about a savior being born. That rising from the dead to sit at the right hand of God is another matter.

Jews I know who attend and belong to UU churches seem much more flexible about service content. In most UU churches, you’re not going to find a crucifix or Christian communion. Instead, they tend to have highly adapted versions and even water communions, similar to how they name children instead of Christen them. Even Catholics tell me that is a big improvement over the baptism in their churches that intends to drive the devil out of newborns.

I feel for UU preachers come Easter. I do believe most need to show more guts though. In too many UU churches I have attended, there are subtle or plain derision of Christians as though all of them are intolerant and dull-witted. Yet, I know UU Christians and some of the greatest, most generous, hardest working social activists are in that camp. Fortunately for the UU ministers, that splendid set of good souls are, like the UU Jews, forgivable and flexible. I have heard a few mention in passing to a minister or worship committee member something like, “You know, I am a Christian.” This seems not to whine, but just to remind others that the history and shared religion includes Christians, as well as the astonishing range of Jewish, Sufi, Buddhist, and many other traditions often cited.

This sermon juggling pressure falls on the UU ministers or perhaps they take it on themselves. This seems in stark contrast to the fundy churches that openly deride homosexuals as doomed to a hell and shout often that only one man/one women couples are worthy of producing children. I try to imagine how the many couples who adopt or turn to IVF to grow their families must feel hearing such irrational hate. Likewise, I have heard gay black folk I know say the compartmentalize their religion from the homophobic rhetoric they hear so often from the pulpit.

It seems to be the UU preachers who try to accommodate the worshipers in contrast to expecting anyone coming in the door to shut up and do what they’re told…and sing a psalm of praise. As UU ministers have often said to me with a smile and laugh, they don’t have the threat of eternal damnation and suffering to use.

I have never heard a UU minister speak on the deep and simple joys that Christians feel in their belief in resurrection and hope in their belief of a heaven and relief in their belief that Jesus took away their sins by his death. I don’t believe any of that, but I recall believing it all.

I am pretty sure that UUs would not be hurt and might be more tolerant of the Christians among them and in the larger world if they considered life and afterlife from their view and experience.

Tags: harrumphharrumpherEasterUUChristiansJewstolerance

Trusting the Chickens

January 23rd, 2011

We should feel for the many companies pushing me-too products. Think laundry detergents and even chicken. To thrive, they have to convince consumers their same-as stuff is different and better somehow. They also have to bribe stores for shelf and counter space. It’s fierce in the grocery.

Today our Boston Globe arrived in a Perdue plastic bag with just such dubious distinctions on it. THE FIRST CHICKEN COMPANY WITH USDA PROCESS VERIFIED PROGRAMS it read in the middle. The print near the bottom was almost as large with their slogan TASTE THE PERDUE­® DIFFERENCE.

perduebragBetween the shouting was a new seal replete with a pretty irrelevant  two ears of corn (makes a little more sense than apple pie). It had check marks beside the U.S.D.A.-related claims of all vegetarian diet, no animal byproducts, raised cage free, and tenderness guaranteed. It also plugged no hormones or steroids added, this with a wee asterisk.

For getting with the U.S.D.A. program, it gets to put the new logo with the slogan on its packages. Particularly for customers concerned about health (and hesitant to pay two, three or more times the cost for claimed organic chicken at the hippy-dippy supermarkets), this is likely a feel-good combo.

Without being too cynical, let’s see what this means. For anyone used to manufacturing lingo, the key is obvious in the name process verified. Yes, boys and girl, men and women, this is just another spin on ISO 9000. Perdue has carefully defined how it buys, raised, murders, cleans out, cuts up, packages and ships its birds. They promise consistency and monitor the whole routine. It’s the same every chicken plucking time.

usdaThere are a couple of other companies who have gone through this trouble already. Sparboe Farms in Michigan and the related Van Essen Farms in Iowa do it. Actually, they seem to exceed Perdue’s standards and procedures. Unlike Perdue, they specify how and when they trim chicken’s beaks, how they test the dead birds that occur in raising, and employee training requirements. They truly are with the program.

Perdue’s lesser version is better than nothing. It’s probably healthier for the chickens and us who eat them and their eggs that they eat grains with no ground up chicken or other animal parts. Most of us probably think that is the norm, but nothing requires it.

The cage-free thing is nebulous, but likewise, kinder to the birds. It pretty much means they are not in tiny cages and can walk a bit and spread their wings while still staying inside. It certainly is not the same as the stereotypical old-style chicken farm where the birds walk about, eating grain and bugs off the barnyard.

The tenderness guarantee is a marketing ploy. If you don’t like a Perdue purchase, you might be able to get the store or company to refund your purchase if you go through the trouble.


For that asterisk,  it notes that federal regulations require no steroid or hormone added anyway. That should be true for all poultry sold in this country.

For the whole process verification thingummy, the ISO 9000 certification is a good idea at all its levels. All manufacturers, including food processors should define their whole operation, teach their folk how to do things right, and then monitor and measure compliance. Yet, having been involved in implementation at several companies, I snort too.

What ISO 9000 really means at it core is consistency. You can end up doing the same crappy thing over and over, so long as it is what you specify and you make sure it is. GIGO (garbage in/garbage out) as the old computer term puts it.

So we can simultaneously praise and pity Perdue. They sell commodity products and have a lot of competition. They have to try constantly to differentiate themselves and convince people that their chicken is not just the same as another chicken.

To Perdue’s credit, it has bred beasties with lots of breast meat, which Americans prefer. It also got a lot of traction with dad, Frank Perdue, in his ads. He claimed with great sincerity and commercial success that it takes a tough man to make a tender chicken. Therefore, we pay more, believing his and now his son’s company’s birds are better. Plus, he looked a lot like a barnyard fowl himself.

USDA Process Verified…what was it Garfield used to think, “Big fat hairy deal!”

Alas, poor Credo, I knew them

December 23rd, 2010

cellshiftOh, pinko angst. I cancelled my Credo phone accounts today. Political and economic wisdom has it that we have competition in telecommunications — choice, price and other consumer options. We have liked Credo’s politics though for many years. I grieve.

In case you are not as pink as I, know that Credo puts a lefty twist to cellphones. It is part of Working Assets, and some of its profits go to liberal causes, which you can specify. We have done that for many years, and with the Sprint network that Credo uses, before…a total of, I think 15 May Days and 15 Christmases.

Surely I make too big a deal of this. I have tried and tried. We suffered. We went to their support folk and more. Like the spring runoff with a narrowing river and maybe a whirlpool equivalents finally tipped me today.

My box of causes and catalysts contains:

  • No reception in our house.
  • Credo’s rates have crept up from about 16% cheaper to penny-for-penny matches of the biggies.
  • One son lost his.
  • One son washed his.
  • We did not insure against loss or clumsiness.
  • Visitors with other networks can make and receive calls in our house.

Since August 2009, in our new house, we can’t get or receive calls on our Credo cellphones. Yet visitors on other networks can. So, basically we have not been getting what we paid for on the family plan, maybe 33% of value since the move. We can use the phone when we are outside. It has reduced us to acting like working smokers in taking our cells out in the cold and wet and dark to use them or waiting like a college student of old for the dorm wall phone to be free.

I tried Credo once more and waded through their asinine voice support system (about five minutes to get to a human when even pressing 0 does nothing). After getting cut off during a hold the first time, I got an impatient sort the second. I complained and he said it was obvious that I should cancel the lines. He put me through in a few more minutes of hold to someone he said would do that. Instead, she tried to troubleshoot by switching a roaming setting from Home Only to Automatic, to have the phone use any network’s towers. It barely boosted the bars (from zero to 1 inside) and would not allow calls.

On the money side, Credo also matches the other networks in oppressive contracts, where really the sensible choice has become a two-year contract. If you have a single phone, the no-contract deals are fine, but with a family, they aren’t. So, I’m faced with buying out two contracts at about $150 each. Otherwise, replacing two pretty new phones would run at least that much, and more like $175 or $200 each with Credo.

Verizon was typical of the competing offers. I looked online and figured I’d trot to the closest (BJs in Dedham). That way, if I wanted, I could come home with phones the same day.

Sure enough, while Verizon doesn’t have a current deal here to buy out a competitor’s contract (amusingly enough, Credo does), I got:

  • Three free phones.
  • No activation fee.
  • On-the-spot cancellation of Credo.
  • Retention of the existing numbers.

I got ’em. They work. To the point, they work inside the house.

When the boys came home, we huddled. Each decided the $5 a month for the total insurance coverage was a good bet. I think I hid my surprise, as I’ve had the same feature phone for five years and it is still perking. I don’t lose them, nor wash them, nor drop them, nor, well, act like a normal human. I confess I’m finicky or cautious or both.

After my research, online, by phone, in circulars and ads, I’m OK with the result. Yet, again, I do like Credo’s politics. I did enjoy the monthly whiff of self-righteousness and do-gooder behavior. I went over a year huddled outside to use my phone and finally passed the point of diminishing…diminished…returns.

I wish Sprint’s network was better around here. I wish Working Assets or someone like them would do the same thing on Verizon.

I’ll have to atone by increasing my personal social action instead of my small contributions through Credo.

Tags: harrumphharrumpherCredocellphonesVerizonsocial action