Archive for the ‘Church’ Category

Deacons Who Deviled

August 28th, 2011

Churches are scary places with scary people. Having observed or been involved in the polity and politics of them from childhood into membership and onto chairing committees and boards, I have long outgrown the idealized world of Godly sorts doing good.

morsskulls

None of my direct experiences equals the wanton assault on Canton, Massachusetts’ first minister, Joseph Mors (a.k.a Morse).

Biking South of Boston, I passed the main Canton cemetery many times. I toured once, finding the really old stuff on the far Southwestern corner next to the UU church. The more recent focused trip included enjoying the 18th and 19th Century New England iconography. One that caught me was Mors’ three-skulled stone.

It turns out that with good reason there’s considerable history available on the late minister. His is a tale of caution for even modern clerics.

Consider his epitaph, including:

Within this silent grave here now doth ly,
Him that is gone unto Eternity.
Who when he liv’d was by good men respected,
Although by others was perhaps rejected;
Yet that done hinder his Triumphing Joy,
With saints above where nought can him away.

I couldn’t leave that. Thanks to long-dead local historians and Google’s digital books project, I didn’t have to.

As background, what is now Canton was in terms of religious governance part of the colonial town of Dorchester, a.k.a. New Grant or Dorchester Village. Mors was the first minister there, for a decade from 1707. Subsequently, this became part of Stoughton, which seemed promiscuously to hand it pieces of itself to neighboring towns. The area where the town of Canton, including its main cemetery are, broke off in 1797, with what seems like whimsical name, suggested by macher Elijah Dunbar, on the approximate belief that it was exactly half way around the globe from the Chinese province of that name.

What Could Go Wrong?

Ministerial careers were much less linear in the colony than today or for that matter in England at the time. While Mors, born 1671 graduated from Unitarian founded Harvard, he started as his education suited, as a teacher. In Providence, he and another teacher, Amity Harris, wed. They moved to Watertown, MA, where he gathered a congregation as well as taught. The locals built a meeting house, but never got the church organized. Then in 1707, he got an offer from the future Canton, then New Village, to settle and preach.

All started out swell, and in fact, from other sources, it turns out that The Morses were both die-hard teachers and pretty open minded. The local Natives, the Ponkapoags, welcomed both of them.  They “were well loved by the Ponkapoag Indians, who appreciated the couple’s efforts to educate them and bring them spiritual comfort.”

Life was rough for all and this was a period of various epidemics as well. The Morses gave religious and school instruction, and Joseph ministered to the Ponkapoag families.

Yet, it was the demon deacons, and not the Wake Forest ones, that undid Mors.

As the astonishingly and fastidiously detailed Huntoon history of the town put it, “In those days the office of deacon was regarded with very great respect…” The ones at First Parish were maybe worse than others, it turns out, bringing charges of “false doctrine” against the new minister. “The deacons considered themselves as umpires on matters of doctrine, and, letting the greater part of the sermon slip by without interest, were on the alert to detect and remember the slightest dogmatical inaccuracy or unguarded expression which in the hurry of composition might have escaped from the pen of the minister.”

Whole Town Watching

Snidely I must note that had the locals and deacons lived in our days of sports teams and cable TV, they might have had more if not better concerns and distractions. As it happened, when the deacons were charging Mors, it was a big deal.

“This charge, preferred by one of such high standing and authority in the church, was a cause of much alarm and difficulty. Meetings and fasts were held concerning it, and the communion was suspected for more than six months. Finally, the church voted that they were not dissatisfied with the pastor on account of the allegations brought against him.”

The deacon then backed down. The minister was cleared. From our distance of three centuries, we’d suppose Mors won and was untouchable. Ha!

“The disaffected only awaited an opportunity for a fresh attack; nor was it long before an occasion offered itself.” Upon the request of local Elhanan Lyon “who seems to have been a thorn in the flesh both th Mr. Morse and his successor” was on a committee of the General Court (legislature) and called Mors before that committee with accusations.

This in turn was like a Bill Clinton thing. If you have the interest, read all of the pages of this section of Huntoon for the nasty details. The short of it is that Mors was tripped up on alleged lies. Lying being flat out for ministers, at least at the time.

The underlying issue is that some unnamed person claimed that Mors got tipsy at a dinner party in Canton. Then, when grilled about it, he said he did not overindulge. Hence, those after his scalp, and likely still angry about being rebuffed in the earlier vote of confidence, said he was lying about it.

So the minister was twice tainted, alleged to be a sot and liar. The Dorchester Village council met on the issue a few times. When it came to a vote, by a single one, he was judged unworthy of continuing his ministry.

To little effect, another council meeting of nine churches censured everyone, “requiring them to acknowledge their faults to each other.” By this time, Mors was dead in the pulpit, figuratively. The lasting stain on his was that, like Clinton, he was permanently known as a liar, or as one in the council wrote later “guilty of designed false speaking.”

Again from 304 years distance, it’s impossible to know whether in the mind of the locals it was worse that Mors might have had a glass too many or that he refused to admit it.

He lived out his remain few years in the town, but not as a minister. He had an offer to preach elsewhere, but did not accept it.

Church Traps

I know a lot of  clerics, all of whom have political tales. They tend to note there’re folk in every congregation looking for trouble. They also say congregants and sometimes staff members can be willing to seduce them. Both perils could get a cleric shipped away.

I can recall the first church feud I was aware of when I was 8 or 9. In a large Methodist church in the South, the minister’s wife ran the church in many ways. She disliked the excellent organist/choir director, perhaps because he was very popular among adults and kids alike. She was determined to oust him, which came with time constraints in those days. Methodists were in a given church for only three years before reassignment, in the tradition of the circuit riding John Wesley.

She tried to stir up animosity and got only a little traction in accusing him of this or that. Eventually though, he got real tired of her sniping and attitude. He got an offer to tour Europe as an organist and snapped it up, going on to relative fame.

In other churches, I’ve seen worse. Consider the downtown Boston UU one where I revivified the personnel committee and then ran the board for a couple of years. Two key staff members, each with her own constituency went head to head and rumor to rumor in competition for resources and congregant affection. Staff meetings got so contentious, replete with shouting and tears, that the senior minister stopped holding them and met with one member at a time.

Neither would give a millimeter and each said she was the primary reason congregants came…and pledged. The implication was if they left, the church would collapse. It was ugly, but at least no one was trying to ruin the career of the senior minister.

The devilish duo were so intractable that I finally accepted that they had to go. I convinced one that she wasn’t ever going to find what she wanted there and to look for a larger, better paying church. The other had included me on her hit list and tried to get me removed from both committees.Instead. my personnel report on the problems convinced her that she too was not going to have her way. She and her rich hubby left in a huff, moving from Boston, and prophecizing doom for the church without her talents and his money. Nothing like that occurred and she was easily replaced with a rational and pleasant person.

My minister chums note that many who work at or attend churches are both emotionally needy and feel that being there gives them righteousness points. Regardless of the motives, the Godly places can be ungodly nasty.

Where Is Thankful?

July 27th, 2011

preacherwifeSurely I have read and seen too many horror entertainments. A massive double tombstone in Hyde Park’s Fairview Cemetery stopped me.

On the left side of the marble book, Rev. Elisha B. Bradford was noted to live from 1811 to 1895. On the right, his wife, Thankful T. Faunce, was born in 1818…

He was a Methodist minister known for his powerful preaching on the circuit. However, we have no reason to believe there was an on-the-third-day miracle here. We can be sure we would have gotten the word if she were still walking around at nearly 200.

Where is Thankful?

If you pardon, I am thankful for the internet and its trove of obscure data. We can learn:

  • There is a biography in an old Methodist Conference book that Google digitized.
  • Elisha was a seventh-generation direct descendant of MA Gov. William Bradford.
  • Smart and ambitious, he started in manufacturing with the aim of wealth.
  • He heard his God ask him, “Are you willing to become poor for Jesus sake?” and he resolved that he was. He chose the demanding life of a Methodist, riding among churches.
  • On May 30, 1838, he and Thankful wed and remained so until his death.
  • They had a happy life, with one major exception. Their first-born and only son died at six months. That was “Brother Bradfords great grief, and on that really shadowed his whole life.” Two daughters grew to adulthood and outlived the parents.
  • Thankful lived with one daughter after Elisha’s death. She died at 93 in 1912 (date from the Mormon genealogy site).

That daughter remained local. I found no record of Thankful’s interment. Yet, I surmise that she almost certainly is there by her page of the marble book. Discarding the notion that she walks among us, I wonder then did New England frugality win out and no carver was contracted to fill in the right side of the hyphen?

Pre-Safety Net Marker

July 26th, 2011

Evidence of a true atavism appears on a flat marker in Dorchestrer. In the Cedar Grove cemetery is one reading HOME FOR AGED COLORED WOMEN. Nearby are rows of small stones marking the graves of those residents.

home4agedThis institution operated just before and decades after the Civil War. While Boston was in a state that long before given up slave ownership, by custom and law, it was not an area where many African American residents flourished. Think of the north slope of Beacon Hill, where many of them lived, and went to their work as servants.  While better than slavery, that offered little chance for saving or advancement, and certainly not for retirement.

In an era before Social Security or any government safety net beyond debtors’ prisons and orphanages, churches, do-gooders and private groups stepped up as best they could. As listed in the 1910 U.S. Census for example, the number and dispersion of homes caring for small numbers of inmates is eye-opening.

In an era before Social Security or any government safety net beyond debtors’ prisons and orphanages, churches, do-gooders and private groups stepped up as best they could. As listed in the 1910 U.S. Census for example, the number and dispersion of homes caring for small numbers of inmates is eye-opening. It was catch as catch can for the poor, old or feeble.

The Home for Aged Colored Women was by then in its longest term location, down the street from the State House at 22 Hancock Street. That’s now a super-priced double home abutting Suffolk University on the back. Having lived across the street when I first moved to Boston, I know that this strip had become low-rent boarding houses after the black residents began to decamp. Back in the 19th and into the early 20th Centuries, it surely was an affordable place for charities to rent or buy.

fullerstoneIn 1910, this Home accepted three new residents and had a total of 18 women. Other documents said it could accommodate up to 20. They had six paid employees, and as the Census notes in one of its then-necessary columns, “Colored persons received.”

The Home was organized in 1860 “at the suggestion of Mrs. K. P. Clarke, and incorporated in 1864, for aged colored women of good character, who are unable to take care of themselves. If able, or if they have friends able to assist them, the beneficiaries are obliged to pay a small amount toward their maintenance.” The original location was also in the area with many black servants, at 27 Myrtle Street.

The MA Historical Society mentions it too, writing “an interracial group of concerned citizens opened the Home for Aged Colored Women on Beacon Hill to care for elderly African and African American women. Many of these women were ex-slaves.”

A different form of charity was in African American women helping in the Civil War effort, particularly in support of black soldiers such as the 54th Regiment Company A. Look up a floor on River Street in Hyde Park’s Cleary Square to see the office of The Colored Ladies Christian Relief Association. The 54th website describes them as, “The Colored ladies present the ‘hidden half’ of the story 
of the 54th, the contributions of African American women in the 
Civil War.”

The Bostonians weren’t the only groups. In an online encyclopedia on women in the  Civil War, the drive of Elizabeth Keckley led to numerous such Contraband Relief Associations. Contraband of course referred to freed or escaped slaves. Keckley a dressmaker to Mary Todd Lincoln ran a successful business and encouraged other free blacks to contribute to society.

Lincoln contributed a sizable $200 to the new effort. When Keckley accompanied her on a trip through New England and New York City, she “encouraged Octavia Grimes to establish the Colored Ladies’ Relief Association and Sarah Martin the Fugitive Aid Society of Boston. Both organizations were attached to all-black Boston churches and became auxilliaries of the CRA.”

She solicited contributions from black and white abolitionists here and abroad. She expanded the effort and even broadened the name to Ladies’ Freedmen and Soldiers’ Relief Association. In what would today strike chords left and right, “she was concerned that white philanthropists and charity workers who underestimated the abilities and the potential of the formerly enslaved would undermine their efforts to elevate themselves.”

Rapture Time Already?

May 21st, 2011

I honestly had forgotten my childhood brush with the heaven bound. We have the current Rapture ranter, a depressed woman who smothers her six-year-old and wants to die so the two of them will be together, and who knows how many terrorists who believe that their religion will guarantee them eternal bliss for dying while blowing others to pieces.

If you were inclined to ecstatic paradise and personal identity after death stuff, the believers acting out in front of you should give pause.

Nevertheless, back when I was maybe 8 or 9, our family got a personal taste in Danville, Virginia. Our weekly cleaning lady showed up at our mother’s office to take her to heaven with her.

Our divorced mom, Wanda, worked long and hard running the Red Cross chapter as well as raising two kids solo. While it bothered her not to also handle all the cleaning even with the meager help of her elementary-school children, she accepted that she needed someone a couple of afternoons a week to take care of laundry and such. Lena was that person.

A young, married woman with two children of her own, she was a cheerful presence. She had a family support system in town to help her with her kids and worked for several folk to supplement her husband’s income. We got along well.

One afternoon though, Wanda returned home distressed, which was unusual for someone so together. She told us how Lena had died.

I don’t have time today

She was at her desk, managing away, when Lena appeared. The normally calm Lena was instead both agitated and smiling. She announced that it was time to go to heaven. She said that of all the people she knew Wanda was the one deserving of joining her.

My mother said she explained that she had a lot of work to do and wanted to take care of her children. She really did not have time and was not in a position to go to heaven that afternoon.

She said that Lena accepted that and calmly left the office. Lena then went a few blocks away, waited for the bus, and threw herself directly in front of it. She died on the spot.

We were also Christians in our apartment. We had the behaviors as well as, attending both Sunday School and church ever week, taking communion, believing  in personal salvation through Jesus, and planning on heaven (eventually). I also had read the whole KJV Bible and had favorite parts.

Yet, even as young kids, my sister and I did not go for suicide. Wanda had made us far too pragmatic and fix-it for that already.

Of course, in retrospect, I figure Lena had been mentally unstable for quite awhile and had had a break, a psychotic episode. We didn’t know those terms yet, didn’t know depressed or bipolar people yet, and no one in our family was a fundamentalist religious sort of any flavor.

I recall though asking about Lena’s husband and kids. Why didn’t she want them to go with her if she figured she was heading heavenward that day? As it turned out, her husband wondered too. He threatened Wanda and us with death for somehow in his mind causing his wife to kill herself.

He got over that with some discussion with the police. I got over my puerile religion as well a few years later.

Yet, our very human, often emotional needs seem to drive us at the oddest times and with the great power of a surging, swollen river. I like to think I am immune to such relentless forces. I can’t be positive, but I’m not buying into rapture today.

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

The Schlock of the Irish-Americans

March 21st, 2011

In Dublin and Cork, where actual Irish folk live, LGBT groups are welcome to march in the annual St. Patrick’s Day parades. Likewise, in much of America, that’s the case. That includes the second-largest such event, in Savannah, a parade and week of doings much larger…and jollier…than that in South Boston.

Notably, it in in Manhattan and South Boston were parade organizers have closed their minds into walls, their hearts into cinders, their fingers into fists. Unlike the real Irish, the self-identified guardians of what’s Irish in this country seemed to have missed the past 50 years of human and humane development.

In NYC, it is the Ancient Order of Hibernians and in Southie, the Allied War Veterans Council of South Boston that organize the parades and enforce the exclusionary rules. After the later won a unanimous SCOTUS decision 16 years ago letting them discriminate, they relish telling civil-rights supporters that LGBT folk are welcome to march in their parades. Of course, they can’t march as a group unlike the 100 or so other groups or identify themselves as anything other than of Irish extraction. The argument mirrors those who say gays can marry in their states, so long as they marry an opposite sex person. Yuck, yuck, yuck.

The hypocrisy and irony are well noted. In Boston’s Bay Windows, for example, Rev. Irene Monroe gets into this, including citations of how odd it would be that Irish-Americans as well as African-Americans so eagerly discriminate when they have been discriminated against so long and so often. Also, such hostility is respects neither the legacy of Christianity nor of American freedoms, which those groups allegedly follow and honor. Likewise, a wrap-up piece in last an Edge last year notes the overt and atavistic discrimination in such parades. Moreover, poll after poll of Bostonians, New Yorkers, Catholics and others make it clear that the vast majority of us have transcended anti-LGBT feelings in personal fears as well as discrimination in jobs, housing and more.

In Southie, this year was the first separate-and-unequal parade. The second comprising mostly Veterans for Peace and LGBT Irish-American groups had to follow the main parade and hour later, literally following the street sweepers. (…visions of following the elephants with a shovel…) Of course, most of the crowd came for the bagpipers, step dancers and such, and left sparse spectatorship.

Yet, to get a flavor of the bitter residual counterpoint, head to the Boston Herald. There a story on the two parades got at last count 119 remaining comments in two days. The paper removed the most obscene and inflammatory ones. Yet the pattern in these is clear enough. While the rest of Boston is pretty much let’s-leave-each-other-in-peace, the dozens of Herald regular comments show the city at its most hateful, least rational, most puerile, and least Christian. I won’t cite example here.

The true oddment is how out of step with the real Irish such folk and such parade organizers are. I’m certainly not the first to note many times how socially backward and slow to advance Americans can be socially. An oddment with the NYC/Boston situation is that the regressive organizers are no longer run by the WWII/Korean era folk, rather by their children. They now have marginalized themselves, while insisting they’ll never change.

Well, the world has. Even here, we follow Canada, Europe, and Catholic countries in Latin America as well. Most of America has even followed Ireland in St. Patrick’s Day parade traditions. Maybe the old guys in these two throwback cities really will have to die. There’s no indication that they are praying for guidance or even paying attention to Irish and Irish-Americans are up to — that would be fun, fellowship, and accepting Irish heritage rather than promoting pseudo-Irish hostility.

Do You Smell Pork?

January 26th, 2011

LanierWho knew? We certainly were not aware that we rented an apartment in a very historic home in Danville, VA, when I was a lad. No one, not even the owner told us.

Now there’s a marker at 770 Main Street, it is on the historic walking tour, and may have the additional cachet of being haunted. To us, Dr. Samuel Newman and his wife, whose first name I likely never knew, occupied the first floor for living and his pediatric practice. To historians, this is the oldest known residence in the city. The first mayor, Capt. James Lanier, had it built in 1830.

We were across the street from the Main Street Methodist Church. We attended it several times a week, as was the Southern wont of the time — choir practice, Methodist Youth Fellowship, volunteer sessions, prayer meetings, and over two hours each Sunday with an hour for kids and adults in Sunday school, followed by about 90 minutes of service with lots of hymns and 20 to 30-minute prayers buttressing the sermon. The YMCA was right down the road, as were three movie theaters. We had little reason to venture off Main Street.

The pic above is of that same 770 Main Street. That is a postal card in a compilation of them as a history of the city. Clara Garrett Fountain was somehow inspired to share part of her 100-year collection. Thanks to her and as the image is long out of anyone’s copyright I claim fair use, as I do to her cut line:

The nearby house at 770 Main Street, currently the office of Garrett & Garrett, attorneys, is the oldest documented residence in the city. Built in 1830 by Danville’s first  mayor, Captain James Lanier, it is remembered by many as the office of Dr. Samuel Newman, the city’s first pediatrician.

Dr. Newman turned out to be more than that. To us, he was the guy who jabbed penicillin hypos in my butt for my recurrent tonsil inflammations. As I found out later, he was also well known in Danville and several nearby cities and towns for his children’s clinics and forward looking preventative medicine for kids.

There’s a wonderful symmetry there in that the house served as a children’s clinic during the Civil War over 80 years before Dr. Newman bought it.  It also turns out that a clinic in nearby Martinsville was named for him. Scholarships from the Charity League of Martinsville and Henry County go to high school grads and college students in his name.

Dr. Newman and his wife were Jewish. That’s not all that remarkable here and now, although it seemed nearly everyone three miles above the North Carolina border in the middle of the state was Christian, some flavor of Protestant, in the 1950s. Catholics were rare and Jews much more so.

However, he was also a Virginian. As nearly everyone else around, he appreciated the long, skillful tradition of the region for its smoked porks — hams and particularly bacon. He worked long days and liked to start with some protein.

His wife was short and round. She always wore a purple ribbon around her neck, with a small key on the bottom. She kept the cashbox and took the payments for those who visited the practice. While her dresses were both fashionable and well pressed, over the years, the ribbon got dingy and a bit raveled.

In general, she kept a kosher table even though they were not Orthodox. She was a bit old world and put up with his breakfast preferences. However, many mornings when my sister and I came down the main stairs to the ground floor on our way to school, we’d see her running up and down the hall separating their living half from his office. She’d wave a hand fan or just her arms as she walked up and down, asking us at high volume, “Do you smell pork? Do you smell pork?”

I was reminded of her today while looking through Good Book (overly long subtitle) by David Plotz, self-defined as “never a very observant” (but proud) Jew. First of all, can that really be his name, asks someone with the last name of Ball? In Yiddish, of course, plotz means to burst, as if from strong emotion.

Regardless, he writes of poring through the Bible (at least the Old Testament) and finding remarkable passages, upon which he remarks. He did after writing this rush through the New Testament, in a defensive skim to prepare for an appearance on The Colbert Show. He wasted his time in the sense that Stephen didn’t ask a single question about the new stuff.

His section on Leviticus includes:

…God says that the pig, because it doesn’t chew the cud, is “impure.” Understood. But then the Lord describes lots and lots of other animals – including lobster, shrimp, ostrich, and most insects – as “abominations.” “Abomination” is a much stronger word than “impure.” Does this imply that bacon, pork chops, pulled pork, and ham are less bad than lobster? Can it really be that eating pork is a minor dietary offense, the kashruth equivalent of a parking ticket? God, I hope so!

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Snoozers, Users and Lusers

September 5th, 2010

Being from a family of fixers seemed normal enough, but has proven otherwise. Being able to repair a machine and more only works consistently on one condition. You have to understand how things function and often how they are put together.

As it turns out, I have an earned reputation for fixing, assembling and configuring machines, computers and more. Lackaday, it seems most folk are quick to blame a poorly maintained inanimate servant for its failures. Often, it only needs a tweak.

My alleged magic is nothing more than applying an understanding of components and functions.

That came to mind this afternoon when my wife noted that one of the electronically controlled garage doors would not close with the remote controls. I looked out the back door and from 30 feet could see the issue.

The little beam at the base of the door track is part of a safety system. It won’t let the door move when something is in the way. It’s an ignorant optical/mechanical system and doesn’t know if that something is a human body part or a car trunk or a rake. If its light circuit is broken, it stops the motor. Period. The way I grew up, I notice such things and file them in wetware just in case.

I could see that number two son’s mountain bike was just inside the beam area. To the unusual who grew up taught to file away how things work, that was instantly obvious. I long ago accepted that even the otherwise bright generally would not see that. I liken it to my poorly developed musical skills and senses. I have musician friends and a musical spouse who hear notes and keys that are just music to me. I love music, but can’t begin to replicate it or explain how to make it.

Who You Callin’ Loser?

Specifically in the computer/internet world, there are derogatory terms for the ignorant and unobservant. Perhaps none is more common among the cyber-savvy as luser. A pun playing off a combination of user and loser, it expresses the exasperation of support types, sys admins (those bastard operators from hell) , and we alpha geeks who put together and troubleshoot family and friends’ system.

Given the rapid changes in and spread of technology, one slice of logic would suggest that oldsters are bound to be lusers and youngsters computer, internet and new media experts. Sigh. Not so.

To the contrary, from what I see, most 20 somethings and teens fail in far more ways than not being able to make change without the cash register lighting up the amount. Most are users only, a.k.a. lusers. They learn now to apply the most basic functions of software. They never went through any process that required them to understand what goes no behind the scenes and are helpless when anything unusual occurs, as it frequently does.

Indeed, as I am wont to allude to, these become the Eloi. Even if they have good hearts, the processes that keep their world perking are unknown.

In that tedious sniping between the Mac and PC universes, we see variations. The Mac types are compelled to say their computers are so superior that they plug in peripherals and connect to this or that without having to do or know anything. Isn’t that wonderful?

bombWell I suppose in the Eloi future that might be OK, if all systems were perfect. As a PC alter kaker, I know better and recall observing and working with my wife’s company’s struggles in the original Mac office decades ago. Mac lovers said their machines were well worth the 100% or more premium because they just worked. That is, until that bomb appeared. They worked until they didn’t. Then what?

Somehow, the Mac failure was supposed to be substantially different from the PC’s blue screen of death. In reality, both meant you had to reboot the computer to try again. Somehow the Mac folk had to feel their double-the-price failure was a better one.

The double seeds were planted way back then (nearly 30 years ag0). One was the Spple system and the other was the Microsoft fantasy.

The Apple system was expensive for two reasons. One was simple greed; they made everything proprietary and did not let anyone make cheaper versions, thus keeping the price up. The other was that they required much faster, more capable and expensive processors, with obscene amounts of RAM to hide the functions. The Mac was plug-and-play with peripherals before the PC because the operating system did tons of work behind the scenes.

For Bill Gates’ minions, they spawned the software version — that each of us is a perfect multitasking machine in a human’s shell. That’s absurd on the face of it. The vast majority of us do one thing at a time well and our efficiency deteriorates badly beyond that. Multitasking is cruel overload for nearly all of us.

Yet, managers love that concept and love to tell their lackeys that they expect them to use every second, meaning keeping open many documents, spreadsheets, email and more, spinning from one to another like a honeybee in a field of flowers. It is a recipe for assured failure, one that both bosses and workers cook from daily.

Me Worry?

So in this century, we allegedly have kids born tech savvy. They grew up with the internet, computers, smart phones, social networking and infinite varieties of applications for all those.

But big sigh, ask a teen or 20-something how anything works or what to do when it doesn’t and they are Eloi quivering before you. It’s like asking a high school or college student at the register to handle making change on a $41.67 bill when you hand over $50.17. If the register is not ready to do the calculation, the kid almost certainly can’t. If a software package punks out or the cable modem stops downloading, the lads and lasses get that idiot look.

Can you blame them? Well, yes.

I think of oldies, my late mother for one and a 93-year-old UU minister friend for another. They came with great period names, Wanda and Farley.

Wanda was sort of retired, although she never got the hang of not working and not volunteering. She grew up in a manual typewriter world, was a manager in the IBM Selectric days, and in her late 50s, semi-retired and moved to Santa Fe, learned to use computers in a state job. She then wanted 1) to communicate with distant children and grandchildren, and 2) to build and maintain a database for a local community college’s library. I got her the hardware and software (including what she needed for her impinging macular degeneration) and taught her how to use email, DB software and more. I set up her systems but, she was an ace.

Farley was a bit of a harder sell. He was interim minister at a Boston UU church were I chaired the board. His son and I worked him from different towns and angles. He was not a natural, but in his early 70s, he started using a computer writing sermons, using the net and emailing like a champ.

He and I laugh about the number of times he called late with, “Damn. I’ve worked on this sermon for 8 hours and it’s gone, just gone.” Almost always, I could recover it for him and off he went again. On his side, his son figured he’d move him from Windows to Mac. Surely Farley couldn’t goof up a Mac. Surely he could and did, but we perked along and still do over 20 years later. He’s moved to Mexico but is a regular email correspondent.

Neither Farley nor Wanda evolved much beyond the user/luser class. I had to help both regardless of how many times I explained how to avoid this or that on PC or Mac.

Unitarians v. Computers

Moreover, a couple of decade ago, Farley and I did a counterpoint sermon from the high pulpit of the Arlington Street Church. The sheer altitude of that locale, plus looking out to upwards of 1,000 congregants, focuses the mind and inspires.

He spoke on the human aspects of life so often lost in the modern technological times. He was truly the stereotypical humanist. I gave my view of how computers and the net (before the World Wide Web) enabled communications and advocacy, a trend that would only accelerate and magnify.

Farley’s attitude I consider unfortunate and one he and I still debate in person and by email. Many ministers, UU and otherwise, exhibit a computers v. people mindset. I don’t see the conflict. To me, computers are like cars or planes or telephones…only more so in each case.

Instead, I fret when I see the lameness of young lusers. There’s nothing I can do effectively beyond my three kids for the many who never had to master multiplication tables or learn subtraction and division. I think the boomers, under the Sputnik era pressures, did get a more rigorous education.

It’s still not too late for those in their teens, 20s and 30s to be inspired. It’s not too late for them to become aware and savvy.

The eldest of my three sons is an anomaly in his cohort. Actually he and one other of his high school chums have extensive IT experience and understand how networks, computers, routers and more work. They don’t whimper. They fix.

Truth be told though, he wasn’t always the guru. As a boy, he was absolutely fabulous in taking things, mechanical and electric alike, apart. Reassembling or fixing was an entirely different matter. Whether it was a toy or clock or radio, we’d often find non-functional groupings of parts.

Unfortunately or fortunately, he had a dad who was the fly in the ear or mosquito on the neck. “What do we need to do? What can we learn from this? Where does this part belong?”

Whether I had experience with and knowledge of the device in pieces before us, I could help or lead in the healing process. It appears many young adults and their younger siblings never got any of that. They simply don’t know how things work. They are willing to blame problems on the failure of this or than inanimate object. They have no curiosity about the problem or the solution.

I fear for a nation of Eloi. I’m not sure there are Morlocks who’ll keep our machines and processes in tune. I wonder how inert and paralyzed we might become if there are too many figurative Mac bombs.

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Hidden HP History

April 1st, 2010

212 Fairmount Ave.

Nondescript 212 Fairmount in Hyde Park was the site of a social-activist nexus for Hyde Park, Boston and beyond — a century and one-half ago at least. Think abolitionists, suffragettes, Weld and the Grimkés (including the sisters’ half-black, former slave nephews).

Its nearby neighbors today are largely splendid Victorians. This is one of several clearly razed and replaced. No sign or wall plaque hints at the former buzz within.

In fairness to whomever redeveloped 212, that was what happened and not only in Hyde Park back then. One of Boston’s virtues is how many of its historic buildings it has kept. In contrast, in Manhattan far more important sites get that plaque if anything. However, Hyde Park was carved out of open tracts of Milton and Dedham and Fairmount Hill required either bushwhacking from the Mattapan train terminus or pushing across the bridgeless Neponset in a punt to begin settling the area. Such niceties as devoting resources to troubled houses could come later.

In fact, Hyde Park let herself go. The dangerous and dilapidated Fairmount House was totally gutted and rebuilt on Michael Tallon’s dime to become Townsend’s. The former grand inn lives only in a few pictures on the upstairs walls. Also, many of the grand meeting halls went down.

Moreover, the most known and distinguished building in this newest of Boston neighborhoods (1912) is Christ Church. While architects cite this Ralph Adams Cram building as the prototype for many other 19th Century works, it looks ugly to me and has mediocre stained glass.

Crusaders of Fairmount

Theodore Weld operated out of 212 Fairmount for the bulk of his rabble rousing career. In partnership were his wife, Angelina Grimké, her sisters, Sarah and Eliza, and eventually two of those those nephews, Archibald and Francis Grimké, They were a one-stop stop for freedom fighting for Black Americans and women.

The nephews became accomplished in their own rights, one after getting his Harvard Law degree. The lawyer, Archibald, also had a daughter Angelina Weld Grimké, who became a well-known poet and writer. She too had lived at 212.

The details of the sisters’ shock at finding their S.C. brother had continued to own slaves, fathered children with one of them, and then sold his sons is here.  Typical of today’s progressives, they did something, lots, about it. Their tale and Weld’s are in that and related documents on the link above.

So, out of 212 came tracts and activists on missions. Weld and the Grimkés were together and separately active writers, orators and organizers for abolition causes and what was known then as elevation of the Negro to equality. They were as passionate about women’s rights, and the suffrage action that didn’t take place in New York came out of Fairmount Hill.

Imagine the parade of women from 212 on election day, March 7, 1870, who went to the Hyde Park poll to cast the first votes ever by American women. Those did not count toward the total, but that was an inspiration for many.

There is a splendid period mixed theater to that episode as well. Each woman going to vote symbolically had a male escort, who had presented her with a floral posy. Each man held back at the poll to let the woman advance and place her ballot in the envelope for that purpose. So, it seems under the protection of men and with flowers, the women were at once demanding and fem.

Literally to the very end, Angelina showed her toughness and right-mindedness,  the stuff of a reformer. She had been frail and then lived her last years partially paralyzed from a stroke. She continued to write and made a poignant statement in her final note — I have purposely selected my oldest clothes to be buried in, that my good ones may be given to the poor, that they may do good after I am gone.

If there are any spirits around, it would seem that 212 would still have lots of Grimké/Weld mojo.

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Cardinal Pitches Wholly Holy

March 31st, 2010

Every priest a saint…right?

Well, to listen to local Archbishop, Sean Cardinal O’Malley, all that will take will be some focus.

Keen. Foolishly I had thought it might be time 1) to take legal and moral responsibility and 2) to rethink that father-come-lately mandatory celibacy thingummy.

However, at least the message he delivered to hundreds of local priests in his Holy Week homily was that even with proof that thousands upon thousands of their number are linked to child abuse and in a few cases heterosexual adultery and fornication, they can each and all live lives of holiness.

Cynicism aside, I note that he was a couple of steps above the simple-minded just-say-no rhetoric about drugs and premarital sex foisted on teens for decades. He had specific, detailed steps. Those include the three-part plan of:

  • Annual personal retreat “for silence prayer, and spiritual direction, and a review of our life.”
  • Supporting and holding each other accountable in regular activities.
  • Leading a balanced life.

Unfortunately, that balanced life is heavily edited for the priesthood. It does not resemble the self-help and development that has worked for billions of non-clerics for centuries. Instead, according to that Boston Globe recap above, that would instead be “setting aside at least an hour a day for prayer and meditation, allowing time for sleep and exercise, eating properly, and getting regular medical checkups.”

One might note that this strategy does not mention a fulfilling emotional and sexual side to life. Under strictures of being married to the church and Christ, requisite celibacy and sublimation, the urges of hormones and the thoughts and feelings normal to nearly all of us are flat out.

For the many Roman Catholic clerics, as well as the parallels in a few other Eastern and Western religious groups, a pivotal ideal dominates. The superior practitioner transcends the physical and mental drives. In the R.C. priesthood in particular, the guys are supposed to direct their thoughts, feelings, energies and actions to the service of God, the Church and their parishioners (and sometimes their orders or specific causes). That’s supposed to happen all day, every day and to become that life of holiness.

Well, in the few centuries since celibacy became mandatory, that endless ideal seems to have escaped the capability of many, if not most, of this group. Forgive my incredulity, Cardinal, but a three-part strategy to refocus seems scant ammunition and weaponry in a relentless battle against very human needs.

Cross-post: This appears at Marry in Massachusetts.


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