10 December 2013


Clergyfolk hate December.  I mean, of course, those clergy who are in the gravitational field created Christmas.  We hate it not in a theological sense but in a personal sense, because the pleasure the season brings are often denied us. 

Come to think, lots of people work extra hard at this season, and some of that effort goes to working at being merry.  We are told this is the season we should savor and appreciate things, but that itself takes effort and planning.  Frankly, I have already given up trying. 

Which may be the best path, actually.  "Trying" creates work.  My spiritual project this Yuletide is not to try and simply accept what comes my way and not resent what does not meet my expectations. 

This too is a sort of work, but instead of looking to Yuletide to meet my spiritual desires, I ponder my desires themselves. 

I want faith - some fragment of the childhood belief that the world was enchanted. Einstein supposedly said that either nothing is miraculous or everything is.  Faith is being open to the second possibility.

I want hope - some confidence that the life I have and that of others has some value that transcends this moment and even this life.  Hope is faith in tomorrow as well as today.

I want love - which is not the Hallmark Channel Christmas movie love.  It is some sense that our life is cherished by others.  Love is hope incarnate. 

I want joy - which like love is not a sensation so much as a pervasive gratitude that can be felt physically as well as known mentally.  Joy is love incarnate.

These can show up anywhere, not just in elves or trees or carols.  I think the purpose of Christmas is not to tell us how enchanted and hopeful and lovable and joyful Christmas is, but how enchanted, how hopeful, now lovable, how joyful, life itself is or can be.  If we notice. 

I'm getting all verklempt.  Discuss.

03 November 2013

So... how the heck are ya!

Another long lapse, friend.  Sorry about that.  Partly it was a pilgrim journey to Spain, yes to Santiago.  If you want, I will post photos and make insightful comments.  What I want to do this time, though, is tell you if I have not already that my twitter feed is now dedicated to nagging people about gun violence. 

Unless unable, as I often was overseas, I try to post a link to a gun death every day. This is as much for me as for you.  When I found out that the number of domestic gun deaths in America since RFK died exceeded all the war dead from all the wars it made me ask, "is this necessary?"  But rather than propose an answer, I took the advice of the gospel (the parable of the unjust judge comes to mind) and decided the way to get action was not to promote my answer but to demand that the question be heard.  Only by nagging, repeating constantly, refusing to shut up about it, will those who are supposed to have answers be motivated to find one.

Up until now the single-mindedness of the gun industry has been the only consistent and constant voice.  Perhaps there needs to be another voice that points at our level of gun violence (virtually unequalled in the 'developed world') and says, "We can do better!" 

Finding the answers is not our job as the public, but deciding which questions need to be answered is.  I invite you to follow me at @fred_woodenYou will get a sad reminder most every day.  Read it.  And if you also retweet it or repost it, who knows that eventually a few thousand nagging citizens might give some backbone to those who need it. 

No wisdom or insight, not even a comforting word.  Just a nagging knock on your moral door.  Step by step, drop by drop, knock by knock. 

21 September 2013

So Sorry...

Wow, it has been a long time.  I apologize, but my job description changed this summer, turning me from the contemplative senior preacher into the managerial senior minister.  Lots more time in the office working with people and projects. Lots less time writing and pondering. This is not my comfort zone, but you may have noticed as I have that most insight and growth come from being outside that zone. 

When we had a staff crisis this past spring, the best path for the church was this one even though it was not the one I preferred.  But leadership means doing the right thing for the organization even if it is not to your personal advantage.  At least so it seems to me.  One cost has been having the time to do this along with the sermon preparation that is still part of my job. 

This explains why I have had so little time to write this blog.  Well, it is at least part of the explanation.  I should also note my other experiment.  I have a second radio program in development, an hour long interview show, "In Depth," at the same station where I do call-in every Friday on "Faith and Reason" - WPRR here in Grand Rapids.  You can find it at www.publicrealityradio.org Sometime soon it will be available, after I get a few more shows recorded.  Also a venture out of my comfort zone, but in a different way.

But I have something more than an apology for you.  The House kidnapping of the ACA infuriated me.  So I am writing my Rep in Congress.  My intent was to send the same note to all the Michigan Reps but the House website system only allows those in district to send email.  I am now doubly infuriated.  Reps are now able to filter out all but their own constituents - and lobbyists of course. 

I may now call some, as my members live in more than one district, and I sit on the board of the West Michigan Urban League.  But I urge you to send something to your Reps.  Here is what I sent, which you may freely borrow if it helps.  If you don't then Speaker Boehner will have no reason to doubt that he and his colleagues speak for the American people.  As someone else said, 'silence + assent.'

"Dear Representative,

I write to express my profound disappointment in the decision to yoke the debt ceiling to defunding the ACA.   I know my words will not change your mind, which is all the more dismaying, as you were elected to represent all the people in your district not just those who share your views. 

But you need to know that there are many, I among them, who believe the ACA, imperfect as it may be, is better than the current health care insurance system.  Defunding it will only produce more uncertainty and the likelihood that we will pay more and more for less and less. 
Using the debt ceiling to accomplish an ideological goal amounts to a political kidnapping, threatening to ‘kill’ the economy to get your way.  People have lost most of their respect for Congress precisely because of such myopic and dogmatic actions. 

Speaker Boehner may say the American People support you, but I am not one of them.  You need to know this because it is our lives that will pay the price for your decision.   
Rev. Dr. W. Frederick Wooden,Fountain Street Church, Grand Rapids MI
Chair of the Board, Grand Rapids Urban League

01 August 2013

Good Things Come in Bad Packages

Edward Snowdon is free from Shermetyevo Airport, a virtual prison and Sartrian hell if ever there was one.  Surely he, Snowdon, thought more than once about, "The Terminal."

But I make mention because the web is abuzz with people calling him everything from hero to traitor, and it seems to me obvious that a single act by a person does not define that person.  He may well be selfless and noble, but equally he may not be.  Why he did what he did is only pertinent at a trial.  The facts revealed by his actions, though, have changed our conversation about the National Security State that has been evolving since 1945. 

Technology may finally have reached a point where the impractical is practical - global surveillance of everyone.  Which amusingly makes Anthony Romero and Paul Rand the most unlikely couple since Reagan and O'Neill.  When left and right find common cause for alarm, it is worth being alarmed.  Exactly what is still unfolding, but it is serious stuff. 

And that's what makes Snowdon a hero, some say.  I say not, though.  A louse can do a good deed, just as a paragon can be a jerk.  And as I look back on those who defied authority, the ones I admire are those who broke laws and consciously paid the price.  Snowdon broke the law, just or otherwise it is the law, and he fled the consequences.  Mandela did not flee, nor King, nor Berrigan, nor my late colleague Nick Cardell

That's heroism, friends.  So no matter how much good comes of Snowdon's choice, he is no hero. 

23 July 2013

Full Moon Last Night...

... So bright it flooded the bedroom. And I remembered the last one - the 'super moon' as the news called it - which did not seem as bright perhaps because of the clouds that night. 

I was in Louisville during that full moon, then home and then in New Mexico and Colorado.  Am at home now.  Lying in bed, the full moon bookended those weeks in ways that calendars can't.  I felt time differently, for a moment, as a tide or a pendulum or something I could sense physically. 

My IPhone and Ipad divide my day into even hours, like those hash marks on a football field.  And so I measure my life that way - in discrete abstract bits which do not actually exist the way sunrise arrives on the face, or spring comes with a smell. 

This morning, walking home from the Y (a self imposed rhythm that is as sure as the cardinal song at first light) while crossing the river I looked to the left.  Under the arch of the next bridge a heron stood in the water.  Its neck extended up, then curved in that typical way. 

I remembered a summer morning eight years ago, when crossing that same bridge going to the same Y, I saw a heron - this one? - flying low over the river, its long neck and spindle legs undulating with its wings. It flew under the bridge where I walked, appeared on other side and landed in fluid fluff of feathers on a rock in the river.  Wings settled into poised folds and the head turned around.  In the midst of the city, the bird and rock were oblivious to it, in the world as they had been before humans arrived. 

A young woman slightly ahead of me walked resolutely forward, pink backpack and sunglasses and black bangs and a 'Betty Boop' tattoo on her left calf.  I wanted to tell her about the bird.  But her pace said no. 

I turned to right, to see the rock, and then back to the left, to see the heron. It was gone.  I stopped a moment.  Looked around, hoping to see it again.  But no. 

There is a word in Japanese that does not exist elsewhere - shibui.  Herons and moons are shibui.  Cardinals at sunrise, the smell of dirt in winter, are shibui.  Why can't this be the clock we follow?

25 June 2013

At Last, Old Enough

Just got back from attending the 52nd annual General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association.  Though I only began attending in 1978, with three exceptions, I have attended every one since.  A total of 32 so far. 

I do not currently serve a UU church so sometimes people ask why I go, but I still identify as UU, going back four generations.  I have my clergy 'license' with the UUA, am also a member of their church without walls called The Church of the Larger Fellowship (CLF) and am an elected official of the UUA on their Board of Review.  I describe myself as a UU minister on detached service to Fountain Street Church, much as members of the military may be assigned to other branches from time to time. 

My point is not to explain why I go, though.  It is to explain why, even though I do go, there is one thing that always always annoys me. 

At least once a day during the major sessions (plenaries) we are asked (told) to hold hands and sing.  This is the home page image for the UUA, taken at a previous GA. 

I hate holding hands with someone I have not met.  I hate even more when someone I do not know with a sweaty palm grabs mine and begins swaying like some unreconstructed Woodstock veteran.  I hate most of all being to told to hold hands. Conscripted intimacy is presumptuous and insulting.

Thankfully, I am now of an age (60) when being cranky looks acceptable, though I have felt this way since my twenties.  Not that I disapprove of intimacy.  Far from it.  When I see old friends there, the only time I see most now, to embrace is marvelous. 

I believe intimacy must be earned not assumed, though.  Just because I belong to a religious community does not mean anyone has a right to touch, hold or grab me.  Much as I still call someone by their last name until we are acquainted, I think we need to respect each other's solitariness, as Whitehead referred to it.  Rilke spoke of love as two solitudes that protect and border and greet each other.  Those great minds knew something.  For a faith that honors the individual mind, you would think that it would extend the same to individual bodies. 

We all know the term Namaste, a Hindu greeting that means, roughly, the divine in me greets the divine in you.  Lovely thought, and Hindus say it with hands held palm together like praying, against ones one chest, with a bow. 

Great lesson.  We should practice some 'veneration' before moving on to 'penetration.'  At least so it seems to me.

Rant over. 

15 June 2013

Why I Was Almost A Musician

Long ago, in the far away galaxy called youth, I was going to be a musician.  On some days, when my fingers know where keys are, it seems possible for a few measures.  But the reason I wanted to be a musician was because music literally enthralled me.  Certain works and passages convinced me life was worth it.  Music imparted hope, even faith. 

Today, HBO is re-running their new series "The Newsroom" in preparation for the next season.  It is a fine show, but what sold me was the theme music.  If you don't know it, you should listen to it before reading on.  The rest of this post is about it, so stop and listen. OK?

Here it is.

No, it is not Bach or Beethoven, but there is something hopeful in it that takes me back in time, before my hope of a musical life.  Back to being a boy in Washington DC. 

Maybe it was the 1960 election, or the inauguration in 1961, or being at the tomb of the Unknowns for Memorial Day in 1959, or something else that has vanished from accurate memory, but for a time I truly believed something wonderful was going on there.  The city quivered with significance and hope, and I was there. 

Then we moved away to Baltimore.  Then I graduated high school and went to college in St. Louis, and seminary in Chicago.  I married a high school friend, we moved to Massachusetts for ten years, Texas for four, New York City for eleven, Michigan for 8, had four children and buried two. 

Now I am sixty and hearing this music and remembering what it felt like to hope without doubt.  There is the parade coming down Pennsylvania Avenue; the new president's smile is visible on the tenth floor where we are watching.  Flags snap smartly around the Washington Monument.  The air is significant, smelling of the secular temples with their columns and pediments.  Just a few feet away, behind those windows, earnest men (mostly men then) looking like Efram Zimbalist Jr. or Jimmy Stewart are shaping the world, and I am there, too.

I want that again, to feel that sort of hope in my country, and in myself.  Most days it is vain, but then I hear that music and it seems possible.  And what is hope if not possibility?

10 June 2013

You Decide...

Should I share my reading list, which surprised me both in size and depth?  Of should I tell you of the nearly calamitous error I almost committed (AGAIN) and left me wondering what sort of Freudian hangup I have?

Well, when it comes to books I was surprised that I had read as many as I did, because it seems I never have time to read books.  A quick count of those I have read since arriving here, an arbitrary line but clear, lands at 8 a year roughly.  Not enough of course, but I favor fat ones - The Odyssey, Theodore Rex, War and Peace, Les Miserables, Grapes of Wrath.  Or chewy ones - Aquinas's Logic, Paradise Lost, the Will to Believe, Confessions of Augustine, Christianity and the Social Crisis.  Gary Dorrien's three volume history of liberal theology was both fat and chewy. 

There were a few fun ones - February House about the bohemian Brooklyn digs where Auden and Britten and Gypsy Rose Lee and others lived during WW2.  I indulged all of Patrick O'Brian's sea stories.  Pollan's Omnivore's Dillema and H. L. Gates' memoir Colored People, and Ambrose's Undaunted Courage which is about the Lewis and Clark journey.  For some reason I read a first person account of man who moved to a small town, very small, hence the title, POP. 485.   

Most were classics in their area - Thucydides, Voltaire, Kundera, Waugh, Wolfe, Fennimore Cooper.  Or about momentous subjects - Mozart, Beethoven, the Holocaust, Joseph Priestley, The Civil War, Krakatoa, women in the Developing world. 

And it pleases me that I can remember so much of what I read. 

Which brings me to my near calamitous mistake, and its antecedent.  Let me start there:

A year or two ago we arrived a day late for my annual convention of co-religionists.  This is a highlight of our little band of eccentrics, being spread so thin across the land.  For some reason I mis-remembered our hotel reservation by a day so that when I arrived it was gone.  Because it was a convention, there was not a local room to be had.  I was livid, at myself, but livid. 

This evening, as I began to assemble all the data for this year's late June event I was utterly startled and then horrified at myself again, because in my head it was a week later than it was. Yes, a whole week.  Yesterday in plucking weeds I disturbed an ant's nest.  They immediately swarmed and swirled and looked quite agitated and frightened.  That's how I felt this evening. 

I shall adapt of course, and all will be arranged, but my trust in my own mind is measurably less.  For someone who usually plans travels very well, though, that I have twice made errors for this one trip makes me wonder a bit.  A third error on a similar professional trip - again a scheduling mistake that cost a night's lodging - gives me pause.

It is after nine p.m. now, and my new practice is to read a psalm in English and Hebrew (halting and partial) and then meditate for 15 minutes.  Having made such a mortifying confession I will now go do that.

16 May 2013

Whoa Nellie...

So, horses are back.  As farm animals.  Once again the oracle of all matters, the NYTimes, lured me in with a long long at the return of draft horses to the farm..

Now, except for a brief ride on a horse in 1991 and before that in 1963, and perhaps a carriage ride on Mackinac Island in 1972, I have had no direct experience.  My interest here is no emotional but economic. 

Way back when my father was giving me financial advice, he advised me to do two things - invest for value and diversify.  I have done both with the little I have.  Those two principles I have applied beyond money.  Draft horses strike me as an excellent example.

Value - they can serve for 20 years, comparable to mechanical equipment.  My brief survey of IRS and other documents indicates that mechanical tractors are depreciated for about the same amount of time, sometimes less.  Horses need feed and care, but tractors need fuel and service.  Horses cannot work as long or as hard or as fast, but they do provide fertilizer and do less damage to the land. 

Diversify - Horses alone cannot sustain a modern farm, but added to machines and hand labor, they diversify the 'tools' a farmer can put to use.  The farmers described in the article used tractors for heavy hauling.  The Amish sometimes use mechanical equipment for other farm chores. 

The same principle applies to my little life.  My little vegetable patch is very small, it only supplements what I buy from a grocer.  But it is high in value because my asparagus patch cost me $2.50 in seeds and has yielded 3-6 servings this season. At $2.50 a pound, that is more than double my investment.  I had to wait three years but it will be better next year.  I could get more if I tried harder, but even now the cost benefit analysis is positive.  Likewise the parsley, oregano, basil and tomatoes.  While I am not self sufficient, my sources of food are more diverse as well.  Value - Diversify.

We live close to the city center, less than a mile from my office.  I walk most days.  We still have a car, but a lot of my travel does not need it.  Because I have diversified my travel options, I get improved value by using the car less and thus not spending as much on gas or service.  I do have to resole my shoes more, but I buy tires less.

My dad passed away in May of 1999.  He is on my mind a lot this month, as you can tell.  What pleases me this evening is to be able to live his wisdom.  I hope my sons get something worthwhile to keep as well.  One thing's for sure - gardening isn't it. 

11 May 2013

Foot Deep in the Big Muddy

Just came in from the back yard, where it was beginning to rain - again. We Great Lakes folks have been well irrigated this spring. Was setting up the tomato cages and wrapping them cheesecloth because it's going to frost tomorrow.  For a garden that looked very punky two weeks ago, though, it is not looking bad. 

My asparagus came shooting up the moment it got above 60.  It's not a tidy patch, but we had more thick stalks than last year, enough for two meals.  As my sole investment was a seed packet three years ago and a whole lot of mediocre attention,that's a great cost-benefit ratio.

Meanwhile I have three determined alpine strawberries that have wintered over nicely and now have lovely white flowers.  They set tiny berries, which I eat as I weed.  Even picking them bruises the little things.  Not quite as productive as the asparagus over the years. 

Our herbs are sturdy - parsley that refuses to die, and mint, and signs of life among the lavender and rosemary.  Needed to buy a basil plant, though, which is now in the mix. 

The tomatoes got started indoors, on a radiator, from seed, and just got into the ground a couple of days ago.  We have moved the plants around every year.  We always get amazing foliage but inconsistent fruit.  To impede the bunnies, we have planted lettuce and peas in tall planters than actually look kind of nice in the garden itself. 

You know me.  I am the lazy gardener.  My goal is to get as much as I can from the least amount of work I can.  Big showy patches of flowers or cases of preserved food are just too much damned work for me.  Yes, I know I should plant more of my own food, and that working the soil is satisfying and even spiritual work.  But after an hour or two of plucking weeds and deadheading the daffs, I have had enough fortifying. 

That's why you won't see pictures.  (My peonies are a embarrassing, and several shrubs I spent actual money on are now quite dead).  I am not trying to impress anyone including myself. 

But the flowering crab was lovely Thursday, so we sat out on the back porch for supper and enjoyed its brief display.  Today it is 50 degrees and raining.  The petals are slush in the driveway. 

28 April 2013

Bliss Is Hard

In case you do not know, I have been trying a little mindfulness.  That's like the song, "Try a Little Tenderness," but with more thought.  (Speaking of which, whenever I think of that song it evokes a weird and wonderful move, "The Commitments," about an Irish Soul Band.  Check it out sometime.) 

The problem with mindfulness is that it makes you think about the present, not the past or the future.  Yeah, that's the point, I know, but it also means that you realize the border between past and present and future is a creaturely thing.  From a cosmic point of view (if such a thing exists) there is no past or future.  As I sit each day, focusing on now, reveries from memory come up.  I gently set them aside, as the experts say, and attend to the present.  Future things slip in as well, and I gently set them aside, but both past and future ever linger near the edge, as they must. 

This all sounds abstract in the writing, but in the moment it means that anything from any time can grab me.  And like a song that you can't get out of your head, that looseness of time can rear up when you least expect it. 

This morning, before sunrise, the chattering of the birds and the faint aroma of grass swept me back to my boyhood.  Or rather, the psychological space between being 60 and 10 vanished and I was both for a moment.  E. B. White recorded a moment like this is his exquisite essay, "Once More to the Lake."

Those moments come more often now, and are both unutterably precious and dangerously selfish.  At such moments I am envious of those who never moved from their childhood homes, and thus can live past and present all the time.  How I long to go back to Maryland - with its light green grass and the racket of crickets and the smell of mulberry.  Those memories make me wish simply to be alive, 'witnessing to creation,' to paraphrase Annie Dillard.  And isn't that what the whole mindfulness thing is about?

No.  There is work to do.  Even fabled YHWH worked six sevenths of the time.  I weeded my yard yesterday.  My wrist hurts from leaning on it.  Must drop the car at the service center this evening.  My son graduates from college in six days.  And there is church of course.  Good things.  But a few more reveries would not do any harm, would they? 

22 April 2013

Remembering Is a Moral Act

Seeing the story of George Takei going back to Rohwer Camp reminded me of my own connection to that era.  I am too young, actually, but those half a generation older do.  

In my first year of seminary my next door neighbor at Fleck House (a residence for Meadville Students then) was Yoshihisa Alfred Tusyuki.  He and I became friends, though he was a dozen years older than I.  Al was/is a Konko minister, a monothiestic Shinto sect that more aligns with my beliefs than any other group.  That brought us closer, along with a love of ice cream and Basho.  So when I got married, he was a natural choice to officiate, being already ordained at the time.  I can with little exaggeration say that Wendy and I were married by a Shinto priest.  Did not expect that, did you?

Many years later we visited him in Los Angeles, where he grew up.  In fact, his father was the founding clergy of the LA Konko church, and he is the successor.  We had a great visit back then (and have connected up since as well) but in the mid 1990s we had our school age sons with us, so we touristed around.  Across the street from our hotel, the Miyako in the old Japanese section of LA, was the Japanese American National Museum, then in a much smaller building.  It's sole exhibition that summer was about the internment camps. 

Al was interned.  He was quite barely more than a toddler, but remembers going to Utah.  The indignity and oppression were not as evident to him being so young, but it was part of his life. 

I knew Holocaust survivors as well.  My 8th grade homeroom and French teacher was one.  And in seminary I ministered to an American secular Jewish doctor who was among those who liberated the first camps.  I also met two who had actively resisted the Final Solution. 

In the next decade those old enough to remember those crimes vividly - be they Japanese American internees, or Jews from Europe - will be gone.  It will fall to those who knew them to remember them and what we were told by them. 

Some days, too many actually, I lament that my accomplishments have been too few.  if you are a regular reader you know my struggle with the Great Expectations heaped upon me and others of my generation.  Much was expected because we had so much potential.  A few wrote great books or did great deeds or made great gobs of money.  Most of us did not, and a shadow of disappointment falls across us.  But we can still redeem ourselves.

We can remember what those who knew from those awful times told us.  We know it was real because we met them, saw their faces and heard the voices.  I have seen the tattoos on the arms - which ironically marked them for survival; those not tattooed were sent directly to the ovens.  I have seen the faded mementos of the internment camps. 

There have been subsequent horrors, mostly smaller wars in far places that do not touch us unless a refugee arrives - Sudanese Lost Boys, Bosnian Muslims, Cambodian boat people, the Madres de la Plaza.  But a small horror is only smaller, not less horrible.  If you are younger than me, you have met someone who was in the midst of horror somewhere.  Do you remember? 

I think that there are really only two gifts we can give the future - memory and hope.  Now that I am 60, making sure I do that becomes more important every day. 

10 April 2013

"To Be Wealthy, Not Rich"

I said last time that I had an idea where the line between honest reward and dishonest greed lies.  If memory serves, I wrote about this before, but repetition is essential.  Let me repeat that, "repetition is essential."

Rich: When you make in a year what the average person makes in a lifetime. 

You could make the case it is less, but it would be hard to deny that anyone who makes in one year what the typical person makes in a lifetime is rich.  Anything above this is morally questionable because no one truly needs more than a lifetime of money in a single year. 

Oh, you may desire it and all that it can do, and if you get that sort of money year in and year out you may 'need it' to pay for all the stuff you now have, but there is no moral argument you can make to justify getting it in the first place.  By moral I mean you cannot say 'I deserve it,' in any form. 

Now, according to my definition, that means anyone who makes $2 million in a year has forty times the money the average earner does, $50,054.00, and is thus rich.  99.5% of the country earns less, and they would all consider $2 million to be rich.  "OK, that's rich," you're thinking, "but what good does defining it do?" 

First of all, it makes 'rich' not a number but a proportion. In India, many middle class Americans would be rich because the average wage is so much lower.  Rich is always a comparative state.  To be rich is to have far more than others.  Richness needs poverty to be rich, at least relatively poor.  What good is a lot of money if everybody has it, after all?  I repeat, rich requires poor. 

Second, the disparity ultimately distorts a free society. Political giving is one aspect. As we all tend to favor our own interests, the rich will use their power to preserve their power.  Having money, they have greater power than most and thus are more likely to succeed in protecting their advantage.  The rich are a greater danger to our freedom than the poor because of their concentrated power.

Third, by defining rich as an excess disparity of money and power, it tarnishes the patina of respectability that having money imparts. Anyone who has more than forty times the average income is morally suspect not admirable, and their actions deserving of extra skepticism if not outright suspicion. 

Fourth, it sets a moral ceiling on acceptable disparity, as even the best CEO cannot be said to work 40 times harder or better than the average worker.  Yes, we should reward daring and intelligence and other fine qualities, but do we really believe anyone is over forty times better than everyone else?  As the top CEOs today earn over 200 times the average worker, that comparison is even more stark and unbelievable.

I thank Robin Leach, who in the 1980s regaled us with "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," and turned filthy rich into squeaky clean.  I know we shall ever have billionaires amongst us, but by recognizing the reality of the rich perhaps we can lose a little of our fawning reverence for them. 

Now, I must be off.  I have a cold and am just 50 pages into Hugo's novel "Les Miserables" which says all this much better than I.  

07 April 2013

... Something Completely Different...

So I am trolling the NYTimes today and see this article about CEO pay.  (Yes, that again).  Take a look

Now, I get how we should reap what we sow, and that risk has its rewards, and all that.  But something about this rubs me the wrong way.  It started with this:

"As C.E.O. of Hertz, Mark Frissora pushes rental cars, but he racked up nearly a half-million dollars’ worth of personal travel on the corporate jet last year. Marsh & McLennan, the risk management company, doesn’t own its own plane — it prefers holding a fractional share of a jet — but that didn’t stop its chief, Brian Duperreault, from running up $441,875 in private plane travel on the company tab before he retired at year-end.
"These highfliers help explain why pay for perks like jet travel and other supplemental benefits including pension contributions and life insurance policies jumped last year, even as overall compensation rose only modestly.
"For the 100 highest-paid C.E.O.’s among American companies with revenue of more than $5 billion, the typical 2012 perks package was worth $320,635, up 18.7 percent from 2011, according to an analysis by Equilar for The Times. By contrast, median total pay among the 100 C.E.O.’s rose just 2.8 percent, to more than $14 million."

Perks are fun, I admit.  For example, clergy get to wear funny clothes sometimes and not get laughed at.  Very cool.  If someone curses aloud they get all embarrassed if we are nearby.  We get invited to join charitable boards.  It's a good life. 

Really, it is, but of course my point is that to avoid taxes and other burdens, our big CEO types are riding around in private jets, and...

"Mr. Wynn, for example, enjoyed a villa in Las Vegas that cost the company $451,574 for the year. Greg Brown, chief executive of Motorola Solutions, was honored by his employer with an endowed chair in the neuroscience department of his alma mater, Rutgers University. Mr. Brown didn’t receive the money directly: Motorola Solutions donated $1.5 million to the university, where he is a trustee, but the position will be named for him."
Ok, I did live in a parsonage or two.  One was an apartment in a posh building, but the interior was pre-war as we New Yorkers call them.  The other was a farmhouse with barn.  And while I do give to my seminary, it is my money and it could endow a reliable supply of pens. 
My point is that somewhere between living in a church farmhouse and a villa, somewhere between a car allowance of 55 cents a miles and nearly half a million in private planes, we move from reward to greed, from earning to exploiting. And I know where that line is.  But this post is too long, so that will have to wait a day or two.

30 March 2013

Shooting Star Gazing

Mostly I do not miss my New York days now, which is good.  Pining is time wasted.  But now and then something pricks the heart.  This Saturday morning is it quite silly.  While doing some small chores I am watching vintage "Law & Order" episodes looking for my famous friends. 

Lots of NYC actors did small roles on LO.  In fact, if you had an equity card and did not appear you were rare.  My church had three who turned up from time to time. 

One is Paul Calderon.  Very good at smart bad guys with winning wicked smiles.  A sweet guy with a nifty family. 

Another is Ray Virta.  He is married to my cousin Christina who edited Discover Magazine until it was outsourced to Waukesha WI.  Unlike me, they did not move to the heartland from NYC.  Ray played lawyers, financiers, white collar dudes.  He is also teaches acting and drama. 

The last is Richard Coate, a face that turned up as a bailiff or a juror several times.  He is retired now and has been very active in Korean War veterans work.  His silhouette photo from the war was among the most widely shared at the time. 

In the spirit of full disclosure I did bump into Jackie Mason on Broadway, and wave at Tim Curry on 42nd St once.  But my closest brush with fame was when I was a member of a group in Brooklyn that invited George Plimpton and Vivica Lindfors to speak on poetry.  I had to deliver grace, and he graciously referred to my words as better than his own.  Classy guy.

Little did I know that here in GR I would rub some elbows with fame as well.  I will save that bit of name dropping for another day.  This morning, seeing my Brooklyn friends on old TV shows makes me feel good.

20 March 2013

Touched By An Unknowing Angel

OK, it's been another long time.  Blame it on Facebook where quick retorts and ripostes make writing a form of verbal hors d'oeuvres (literally, 'without work"). 

But then something happened on Sunday that is worth a story.  In fact, I will copy this once it is done and paste it into my diary which is almost a week overdue.

It is overdue because I went away for a few days.  The reason was to perform a wedding for a woman I met 19 years ago in my previous church.  She was single then, and very lonesome.  For a time she was partnered with a woman in the congregation but that was n not a life match.  Then she moved away, far away, abandoning her old life and every hope of finding lasting love.  As often happens, that is exactly when love strikes, and she has been in a 'uncommon law' marriage since. 

But this was a woman who had dreamed of a wedding even before she realized she was not hetero.  So when New York became a place of legal same sex marriage, she jumped at it and invited me to do the deed.  Which I did, making it my first legal same-sex marriage.  I loved signing that license even if I think clergy shouldn't have that power in the first place.

But the story I want to tell is not about the wedding.  Weddings are all the same, really.  Nervous brides, stammering grooms, beaming parents, little girls in dresses and men uncomfortable in formal clothes. The story happened the day before, on Sunday.

I went to my old church.  Quietly slipping into the back pew, seen by just a few and holding my finger over my lips to say 'please don't tell,' I enjoyed watching a service in a place I never got to sit and watch.  Whenever someone I knew seemed to look in my direction I averted my eyes and hope my shorter hair and glasses kept them confused.  It has been eight years since I left, after all.

Of course there was a time to greet people, a lovely custom.  Those around me were new and did not recognize me at all.  Lovely.  Then from behind me, a tap on my shoulder.  Who had spied me? 

A stranger to my eyes.  Actually, two very pretty young women who clearly knew who I was.  "I am so sorry I don't remember you," said I sadly.  "Oh, we only came on Christmas Eve and Easter," they said.  Their mother appeared to explain that they were so busy then (clearly when the girls were probably not teenagers) that getting there on Sundays was hard.  But all three of them said how much they enjoyed my words back then. 

Eight years later they still remembered.  Heavens!  I was so touched.  My eyes got a little watery, and I said "thank you so much. That means a lot to me." But that's not the end of the story.  One of the young women told me, "I found your blog."  Instantly I felt bad about not writing more often. 

No doubt it is wonderful to have thousands who hang on your words, but that is not my destiny. My fantasy of being a famous author or a prominent preacher will remain a fantasy, but it touched me more than I expected to think there are a few - well OK one - who is a fan. 

"You're adorable," I said, and meant it.  To know you matter more than you realize is such a gift.  I hope this story is a proper 'thank you note' for gladdening the heart of a man in the third act of life.  If you see this, send me an address and I will make it a proper note.

24 February 2013

Among Ruins

Stumbled across a great blog of abandoned places, modern abandoned places, that are becoming ruins... Check it out: http://blogof.francescomugnai.com/2013/01/30-of-the-most-beautiful-abandoned-places-and-modern-ruins-ive-ever-seen/

After a long trip to Europe in 2001 I came back wondering why ancient ruined things were so affecting.  Then I saw a book about it, Among Ruins I think it was, but I cannot find my copy or reference to in on the internet.  The subject was why ruins appeal to us. 

Maybe I'll find it on one of my shelves sometime, but seeing the pictures this evening reminded me of the Roman Forum, which was for a time buried in dirt and literally a cow meadow (campo di vaca) before being unearthed. 

There are so many ruins in Rome, a thriving city by the way, that it became one of my favorite places.  Modern streets pass under ancient arches.  Medieval buildings perch on Imperial foundations.  I loved it. 

Istanbul has hunks of Constantinople here and there, as well as byzantine churches.  There is a great aqueduct downtown, and hunks of fallen columns alongside the Ordu Caddesi. 

Athens has several great ruins, but largely separate from the modern city.  The medieval Louvre lurks under the modern museum in Paris, which is very cool.  And some of the old roman wall still stands in London. 

Of course, you may remember by trip along Hadrian's Wall last September, which has views like this

But my favorite, so far of course, is Mycenae in the Greek Peloponnese.  Older than anything else I have seen, and terribly moving.

The Trojan War started here, and with it the Iliad and the Odyssey. 

I should be doing my work tonight, but ruins are on my mind.  Not a bad thing, actually.  It's good to see stuff older than me that has survived. 

03 February 2013

My Last Day...

... Before becoming old.  Tomorrow I turn 60.  Many feelings rise up, but most prominently a sense of not having done enough with the years I have lived.  In preparing my sermon this week I stumbled across a blog that had this comment:

“I was feeling depressed because I was in a bookstore filled with literally tens of thousands of books and I was thinking about my own stalled writing career. I was in the China section, reading the back cover of a book about China by a journalist who was at least five years younger than me and it was his SECOND book. In addition, he was the China correspondent for the New Yorker. Did I mention he was five years younger than me?”

And the woman writing it is young enough to be my daughter...

Sense and reason and maturity tell me this is a tempest in my own teapot of a psyche.  By all objective measures I have been a good worker, a decent husband, a respectable father and these alone are sufficient.  But as one of those boomer kids whose parents and teachers told him he had great potential, that felt more like a burden than a liberation.  I got it into myself that something was expected (though I was not quite sure what) and if I did not meet that expectation I was letting everyone down. 

So my resolution, as I start my personal new year as a new born of the elderly, is to find a way forget about potential and expectations altogether.  Yes, that's the ticket.

Anybody have any ideas how?  I could use some...

25 January 2013

I Can Fix Everything...

I am sure you could too, but I am willing to bet (figuratively of course) that your solution to the moribund institution called Congress would be a lot like mine.  Tell me…

1.       Public and limited campaigns – 
Getting elected now matters more than serving, in part because it costs so much.  Create a new Fairness Doctrine for TV (including cable!) that gives all candidates on the ballot the same amount of time on the air.  The limit the total amount of air time for them all to say 30% of advertising time.  Then limit the time they can advertise to the month before the primary and the month before the general election.  Want to spend more, fine.  Use the mail.  Buy space in newspapers.  They both could use the business.

2.       Longer terms
Two year cycles are too short.  The encourage the perpetual campaign, at the expense of actual governance.  Extend Representatives to four years, senators to eight, and the president to two five year terms.  

3.       Judicial Congressional redistricting
End gerrymandering by creating a panel of retired federal judges to draw new districts every ten years.  Have any challenges sent directly to the Supreme Court.
4.       No congressional perks or exemptions from laws affecting them personally 
Members of Congress and the President are not affected by most of the laws they pass.  They should be members of Social Security, have a health plan used by ordinary federal employees, join Medicare when qualified, and have a 403b form of retirement subject to ERISA like the rest of us. I don't get a guaranteed pension, nor do most citizens.  Neither should they. 

5.       Tax return and financial asset visibility (law)
Congress and the President must annually make their income tax and financial assets visible to the public. Let's see how average they are, and whether they remain so.

6.       Disqualified from any relationship to Congress after serving.
No fair changing sides.  No member of Congress or President may work for any firm that lobbies Congress or any federal department or office.  In my business, when you retire you leave town and shut up.  So should they.  

Maybe there are other things that should be done, but I think that's a good start.  And only one of them would require amending the Constitution.  What do you think?

22 January 2013


It starts with the wind.  

When the wind shifts to the west or northwest, it drags moisture from the lake along with it.  Over land, the cold air cannot hold onto the moisture and so it drops as snow.

Lake effect snow. 

Buffalo and Cleveland get it.  But my Michigan claims four of the ten snowiest cities in the lower 48.  All four are on the shore of a Great Lake.  Inland as we are, we get only 72 inches a year.

It started this weekend, which is late for us.  The temps dove from 45 Saturday afternoon to 25 Sunday morning.  By nightfall the familiar 'unripe' flakes were falling.  Lake effect snow was water very recently.  Instead of being carefully made over time, like bread, it is slapped together in a hurry and looks it. 

I did not notice anything the next morning.

Normally, I walk to church.  But the cold was well below freezing and the winds well above 20.  So I drove.  First time this season when the roads were genuinely slippery, and I paid attention.  That's why I cannot say for sure if it happened before we left or while we were at church. 

Coming home, though, back down our street, I saw four parked cars in a row had been severely damaged.  One gouged, another over the curve with a dented bumper, a third crumpled in back with its nose crumpling trunk of the fourth car in front of it.

Leaving tracks

I could see what happened. Someone not in control - thanks to snow and alcohol perhaps, careened into the first, dove into the third (shoving it into the fourth) and then tried to back up, but got hung up on the curb.  Disturbing both in its violence and its clarity.

Leaving the garage I saw animal tracks in the back yard .  No doubt the rabbit that made them is frequently in my yard but only when its snows do I know because of the tracks.  Unlikely juxtaposition, I thought.

Rarely do our actions leave a trail. Most days our deeds barely leave a mark at all.  Cars travel down my street every day, rabbits across my lawn at night.  No one notices.  But they do, and without doubt they do not notice me or my looming yellow brick house either.

How curious, to live in a world so inhabited and not notice.  Until it snows.