Category Archives: Et Cetera

Wanna Call John Dingell? Don’t Ring Through Hell

One day in 1980, I was at my desk on an upper floor of a  way-past-its-prime hotel that had become a staff office annex for the U. S. House of Representatives.

The onetime hotel that had been turned into the House Annex where I worked in 1980.

My boss — Congressman Pete McCloskey of California, wanted some information about an obscure part of a not-so-well-known energy bill: say, Section 227D of the 1979 Energy Act Amendments, something like that, and the request had been bounced down the office status ladder to me.

I knew nothing about the Energy Act or the amendments, and Google hadn’t been invented yet.

But I knew who did know: Rep. John Dingell, of Michigan; or someone in his office. I think maybe Dingell even wrote the amendments. So I picked up the phone and dialed his office number.

By 1980, Dingell had been in Congress for 25 years; he would stay in Congress for almost 35 more.

John Dingell is sworn in as a Congressman by the legendary House Speaker Sam Rayburn, in 1955. (But Rayburn served a mere 48 years.)

Dingell was a tough, tenacious Democrat, who was already high up in the House hierarchy. That meant he had lots of staff assistants like me, only likely better-informed, with more political hustle, who could set me straight, if they bothered to take the call from a Republican nobody. (My boss, McCloskey was a Republican, and this was the time when Ronald Reagan was eating Jimmy Carter’s lunch.)

The phone rang once, maybe twice, then was scooped up with a pre-cellphone rattle that meant the receiver was grabbed with alacrity, not reluctance.

“John Dingell.” said a voice.

What?? Err, uh, I, uh–”

If I was a coffee drinker, this was a java-spewing-from-my-nostrils moment. It wasn’t a receptionist. Nor an intern. Not even the assistant chief of staff.

The Boss. Himself.

When I recovered, I identified myself and my office and stumbled through my query.

“Sure,” Dingell said, and then reeled off the answer, clearly and concisely, as if I was calling from the White House, or maybe the New York Times (or the Detroit Free Press?)

I scribbled a couple of notes, and asked for clarification of one point, which he patiently offered. I thanked him, he said I was welcome and then it was done.

The call only lasted about three minutes. It took me awhile longer to recover my balance. Thirty-nine years later, I still have questions.

Why was Dingell picking up cold calls to his office phone? And why was he taking time to answer a rookie question from a minor league staffer from across the aisle?

And how, with hundreds of bills and laws and amendments streaming across his desk, day after day, week after week, was he up to the minute even on Section 227D?

(Would he have known Section 227C as well?? Probably.)

After much pondering, I’ve come to a simple answer: Dingell was a mensch, and a natural. He also didn’t have an inflated view of himself; he could, and did, speak to me as one colleague to another, from out of the blue.

It’s no wonder he was re-elected to Congress more times than anyone else in that body’s history.

Rep. Paul “Pete ” McCloskey. A war hero, but an anti-Vietnam war campaigner, and a fine public servant. But his is another story.

Now my boss, McCloskey was a fine guy. But if there’s a special gallery in heaven reserved for the best of Congress, I bet John Dingell has a seat in it.

I know that’s an iffy notion; Mark Twain concluded long ago that “There is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress,” and we have recently heard much corroboration for that view, especially from one side of the aisle.

For that matter, my boss McCloskey argued, even before he left Washington three years later, that “Congressmen are like diapers. You need to change them often, and for the same reason.”

Your humble blogger, in a sketch from around this time, with daughters Molly (left) and Annika (right)

But still; I say IF.

I gather that some fatuous pretender recently spoke of John Dingell as being in hell.

It only took me about two minutes to learn, but I’m pretty sure I know otherwise.

More like vice versa.

Colorism & Daylilies: A Confession

For seventeen years, I lived in the Washington DC area; in fact, inside the Beltway by a few miles.

Some misinformed persons think this area is glamorous. I didn’t much care for it. Congress and all that didn’t impress me: they were necessary, but burdensome, pretentious, and viewed up close, mostly boring.  Likewise for the weather: winters were cold. And summers were particularly tough: long, hot, heavy, humid.

In the early years, my access to air conditioning was spotty; many nights were sweaty and oppressive, with box fans rattling ineffectually by open windows.

Worse, in 1985 I delivered mail from my car on a long rural route, from winter to fall. I don’t recall much of those bookend seasons. But in between, there were six-day work weeks, pushing through the midday highs, as waves of engine heat radiated punishingly across the front seat of my weathered Chevy wagon. Open windows were part of the deal, neutralizing an already tepid a/c.

"Ditch lilies." Unlovely to me.
Ditch lilies. So hardy, so ugly.

That seemingly endless summer deepened the dread of those months, and cemented my hatred of the most visible  harbinger of their arrival: stands of orange daylilies.

They popped up seemingly all over. Turned out they were wild, commonly called “ditch lilies,” because they took root in all sorts of hard-to-grow-stuff places. Hot weather only seemed to encourage them. Continue reading Colorism & Daylilies: A Confession

Shooting the Dead: a Hitman Reviewer fills Leonard Cohen full of [Pencil] lead

Maybe William Logan has been waiting to unlimber his literary AR-15 on the corpus of Leonard Cohen for a long time. It sure seems like it; and now his moment has come:

“When a poet dies,” Logan writes in his New York Times review, “his publishers often hurry into print whatever scraps lie stuffed in his desk drawers or overflow his wastebasket. This is the book business at its darkest and most human, but many balance sheets have been balanced by a posthumous work or two.

Death is the moment when all eyes are upon the poet for the last time; beyond, for most harmless drudges, lies the abyss. Leonard Cohen, who died two years ago, wore many a fedora — poet, novelist, songwriter, a singer of sorts — but only the last trade, which he took up reluctantly, made him a star.

Cohen was never taken very seriously as a poet. He wasn’t much of a singer, either; but the gravelly renderings of his lyrics gradually attracted a mass audience that seemed more like a cult. . . .

Such songs now form the hoarse, moaning soundtrack to countless movies and television episodes. When a Cohen song rises from some awkward silence it’s a good bet the director has run out of ideas. The religiose sentimentality and painful growl, like a halibut with strep throat, have patched a lot of plot holes. He’ll give an emulsified version of everything the scriptwriter left unsaid.”

Continue reading Shooting the Dead: a Hitman Reviewer fills Leonard Cohen full of [Pencil] lead

Another “Quaker” School Makes Waves

As a journalist, I mostly have the “Quaker beat” to myself: Friends are a tiny sect, known mostly for being “quaint,” the inventors of oatmeal, riders in buggies, and extinct. (Never mind that the last three are not true; they’re still what we’re “known” for, by many in what the elders used to call “the world,” when such folk bother to think about us at all.) So when I report on Quaker stuff, it’s rare that I have to compete with “normal” reporters.

But sometimes I get scooped; and that happened again today, and in no less an outlet than the New York Times. (But hey, if you’re gonna get scooped, it might as well be by the best.)

And why would the Times bother with us? If you don’t already know, think for a minute: The Times’ base constituency is the affluent (and up) of the nation’s largest city. And what artifacts of Quakerism are such moneyed folk most likely to bump into? (Hint: nothing to do with oatmeal.) Continue reading Another “Quaker” School Makes Waves

250,000 Hits Later: Taking Stock of a Quaker Blog

Yesterday I spent a few hours hunched over my laptop screen, waiting for a number to arrive: the 250,000th hit on this  blog.

250,000: A quarter of a million. Imagine.

The hit counter said that number was near, and it felt like a major milestone for me. Sure, I realize that big time blogs can get close to that many hits in a day or two; but a Quaker blog speaks to what they call a “niche market.” And the blogging here, active and archived goes back to 1998,  but has been significantly active since 2009.

I started out in February 1998, with one of the shortest posts, one which noted some, um, uncertainty. Here’s the whole thing:

  I need a blog like I need a hole in the head.

But it’s clear that these days, it’s an increasingly important way of getting one’s views and convictions into the broader public discussion and debate.  And before it is too late, there are some things I’d like to get into circulation.

My overriding concern now is the mad course down which my country’s rulers are headed, and what faith groups can do about it.   My perspective is “sectarian,” rooted in the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers.)  As the saying goes, I’m proud to be a humble Quaker.

But my sense is that people from other faith groups, or none, can learn things from our experience and discussions — and we can learn from others.

So let’s do it.

This hesitant opening was soon followed by what is beyond challenge  the longest post ever: 45800 words, with several thousand more added in followups. It was a nearly-book-length investigative report called “Fleecing The Faithful.”

In the late ’90s, two major church frauds stole tens of millions from Evangelical Friends. It could happen again. (It has, to others.) This shocking report, which took four months of intensive research & writing, showed how.

Not long after that, blogging lagged behind outward events, particularly September 11, 2001, which jolted  me out of my routine in central Pennsylvania, and saw me shipped off to be Director at Quaker House, the peace project next door to FortBragg in North Carolina.

With two big wars getting underway, I was  pretty  busy for several years. But the net kept developing, and by late 2009, the pace picked up.

Since then, along with the hits I’ve accumulated 626 “items” on the blog.

In this outpouring, topics varied, though religion was often nearby. In fact, it was the focus of what is undoubtedly the very shortest post of all 626, from May 21, 2011, Here it is, in full:

Since the world seemed likely to persist for awhile, I went ahead and retired from Quaker House in late 2012. Meantime, the blog had had its share of scoops;  it unearthed two official letters from Kenyan Quaker officials endorsing brutal treatment for LGBTs in its country and region; internal budget documents from Philadelphia YM detailing its budget struggles; breaking the news of appointments to various major Quaker positions; etc.

Soon I began foraging for new blogging subject matter. By late summer, 2014, a dominant new subject dropped into my lap:

The Quaker trouble in North Carolina lasted three full years, and I ended up covering it in three ways: in print and online in the journal Quaker Theology, and through the blog as both a reporter and an engaged member of one of the monthly meetings targeted to be purged. There are too many of these posts to list here, and I won’t try to summarize their many twists and turns.  (A summary/review is here.) It ended in August 2017 with the body involved, North Carolina YM-FUM, committing corporate suicide and going out of business after 320 years. At the same time, purge fever spread to two other yearly meetings, with new splits beginning to boil over.

Some readers who were intrepid enough to keep up with this reporting might think I’m something of Quaker conflict junkie, and I can understand how that impression develops. But just this morning after worship at my meeting, I was prompted to mention to one of our stalwart members that in only a few weeks it will be a full year since all that agony in North Carolina YM-FUM finally went up (literally) in smoke. She and I were both overcome with relief.

Besides, in this struggle’s last year, the catastrophe of Eleventh Month 2016 pushed most of our intramural Quaker squabbling to the margins. (Not entirely; because Quaker divisions here in NC mirror many of those in the larger culture; we still have our discernment and work to do among Friends in this new and very gloomy context.

The evolution of technology also made it possible to be “active” in struggles physically located elsewhere. Say, for example, Standing Rock. I cheered on the pipeline protesters there, but had no leading to join them.

Then, just a few weeks after the 2016 election, I read that the paramilitary contractor TigerSwan, based near Fort Bragg and run by veterans of secret military units, was doing “security services” for the pipeline backers and possibly various police agencies. Beyond the name, few in the outside media knew anything about it.

I knew of it from my time at Quaker House, and dug up a batch of background on the company from public sources, then put up a substantial post on November 26. In 24 hours it drew more than a thousand hits, which is a lot for me — but such independent remote exposure could also be vulnerable to electronic pushback: suddenly, the post and my whole blog disappeared.It took a week of insistent appeals to the host to get the blog back up — and when it reappeared, the TigerSwan post was still gone, completely scrubbed from its files.

Fortunately, with the help of readers who had saved copies, we reconstructed the suppressed post, and uploaded it again; it is still there.  

Yesterday, the “All time” counter, which updated fitfully, abruptly jumped ahead a dozen or so, and flipped right past the number I was waiting to see. Whatever.

I’m still busy, as way opens, keeping up with more recent stories I broke in the “blogosphere,” about the two teachers at Friends Central School in Philadelphia who were fired for inviting a Palestinian pacifist Quaker speaker. That, plus the resistance, the resurgence of racism, and other topics, yield a continuing stream of blogging subject matter, some not so controversial. I’m hoping the blog can still build its readership and that I’ll last until the next big milestone (500,000) is reached.

 

If this post is of interest, pleased pass it on.

 

 

“Disinvited” a Poem for Friends of A Certain Age

Disinvited — composed on learning a Friend was “disinvited” to the  Philadelphia YAF Weekend Retreat

There was a recent FB notice here in Carolina for a YAF gathering (only for dinner-plus, not a weekend),
And it specified the age range as “18-40-ish.”
Couldn’t help it: I snickered.

Pop Quiz: Who’s the youngest in this photo?

Continue reading “Disinvited” a Poem for Friends of A Certain Age

Four for the Fourth: Holiday Ruminations

For thirty years or so, I was shielded from most July 4th festivities by attending a big Quaker Gathering which was then always held the week of the holiday.

Going about our multifarious business there (as the saying goes, “We liberal Quakers don’t believe in hell — we have committees instead.”), we didn’t take much notice. Once in awhile we’d see some local fireworks, but there was no patriotic speechifying, flag-draped parades, or wreaths laid on war monuments. (Thank goodness.) Continue reading Four for the Fourth: Holiday Ruminations

Tell the FCC: NO To Robocall Voicemails!

Sheesh. Enough is freaking enough.

Hey, FCC: Tell Robocallers to Leave My Voicemail The Heck Alone!
(If you agree, you can tell the FCC Here)

Anybody else who gets repeated cellphone robocalls and hates ’em, raise your hand . . .

I thought so. But some politicians (along with corporate telemarketer buddies) think differently. Now they want to be able to fill up the voicemail box on my cellphone (yours too) with automated robocall junk messages: Continue reading Tell the FCC: NO To Robocall Voicemails!