Dusting Off the Blog and Writing

Very early Saturday morning, I Twittered that I was far too exhausted to post a blog entry, but that I’d do my damnedest to do so that evening.  At the time, I was sitting with my laptop in (where else?) my lap, in a hallway on the first floor of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Cleveland.  That predawn in Shaker Heights found me “night angeling” at Jurasicon, the spring youth conference for the Ohio-Meadville District.  Susie was there, part of the two carloads of us who came from Columbus.  (A night angel is an adult and/or youth who walks through the church to make sure everyone is okay.  Early Saturday morning it’s an easy job, because all the kids are easy to find.  At that hour they’re all flying off the walls.)

You’ve probably figured out by now that blog entry never materialized.  This was not–repeat, not–due to a lack of material to cover.  Quite the opposite is true.  On Friday, I turned 48, and being in Shaker Heights as a sponsor at a UU youth conference was the perfect way to celebrate.  Susie has made a 180-degree turn from the barely social shrinking violet she was at the first conference she attended, last year in Pittsburgh.  She gravitated straight toward the friends she met at previous conferences, and her feet barely touched the floor all weekend.

Susie (left) and two of her pals at Jurasicon, Shaker Heights, Ohio, April 29-May 1, 2011.

The conference (“con” in youth parlance) was a joyous event, but there were some bumps in the road.  One of the youths I was sponsoring, and who rode up with me from Columbus, came down with strep throat on Saturday morning.  My co-sponsor and I thought he was overreacting at first, since we couldn’t see any white spots in his mouth or throat, and he seemed to perk up after a little while.

After a very little while, that is.  By the end of the morning, he was lethargic, the throat felt worse, and the telltale white spots were there.  I suggested that he bunk out in the sanctuary.  It was a big enough space that people could stay away from him, and the only room that had little, if any traffic.  Someone came up from Columbus and took him home, and the other sponsors related anecdotes about the “chickenpox con” from two years ago–which made me quite thankful Susie had been too young to attend (although she has had chickenpox and is now, presumably, immune.)

A young girl I was sponsoring broke her toe playing Ultimate in the field across from the church.  (“No violence” is one of the standard non-bendable rules at youth cons, yet games of Kissy-Face and Ultimate are very popular, and the kids play them in a way that makes Rollerball look tame.  I think it’s the same as the way Quaker boarding schools’ field hockey games are frightening to watch.)  A paramedic sponsor splinted her toe with two spoons at first, and later with the more orthodox makeshift splint, a Popsicle stick.

Susie and her friend Cynthia performed an improvisational comedy act during the Talent Show, and after the Talent Show came the bridging ceremony, for high school seniors attending their final conference.  By the time it was over, there was not a dry eye in the Fellowship Hall.  I speak from personal experience when I say that many of the friends you make at these cons will be part of your life even 30+ years later.

I am sorry to have to report that Susie crashed very cruelly back to earth late Sunday afternoon, once we were back in Columbus.  She spent the weekend in very loving surroundings, with friends on all sides, talking, laughing, and singing with her.  Late in the afternoon, she went to the playground near our house, and soon came home in tears.  A girl from her school (who lives in the neighborhood) harassed her, pulled her hair, and beat her in the face and head.  Susie was neither bruised nor bleeding, but she was badly shaken up.  We called the police, and when the officer came, he was talking to Susie when the girl who attacked her went by our house on her bike.  The officer pulled her aside and talked to her, but did not arrest her.  Apparently, unless they witness it directly, it’s a she said-she said type of situation.

Yesterday morning, Susie and I spoke to the assistant principal of her school, and he said he would speak to the girl’s parents that day.  Despite his assurances that Susie is in his jurisdiction from the moment she steps out of our house en route to the bus stop until the moment she crosses our threshold again, both Steph and I doubt she’s completely safe.  The school handbook spills a lot of ink about its zero-tolerance policy about bullying, but it all boils down pretty much to, “Bullying is bad, mmm-kay?” (spoken like South Park‘s Mr. Mackey)

Last week brought a surprise to me–a much needed one at that.  My supervisor at the Discovery Exchange (Columbus State’s bookstore) emailed me to ask if I was available to work evenings this and next week.  I replied within minutes of reading the email (“Yes!  Yes!  Yes!”), and have gone straight to the bookstore from the Industrial Commission last night and tonight.  The pace is much slower than during rush, and I’m enjoying it.  The last few days at the I.C. have been busy, trying to finish work before a computer upgrade, and the bookstore job has been the perfect place to decompress.
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While the Wi-Fi Deities Smile Upon Me

The dateline for this entry is the sanctuary of the Olmsted Unitarian Universalist Congregation in North Olmsted, Ohio.  Susie is here for the fall Ohio-Meadville District Junior High Youth Conference (“con,” in the in-house terminology), ArtistiCon, and I’m a sponsor for several kids from Columbus.  Wi-Fi service has been very erratic in this building, so, while the kids meet in the Morning Circle, I’m going to take advantage of not having to share the service, and type this entry.

We’re in quite a beautiful building.  This was a last-minute location for the conference, since the larger church where it was supposed to be was unable to accommodate it I will post exterior pictures in a later entry this weekend, but I am quite proud of the one I took last night.  I was in the sanctuary (where the adults sleep–sanctuary takes on an additional meaning this weekend) staking out a place to sleep, and took this picture of the stained glass window above the church’s front door.

celebrating its 175th year this year.

This conference was a welcome retreat for me as well.  Work was hell yesterday.  My co-worker has permanently moved to another section, so my workload has doubled, and it seemed I could get very little done without constant telephonic interruption–both my cell phone, and the one on my desk.  I’m wondering if, on some level, I consciously decided to “forget” to bring the charger for my cell phone when I packed for this con.  The cell reception here (at least for Revol customers) is spotty, and I didn’t want to drain what battery power I do have hanging onto a signal.  So the cell phone is shut off and buried in the bags of stuff I brought.
The kids are as full of energy, as always.  This conference is about half the size it usually is, and Susie is a little disappointed that her friends from Heritage Universalist Unitarian Church (“where the ‘Universalist’ comes first,” their pastor, Rev. Bill Gupton, is fond of pointing out) in Cincinnati weren’t able to come, but she seems to have made friends with some girls whom I’ve not seen before.
Scenes from the Opening Circle.

And the adults congregate in the sanctuary.  (Since the
service will be here tomorrow morning, we have to be
even more on the ball about “clean[ing] up [our] own
damn shit” than our charges do.
I had “night angel” duty last night.  I walked around the church, making sure the rooms where the kids were staying had doors that were at least cracked open, making sure nobody was two to a sleeping bag, etc.  My shift was 3-5 a.m., so I grabbed some shuteye in a pew a little after midnight.  This is the first time I’ve slept in a pew (horizontally, anyway), and it was a little uncomfortable, but I’m rested.  One of the benefits of narcolepsy is the ability to sleep anywhere, where you want to or not.
Between breakfast and the Morning Circle, I heard some of the kids on the piano and the guitar.  As I came down to eat breakfast, three or four were in the hallway with their guitars, doing a decent cover of “Folsom Prison Blues” (although why the narrator, who “shot a man in Reno,” would be in a California penitentiary is something I’ve never understood), and when I began typing, I heard some of the kids in the other room singing “Imagine” with a good piano accompaniment, and then the pianist (not sure if it was the same one) did a damn near perfect rendition of “Maple Leaf Rag.”
I have the sanctuary to myself, except for a woman who is fast asleep on a big, queen-sized air mattress that just barely fits in the aisle.  If you just glanced at the inside of this sanctuary and didn’t know the context of this week’s events, you’d swear you were looking at news footage of the evacuation centers churches and schools set up in their common areas after floods or brush fires.  All we need is the Red Cross to be here serving us tepid coffee and stale donuts.

Your Faithful Night Angel Blogging Here…

I’m typing this at church–the First Unitarian Universalist Church here in Columbus–around 2:30 in the morning.  I have spent many an hour in this building in the last three decades–as a guest, and as a member–but this is the first time I have spent the night.  Columbus is hosting the spring Youth-Adult Committee conference (known as a “con” in the lingua franca of the Unitarian Universalist Association) this weekend.  Susie is here, and I am a sponsor.

But how am I a night angel?  I am one of the adults who volunteered to take a shift walking around the church and making sure that all the kids are safe, doors to the outside are shut, that no one is doing anything they shouldn’t be doing, etc.  I have the 3 a.m.-5 a.m. shift, so I’m racing against the clock (and my battery power–I left my cord in the other room) to bring this blog up to date before I go on duty.

As the clock nears 3 a.m., many kids are still wide awake, playing games, singing, socializing, playing euchre, washing down Tortilla chips with room-temperature lemonade and playing the piano in Fellowship Hall.  (The piano selections have run the gamut from the “Ode to Joy” to “Piano Man” to “Eleanor Rigby.”)

When Susie and I went to the fall conference in Pittsburgh, it was a bit overwhelming for her, and for me I felt like I had come full circle.  In the spring of 1979, I was dragged, kicking and screaming, to the spring youth-adult conference of the Ohio-Meadville District.  (North America is divided into several autonomous geographic districts by the Unitarian Universalist Association in Boston, somewhat analogous to a diocese in the Roman Catholic or Episcopal churches.  The Ohio-Meadville District covers most of Ohio, all of West Virginia, Western Pennsylvania, and Southwestern New York.)  The camp was at Camp Tippecanoe, a YMCA facility in Harrison County, Ohio, and by the end of the first evening I was happy that I had gone.

For the next five years, I faithfully attended district youth conferences, fall and spring, as well as conferences at the national level (sponsored by Liberal Religious Youth (LRY), the national youth group, which, I soon learned, had an uneasy, and often very antagonistic relationship with many churches and with the denomination itself) travelling any way I could.  I rode Greyhound buses, I hitchhiked, I pre-arranged rides with friends headed to the same conferences.  All of this was before Internet and flat-rate long distance and cell phones, so I ran up astronomical phone bills at home and at church, impatiently awaited the arrival of the letter carrier daily, and developed many friendships that have lasted to the present day.

The youth have a much freer hand in governance than they did during my teen years.  I am eagerly looking forward to the worship service Saturday evening, because the one in Pittsburgh last fall was quite moving.

SEMI-TANGENT ALERT:  Compare this to a conference I went to in Massachusetts, which had no worship service on its agenda.  A musician and composer friend of mine at the conference and I were not happy about this.  He and I told the advisors (adults), “Just give us about 45 minutes in private, we’ll have a worship service for you.”  Locking ourselves in the minister’s study, we spread out several books of poetry, the Bible, and Hymns for the Celebration of Life (the predecessor to the current hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition), and a notebook.  We batted ideas and reading suggestions back and forth, hashed out an Order of Worship, and emerged with a service that went quite well.  I regret to this day that we didn’t think to record it.  One or two people were unhappy that two people ran the entire worship service, but if someone else had stepped up to the plate, we would have been happy to let them help us, or even take over the entire show.  Except for these minor rumblings, people complimented us on the service the rest of the weekend.

I do not know if Susie will be as enthusiastic or as zealous about conferences as I was.  It fulfilled a need in me that is far different from the way she is maturing.  It is no exaggeration (and this is neither the time nor the place for me to elaborate) that had I not found Unitarian Universalism, and through it the youth movement in its many incarnations, I would be in a very different place and situation than I am now.  It is not too much of a stretch to say that I would either be incarcerated or dead today.  I was listening to Steely Dan’s Katy Lied during work today, and the refrain of the penultimate song on that album is “Any world that I’m welcome to/Is better than the one I come from.”

If my life had a soundtrack, that would cover that aspect of my life.

Ohio-Meadville District of the Unitarian Universalist Association