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.

Back in Columbus

Susie and I returned from Columbus around 12:30 under cloudy skies.  We left North Olmsted with our ride from Columbus a little after 10 a.m., along with Susie’s friend Eliza, who conked out before we crossed the Cuyahoga County line.  I slept on and off during the night in the pew at Olmsted Unitarian Universalist Congregation, and managed to stay awake during the ride back.  I talked with Heather, our driver, and glanced at Faye Kellerman’s Sacred and Profane from time to time.  (I’m re-reading it.  Now that the entire Peter Decker-Rina Lazarus series seems to be available on CD, I may start at The Ritual Bath and “read” them all in sequence.)

I feel fortunate that I was awake before the “official” wakeup this morning.  Drake Dunnett, who stepped in at the last minute to run this Con, informed me on the q.t. that Andrew, whom I’ve seen at every con since last year in Pittsburgh, would be doing the awakening.  And I knew what this meant.  Drake swore me to secrecy, especially around the kids.

Sure enough, around 7:30 a.m., I was clearing my bed pew, closing up and unplugging my laptop, when I heard a loud rendition of “Scotland the Brave” blatting down the hall on the other side of the sanctuary door.  Andrew’s bagpipes were accompanied by groaning and moaning wherever he went, and I followed his progress by paying attention to the Doppler effect.  I came outside to see kids burrowing deeper into sleeping bags, putting pillows over their heads, etc.  They faced the morning the same way I did, and I’m on record as saying there is no kind way of awakening someone.

Having come of age in the early 1980s, whenever I hear bagpipes, my thoughts always go to Spock’s funeral at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, when Mr. Scott played “Amazing Grace” while the projectile containing Spock’s body launches into space and onto the surface of the planet just created.

Andrew finished playing his pipes once he had been to every room, and I’m sure he had to dodge some airborne shoes, socks, etc.  (At the spring conference in Columbus, Jodi the conference dean just went from room and room and screamed “WAKE UP!!!”  Susie said she was on the receiving end of a thrown slipper at one point.)

Drake is nothing if not thorough.  A few minutes after the bagpipe music ended, he sent in reinforcements.  I heard long and loud blasts from the didgeridoo that appeared prominently in last night’s talent show and worship service.  (The readings for last night’s worship were quite diverse–St. Lev Tolstoy, Robert Frost, and William Blake.)  I had never heard of or seen this instrument before (and I doubt it’s that well known, which is why I included the Wikipedia link above), but I loved the sound of it.  I imagine it’s different when you’re being awakened from a sound sleep by someone blowing it right into your ear.

Susie performed “Unhappily Ever After” by CJaye LeRose as part of the talent show, but she and her new friend Harriet really wowed ’em with a duet of “For Good,” from Wicked.  (Susie’s mom and friend Joanna performed the same duet at the ordination of Rev. Suzan McCrystal at church last fall.)

Another one of Susie’s new friends wanted to sing a solo (her original composition), but was afraid she would drop dead from stage fright before finishing the first verse.  Harriet and Susie stood behind her as moral support, and she sang her song quite well and left the stage under her own steam.  Harriet and Susie would have been all too pleased to catch her if she fainted, or to bodily push her to the microphone if she decided that she wasn’t going to perform after all.

One year, when Susie was about eight, we took her to the Columbus Symphony’s annual performance of The Nutcracker.  They sponsored a drawing for the kids–whoever won would get to conduct the orchestra while they played a medley of different holiday songs (mostly Christmas, with a token “‘Tis the Week of Hanukkah” thrown in).  Susie entered but didn’t win.  The little girl who did win was about six.  Since the conductor’s back is to the audience, her face was on a JumboTron above the orchestra, so we could see and watch her.  I was touched to see that she brought her friend (or maybe her sister) onto the conductor’s platform with her while she took the baton in hand and led the orchestra.

The closing circle took place on the church’s front lawn, and the outside temperature was in the upper 50s.  I think the hugs lasted even longer than they usually did (and that’s saying a lot!) because many of the kids were still in shorts, T-shirts, sock feet, or barefoot.  The closing circle is always an emotional time, but nowhere near as gut-wrenching as the ceremony in spring when the high school seniors bridge out of the conferences.

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