Monday, July 31, 2017


Sorting old files and tear-outs on a hot summer Sunday afternoon is a pleasant but rather narcotic thing to do.  I just looked through a binder entitled “Offices” and discarded about two-thirds of the contents.  As usual, I had saved very severe no-paper offices as well as cluttered, gadget-filled tabletops with baskets for to-be-filed-sometime-in-this-century.  One is my virtual vision and the other is my actual practice.

I notice that much of what I saved — and what is offered in mags — are beautiful photos of carefully composed tabletop vignettes.  It’s not so much what is displayed, which ranges from weeds to carved jade and ivory, but the careful composition and lighting that makes them striking.  In my rooms, I have no tabletops that aren’t occupied by something in use, from printer to sewing machine, so the idea of vignettes is strictly theoretical.

Since I’m a sucker for the Mediterranean trope, there are many pages of California rooms with roll-back glass wall access to gardens and, because of copies of Marie Clare Maison, wonderful stone verandas with ruined surrounds of old stonework, all furnished with sun umbrellas and plants that I’m sure are aromatic.  Europeans have an advantage in their many ancient stone and timber houses, though I’m not sure they feel advantaged given low ceilings and the difficulty of any pipe or wire runs.  

It’s not just the weather: I’m also fond of those stark dark Scots crofts where one must bring one’s own door and expect to replace the roof.  Hopefully, the massive fireplace will have a chimney that draws.  At one point in history, these places were “owned” by being occupied by the land users — not the paper-justified legal ownership, but the practical fact of living there and “making” a living there.  One simply looked for an unoccupied croft with a nearby field for oats.

Then I ran across a folder of mailings from Bill Houff who was acting as interim minister in Seattle in 1989.  The first dilemma was argument over whether “Peter Rabbit” (as Alan Deale always called Peter Raible) who was the just-previous minister and a bit of a Clinton type, should be allowed to have an office in the basement.  Peter’s brother Chris, author of “Coffee, coffee, coffee,” (starts at minute 7 on the vid linked below) famous UU hymn, also got into trouble for amour and their father was celebrated for his Texas affairs.  “Daddy Bob”, they called him.  A vid of Chris is at  You’ll see that the Raible charm is not being tall and handsome, but rather comes from charm and humour.  (Does that rhyme with “amour?”)  All parties are dead now with the exception of Alan Deale who did not dally but was equally charming and funny.

The next church crisis for Houff was a cracked furnace that filled the place with carbon monoxide and — luckily — the smell of a gas leak.  There was no carbon mono monitor in the furnace room, let alone the rest of the building.  Next was a bill of thousands of dollars to replace the sewer line to one of the bequeathed church-owned houses.  And then there was suddenly a gusher of water from the DRAIN of the kitchen sink which turned out to be a crew looking for a leak in the flat roof overhead by turning a firehose of water onto it.  They had stopped up the sewer with grit from the roof, so the water was rising through the drain.  Bill says,  “For this I went to seminary??

Interesting now is that he was writing in the fall of 1989 during the collapse of Newt Gingrich, the impeachment of Bill Clinton, and a host of ringingly similar events to this present moment.  Less interesting is the usual rich people foodie reviews of fine restaurants, and the usual cycle of fine arts events.  In retrospect, I realize that the close-knit and aggressive set of male UU ministers in that time span were being replaced by inexperienced women.  They seem to appeal to Bill for help with miscarriages and marital disfunction.  Also, a lot of lay threatened suicides, all women.  And drug probs, inevitably entwined with debt.

Alan Deale’s female replacement in Portland (still living) did not admit to troubles and indeed her congregations were growing quickly.  But it was a worry that most of the new people in the pews were there for feel-good reasons and were not pledging.  Houff was a guest to urge picking up the obligations.

My tear-outs and Bill’s reports underline how much I was preoccupied with upper middle-class people in those days without really being aware of how ill-suited I was for it.  Visiting wealthy and glamourous friends from my NU theatre department days who very kindly invited me for pre-paid visits in their quite wonderful Brentwood house, built by Leo Durocher  for Lorraine Day, sometimes to function as the family vicar, taught me I didn’t fit.  They had no idea of what I was doing when at home.  Montana was just another script concept.  Performing a wedding only made a casting director muse over whether she could find a part for me.

The first day of fine food and excellent drinks was always a joy.  The second day my stomach began to hurt and I was having trouble sleeping.  The third day none of my OTC remedies worked and I longed to go home.  My physiological and psychological norms are set for high-line Montana.  But also, I had the feeling I was being called to be a witness to their success and luxury.  Instead what I got out of it was that some kind of maintenance man was needed almost every day, in addition to the Mexican kitchen and yard help.  There was as much worry and supervision as enjoyment. 

We never sat down and talked, though they talked to their close friends in front of me, about things I knew nothing about.  They had business every day and evening, though they were generous about sending me off to plays and ballet with free tickets and a chauffeur.  I felt like a puppet.  I would say something and one of them would turn and repeat it to the other.  “Mary said . . .” as though I needed captions.  

After repeated home invasions, they have moved up to the mountains.  They haven’t invited me for decades.  I have nice memories and no regrets.  I hope there are no fires near them.  I look forward to their Christmas newsletters, untouched by human hands.

Parallel, I saved almost none of the massive timber, stone and plate glass modern homes in the Bozeman luxury mag, “Western Art and Architecture.”  They at least will still look good when they inevitably burn, avalanche, and collapse into ruins like Italy.  The owners only come for a few weeks out of the year, so some lone guardian lives there in peace the rest of the year.  Has anyone written a novel about that?  

At one point Peter Rabbit had a garage refitted as a library to hold his collection of novels about ministers.  I wonder where they went.  This is his link to his Berry Street lecture on the subject.  More recently the Berry Street lecture was on the indecency of ministers preying on women.  I won’t link.  The text seems to morph.  Sometimes it's hard to break through to reality.

Emerson entered the lists to charge bitterly, "The clergy are as alike as peas.  I cannot tell them apart…it is the old story again: once we had wooden chalices and golden priests, now we have golden chalices and wooden priests.”

(In justice, I should mention that Peter was active in the sanctuary movement that still persists, still necessary.)

No comments: