Category Archives: Writing

Second week of Advent

Second candle lit

It’s been in the mid-30s the past two nights here so my banana plants outside are definitely fading away and I wore my winter coat for the first time today. And we’re lighting Advent candles; the second set during a pleasant visit by Estine Nwakwuo, a Catholic priest from Nigeria who began writing me nearly three decades ago when he and fellow seminarians discovered my “Purity Makes the Heart Grow Stronger” book. Estine and I had never met, so he happened to be in Oklahoma visiting another priest friend and the two of them drove 400 miles yesterday so Estine could see us. He had a lot of stories about what it’s like to work out of a parish in Zamfara State, which is in the heavily Muslim northern part of the country. Amazingly, he’s gotten through five years there alive! Then they drove back this morning – seven hours of driving on I-40.

Veeka and Estine

I’ve been thinking over what 2012 has been like and the second half of the year may have been the busiest in my life. There’s never been such a time when I had so much to do that had to be done right away and when there seemed to be one crisis after another that had to be tended to. Or huge things to get done, ie moving a household and starting a new job, not to mention an entirely new career. One task I took on in all this madness was getting my “Quitting Church” republished as an e-book with a different publisher that was willing to pay me better royalties. So, amidst everything else that needed to be done, I wrote an 11th chapter, an update if you will, as to what’s happened in the four years since “Quitting Church” came out. A lot of things, including the new cover, are still under wraps, but Bondfire Books, the publisher, just came out with this press release about me.

Cardinal & Cream Christmas party chez moi

Other than that, I’ve hung up Christmas lights in front of the house, made a batch of Christmas cookies containing eggnog (which weren’t all that great, oddly) and gotten most of my shopping done. I attend a Christmas lunch on Thursdays at Veeka’s school. Finals at UU are this week and I gave one today. Now I have to grade it. I and the school newspaper assistant adviser met with the editor and managing editor today to discuss staffing for next semester. And the days keep on getting shorter with the sunset at 4:30 at this point.

Late-breaking news

Standing firm at 3600 New York Avenue

And in case I ever yearn for the life back in my old newsroom, here are two posts from MediaBistro about impending layoffs again at the Washington Times. The first is about the mess that Tom McDevitt is making of the whole place and the second has to do with the black humor that reporters have adopted to cope. If anyone cares to read this post from my blog entry on New Year’s Eve 2009 (aptly titled ‘Surviving the Massacre’) about 110 people getting laid off, you’ll quickly pick up the zeitgeist from tons of reporters being shown the door during the Christmas season. Obviously the Times’ management didn’t learn any lesson from the horrible PR it received for cutting so many people lose three years ago this month, so they are playing Ebenezer Scrooge again. MediaBistro says they’re monitoring peoples’ emails, which was not done when I was there. (Not that I know of, that is). I vaguely remember security being ramped up but I knew my job was safe, so I was a lot more careless than most, even walking outside to have my photo defiantly snapped in front of the Times’ building. And it sounds like the misery index this time is much, much higher. Because they’ve been through this how many times before? I remember in the spring of 2008 when a bunch of people – including my immediate boss – were let go and we were promised by John Solomon, the editor at the time, there’d be no layoffs, firings, what-have-you after that. Solomon only lasted another 18 months (although he was brought back this year as a consultant – no doubt a highly paid one) and all the editors since him have been sacked or pushed out in one form or another. As for the employees, I wish them well and hope they end up as well as I have, at a higher salary, mind you. And I wonder if the interior of the building is in as much disrepair as it was when I left. Hopefully they re-hired the exterminator to get rid of the snakes!

 

 

 

 

One last WaPo piece

Veeka at a local pumpkin patch

It appears this is my sayonnara article, but I’m glad I could go out the door with a piece about Susan Wise Bauer, an amazing woman who’s been a huge leader in the homeschooling movement. I researched it in July when I was in the midst of planning a move and the Post folks insisted that my first two drafts be done by the time the moving van came. I wasn’t happy with that rule, but as it turned out, things were so nuts when I got to Tennessee, I was happy that I’d been forced to get much of the work done beforehand. This was article #13 for the Post magazine or Style section. Twelve of those articles were done within an 18-month period – not bad for a former Washington Times staffer – so I was on a roll there for awhile. I’m not done with magazine writing, though, as I have another piece pending for an even larger publication.

University of Tennessee agriculture folks put together a display of colorful gourds and pumpkins that came in shapes you've never before seen

Back to Jackson, changes are pending and for reasons I can’t go into here, Veeka is switching schools next week. The reasons are complex and I’m sad to leave the nice place she was at, but certain things just weren’t working out and we all agreed it was best to part ways. I spent Friday afternoon plunking down more than $100 in new uniforms and I’m hoping the new place has a lot more friends than she found in the other school. That’s been one of our chief problems here: the lack of little buddies for her. After three months, she only has one. This move has been good for me, but disastrous for her; something I never anticipated. I’ve tried to brighten things up, by taking her to things like the pumpkin harvest display put on by University of Tennessee horticulturalists of which you can see photos here.

College President David Dockery talks with Cardinal & Cream staff earlier this year/photo by Jacob Moore

What else am I doing with my time? One activity that eats away the hours is advising the campus newspaper: the Cardinal and Cream. We’re now working on issue five. I usually spend much of every other weekend doing massive amounts of editing first drafts. Every other Tuesday is when the paper gets laid out and I usually show up in the afternoon with a stack of doughnuts to cheer everyone up. Whereas students last year commonly didn’t make deadline until past midnight, this year they’re getting their pages done by 6:30 pm, a major feat. Of course it helped that their adviser has a 7-year-old who has to go to bed early, so it was made clear early on that late nights would be a thing of the past. The web site is going to look better shortly as the campus digital media class is re-doing our web site. Last week, I spent an hour with a student learning how to do online advertising so I too am learning new stuff.

Frisbee tutoring

Maybe sons head out to the yard with their dads to practice throwing softballs but what do daughters do? Well, in our case, Veeka is learning to throw one mean frisbee. For the last several evenings now, she and I have headed out to the back yard where she’s tossed vari-colored Frisbees my way. Although she’s right-handed, she throws with her left hand. Odd but it works.

Veeka at a church playground

It has finally warmed up here and spring evenings are especially nice in that the mosquitoes haven’t arrived yet. But it was in the 90s today and I turned on the air-conditioning for the first time. The photo you see here is Veeka in a cute blue dress given by her godparents and she loves to wear it. My latest Washington Post story came out this weekend, which you can read here, and I will say it was an 10-month marathon between the time I started it and the time it came out. Must say I learned more about Bahrain and its interior politics then I ever thought I’d need to know. The story started out as a religion assignment (about the first Jewish ambassador from an Arab state) but quickly morphed into a foreign policy story, which was not my best forte. Fortunately I managed – with the help of one of my ex-compatriots at the Washington Times who is an Iran expert – to find Bahrain experts here and there in Washington. I’d love to visit the Gulf states some day but will probably have to do it on someone else’s dime the way my finances are at the moment.

More on the monkey bars

Don’t think I ever described how my birthday went last week but let’s just say I am starting into the latter half of my 50s which I find dreadful. A friend arranged for an evening of female poker (half of us didn’t know how to play) with some strong cocktails while another friend took Veeka to see “Peter Pan” which I really appreciated. I loved just sitting on this friend’s porch, sipping my drink and being able to think without my reveries being interrupted. Earlier that day, I appeared at the Gaithersburg book festival as one of a zillion authors peddling their wares. Being that “Days of Fire and Glory” came out three years ago, I was fortunate to get in. The weather was flawless and I sold $186 worth of books. Then Rob and Jan (who were babysitting you-know-who) took us out to a Japanese restaurant so in all, a very good day.

Birthday party

Tonight I was making myself a salad and Veeka asked for a taste of that funny green stuff I was holding. Turns out she likes to munch on raw parsley sprigs. Who knew?

Waiting to blow out candles

Saturday was my baptism of fire in terms of Little Girl Birthday Celebrations. I invited 16 kids. Half that came, which amazed me a bit – only one child from her classroom came and I’d invited nine girls. Fortunately I reached out to other girls Veeka knew from previous schools, daycare last year and the neighborhood and so we had 8 in all. Which was plenty considering there was just me and my long-suffering friend Karen to help. One thing I did not foresee was how nearly half of the girls – upon arriving – grew deathly silent and wouldn’t talk to anyone, mainly because the only person they knew at the party was Veeka. I managed to soothe the fears of most of them but one child was so miserable, she insisted on leaving even though everyone else was dashing about and having a good time. So Karen walked her home.

Poof!

Lesson 1 in party planning: Kids don’t tend to follow your carefully laid plans in terms of what outdoor games they play. My attempts at leading them through “Red Light, Green Light” and “Duck Duck Goose” lasted all of one minute and they reverted back to the game they really wanted to play which was Hide ‘N Seek. My plans to have them all make themselves bead necklaces succeeded a bit better – that lasted about 10 minutes, as did pin-the-tail-one-the-unicorn. Musical chairs took up a bit more time but by the time two hours had passed, Karen and I were wiped out. But Veeka had a lovely time and a few girls lingered afterwards to build themselves a fort in the back yard, so the fun times lasted most of the afternoon. Since the party theme was rainbows, unicorns, My Little Pony and butterflies, I made a special rainbow-hued cake. Please see below for the multi-striped batter I managed to whip out. And yes, those are lilies of the valley (aka muguet des bois in French) from our front yard on the table. It was 30 years ago this month that I flew to France to join Karen and her soon-to-be fiance Tim while they were spending the first part of 1982 in Paris. I had just left my job of three years as a police reporter in Oregon City to run around Europe for 10 weeks. I remember how the street vendors in Paris sold bunches of muguet des bois on May 1 to passers-by. The smell of those flowers always transports me back  to that era.

my rainbow cake

On Sunday, I had a booth at a local book fair called the Kensington Day of the Book. Last year, it was sunny and hordes of people came. This year, the temps started out in the mid-50s and drizzling. By early afternoon, it had fallen into the upper 40s and it was beyond miserable. I had borrowed a canopy tent from a neighbor and had brought my harp there to attract customers. Even sold two books. But finally I too packed it up – along with all the other local booksellers hoping to make some money – and dashed home and stood in a hot shower for a long time. I’ll be speaking next month – on my birthday in fact – at the Gaithersburg Book Festival from 12:20-1 pm in the Rachel Carson non-fiction tent, then selling books afterwards so if you’re in the area, please come! Hopefully the weather will be a lot more reasonable.

“Knights, Maidens and Dragons”

The original 1998 book cover

Several things happened this week, including the successful reprinting of my one children’s book. In 1998, “Waiting for True Love: And Other Tales of Purity, Patience and Faithfulness” came out published by Chariot Victor. I so loved this book; the six tales in it were lovely allegories I had taken from the 12-book Little Colonel series and re-done for the 20th century child. Homeschooling types especially liked it plus anyone who had kids over 8 years old who enjoyed tales of virtue and heroic exploits. It was selling well enough until 2000 when the publisher yanked it out of print without notifying me beforehand so I could have at least bought some of the books. I was beyond furious in that although I’d gotten the print rights back, they had retained the rights to the art. Neither I nor the artist, Diane Magnuson, could do anything for 10 years. But in 2009, a different group of people were heading up Chariot Victor. Throughout the years, I’d contacted CV, asking and asking for the art rights – this time I actually got through to the president of the company who ordered the folks under him to release the rights.

Veeka and her lion

Diana and I were quite happy about that but it wasn’t until 2010 that I realized we really didn’t have the art prints per se. It took some searching about and Diana had to re-do one of the prints. Meanwhile, I’d talked with some folks in Colorado about publishing the book – and they had been so faithful throughout the years supporting the book, which I’d gotten reprinted as a Print On Demand edition through Xlibris – but without the illustrations. They were the ones who suggested renaming it “Knights, Maidens and Dragons: Six Medieval Tales of Virtue and Valor.” The previous title was pretty girly even though boys were the main protagonists in half of the stories. But a few months ago, I decided to go with a friend who runs Chalfont House, a small publisher just south of Washington DC. It took us awhile to draw up the contract and still longer to get all the needed materials to Chalfont House (the delays were my fault plus the fact that one of the stories, I discovered, was nowhere to be found in my system. So I had to keyboard in the entire text). Anyway, once Lynellen at Chalfont got everything she needed, she put the book together and got her mom and sister to do the proofreading. The book was ready earlier this week.

Veeka at art class

And so you can find this delightful edition, illustrations and all just as it originally appeared, here. We worked to keep the price down (the color prints weren’t cheap) so please feel free to order lots of them for Christmas gifts. All this goes to show that perseverance does pay off, especially in the book world. It took me more than 15 years to get “Days of Fire and Glory” into print and, again, 10 years to get the illustrations returned for the KMD book. Waiting and perseverance seem to be the story of my life.

Above, you see my daughter at her latest round of lessons, this time art lessons, since what she gets in school seems to be pretty general and I am convinced she’s got a genuine artistic talent. She’s been learning lines and shapes and all sorts of fun things there. We just had Thanksgiving yesterday at Rob and Jan’s condo in Gaithersburg; to get there, we took the Connector: a new highway that bisects Montgomery County. It is quite expensive: $4 to go from one end to the other and wouldn’t you know it, it’s almost a straight shot from Rob’s home to where he works. But … $8/day for transport? Although some of us reminded him at dinner that most people who commute downtown pay at least that for the Metro and parking.

School begins- sort of

Veeka’s new school began the third week of August, although one might not have known it as she missed two days of school the first week due to our earthquake and one day the following week because of Hurricane Irene. Not that her school sustained damage either day; the problems were all in the eastern part of the county but the school system automatically shuts down all the schools, making the problem-free ones pay dearly. And thus we’ve run through 3 of our snow days – in August! Not only that, but Veeka’s school has 91 kids squeezed into three kindergarten classes but, due to a technicality, the school system is refusing to free up a fourth teacher. The photo is of Veeka at her desk the first day of school.

Thus it was with little reluctance that I took Veeka out of school yesterday and today (Sept. 2) for a lengthy assignment I have in far, faraway West Virginia covering …. snake handlers! Yes, it’s an annual homecoming gathering of Pentecostals who practice not only snake handling but they also have a Mason jar up front of strychnine for people – who have enough faith – to drink. All this is based on a passage in Mark 16 about snakes nor poison hurting believers. Now how did I get this assignment?

Well….two months ago, I was with Lauren Pond, the young photographer who shot the PAPA festival for my story which, by the way, is out here this weekend. (This is my fifth story for WaPo’s Sunday magazine and I have three more on deck). Lauren had been traveling to Jolo, W.V., which is the southernmost tip of the most out-of-the-way county in West Virginia; you can’t get any further south than there. To get there, I had to drive 400 miles way into western Virginia to Grundy (near the Tennessee state line) and then drive north 22 miles up Rt. 83. Which was OK except for the 5-mile backup we got stuck on near Roanoke on I-81.

We stayed in Bluefield, then spent part of the day (on the way to Grundy) at an old volcanic caldera-turned-pretty/scenic valley called Burke’s Garden. One has to charge up a steep slope to get there but we had fun wandering about. It was named after one James Burke discovered it in 1748. Not wishing for the local Indians to know his whereabouts, he buried some potatoes he’d been eating. Apparently they sprouted the following year, hence Burke’s “garden.” The Appalachian Trail goes right by there and we had fun looking at the alpacas (the other photo) and driving past all the farms.

Then it was onto Grundy, where we met Lauren at the Comfort Inn, then drove 22 miles to to Jolo, where we met up with some pastors at the Church of the Lord Jesus which is on a tiny country road. And yes, in the middle of the service, out came the rattle snake, which was apparently in a good mood, as it didn’t bite anyone and instead curled itself about peoples’ arms as various pastors gingerly passed it around. One of the pastors told me that his dad died of a snake bite -took him 10 hours to die. Photos on the left wall of the church show various homecomings and people handling – you guessed it – serpents.

Stay tuned for more.

Wild Goose festival



As if Veeka and I hadn’t endured enough camping in the rough at the Papa festival, last weekend we headed south to North Carolina to cover yet another Christian music festival (although the term ‘Christian’ applies quite loosely here); the Wild Goose Festival in Shakori Hills about 30 miles from Chapel Hill, NC.
I had talked the Economist into letting me cover this gathering of 1,500 people because it was a copy of the UK’s longstanding and successful Greenbelt Festival in Cheltenham, which premiered in 1974. Some 20,000 attendees show up at Greenbelt and the American organizers seeking to copy Greenbelt hope the numbers will get that large here too.
I dunno. It was America’s first-ever such gathering for theological liberals from June 23-26, on 72 wooded acres in Bible Belt eastern North Carolina. To get more to attend, the conference was open to all manner of post-Christians, non-Christians, disaffected evangelicals, the usual musician-and-artist cohort, gays and lesbians and a liberal evangelical subset known as the “emergent” church. I had thought the emergent folk faded out about five years ago but no, they were in full flower here. A lot of older liberals: Jim Wallis, Richard Rohr and Phyllis Tickle, the high priestess of the emergent movement, were quite present at this conference and most were pushing their books. I did find Tickle’s assertion – that the present emergent movement is up there with the Reformation and the Great Schism of 1054 in terms of importance to Christianity – to be quite a reach. Then again, she calls John Wimber emergent so her boundaries include basically anything that’s occurred in the world of religion in the past 30 years.
Others, such as gay San Francisco Episcopal rector Paul Fromberg, were on several panels and I’ll say this up front; I was quite unprepared as to how homosexual rights ended up as such an obsession at Wild Goose. Panels on sexuality and justice compared America’s fight against racism to the current struggle for gay marriage et al to be legal. Interestingly, there weren’t any panels on racism that I knew about. Ditto for abortion. For all the talk on justice, etc., the crowd was overwhelmingly white which goes to show that liberal religion doesn’t necessarily play well in the minds of black Christians.
My favorite speaker was Nadia Bolz-Weber, an ELCA cleric out of Denver who pastors House for All Sinners and Saints there. See the tatooed person in the photo of people celebrating Holy Communion? Yep, that is a Lutheran minister. She had some fresh insights and she didn’t speak in cliches as did folks like Frank Schaeffer (who makes a living dumping on his dead and famous father) and Jay Bakker. Bakker, son of Jim and Tammy Faye, appeared as a fashion plate with a black vest over a white T-shirt (the temps were in the 90s), a chain draped over one hip, a scarf artfully arranged out of a front pocket and another coming out of a back pocket topped by a beret – it was a bit much. His rambling speech was so disorganized and self-centered, I snuck out after a half-hour.
Big regret is I didn’t get to hear the musicians more but Wild Goose erred in putting the Psalters up on Thursday night, before many of us had gotten there. And then there was the Ethiopian-born singer who was leading folks in singing “Hallelujah Hare Krishna.” Double take when I heard that one. Was wondering if I was going to even see a Bible at this conference; finally saw someone sporting one but things like Bible studies and praise/worship music did not happen there. There was a beer garden, however.
I was told conference organizers had wanted to invite Chuck Colson in to talk about prison reform so I’m not saying they aimed to have an unbalanced conference but most of the panels were clearly stacked towards a liberal point of view. The kids ministry portion was very well done and Veeka was very happy to be making all manner of knitted stuff out of yarn. Note the purple cat painted on one of her cheeks in our photo here. And the little blue thing on her head that she knit. Also notice how hot we both look. I pinned up my hair the entire weekend.
The last night of the festival, people were so noisy, I was up til well past 2:30 a.m. I walked outside the tent and saw the loveliest sky with a sliver of bright moon hanging amongst the stars. The night was warm and the crickets were chirping loudly. The volunteers who kept the conference running were a most gracious group of people and I didn’t meet one grouchy one, which is amazing considering how steamy and buggy it was. The site had been used for bluegrass festivals so it wasn’t totally virgin land like we had at Papa. Thus ends Veeka’s and my camping experiments for this summer. We are done with tents, bumpy grass, critters that crawl about the tent and poison ivy.
Here is the link to my piece in the Economist.

Myself as brand


June is certainly ‘bustin out all over’ with steamy hot days, which mean we’ve had the air on for several days straight. It has to be pretty hot for me to resort to AC all day but even the kids in Veeka’s day school are kept in during the afternoons because of the temps.
These days I’m going through boxes of old files from work, realizing that I’ll not be doing stories again on most of these items. It’s kind of bittersweet to go through years of documents over the Episcopal/Anglican breakup, which I chronicled as much – if not more – than any other US religion reporter for the secular media. Then there are the files on sexually abusive priests; also gay priests, gay bishops who hid the activities of their gay priests and sooo much material on church officials whom I – and many other reporters – knew were corrupt but we didn’t quite have enough to go on for a story. Re-reading some of those files made me sad that so many bad people got away with ruining the careers of good priests who dared to speak out against them.
It’s so sad to see the evisceration of the religion beat. So many friends have fled to academia to teach or get doctorates or take refuge in fellowships that allow them to travel the globe. So few hires are happening these days and the stories are as important as ever. Many of these same bishops and cardinals remain in power. The Episcopalians and the Anglicans are still fighting it out in court.
I’ve been working around the house a bit, painting the stone border around the crape myrtle in the back yard. Pictured is Veeka posing atop the stones which took forever to get done. The week I applied the primer was when there was a thunderstorm every afternoon mean that my paint job would get wiped out. Am working on other stuff; just started a “social media boot camp” where you learn how to analyze traffic and demographics on various web sites. Today was my first day and it was sure interesting hearing the lecturers say you can’t just have a presence on the web; you need to stand out. More sobering for my occupation; social media such as Twitter and Facebook have leveled the information-sharing play field that journalists once owned. Now everyone can and does provide information. Whether or not it’s accurate is another thing altogether but the presence of so many citizen-journalists has decimated the ranks of the professionals.
I tried measuring how many people read this site and the number was so low, the counting mechanism showed nothing. Hmmm – I have signed onto a different web site host so hopefully within a new months I’ll have a refurbished site that I’ll have a hand in designing. Guess I’ll recreate myself as a brand, right?

Jonah and the ides of March



Finally my story on Metropolitan Jonah, the head of the Orthodox Church in America, is out in this Sunday’s Washington Post magazine. You can see it here. And the print edition, which most people will see Saturday, is gorgeous with some really great photos by a Russian-speaking photographer who belongs to the local Orthodox cathedral where a lot of the action in the story takes place. I’ve learned more about Orthodox church politics during the past 10 weeks than I’ve known in a lifetime, especially after the story took a dramatic turn in late February when Jonah’s bishops revolted against him and he came perilously close to losing his job. Long story why. Had he resigned, the story would have had to be killed and I would have been one unhappy camper. Fortunately Jonah hung on and just this week, a high Russian church official from Moscow – Archbishop Hilarion – breezed into New York and apparently gave pretty much everyone involved a dressing down and told the OCA’ers to get their act together. Note: the drawing in red/blue is Jonah, not Hilarion.

Our lives here are quiet and the second photo is of Veeka and some friends on a bridge in the Shenandoah Valley where I went a few weeks ago just to get away. The crocuses and forsythia are finally out here and the danger of snow is past, for which I’m grateful. I’m working on more freelance stories but – alas – none of them are enough to pay the bills and so I’m also trolling for full-time work. I was talking with a lawyer friend tonight who was remarking as to how many firms are using contract help so they don’t have to pay benefits, much less salaries. This is deadly for folks like me. Another friend remarked that the only way that anyone who writes books, blogs and magazine articles can survive is to be married to someone who *is* making a salary.
Which all goes to say the world of blogging and freelancing is lovely in a fashion but economically it is not working and has not been working for me in my now-nine months of being out of work. So when the Subaru dealer informed me yesterday I was paying $618 for car repairs, that was again a reminder that my days of working out of my home cannot last much longer.
Veeka is doing better in her new school and is gaining some serious weight, making it much harder for me to lift her. She’s become a desert-aholic like me; a meal is not complete unless there’s something sweet at the end. We were at a friend’s home for dinner tonight and sure enough, she was whispering to me afterwards whether I could quietly sneak her my last piece of candy in my purse.