February Flashbacks

I’m ter­ri­ble with blog­ging these days, aren’t I? Actu­al­ly my last few bits of writ­ing have been for Friends Jour­nal. I’m post­ing once a month for the Editor’s Desk series high­light­ing upcom­ing themes and I’m writ­ing every oth­er intro­duc­to­ry col­umn for the print mag­a­zine. For exam­ple, here’s February’s The Roots of Our Lifestyle. I chime in when a vin­tage post of mine hits Red­dit as hap­pens every so often and I often drop “hey, this would make a inter­est­ing arti­cle” com­ments in live­ly Face­book threads, along with a link to the Friends Jour­nal sub­mis­sions page.

Well, one way I’m try­ing to psych myself is to look at my his­to­ry of blog­ging every month.

1 Year Ago: February 2017

A rare juicy post of mine from the last few years and one of the few times any­one has fol­lowed my blog’s Ask Me Any­thing link.

AMA: Con­ser­v­a­tive and Lib­er­al Friends? But even these brief obser­va­tions are impre­cise and can mask sur­pris­ing­ly sim­i­lar tal­ents and stum­bling blocks. We all of us are humans, after all. The Inward Christ is always avail­able to instruct and com­fort, just as we are all bro­ken and prone to act impul­sive­ly against that advice.

5 Years Ago: February 2013

Some fun!

Sec­tar­i­an Symp­toms: Jumpers, Shak­ers, Quak­ers, and… 

10 Years Ago: February 2008

Oh look at that, I was com­ment­ing about a Friends Jour­nal arti­cle!

Look­ing at North Amer­i­can Friends and the­o­log­i­cal hotspots. Over on Friends Jour­nal site, some recent stats on Friends most­ly in the US and Cana­da. Writ­ten by Mar­garet Fras­er, the head of FWCC, a group that tries to unite the dif­fer­ent bod­ies of Friends, it’s a bit of cold water for most of us.

15 Years Ago January 2003

I was writ­ing about U.S. for­eign pol­i­cy seemed to be avoid­ing a grow­ing sit­u­a­tion in North Korea. Oh my, too time­ly still.

Tough Time to Love War(Making). Pres­i­dent Bush and his team of war mon­ger­ers have been so busy look­ing at Iraq that they’ve giv­en North Korea just spo­radic atten­tion. Recently-declassified reports show that the U.S. Cen­tral Intel­li­gence Agency has known much more about North Korea’s nuclear bomb mak­ing over the last dozen years than anyone’s been admit­ting.

20 Years Ago: Early 1998

This is like one of those Face­book memes where you present a preschool­er with a piece of tech­nol­o­gy that dis­ap­peared decades ago and ask them to guess at the use. Hey kids, gath­er round: have you ever heard of the Polaroid 600 and Spec­tra series? I had them both.

Bur­nished Polaroids. This is a style of pho­tog­ra­phy I got into a few years ago. It’s appeal is sim­ple: it takes lit­tle tech­ni­cal exper­tise and the process itself is lim­it­ed in time. Every­thing boils down to basic form: a suc­cess­ful pho­to depends on set­ting up a good shot and then bring­ing it’s poten­tial out in the bur­nish­ing. 

Recovering the past through photos

2015 looks like it’s shap­ing up to be the year that online cloud pho­to ser­vices all take a giant leapt for­ward. Just in the last few months alone, I’ve gone and dug up my ten-plus year pho­to archive from a rarely accessed back­up dri­ve (some 72 GB of files) and uploaded it to three dif­fer­ent pho­to ser­vices.

First it was Drop­box, whose Carousel app promised to change every­thing. For $10/month, I can have all of the dig­i­tized pho­tos I’ve ever tak­en all togeth­er. It changed how I access past events. Back in the day I might have tak­en 20 pic­tures and post­ed 2 to Flickr. The oth­er 18 were for all intents inac­ces­si­ble to me — on the back­up dri­ve that sits in a dusty draw­er in my desk. Now I could look up some event on my pub­lic Flickr, remem­ber the date, then head to Dropbox/Carousel to look through every­thing I took that day — all on my phone. Some­times I’d even share the whole roll from that event to folks who were there.

But this was a two-step process. Flickr itself had boost­ed its stor­age space last year but it wasn’t until recent­ly that they revealed a new Cam­era Roll and uploader that made this all work more seam­less­ly. So all my pho­tos again went up there. Now I didn’t have to jug­gle between two apps.

Last week, Google final­ly (final­ly!) broke its pho­tos from Google+ and the rem­nants of Picasa to give them their own home. It’s even more fab­u­lous than Flickr and Drop­box, in that its search is so good as to feel like mag­ic. Peo­ple, places, and image sub­jects all can be accessed with the search speed that Google is known for. And this ser­vice is free and uploads old videos.

Theo (identified by his baby nickname, "Skoochie") in a backpack as we scout for Christmas trees, December 2003.
Screen­shot of Theo (iden­ti­fied by his baby nick­name, “Skoochie”) and Julie, Decem­ber 2003.

I’m con­stant­ly sur­prised how just how emo­tion­al­ly pow­er­ful an old pho­to or video can be (I waxed lyri­cal­ly about this in Nos­tal­gia Comes Ear­ly, writ­ten just before our last fam­i­ly vaca­tion). This week­end I found a short clip from 2003 of my wife car­ry­ing our new­born in a back­pack and cit­ing how many times he had wok­en us up the night before. At the end she joked that she could guilt trip him in years to come by show­ing this video to him. Now the clip is some­thing I can find, load, and play in a few sec­onds right from my ever-present phone.

So what I’ve noticed is this quick access to unshared pho­tos is chang­ing the nature of my cell­phone photo-taking. I’m tak­ing pic­tures that I nev­er intend to share but that give me an estab­lish­ing shot for a par­tic­u­lar event: signs, dri­ve­way entrances, maps. Now that I have unlim­it­ed stor­age and a cam­era always with­in reach, I can use it as a quick log of even the most quo­tid­i­an life events (MG Siegler recent­ly wrote about The Pow­er of the Screen­shot, which is anoth­er way that quick and ubiq­ui­tous pho­to access is chang­ing how and what we save.) With GPS coor­di­nates and pre­cise times, it’s espe­cial­ly use­ful. But the most pro­found effect is not the activ­i­ty log­ging, but still the emo­tions release unlock­ing all-but-lost mem­o­ries: remem­ber­ing long-ago day trips and vis­its with old friends.

Make a buck, make a buck

“There’s a lot of bad ‘isms’ float­in’ around this world, but one of the worst is com­mer­cial­ism. Make a buck, make a buck.”
–Alfred, Mir­a­cle on 34th Street (1947)

Did Thanks­giv­ing even hap­pen? Walk­ing around the neigh­bor­hood and scan­ning the store cir­cu­lars it seems more like some blip between Hal­loween can­dy and Christ­mas toys. In 1947, Alfred’s Christ­mas ism was a fast-footed sprint launched by Santa’s appear­ance at the end of the Thanks­giv­ing parade (though with all due respect for Mr Macy, for us old time Philadel­phi­ans the finale will always be a red-coated fire­man climb­ing into Gimble’s fifth floor).

What was a six week sprint for Christ­mas sales in 1947 has stretched out to the leisure­ly half-mile jog through the autumn months. Trea­cly remakes of hol­i­day stan­dards have been play­ing in malls for weeks. Box store work­ers who might have pre­ferred to spend time with their fam­i­ly on Thanks­giv­ing were pressed into ser­vice for pre-Black Fri­day sales (fed by the hype of arti­fi­cial scarci­ty, it feeds the gam­bler gene’s need for the big win). And today, serv­er farms around the coun­try are over­heat­ing to meet the demands of the lat­est retail gim­mick, the seven-year-old Cyber Mon­day (proof that cap­i­tal­ism hasn’t for­got­ten how to dream up more “make a buck” isms).

And all for what? Most of us mid­dle class Amer­i­cans have every­thing we need. What we lack isn’t the stuff that line the shelves of Wal­mart super­stores and Ama­zon dis­tri­b­u­tion cen­ters, but the us that we’re too busy to share with one anoth­er.

I love the puri­ty of ear­li­er gen­er­a­tions of Quak­ers. They point­ed­ly ignored Christ­mas, work­ing and open­ing their schools on the 25th. They would have undoubt­ed­ly skipped the com­mer­cial­ism of the mod­ern con­sumer hol­i­day. But I’m not will­ing to go that far. In our fam­i­ly Thanks­giv­ing and Christ­mas is a time of togeth­er­ness and sea­son­al habits–tag­ging the Christ­mas tree, Sweetzel’s spiced wafers, mak­ing cook­ies and pies, vis­it­ing fam­i­ly. When I was young, my moth­er made a framed col­lage of my annu­al pho­tos with San­ta, and while it once fas­ci­nat­ed me as a doc­u­ment of San­ta vari­a­tions, now the inter­est is watch­ing myself grow up. Today, our family’s Flickr col­lec­tion of Christ­mas rou­tines shows that same pas­sage of time. None of us need fall into the Hal­loThanks­Mas sea­son of make-a-buck-ism to find joy in togeth­er­ness.

As I’ve used G+ more the last week, I’ve realized the service that feels…

As I’ve used G+ more the last week, I’ve real­ized the ser­vice that feels the most redun­dant is my Tum­blr account (on the cus­tom domain http://​www​.quack​quack​.org). I start­ed the Tum­blr because I want­ed some­thing more “mine” than Face­book, a place where my pho­tos and links would live inde­pen­dent­ly. But how sil­ly – Tum­blr is just a host­ed ser­vice that I ulti­mate­ly have no con­trol over.

So what’s dif­fer­ent with G+ and Face­book? I think it’s the sense that Google will archive things. It feels like every­thing dis­ap­pears after it ages off of the FB feed. #blog

Embed­ded Link

Mis­cel­lanea from Mar­tin Kel­ley

Google+: View post on Google+

Tempations, shared paths and religious accountability

Some­times it seems as if mod­erns are look­ing back at his­to­ry through the wrong end of the tele­scope: every­thing seems soooo far away. The effect is mag­ni­fied when we’re talk­ing about spir­i­tu­al­i­ty. The ancients come off as car­toon­ish fig­ures with a com­pli­cat­ed set of worked out philoso­phies and pro­hi­bi­tions that we have to adopt or reject whole­sale. The ide­al is to be a liv­ing branch on a long-rooted tree. But how do we intel­li­gent­ly con­verse with the past and nego­ti­ate changes?

Let’s talk Friends and music. The car­toon Quak­er in our his­tor­i­cal imag­i­na­tion glares down at us with heavy dis­ap­proval when it comes to music. They’re squares who just didn’t get it.

Get­ting past the car­toons

Thomas Clark­son, our Angli­can guide to Quak­er thought cir­ca 1700, brings more nuance to the scru­ples. “The Quak­ers do not deny that instru­men­tal music is capa­ble of excit­ing delight. They are not insen­si­ble either of its pow­er or of its charms. They throw no impu­ta­tion on its inno­cence, when viewed abstract­ly by itself.” (p. 64)

“Abstract­ly by itself”: when eval­u­at­ing a social prac­tice, Friends look at its effects in the real world. Does it lead to snares and tem­pa­tions? Quak­ers are engaged in a grand exper­i­ment in “chris­t­ian” liv­ing, keep­ing to lifestyles that give us the best chance at moral liv­ing. The warn­ings against cer­tain activ­i­ties are based on obser­va­tion borne of expe­ri­ence. The Quak­er guide­lines are wikis, notes com­piled togeth­er into a col­lec­tive mem­o­ry of which activ­i­ties pro­mote – and which ones threat­en – the lead­ing of a moral life.

Clark­son goes on to detail Quaker’s con­cerns about music. They’re all actu­al­ly quite valid. Here’s a sam­pling:

  • Peo­ple some­times learn music just so they can show off and make oth­ers look tal­ent­less.
  • Reli­gious music can become a end to itself as peo­ple become focused on com­po­si­tion and play­ing (we’ve real­ly decon­tex­tu­al­ized: much of the music played at orches­tra halls is Mass­es; much of the music played at folk fes­ti­val is church spir­i­tu­als).
  • Music can be a big time waster, both in its learn­ing and its lis­ten­ing.
  • Music can take us out into the world and lead to a self-gratification and fash­ion.

I won’t say any of these are absolute rea­son to ban music, but as a list of neg­a­tive temp­ta­tions they still apply. The Catholic church my wife belongs to very con­scious­ly has music as a cen­ter­piece. It’s very beau­ti­ful, but I always appre­ci­ate the pastor’s reminder that the music is in ser­vice to the Mass and that no one had bet­ter clap at some per­for­mance! Like with Friends, we’re see­ing a delib­er­ate bal­anc­ing of ben­e­fits vs temp­ta­tions and a warn­ing against the snares that the choice has left open.

Con­text con­text con­text

In sec­tion iv, Clark­son adds time to the equa­tion. Remem­ber, the Quak­er move­ment is already 150 years old. Times have changed:

Music at [the time of ear­ly Quak­ers] was prin­ci­pal­ly in the hands of those, who made a liveli­hood of the art. Those who fol­lowed it as an accom­plish­ment, or a recre­ation, were few and those fol­lowed it with mod­er­a­tion. But since those days, its progress has been immense… Many of the mid­dle class­es, in imi­ta­tion of the high­er, have received it… It is learned now, not as a source of occa­sion­al recre­ation, but as a com­pli­cat­ed sci­ence, where per­fec­tion is insist­ed upon to make it worth of pur­suit. p.76.

Again we see Clarkson’s Quak­ers mak­ing dis­tinc­tions between types and moti­va­tions of musi­cian­ship. The labor­er who plays a gui­tar after a hard day on the field is less wor­ri­some than the obsessed ado­les­cent who spends their teen years locked in the den prac­tic­ing Stair­way to Heav­en. And when music is played at large fes­ti­vals that lead youth “into com­pa­ny” and fash­ions, it threat­ens the reli­gious soci­ety: “it has been found, that in pro­por­tion as young Quak­ers mix with the world, they gen­er­al­ly imbibe its spir­it, and weak­en them­selves as mem­bers of their own body.”

Music has changed even more rad­i­cal­ly in the suceed­ing two cen­turies. Most of the music in our lives is pre-recorded; it’s ubiq­ui­tious and often invol­un­tary (you can’t go shop­ping with­out it). Add in the drone of TV and many of us spend an insane amount of time in its semi-narcotic haze of iso­lat­ed lis­ten­er­ship. Then, what about DIY music and sin­ga­longs. Is there a dis­tinc­tion to be made between testoterone power-chord rock and twee singer-songwriter strums? Between are­nas and cof­fee­house shows? And move past music into the oth­er media of our lives. What about movies, DVS, com­put­ers, glossy mag­a­zines, talk shows. Should Friends waste their time obsess­ing over Amer­i­can Idol? Well what about Prairie Home Com­pan­ion?

Does a social prac­tice lead us out into the world in a way that makes it hard for us to keep a moral cen­ter? What if we turned off the medi­at­ed con­sumer uni­verse and engaged in more spir­i­tu­al­ly reward­ing activ­i­ties – con­tem­pla­tive read­ing, ser­vice work, vis­it­ing with oth­ers? But what if music, com­put­ers, radio, is part of the way we’re engag­ing with the world?

How to decide?

Final­ly, in Clarkson’s days Friends had an elab­o­rate series of courts that would decide about social prac­tices both in the abstract (whether they should be pub­lished as warn­ings) and the par­tic­u­lar (whether a par­tic­u­lar per­son had strayed too far and fall­en in moral dan­ger). Clark­son was writ­ing for a non-Quaker audi­ence and often trans­lat­ed Quak­erese: “courts” was his name for month­ly, quar­ter­ly and year­ly meet­ing struc­tures. I sus­pect that those ses­sions more close­ly resem­bled courts than they do the mod­ern insti­tu­tions that share their name. The court sys­tem led to its own abus­es and start­ed to break down short­ly after Clarkson’s book was pub­lished and doesn’t exist any­more.

We find out­selves today pret­ty much with­out any struc­ture for shar­ing our expe­ri­ences (“Faith and Prac­tice” sort of does this but most copies just gath­er dust on shelves). Month­ly meet­ings don’t feel that over­sight of their mem­bers is their respon­si­bil­i­ty; many of us have seen them look the oth­er way even at fla­grant­ly egre­gious behav­ior and many Friends would be out­raged at the con­cept that their meet­ing might tell them what to do – I can hear the howls of protest now!

And yet, and yet: I hear many peo­ple long­ing for this kind of col­lec­tive inquiry and instruc­tion. A lot of the emer­gent church talk is about build­ing account­able com­mu­ni­ties. So we have two broad set of ques­tions: what sort of prac­tices hurt and hin­der our spir­i­tu­al lives in these mod­ern times; and how do we share and per­haps cod­i­fy guide­lines for twenty-first cen­tu­ry right­eous liv­ing?