Remembering it’s an honor just to be read

Strange moment this morn­ing when I checked my blog stats and real­ized that I get a fair amount of traf­fic for a movie review I wrote last year. I was check­ing the stats to see if any of the Quaker-related search terms might give clues for future con­tent on Friends Jour­nal or Quak­er­S­peak and for that pur­pose the review’s pop­u­lar­i­ty with Google (and read­ers) isn’t that use­ful.

But this blog is just my life spun out. I don’t aim for key­words and I don’t want to dom­i­nate a thought-sphere. If I see a movie and jot down some impres­sions that attract a small audi­ence, then my blog post is a suc­cess. A dozen or so ran­dom peo­ple a month Google in to spend a cou­ple of min­utes read­ing my thoughts on a fifty-year-old movie. That’s cool. That’s enough. In all the talk of tar­get­ing and SEO we some­times for­get that it’s an hon­or to sim­ply be read.

The oth­er night stayed up late to cud­dled with my wife and watch good-natured but flawed Rom-Com. I read some reviews on IMDB and pon­dered the clich­es in the show­er the next morn­ing. Boil­ing these impres­sions down into 500 words on a train com­mute would be easy enough. I should do it more.

Up Into The Cherry Tree

Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses
Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Gar­den of Vers­es

My moth­er died a few days ago. While I’m over­whelmed with the mes­sages of prayers and con­do­lences, at least at some lev­el it feels like cheat­ing to accept them too ful­ly. This isn’t a new con­di­tion. This is just the final moment of a slow-motion death.

A lit­tle over five years ago my moth­er was for­mal­ly diag­nosed with Alzheimer’s. It was quite brave of her to get the test­ing done when she did. This had always been her most-feared sce­nario for aging. Grow­ing up, we had befriend­ed an active elder­ly neigh­bor who had gen­tly died in her sleep after a minor slip on some ice. My mom thought that was the best exit ever. She swore Mrs. Gold­smith had come to her in a dream the next night to con­grat­u­late her­self, say­ing “See, I told you I was lucky!” For years after­wards, my moth­er con­vinced her­self that she would go in a sim­i­lar­ly ele­gant way.

My mom, Liz, must have sensed that Alzheimer’s was a pos­si­bil­i­ty when she sched­uled that doctor’s vis­it. The news didn’t come as much of a sur­prise to us fam­i­ly. I had been jok­ing for years that my mom seemed to have only twen­ty sto­ries that she kept on rota­tion. After she read a study that cross­word puz­zles keep your brain sharp as we age, she became an obses­sive cross­word puz­zler; when the Sudoku craze hit, she was right on top of it. She had brave­ly bought her first house in her late 60s. How proud she was. At the time she let us all know, repeat­ed­ly, that she would be leav­ing it “in a box.” Caulk­ing trim, replac­ing win­dows, and trou­bleshoot­ing a mud room leak that defied a dozen con­trac­tors became her occu­pa­tion, along with vol­un­teer­ing and watch­ing grand­kids. But by 2010, she must have known she wasn’t going to have Mrs. Goldsmith’s luck. It was time to adjust.

When she called to tell me the diag­no­sis, she couldn’t even use the A-word. She told me her “brain was dying” and that the doc­tor was putting her on Ari­cept. A quick Google search con­firmed this was an Alzheimer’s drug and a call with the doc­tor lat­er that after­noon helped map out the road ahead.

Alzheimer’s is a slow-motion death. She’s been dis­ap­pear­ing from us for a long while. Reg­u­lar out­ings became less fre­quent till we couldn’t even take her out to a near­by restau­rant for her birth­day. As words dis­ap­peared and speech began fal­ter­ing, I’d show her recent kid pho­tos on my phone and tell sto­ries to fill the emp­ty­ing space. Even­tu­al­ly she stopped show­ing inter­est even in this. On my last reg­u­lar vis­it with her, I brought the kids and we had lots of fun tak­ing pic­tures. Mom kept point­ing out at the phone’s dis­play as if it were a mir­ror. But con­ver­sa­tion was too dis­joint­ed and after a few min­utes, my kids start­ed wan­der­ing in ever widen­ing cir­cles look­ing for inter­est­ing but­tons and alarms to touch and pull and I had to round them up to leave.

In the past few weeks her for­get­ful­ness has extend­ed to eat­ing and swal­low­ing. Inter­ven­tion would only buy a lit­tle more time until she for­got how to breathe. Alzheimer’s is a one way trip.

On my last few vis­its she was most­ly sleep­ing. She’s was calm, preter­nat­u­ral­ly calm. Lying on her back, pale and peace­ful, she looked as if she might already be a body rest­ing in a cas­ket. Only the slight rise of sheets as she breathed gave away the news that she was still with us, if bare­ly. I felt awk­ward just sit­ting there. Some peo­ple are good in these kinds of sit­u­a­tions, but I self-consciously strug­gle. With lit­tle chance of inter­ac­tion, I struck on the idea of read­ing from a favorite book of poems that she had read to me on count­less nights as a child.  “Up into the cher­ry tree, who should climb but lit­tle me?” I don’t know if she heard me or pic­tured the cher­ry tree in her haze, but it was a way for us to be togeth­er.

The slow-motion nature of Alzheimer’s means she slept a lot until she didn’t. For rea­sons that go deep into biog­ra­phy, she was a won­der­ful­ly friend­ly per­son who didn’t have a lot of close friends any­more. It seems pecu­liar that one can walk upon the earth for so many decades and only have a dozen or so peo­ple notice your depar­ture. But then maybe that’s the norm for those who live deep into their eight­ies. Most of us will leave life with the same kind of qui­et rip­ples with which we entered.

Liz (Betsy) Klein(top) aka Mom

My mom Liz just passed away tonight. It’s not unex­pect­ed. And sad­ly, giv­en her health, it’s per­haps not even so trag­ic; she’s been declin­ing for years from Alzheimer’s and all but stopped eat­ing in recent weeks. I’m sure I’ll find voice to tell some sto­ries in the months ahead, but for now I’ll share some pic­tures. She would have turned 85 next month.

A note about names: she was born in late sum­mer 1930 as Eliz­a­beth Ann Klein­top. In her adult life she went as Bet­sy and took the last names of her part­ners. In her late 60s she decid­ed to take back a vari­a­tion of her last name and overnight Bet­sy Kel­ley became Liz Klein.

NYTimes video remembers the 1965 Selma James Reeb attack

One of the white min­is­ters with James Reeb in the 1965 attack that helped pro­pel the Vot­ing Rights Act remem­bers the night.

He also reflects on the val­ue of white lives vs. black lives for nation­al atten­tion in the Civ­il Rights Move­ment. While the actu­al Sel­ma march was protest­ing the killing of black civ­il rights activist Jim­mie Lee Jack­son by a state troop­er, nation­al out­rage focused on the vis­it­ing white min­is­ter.

In 1967, Dr. King not­ed, “The fail­ure to men­tion Jim­my [sic] Jack­son only rein­forced the impres­sion that to white Amer­i­cans the life of a Negro is insignif­i­cant and mean­ing­less.”

Don’t miss Gail Whif­f­en Coyle’s overview of con­tem­po­rary Friends Jour­nal cov­er­age of Sel­ma on our web­site.

Normcore and the new-old Quaker plain

In the last few weeks, the fash­ion seg­ment of the Inter­net has gone all a-buzz over new term “Norm­core.” Nor­mal, every­day, cloth­ing is appar­ent­ly show­ing up in down­town Man­hat­tan — gasp! Like many trendy terms, it’s not real­ly so new: back in the nineties and ear­ly oughts, Gap ruled the retail world with posters show­ing celebri­ties and artists wear­ing t-shirts and jeans avail­able at the local mall store. “Norm­core” is just the lead­ing edge of the utterly-predicable 20-year fash­ion indus­try pen­du­lum swing.

It also per­haps sig­nals a cul­tur­al shift away from snob­bery and into embrac­ing roots. One of the most pop­u­lar posts on the New York Times’s web­site last year cel­e­brat­ed region­al accents (appar­ent­ly Philadel­phi­ans are allowed to talk like Philadel­phi­ans again).

An ana­logue to this fash­ion trend has been occur­ing among Friends for a lit­tle while now. The “New Plain” dis­cus­sion have revolved around reclaim­ing an atti­tude, not a uni­form.

If you read the old Quak­er guide books (called “Books of Dis­ci­pline” then, now more often called “Faith and Prac­tice”), you’ll see that unlike oth­er plain-dressing Amer­i­can groups like the Amish, Quak­ers didn’t intend their clothes to be a uni­form show­ing group con­for­mi­ty. Instead, plain­ness is framed in terms of inte­ri­or moti­va­tions. Avoid­ing fash­ion trends helped Friends remem­ber that they were all equal before God. It also spoke to our con­tin­u­ing tes­ti­mo­ny of integri­ty, in that Friends were to dress the same way in dif­fer­ent con­texts and so vouch­safe for a sin­gle iden­ti­ty.

When I began feel­ing the tug of a lead­ing toward plain­ness it was for what I began call­ing “Sears Plain,” indi­cat­ing that I wore clothes that I could find in any box store or mall. I devel­oped a low-maintenance approach to fash­ion that freed up my time from shop­ping and the morn­ing dress­ing rit­u­al. Mod­ern plain­ness can les­son the temp­ta­tion to show off in in clothes and it can reduce the over­all wardrobe size and thus reduce our impact on the envi­ron­ment and with exploit­ed labor. But all this is noth­ing new and it nev­er real­ly dis­ap­peared. If you looked around a room of mod­ern Quak­ers you’ll often see a trend of sar­to­r­i­al bor­ing­ness; I was sim­ply nam­ing this and putting it in the con­text of our tra­di­tion.

image

Over time I found that these moti­va­tions were more preva­lent in the wider cul­ture, espe­cial­ly in the min­i­mal­ist techie scene. Steve Jobs famous­ly sport­ed a uni­form of black turtle­neck, jeans, and New Bal­ance sneak­ers (explained in 2011). In a 2012 pro­file, Barack Oba­ma talked about lim­it­ing his clothes to two col­ors of suits so that he could free up his decision-making ener­gies on more impor­tant issues (I wrote about his fash­ion in “Plain like Barack”).

Non-celebrities also seem inter­est­ed in work­ing out their rela­tion­ship with fash­ion. My arti­cles on mod­ern plain­ness have always been a big draw on my blog. While my fel­low Quak­ers are some­times mild­ly embar­rassed by our his­toric pecu­liar­i­ties, out­siders often eat this stuff up. They’re look­ing for what the techies would call “life hacks” that can help them pri­or­i­tize life essen­tials. If we can com­mu­ni­cate our val­ues in a real way that isn’t propped by appeals to the author­i­ty of tra­di­tion, then we can reach these seek­ers.

So now that “Norm­core” is appear­ing in places like Huff­in­g­ton Post , the New York Times and fash­ion mag­a­zines, will Friends be able to talk more about it? Do we still have a col­lec­tive wit­ness in regards to the mate­ri­al­ism and ego-centricity of fash­ion mar­ket­ing?

The QuakerRanter Top-Five

Outreach, Family, Pacifism, and Blog Culture

At year’s end it’s always inter­est­ing to look back and see which arti­cles got the most vis­its. Here are the top-five Quak​er​Ran​ter​.org blog posts of 2013.

1. Outreach gets people to your meetinghouse / Hospitality keeps people returning

This grew out of a inter­est­ing lit­tle tweet about search engine opti­miza­tion that got me think­ing about how Friends Meet­ings can retain the curi­ous one-time vis­i­tors.

2. Tom Heiland

My father-in-law died in Jan­u­ary. These are few pic­tures I put togeth­er while Julie was still at the fam­i­ly home with the close rel­a­tives. Thanks to our friends for shar­ing a bit of our life by read­ing this one. He’s missed.

3. Expanding Concepts of Pacifism

A look at Friends tes­ti­monies and the dif­fi­cul­ties of being a fair-trade paci­fist in our hyper-connected world today. I think George Fox and the ear­ly Friends were faced with sim­i­lar chal­lenges and that our guide can be the same as theirs.

4. Rethinking Blogs

A num­ber of new ser­vices are try­ing to update the cul­ture of blog­ging. This post looked at com­ments; a sub­se­quent one con­sid­ered how we might reor­ga­nize our blogs into more of a struc­tured Wiki.

5. Iraq Ten Years Later: Some of Us Weren’t Wrong

This year saw a lot of hang wring­ing by main­stream jour­nal­ists on the anniver­sary of the Iraq War. I didn’t have much patience and looked at how dis­sent­ing voic­es were reg­u­lar­ly locked out of debate ten years ago – and are still locked out with the talk that “all of us” were wrong then.

I should give the caveat that these are the top-five most-read arti­cles that were writ­ten this year. Many of the clas­sics still out­per­form these. The most read con­tin­ues to be my post on unpop­u­lar baby names (just today I over­heard an expec­tant moth­er approv­ing­ly going through a list of over-trendy names; I won­dered if I should send her the link). My post on how to order men’s plain cloth­ing from Gohn’s Broth­ers con­tin­ues to be pop­u­lar, as does a report about a trip to a leg­endary water hole deep in the South Jer­sey pines.