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.