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.

Pareto opportunities for Friends?

Nate Sil­ver recent­ly ran a piece on Mar­co Rubio’s pres­i­den­tial chances has used the previously-unknown-to-me con­cept of the “Pare­to fron­tier” to line up poten­tial candidates:

In eco­nom­ics, there’s a con­cept known as Pare­to effi­cien­cy. It means that you ought to be able to elim­i­nate any choice if anoth­er one dom­i­nates it along every dimen­sion. The remain­ing choic­es sit along what’s called the Pare­to frontier.

Sil­ver then fol­lowed up with a real world exam­ple that speaks to my inter­est in food:

Imag­ine that in addi­tion to White Cas­tle and The French Laun­dry, there are two Ital­ian restau­rants in your neigh­bor­hood. One is the chain restau­rant Olive Gar­den. You actu­al­ly like Olive Gar­den per­fect­ly well. But down the block is a local red-sauce joint called Giovanni’s. The food is a lit­tle bet­ter there than at Olive Gar­den (although not as good as at The French Laun­dry), and it’s a lit­tle cheap­er than Olive Gar­den (although not as cheap as White Cas­tle). So you can elim­i­nate Olive Gar­den from your reper­toire; it’s dom­i­nat­ed along both dimen­sions by Giovanni’s.

These days we choose more than our din­ner des­ti­na­tions. Spir­i­tu­al­i­ty has become a mar­ket­place. While there have always been con­verts, it feels as if the pace of reli­gious lane-changing has steadi­ly quick­ened in recent times. Many peo­ple are choos­ing their reli­gious affil­i­a­tion rather than stick­ing with the faith tra­di­tions of their par­ents. For Quak­ers, this has been a net pos­i­tive, as many of our meet­ing­hous­es are full of “con­vinced” Friends who came in to our reli­gious soci­ety as adults.

Quak­ers are some­what unique in our mar­ket poten­tial. I would argue that we fall on two spots of the reli­gious “pare­to curve”:

  • The first is a kind of mass-market entry point for the “spir­i­tu­al but not reli­gious” set that wants to dip its toe into an orga­nized reli­gion that’s nei­ther very orga­nized nor reli­gious. Lib­er­al Friends don’t have min­is­ters or creeds, we don’t feel or sound too churchy, and we’re not par­tic­u­lar­ly con­cerned about what new seek­ers believe. It’s a per­fect fit for do-it-yourself seek­ers that are look­ing for non-judgmental spiritually-minded progressives.
  • Our sec­ond pare­to fron­tier beach­head is more grad-school lev­el: we’re a good spot for peo­ple who have a strong reli­gious con­vic­tions but seek a com­mu­ni­ty with less restric­tions. They’ve mem­o­rized whole sec­tions of the Bible and might have the­o­log­i­cal train­ing. They’re burned out by judg­men­tal­ism and spirit-less rou­tine and are seek­ing out a more authen­tic reli­gious com­mu­ni­ty of reli­gious peers open to dis­cus­sion and growth.

It seems we often reach out to one or the oth­er type of “pare­to” seek­er. I see that as part of the dis­cus­sion around Mic­ah Bales’s recent piece on Quak­er church plant­i­ng–do we focus on new, unaf­fil­i­at­ed seek­ers or seri­ous reli­gious dis­ci­ples look­ing for a dif­fer­ent type of com­mu­ni­ty. I’d be curi­ous to hear if any Quak­er out­reach pro­grams have tried to reach out to both simul­ta­ne­ous­ly. Is it even pos­si­ble to sucess­ful­ly mar­ket that kind of dual message?

The two-touch pare­to nature of Friends and pop spir­i­tu­al cul­ture sug­gests that meet­ings could focus their inter­nal work on being the bridge from what we might call the “pare­to entrances.” New­com­ers who have walked through the door because we’re not out­ward­ly churchy could be wel­comed into Quak­erism 101 cours­es to be intro­duced to Quak­er tech­niques for spir­i­tu­al ground­ing and growth – and so they can deter­mine whether for­mal mem­ber­ship is a good fit. Those who have come for the deep spir­i­tu­al ground­ing can join as well, but also be giv­en the oppor­tu­ni­ties for smaller-scale reli­gious con­ver­sa­tions and prac­tice, through Bible study groups, region­al extend­ed wor­ships and trips to region­al opportunities.

If you add charts you don't understand to blog posts, people will think you're extra smart.
If you add charts to blog posts, peo­ple will think you’re super-duper smart.

Can we count the ways that the McKinney video is messed up?

mckinney2When the McK­in­ney video start­ed trend­ing I wasn’t in a state to watch so I read the com­men­tary. Now that I have, the whole thing is com­plete­ly messed up but at least three parts espe­cial­ly unnerve me:

  • The com­plete­ly unnec­es­sary commando-style dive-and-roll that intro­duces Cor­po­ral Eric Case­bolt. Some reports describe it as a trip but to me it looks like he’s play­ing a Hol­ly­wood action hero stunt dou­ble. Has he just been watch­ing too many of the police videos he’s been col­lect­ing on YouTube?
  • That none of the oth­er offi­cers saw his derring-do and said “yo Eric, stand down.” Is this some­thing cops just don’t do? And if not, why not? We all know what it’s like to be hopped up on too much adren­a­line. I know peo­ple do weird stuff when their rep­til­ian brain fight-or-flight mech­a­nism cuts in. It seems that offi­cers should be on the look­out for just this sort of over­re­ac­tion and have some sort of safe word to tell one anoth­er to take a chill.
  • The video­g­ra­ph­er was a “invis­i­ble” white teenag­er. He walked near­by – and occa­sion­al­ly through – the action with­out being ques­tioned. At one point Case­bolt seems to pur­pose­ful­ly step around him to put down his dark-skinned friends. The video­g­ra­ph­er told news reporters that he felt his white­ness made him invis­i­ble to Casebolt.

I nev­er quite real­ized all the race pol­i­tics behind the switch from pub­lic pools vs pri­vate pool clubs. I grew up in a Philly sub­urb with two pub­lic pools and very much remem­ber the con­stant wor­ry that Philadel­phia kids might sneak in (“Philadel­phia” was of course code for “black”). The town­ship did have a his­tor­i­cal­ly African Amer­i­can neigh­bor­hood so the pools were racial­ly inte­grat­ed but I’m sure every dark-skinned town­ship res­i­dent was asked to show town ID a lot more than I was. And it’s hard to think it was entire­ly coin­ci­den­tal that both pub­lic pools were locat­ed on the oppo­site ends of the town­ship from the black neighborhood.

There are no pub­lic pools in the South Jer­sey town where I live. A satel­lite view picks out thir­teen pri­vate pools on my block alone. Thir­teen?!? There’s one pri­vate pool club across town. There’s a lot of casu­al racism around here, pri­mar­i­ly direct­ed at the mostly-Mexican farm­work­ers who dou­ble the town pop­u­la­tion every sum­mer. If there was a town pool that reflect­ed the demo­graph­ics of the local Wal­mart park­ing lot on a Fri­day night in July, we’d have mini-riots I’m sure — which is almost sure­ly why we don’t have a munic­i­pal pool and why wealthy fam­i­lies have poured mil­lions of dol­lars into backyards.

(My fam­i­ly has joined the Elmer Swim Club, a pool locat­ed about half an hour away. While the major­i­ty of mem­bers are super nice and I haven’t heard any dodgy racial code phras­es. The pool is diverse but is most­ly white, reflect­ing the near­by pop­u­la­tion. That said, I’ve read enough Ta-Nehisi Coates to know we can rarely take white towns for grant­ed. So.)

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.

A reply to The Theology of Consensus

L.A. Kauffman’s cri­tique of con­sen­sus deci­sion mak­ing in The The­ol­o­gy of Con­sen­sus is a rather peren­ni­al argu­ment in lefty cir­cles and this arti­cle makes a num­ber of log­i­cal leaps. Still, it does map out the half-forgotten Quak­er roots of activist con­sen­sus and she does a good job map­ping out some of the pit­falls to using it dogmatically:

Con­sen­sus decision-making’s little-known reli­gious ori­gins shed light on why this activist prac­tice has per­sist­ed so long despite being unwieldy, off-putting, and ineffective.

All that said, it’s hard for me not to roll my eyes while read­ing this. Per­haps I just sat in on too many meet­ings in my twen­ties where the Trot­sky­ists berat­ed the paci­fists for slow process (and tried to take over meet­ings) and the black bloc anar­chists berat­ed paci­fists for not being brave enough to over­turn dump­sters. As often as not these shenani­gans tor­pe­doed any chance of real coali­tion build­ing but the most bor­ing part were the inter­minable hours-long meet­ings about styles. A lot of it was fash­ion, real­ly, when you come down to it.

This piece just feels so…. 1992 to me. Like: we’re still talk­ing about this? Real­ly? Like: real­ly? Much of evi­dence Kauff­mann cites dates back to the frig­ging Clamshell Alliance—I’ve put the Wikipedia link to the 99.9% of my read­ers who have nev­er heard of this 1970s move­ment. More recent­ly she talks about a Food Not Bombs man­u­al from the 1980s. The lan­guage and con­tin­ued cri­tique over large­ly for­got­ten move­ments from 40 years ago doesn’t quite pass the Muham­mad Ali test:

Con­sen­sus deci­sion mak­ing is a tool, but there’s no mag­ic to it. It can be use­ful but it can get bogged down. Some­times we get so enam­ored of the process that we for­get our urgent cause. Clever peo­ple can use it to manip­u­late oth­ers, and like any tool those who know how to use it have an advan­tage over those who don’t. It can be a trib­al mark­er, which gives it a great to pull togeth­er peo­ple but also intro­duces a whole set of dynam­ics that dis­miss­es peo­ple who don’t fit the trib­al mod­el. These are uni­ver­sal human prob­lems that any sys­tem faces.

Con­sen­sus is just one mod­el of orga­niz­ing. When a com­mit­ted group uses it for com­mon effect, it can pull togeth­er and coör­di­nate large groups of strangers more quick­ly and cre­ative­ly than any oth­er orga­niz­ing method I’ve seen.

Just about every suc­cess­ful move­ment for social change works because it builds a diver­si­ty of sup­port­ers who will use all sorts of styles toward a com­mon goal: the angry youth, the African Amer­i­can cler­gy, the paci­fist vig­ilers, the shout­ing anar­chists. But change doesn’t only hap­pen in the streets. It’s also swirling through the news­pa­per rooms, attor­neys gen­er­al offices, investor board­rooms. We can and should squab­ble over tac­tics but the last thing we need is an enforce­ment of some kind of move­ment puri­ty that “calls for the demise” of a par­tic­u­lar brand of activist cul­ture. Please let’s leave the lefty puri­ty wars in the 20th century.