October flashbacks: Turns of phrases, Quaker political influence, and of course Halloween

Appar­ent­ly I once had an idea of peri­od­i­cal­ly shar­ing posts from ear­li­er eras of my blogs: flash­backs to archival posts writ­ten one, five, and ten years ear­li­er. Maybe I could man­age this once a month.

1 Year Ago: October 2016

Bring peo­ple to Christ / Leave them there: One thing I love to do is track back on cul­tur­al Quak­er turns of phrase. Here I looked at a phrase some­times attrib­uted to George Fox and find a large­ly for­got­ten British Friend who laid much of the ground­work for Quak­er mod­ernism and the unit­ing of Amer­i­can Quakers.

5 Years: October 2012

The secret decoder ring for Red and Blue states: Dis­cus­sion of the Quak­er cul­tur­al influ­ence of Amer­i­can vot­ing pat­terns based on David Hack­ett Fischer’s fas­ci­nat­ing (if over-argued) book Albion’s Seed.

10 Years: 2007 (October 2007)

An Autum­nal Hal­loween: A fam­i­ly post, pic­tures of kids post­ed to the web long before Insta­gram was founded.

The lost A List

As A List Hol­ly­wood stars come out to tell their Har­vey Wein­stein couch harass­ment sto­ries, I have to won­der about those who didn’t make it through after say­ing no — actress­es who saw their roles evap­o­rate and left act­ing. The New York Times head­lines pro­fil­ing Wein­stein accusers touts Gwyneth Pal­trow and Angeli­na Jolie but also intro­duces us a woman who is now a psy­chol­o­gy pro­fes­sor in Col­orado. How many bet­ter actress­es and strong-minded women would there be in Hol­ly­wood if so many hadn’t been forced out?

I thought of this after read­ing by a tweet from the actress Rose Marie. She’s best known as one of the jovial side­kicks from the 1960s’ Dick Van Dyke Show. Not to dimin­ish the rest of the cast, but Rose Marie is one of the best rea­sons to watch the show, espe­cial­ly dur­ing those rare moments she’s allowed to step out from her character’s wise­crack­ing spin­ster per­sona and sing or act. On Twit­ter, she shared that she lost a music con­tract in the 1950s because she wouldn’t sleep with a producer.

What if a tal­ent­ed actress like Rose Marie had been giv­en more oppor­tu­ni­ties and wasn’t just known for a sup­port­ing part in a old sit­com? What if the psy­chol­o­gy pro­fes­sor had got­ten the Shake­speare in Love lead? (Imag­ine a world where Pal­trow was only known to 800 or so Face­book friends for too-perfect fam­i­ly pics and memes from dubi­ous health sites.)

Dis­claimer: This is a minor point com­pared with any actress­es who weren’t able to deal with the harass­ment and the indus­try silenc­ing machin­ery. I’m sure there are tragedies that are more than just career pivots.

Quakers acting badly

Friends don’t have a particularly good track record with regards to controversy. There’s no reason we need to pretend to be talking historically. We’ve had two major yearly meetings break up in this summer (meet Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting and North Carolina Fellowship of Friends), with at least one more “at bat” for some future long hot summer.

Controversies flare up in many places. Friend Sa’ed Atshan just broke his media silence to talk about the cancelation of his talk at Friends’ Central School in February and the subsequent walk-outs, firings, and litigations. The controversy around Avis Wanda McClinton’s disownment by Upper Dublin Meeting continues to incense large numbers of Philadelphia Friends, with fuel to the fire coming from the role that the Undoing Racism Group does or doesn’t have in the yearly meeting structure. Last year a majority of Friends of color boycotted public events at the FGC Gathering over frustration at the site selection process and the underlying issues extend to other Quaker venues.

The most-commented recent article in Friends Journal is “It Breaks My Heart” by Kate Pruitt from the online June/July issue. Many readers related to her sense of alienation and loss. Two comments that hit me the hardest were:

Not all Friends are found in Quaker Meetings. You’re better off without your meeting.

Gone now is the hope… of finding community among Quakers. To be frank, why bother? There’s plenty of brokenness right where I am.

And I get enough “Why I’m leaving Friends” manifestos in my email inbox every month that I could turn it into a regular Friends Journal column.

It seems to me that are a number of underlying issues that tie these controversies together. What do we do when a group of Friends starts acting in a manner that seems contrary to our understanding of Quaker testimonies and practices? How do we balance love and judgement when conflict arises among us? When do we break out of Quaker niceness? Maybe even more challenging, how do we maintain our integrity and accountability when controversy breaks us into camps willing to engage in exaggeration? And just what do we say when the outside public only gets half the story or thinks that one side is speaking for all Friends?

So this is a plug for submissions for December's Friends Journal.  The theme is “Conflict and Controversy" and the submission deadline is September 9. We’re not looking for blow-by-blow accounts of being mistreated, and we’re not terribly interested (this time) in manifestos about Quaker cultural norms. I'm less interested in specific issues than I am the meta of discernment: How do individuals or small groups of Friends move forward in the heat of controversy. What do we do when the easy solutions have failed? How do we decide when it's time to break out of Quaker niceness to lay down some truth—or time to kick the dust off your sandals and move along?

Nancy’s Secret Garden

When we came here in fif­teen or so years ago, Nan­cy Forrester’s Secret Gar­den was a mag­i­cal oasis tucked in the mid­dle of a block in Key West, a small for­est said to be the last unde­vel­oped acre in the city’s Old Town neigh­bor­hood. Full of wind­ing paths and trees it was the rarest of spaces: loved, care­ful­ly tend­ed, and shared with the pub­lic as a gift of beau­ty. But even then it felt besieged. In 2012 tax­es and expens­es became too much and Nan­cy sold off parcels to devel­op­ers. From an arti­cle in Key News:

The tucked-away entrance to Nan­cy Forrester’s Secret Gar­den off Free School Lane in the 500 block of Simon­ton Street will be closed to the pub­lic after today, as finances and prop­er­ty tax­es have forced For­rester to sell the land parcels that have housed an artist’s cot­tage and gallery, par­rots, orchids, rare palms, mean­der­ing path­ways and a med­i­ta­tive gar­den for more than four decades.

These days the gar­den has been reduced to a small back­yard on Eliz­a­beth Street which Nan­cy uses as a res­cue par­rot refuge. In the morn­ings she gives edu­ca­tion­al lec­tures on the birds, full of facts about their bril­liant behav­ior, the destruc­tion of their native habi­tats, and gen­tle lec­tures about how we can all pro­tect native par­rot habi­tats by liv­ing more light­ly on the land (hint: no red palm oil or beef). From behind the fence came the sounds of a swim­ming pool being installed in the cut­down mid­dle of the for­mer gar­den. Nan­cy has life ten­an­cy on the ill-repaired house where she lives with the parrots. 

I don’t know the details of the real estate trans­ac­tions or Forrester’s finances but I find it incred­i­ble that Key West couldn’t ral­ly around one of its liv­ing trea­sures. I’m glad that Nan­cy remains along with her par­rots and I’m grate­ful my kids got a chance to meet her. 

 

The bandwidth of memories

Anoth­er fam­i­ly vaca­tion is com­ing up, which for me means think­ing once more about the pre-nostalgia of fam­i­ly pho­tos. While blog posts are osten­si­bly for vis­i­tors, the audi­ence I care more about is actu­al­ly future me.

Just before a 2013 trip, I wrote “Nos­tal­gia Comes Ear­ly,” a post about mem­o­ries and why I go to the trou­ble to share these posts — as much with my future self as with read­ers (I con­tin­ued this thought lat­er with Recov­er­ing the Past Through Pho­tos).

Every suc­ces­sive fam­i­ly trip cre­ates a mag­ni­tude more data than the one pre­ced­ing it. I have exact­ly 10 pho­tos from the first time I vis­it­ed Walt Dis­ney World, with my then-fiancée in 2001. I have only fuzzy mem­o­ries of the trip. A year or so lat­er I returned back to Flori­da (Key West this time) for a hon­ey­moon with her, a trip that has zero pho­tos. I remem­ber maybe a half dozen things we did but few locales visited.

Con­trast this with a 2013 Dis­ney World trip, for which we made a whole blog, A Spe­cial WDW Fam­i­ly. The focus was trav­el­ing Dis­ney with autis­tic kids. There’s a lot of infor­ma­tion in there. We wrote about meals and rides, small vic­to­ries, and child melt­downs. The band­width of mem­o­ries isn’t just in the num­ber of jpeg files but in the dis­tinct mem­o­ries I have of the events of that week-plus.

We took many hun­dreds of pho­tos over our most recent fam­i­ly vaca­tion in Decem­ber 2015, only a small frac­tion of which went online. In addi­tion, I have Google Loca­tion data for the trip and Foursquare check­ins logged in Ever­note. I know how many steps I took each day. I know whether I had a good sleep. We didn’t make a pub­lic blog but we have a long anno­tate log of each restau­rant and stop, with anno­ta­tion tips to remind our future selves about how we could do things bet­ter in the future. The meta­da­ta is in itself not so impor­tant, but it’s use­ful to be able to drop into a day and remem­ber what we did and see the smiles (and tired­ness) on faces each day.

The demise of online subcultures?

An interesting profile of a niche community affected by the shift of attention from community-led sites to Facebook, “How Facebook – the Wal-Mart of the internet – dismantled online subcultures.”

Over time, these challenges to the BME community became increasingly problematic. Members deleted accounts or stopped posting. By 2015, the main community forum – which used to have hundreds of posts a day – went without a single comment for over six months.

Having predicted many of the web’s functions and features, BME failed to anticipate its own demise.

It’s definitely something I’ve seen in my niche world of Quakers. I started QuakerQuaker as an independent site in part because I didn’t want Google and Facebook and Beliefnet to determine who we are. There’s the obvious problems—Beliefnet hiring a programmer to make a “What Religion Are You?” test based on a few books picked up the library one afternoon.

But there’s also more subtle problems. On Facebook anyone can start or join a group and start talking authoritatively about Quakers without actually being an active community member. I can think of a number of online characters who had never even visiting a Friends meeting or church.

Our tradition built up ways of defining our spokespeople though the practices of recorded ministers and elders, and of clarifying shared beliefs though documents like Faith and Practice. I’ll be the first to argue that this process has produced mixed results. But if it is to be adapted or reformed, I’d like the work to be done by us in a thoughtful, inclusive manner. Instead, the form of our discussions are now invisibly imposed by an outside algorithm that is optimized for obsessive engagement and advertising delivery. Facebook process is not Quaker process, yet it is largely what we use when we talk about Quakers outside of Sunday morning.

I think Facebook has helped alternative communities form. I’m grateful for the pop-up communities of interest I’m part of. And there are sites with more user generated content like Wikipedia and Reddit that hold an interesting middle-ground and where information is generally more accurate. But there’s still a critical role for self-organized independent publications, a niche that I think is continuing to be overshadowed in our current attention ecosystem.