Interviewing the next head of AFSC

This week's Friends Journal feature is my interview with Joyce Ajlouny, who is leaving her role as head of the Ramallah Friends School to become the next general secretary for American Friends Service Committee.

I interviewed her by phone from my back porch on a snowy day and very much enjoyed conversation. I’m fascinated by the challenges of an organization like AFSC—one that has to balance strong roots in a religious tradition while largely working outside of it. How do you balancing the conflicting identities? It’s not unlike the challenge of a Friends school like Ramallah's.

I was also particularly moved by the genuine enthusiasm in her voice as she talked about engaging in honest conversations with people with whom we have strong disagreements. In this polarized age, it’s tempting to try to stay in the safety our bubbles. Joyce seems to thrive stepping out of that comfort zone:

I think we’ve learned from this last U.S. election that we need to listen more. This can often be a challenge for people who are very passionate about the positions they take. Sometimes the passion is so overwhelming that it sort of overrides that willingness to listen to other narratives. This is something that we really need to work much harder on. Truth is always incomplete. We always have to look for other truths. We need to break through some of these boundaries that we’ve put around ourselves and seek a wider spectrum of perspectives.

I think AFSC will be in good hands with Ajlouny.

Camp Acagisca

A two-night scouts camp­ing trip with two of my kids to the coun­ty facil­i­ties at Camp Acagis­ca nears Mays Land­ing turned into a one night with one kid affair (my 11yo got way too mouthy when it came time to decide who was going to share a tent with dad and went home imme­di­ate­ly; the 9yo end­ed up in a melt­down mid morn­ing on the sec­ond day.)

 

Rain camp­ing

A video post­ed by Mar­t­in Kel­ley (@martin_kelley) on

 

And while I assumed the name was some sort of Lenape con­struc­tion, it’s appar­ent­ly an amal­gam of Atlantic City Area Girl Scout Camp.

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.)

Crows Woods in Haddonfield NJ

The blog­ger behind South Jer­sey Trails orga­nized a “dads’ hike” today in a small pre­serve along the upper reach­es of the Coop­er River.

The pre­serve is remark­ably inter­est­ing despite its rel­a­tive­ly small size and posi­tion­ing between soc­cer fields and train lines. There’s lots of hills ands wet­lands. We saw two turtles fight­ing and a snake of some sort swirling around an eddy in brack­ish iron-filled bog water. There was a lot of flow­er­ing moun­tain lau­rel, one of my favorite wood­land flow­ers.

Many local trails in deep woods are on land that has seen waves of devel­op­ment over the past two hun­dred years but a check of the 1930 New Jer­sey aeri­al sur­vey shows that this same patch was deep woods then.
      I

What could have been: a review of Hitchcock’s flawed Torn Curtain

Torn_curtainI recent­ly lis­tened to Alec Baldwin’s pod­cast inter­view of Julie Andrews and thought I mis­heard when she men­tions work­ing on a movie direct­ed by Alfred Hitch­cock. The effect was only height­ened when she men­tioned that her co-star was Paul New­man. Although I could do the math and real­ize the careers of the­se three leg­ends would over­lap, the younger stars seemed to come from a dif­fer­ent era. Julie Andrews espe­cial­ly seemed a mil­lion miles from the ubiq­ui­tous icy blondes of Hitchcock’s lat­er movies.

The movie is 1966’s Torn Cur­tain. The plot is dri­ven by a clas­sic Hitch­cock MacGuffin: a sus­pense sto­ry where we don’t ful­ly under­stand (or even care about) the objec­tive over which everyone’s fight­ing. In this case it’s a for­mu­la for some sort of anti-missile defense rock­et, some­thing called the Gam­ma Five (umm, sure Hitch, what­ev­er you say).

There’s a rare alche­my need­ed to cast famous stars in dra­mat­ic roles. Do it right and the star­dom melts into the char­ac­ter. Hitch­cock can pull it off. We love watch­ing a sur­pris­ing­ly com­plex Cary Grant in North by North­west, part­ly because so much of his lat­er comedic act­ing had becom­ing self-referential (he was almost always play­ing Cary Grant play­ing a char­ac­ter). Some­how Hitch­cock used Grant’s famil­iar­i­ty to turn him into a quick-witted mod­ern Every­man with whom the audi­ence could iden­ti­fy.

But the mag­ic doesn’t work in Torn Cur­tain. From the moment I heard Andrews’ famil­iar chirpy clipped voice from under the bed­cov­ers I won­dered why Mary Pop­pins was engag­ing in post-coital pil­low talk with The Hus­tler. I could not muster enough belief sus­pen­sion to see Paul New­man as a bril­liant math nerd and I cer­tain­ly couldn’t imag­ine him as a lover to prim and fussy Julie Andrews.

The sto­ry revolves around per­son­al and nation­al betray­al and defec­tion but we nev­er real­ly under­stood why Newman’s Michael Arm­strong would defect or why (as we lat­er learn) he has gone into a kind of free­lance espi­onage behind the Iron Cur­tain. The defec­tion of prac­ti­cal­ly per­fect Julie Andrews, who as Sarah Sher­man we now know to be par­tic­u­lar­ly deter­mined and loy­al, feels even more inex­plic­a­ble. As I watched the movie bounce aim­less­ly from one close call to anoth­er my mind drift­ed away to imag­ine the Hol­ly­wood board room where some mogul or anoth­er must have strong-armed Hitch­cock to cast two up and com­ing stars for roles which they didn’t real­ly fit.

Then the plot. It mean­ders. But even more damn­ing­ly, it focused on the wrong lead. Newman’s Michael Arm­strong is pre­dictably lin­ear in his objec­tives. The most inter­est­ing plot turns all come from his assistant/fiancée, Andrews’ Sarah Sher­man. She is full of pluck and intel­li­gence. It’s Sher­man who insists on com­ing along on the ini­tial cruise to Copen­hagen and it’s her sharp eyes that spot the mys­te­ri­ous actions that tip off the com­ing betray­als. She notices Armstrong’s tick­ets, picks up the mys­te­ri­ous book, fer­rets out the true des­ti­na­tion, and then has the chutz­pah to board an East Berlin flight to fol­low her lying and errat­ic boyfriend. Her tena­cious impro­vi­sa­tion remind­ed me more of Grant in North by North­west than any­thing New­man did.

There are some intrigu­ing sce­nes. The strug­gle with Gromek in the farm­house is fas­ci­nat­ing in its length and has the kind of bril­liant­ly bizarre cam­era angles that could only come from Hitch­cock. The the­ater scene was legit­i­mate­ly nail-biting (though I found myself imag­in­ing Cary Grant ’s face as he real­ized how hope­less their escape had become). One of the most mes­mer­iz­ing sce­nes was the bus chase — will they have to stop for a pas­sen­ger?!? It’s the the kind of Hitch­cock twist we all love.

After read­ing the spoil­ers from WIkipedia and IMDB, I see that many of my com­plaints have good sources.

  • The basic plot was Hitchcock’s idea, inspired by husband/wife defec­tors Don­ald and Melin­da Maclean and In the fall of 1964, Hitch­cock unsuc­cess­ful­ly asked Vladimir Nabokov to write the screen­play.
  • The orig­i­nal focus was on the female lead (I was right!) The first screen­play was writ­ten by Bri­an Moore, a screen­writer known for strong female char­ac­ters. After Hitch­cock cri­tiqued the script and hired new writ­ers, Moore accused him of hav­ing “a pro­found igno­rance of human moti­va­tion.”
  • For cast­ing, Hitch­cock had orig­i­nal­ly want­ed to reunite North by Northwest’s Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. Grant told him he was too old; Hitch­cock then approached Antho­ny Perkins. But…
  • Lew Wasser­mann was the Hol­ly­wood exec who insist­ed on bank­able stars. Hitch­cock didn’t feel they were right for the roles and he begrudged their astro­nom­i­cal salaries and con­strained sched­ules. How is it that Alfred Hitch­cock hadn’t secured total con­trol over his projects at the point in his career?
  • The actors and direc­tors were indeed from dif­fer­ent eras: Newman’s method act­ing didn’t fit Hitchcock’s old school direct­ing style. Hitch­cock used his casts as chess pieces and expect­ed the direct­ing and edit­ing to dri­ve his films. When New­man pressed the direc­tor for Armstrong’s moti­va­tion, Hitch­cock report­ed­ly replied “moti­va­tion is your salary” (can’t you just hear him say­ing that in his famous­ly arch tone?)
  • Hitch­cock didn’t like the way the movie was unfold­ing and shift­ed the atten­tion to Newman’s char­ac­ter part-way through. It’s always a bad idea to tin­ker with some­thing so fun­da­men­tal so late in the game.

I think Julie Andrews could have stepped up to the chal­lenge of act­ing as the main pro­tag­o­nist. If Hitch­cock had treat­ed her as the Cary Grant “Every­man” char­ac­ter — and made New­man stand in as the dumb blonde! — it would have bril­liant­ly turned Hitch­cock on his head. As it is, this movie rates a mid­dling “meh” rat­ing, more inter­est­ing for what it could have been than for what it was.

Self-promotion and ministry temptations

Jon Watts looks at the ironies of fame-seeking and avoid­ance:

But this striv­ing for per­fect hum­ble­ness can eas­i­ly become dog­mat­ic. We can come to reject any­thing that looks remote­ly like attention-seeking, and we miss God’s mes­sage in it.

Jon weighs in with some good, juicy ques­tions. Where is self-promotion a way to pro­mote some­thing big­ger? And when is it ego-driven? t’s not just a inter­net ques­tion, of course. This is also at the heart of our Quak­er vocal min­istry: some­one just stands up in wor­ship with an implic­it claim they’re speak­ing for God.

Samuel Bow­nas is a good go-to per­son for the­se sort of dilem­mas. He was a second-generation Friend who shared a lot of the inside dirt about Quak­ers in min­istry. He wrote down the tri­als and temp­ta­tions he faced and that he saw in oth­ers in their “infant minstry” as a con­scious men­tor­ship of future Friends.

One of Bownas’s themes is the dan­ger of ape­ing oth­ers. It’s tempt­ing to get so enam­ored of someone’s beau­ti­ful words that we start con­scious­ly try­ing to mim­ic them. We stop say­ing what we’ve been given to say so as to sound like the (seem­ing­ly) more-articulate per­son whose style we envy. Most cre­ative artists walk this ten­sion between copy­ing and cre­at­ing and as Wess will tell you, the idea of remix has become of more impor­tance in the era of dig­i­tal arts. But with min­istry there’s anoth­er ele­ment: God. Many Quak­ers have been pret­ty insis­tent that the mes­sage has to be given “in the Spir­it” and come from direct prompts. Unpro­grammed Friends (those of us with­out pas­tors or pre-written ser­mons) are excep­tion­al­ly aller­gic to vocal min­istry that sounds too prac­ticed. It’s not enough that the teach­ing is cor­rect or well-crafted: we insist that it be given it at the right time.

When think­ing the pit­falls about min­istry I find it use­ful to think about “The Tempter.” I don’t per­son­i­fy this; I don’t insist that it’s cen­tral to Quak­er the­ol­o­gy. But it is a thread of our the­ol­o­gy, one that has explained my sit­u­a­tion, so I share it. For me, it’s the idea that there’s a force that knows our weak­ness­es and will use them to con­fuse us. If we’re not care­ful, impuls­es that are seem­ing­ly pos­i­tive will pro­voke actions that are seem­ing­ly good but out of right order – given at the wrong time.

So, if like Jon, I start wor­ry­ing I’m too self-promotional, the Tempter might tell me “that’s true, it’s all in your head, you should shut up already.” If I work myself through that temp­ta­tion and start pro­mot­ing myself, the Tempter can switch gears: “yes you’re bril­liant, and while you’re at it while don’t you set­tle some scores with your next post and take some of those fak­ers down a notch.” There’s nev­er an objec­tive “cor­rect” course of action, because right action is about strip­ping your­self of self-delusion and nav­i­gat­ing the shoals of con­tra­dic­to­ry impuls­es. The right action now may be the wrong action lat­er. We all need to grow and stay vig­i­lant and hon­est with our­selves.

Rethinking Blogs

In last weekend’s NYTimes Mag­a­zine, Michael Erard writes about the his­to­ry of online com­ments. Even though I was involved with blog­ging from its ear­li­est days, it sur­prised me to remem­ber that com­ments, perma­links, com­ments, and track­backs were all lat­er inno­va­tions. Erard’s his­tor­i­cal lens is help­ful in show­ing how what we now think of as a typ­i­cal com­ment sys­tem – a line of read­er feed­back in reverse chrono­log­i­cal order under­neath con­tent – grew out of tech­no­log­i­cal restraints. It was eas­i­est to code this sort of sys­tem. The mod­el was bul­let­in boards and, before that, “guest­books” that sat on web­sites.

Many of the­se same con­straints and mod­els under­lay blogs as a whole. Most blog home pages don’t fea­ture the most post pop­u­lar posts or the one the writer might think most impor­tant. No, they show the most recent. As in com­ments, the entries are ordered in reverse chrono­log­i­cal order. The pres­sure on writ­ers is to repeat them­selves so that their main talk­ing points reg­u­lar­ly show up on the home­page. There are ways around this (pinned posts, a list of impor­tant posts, plug-ins that will show what’s most pop­u­lar or get­ting the most com­ments), but they’re rarely imple­ment­ed and all have draw­backs.

Here’s the dilem­ma: the reg­u­lar read­ers who fol­low your blog (read your mag­a­zine, sub­scribe to your Youtube, etc.) prob­a­bly already know where you stand on par­tic­u­lar issue. They gen­er­al­ly share many of your opin­ions and even when they don’t, they’re still com­ing to your site for some sort of con­fir­ma­tion.

The times when blogs and web­sites change lives – and they do some­times – is when some­one comes by to whom your mes­sage is new. Your argu­ments or view­point helps them make sense of some grow­ing real­iza­tion that they’ve intu­it­ed but can’t quite name or define. The writ­ing and con­ver­sa­tion pro­vides a piece of the puz­zle of a grow­ing iden­ti­ty.

(The same is true of some­one walk­ing into a new church; it’s almost a cliché of Friends that a new­com­er feels “as if I’ve been Quak­er my whole life and didn’t know it!” If taught gen­tly, the Quak­er ethos and metaphors give shape to an iden­ti­ty that’s been bub­bling up for some time.)

So if we’re rethink­ing the mechan­i­cal default of com­ments, why not rethink blogs? I know projects such as Medi­um are try­ing to do that. But would it be pos­si­ble to retro­fit exist­ing online pub­li­ca­tions and blogs in a way that was both future-proof and didn’t require inor­di­nate amounts of cat­e­go­riza­tion time?