30 July 2015


I keep seeing these charmingly ancient photos in ads on Facebook for Ancestry dot com, and yesterday it occurred to me that I have equally evocative pictures in my own collection. For example, the photo above really intrigues me. It looks so dawn-of-photography (except for that nice camera hanging around the neck of that man about a third of the way from the left edge). But it can't be all that old. My mother's parents are in it, second and fourth from the right, and they look about the same age as my earliest memories of them. It's their similarity to my own memories of them that make it likely to me that this was a post-war photo, taken sometime after they left Japan for Germany in 1948. (A few years later, their photos included me!)

Maybe the photo was antiqued on purpose. In any case, this image of a group of tourists set off a chain of thoughts about "home." I guess I was already primed to meditate in that direction by several recent gatherings where we participants were asked what or where we called home. I always have a hard time with that question. I was born in my father's parents' home in Oslo, but my first memories are of my mother's parents' home in Stuttgart. The memories are all wonderful: my grandmother is giving me a wooden sailboat to sail in the park. My grandfather's hand is around mine as we take a daily walk together. (Years into retirement, he was always dressed as shown in the photos.)

Last year, I returned to Stuttgart for the first time in 48 years. After that long, my ties to the city as a whole didn't feel strong. And as I recounted last year, the house we lived in had been torn down and replaced by high-end condominiums. But one of the owners was willing to let me look over her back veranda. There was the garden where my sister Ellen and I gathered plums.

Sometimes, when I'm asked for my home town, I say "Chicago." I love that city, even though I haven't lived in Cook County since I was 18. I love it even though my sister was murdered there. That's where I grew up. Bob Elson and Red Rush, broadcasting the White Sox baseball games, were the voices of summer. Rev. Clarence H. Cobbs was the voice of Sunday night, although I had to conceal my faithful attendance-by-radio from my parents.

There have been times when I wish I could name a real home town for myself like normal people. But in this world, I'm hardly alone in my nomad status: countless others have been violently dispossessed; others are forced on the road to look for jobs and food. My own grandparents had their home taken from them by the occupation forces, but I don't believe they suffered as much as others in that great war-era redistribution of populations that resulted in my parents meeting in Chicago. If they did, they never talked about it.

Anyway, most of the time this lack of roots doesn't give me any genuine distress. I'm glad to be on the same planet as you.

If I had any pretensions to journalism, I would be embarrassed by my post last week, in which I mentioned how refreshingly routine this year's Northwest Yearly Meeting's sessions had been. But I don't, so I don't feel obligated to comment on the bombshell that dropped the very next day -- the Elders' discontinuance of West Hills Friends Church's membership in the yearly meeting, a decision that was announced two months earlier than many of us had expected. Behind the outpourings on listservs and social media, there are tender conversations going on, and the space for them is important to guard. And there is an appeals process underway. Transparency is important as well, but right now I don't personally see how I would serve that goal directly. Trustworthiness in friendship and persistence in prayer will have to do for now.

On Quaker community: a dose of humility? "... I have never been able to get over the pride people often have in being Quaker. It's good to be proud of your tribe, but often this goes over the top...."

On marching Israelis to the door of the oven: Isn't there a better way to refute Mike Huckabee than predictable denunciations for using a Holocaust reference? Yes, the comparison is completely nonsense: even if Iraqi politicians talk in such terms about Israel, Obama works for us, not Iran, and he's trying to deal with things as they really are. But what use is it to attack Huckabee's rhetoric as "offensive" and "disgusting" instead of dealing with the underlying argument? That sort of storm just builds him up in the eyes of others who feel the same way, or those who despise what they sneeringly call "political correctness." We have freedom of speech. If Huckabee honestly believes what he is saying, let him speak -- let him marginalize himself. Don't turn him into a hero.

Micael Grenholm on four prooftexts that rich Christians use to keep their wealth. Hmm, which one do I rely on?

The Rolling Stones, fifty years ago: "Walking the Dog."

23 July 2015

Yearly meeting shorts

Two days ago, Judy was recorded as a Friends minister! And today at the closing banquet, she was formally given her recording certificate, and superintendent Becky Ankeny prayed a blessing for Judy on behalf of Northwest Yearly Meeting. To me, that was the highlight of our calm and wonderfully routine Yearly Meeting sessions.

After the closing banquet, there was a delightful reception for Judy. I realized during the reception that I had become utterly exhausted and had a fever. Judy noticed my fatigue and red face and arranged a ride home for me. So no more writing this week. There's always next week!

Here's Becky Ankeny's keynote message on the opening evening of Northwest Yearly Meeting's sessions, "Faithful and Wise Stewards." Excerpt:
Friends are not immune to the currents and prejudices of their social contexts, not above racism or sexism or other prejudices, nor are they immune to the temptation to prefer economic stability to standing against social ills and the temptation to substitute form for living reality. We must acknowledge the truth that each of us has potential for blindness as well as sight, for evil as well as good, for error as well as truth. We need humility and repentance, and sometimes we need to change our minds, not in pursuit of some superficial relevance, but because sometimes we are wrong. And persisting in blindness, evil, and error alienates people from the Jesus we embody. We need to be born again, to start new in every generation and in every day of our individual and communal lives. We need to be born again to care for each other and our neighbors, all of whom God is trusting to our care.
During Becky's message, Bob Henry was sketching key images and highlights, and his work was projected onto two large screens. Far from being distracted by this activity, I found it reinforced the message and made it more memorable.

Getry Agizah on five things Obama should do in Kenya.

James Fallows on why Obama gave a Christian speech without mentioning Jesus.

Will Europe always need America to clean up its mess?

Should you share your research on academia.edu? Personally, I believe it's much better than fake conferences and journals that prey on anxious academics.

Hans Theesink and Terry Evans. "Gotta find the demons, tell them to leave you alone."

(Yes, as Hans says, there really is a blues festival in Hell ... Norway.)

16 July 2015

Quakers' best-fit market

I've always resisted the idea that Friends faith and practice are for special people. Since we welcome anyone who yearns to live with Jesus at the center of the community and learn with the rest of us how to live that way (including its ethical consequences), there is no limit on what "kinds" of people -- sophisticated or unsophisticated (who's to say!?), calm or emotional, of whatever race or nation or culture or even religion -- could potentially feel at home among us.

But I also like the challenge of marketing, or to put it another way, the challenge of communicating our welcome and making sure that there is actual fair access to our community. Ethical marketing communicates its invitations in the form of honest presentations of the host community's deepest values in ways that help those who find those values attractive to try out our community. Creativity in marketing involves making those values shine in the midst of the world's noise, but it never involves pretending something that isn't true. Why set our audience up for disillusionment or regret -- and furthermore, wasting our valuable time and resources to do so?

Furthermore, the marketing process -- if it is to be truly ethical -- also involves self-examination, to see whether we actually hold and manifest the values we claim. Are we making promises that we can't fulfill? On the other hand, does our marketing mainly consist of "mating calls" designed to attract only those already just like us in social/cultural/ethnic terms, or are we genuinely accessible to all who identify with our values and seek a trustworthy community that practices them? Are we centered on Jesus, or are we simply parroting someone else's scripts? Do we treat each other peacefully, and deal peacefully and honestly with those who disagree with us, or do we gossip and mock with the rest of the world? (In the USA, how do we treat the visitor who dresses up -- or down -- for church, or who clearly doesn't share the majority's politics?) Do we truly govern ourselves through the Holy Spirit's leading, learned through prayer-driven group discernment, or does persuasive offstage politicking play a role?

When conflict arises, do we fight fair, remembering that we love those we're in conflict with, and desire their well-being just as much as our own? Do we remember that not every conflict needs to be settled immediately, but must always be described honestly in terms that all would recognize? (Anything else is false witness.) Or is it easiest just to settle into the world's tired and boring old ways of polarization and false heroism?

My idealistic definition of church -- people who yearn to live with Jesus at the center of the community -- could theoretically describe any Christian body, so ... what are the likely values that shape Quaker marketing? Here are my suggestions ... what would you add or subtract?
  • We love honesty and therefore take care not to exaggerate or slander.
  • We present the Gospel to all with honesty and urgency, hiding neither its challenge nor its loving invitation: "Repent and believe the good news!"
  • We also believe people should make sober and thoughtful faith decisions, therefore we avoid manipulation, theatricality, or pressure.
  • We cherish the Bible, and therefore treat it with integrity, rather than using it to proof-text for political advantage or ascribe to it magical powers that the Bible itself never claims.
  • We base our leadership on spiritual gifts rather than social status. We love to see the spiritual gifts of men, women, and children flourish, and to emerge in powerful service to the community.
  • We know that the dialogue between faithful liberals and faithful conservatives, while sometimes contentious, is a precious resource for community discernment, and we will not cut it off, however attractive the prospect of a false peace might be. Likewise for the dialogue between generations.
  • Our worship services never marginalize the rank-and-file participant, and we ensure that there is space for the spirit of prophecy or interpretation to be expressed through anyone present.
  • We reject any principality or power that tries to tell us who our enemies are, or to prevent us from praying for our actual enemies.
  • We remember the difference between hosts and guests, and explain transparently how a newcomer can eventually move into the host role.
If you're reading this on your way to Northwest Yearly Meeting sessions starting this weekend, and you suspect that I have my own beloved community in mind, you might be right.

Benigno Sanchez-Eppler explains (video) why he worships with other kinds of Quakers.

Metropolitan Kallistos gives a candid and fascinating appreciation of Anthony Bloom: "...no other Orthodox has had that extent of influence on the popular level. Somehow his particular message spoke to people’s hearts." (Thanks to Jim Forest for the link.)

The most important thing that Benjamin L. Corey thinks we can learn from Christian agitator Bree Newsome.

Frederica Mathewes-Green considers the verse, "God desires all to be saved." (1 Timothy 2:4.) Do you agree with her that nowadays "God's mercy is emphasized to the near exclusion of any other characteristic"?

Speaking of mercy, journalist Natalia Antonova (reminding us that, by its very nature, mercy is not "deserved") advocates that mercy be shown to singer Iosif Kobzon.

Mercy may not be the central theme in Rick Estrin's "You Can't Come Back," one of the songs he and the Nightcats included in their too-short set at the Waterfront Blues Festival earlier this month. Toward the end you can see his rather hands-off approach to harp-playing.

09 July 2015

Ellen's 60th

Across from our home on Elmwood Avenue in Evanston, Illinois.

Ellen Maurer, more pictures and stories: 

In time for my sister Ellen's 60th birthday last month (or what would have been her 60th had she lived), I scanned a few more pictures from our childhood. It was fun to see these scenes again and remind myself that her murder at age 14 was not the only thing the world should know about her.

Until the last year before her death, a year in which she ran away from home repeatedly, and was in either police or mental health custody much of the time, we were constant companions and co-conspirators. Our parents were constantly drinking and fighting, so we had to make our own world. We funded it in part by appropriating whatever loose change our parents left lying around, which was enough to get loads of candy. (5c for small candy bars, 10c for Mounds and Almond Joy, 12c for Hostess cupcakes.) If we were allowed out of the apartment, we'd set up a picnic at a nearby park. If not, one of us would sneak out of the front door of our apartment, while the other would make some noise to cover the sound. The nearest drugstore (huge candy rack) was half a block away at the corner of Elmwood and Dempster, so chances were good that the designated runner would never be missed. The return was covered with a similar diversionary noise, but as an added security measure, the returning runner didn't try carrying the loot through the door. It had already been placed in a basket lowered by rope from our second-story window.

Baskets and ropes were a theme we repeated when we visited my mother's parents in Stuttgart, Germany. There we didn't need to conceal our games, and the loot was not candy, but baskets full of plums from my grandparents' little orchard. It would have been perfectly easy to fill the baskets and carry them into the house, but much more fun to rig up a rope from a plum tree to the second-story balcony, hang a basket on the rope, and use a second rope to pull the full basket up and slide it back down empty.

Same model as our TV. Source.
Drugstore tube tester. Source.
The story of our Hotpoint television is a somewhat less honorable conspiracy. We had vague memories of the television from our youngest years, but our parents had put it in storage as punishment for something that one (or both) of us had done. One day we found its hiding place and, when both our parents were at work, we transferred it to a new hiding place under the laundry in our own clothes closet.

To our enormous disappointment, it didn't work. We had no knowledge of how to repair a television but we figured that the vacuum tubes were the most likely culprits. We checked each of the fifteen tubes, one at a time, going to the same drugstore that supplied our candy habit and using their tube-testing console, and carefully noting the numbers of the faulty tubes. I blush to admit that we shoplifted the replacement tubes from an electronics store a little further up Dempster Street. I'd like to believe that we weren't personally the reason that this store is no longer in business.

(I need to report here that I did eventually grow out of that shoplifting phase!)

Finally, we managed to get all the tubes to light up, and a picture appeared on the screen. We then had to figure out why the picture was hopelessly distorted. We noticed the electromagnetic yoke wrapped around the neck of the picture tube, and by moving it around we realized that this yoke was what controlled the beam of electrons that painted images on the front of the tube. We could twist and shift that yoke and either correct the distortion or, if it suited us, we could create all sorts of funny special effects. I now shudder to think how many thousands of volts were going through those wires that we were playing with so happily.

Our parents were amazed that we had figured out how to resurrect the TV, but they rarely let us use it. My being able to watch my favorite program, Superman, depended totally on whether they were too busy fighting to notice.

In short, our family life was chaos (unpredictable cycles of total neglect, alternating with strict discipline enforced by beatings with a hardwood crib railing) but we coped. At school, Ellen was brilliant. She was allowed to skip second grade, so at school we were only one year apart rather than the two years of our age difference. During her last two years of life, she wrote two short novels and a stream of song lyrics to match the Motown sound she loved so much. I have no idea what happened to all those manuscripts, but I cherish the letters she wrote to me from her times of incarceration in Chicago. I miss her fierce energy and fertile imagination, and can't help wonder what she would have given the world if a sawed-off shotgun had not ended her life.

Indulge me! Here are two more photos from those recent scans:

Reading about the Winter Olympics.

Putting together a science kit. (Such family scenes were very rare, but maybe we learned skills for our TV repairs!)

Friends United Meeting offers two opportunities to visit Cuba. November 2015. January-February 2016.

Reserving comment for another time, but I couldn't pass up this item: 53% of Americans feel that God has a 'special relationship' with our country.

The strange story of Kendrick White. The Guardian. The Moscow Times. Interestingly, the Russian-language coverage of this story that I've seen has been very positive toward White, compared to the neutral tone of these English-language articles. Friday update: White returns, expresses optimism.

Blues dessert: B.B. Queen....

02 July 2015

Waterfront shorts

Front Porch Stage -- audience area. (My favorite venue at the Festival ... actual seats!)
Laura Ivancie.
Terry Robb.
Jimmy "Duck" Holmes.
That's all the blogging I'm doing this week -- some photos from today's opening performances at the Waterfront Blues Festival.

This year, festival programmers have followed the pattern of putting blues-rock and RB/funk hybrids on the main stages, and sending the acoustic and more traditional variants to the smaller stages. It's fine with me ... if the crowd-pleasers are able to subsidize the others for the sake of us purists, that's a workable deal. Not that the big-crowd acts are somehow inferior. Every musician I heard today was wonderful.

Blues dessert ...

25 June 2015

Brown-bag technology

My nerves must be shot. Or maybe I'm just too sheltered.

The other day I happened to overhear a television newscast on a television a few rooms away. The news involved events that probably represented, for some very real people, the end of the world -- but the news presenter, who was no doubt no worse than most, rushed through the details with a loud, glib, superficial presentation that just got on my nerves, and I had to get away. I think I'm becoming allergic to the commercial culture. It's just as much a commentary on me and the aging process as on the world around me.

Seven years ago, when I bought a Sony Vaio laptop to take with us to Russia, I wrote here about how even the process of turning it on for the first time drove me nuts, as I had to endure all the bloatware and trial software (some deeply entangled into the system, such as the antivirus virus-ware). That's why I installed Ubuntu Linux on that shiny and expensive new Sony computer, altering the partitions and probably voiding the warranty.

That computer is now nearing retirement, and I don't want it to fail when I'm far from home, so I just bought its replacement. The Sony's hardware took a lot of punishment over the years and served me well; based on my experience with this Vaio and its predecessor (another Vaio, which cost nearly $2,000 in 2004 dollars!), I was sorry to find out last year that Sony went out of the laptop business.

This time, I decided to spare myself the annoyance of bloatware and conversion, and shopped for a laptop computer whose original operating system was Linux-based. To my surprise, they almost don't exist, at least not from known-brand companies building their own products. Dell is one of the few exceptions, selling Ubuntu laptops both at the low end (that's me!) of their laptop range as well as at the high end. Their Ubuntu laptops are not exactly prominently featured on their Web site, but you can find them by going to this page or by searching for "Ubuntu" on the site.

New Dell computer (left) and faithful retiring Sony Vaio, getting acquainted.

This Dell Inspiron 14, 3000 series, Ubuntu Edition, was the first laptop I ever bought sight unseen, but I had found a very helpful review by Jim Mendenhall online. Thanks to this review, I skipped the "create a restore disk" in the startup process, but more about that later. First, I want to describe the wonderfully anti-glamorous packaging that the computer came in:

Brown bag -- that is, box....
That's it! The laptop came suspended in the box between those two baffles. The "quick start" guide assumed that the operating system was Windows, but since its two-pages-plus-diagram said nothing that wasn't obvious, that didn't really matter at all. In case I'd forgotten that a new laptop needs power, there was a delightfully simple picture on the plastic sleeve around the laptop.

When I turned it on, Ubuntu did its little dance as Jim Mendenhall describes, collected my name and location, and then asked me whether I wanted to pause the setup at that point to make a recovery disk. I couldn't imagine why I would need one so soon; I hadn't done any customizing or adding files, and if the computer was going to need recovery so early in its career, I was going to send it back! And if the operating system seems unsatisfactory later, or I replace the hard drive with a solid state drive as recommended by many, I will replace Ubuntu with Linux Mint, the operating system I now have on my old Sony Vaio, and which I already have on a flash drive.

The startup process lasted less than five minutes. I could have begun working right at that point -- the computer came with LibreOffice (word processing, spreadsheet, slideshows), photo-viewing and cataloging software, a music-library and player program, a media player, and Chrome browser, among other basic items. But I decided to see how many updates had been released for Ubuntu since the version installed on my laptop was published ... and that update process, on our relatively slow Internet connection here, took over an hour. Oh, well, by the time it all ended, the battery was nearly charged.

Then I began customizing. All of the programs I've listed below can be added for free and by anyone; no special Ubuntu or Linux or geek knowledge is required, thanks to the Ubuntu Software Center program that comes with the operating system.
  • Gimp, for editing photos
  • VLC media player, which accepts a wider range of formats than the built-in player
  • Filezilla, for uploading files to the service that maintains our Web site
  • Skype
  • Firefox browser
  • Dropbox (from the Dropbox Web site)
  • Grsync, for easy transfer of files from our external hard drive to the laptop's hard drive, and later for syncing folders between the laptop and the external hard drive
  • Audacity, for editing audio files
  • Handbrake, for handling and converting video files, adding subtitles, etc.
Other customizations were easy to do from the settings menus -- for example, getting a Cyrillic keyboard and other Russian-language enhancements, and putting my own wallpaper on the desktop.

Jim Mendenhall is right -- the hard drive is this laptop's weak point. It's not slower than my old Sony Vaio, but it's also not as much faster as I expected from seven years of presumed technological progress. Well, if it drives me crazy, I'll do what the bloggers suggest and replace the hard drive with a solid state drive. The smaller capacity wouldn't bother me; we don't use our laptops as archives anymore.

The display is also not as good as my Sony Vaio's display. Sony was famous for its gorgeous displays, and that is one thing that has not deteriorated on my veteran Vaio. But, honestly, I really only notice the difference in quality when they're side by side. Otherwise, the Dell's display seems excellent to me.

Despite having a larger footprint, the Dell is lighter and a lot thinner. Well, for one thing it doesn't have an optical drive for CDs and DVDs. That's not a problem -- we practically never use them anymore. If we need something that's only on a CD or a DVD, we have an external drive we can plug in. The Dell is also far quieter than the Sony, whose aging fan rasps away whenever I'm putting any sort of load on the system.

In the past, I've been very particular about keyboards, which is the reason I normally wouldn't even consider buying a laptop by mail. This Dell keyboard isn't as luxuriously responsive as the Vaio's, but it's acceptable. Also, in recent years I've taken to putting laptops up near eye level to help my posture, and therefore using an external keyboard most of the time, so this factor isn't as important as it once was. I don't like the Dell's touchpad, especially the integrated mouse buttons that are activated by pushing down on the sides of the touchpad. That seems to me to be a weak spot in a lot of economy computers these days, but again I'm almost always using an external mouse with my external keyboard. So, it's not a big regret.

The USB ports (2 USB version 2.0, one USB 3.0) have firm grips, and I like the solid feel of the display hinges. Overall, this new laptop seems very well built for an economy version.

All in all, it's great to see a reasonably-priced non-geeky Linux computer on the consumer market.

It is understandable that the attack at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, has generated an enormous amount of agonized reflection among white Christians. A lot of it seems to be either self-flagellation, which I sometimes find disempowering, or dominated by impersonal we-must rhetoric. In this midst of all this flood of words of wildly varying helpfulness, I was glad to find these reflections from Lynn Gazis-Sax.

If I never see another swastika or Confederate flag, that would be too soon for me. But I also appreciated David D. Flowers writing about Flags of the Heart. We as a community confronting pervasive racism, elitism, and objectification, may desperately want and need a symbolic victory. Go for it! Get rid of that racial wallpaper, as Jon Stewart named this ancient embedded symbolism of which that flag is an example. But I am still haunted by the virus of sin that goes undetected by our righteousness. "War is not the answer," says the Friends Committee on National Legislation; and I agree when it comes to carnal warfare with outward weapons. But the Lamb's War goes on until we are victorious over our own willingness to put condemnation before discernment. (This is aimed at me as much as anyone!)

I downloaded my own PDF copy of the encyclical on "care for our common home" by Pope Francis, and am about a quarter of the way through it. I honestly can't understand where the vociferous criticism comes from. So much of Francis's rhetoric is invitational, at times even lyrical. Why can't his critics engage with the substance of what he says, even where they don't agree, rather than trying to diminish his credibility? (That is a rhetorical question!) Since I've not finished reading it yet, here are some good comments from someone who has.

Sean Guillory (Sean's Russia Blog) interviews Joy Gleason Carew, associate professor of Pan-African Studies at the University of Louisville, and author of this (PDF) article, "Black in the USSR: African diasporan pilgrims, expatriates and students in Russia, from the 1920s to the first decade of the twenty-first century." A fascinating article and podcast.

"Stranger in a Strange Land." Charlie Musselwhite at the Waterfront Blues Festival a few years ago. I'm in the audience that you can occasionally glimpse in the video. Next week at this time, I hope to be at this year's Festival for three out of the four days. If I manage to post anything here next Thursday, it won't be much!