Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Over some kind of threshold

I've been getting the sense over the last couple weeks that I've stepped over some kind of threshold. The pieces of it I can see all look like "ideas", but they also feel deeper than ideas... I think maybe they're something else besides ideas too:

Parts of parts of parts: The idea that as we are made of parts, so we are also parts ourselves, The "bigger things," the "powers" that so permeate religious life are in fact those larger entities that we are part of, going all the way up to the unimaginably huge. That's really the heart of the place I'm sitting now.

Cells and communities: Analogous ways parts work together, forming entities that do different things than we or cells do as individuals. I am also mindful of the ways that those functions are often autonomic, not under any really Mindful will.

Steering and the cerebellum: Not every entity in the universe has a cerebellum or a medulla oblongata or even a vestigial nervous system. And yet the most basic bits of matter have this "tendency" to move this way toward each other or away from each other. To me this feels like the most elementary part of "will." If you steer a boat, some of the skill comes from knowing how to get the boat to do what you want to do, but part is also being aware of currents and the boat's momentum, things about the larger system of you and the boat that aren't really under your present will.

The ordinaries of Christian religious discourse and life that have made me itchy: prayer, scripture, miracles, sainthood, souls, afterlife, sacraments, communion... I get more and more convinced that I at least as a non-theist need to come to terms with as much of this as I can manage, and understand them from my own points of view. I've been taking baby steps here for a year or so, and I think this new place I've dropped into makes that more possible, if only because I have a sense of a larger entity I actually believe in.

The ill-fittingness of "non-theism": this term makes me itchy too—as I've said before— because it frames my sense-of-things as the shadow cast by the figure of theism. It's a negative space, a figure-ground problem, and I just don't see my path in these matters as shadowy or reactionary. I really try not to make them reactionary. So the question is, what is the figure, the positive space, that occupies the space that others call "non-theist"? Does it in fact matter what it's called, and if it does matter, why does it?


Anyway, this is my 100th post on the blog, and I think I need to take a little break and explore the landscape I seem to have dropped in on. Nothing definite in terms of length; I'll almost certainly be back by spring. Maybe a lot sooner. I just need to get my feet a little more under me before I can write coherently.

I also am finding my looming regular-life schedule for December through March daunting at best, and need to focus on that for a while.

Feel free to drop me a line at "nat dot case at mindspring dot kom" (except spell "kom" as it should be spelled and replace the "at" and "dot" with the appropriate stuff).

Thanks for reading... talk with you again soon!

Friday, November 27, 2009


We're working our way through the Harry Potter series; a few nights ago we reached the climax of book 6, the battle on top of the tallest tower in Hogwarts, with its unexpected conclusion. Our son has been very anxious about what happens next, who dies, who lives... and he is a kid who is pretty good about fact and fiction (I expect, when the time comes, that he'll take the unmasking of Santa Claus, Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy pretty well). And he really gets riled up—and so do we all, when we let ourselves be taken over by a fiction.

A month or so ago, I picked up a great coffee-table book at a used bookstore in Duluth. It's called Faces of Fantasy, and the most fascinating thing about it, I think, is the degree to which some of the authors admit having magic invade their world, after having spent so much of their lives honing the craft of describing magic in fiction. Not all the writers; some are pretty blasé about what they write, if gracious at having been allowed to make a living having so much fun. And some are so into the sheer Gothicness of writing fantasy as to be laugh-out-loud funny ("Worship me, mere mortals, for I am the Bride of Jim Morrison!" Seriously.). But the authors whose books I most enjoy are thoughtful about the ways that their storytelling work remakes the world, unmasks secrets inside readers, tells stories about the heart of the universe.

As a child, I loved fantasy, and I never totally outgrew it. I think I've mentioned this before. As I grew up, I found ways to get "serious" about my interest, to justify it somehow, but... I recently re-read one of my early favorites, The Summer Birds by Penelope Farmer. I think I can finally admit that plain and simple I loved those stories for the vicarious experience of magic—a kind of hair-tingling, heart-pumping exhilaration. Just the idea that a kid could learn to fly. As I said a couple weeks ago in meeting, these were my miracle stories.

I wrote a couple of years ago about my time in the world of fantasy fiction as a young adult, and how I was kind of surprised to find the creators of these stories not to actually be wizards or Illuminati or whatever. But in reading Faces of Fantasy I see a sentiment among the writers I respect most that is a little like the Quaker line I keep coming back to, about how we abolished not the clergy but the laity. The point is that these writers are not trying to gather magical knowledge in order to empower themselves over others—they are trying to spread a sense of magic diffusely, to reintroduce it back into a culture that frankly doesn't know what to do with miracle stories. Which in turn reminds me of the interesting discussion on the Sheffield Quakers blog which eventually turned to the idea of magic in Quakerism.

Again, as I said in meeting, we Friends don't do miracle stories much. We try to be reasonable, and we try to speak truly from our experience. And I venture to say none of us has had experiences identical to the ones in miracle stories, old or new: literally walking on water, literally flying like a bird, literally returning from the dead.

When I've tried in the past to look critically at fantasy stories, I've tried to figure out what magic means in modern kids' fantasy fiction. Creativity, or aliveness to the world, maybe. Power, in some books. But what I'm seeing in revisiting the topic after some time away, is that fantasy books are, at heart, about Amazing Things Happening. How do Amazing Things change us? How do they pull us away from those who haven't experienced them? How do they push us to attempt Amazing Feats ourselves? How do they clarify the world, and how do they make it more confusing? And so on.

And here I go back to a line of questions I started asking when I first becoming a cartographer. At the time, I asked "Can a map be an independent work of fiction?" My conclusion is that while they can be used as part of a fictional game, or as an illustration to a work of fiction, maps can't stand on their own as works of fiction, because they don't stand on their own as works of fact. They need to refer to the real world in order to fulfill their purpose.

What about miracle maps? What would a miracle map be? I ask without a clear answer. But it's an interesting question.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Healing the Lowry Gash

I spoke in meeting today, about how places heal. In particular, I was thinking about the great gash in the ground in Minneapolis around the Lowry Tunnel. When looking at old maps of Minneapolis (here's one from 1900, and another from 1929), it seems like the city moved naturally from downtown into the Lowry Hill residential area. The Hennepin Avenue-Lyndale Avenue intersection was apparently simply known as "the bottleneck" (see Jack El-Hai's wonderful Lost Minnesota for a piece on the Plaza Hotel that once stood between Loring Park and what is now the Sculpture Garden)—it was an annoying part of town, but you couldn't really tell where downtown started and south Minneapolis began.

Then the interstate came through. I-94 was completed from St Paul through to Hennepin Avenue in 1968 (see a photo of construction at Blaisdell Ave, near Nicollet Ave here). There actually aren't many pictures of the construction in progress, but what there is, isn't especially exciting to anyone who has seen interstate highways under construction. There's an interesting piece about the tunnel here. The point is, the continuity was broken. It's especially dramatic if you look out from Hennepin Avenue south of the Hennepin Avenue Methodist Church, at the big gash in the ground that was dug to bring the highway down to tunnel-level.

So here's what the area looks like today, 28 years after the tunnel opened. And the thing I've noticed, over the 19 years I've been mapping the area, is how it's healed over. It's not that the gash is gone, but it's been built around. It was created in the midst of a city that was never designed for it, but as each new project and plan in the area was built, it was built with the knowledge that the big roaring river of traffic was there. And so the interruption to the city became part of what the city was.

All without a Master Plan To Heal the Gash.

What I said in meeting, was that, as I've been worrying over this and that discontent and conflict and trouble within meeting over the last few weeks, I've been thinking along the lines of "what can we do?" I've been hoping for some sort of Master Plan. I've been thinking about Liz's continued pain over the meeting not uniting easily to give the boot to a visitor who was preaching anti-gay bile, and the sense of a few commenters in that thread of "why can't we just..." And about pain around theist vs non-theists in our meeting.

But... we don't want a gash through our meeting. And there's the rub. Because we have theists and non-theists in meeting. And many on either side of that divide do feel strongly about their path to where they are, and while we at least say we are open to convincement, neither are we interested in being untrue to our personal experiences.

What can be healed then, is the pain around the divide. And it happens the same way the Minneapolis healed: one block at a time, one project at a time, one member and one friendship at a time. Now, we perhaps can build a Master Plan-type framework within which that healing can occur, and I'd argue we do that already, but we also just need time, and a long-term, low-level commitment to make that divide not a gash but just part of our city.

I want to say one more thing before I sign off, and it goes back to discussions last year about "the Grid," referring to the measured squares we impose on the landscape. As I said then, my conclusion is that the problem with this grid is not in is use as a tool for measuring, but in its imposition back upon the world being measured. It's when the ruler lines are cut back on the landscape with little regard for the shape of the land itself.

But what I'm saying here I think applies as well: once the cut is made, we can't go back and entirely un-cut it. What we can do (and sometimes have done) is to take this scarred land and make choices that heal around it. Like the mounds that dot the central part of the continent, we can let the grid become part of the land—because it is part of the land, however uncomfortable that makes us.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

All in favor

This is, I think, version seven of my response post to the comments on the last post—not because they were hurtful, painful, or otherwise Bad. There was just a lot of there there in those comparatively simple responses, and it's hard to know where to start.

My earlier versions include ruminations on granfalloons and foma, on divine will, and on community. I will probably try these on as separate posts later, but Ingrid and I had a good discussion a little bit ago that got down to what to me is an even more nubby question:

Why is it hard to create a statement endorsing a fact that already exists on the ground?

To wit, our Friends Meeting already includes a number of non-theists, myself included, and has been welcoming to us since I've been around (and I know some of the others have been around for a lot longer). We also have a bunch of other "hyphenated" Quakers in our midst, from Episco-Quakes to Pagan Friends; Buddhists, Jews... we are a very welcoming place. SO (and I know this sounds like a rhetorical question, but it's not): why is it so hard for us to actually say that that is part of what we are, when it is in fact part of what we are?

Similarly, we care for our members. In the case of members with chemical sensitivities, we have agreed as a meeting to bend over backwards to make the recent meetinghouse renovation as clean of volatile compounds as possible. We have a standing statement asking people to not wear fragrance into the meetinghouse. So what is that makes codifying, issuing a minute to this effect, so hard? Seriously.

I have a few ideas.

One is our aversion to codification. Given the Friends' historic problems with credal statements, we feel the need to be really clear, extra super clear, about anything that says, "this is what we are."

Another is personal vs group differences. We are each willing to put forward the effort we feel we can make to support our Friends, to listen to them and accept them on their own merits. But group stuff? That is harder work, because we are submitting then to the will of the group...

And this gets to the heart of several of the comments on the last post: Quakerism is not bound up in submitting to the will of the group. It is bound up in the group submitting to the will of God. And we have a hard enough time getting ourselves around submitting to the will of God as individuals.

We educated liberal moderns deeply deeply distrust anything that puts itself up between us and the Truth. Echoes of Nuremburg rallies, lynch mobs, and blacklists come up when something does. It's like being afraid to swim (I can testify to this): the fear of not being able to find the bottom with your feet. It is a deep and systemic distrust of mediation of any kind. And going from individual care through a group to submission is really really scary, even more than simply submitting oneself to that will.

And I will add that Divine Will is an even harder thing to deal with when some of your membership doesn't believe in a God that possesses "will." I think it's not impossible (yet another upcoming post, sheesh), but definitely challenging.

And when am I going to get back to talking about maps?

Saturday, November 14, 2009

We have met them, and they are us

Say you identify with a condition or a characteristic. You are blond, or left-handed, or have Schadenfreude's disease. This identity wasn't gathered lightly, and since you claimed it as your own, it has given you difficulty—plain old ostracism and nasty looks at the bus stop; doctors saying it's not a disease, it's a feature; grandparents saying left-handed people are the devil's spawn and making a big red X through your name in their wills and pointedly disinviting you to Thanksgiving. And sometimes worse.

But, you also feel a relief at knowing that this quality is really you and not a construct you've erected for the benefit of others. Just being able to say, "there's a word for what I am: blond" gives you a deep feeling of groundedness and, well, reality.

So, eventually you find a group who is accepting of you as you are, mostly. They believe you have Schadenfreude's disease. They think it's natural to be left-handed. A bunch of them have blond friends. Thank God, you think. I'm home.

It turns out this group has its own pre-existing culture. You adapt to it. You can live with this. In fact, after a while of living with this, you see just how much sense this culture makes. All decently-structured, several-generations-deep cultures make sense when you live with them for a while, and this one is no exception.

And there are a bunch of folks in this community with a similar sense to yours. Half the group is blond, actually; there's a Schadenfreude support group; community rituals have been adapted so the left-handed can participate equally. Mostly.

But there's a couple members of the old guard who, in fact, don't believe Schadenfreude's disease exists. One of them doesn't like blonds—a blond killed his red-head uncle in the war. One has real issues about the scriptural implications of left-handedness. They are willing to welcome you and your kind in, but with some hope and prayer for change...

Are these people the enemy? No, they are part of the community—in fact, they were members of the community before you were born. They are deeply learned in the heritage of this community—your community... Or is it your community? What makes it your community? Are they wrong? Are you wrong?

So you feel unsure. You want the group to say "Yes, blond people, left-handed people, even people with SD, all are welcome!" And there's resistance. Weird, surprising resistance. What the hey?

In a nutshell, the group welcomed you (and folks in your condition), but this is not a group for people like you. The group identity isn't the same as this identity you bring forward. That was never the community's purpose. You are welcome, but you do not speak for the group.


And that, Friends, is where a lot of liberal Quakers find themselves on a variety of fronts. Our meeting has, anyway. All are welcome, but that doesn't mean we're going to follow your lead. And it doesn't guarantee that all of us are going to like you as you are. Except that there are enough of us who have made the journey I described above, that it has in fact become part of who we are.

And if that in fact becomes a core of the meeting, being a refuge for the excluded and exiled, then doesn't it exclude those who haven't made that journey? The straight, Anglo, middle-class, raised-as-church-going folk?

As someone who feels somewhat like an outsider who found refuge (as a deeply agnostic rationalist with a strong, ornery taste for magical fiction), but also someone who inherited a fair amount of being-part-of-the-establishment, I am torn.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Guest post: Tom Stoffregen

Tom's a fellow Friend at Twin Cities Friends Meeting, and he emailed me separately about something I said in meeting that pretty closely corresponds to a post I made here last month. He said it was OK for me to post that email here, so here it is:


from your blog:
In any case, we don't have kings except in church, if we go to the sort of church that still emphasizes "Lordship." Liberal Friends don't, and I'm beginning to wonder if we aren't missing something big here. Like the central point of most of the variants (Islamic, Jewish, Christian, Mormon, etc) of the Abrahamic tradition.

My question is, how to bring in this sense of submission—which historically could be described as an analogue to the liege-t0-king relationship—into a truly egalitarian world-view.
This is (as best I can recall) what got my attention in Meeting for Worship. As political animals, we now reject the authority hierarchies that kingship exemplifies. But as religious animals we continue to embrace (or aim to embrace) these same authority hierarchies.

Friends rely on the "light within", which might suggest Quakerism is compatible with an egalitarian model. Yet most Friends theologians (i.e., the few I've read) emphasize that the light within shines from a source that is not the self, the ego. So, is Friends' theology egalitarian, or is it ain't?

My main concern, however, is with some implications of your spoken comments for how we view our relationship with any/everything that is alleged to be "other". If God is outside us, then we are in an authority hierarchy in which God is above and we are below; the classical Abrahamic view of the situation.

I'm increasingly dissatisfied with this view, and I no longer regard it as the only view. I'm not an animist, but I am increasingly interested in some ideas from animism, to wit, the idea that there is not a simple, in-vs-out dichotomy between "self" and "other", whether it be "self vs. God", "self vs. other people", or "self vs physical world".

There are other types of hierarchies, ones in which a given "unit" can operate (simultaneously) at multiple levels in the hierarchy. Example: I act as an individual, call it level 1. But I also act as part of a marital unit (level 2), which does (can do) things that can never be done at level 1 (e.g., reproduce). Level 2 consists of interactions among people; the interactions are things-in-themselves that differ qualitatively from the individuals that engage in the interactions. I also act at levels 3, 4, etc., where I act as part of larger and larger social units. Baseball is a nice example; the team does things that individual team members cannot do (e.g., turn a double play, or simply play a regular game). The actions of higher level units are irreducible.

My point is that we exist and operate (simultaneously) at multiple levels of a really big hierarchy; this is a fact of life. Most religious traditions simply ignore this fact. Animism is, more or less, an exeption, in that it refers to causal interactions (rather than isolated causation).

Quakers offer a really good example of this idea as it pertains to religion. Friends believe that Jesus shows up "whenever two or more are gathered together in His name". In other words, Jesus keys into Level 2 (or higher), and disdains Level 1.

I see the up-down hierarchy of Abrahamic religion as being deeply related to western concepts of reductionism (e.g., pre-Christian Greeks); the idea that the Whole is equal to the sum of the Parts. This idea, as a description of the world and our living in it, is wrong. If we toss the reductionist tradition and look into non-reductionist views of how the world works, we may get a very different view of religion.

Its not so much "god is king, or else I am king". Rather, it may be "I participate in God without myself being God". This view seems to be pretty compatible with Quakerism.



Wednesday, October 28, 2009


Friend and colleague Richard finds himself called to be a "Gaia troubadour." He has the title, and his job is to try and figure out what that means. He seeks to live into a vision of the earth as a single living unit, an idea allied with the view of "Mother Earth" that comes from ancient earth religions and their modern revivals/reinventions—Gaia is the Greek mythological counterpart, the the female half of the dichotomy in that culture, placed in counterpoint to Uranus, the sky.

The "Gaia hypothesis," which has been seized upon by some new-age and other nature-based spiritual groups, has little to say itself about the Earth being an organism. Wikipedia's summary says:
The Gaia hypothesis is an ecological hypothesis proposing that the biosphere and the physical components of the Earth (atmosphere, cryosphere, hydrosphere and lithosphere) are closely integrated to form a complex interacting system that maintains the climatic and biogeochemical conditions on Earth in a preferred homeostasis.
Basically, that the planet is a self-correcting system. So the science does not, at least in this case, go so far as to say that Earth is a single "organism."

But I do think earth-as-body is a great metaphor.

In my previous post, I talked about the problem of hierarchical submission. It seems clear to that one of the real values of a religious/spiritual approach to things, is that it gives a structure within which one can say both, "it's not about me," and, "it's not all my responsibility." Christians seek not to sin, but are forgiven their sins. "Islam" itself means "submission" to the will of Allah. And I do believe this is a very very useful thing to have in one's life. We don't "do it all" ourselves, and pretending we ought to only makes us insane.

But, the models we have for this submission in Abrahamic traditions come out of a social structure in which there are lords and there are servants. And God, in this context, is seen as "Lord of All." I would argue the model went from the human structure to the perceived divine structure; others will probably argue it went the other way. I do not believe we have the ability to view God objectively and clearly enough, beyond our own life context, to say whether God "really" is king or not. But I can say that Kings make a lot less sense to those of us who live in a democracy that overthrew kingly rule 225+ years ago, and a potentially even more twisted meaning in a Europe or Japan where the role is largely ceremonial. God is a figurehead? I don't think that's what was meant.

So. Is it possible for those of us who work within an egalitarian idea of humanity, to come up with an analagous model that also includes "egalitarian submission"?

This is why I like Gaia. One submits to Gaia not as a slave before his/her master, but as a cell before the body. We are part of this whole, not ruled from outside by it.

The only trouble is the whole Mother Nature thing. It is easy to personify Gaia, and I continue to not buy it. The analogy of ourseves as cells in a global "body" implies by analogy that there's a global cerebellum, a "mind" running the show. And while I can believe some sort of global or universal organization, the idea that it has a language center seems like projection to me.

I'll be the first to admit that it is terrifying to think about submitting to a "mindless machine" or a "mindless beast." But how much of that terror is based our the habit of thinking about all our own actions as "intentional." How much of what we human organisms do is actually cerebellum-directed? We use our cerebellums in large part as tools to get out of mindlessness's way (I had a nightmare last night about tornadoes, and finding ways to get all my elderly friends under heavy, fixed objects).

I think the biggest block is that we think of that cerebellum-self as running the show within ourselves, and we want an equivalent cerebellum running The Big Show. I would suggest that, in the egalitarian spirit that started this whole thing off, we recognize that our cerebellum is a part of us, that is provides leadership where leadership is needed, but that it doesn't have to lead like a Lord or King. What does cerebellum-as-clerk look like?

And our role in the world then doesn't have to be a choice between humanity-as-king or humanity-as-follower-of-the-World-King. What does humanity-as-clerk look like? What is our role as a species? Do species have "roles"? And what about cartographers?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Summing up [maps]

I started doing a summing-up of where I've gotten to on this blog. The mappy part I got, I think, and is below. The Quakery part, not so much.


We measure the earth.

Our measurements are a way of paying attention, but when we measure, we pay more attention to norms than to idiosyncratic instances: we see a series of things in the same category—"road" for example—rather than the peculiar ways individual houses are different. When we measure, we are finding something out about the world that is not peculiar to ourselves. Or at least, this is true when we measure using rulers and standard units of measurement

The result moves us away from a record of direct experience—and thus from a connection to that experience—and toward understanding of the world through an abstracted filter. This abstracted version of the world makes it possible to work with strangers, and so also makes possible an alienated, broadly-based, urban society. Thus measurement isn't all that different from language, which both allows us to communicate with those who do not share our direct experience, and cages our own experience.

By defining and categorizing, this measurement of the earth also makes it clear that we are different and separate from the earth. The measurer and the measured are supposed to be distinct. When we measure the earth and also when we name parts of the earth, we reinforce a sense of separation from the earth; measurement places a measuring tool between ourselves and the thing being measured. By contrast, direct repeated experience reinforces a sense of connectedness to the specific piece of ground we are experiencing. We don't need the measured version of a familiar territory, but measurements with new tools may reveal something new and unfamiliar within familiar territory.

Measuring also allows us to comprehend a scale of the earth that is outside our everyday experience. When we use the results of measurement to talk about a territory that stretches further than we can see, our a route past that bend in the road, we can talk about that route or territory not just as accumulations of places, but as entities of their own. It's no accident that small-scale maps and cosmological drawings often leach over into one another. Both describe spatial ideas that encompass, but are beyond, our moment-to-moment experience.

Daddy Played the Banjo

The more I listen to the first song on Steve Martin's album The Crow, the more impressed I get. Concealed in an utterly banal little song about tradition and learning the banjo from elders is an almost koan-like reflection on how we invent ourselves, and even such eternals as hope and love, out of whole cloth.

The first three verses are sung straight, an idyllic recollection of a youth surrounded by the sounds of the narrator's father's music:
Daddy played the banjo, ‘neath the yellow tree.
It rang across the backyard, an old time melody.
I loved to hear the music; I was only five.
I listened as his fingers made the banjo come alive.

Sometimes I’d wake up at night, and hear a distant tune.
The banjo would echo, ‘round my childhood room.
I’d sneak down the back stairs—Daddy never knew.
I’d grab a broom and make believe, I was pickin’, too.

One day Daddy put my fingers down upon his fist.
He picked it with his other hand, we made the banjo ring;
Now the music takes me back, cross the yellow day.
To the summers with my Dad, and the tunes he made.
It's absolutely standard this-music-came-down-to-me-from-my-ancestors, justify-traditional-styles lyrics. You'll hear it in any modern musical style that somehow pays homage to pre-electronic styles... heck, you'll hear it in homages to "old-time rock and roll." The lyric that came to mind for me was John Denver's "Thank God I'm a Country Boy."

Then comes a bridge and the fourth verse:
But I’m just tellin’ lies ‘bout the things I did—
See I’m that banjo player who never had a kid.
Now I sit beneath that yellow tree.
Hopin’ that a kid somewhere, is listening to me.
Now, if you'll notice, verses 1-3 didn't say anything about the adult narrator and his kids. So his saying he never had kids doesn't show the first three verses as lies. So what's the lie? If he was sweepingly lying about his childhood—and if we take this to be Mr Martin's personal narration, which is of course a risk, then yes, it is made up; he first taught himself the banjo as a teenager and has learned it from friends and collagues since then—if he is lying, then this is supposed to be the "real truth" behind his banjo playing, that it's not about the past and where he learned it, it's about the audience. He hopes a kid will be listening to him.
Daddy played the banjo, ‘neath the yellow tree.
It rang across the backyard and wove a spell on me.
Now the banjo takes me back, through the foggy haze,
With memories of what never was, become the good old days.
The narrator repeats that initial idyllic vision and then closes with a variant on how music takes us back...it takes us back into an invented good old days. It creates nostalgia.

The whole song is performed with comforting old-time instrumentation, and a buttery, comforting vocal (not Martin's own kind of frenetic and always kind of snide vocal style). It's possible to glide right over the words. And in fact, while the words deconstruct the comforting past of folky musics, they also point to its appeal, and slide right into that appeal. The line about the performer sitting under the tree hoping a kid is listening to him, really get to the heart of this constructed fiction.

The point is, we who work in folk idioms (and as a morris dancer and sometimes singer I think of myself that way some of the time) are indeed constructing a fiction. But that fiction isn't about hagiography of country life for its own sake. It's to use comfort and selected older values as the basis for constructing our own lives and offering that to our audience. By calling up aspects of the "good old days" and bringing them into the present, we offer a gentle sort of critique. Why not dance and sing? Why not celebrate the seasons? Why not get closer to the food you eat? Why not listen to friends and family making music, and make some yourself? Here, it can be fun.

I'm reminded of Ray Bradbury's short story "The Toynbee Convector," in which a man invents a time machine, goes forward in time and comes back with a dazzling vision of the future, which the world starts getting behind, and eventually builds. As he nears the end of his life, the inventor reveals the whole thing was a fiction: no time machine, just a detailed model in his basement. But the earth bought it, and now has moved into that dazzling future anyway.

We receive some of our hope and love and Light from outside of ourselves, but we get to make some of it ourselves too. And we can do it out of whole cloth, like the kid from the suburbs who learned to play the banjo from a book and some records, and can construct a whole fictional past which we, too, buy. Mostly. The important bits, anyway.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

...Of All He Surveys

Confession time: I want to be king. Seriously. Not the elegant, modern, bespoke-suited kings of modern Europe, or the jokey Henery-the-Eighth-I-Am-I-Am king. I want trumpets blazing a fanfare as I walk down aisle of Westminster Abbey with a heavy gold crown and an orb and scepter and boy choirs singing and all that stuff.

I just don't want to have to become the sort of person that you seem to have to be, to become king. I was reading a little last night about Louis XIV, the Sun King, and I think I would have not liked him much at all. Lots of sending former friends into dungeons or to be burnt at the stake. I like the character of Prince Hal/King Henry V, but I suspect he was deeply fictionalized. Went to war over an insult, and whole bunch of folks died to give him his victory at Agincourt. Nice.

And yet, I love high church, if it feels real. I buy into very little American high church stuff, because we're a democracy dammit. It just doesn't fly. Now, Westminster Abbey... One of my favorite things to do in England is to arrive an hour early for sung services at Westminster, and get to sit in the stalls right behind the choir. It's glorious.

In high school, I wrote a short play, and a central character of that play has stayed with me. He was the son of a king, who decided he didn't want to become what he saw his father was, and what he saw his brothers becoming. So he pretended to go mad, to go deaf-and-dumb, and everyone believed him and no-one expected anything further from him. A variant of the story got put into "Tales of the Tattoo Rumba Man," which I've discussed earler:
My father was king, and I was his son. I walked the dangerous cold halls of the palace and waited for something to happen. And while I waited, I watched them, especially my father. I watched him slip into the decay of deceiving words; I watched his hands sweep out capturing only empty space.
And so, when it becomes time for the prince to take the crown, he refuses—he walks away. Kind of like The Lion King, without a pair of wiseacre pig and meerkat sidekicks.

Why does all of this come up?

I've been pushing around the concept of leadership in my head. I'm taking on co-clerking Ministry and Counsel at my home meeting for the next year, and it's weird. Clerking is not "leading" in any modern sense of the word. It's not supposed to be, anyway. And yet there is a certain deference paid to the clerk, usually, because it's the clerk's job to watch the movement of spirit in the meeting, to keep a watch on the sense of meeting, and then test an overt statement of that sense and see if Friends agree that is where in fact they are. The clerk is supposed to be separate from the committee much of the time, and this to me feels like part of what is expected of good leadership in general.

Over the last couple years, I've been going back repeatedly to a conversation I had with an older F/friend, where she reminisced over her early years in the meeting, in the 1970's. In particular, she was remembering Mumford Sibley, who was clerk of M&C when she first served on it. Mr Sibley was formidable, a person of great authority. Gravitas, maybe is a better word. But she and I observed that this gravitas is not one we see a lot of in the current crop of elders. I think this is true across the board among liberals of the last few decades, and I wonder why.

There has certainly been a dearth of authentic "gravitas" among our national political leadership, and in religious circles, it has come to be associated with pious hypocrisy, the kind of behavior that early Quakers and other anti-establishment groups railed against in the 17th century. I think it is something we suspect, as so often it seems like a mask for something sinful or just plain ignorant. Pedantry.

I think there's something deeper though, and it has to do with the disconnect between our mythic language and the real power structures in our lives. I'm talking here about the word "Lord."

The language of pretty much all religions with personified gods includes phrases like "Lord Jesus," or "Lord Krishna," or "Kingdom of Heaven." But for the last century or two, we have lived in a world where old-fashioned lord-liege relationships simply don't exist. You can see formalized remnants of them getting blown to bits in World War I, but even by then they were pretty stale.

Institutionalized slavery was gone by then too, replaced by wage-slavery. I'm reading David B Davis' Slavery and Human Progress now (thanks Marshall!), and I'll be curious what I find out about the cycle of slavery as in institution in the modern West.

In any case, we don't have kings except in church, if we go to the sort of church that still emphasizes "Lordship." Liberal Friends don't, and I'm beginning to wonder if we aren't missing something big here. Like the central point of most of the variants (Islamic, Jewish, Christian, Mormon, etc) of the Abrahamic tradition.

My question is, how to bring in this sense of submission—which historically could be described as an analogue to the liege-t0-king relationship—into a truly egalitarian world-view.

Maybe it's like clerking: submitting and allowing yourself to be submitted to, round and round.

Saturday, October 3, 2009


I've had two interactions recently that put my earlier thoughts on the Grid into perspective. Both of them were about the idea of rules.

First, Jeanne Burns on her Quakers and Social Class blog posited that:
Middle and owning class people make the rules, and when working class or poor people don't follow the rules, there are dire consequences
This was followed up by some interesting comments. I'm sorry she wasn't willing to take it further, but I stand by my suggestion that (A) rules in general are something most folks desire, that they provide strcuture, and (B) that while many rules become means of maintaining position—that they are about the rich stayig rich and the powerful staying powerful—some rules are also about everyone being able to be part of the same "game," whether that game is a marketplace, a social interaction, a religious practice, or a game. And some are about keeping everyone safe and alive.

The second kind of rules are like the measuring kind of grid that has been discussed here before: rules of the marketplace say that certain kinds of contract are binding, that prices can be negotiated in these circumstances but not those, that my $10 is the same as your $10 (and yes, there are rules in many marketplaces that say the opposite, but these are the other, pernicious, keep-them-in-their-place kinds of rules).

As a parent of a seven-year-old, I am especially aware of the third kind of rule, and how easily it can be seen as the first kind ("Why can't I bungee-jump off the roof? It's not fair! All the other kids are doing it. You're just trying to keep me from having grown-up fun!" Not an actual quote, but close enough). Seatbelt laws as another means for the power elite to grab more power.

All rules feel like power-reinforcement tools when you're not in power.

And yet, we humans need some sort of internalized structure. Practices can form much of that structure, but so do rules. I'm thinking of the Rule of St Benedict, the basis for much of western Christian monastic life. It is highly structured and full of rules, but it allows those who submit to it the space to pursue a deeply spiritual path. It removes a variety of external anxieties.

Because at their best, rule systems are like a kind of group handshake. We agree when we walk onto the field that these are the rules of the game, and so we can feel confident that we are not going to have to work too hard to avoid being maimed by the other team.

The other conversation about rules was from a relatively recent arrival at meeting, who asked me via email about the unwritten rules of the meeting. Jeanne also talks about the unwritten rules as specifically enforcements of middle-class values. In her response to my comment, she wrote:
As for rules evolving from truth...there's a very good reason why Quakers have testimonies and don't consider them rules. One is that truth is always evolving; setting the truth in stone makes it that much harder to see new Light. Another is that our testimonies are evidence of our changed hearts, not guidelines to live by. First comes the changed heart. Then the new way to live life. Not the other way around.
This is all true. My response to the question about unwritten rules was:
One of the peculiar things about Friends is the weird (from the standpoint of society at large) way there appear to be unwritten rules. Often Friends chide one another for "breaking" these rules, but the rules are uncodified for a reason. In the end, there are structures and habits and usual practices, but no rules, as I understand the term.

The entirety of Quaker practice comes from the idea that the forms of worship and of living in the spirit ought to emerge out of convincement, of real spiritual feeling. Early Quakers were specifically rebelling against the falseness they saw in churchly "outward forms" and so they rejected rituals of baptism and communion, believing that inward baptism and inward communion were what was important, and that it was too easy for people to fake these sacraments, making them empty forms.

So, there are no codified "rules" as people usually use the term.

That does not mean "anything goes." It is customary, for example, to speak only once, if at all. In extraordinary circumstances, someone does speak twice, but that second spoken ministry had better be something that shakes the meeting's rafters, and it better have the sense that the speaker was given no choice but to speak twice, that he/she was PUSHED into speaking against his/her own reluctance. And that it was not self doing the pushing. If not, other many attenders will think the speaker is being self-indulgent.
The problem with rules—or forms in general—in a religious context is how easily they move from "our rules made by us meant to fill our need for structure" to "God's Law." And once something is no longer our rule, but is imposed from above, it becomes something we enforce on others. Like the Grid: I argued earlier that the real problem is not the existence of the grid as a tool for measurement and mutual understanding, but when that grid is enforced back on the earth, and the contours of the land are ignored in the Grid's favor. Same is true for rules: we need them, they are ours, and they give us limits within which to operate in a given context. When they become the Rules of the Parents/God/Ruling Class/Overseer, then they become pernicious. They then become tools of power.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

'Til Daddy Takes the T-Bird Away

Ingrid posted a passage on the fridge a while back from Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers. The relevant passage is quoted here. It basically makes the case that it is practice—massive amounts of practice—rather than talent, that make brilliant musicians. You of course have to have some inborn ability to fit the instrument, but the 10,000 to 20,000 hours of practice, the 20-30 hours/week, that's what does the trick.

The word "practice" came out of a continental usage meaning "striving or endeavoring" into its earliest English use as the carrying out of a profession, especially medicine and law. It quickly spread to mean "The actual application or use of an idea, belief, or method, as opposed to the theory or principles of it" (OED, definition 2a), and then "The habitual doing or carrying on of something" (OED, definition 3a). It has come to connote a regularly repeated activity which is reserved into a protected, private space in life, not subject to conventional human power structures. You don't do it for cash or your household or your family. Practice is about you and something other than you, and no-one else gets in the way.

I decided to become an art major the end of my freshman year in college wothout having taken any art classes. I did it because I looked at all the activities I had been doing that year, and the ones that I just did and did and paid no attention to time passing were mostly working on design and art projects. I figured that was a good indicator of the sort of work I could happily put a major's worth of effort into. It turns out I was right. I was happy to work—to practice—for hours on end.

Now, by the end of the next three years, I had of course come nowhere near the 20,000 hours of practice mentioned above. 3000 I might believe, but that's probably pushing it; I had other classes and activities. And I mostly gave up the disciplines of the studio arts within a couple years after graduating. Turns out I am not so good on self-motivation if there isn't someone (like a teacher or a client or an audience) I'm preparing work for. Just how I'm built. But I got into map-making, and I felt a similar sense of "I could do this forever."

I think map-making is fun.

And I think the key to getting to that 20,000 hours has to be "fun". Either that or some seriously twisted obsessive behavior combined with strong elder-pressure. But if they didn't love doing it, would they keep doing it? If they didn't at least some of the time wake up in the morning and say, "Wait, you're going to pay me to go out and do this? Cool!" I feel that way about map-making still a lot of the time. Ingrid says she feels that way about writing.

As Dr Seuss says, "If you never did, you should./These things are fun and fun is good."

But pursuit of fun also covers a kind of Peter Pan escape-from-reality way of approaching things which is the opposite of what I'm talking about. What is the difference between following the pleasure of a practice that works for you, and following sensual pleasures? The difference is whether the practice requires work from you; whether you are being held up to a standard.

Some friends were over and in the course of the evening's conversation, the question emerged, "so why do you go to Meeting if you aren't a theist?" Which is a good question, a good opening. And one of the answers, perhaps surprisingly, is "because it's fun." Or something like fun. It's fun in the sense that the practice rewards me. I come away with more than I went in with, usually.

But conversely I think of those awful grownups who try to make kids have fun, with a forced-march kind of determination—there was a gift to Roo when he was very small that was a clock that talked in a plummy, Judi Dench English accent, saying "Let's have fun!" when you turned it on, and "Goodbye!" when you turned it on, which at age 1 was about all he could do. Over and over and over. "Let's have fun! Goodbye! Let's have fun! Goodbye! Let's have fun! Goodbye!" Given who it was from, we considered it a passive-aggressive gift and "forgot" it at grandma's house...

Maybe I'm just avoiding the obvious word because it sounds so over-the-top gushy: Joy. Fun you can use up and throw away, but joy you keep. Maybe I find joy in the work I do, and the practice of Friends meeting, and really much of what I do in my life (OK, cleaning the cat box and balancing the bank statements maybe not so much), without the trumpets sounding and shafts of light from above. Maybe that's what the practice is about.

Friday, September 11, 2009

In which I ramble on about books I've never read

There's been some interesting discussion in the Quaker blogosphere around David Boulton's book The Trouble With God. Simon Haywood wrote a post arguing the book was anti-Quaker, and Charley Earp wrote a response. Full disclosure: I haven't read The Trouble With God, so in that regard I'm talking through my hat on this particular thread.

Frankly the arguments in Simon and especially Earp's posts made my head spin. It is late at night, but still...

What canst I say?

I am not a theist but continue to be mistrustful of the term "non-theist" because it focuses on what I don't believe rather than what I do believe (I would also point out that I am a non-Odinist and a non-Quetzalcoatlist, in which I expect I have a lot of company here).

I believe in stories. I believe in fiction. I trust love.

To me, God or no God is a red herring when it comes to truth. What it comes down to, is can you let the truth of a story into your heart without its being factually true? If no, then you are subject to a warped realism: you trust only what you can touch, or else you make true what is not empirically demonstrable.

We all do this. Quakers, Mormons, Catholics. Shi'ites, Zen Buddhists (OK, maybe not Zen Buddhists). Even not-theists like me.

Our world includes processes and structures that cannot be empirically seen. Some of them can be empirically demonstrated, most notably in the sciences. Others are social structures we all take for granted, and can see acting around us so clearly there is no need for demonstration. Some are frankly baffling. Death, for instance.

Earlier this week I had a bedtime where I became obsessed with 9/11. Imagining being on the planes, in the towers, on the street. It's like my son's interest in the Titanic: we humans believe if you turn a thing over and over long enough, there will be a solution. So we read the book over and over, and we form ideas in our heads and hearts about how the world works. That's one of the things stories are really good for.

I watched a bunch of YouTube bits from New York, 9/11/01. It helped, oddly, to see the actual events, horrifying though it was. I remembered what actually happened; it went from a movie script in my head to a horrible thing that actually happened. Probably reading Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close would have helped, or In the Shadow of Two Towers, both still on my to-read list.

We are so... so... what's the word? neurotic? uptight? obsessed? whatever it is, we are so "that way" about fact and fiction, making sure we are clear which is on which side. "Sacred" is on the non-fiction shelves. "Funny" is on the fiction shelves. Me, I love stories that, even if only for a little while, confuse me as to which is which: conspiracy theories, metafiction, stories within stories...

To me, that's where I get a glimpse of really experiencing truth.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The New Champion

I have a new winner in the Best Book About Maps category. It's called The Map Addict (you can also view a preview of the book from that link). It is written by Mike Parker, and it is very very good.

Mike Parker is English, and his personal obsession is Ordnance Survey mapping, but the way he describes life inside a map works just as well for those of us who grew up in America. He begins with the kind of obsessive map-travel many of us practised as children, wending our way through road and street maps. In Parker's case, it was the 1:50,000 Landranger Series, but I was picturing an 11-year-old me with my family's Hagstrom and Texaco road maps and a Goode's World Atlas. Parker was obsessed enough to shoplift nearly a complete set of Landrangers in his teens, and he acted as the family's (heck, the neighborhood's) navigator for his young adult life.

The book includes the requisite descriptions of recent cartographic history—the origins of the Ordnance Survey, Bartholomew's, and the A-Z maps—but it all comes back to what it is like to be a map person. He carefully takes down the old canard about men, women and maps ("men read maps, women follow along"). He takes on the dangers of satellite navigation with great good humor. And in the end he turns on his own map addiction, describing what it is like as a map obsessive to wander without a map, to be freed of knowing ahead of time exactly where you are.

A description of the book sounds like a random collection of interesting waypoints: the solar alignment of Milton Keynes, the most boring sheet of Ordnance Survey mapping, the sensuousness of raised-relief mapping, but throughout it, Mike inserts himself and reflects on how his relationship with maps informed and changed his relationship with the world as a whole. As a gay, pagan travel writer and TV commentator, many conventional Englishmen and women would see him as weird, but his relationship with maps is tied to a quite normal English domestic way of being: Enid Blyton stories and a nice cup of tea, and the world laid out comfortably surveyed. All adventures contained.

He talks about how a mappy way of thinking about the world can and does lead to a kind of cranky, even dangerous, sense of normality. Many of his heroes turned into cranks in their old age, and he alludes to a kind of proto-fascist mentality lurking in any well-settled society.

The book is witty, and it reminded me how important humor is in discussing the things I like to talk about here. Humor is a way of pointing sideways to uncomfortable things, and Parker does it so well, you may not even recognize the discomforts he is talking about. We would all do well to pay attention to that.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Trompe l'oueil

First off, I have a warm spot in my hearts for the Mormons. In all seriousness, I do. I love a religion that consciously provides a sense of our continent as sacred space. I really like Orson Scott Card's writing, though I find his expressed political views a little disconcerting. LDS folks I've worked with or run into are generally intensely focused on whatever they are doing, have secure family lives (assuming they are not closeted), and generally nice people. Take it as snide if you will, but I really like a religion that takes wildly tall tales as seriously as they do.

We toured Temple Square this afternoon, on the last full day of visiting my in-laws, who moved here last fall. And I had a revelation of sorts sitting in the Assembly Hall while the tour-guide missionary from Canada blithely went on about the deep love of God that led the early settlers to painstakingly paint the white pine columns as faux marble and the white pine pews as oak...

I suddenly realized I was listening to someone telling me about the movie business. The dream factory.

We Americans have a cultural sense of being realists, hard-headed, plain-speaking, no-nonsense pioneers. And in some ways we are—I'm a big fan of John Kouwenhoven's work, in which he makes a pretty good case for independent, practical thought as a basis for American cultural identity. But we are also a nation that loves to be given a rosier view of things than they really are. More than that, we are a nation that reinvents itself over and over out of whole cloth, then persuades ourselves that we have always been what we have reinvented ourselves as.

Thus we can straight-facedly talk about "traditional family values" while sending wives out to earn a substantial part of family income in the marketplace. We can talk about "traditional marriage" as if women have always enjoyed equal status in our marriages. We can talk about "American health care" as if our network of hospitals and labs and insurance had been with us since the dawn of the Republic, instead of slightly over half a century.

We are a nation of scriptwriters and set decorators.

I was struck by how this observation resonated with Paul Krugman's recent post on horse-race reporting. He blames bad reporting, but I think the public audience for news reporting is also to blame. We want the story, not the analysis and discussion. We want a plot, a narrative.

I observe this, not to say, "Hey, America, get your act and your brain in gear and stop living in Fantasyland!" Though that may be tempting, it misses the point. We're not going to change America's habit of making things up as it goes along, just by wishing it to be so. But we need to be aware of the dream-making, if we are to be good scriptwriters ourselves, and we need to be good scriptwriters if we are going to be part of any real American debate.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Practice Practice Practice

In the carto-theory discussions there has been a lot of sturm und drang around the questions "what is a map?" and "what are cartographers?" — way more than I've seen in any other part of cartographic discourse. As soon as you start stating what cartography is and what cartographers are, you get yelps of indignation from folks who don't think that's what they do. This is especially true when you push the argument further, discussing what cartographers ought to do.

It's not that different in the liberal Quaker circles I'm involved in. We all gather in Meeting for Worship, and we have well-established frameworks for conducting our business. We even share a common gestalt sense, laid out in the Quaker testimonies, but just try telling a Quaker what he or she is...

I visit prisoners through Prisoner Visitation and Support (PVS). We are an organization which, while supported by a range of religious groups, does not have an evangelical or prosletyzing thrust. Our common work involves visiting prisoners, and talking with them. That's it. Now, many people do visit out of religious impulses (Jesus said, "visit the prisoners" and there are a significant number of visitors who work from this dictum). But I have been mightily impressed by how irrelevant to the common purpose that theological diversity seems at our training workshops. Practice trumps the specifics of faith.

So it's easy to come to the conclusion that we should all just ignore theory and theology and stick to practice. A lot of us do ignore it, but it is so centrally important to many individuals in their work, it makes it frankly dishonest to "leave out" of the discussion. And so we get tangled messes sometimes.

I'm thinking of situations where discord has invaded each of three three communities, and looking for a common thread in these discords. Can we get some perspective that works in general to resolve this kind of conflict on a structural level?

At PVS training sessions, people often give "personal stories" of why and how they joined PVS. I think because they are framed as personal, they are received in the spirit of personal testimonies, and I have never felt a sense of offense from the group. The only real offense I have seen taken at a PVS event was in an after-hours entertainment some years ago.

There was a recitation, clearly framed by the performer as one of her favorite poems, which involved racial stereotypes and issues of Native American suffering. It was explosive. Offense was taken. When the PVS board tried to distance itself from the performance and say it would not have allowed it had it known what the content would be, there was further irateness: some people felt that in distancing itself, the organization had betrayed the ability to speak one's mind. The whole event ended on a sour note, which is really weird for PVS. I think it shocked a lot of us, because it is normally such a "we're all in this toghether" kind of group.

What happened?

PVS does not advocate. It staunchly does not advocate. If you want to work for change in the federal prison system through advocacy or action, you need to join another group. PVS does what it does, and it is permitted access to federal prisoners because it so strictly restricts itself to this set of actions. One of the results of this non-advocacy is that the organization does not in any way link its actions to any specific theoretical or theological viewpoint. That is left solely to individuals.

Those who took offense felt that the performance violated that code. It was a statement framed not as a personal testimony, but as a performance. What caused the initial offense, I gather, was that it was seen as potentially a statement sanctioned by the organization, and there were those who strongly objected to its contents and wanted no part of such a statement. And the subsequent conflict was essentially between people who saw the performance (and perhaps performances in general) as representing the group vs those who saw it is solely personal.

In our Friends meeting, we've been wrestling for some time with a statement on theological diversity. Basically a way of saying, "the specifics of your faith are irrelevant to your being welcomed." An earlier statement was sent back, with a request to also address what it is that binds us together. A pretty broad statement was proposed this winter, and this was met with strong feelings, in large part around its deliberately non-Christian language.

The thing is, while issues of identity surrounding our Christian roots vs our non-Christian members have been brewing and percolating for some time, the meeting as a whole is steaming along. We are still a community. No real schisms. A few interest groups within meeting, and a worship group that budded off, but as far as I can tell no lasting ill-will. But the statement in question was (unintentionally) divisive. And I think the degree of passion in that divisiveness surprised most if not all.

Again, I think it was the idea that this was a statement of the whole that set things ablaze. We're used to individual statements, and have learned to frame them as such, so we can learn from them. And we do make collective statements, especially in the face of public injustice (I'm thinking here about GLBT issues, or issues around peace).

Here's what I think the difference is: We can make true collective statements if they are grounded in our collective experience. We can't make them if they are grounded in our separate experiences, even if those separate experiences seem to converge. Collective statements grounded in separate experience will be weak compromises.

The PVS performance was, I believe, not intended by the performer to somehow pressure us in to agreeing with her. I know her a little, and that's not her style. But something about the frame in which it was presented made it seem like a call to collective statement to some in the group, and I can see that standpoint too.

Likewise, the statement in meeting came out of the strongly felt sense by some members of the group which simply isn't felt by others. The group hadn't felt itself under the weight of collective experience, and so was divided on the statement.

Which brings me to cartography.

Cartography is a scattered practice. We each do our own thing, or we work within a small workgroup that does its own thing. We have common tools, mostly, and a recognizable "mappy" product, but how and why we get there are not as common collectively as we might think. And why we map is absolutely all over the board. We have assumed that there must be some commonality, but we have not really shared much specific experience as a group. And so any collective statement we made will be suspect and weak. And a proposed statement made by one of our number (or worse, someone who is not a practicing cartographer), attempting to speak for the whole, feels presumptuous.

I'm cogitating on this. Maybe hidden in this common practice are a variety of theoretical/theological types of personal bases to this practice. Maybe it would be helpful to open up the "whys" of cartographers in the same way that the "personal perspectives" pieces at PVS trainings and spoken ministry in Friends meeting can open up understanding. Maybe that would lead to a better sort of collective statement.

Or maybe it would lead to an understanding that at some level the only collective statement we can make is the practice itself.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Harley's article on his "Favourite Map" online

I've referred to J.B. Harley's article "My Favourite Map. The Map as Biography: Thoughts on Ordnance Survey Map, Six-Inch Sheet Devonshire CIX, SE, Newton Abbot" a few times. It was published in The Map Collector in 1978, and Kunstpedia.com is putting articles from that magazine online. I requested they add Harley's article and poof! Boudewijn Meijer did. Here it is! Wow, that was fast. Enjoy!

Sunday, June 28, 2009


I had a good exchange with John Krygier recently—thought-provoking as usual. It got me thinking more seriously about the experience of maps as performance. I know very little about performance theory, and much that I have seen I find frankly impenetrable. But I know a little about performance itself from having performed. So what I'm going to outline here is a framework that may well overlap what more experienced theorists have outlined. In any case, it's getting my thoughts down in a more thought-out form. Any recommendations of relevant and not-too-thickly-jargony performance literature is welcomed.


The aspect of performance I've been reflecting on is the centrality of the performer. Humans pay more attention to (and have more cognitive tools to explore) other humans than any other subject. So it makes sense that looking at another person is qualitatively different from looking at something that a person has made. An actor is different from a stage setting, no matter how elaborate that set.

I've made the analogy before of cartography being fundamentally about the "stage setting" for a performance about space, that perforance not necessarily being performed within the map. Well, any serious performer will tell you setting is an integral part of performance (for that matter, so is the audience). The whole thing, the entire constructed experience, is the performance.

And yet, there is something different about the designated "performer." It's a person, and so we instinctively pay more attention to that person. I think it may be that simple.

To me, this puts a new spin on the whole idea of attempts at "objectivity," in which the biases and idiosyncrasies of individuals are intentionally de-emphasized. The idea is, while maintaining a clearly human-made voice, to partly "un-person" that voice. It's not exactly the same as what I'm describing, but it is a useful device in a number of ways.

First, it allows the user to put her or himself directly into the performer role. Thus a "base map" is like a karaoke track. It fuctions a lot like the "voice" of a recipe. I had an interesting discussion with my wife Ingrid about this the other night. She reads a lot of food writing, and she confirms that it is common practice, even when the prose style is very fluid and personal, to then drop out of that personal voice into the "recipe voice", in which instructions are neutral. The goal is to de-emphasize the personal viewpoint of the author and to put the reader directly into the driver seat.

Second, it allows for the creation of the idea of a "common truth." This drives many contemporary carto-critics crazy, because they believe the common truths modern cartography has been emphasizing are fundamentally false, leading us straight to the destruction of our ecosystem and so ourselves. But on a smaller scale, it is often useful to have available a "referee voice." It's why we've always had a role in our societies for judges of one sort or another. And by putting off the personal voice and adopting an un-personed voice, we make that more possible.

I'll admit that second one is a loaded bomb. Before you all pile on, let me just ask you to consider, not whether it is right and good for us to do this, but whether it is a basic human reaction to seek someone speaking in an "neutral" voice.

I'm not sure exactly how the idea of anonymous monastic performances done for the glory of God (the Book of Kells, for example) fit into this, but I think they do.


Ther other thing that's been on my mind is the priveleged place of performance. Larry Shiner (whom I've discussed earlier) talks about the creation of contemplative frames for the fine arts (the concert hall, the gallery wall, the silent library) as being a big part of those fine arts distinction from "craft" or "artisan" work. Something analagous happens whenever we recognize a performance is taking place. It is different from ordinary social space: we do not expect performers to have the same relationship to those around them as they would when they are not performing. Some of it is a matter of allowing for concentration, but some of it is also that performances are specifically about "setting aside space" to allow for a different experience.

It feels very like the suspension of disbelief that is essential to fiction.


And that's all the ideas I have energy for tonight. I'm going to call it good.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Pretty Maps

I've felt out of the loop for a few months, busy with other stuff. There was a thread recently in Carto-Talk about GIS folks and "pretty maps" that got me going. My response was:

It's the phrase "making the map pretty" that gets me. I don't make pretty maps. It's like saying that the fine arts are about pretty pictures.

The world of modern cartography isn't about pretty, though sometimes that is a pleasant side-effect. It's about clarity and effectiveness as a visualization tool. But the same things that make a picture pleasant to look at (pretty), are core parts of effective, clear communication: awareness of emphasis, harmony and contrast of color sets, attention paid to the framed shapes and to an overall sense of visual balance. What makes a good piece of modern cartography work is that attention to these things is not in the service of "pretty"—a vacuous word—but in the service of meaning and understanding.

I'm going to recommend an obscure book that really helped me parse this out, by one of my favorite illustrators, Molly Bang. It's called Picture This, and I really enjoyed it.

I think what people who talk about pretty maps don't get is that visual harmony is not the same as pimping your ride. I came to cartography from graphic design 19 years ago because I didn't want to do any more ride-pimping. There's a distrust of design in some quarters because it is, in the wider world, often used to deceive and entice; it's an advertising and marketing field in large part.

And so, I think, some people resist the idea of cartographic design because it sounds like covering up the data with some rhinestones and lipstick. They believe that a map that is "plain" and unadorned, is one which is most honest.

But what I think most folks don't realize is that "plain" is not the same as "lazy." Plain is just as much of a carefully crafted visual statement. I certainly have made that mistake in my personal life: I'm a lazy dresser, and I think I sometimes excuse myself by painting myself as "plain." The Amish put a fair amount of effort in preserving their sober dress: cleaning, ironing, etc. That's different from slapping on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt.

"Pretty" is a straw-man used by those who want to get out of making a map work visually, by equating attention to visual flow and structure with propagandistic manipulation. Good "plain" design is just as much work, and requires just as much attention to design as an effectively pimped-up map will.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009


Kate Stanley pointed to this lovely piece from the NY Times by Verlyn Klinkenborg. An excerpt:

The surprise wasn’t just being reoriented so abruptly. It was also discovering that an unfamiliar world lay a few dozen yards off a road I drive all the time. In a way, the unfamiliarity of that world has been eroded now by driving through it once.

The more I think about that seam between the familiar and the unfamiliar — and how it feels to pass from one to the other — the clearer it becomes that humans instinctively generate a sense of familiarity. You can sense it for yourself the next time you drive someplace you’ve never been before. Somehow, it always feels as though it takes longer to get there than it does to get back home again. It’s as if there’s a principle of relativity, a bending of time, in the very concept of familiarity. The road we know is always shorter than the road we don’t know — even if the distances are the same.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Fictional input

I've stumbled across a bunch of really interesting stuff, beginning with the online blog/journal OnFiction. Not all up my alley, but...

I enjoyed the entries (1 and 2) by on dérives and psychogeography as exercises in geographic freeing-from-preconception. Or something. Still not clear what the things are for, but it feels like they relate to my earlier discussions of pilgrimage as a possible metaphor for a modern performative cartography:

However much these mechanisms may be associated with a particular way of exploring places, they are really merely the training wheels of psychogeography: tools to break the habits of everyday automatic interactions with place and perceptions of place as real and given. Disrupting such habits leaves mental resources for more exploratory stances toward the environment, in which explorers tune in to the behaviors or emotions that the situation and setting most afford.

Also enjoyed Keith Oakley's essay on art, which in turn referenced a really interesting (and obvious, in a good way) article in Greater Good magazine, on, essentially, the functional benefits of fiction. This in a way turns me back full circle to things I was reading 20 years ago about children's literature and the "uses of enchantment," to use Bruno Bettelheim's phrase. I ought to go back an read Jane Yolen's Touch Magic, Bettelheim, and some other stuff I have sitting on a shelf downstairs...

So much to learn, so little time.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Over to you

There's something enormously powerful about a performer turning "it" back to the audience. I remember being deeply impressed with Peter Gabriel's closing of the Amnesty tour in 1986, when he essentially turned the closing cries of "Biko" over to the audience, and then left the stage. Here's a video from that tour:

My brother saw the Philadelphia leg of the tour, and reports that the chanting went on for several minutes after everyone had left the stage. Somehow that image gives me chills.

I'm thinking of two other memorable theatrical instances of this. One was a performance of Shakespeare's The Tempest with Patrick Stewart. The play ends with Prospero alone on stage, addressing the audience:

Now my charms are all o'erthrown,
And what strength I have's mine own,
Which is most faint: now, 'tis true,
I must be here confined by you,

Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardon'd the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;

But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands:
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,

Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,

Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon'd be,
Let your indulgence set me free.

What I remember is how Stewart's emphasis of "you" really did transfer the power of the magical play over to us, the audience.

The other theatrical event I'm thinking of is the finale of Nicholas Nickleby, the mammoth Royal Shakespeare Company production that came to the Broadway in 1982 (?). Smike has died, and the boys who escaped from Squeers' "school" are wandering the countryside in the cold. As the cast sings a gorgeous version of "God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen," with soaring counterpont of "and it's tidings of comfort and joy," Nicholas (played by Roger Rees), who is rushing across the stage, sees a shivering boy huddled at the front of the stage, dressed in rags, perhaps already dead. Nicholas stops, walks over, tenderly picks up the boy, and holds it up to the audience, looking straight at them with a look that says, "And what are you going to do?"


I still get shivers from that one, 27 years later.

And this kind of theater is what I love about Pete Seeger. Regardless of his politics (and it doesn't hurt that his politics are pretty close to mine), what I like most about him is his insistence on "over to you" as part of his performance and all of his public work. It's like what we call "empowerment" nowadays, but it's not just about power. It's also about responsibility. And when we say "power," it's a specificaly democratic sense of power: the performance consciously gathers force and focus on the stage, and then finds a way to hand that force and focus back to the audience for them to carry it out into the world. I really like that. I wish more performers and makers of things knew how to do that.

Silly Stories

From Kenneth Lillington's Josephine:

"Ah, you are thinking of Frankenstein, Miss Tugnutt. By Mary Shelley. Shelley's wife, you know. A very silly story."


"Dreadfully silly. Frankenstein's monster is eight feet tall. You'd think that would make him a bit conspicuous, wouldn't you? Not a bit of it," said Mr Cropper, chuckling. "He hides in a hut adjoining a remote cottage where he remains undetected for several months. He watches the occupants through a chink in the wall, and learns their language so well that he can speak it in a style indistinguishable from theirs. He also – still depending on the chink – learns to read. His books include Plutarch's Lives and Paradise Lost. He becomes widely informed in geography, metaphysics and natural philosophy. He achieves in a few months what it took mankind, through the more laborious process of evolution, thousands of years –"...

"How did Frankenstein make him?"

"Ah! we never know.... The author simply assures us that "the secret is too terrible to be told."

"An easy way out!"

"Yes, indeed. It is a very silly story."

"Why did anyone ever read it, Mr Cropper?"

"Because, my dear Miss Tugnutt, men have a great need for silly stories."

I do enjoy Kenneth Lillington.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

True Stories

Fictions are stories that are admittedly not accurate reportings of the real world, but which are valued because they tell general truths about the world. Non-fictions are stories that are valued as accurate reportings on the world.

So far so good. But then we get into religious stories, where we fight each other over whether the stories are true or not. Fiercely.

Why is it important to us whether these stories are fact or fiction?

There's been a similar (if more restrained) fight in the map-theory world over the "truthiness" of maps, and I think a similar question here can be raised: why is it so important that maps be seen as a reflection of the "real world"? Here, the answer is clearer: we want an accurate portrayal of the earth so we can use it as the basis of discussion of the real world. If it's not accurate, we can't use it the way we want to.

Is the same thing true of religious stories? Fundamentalist approaches to religion take this tack: "Everything in my Scripture is literally true, so I can use that as my Certainty. That's my foundation, my bedrock." But less fundamentalist points of view still need a sense of certainty in their stories... they need to look at their scriptures not as myth, but as something closer to Truth.

I think what often happens is, religious truth goes in a different compartment than everyday truth. Because what is said in religious texts is largely about extraordinariness rather than repeatable-experiment reality, we can put them into a mental space that is neither "made up" nor "verifiable", but is instead "non-verifiable but believed in." And religious texts do contain material that, like good fiction, contains general truths about the world: morals, ethics, love, justice, the very idea of truth.

The reason maps and other reference materials carry that peculiar aura about them is that they can (within limits) be relied upon. That in doing this they satisfy a need says to me there is something inherent in humans that needs this foundation. When people then ascribe to maps a level of "objectivity" or "truth" that we cartographers are aware they don't warrant, this is not an indication that people are stupid. I think it's an indication that people are people.

Monday, April 27, 2009


Here's what I don't like about Matthew Alper's The "God" Part of the Brain:

1. Mr Alper has a trajectory, which he disguises in a narrative of discovery. His whole discussion of religion is framed in the question of whether there is a deity, a god-person. That's the question he seeks at the start of the book to discern, and it's the question he answers by the end, in the process doing a fair amount of steamroller-ing.

2. Mr Alper overgeneralizes. There's a lot of "no society in human history" and "this trait is inherent in all humans." To me this obvious call to people to recall exceptions weakens his argument.

In short, it's making his discussion of the neurological basis of spirituality into an argument that I don't like.

On the other hand, here's what I like about the book:

1. Religious activity and spirituality fill a human need. Being our own subjects, it's easy to be blind to this, and Alper is relentless in zeroing in on particular activities and habits that are common enough to suggest a human predisposition.

2. The book begins as a personal narrative of a search through most of the major formal fields of knowledge, and I enjoyed the way these field are shown to fit together.

3. No only does what we call "religion" in English fill a specific set of human needs, it makes a lot of sense to me that these particualar predispositions have a historic basis in how homo sapiens and our ancestors operate. I don't agree with all of Alper's specific speculations, but I like the general question, "Why do human animals need this? What advantage does this give us?"

To me, this way of approaching spirit, of acknowledging that our experience of spirit has a functionality, feels like the beginning of a bridge between "religion is a bunch of superstitious bunkum" and "science is trying to take away that which is most precious to me." Both of which feel like crippled half-truths. The bridge isn't built, but this to me feels like a good, solid foundation to begin working on it.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

David Brooks is on to something

The current op-ed column by David Brooks, "The End of Philosophy," makes interesting reading. I'm in the middle of reading The God Part of the Brain, and I find a circling-around-something going on in wider public discourse, a way to find spiritual experience neither pooh-pooh-able "mere superstition" nor an anthropomorphized center of the universe. I find seeing these threads working towards something loosely like a cloth kind of exciting.

And I know I'm way behind the times in following this. Forgive me.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

John Bachmann

I've mentioned John Bachmann before, but I should note my new article, in the current issue of Imprint. It's been a pet project of mine since 1999 (here's an older version of the paper I did for the New England American Studies Association, from 2001), and it's gratifying to see it looking so nice. Here's a summary:

John Bachmann was born in Switzerland around 1814 and died in Jersey City, New Jersey around 1894. John Reps writes "No finer artist of city views worked in America," and indeed Bachmann's bird's eye views are unique in the history of American views for their combination of artistic technique inherited from European landscape drawing, in which he was trained and worked in Paris, and the experimental sensibility he had in constructing his views from viewpoints he had never seen. His career saw the transition from one-color stone lithography through multiple-tint-stone techniques into zinc chromolithography, and from printed views as decoration and commemration to views as promotional and speculative documents. His views reflect not only the changing landscape of New York City and the other cities he drew, but the changing landscape of the American print world.
If you want to see more of his work, a good start is the Library of Congress collection, which is split between the Geography and Maps Division (bird's eye city views and Civil War panoramic maps) and the Prints and Photographs Division. Other significant collections on-line include the New York Public Library. Non-online collections with significant holdings include the New-York Historical Society, the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, the Historic New Orleans Collection, and the Museum of the City of New York.

Anyway, it's nice to finally see this bit of work done...