Friday, December 31, 2010

Great Work of Time

Who hasn't run into old Shelley's "Ozymandias" in an English Lit class, the ruined claim of eternity disintegrating back into sand. We think we are free of the pride of our permanence—the mortality of ourselves and our endeavors gets drilled into us over and over: hubris and vanity and the problem of seeking immortality (cf. Voldemort).

I just finished rereading John Crowley's Great Work of Time, a compact, melancholy and thorough dismantling of the idea of an eternal empire. It's a time travel story in baldest terms—one where the attempt to make the British Empire truly eternal, the protector of world peace and preventer of the horrors of the twentieth century, turns out to make the world go horribly wrong: the future fills with monsters and angels, a strange and unnatural stasis that in the end is imagined as a silent forest underwater, forever still and unchanging. The angels and the wise magi that the messing with time produces, do not want to have been created. They long for death.

We mapmakers make some claim of permanence—more modest than eternity, but what I take away from Crowley's book is the false seductiveness of the idea that what lasts beyond our lives lasts forever. We don't know what happens after "The End," and so we imagine a universe that never ends, an empire on which the sun never sets. An immortal soul. Streets that are somehow permanent. But someday the streets in my neighborhood will become meaningless. It might be a very very long time (in doing research this week I realized I will likely live to see the basic streeet pattern of Harvard Square celebrate its 500th anniversary), but there is no such thing as "forever", only "over the horizon." I don't think there is anything, anyway.

Maps only act as a way of contrasting relatively transient with relatively permanent phenomena: the states shapes remain the same as votes move from bloe to red and back again. Streets remain the same as taxi routes wiggle back and forth across them. Continents retain their rough outlines as glaciers push forward and retreat.

We need ground to stand on—a stage as I've said before, here—in order to make our performances and arguments. People who have attempted to eliminate that stage in the name of acknowledgining our impermanence have unleashed a peculiar kind of madness we see in some kinds of modern art and philosophy. Eliminate permanence, and there's no "there" there, as Ms Stein said. Perhaps the answer is to sadly acknowledge that our stage, our permanence, is itself impermanent, and find a platform that fits our lives, and the terms of permanence we can find— the land that stays more-or-less the same between glaciations, the nation that for a while retains the same basic shape, the family and friendship we have for the span we are lucky enough to have it.

Happy New Year, all. Here's to what permanence we can muster in the coming year, and what good we can perform upon that permanence.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The International Date Line

My son asked a random back-of-the-car question the other day, about whether there was a place where the day changed too, not just the time. There is, of course, and it's the International Date Line, more-or-less located at 180° longitude, opposite the globe from the Greenwich meridian. (the picture attached is from Wikipedia)

What I found interesting about the question, though, was how the idea of such a line requires a leap of how we think about time. For most of us, time is local: our makers are sunrise, noon, sunset, midnight. Like the Archimedean, Earth-centered model of the universe, and like earth-navel cosmologies, it makes "us and ours" the center of all things, both in space and time.

20 years ago, I took a course at Carleton College from the late Mike Casper, "Revolutions in Physics," that was mocked by some as "Physics for Poets." Which isn't really fair, although I can see the case that it really was as much a history of science course as anything. The course was divided into three sections: the Archimedean, earth-centered universe, the Newtonian universe, and the Einsteinian universe. The goal of each was to immerse the students in what historically were comprehensive worldviews. And it worked. It was fascinating how useful the oldest model, the one we've mocked as "wrong" since grade school, really is.

It's of course incorrect that the sun goes around the earth, but there's a lot to learn about seasons and the sun's movement in the sky if you think that way. And I became aware that I simply had not paid that much attention to how the sun moves in the sky over the years. For example, that it is always due east or west at 6 o'clock (either one) local time. Or that the angle of the sun's path is constant in the same location, but that the constant-angled path moves up and down vertically with the seasons in relation to the horizon. I dunno, maybe everyone else got that from day one, but it was new to this college student and it was cool, and it depended on thinking locally.

The Copernican/Newtonian model of the universe that shifts this around. Suddenly, we're on a planet, and really there is only one day, and it keeps rotating around the globe—or rather, the globe keeps turning and the day is the glow from the star at the center of our solar system. Instead of the sun as a clock that keeps our time, we are fixed points on a moving sphere, which keeps its time in turning us and everything else in the world.

And it's in this world that International Date Lines become necessary.

Interestingly, it wasn't scientists who first proposed such a line. It was an 11th-century Jewish scholar, who was concerned that all the Jews in the diaspora should observe the same Sabbath, and so proposed a system which kept the same day-observance for all of Asia, and made a break somewhere in the Pacific. The "Circumnavigator's Paradox" was in fact a real paradox, discussed in the late middle ages (see the excellent History of the International Date Line for much of the source material in this post): Apparently it surfaced when Magellan arrived at the Spanish outpost in the Philippines, having come from the east by way of Cape Horn, and disgareed with the Spanish officers there, who had come from the west, via the Cape of Good Hope. Their dates, of course, were off by one.

In a world where one set of grandparents is an hour earlier and another is an hour later, and where we can fly to Europe where it's six hours later, it's commonplace to think about time zones. But it was not always so. It was not until railroads needed to keep precise time in their east-west journeys that the need for standard time became apparent. Before the railroads, punctuality was enforced within local communities. A parishioner coming to church on time, or a worker arriving at the mill, or any citizen keeping any of the other appointment-keeping arrangements we make, either had to judge by the sun, or by the bells of the church tower, or later by the local-time clock or sundial, how close they were going to cut it. And travel, by foot or horse, essentially re-set the clock.

By instituting standard time, we essentially said, railroad time is more important than where the sun stands in our sky.

And much the same thing, on a global level, happens with the International Date Line: we are forced to recognize that this is a round, whole planet, which moves in one time, simultaneously. And for better or worse, this means we depend less on what we see—here and now over our heads—to regulate our lives by.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Singing Dark Songs

I like singing, and do it when I can. Actually, I really like the dark, bloody ballads, "Cruel Mother" especially. And sad, bittersweet Scots songs (there are a lot of those).

About ten years ago, I asked my friend Paul if he knew of any Guy Fawkes parties, and he said, no but there should be one, and here we are, ten years later, at his and Darcy's house in suburban Minnesota, hurling poor old Guy on the bonfire again. Every year that I've made it, I've been asked to sing the old song that goes:

As I was out a-walkin' in the fields
I met a man as black as his heels
He asked me if I would not fight
With his face and hands as black as night.

Guy! Guy! Guy!
Stick him up on high!
Stick him on a lamp-post,
And there let him die!

Holla, boys, Holla, boys,
God save the Queen!
Holla, boys, Holla, boys,
God save the Queen!

So here's a loaf to feed the Pope
And a hunk of cheese for him to choke
A pint of beer to wash away sin
And a good old fire to roast him in!


So give the poor Guy a penny
For you know he hasn't any
If you haven't got a penny, a ha'penny will do
If you haven't got a ha'penny, God bless you

After a couple years, I got more and more uncomfortable singing this song. Guy Fawkes was executed for trying to blow up the Houses of Parliament and basically all the power elite of 1608 England. He was, in short, a terrorist and assassin. So, not a nice fellow. But the song doesn't remember that (the other famous bit of doggerel does: "Remember, remember, the Fifth of November! Gunpowder, Treason and Plot!"). No, the song remembers that Mr Fawkes had dark skin (but probably not African-dark, just Italian-dark) and was a Catholic. That, in the opinion of those who wrote and sang this ditty, was enough to get you roasted. Bleh.

And yet I sing it, because I also hate it when we forget how mean and nasty we can be, when we congratulate ourselves for becoming "nice." Not to sing it is to paper over history, making Guy Fawkes into a generic "Bonfire night" with no real context. For a few years, I'd preface it with a little speech that was meant to distance myself from the song, and sober us up. This year I just sang the damn thing—Paul said "and without further ado..." in introducing me, and I didn't have anything planned, so I figured what the hell. And about half-way through, I realized, this thing needs one more verse. I'm fast, but not that fast, so it had to wait until I was in the car on the way home:
Guy Fawkes is dead and so's the king
Four hundred years, and still we sing
The bonfire's burning, red and hot
Who the next to be tossed on, ready or not...?
I feel a little better about singing it next year...

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Volcanoes are not the same

I had a longish list of subjects to talk about in the wake of the NACIS conference, but what I keep coming back to again and again is the uncomfortable feeling that "map" is somehow the wrong ontology—the wrong conceptual category—for what I am really interested in.

What I mean is the sense that's been growing in me, kind of under the surface of my everyday cartographic life, that the thing I claim to specialize in is like a dolphin leaping in and out of the water. Or maybe more accurately, it's the way we call certain geologic phenomena "volcanoes" as if they're one sort of thing, based on what they look like, rather than what processes they represent.

"Map," especially when equated with modern scientific cartography, is a form of expression. It's a technique and style of drawing. And on the surface it seems to have a generally unified subject matter: the surface of our planet. That at least is the definition you get if you abandon the the search for a categorical definition and fall back on a cognitive, examplar-based definition (see my earlier blog post.

But in the end this posits maps as a kind of object, rather than a kind of function. And if you look at a tradition of mapping, any mapping, you end up finding curious gaps: I'm thinking especially of the gaps in early maps for navigation, which Catherine Delano Smith documented in her article in Cartographies of Travel and Navigation (James Akerman, editor), which I reviewed in Cartographic Perspectives a couple years ago (PDF here). As I summarized:
Catherine Delano Smith, in the second article, discusses the origins of the modern road network map in medieval and early-modern European itineraries. These were largely textual until the late eighteenth century and did not evolve into visual tools for independent way finding until the nineteenth century. This came as a revelation to me; an almost map-free travel network is hard to imagine today, but Smith makes it clear that the use of maps as a basic tool for land travel is a modern development.
And yet, there was clearly navigational knowledge being passed along. Presumably it was passed along orally, and more importantly through repeated action: palmers learned the pilgrims route by first being an assistant to a pilgrimage's guide, then eventually leading groups themselves.

So if we think of maps as function rather than object, they become part of a continuum with other sorts of things. All sorts of things. All sorts of unrelated things. "Geographical knowledge," as a concept is an ontological pea soup [insert joke about AAG conferences here] and not all of it relates to maps at all... as those who have looked at maps for expressions of poetic sense of space have found to their detriment—some kinds of knowledge are in fact mutually exclusive of cartography—again see my discussion of cartography and the fine arts (PDF here)

No, I think what we have is something a little like "publishing," an interesting term used to describe a particular way of distributing knowledge. Like maps, some kinds of knowledge bob up and down in and out of publishing, while retaining their integrity: poetry is poetry whether it is recited in a non-literate society, scribbled privately in a diary, or published in books.

There are some classes of knowledge that sometimes pass through maps, and which we've gotten used to almost equating with maps. Navigation, for example. Human territory. The shape and texture of the surface of the earth. How people are scattered around the planet. How would we talk about these ideas without maps?

We use the word "house" to describe a thing by its function: wasps' nests, tepees, chateaux, the inner sanctum of a temple. Can we think about doing that with maps? Can we, the map people. let go of the term in the way that most writers end up doing the work and not worshiping the object? Can we think about:

Guides: communicators and communications to help strangers find their way through unfamiliar territory—and most of our territory is unfamiliar, even most of the cities we call home. Hedberg Maps make maps that have helped me find things in my home town of which I was unaware. But so have pieces of narrative prose, signs and markings on pavement, conversations, tours, and just walking around and learning the landscape through repetitive exploration.

Territory markers: It's the claiming of areas of land that generally gets cartocritics most het up. The way people can draw a line across a map and so divide up the world, without actual engagement with the land itself. But people were claiming territory long before cartography; indeed the bloody wars of the early early modern period— the Crusades, the Hundred Years War—were fought largely based on non-graphic ways of understanding the lay of the land. We mark our territories in a variety of ways, both with "permanent" physical barriers and boundary markers, and by social communication. As with navigation, signs and other "on the ground" graphic and textual clues are a kind of counterpart to mapping, providing a "civilised" alternative to dogs chasing you out of the yard.

Travelers tales: One of the things maps do is tell us something about territories we've never visited. The stories modern cartography tells are mostly grounded in documentary factuality, but the way we can read shaded relief or a map of ruins can stir the imagination in the same way that tales of Prester John and the Unipods did people centuries ago. And there is no shortage of other material that does the same: nature documentaries, travel photography, the stories we hear from friends...

Economic planning tools: statistical maps are mostly about (in a broad sense) the economy. By this I refer the original source of the word "economy", the Greek word οἶκος — house, household or family. Oἰκονομία means "household management," and the way we understand what is where in our increasingly broad collective household is part of a larger set of tools that gets people fed, warm, clothed, and otherwise provided for. In this sense, a statistical map is part of the same toolset as a spreadsheet, a shipping container, or the Federal Reserve's policy: they are all about recording and moving value.

I could surely come up with more, but then so could you. The point is, we cartographers do end up often hanging onto our technical expertise at our proclaimed specialty. And maps are a valuable kind of tool to let us look at the world from a step back, to place ourselves in an ordered version of space, to make sense. But we would do well to be aware (and beware) how much we are focusing on the sense rather than the thing we are making sense of.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet

[Note: this article presumes reading the book, and contains spoilers]

I have a few things to say about The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet.

The novel was a best-seller when it came out in June of 2009, and initially received press attention because of the monumental advance the author Reif Larsen received for this first novel ($1 million). The reviews were mixed: most reviewers wanted very much to like such an unusually eloquent and evocative voice, but several (notably the New York Times and Washington Post reviewers) found the latter part of the book, especially the parts where T.S. Spivet visits Washington, disappointing.

Well, to be honest, they weren't my favorite bits either. But then, they also weren't T.S.'s favorite, and it kind of shows. The book, like most maps, doesn't entirely work as a linear narrative. It's a puzzle in which the linear progression of time and plot, while certainly straightforward (this is no Memento), is not the dominant, salient feature. Really, the most important moment is about 2/3 of the way through, when, at the conclusion of reading his mother's reconstruction of his great-grandmother's early life story, she abruptly cuts off the narrative, writing the name of T.S.'s dead brother, who perhaps died as she was writing. In this sense, it's a little like the symmetry of Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner", where the second half of the novel has the character working his way from that crux point, the nowhere of a midwestern wormhole, back to his family. Coleridge's Mariner's return journey also suffers somewhat...

The way T.S. simultaneously orbits his brother's death and avoids it that forms the central motion of the book. And an orbit is hardly a linear path: we return again and again to the same basic relationships: T.S.'s distant, formal relationship with both his scientist mother and cowboy father, his typically exasperated coexistence with both his living and deceased siblings, his obsession with drawing diagrams and maps as a way of making sense of the world, and the utter senselessness offered up by the world that he tries to map.

This is the second book about map people I've read this year. Unlike the author/subject of Map Addict (see my discussion here), the fictional narrator of this book is consumed by the promise of mapping and more generally of scientific study of the universe. It's appropriate that the character be a child—a prodigy with an disturbingly grown-up diction (and who has not known children with disturbingly grown-up diction)—but it is also notable, and lovely, to see a cameo appearance by Corlis Benefideo, the subject of Barry Lopez's short story "The Mappist" (see discussion here). And it's clear that Larsen wants his hero to be like the narrator's daughter in that story—the promise of a new generation who will humbly carry on the Work of mapping the world, piece by piece.

It's not how us cartographers usually see our role, any more than "making myths" being how novelists consciously view their craft as they go about it from day to day. But Larsen is pointing in this circular, spiraling book to the same basic sense Lopez pointed to: the humble recording and exploring and searching and the piece-by-piece processing of it all, is a kind of prayer to the universe. It's a kind of love.

So it really is a peculiar novel. It points toward what it's trying to say, leaving the largest points mostly unsaid, like notes at the edge of the map saying this destination is a certain distance further. We find a genius cartographer running into things that are unmappable and yet that mapping is his tool. We see a desire to be part of a great scientific enterprise crumbled into disillusionment, but not disillusionment with the enterprise, just with the clothes it has to wear—T.S. may be saying goodbye to the Smithsonian and to Washington, but not to the idea of the Smithsonian.

I keep seeing these sorts of orbits underlying some of my favorite books. The orbit in Diana Wynne Jones' Fire and Hemlock is deceptive—it's a love story that orbits a kind of modernist despair. Here, the obvious suppressed and not-so-suppressed grief over T.S. brother's death looks like the focus of the orbit. T.S. clearly thinks it's what he's circling. But in the end, what is revealed a kind of stubborn, slow trust that some of the world is comprehensible. Even the terrible, stupid meaninglessness of his brother's death. In the end, the author (and narrator) point towards the love of parent and child, the care even the most scientific of us end up showing each other, that he has been circling, unaware, for the entire novel.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Anecdotal Evidence

Ingrid has several times remarked to me, “Anecdotes are a lousy basis for public policy.” She knows anecdotal evidence—she's a writer who uses anecdotes as a way of illustrating complex, abstract systems. So, when she talks about anecdotal evidence, I figure she knows whereof she speak.

In public policy, the alternative to anecdotal evidence is statistics and other hard data. So why isn't this evidence universally accepted? Why is anecdotal evidence hard to brush aside?

The conventional reason given by intellectuals and scientists is, because people are idiots. Which is a comforting sort of reason I suppose, if not being an idiot is an important part of your self-image. But it doesn't really quite answer the question.

People gravitate to stories, and lots of people believe personal experience over theory, especially when they are discussing a "territory" they have not themselves explored. This is why stories involving death are so powerful: we aren't going to go there ourselves until we do, and at that point hearing stories about death isn't going to do us a lot of good.

So we have narratives of people dying, and we have narratives of people moving across into what happens after they die. And these narratives are different from "maps" of the afterlife. They are from one individual's point of view and they make no guarantee that your experience will be the same. In fact, some of the most resonant narratives are parallels: X goes to heaven, Y goes to hell. By invoking multiple narratives we give shape to the basic idea of choice.

Alongside these narratives, there are, in fact, maps. All kinds of maps. I'm speaking metaphorically, in that graphic representations are a small subset of the non-narrative descriptions of death and after-death. In fact, many of them are embedded in narrative descriptions—one of the points of the narrative is to get the central character to a point where they can view the structure of after-death, or of the cosmos in general, for themselves. Think Dante. Or think of those ballads like "The House Carpenter" where the hapless person is shown the shores of heaven "where you and I will never be" and the shores of hellfire "where you and I will unite."

Regardless of its pedigree, we are talking about two kinds of evidence. One is narrative: it can be insightful or banal, but it is framed as testimony out of one's journey, whether that frame is reliable or utterly unbelievable. The other is factual: it is a statement of "what is."

So to go back to what Ingrid said, why is one a better basis for public policy than the other?

I think it's basically about scale. Narrative works on an individual basis: in a successful narrative, we imagine ourselves in the story, and can follow a series of actions over time. Narratives are immensely important in understanding how to live. But when one is creating structures for a large number of people, especially when you must include people you are not like (or people who are simply unknown to us), narratives break down.

So it's not the "policy" part that's the problem: actually, narrative provides a pretty good basis for creating personal policy. Maybe that's even its strongest suit. It's the "public" part, because "public" means all the people, including those strange to you.

All of which means creating structures based not on that emotionally "strong force" of narrative flow, but on the "weak force" of reason and description. Which is why advocates love to try and use sad stories to sway voters and their representatives, and why the President always has someone in the balcony at the state of the union to inspire us all. And why Ingrid uses anecdotes to illustrate her points.

The point is not to avoid anecdotes; I think this is the mistake many rationalists make. It's to recognize their limits, and their power. Finding that balance is a hard thing to do—stories have a way of taking over. And to some extent, we need to let them take over. It is what homo sapiens do in order to live happy lives. But we also need to be careful, especially when the limits of our personal experience kick in, not to let anecdotes from within our mortal and limited skin blur what vision we have gained through our measuring and conceptualizing beyond that skin.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The God Thing

[lightly edited after first being published so the "ands" and "buts" make a bit more sense...]

Chris posted on FaceBook:
I'd like to join Robert and Glenn and simply observe that if you accept that magic isn't real you don't have to worry about making such distinctions. It really does make life a whole lot easier. There is neither God the Father nor God the Judge. There simply is no God, or god.
and I responded:
Chris: Hmm. That's kind of a put up or shut up statement there. So I'll put up in a blog post... Too long to post here... And thanks for being blunt!
I've kind of resisted any real statements of faith: little pieces here and there, but maybe I ought to just put out there where I stand on this basic "is there or isn't there" thing:

Magic may not be real in the same sense that the sofa I'm sitting on is real, but then neither is love real in the same way. I believe God as a person is a human construct made to explain and give sensible shape to an observed set of patterns in the world. I don't believe God has personhood in and of itself.

Actually, I think God is the strawman in this, in that there are so many shapes and visions and experiences that all get lumped together, and everyone who "believes in God" ends up actually believing in a subset of them, either through their own conscious choice or more often through personal experience and social pressure.

I think of it in the abstract as the difference between matter and energy: we can't see energy, only its effect upon matter. Some energy is utterly chaotic at a human scale (the weak and strong atomic forces, for example, are way too fast and small to register with us, and the resulting molecular interactions, or even the basic chemical reactions of living cells, happen at staggeringly rapid, small-scale speeds). Other evidences of energy (Hurricane Earl for example) have clear, directional force but a mindless intent. This sense of a hurricane's mindlessness is comparatively new: people may pray for a miracle, but few liberal religionists really understand God as the one who puffs His breath and makes the tornado wipe out one house and not the other. On the other hand, there are still plenty of people out there who think God decides baseball games. Or who believe in good luck charms.

And then there's energy with intent: life. Weeds that "want" to grow into the tomato patch, the virus that "wants" to take over your body. Love. War. My point is, while living things are concrete, life itself is essentially defined by the flow of energy through these concrete systems.

Now, I do not personally believe in a cosmic mind, in the sense that humans have minds and individual wills. I think a Universal Will looks an awful lot like gravity, in that it's things we really don't think of fighting. But, of course, people do fight gravity all the time. And death. And taxes, but that's only marginally related to the topic here. And I'd argue that the fight is not on the whole a good thing. Dancing with gravity and death, sure, but in the end they will win. Your plane will need refueling, and you will eventually die.

On the other hand, I see people rely on the cosmic mind, aka God the Father or the Trinity or Allah or Jehovah, or whichever construction the particulars of their faith entails. And for the most part, it seems to be a force for good in their personal lives. Now, I know about Messrs Falwell, Swaggart, Roberts, Robertson et al. And pedophile priests and Osama bin Laden and suicide cults. But I see that none of these perversions could have existed without the love and trust created amongst people: there has to be something real there for demagogues and opportunists to twist to their own advantage; something internally forceful and good that people can be persuaded is threatened by external forces. But for the people themselves, this God thing seems to heal them, support them, and frankly make them better able to play with others.

Which is where I am right now: that it isn't actually all that important to show that God has physical manifestation, or that it can be measured and recorded. But as part of a religious organization or two (if you count my marriage as an organization), I want to see how we can make a place where folks like me on one hand, and folks who live a life with God on the other, can live together and learn from each other, as opposed to beating each others’ orthodoxies over each others’ heads.

Friday, August 20, 2010


I love singing. I didn't really know how much I love to sing until I started hanging around morris dancers, who sing around campfires and really anytime they get the chance. Pub songs, sea shanties, labor hymns, grange songs... all kinds of stuff gets thrown into the repertoire of a certain kind of sing. That's what it gets called mostly, a "sing." No books, usually, an mostly no instruments. Harmony at the best of times, generally worked up to as the song progresses through several rounds of the chorus and the singers can fell out where to go. Or worked out over multiple singings over the course of years.

There are other kinds of sings too. Rise Up Singing is a very popular basis for sings: everyone gets a copy, and people go around picking out songs. The great advantage of book-based singing is that the selection of songs is based on preference: everyone gets to choose one, and they don't have to be good at memorizing to lead it. It is a much more democratic process than a non-book sing.

But I like the non-book sings best. It's been great seeing sings start to emerge as a regular, public, sustained thing here in the Minneapolis-St Paul area. Phil Platt of the Eddies started one in the fall of 2009, and I started another one this fall... so far so good. And Betty Tisel has been organizing others. I hope this thing continues to spread

I've tried, in sings I've been responsible for, a "pick, pass or lead" formula, where we go around the circle, and people have the option to lead a song themselves, pick a song, or pass. Everyone gets a turn. I've also learned from watching Phil a way of essentially emceeing things, which is useful balancing a set with experienced and inesperienced singers.

I've been reflecting lately on the shape of the sings I really love. The impromptu gatherings at morris ales (there was one at the 2009 Midwest Ale in a passageway outside the dining room that absolutely knocked my socks off), the after-hours sings at Old Songs Festival or Mystic Sea Music Festival, or some of the gatherings of morris folk at parties here and in Massachusetts.

Here's my theory: a really good sing needs spines, muscles and body mass. Metaphorically.

It needs spines: people who can really hold a song up as they lead it. Strong voice, consistent enough sense of notes so people can tell the key and follow along on the melody, and a good memory.

It needs muscles: people who can push and pull harmonies out of the melody. Interestingly, though I tend to try and do harmonies, I think there's another kind of dynamic that's in play here too, providing the song with dynamics. One of the weakness of many of the book-based sings I've been to, is that you lose the rich texture of call and response, solo verse and group chorus (or often, solo first line of a familiar verse, small group on the remainder of the verse, and whole group on the chorus). Instead, everyone sings everything. It feels flat to me by comparison when this happens.

Finally, you need body mass. It really makes a difference to have 30 people in the room instead of 10. For one thing, it's more forgiving of experiments. For another, the dynamics I talked about above are even more in play.


The thing I've noticed is that running a sing is a lot like clerking at Friends meeting: it's not about ordering people around and getting them in shape to sing on key. That's a choir, not a sing. No, it's about creating a structured space within which people feel free to take up their roles as spine, muscles and body. And then, mostly, getting out of the way. It's a lot like being an emcee in general: you can't just give over all responsibility, because people get bored by the utter chaos that ensues. But on the other hand, your job is take the spot light for just as long as it takes for the next "act" to get it together, and then make the audience forget it was ever looking at you. And in the case of a sing, it's about paying attention to the song first, then the singer. People will let themselves be swept along by a song where they would be suspicious of being swept along by a singer.

I grew up in Pete Seeger. He's someone who's spent his professional life getting people to sing. It's easy to make fun of his "lining out" style, but he took what had become a nation of passive audiences and got them—a lot of them anyway—to find their voices again. That's why he tops my list of "people I admire."

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


I'm looking back over my somewhat less than a decade in my Friends meeting, and in particular at a thread of complaint. It's a mixture of burn-out, a feeling of ingratitude, of presumption, and of being asked too much. And all of these complaints have come from people who are or were engaged in the absolutely necessary work of supporting the meeting and the meetinghouse.

It's as if what is needed is more regular vacations. Or a Sabbath.

Early Friends, from what I can find via Google Books searches, were surprisingly quiet on the subject of Sabbath. George Fox in his Journal, talks about berating the people of Derby for peacocking themselves on the Sabbath, and elsewhere he goes into what to me is an incomprehensible discussion of Sabbath among the Jews as a kind of circumcision—which I assume is metaphorical rather than referring to foreskins. And in later theology there is discussion of "spiritual Sabbath," which I think means holding the Sabbath in one's heart rather than on a specific day. This would certainly be my guess for a general Friends take on the idea of Sabbath, consistent with Quaker testimony on "outward forms."

So what can I say?

I can say that one of the great things about meeting for worship is that it is like an opening from the duties and diligence we all need to exercise just to keep afloat in this world. No taxes, no demands from family, just time specifically devoted to the important stuff. To worship.

My own understanding of Sabbath has been warped by Protestant, especially 19th-century, visions of "no fun allowed" Sundays. In particular I'm channeling the Ingalls' sober Sundays in the Little House on the Prairie books. I wasn't raised in a Sabbath-keeping tradition, and I still don't particularly observe weekly 24-hour time periods as sacred. So I'm with the Quaker gestalt on that.

But I do see the need to rest. It's been interesting just how many of the queries our Meeting has been getting in our newsletters and announcement sheets have been about "taking time" and not working so hard. And when some sort of Jubilee was proposed a couple years ago, a laying down of the Meetings' structures so we could pick up again after an examination of what really matters... well, that spoke to me too.

But then we needed to rebuild the meetinghouse, and there's always things to do. Needful things like taking care of seepage and ventilation and paint and the heating bill. Taking care of the kids, which you don't get to just let lie fallow even for a day, at least not when they're little.

If Sabbath isn't a 24-hour God-commanded time-off (I like the Jewish version in which you pray, sure, but also relax, eat, play, have sex...), then what should it be? Is it just a vacation? I think vacations (sabbaticals) can have the desired effect, but maybe Sabbath is any of the exhale-sit-down-and-stop chunks of time we all need. And maybe one of the practices we need to develop, as individuals and as a meeting, is to treat this time, in ourselves and others, as a little more sacred, not just a catch-your-breath-and-then-get-back-to-work, but the counterbalance to work.

Or maybe it's the thing the work is the counterbalance of. In the Adam and Eve story, part of the terms of the expulsion from Eden is that humans will now, in fact, have to work for their food and everything else they want. So Sabbath is like a few moments of earned (or unearned... that's the good thing about scheduling it) Eden.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Lies, damned lies, and plagiarism

This paragraph stuck out at me in Stanley Fish's latest piece on plagiarism on the NY Times web site:

And if there should emerge a powerful philosophical argument saying there’s no such thing as originality, its emergence needn’t alter or even bother for a second a practice that can only get started if originality is assumed as a baseline. It may be (to offer another example), as I have argued elsewhere, that there’s no such thing as free speech, but if you want to have a free speech regime because you believe that it is essential to the maintenance of democracy, just forget what Stanley Fish said — after all it’s just a theoretical argument — and get down to it as lawyers and judges in fact do all the time without the benefit or hindrance of any metaphysical rap. Everyday disciplinary practices do not rest on a foundation of philosophy or theory; they rest on a foundation of themselves; no theory or philosophy can either prop them up or topple them. As long as the practice is ongoing and flourishing its conventions will command respect and allegiance and flouting them will have negative consequences.
Sems to me the same argument could be made about "objectivity" or "aesthetics" amongst other ideas discussed in this blog. The point, that a standard need not be somehow supported by the fundamental structure of the universe, but can be constructed largely for the needs and desires of a group of people, parallels the idea of maps as propositions or arguments rather than statements of fact.

The point I would make is that it is important to note that we are talking about the formal rules and criteria of judging communications about a subject, not about the subject itself. In the subject of the article, not attributing a quote (plagiarism) is not the same as faking lab results. In the same way, making a map with a bias is different from making a map with errors. One is untrue to the "objective" rules of map discourse, and may be disparaged within the map community for this. The other is a untrue to the physical subject of the map, and is a lie.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Nebraska's Culture

Marshall and I had an interesting exchange on FaceBook a couple weeks ago. It started with his noting Nebraskan culture being distinct, and my arguing that Nebraska, as a granfalloon (an group identity with no real, lasting bond between its members) couldn't really be called a distinct culture. Marshall argued back that Nebraska is unusual among states for its coherence, for a variety of historical and economic reasons. I still demurred that defining the culture by the bounds of political geography was a problem. And we let it go.

The fact is, political boundaries do define culture to some extent. Where they bound areas within which migration is relatively easy, but across which it is comparatively difficult, they provide a the edge to a shape within which things are comparatively blurred: this is the source of anger to Tibetans, who feel their nation being homogenized into China, and who thus want restored their sovereignty: the sense that Tibet has a border that Han Chinese could not then blithely migrate across. It also explains why Canada and the USA, while culturally similar in many ways, are in fact noticeably different at the border, all the way from coast to coast: they are each broadly homogenous, but each of their homogenizing occurs (comparatively) more within its own borders.

Even where migration across the political border is easy, if there is a state-to-state difference in political culture, it can show up in the wider culture. Marshall talked about this to some extent in his home town of Omaha, where the political culture of Iowa is in fact different from Nebraska. I know this is true from experience from living in Vermont within sight of New Hampshire. Even though the part of New Hampshire across the river from me was the most liberal part of the state, Vermonters still made a point that they lived in a progressive state, as opposed to what was then a very conservative-dominated state.

In thinking about Nebraska identity, it's hard also to ignore sports. Memorial Stadium at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln is, in itself, the third-largest city in the state on game day (with a current capacity of 81,067, it has sold out every game for 38 years). Without a major-league team or any competing land-grant university, the Cornhuskers have an unusually central place in Nebraska identity. But in general, sports provides a rallying point for group cultural identity, like it or not (and I do tend to inwardly sneer at the cultural influences of sports). Here in Minnesota, the Vikings and the Green Bay Packers help define Minnesota from culturally similar Wisconsin.

But sports can create group identity that cuts across political lines. I grew up in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, which sits on one side of the old "Province Line" between the colonies of East and West Jersey. Legend has it that on a summer's evening you could walk down Province Line Road (which mostly follows the ancient political line) and hear New York Yankees baseball broadcasts on one side and Philadelphia Phillies on the other.

In fact, professional baseball teams' "fan-sheds" have very little to do with political boundaries: see common census's survey-based map and Nike's United Countries of Baseball. These have more to do with cultural spheres of cities (as I was arguing with Marshall, Omaha's sphere probably does not match up all that precisely with the political boundaries of Nebraska), and especially with news media.

College sports are different, especially where they are dominated by Land Grant colleges, which are dominated by state residents and whose mission and program is tied to the state's economy. Hence the Nebraska Cornhuskers.


I think the other problem Marshall and I were having (or at least that I was having) was the hidden baggage that the word "culture" carries.

The Oxford English Dictionary traces the path of the word: originally it meant the planting and care of crops (as in agri-culture), then other things that needed to be coddled along (like cultured pearls). By analogy, one could "cultivate" or "culture" one's mind, developing taste and refinement... also an early usage.

The first OED use in the anthropological/sociological sense of "Nebraska's culture" is 1860, from A. Gurowski's Slavery in History: "This Egyptian or Chamitic civilization...preceded by many centuries the Shemitic or Aryan cultures."

The idea of "a civilization" has fallen out of fashion. So too, to some extent, has the word "subculture". Civilization implies that those who are not members aren't civilized, and are therefore somehow sub-humans. Subculture also implies a kind of irrelevance: members of a subculture are part of a fringe, not part of the dynamic center.

The violent and totalitarian side-effects of nineteenth and early-twentieth century nationalism are a big piece of why the idea of a national civilization is viewed suspiciously today. Hitler and Mussolini used the same fierce sense of national identity to create oppressive states as had been used to form Italy and Germany into nation-states only sixty to seventy years earlier... around the time of that first use of "culture" as a synonym for "society."


And this gets to the root of my problem with "Nebraska culture." It's the same as my problems with any normalizing identity that then can get reinforced back on its members. I mean, Nebraska as an identity is pretty harmless, but the definition of "American" culture can be (and has been) turned back on those someone defines as "un-American." And this basic dynamic—define a "culture" or a "civilization" or a "type" by average characteristics and then enforce that average back on the whole—is tremendously destructive.

So how to deal with the fact that Nebraska is different from Iowa (and the other surrounding states) as a whole? Or that there is a "gay culture" or a "cartographic culture" or a "morris dancing culture"?

First, recognize that all groups of people that we can identify as a group end up looking to outsiders like their average member (or to be more precise, their average as heavily nuanced by their public leadership/spokespersonhood). And it does little good to say, "there is no average member of X group because they are all individuals. We instinctively seek to identify and characterize a typical personhood out of a bunch of people. It's how people are built.

Second, consider the back-and-forth dynamic of a formal structure arising around a shared identity, which arises around a formal structure, and so on. And consider what a mess inheritance makes of the dynamic between the two: Generation 1 founds a new institution around an idea, generation 2 grows up tin that institution and so a culture becomes embedded around that institution, but some of those members move away from the institution, and by generation 3, some birth members of the institution no longer feel connected to the culture of the institution, though they are members and may still hold to the institution's ideals. In generation 4, there is a revival of focus on those institutional ideals, while the descendants of those who moved away from the institition in generation 2 want to return to the patterns of the culture, but not necessarily the ideals behind the institution...

It all gets rather muddled, rather quickly.

Third, consider the relation amongst the culture, the markers for that culture, and the degree of choice one has about those markers. I can choose to be a cartographer more easily than I can choose to be of Yankee extraction, middle-class, English-speaking and pink-skinned. I can choose to be Minnesotan by residence, but I can't really choose where I was raised. And if I moved somewhere where I couldn't pass as local (the bayous of Louisiana for instance, or Scotland), I would always be an outsider.

Finally, and this ties in to all of these, recognize that culture is fluid, even as entities that it forms around are comparatively rigid. By naming a culture "Nebraskan" we are claiming a relationship between a box and the contents of the box. In this case, the box is porous: a milk crate filled with packing peanuts. We can identify the container, we can pull the container up and look at it, but peanuts fall out of the holes, and other stuff gets in, and the identity of the peanuts ends up having a statistical rather than an absolute relationship to the container. Doesn't mean there's no relationship, but it is not simple as 1-to-1.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Formality and Familiarity

[my apologies if this post is a bit of a dog's breakfast; I've spent too much time fussing over it. It probably should have been parsed out into a couple different posts. But there you are.]

It occurred to me, a few weeks ago, that maps are like a collective voice—the voice of a group—in the same way that all published second-person information are. One individual (or more likely, a small group) composes the material, with the idea that "anyone" (that is, anyone with understanding of the particular formal visual or text system) can fit themselves into the pilot's seat and bake that bread or find that highway. In a sense all communication creates a community, in that it means that more then one person has the same information, and this sort of communication is a subset of that.

Maps, recipes and other anonymous second-person communications also act as guides within a larger system. They are formal, though they may be couched in friendly, casual voice: you can make a handwritten-text map, or (as with Julia Child or Laurie Colwin) frame recipes with chatty, informal prose. But Julia Child and your local cartographer do not know anything about you personally. All they know is that you, their target audience, desire to learn to cook the things they describe, or to learn what you have to say about geographic space. As maker of a cookbook/map, you need to compose instructions that can be used by a cook in a small kitchen in Boston or a cabin in Montana, by a motorcyclist or Hummer driver,

BUT: the maker of s standard street map is NOT making their map for people trying to walk or drive cattle. One could say that cattle drivers are excluded. Much has been made of classist, racist, sexist, nationalist etc. exclusion from cartography. And the same thing could be said for Julia Child. You need a motor vehicle to really use a modern road map properly, and you need a kitchen to use a modern cookbook: there are basic tools that the cookbook and street map presume you will have.

But besides excluding, these tools also welcome in. They make it possible to join in a community—indeed they form that community—without first passing a human-administered sniff test: there is no catechism, no manners to learn, no bloodline to prove. This was Julia Child's genius: you don't have to have an outrageous French accent to cook good French food; you just have to understand the system. So the matter of exclusion becomes a matter either of personal economics (can't use that navigational chart... don't own a boat...), or a matter of choice (why would I want to cook French food? Can't stand the stuff).


I'm writing this on the Amtrak train down to Portland from Seattle. The train staff are settled in seats behind us, where they are chatting and griping about their jobs. When they make announcements, there is a forced informality to their patter: they are trying very hard to simultaneously sound professional and friendly. The divide between formality and familiarity is, as in much of American public life, confused.

I grew up in this informal American social environment. A lot of it is about denial of class divides: it is not OK in much of this country to set yourself above other fellow Americans (illegal immigrants are another matter). I find even the now-much-reduced sense of formality in Europe disconcerting, and I know Europeans find themselves disconcerted by American "friendliness."

But friendliness is not the same as familiarity. One may give a highly formal greeting that nonetheless makes the visitor very welcome, and one can be laid-back and rudely unwelcoming.

In an odd way, formality can be more friendly, especially where there is a divide in familiar social customs. The word "familiar" comes from the same root as "family" and implies a habitual rather than consciously learned set of behaviors. Where these habits are not ingrained, being plunged into a casual social situation can be very very awkward: rules are not spelled out, and in the everyday business of eating, going to the toilet, and simply sitting and relaxing, feelings are likely to be hurt.

But, of course, formality can be off-putting. I did not like the whole be-on-your-best-manners part of visiting my maternal grandparents. The silverware, the posture, the careful wordings... and in retrospect they were not that bad at all, pretty tolerant and gently corrective to their grandson.

The difference between formality as welcome and formality as barrier is in whether the formal system permits access to the habitual. A street map allows one to discover a network, but that same network can be learned (think new cabbies with their nose in the street atlas vs. old-timers who know the city streets by heart).

Where formality is destructive is where there is no gateway through to familiarity: Eliza Doolittle could learn to be a lady, but unless her Pakistani modern-day counterpart is truly judged by her habits, speech and carriage, her skin color will forever bar her. You can be as polite as you want to awful old Great-aunt Phyllis, but she will never let you see her heart, or see you as you are.

And where maps truly do provide a barrier, they too are a problem: where they are used to create ghettoes and bantustans and reservations, to clearly and unequivocally state that this sort of person will only be allowed here and here, to rationalize and clarify violent systems.

They are also a bar where formality becomes its own ingrained habit. This is the class bar: when you have grown up used to formal habits, you have an inherent, and unfair, social advantage over those who have had to learn the formal system, and for whom it will always be a foreign language.

My own take-home for this is that it is always best that a formal system like cartography remain a foreign language to all who use it; one may become fluent, but if it becomes the language in which you relax in your pajamas, then you need in a sense to recuse yourself from using it as a tool for power. You become a host, and ought not really claim this common land of formal systems as territory.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Generous Dancing

On May Day this year, as part of our "guerilla morris" (where we just go and dance where we feel like dancing), we danced at Birchbark Books in Minneapolis. While we were there, R.T. Rybak, our mayor, biked by with his wife, and we danced a dance for him. The whole thing was filmed here.

Now, I don't get to see myself dance very often, and when I do, I sometimes wince. I'm not as good a dancer as I'd like to be, even after 20 years of morris. And as I was reflecting on my dancing here, the word for what I was seeing in the other dancers that I didn't see in myself was "generosity." I was not—am not—dancing generously. Interpret that as you will, but it's the outward expression of what from the inside feels like carefulness. I was not giving the audience everything I had, because I was worried I'd have nothing left over.

Several years ago, there was a query made of the Friends Meeting I attend, "How do you take care of your spiritual well-being?" Something like that. And I sat with that question for much of meeting, and eventually, as is my habit, started turning it in my head. As I did so, it turned into "How do I open myself to the care the universe offers me." And as I held that question, I felt my whole body unclench and relax and open up. It was quite a profound physical reaction. I really felt myself "opening."

The two physical manifestations, generosity and openness to the universe's care, feel very close. As friend Lane said at lunch yesterday, it's because the cycle of giving and receiving needs to be an open cycle: if you block up or hoard up, the cycle is broken and, in general, stuff stops working as well.

Two weeks ago, I was sitting with the question, How are we one meeting? How are we a Thing as opposed to just a bunch of people who sit together at once? And that question turned itself as well, to one of "How can we open ourselves to the universe's care (to what I call Grace but which probably doesn't match the traditional meaning of that word)?" And I felt the same visceral loosening reaction.

Now, I am not a miserly sort in my everyday life, I think. I'm not generous to a fault, but I don't think people walk past and mutter to each other, "there goes Nat, what a Scrooge!" But my concern for "generous dancing" isn't about how much I give to the United Way. In performance, in order to be really effective, you need not just to perform something, but to embody it to the audience. This holds true outside of performing arts: royalty understands this—see the conclusion of Elizabeth (the 1998 movie with Cate Blanchett: see here from 7:45 onward, followed by this). She puts it as, "I have married England," but she has become an embodiment of something not so easily put into words; perhaps an embodiment of England itself. So what I'm looking for in performance is not acts of generosity, but the embodiment of generosity.

To embody something is not a common concept in liberal modernist religion. It smells a bit of idolatry: the physical deities in Hinduism being embodiments of their respective gods. In Christian orthodoxy, it is only Christ who is God made flesh. So we generally talk about "embodiment" in a kind-of-figurative sense: "Robin Hood was the embodiment of masculine virtue." Or whatever.

I think perhaps because of the sexualization of bodies in public conversation, we don't talk about people we work with as bodies, as embodiments. This is a loss. The physical experience being of in a geographic space really affects how I make maps. The physical experience of being in meeting for worship is not just a portal for spiritual experience: it is an embodiment of that experience. How we want to be needs to be embodied in us, literally.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Letting the story go

An alignment of three things:

1. A comment on Facebook on stories. The original poster was commenting on how hard it was for her to talk with a creationist. Someone linked to the XKCD comic here. My response to a few more comments on stubborn ignorance was:

Methinks, as the comic points out, the issue is really an issue when it comes to power. Which it always does come down to one way or another when dealing with parents. But I don't care what my postal delivery worker or the guy at Mr Tire believe about creationism; or if I do care, its in the sense that Ingrid talked about: because it makes a good story.

It's kind of how I've come around to being able to (mostly) deal with Christian religious stories: I was raised by my agnostic/atheist parents to hear Biblical narration as part of an effort to push me to an orthodoxy—to exert power over me, in the same way that jingoism, pursed-lipped grandparents, and social conformity are. And so it's been great to be able to (for example) hear Ingrid tell our son the Easter story "from the inside," where it can live as a big powerful story, not part of some attempt to make me or Roo or anyone else into what the speaker wants us to be.
2. in Meeting this morning, a Friend rose to talk about her experience with other people's stories, with other people's baggage they bring to hearing your story. Her husband had come out quite publicly as bisexual, and she was recalling the pain that other people's assumptions and baggage brought her in that experience. There is a sense that when you speak Truth, that Truth is released from you—it is no longer yours. I think most people don't get this; certainly the idea of intellectual property works against this. But really, to release an idea is much more powerful than holding it. To try and hang on to it is mostly a salve for the ego. Or an attempt to control income—not that the experience of "colonized" musicians, who sold their songs for pennies to producers who then made fortunes on them, is a good thing. No one should starve when someone else is feeding themselves from one's work. But the idea itself benefits from truly being free to roam.

3. Christa Tippet in this week's Speaking of Faith, talked with Alan Dienstag, who wrote this companion commentary about his work getting early-stage Alzheimer's patients to write memories as part of their comign to terms with their illness. Part of what he talked and wrote about is writing not as hanging on to memories, but as giving them away.

As she neared the end of her life, my grandmother seemed to understand that if you can give something away, you don't lose it. This, as it turns out, is as true of memories as it is of objects and is yet another aspect of memory that is often overlooked. Memories are, in a sense, fungible. Writing is a form of memory, and unlike the spoken word, leaves a mark in the physical world. As a form of memory, writing creates possibilities for remembering, for the sharing and safeguarding of memories not provided by talking. The writing group gave memory back to its members. They were transformed in the experience of writing from people who forget to people who remember. A member of the writing group once said that when the group was together "— we forget that we don't remember." This is a statement of cure, not of biological and cellular disorder, but of the human disorder, the disorder of loss of personhood brought about by Alzheimer's disease.


There is a scary power in letting go an idea, a teaching, a word, a picture...anything that comes out of oneself. To put your name on it keeps it somehow tied to you. It is a radical idea, to create anonymously and remain anonymous so as to be able to let the idea truly go free. It's almost a painful idea. But I feel myself drawn to it. It is an act of submission, an act of saying "these things are not mine."

I have no idea if I could do it.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Boot! Reboot!

I'm feeling like it's maybe time to come back to the blog. Not that my workload is any lighter, but I do feel more fully settled in the new sets of questions that I dove into last fall.

And, perhaps not surprisingly, they point right back at some older questions from the blog.

As I've said a lot (and others too), I work in a field — cartography — dominated by Fact, and this field has been critiqued by those who feel that the world is too hemmed in by Fact, and not open enough to Feeling and even Fancy.

I also am part of a religious community that, while it uses the term "clearness" in its internal language, is very much interested in "movements of the Spirit" — hardly fact-based scientific understandings. And yet, serving on Ministry and Counsel the last couple years, I see us often called to help with very physical, practical challenges. And I've been surprised to find my own spiritual sense of things moving more and more unambiguously into the physical and practical.

I've done some light reading in cellular biology over the past bit — I think it requires somewhat more mental energy than I have right now, but the one piece I took away from what I did read was the sense that what defines life and living things more than anything else is the constant flow of energy through the living system. It's when that energy flow stops that life peters out... It's a simple, obvious observation, but looking at that energy flow on a cellular level really brought home to me how the stuff of life — the organism, the food, the juices and fiber and all the other stuff we look at — is the platform within which life itself — the flow of energy within the system — operates. Probably some actual biologist will correct me gently on this observation, but that's my takeaway for now.

And so the questions I've been carrying with me about our Friends meeting, and how we can understand it as a thing unto itself, and not just an association of people, is informed by this: that what makes it a thing is not a common fact or object or other graspable commonality, but in fact the social and spiritual energy that flows through it. And is there really a difference between social and spiritual energy? Is the difference, as in so many things, the direction we are willing to approach it from?

I had a really good thoughtful conversation last night with Michael and Jenny, about care and support structures within our meeting. He expressed his sadness that our care structures often do not include physical support, certainly not usually for folks who are outside of Meeting. We don't do a lot of charity. I wonder how we can approach (or allow ourselves to be approached by) strangers, particularly the marginalized — which as Michael pointed out was unambiguously Jesus' charge to his followers — and not be "sucked dry"?

Not much really new on maps in the meantime; but perhaps this will circle around. Time will tell.

Good to be back.