Thursday, June 25, 2009

Interlude: AT&T

OK, for a break from religion and literature, let's talk about AT&T. LAst summer, our family bought our cell phones and new"wireless plan" (sounds like we send telegrams) from At&T. We bought insurance with our "plan," so that our phones would be replaced for $50 each if something happened to them.

The mechanism that hangs up our daughter's phone broke (not an uncommon problem apparently), so after much back and forth, a nice AT&T employee decided the phone was in fact malfunctioning and worthy of replacement. We sent it back, minus the battery. The company sent us a new "case." We put in the battery. It worked. All was well.

Oh. Until we got our old case back with a letter from AT&T saying that $245.00 was being added to our bill because the phone suffered from "Cracked, Damaged, Smashed, Chewed Plastics/Faceplates." A little sticky red arrow on the phone pointed us to a slightly scuffed and worn area in the upper right corner of the phone. It looked to me like the normal wear and tear that would happen to a phone used incessantly by a text-messaging teenager.

OK. I thought, OK, I have to call AT&T as I can not see how any reasonable person, jury, judge, whatever, would say that the little bit of wear on the phone added up to (capital D) "Damaged."

I am, at this particular moment, entirely unemployed in paid work, so I figured I had plenty of time to devote to this aspect of the family finances. I spent some time on hold and then in supplying information to verify my identity. I spoke with the first customer service representative. I quickly realized that she had no option but to quote the company line, to the effect that once AT&T had determined a charge and added it to the bill, it could not be contested because I had "agreed to the terms." Them's fighting words, I thought. In what universe can At&T simply "decide" to add a charge and then "decide" it's irrevocable? Not in my universe. So whilst I chatted with the customer service rep, I googled consumer protections for Ohio.

Thee customer service rep soon bounced me upstairs to a person with more "authority." (I did have to wait on hold for almost 10 minutes, but I was warned of this ahead of time and they did apologize profusely for it.) My new contact, Keith Reynolds, listened, apologized again and refunded the extra $195.00 in charges.

This transaction, for which I had allocated a day, took perhaps a half hour. I was pleased about that. But what was obvious to me was that At&T (and they are not alone) simply charges whatever it can to whomever it can, and hopes that some of it sticks. I'm sure there are plenty of weary, worried people out there who just pay the bill rather than arguing. What concerns me is my suspicion that these policies disproportionately hurt the under-educated and/or emotionally overwhelmed segments of the culture. I navigated this situation fairly rapidly because I'm a journalist--I know "a little bit" about how to get through to the person with authority and how not to take no for an answer. Also, I'm educated--I can be both concise and articulate on the phone when need be. I have some idea of my rights. But what of people who either don't have these skills or really can't take any more pressure in their lives? Is it just "tough luck" if they can't fend for themselves?

Monday, June 15, 2009

Timeless or culture bound: The Memory Keeper?

I'm at the beach reading a novel called "The Memory Keeper's Daughter" by Kim Edwards. I found it on the bookshelf in our rental house.

It's a beautifully, lyrically written book that reminds me of Virginia Woolf, but I am bothered by the way it imposes a "post 1980" sensibility on the years 1964 and 1965. (The book is divided into sections that represent different years: 1964, 1965, 1970, ending in 1989. I am just finishing the section "1965." The book was apparently published in 2005.)

Here is the plot in brief: The beautiful young wife of a doctor goes into labor on a snowy evening with their first baby. Because a heavy snowstorm is so unusual in Lexington, Kentucky, where they live, the medical clinic is deserted when they get there. The doctor calls his nurse, a 30 yesr-old "spinster" who is in love with him. She comes and helps deliver the baby. The wife is "gassed" at crucial moments, so goes in and out of consciousness.

The couple has twins rather than a single child. The first child to come out, their son, is perfectly typical, but the second, surprise child, a daughter, obviously has Down Syndrome. The doctor is horrified. His wife is unconscious. The doctor, wanting to spare his wife grief, quickly hands the baby girl over to his nurse with an address for a home for the "feebleminded" and tells her to drop the baby there. He then tells his wife, who is aware of having pushed out a second infant, that the baby girl died.

So far so good. The details are believable and vivid (though I imagine in 1964 the doctor and nurse would have seen nothing wrong in calling the baby a "mongoloid"). But here is where things begin to go awry. The young wife, starting in the clinic, wants to have had the chance to hold the "dead" baby. The author, thank the heavens, doesn't use the word "closure," but you know that's what the wife wants: closure. She feels cheated and upset that she didn't get to hold the baby and that there's no acknowledgement of the baby's death. She even goes as far, at the urging of her hippie sister, Bree, to put a notice in the paper advertising a memorial service for the dead baby. The existence of the "dead" baby also puts a rift in her relationship with her husband.

Ok. The wife is having a perfectly normal post-1980 response to a death. But I grew up in the 1960s, and this kind of response bears no relationship to anything I remember from that very different culture.

I remember two death incidences from my elementary school years. In the first, when I was in the fourth grade, my third grade friend Eileen--my other friend Aimee and I would walk home from school with her-- developed leukemia. We didn't know that leukemia was 100 percent fatal at that time and parents didn't tell us. We did know that Eileen was sick, because she had radiation treatments and her hair fell out. She would wear a light blue silk scarf, ala Jackie Kennedy, tied under her chin. She was a very sweet, cheerful girl.

Not long after the radiation ended, she died. We were a bit shocked. I heard from Aimee, whose family was close with Eileen's, that under advice from their doctor, the family was getting rid of any reminder of Eileen. They had another daughter and they were going to seal up the hole around Eileen by pretending she had never existed. This way they would not grieve. It seemed a bit sad to me that they would erase Eileen, but it made a certain amount of sense: Eileen couldn't come back and why should the family suffer?

The second instance was my classmate Richard's dog. His very cute Yorkshire terrier was a kind of class mascot, who'd been with us through fourth, fifth and finally sixth grade at our new school. He was so adorable that sometimes when he followed Richard to school, the teacher would let him run around the classroom for a few minutes before shooing him out.

In the sixth grade, the dog got run over by a car and killed. Our teacher informed us of this, along with the information that Richard, who was out of school for the day, was going with his parents immediately to get a replacement Yorkshire terrier who'd be "just like" the former dog. By having no gap between dogs, he wouldn't grieve. We were admonished to treat the new dog as if it were the old dog to "help" Richard. This was 1970. To my 11 year old mind, you couldn't just replace a dog, and other kids must have raised that question, because our teacher insisted all the more vehemently that dogs were indeed interchangeable. After a day, Richard wouldn't know the difference.

A larger cultural representation of this attitude was expressed in an original Star Trek episode. Captain Kirk is so stricken with grief over the death of a young woman that Spock offers him the ultimate 1960s mercy: a Vulcan mind meld that erases the memory. There's no sense at all that Kirk's grieving is healthy or necessary.

Of course, to our 21st-century sensibilities, these responses to death are shocking. At the time, they were presented as very modern, clinical, cutting edge, clean, rational and enlightened, a way to avoid wallowing in the morbid preoccupations of the death that characterized the past. Mourning was uncomfortable. It could be dispensed with by using logic and forethought.

We know now that you can't simply will grief out of your life. We can't just forget. Mourning, holding a dead baby, memorial services for dead babies and miscarried infants, public and family remembances of the departed, are cherished cultural ideals.

But in 1964? No. People soldiered on. Although this thing called the "1960s" was happening, especially from 1967 on, and women were wearing miniskirts and college students were protesting the war, none of this was more than superficial to the culture of the Baltimore suburb where I lived. We went on as we always had. Family secrets stayed in the closet. Avoiding shame was more important than finding closure. The 1960s women I knew would not have advertised the death of an infant because gossip and blame or pity would have been more likely than encouragement and support or empathy. (Remember "Diary of a Mad Housewife?" In this early 70s movie, the woman, after outlining her utterly barren and horrendous life, is excoriated by her "support group" for not being happy with a well-to-do husband, a Park Avenue apartment and two children.)

I wonder why imposing contemporary cultural norms on the past bothers me so much? I suppose on one level it's simply the falseness, the "that's not the way it happened" feeling. But I also think that by exploring how people used to respond, by going deeper than getting the superficial facts of car makes and clothing styles down, we learn more about ourselves. We learn that our attitudes and our responses are not necessarily universal or given. We understand that at different times and in different cultures, cultural norms we take for granted might not have been accepted or allowed. In a spiritual sense, we can learn gratitude for what we have that other's didn't, such as the ability to mourn openly, and can better evaluate what may seem eternal in our culture as perhaps very transitory.

What do you think?

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Response to Yaxley: "Why not call yourself a Christian?"

I read with interest and appreciation Alice Yaxley's post "Why not call yourself a Christian, like Lucretia Mott?"

I keep thinking about the post and the responses. I love that Alice raised this question and I love her blog.

However, having read the comments, I would frame the question differently. When people responded with the reasons that they did not call themselves Christians, I found myself saying yes, yes, you are right not to call yourself a Christian, you are acting with integrity.

I think the real issue is not whether individuals call themselves Christians, as that is a personal decision about accepting Christ into your heart. The question I would pose is: Why contest calling the Religious Society of Friends a Christian faith? As Alice and others so clearly point out, Quakerism, as a collective , is Christian. The majority of its adherents are self-identified as Christians, and it is historically rooted in Christianity. It was and is an attempt to return to the earliest roots of the Christian faith, before Rome adopted Christianity as the state religion. I have heard that the entire Bible, if lost, could be reconstructed by the writings of the early Quakers. And there is no question in my mind that the early Quakers I have read believed fervently in a risen Christ born of a virgin and a historical Jesus who performed miracles and healings.

That's not to say that every individual within Quakerism is a Christian, any more than every individual within any other Christian denomination is a Christian. But that doesn't mean we don't call those denominations Christian. The community has an identity that transcends any one individual or any one period of time. It is rooted in a history and tradition. When you join that community, you are inevitably joining that history and tradition, regardless of your individual beliefs. I suppose what bothers me is the tendency of some to want to rewrite the history of Quakerism as some sort of universalist faith. It is a uniquely Christian story and that story-not just the "principles" we can cull from it-- matters. Quakerism would not have been Quakerism if Fox and his followers had not been born in the seventeenth century, in England, and were Buddhists rather than Christians. So why not embrace and love the story we have?

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Abundance and Service

A good blog post on abundance and service. I got this link from the Jesus Creed.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Defending the faith

I found this on the New York Times website:

“ You might remind your children that, although much harm has been done in the name of religion, much good has, as well. Commemorate the Underground Railroad, Mother Theresa, volunteers who visit prisons and hospitals, all those who sacrifice for peace and justice. Don't let your daughters become cynical because so much good is private and evil is so public.”
— Anne W.

from a blog (?) called This I Believe.

What do you think? Do you think religion gets a bad rap? Do you think it's helpful to speak up more?

Monday, June 8, 2009

Quaker Education 2

I'm here at the beach, thinking about Quaker education and John Woolman.

In "Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes," written in 1746 and published in 1754, Woolman argued that one of the drivers of slavery was parents' overblown affection for their children. The natural desire to give one's children good things--including a comfortable inheritance--helped people rationalize the slave trade.The economics of slavery allowed people to amass fortunes from the profits of the cheap labor of slaves, and people justified this ownership by contending they had to take care of their families.

"If we do not consider these things aright, but ... conceive views of interest separate from the general
good of the great brotherhood, and, in pursuance thereof, treat our
inferiors with rigour, to increase our wealth and gain riches for
our children; What then shall we do when God riseth up?
and when he visiteth, what shall we answer him ? did not he that
made us, make them? and did not one fashion us?"

Earlier in the essay, he writes:

" It appears by experience, that where children are educated in
fulness, ease, and idleness, evil habits are more prevalent than
is common amongst such who are prudently employed in the
necessary affairs of life. If children are not only educated in
the way of so great temptation, but have also the opportunity of
lording it over their fellow-creatures ... how can we expect otherwise than that their
tender minds will be possessed with thoughts too high for them ;
which gaining strength by continuance, will prove like a slow
current, gradually separating them from or keeping from acquaint-
ance with that humility and meekness in which alone lasting hap-
piness can be enjoyed.

Man is born to labour, and experience abundantly showeth,
that it is for our good : but where the powerful lay the burden
on the inferior, without affording a Christian education, and suit-
able opportunity of improving the mind, and a treatment which
we, in their case, should approve, in order that themselves may
live at ease, and fare sumptuously, and lay up riches for their
posterity; this seems to contradict the design of Providence, and,
I doubt not, is sometimes the effect of a perverted mind ; for wdiile
the life of one is made grievous by the rigour of another, it entails
misery on both."

Do we also make idols of our families?

And does this get to the heart of Quaker education?

I have read in the newspaper quotes from administrators at elite Quaker schools distressed about helicopter parents who want their teenage children protected from facing any of life's rigors. Of course, we don't want our children abused by teachers or classmates, but graduating entitled nincompoops who think life will give them special protection might not be the best idea either.

I was an education reporter for a few years, covering a county with a large minority population. That meant witnessing white flight from that school system to nearby school systems with "higher test scores" and "safer schools" and white flight to "independent" schools. Of course, the question frequently arose: shouldn't families support the public schools instead of fleeing? Yes, but having covered public education, I would say that individual families simply can't take on the school system. I've seen many families try valiantly, with mothers (it's usually mothers) heading PTAs, safe school programs, working on academic committees and fundraising drives, and ultimately having to throw up their hands and yank their children from the schools. The schools' problems are a symptom of a deeper social and spiritual malaise that must be addressed first.

I would also say that entering elite public or private schools isn't totally the answer either. What we need, for starters, I would argue, is an "independent" school option that's less elitist than much of the private (and elite) public school strata. Many Catholic schools, I believe, do this well. Some are elite schools, but many are modest schools serving average people. Of course, it could be argued that Catholics--here I speak of Roman Catholics--who comprise a quarter of all Christians in the United States, have vastly greater resources than Quakers. At the same time, Quakers have a history of achievements disproportionate to their numbers.

Another thing we possibly need to rethink is pitting public versus private (they're now called "independent") schools. There are elite public and independent schools and down-to-earth public and independent schools. Public is not necessarily more virtuous than private and vice versa. If we have our children in public schools in an affluent county (as our family did for years) or in a top magnet program in a less affluent county, we could be more elitist than a family sending its children to a modest independent school. I have heard parents say things to their magnet school children such as "You are in a school where the kids really want to learn." What does this teach but that "you are more deserving and kids who don't achieve don't want to." Is either true?

Quaker schools can excel, I believe, by practicing the Quaker testimonies, putting Christ at their center and emphasizing education--and life-- not as a way to get "a competitive advantage" over others, but as training to serve. They could change the world. I dream, but enough independent schools practicing Woolman-like principles could at least gradually change the education system in this country. But how many do? Olney does, yet does that fact mean many parents will reject it for its simplicity?

Conversely, to the extent that Quaker schools appeal to the social or economic elite, does that mean they are not in full compliance with Quaker values? Would Quaker schools that really practiced the Quaker values espoused, say, by John Woolman, appeal to elites? Or would they flee from such schools as too austere? Not taking good enough care of their children?

Thursday, June 4, 2009


Here is the quote from Göring:

"Why, of course, people don’t want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally, the common people don’t want war… That is understood. But it is the leaders of the country who determine policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along… The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.

There are endless debates about whether leaders “drag the people along” or whether they are puppets of forces which exist outside of themselves. This is the substance of Tolstoy’s theory of history outlined in “War and Peace” — the general’s delusion (it could be Göring’s or Napoleon’s) that he is in control of history when he is but a pawn. [31] History, when all is said and done, is enacted by all of us, not by a select few, and it is to the story of the collective to which I now turn."

From Errol Morrs's series the NYTImes, "Bamboozling Ourselves," part 5.

Are we "dragged along" or is history "enacted by all of us?" Well, of course it's, by definition, enacted by all of us, but to what extent is the common person initiator rather than responder?

Monday, June 1, 2009

Quaker education

I'd like to talk about Quaker education. What makes a school Quaker?

I recently heard a prominent Quaker who is not in education mention Quaker schools as the face of Quakerism for the wider world. He cited a school started by non-Quakers in a major city and called a Quaker school. In this city, he said, the school IS the face of Quakerism, because the meeting for worship there is so small. Ironically, the most visible Quaker institution in that city is run by non-Quakers.

This Quaker went on to wonder: If schools, because of their visibility and good reputations, are the chief means of Friends' evangelism should the Quaker community do more to support them? And should Quakers do more to encourage Quaker attendance at these schools, which are largely filled with non-Quakers? And should they do more to encourage Quaker staffing, another area dominated by non-Quakers? (In both cases, the small size of the Friends denomination is a limiting factor.)

I'm an interested and undoubtedly biased party, as for the past year, all three of our teens have attended Olney Friends School in Barnesville and my husband works as technical coordinator (aka compute geek) for Olney. I have been impressed with both the quality of the education and the values of simplicity, integrity and community practiced at the school. I'm also saddened at the struggle it and other small Quaker boarding schools have in attracting students. I believe many Quakers and others are missing out on the opportunity for a rich educational experience.

Reasons I have heard for Quaker children not attending Quaker schools:

1. Desire to support public education. (This was a model my husband and I operated under for years.)

2. Expense. Quaker day schools in the Baltimore/Washington area, from which we come, are prohibitively expensive for the average person, especially if you have more than one or two children.

3. Exclusivity: I have heard of at least one Quaker who was turned down for a Quaker day high school because, although he was a decent student in the public schools, he did not score high enough on the school's entrance exam. I have also heard--without having any personal evidence--that some Quaker schools have lost much of their distinctiveness and become more like other private schools catering to the rich.

4. Stigma attached to boarding school. Helicopter parenting not amenable to sending children away from home.

I've watched my children thrive in a Quaker school environment. What I like about my children's school is that it is NOT dripping with every amenity. Simplicity is emphasized. Students have genuinely small class sizes--4, 5, and 6 students is normal, though some rare classes go as high as 19--and students get a well rounded education that includes raising chickens, collected maple syrup sap and tending to goats as well as a college preparatory curriculum. The school holds meeting for worship daily for 15 minutes at the beginning and end of the day, and in addition, has two longer meetings for worship each week. I've also found during the past year, that, contrary to popular opinion, it's good for many teens to have the independence from parents that a boarding school provides. The school builds service into its life and emphasizes living to serve.

A key factor enriching the life of the school is the tradition. From GymEx, a gymnastics event that goes back to 1910 to self governance committees, the school draws from a deep history of ideas and inspiration.

I would hate to see this or any other rooted Quaker school fail in the current economic climate. I imagine it would be impossible to replicate overnight the more than century long history that makes a school like Olney what it is.

Quakers schools, like other schools, are faced with the tricky prospect of pricing and resort to the common practice of offering a "list" price that is higher than the real price most parents pay. This is done to help underwrite aid to needy students. I wonder what would happen if Quaker schools went back to traditional Quaker business practice and offered a list price that was the real price of education, did not negotiate, and used endowments, scholarships and other donations to support financial need. Honestly, this would take a huge leap of faith as I don't see how that model could work. But it has worked for Quakers in the past.

The Jewish community has a strong tradition of fundraising to support Jewish schools. Should the Quaker community do more to support its schools? Should it do fundraising to be able to offer more scholarships to Quaker students? How important is a Quaker school education to Quaker children and the world at large? Should Quaker schools lower costs by sticking to values rather than going after every amenity? That seems obvious, but how then do we get parents to look past packaging?

Finally, why do you or don't you send your children to Quaker school?