Friday, December 23, 2011

Hobbit houses for Olney?

Have I mentioned I love Olney Friends School?

Emma Churchman put a link on Facebook to this charming house a man built in Wales for about $4,700 (3,000 British pounds):

Isn't it lovely? And apparently green too. For some reason, it made me think of Olney.

I'm remembering all the land Olney has, its expertise in green building ... and perhaps a need for staff housing. Of course, too, there's always the question of where to put the student lounge. Wouldn't this be a wonderful, whimsical way to live? Or a good place to go to hang out with friends?

And it could offer Olney some extra publicity. Who wouldn't want to go to the Hobbit school? Now we just need to get the film class students to film the building going up ... Maybe we could even invite over the man who built the original ... What do you think?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmas thoughts from Maria von Wedemeyer

Maria von Wedemeyer was theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer's much younger fiancee--they became engaged shortly before he was imprisoned in April of 1943. She was a brilliant person in her own right and a good writer. In celebration of the Christmas season, here are some words of Maria's from a letter to Bonhoeffer in Tegel prison in 1943:

"Isn't there bound to be a rekindling of the desire for holy tranquility and universal peace? I couldn't help thinking so last night, while walking home through the dusk with my little tree. The snow glistened underfoot, and there were countless stars in the depths of the sky overhead. All that is Christmas originates in heaven and comes from there to us all, to you and me alike, and forms a stronger bond between us than we could ever forge by ourselves." Love Letters from Cell 92, p. 138.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Egg Nog and Quakerism

Almost every Christmas for as long as I can remember, I've had (non-alcoholic) egg nog, usually from a carton bought at the grocery store.

This year, however, I had a brilliant idea: let’s make homemade egg nog.

I looked up a recipe for non-alcoholic egg nog on the web. The ingredients were simple: eggs, whole milk, sugar, nutmeg, salt, vanilla.

I gathered six large eggs from the refrigerator and broke them in bottom of a heavy saucepan, then separated two more eggs and added the yolk. Half a cup of sugar and half a teaspoon of salt followed. I whisked this all together, then added four cup of whole milk, slowly letting it stream from the measuring cup as a I whisked it in with the eggs.

The hardest part, in these days when it is no longer safe to use raw eggs, was stirring the nog non-stop for 45-60 minutes on low heat until it thickened. Roger and I read Fanny Burney's Cecilia to each other as we stirred. When that was done, we added a teaspoon of vanilla and half a teaspoon of nutmeg and stirred.

What it tasted like was liquid custard. Our recipe called for topping it with whipped heavy cream, so we did, but that could easily be dispensed with.

The result was delicious. This is not a drink for the lactose intolerant nor the vegan, of course. Another year, perhaps, I'll tell the story of getting raw milk and free range eggs from my Amish neighbors, but this year all the ingredients came from the grocery store. With dioxides concentrated at the top of the food chain, we don’t want to be drinking non-organic whole milk on a regular basis, but once a year is probably fine.

To be honest, I had never really liked egg nog. I would drink it annually because it was part of the ritual of the holidays, but I never felt any regrets when it disappeared with the Christmas tree. It had always tasted a little weird. I now realize it's because I have been, all my life (with a few exceptions), been drinking a factory nog.

The point of this certainly is to celebrate homemade egg nog.

But it’s also for me to wonder: Why have I accepted a vaguely unsatisfying substitute for so long? I never even questioned why a drink so celebrated never tasted very good. And that leads to a broader question, which seem trite question to ask, a little bit of homey moralizing (which, of course, I would never do!) but I don't think it is. We perhaps need to keep revisiting this question in order to stay mindful, to keep from becoming complacent: Where else do we settle for a poor substitute because we never think to question what we’re doing? Do we do this with our Quaker faith? Where? How can we change?

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Fifty-Minute Hour

I recently bought a used paperback copy of The Fifty-Minute Hour, Robert Lindner's bestselling 1954 study of some of his most interesting psychoanalytic cases. The book caught my eye because my father, who died almost eight years ago, would talk about this book when I was a child. Seeing the title brought a vivid rush of memories.

We never owned the book, but I remember my father's great enthusiasm for it, although I was never sure if he'd actually read it. One of my father's great hallmarks, especially in his younger days, was his sense of wonder. He would open the conversation with: "Did you know, that when a psychiatrist charges you for an hour of therapy, you really only get 50 minutes?" He would then go on to explain that the psychiatrist needed time to clear his mind between sessions. This would lead to the Lindner book, and the essay that most fascinated him.

In that essay, his most famous, Lindner describes being confronted with a patient who is convinced he is traveling to other planets. As my father told the story, Lindner finally acknowledged the man was telling the truth because of the enormous level of detail he supplied. Once Lindner believed him, the man was cured. All he needed was to be believed; then he admitted his story was fabricated.

I bought the book to make visceral a memory: it was a way to hold my father. I also wanted to test my memory--did the book match up to my memory of my father's telling of it? Did his telling match up to the book? Two levels of memory were to be interrogated: mine and his.

I girded myself to dislike the book. After all, it was written in the 1950s and therefore sure to be the work of a sexist, racist and domineering white man. However, I was pleasantly surprised and had my own stereotypes challenged: Lindner comes across as a very humane individual, with a genuine liking of other people and a system of ethics rooted in deeper soil than the fashions of his decade.

For instance, he takes time out in the essay about the space traveler to blast lobotomies: "No, I could not ... consign him to the new kind of vegetable kingdom being created by so many of my well-intentioned but mistaken colleagues." (p. 189)He understood that many of his patients were more sinned against than sinning and didn't flinch from the horrors of poverty or orphanages.

However, he was a man of his time in his belief in the wonders of technology. His book reads sometimes like a Rod Serling narrative, perhaps the opening to the Twilight Zone: "Very likely the day is not too distant when the remarkable animal we call man will be … concerned solely with the command and care of appliances that do his work." (xiv) Perhaps this wonder and embrace of technology derives from the lives he witnessed: Most of his cases date from the 1940s, and involve people born shortly before the First World War. The harshness of the lives many led in a pre-New Deal world is immense and the book unwittingly testifies to an enormous social change over the course of a century.

I most enjoyed this read, which was an easy but yet informative. It also confirmed my memories--my memory of my father's memory of the space traveller was (almost--I won't spoil the book) correct.

As a Baltimoron, I was delighted that Lindner had his practice in Baltimore, in a building overlooking Mt. Vernon Place.

However, when I tried to find out more about him, I discovered that what's on the web is scanty, especially for a person who was both a best-selling author (he also wrote Rebel without a Cause) and a serious scholar. I could find very little. He died suddenly of a heart attack at age 41, two years after this book was published. I spoke about him to the Earlham School of Religion reference librarian, Jennie Kiffmeyer. She also poked around and could find very little--the 1940s, 50s and 60s, she said, represent a dip in Internet information as much of that era has not yet been well digitized. She was planning to look in the physical reader's guides. I imagine Lindner must have been profiled in big spreads somewhere: Perhaps the Baltimore Sun magazine or Esquire? It's a mystery and there's nothing like sleuthing.

I did find Internet discussions of the identity of the planet hopping man. One popular idea is that he is Cordwainer Smith (see , who published the sci-fi work Norstrilla.

So, to finish, every once in awhile we discover books that put us in touch with the past in more ways than one. Has this happened to you?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


I found a review of an upcoming book at after reading about the death of the author, Elisabeth Young Bruehl, in the New York Times. Bruehl's book, Childism, has not yet been released. In it she argues for understanding children as a distinct group. Here is a part of the review:

Thanks to half a century of work by feminist intellectuals, sexism can be understood as an ideology and a prejudice. All kinds of discrimination and violence against women are united in our minds by the concept. But when we read in the newspaper that a child in New Jersey has died from neglect, or that a child in Florida’s protective services has disappeared without a trace; when we learn that children seeking political asylum in our country have been held in solitary confinement, or that molestation of children has been covered up in yet another diocese of the Catholic Church, we do not say “there is prejudice against children at work in each of these instances.”

In 1989, the United Nations issued a Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has been ratified by more governments than any other UN Convention. The Convention does bring together in one document descriptions of many of the forms of child maltreatment we read about daily in the newspaper, but it does not make us think of children—all the world’s children—as a group. It is about “the Child,” an abstraction.

And there is no indication in the Convention that there is a form of prejudice against a group—children—at work in all the forms of maltreatment. We might call it “childism,” on analogy with “sexism,” which was coined in 1965 on analogy with “racism.”

Childism is a hard form of prejudice to recognize and conceptualize because children are the one group that, many assume, is naturally subordinate. Until they reach a stipulated age, children are the responsibility chiefly of their parents or guardians—those who have custody. But what does custody permit? What distinguishes it from ownership? One of the essential ingredients of childism is a claim by offending adults to the effect that “these children are ours to do with exactly as we see fit,” or “children are here to serve, to honor, and obey adults.” These claims make a subordination doctrine out of natural dependency, out of the fact that children are born relatively helpless and need to be taken care of until they can take care of themselves. It seems normal to insist, “Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother” without any reciprocal “Honor Thy Children.”

As the opposite of growth promoting altruism, childism takes many forms. In the half a century old field called “Child Abuse and Neglect” (CAN) four main types of child maltreatment have been identified and described: physical abuse, neglect, sexual abuse, and emotional abuse. These categories are now used for all statistics gathering in the field, but they do not strike me as very illuminating. They do not reflect how frequently the four types are combined in a given case, for example. And they do not prompt inquiry about the subordination purposes served by maltreating—as a classification of wars by the types of weapons used would not prompt inquiry into the purposes served by war.

Listening to my adult patients in psychoanalysis who were maltreated as children, I have heard basically three stories: they tell me that they were not wanted, that they were controlled and manipulated, or that they were not allowed to be who they felt they were. So I have come to think in terms of childism that intends (1) to eliminate or destroy children; (2) to make them play roles no child should play; or (3) to dominate them totally, narcissistically erasing their identities. These three broad categories capture the forms of childism from the child’s and the adult survivor’s point of view. Survivors make it very clear that the worst part of their experience—the most difficult to heal from, the least forgivable—was that no one protected them from it. They often make it clear, as well, that they have internalized the prejudice and direct it toward themselves.

The equality testimony serves Quakers well in how they/we treat children, though abuse, of course, occurs in all groups. The immigrant group I was associated with as a child, before my Quakers days, also valued its youth. The ethnic narrative was one of sacrifice and struggle so that the children could have better lives. I have also met other family groups, perhaps entrenched here for many generations, who have felt threatened at the idea of the children doing better than the parents, so I am grateful for what I had.

Two figures I have been immersed in during the past year referred often to their childhoods: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the rest of his brothers and sisters accomplished as much as they did because of the strongly child-centered, though still patriarchal, family they came from. Dorothy Day wrote repeatedly of her upbringing. She was clearly the scapegoat in her family, suffering what we today might consider abuse, although it was normative for her times. However, she managed to find love and support in her family. Under the power of religious conviction and the Holy Spirit, she was able to use her childhood formation to help others. I recently saw an Indian "Bollywood" movie Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, centered on the idea that family unity is the basis of all that is important in the world. In this over-the-top musical, a wealthy family is ripped in two when the eldest son defies his father to marry the woman he loves. The loss of a parent's blessing and a home without "the warmth" of elders is a terrible blow to the young couple, while the loss of their son leaves a deep hole in the life of the parents. Here family love is idealized and raised to the highest pinnacle. Family, tradition and religion weave together to form the fabric of the life worth living. The movie, while in no way realistic, has caused me to ponder how we as Quakers can forge stronger ties with our children in our individualistic culture.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Bonhoeffer Struggles

I attended the Bonhoeffer conference at Union Theological Seminary in
NYC in mid-November, which was a celebration of the near-completion of the
Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works translation. I had a fine time. I was
delighted to be at Union, which I had never visited before. (I am told
that all the college campus scenes for the TV show Law & Order are shot at Union.) A bit of drama ensued as Occupy Wall Street was shut down while I was there, a blow to the 46 Union Theological students who had been participating and an upsetting event to the school in general.

The Bonhoeffer talks were very interesting, ranging from Bonhoeffer's
reception in different countries to issues with translation and
theology. I learned that Fortress will be releasing a volume of
Bonhoeffer poems and a volume of his sermons in the next few years.

I was also interested to hear several times that the initial reception
to Bonhoeffer in Germany in the 1950s was mixed because he was seen as a traitor to
Germany by some. That certainly made my mind reel. How could that be?
Hitler was a horror. But then I realized that the Germans take law
and order seriously (although the rule of law certainly suffered under
Nazism) and that having one's country overrun by invading armies,
even in the interests of toppling of a genocidal madman,
is still a terrible experience. Yet I struggle. As a Quaker and a pacifist, I
struggle with Bonhoeffer's decision to get involved in an
assassination plot, though I certainly understand his anguished sense of responsibility to do something to combat the evil. On the other hand, as a part of the human race, I struggle with any defense of Hitler. I do struggle to find that of God in Hitler. As one speaker said, however, "It's easy for Americans to love Bonhoeffer." That I agree with.

As an aside, I listened for how the Germans at conference pronounced Bonhoeffer, suspecting it would not be our "Bon-hoff-ER." It was not--the Germans have a more melodious pronunciation that sounded to me more like "Bon [with a slight long-E to the Bon] -HEFF-a."