After Meeting on a First Day

Friendly Fragments

I’ve done some autobiography before, at Wikieducator, and I’m a prolific blogger, which habit I come by rightly as a Quaker (Friend, Amigo), a religious sect that encourages keeping journals, with an eye to sharing them down the road. These days, keeping a journal on-line would be in keeping with Quaker practice.

Quakers started up in the 1600s in a time of great tumult, but then we’ve tumbled a lot in our own age. They were despised and persecuted at first, thrown in jail a lot, made to suffer for their testimony. They were especially outspoken against slavery, which England was flirting with, as were many colonial powers in a rising Europe.

By the late 1700s, Quakers were into steel, rail and ship design. Some of their steel-making secrets were quite proprietary, or such is my understanding from Quakernomics, a popular book on this time period by non-Quaker historians.

My brand of Quaker is OK with alcohol, birth control, and even abortion. I’ve been thinking about that word and wondering how a different grammar might admit of abortions well after birth, as when we “abort a mission.” What if suicide were considered “an after birth self abortion”? That would be an alternative universe wouldn’t it?

Why I’d ask such a question has to do with my background in philosophy, the discipline I chose for my focus when an undergrad at Princeton. Dr. Richard Rorty was one of my thesis advisers. My topic: the later philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, all hot and trendy back then, and still with momentum. I’m going to mention philosophy quite a bit in this journal entry (lets call it that).

Quakers come in many brands however, so far be it from me to be some generic “voice of Quakerism”. We don’t really have any specific leader or even a hierarchy, however we do recognize what we call “weighty Friends” or “Friends with inertia” I suppose we might say. The original calling was to a kind of role-playing game with serious business at its center, and a commitment to act according to God’s will (“a way will open”).

For example, a Monthly Meeting will typically have an Oversight Committee, performing supervisory functions, similar to a corporate board. Our roles do not actually map to a standard corporate org chart.

We have Nominating, Finance, Property, Peace and Social Concerns, Ministry and Worship, and so on, each tasked with various responsibilities. Friends serve on different committees over time, as role players. Most of the roles are unpaid, including some potentially very time-consuming ones. They’re considered opportunities for personal growth, a way of walking the talk.

The Meeting is called “monthly” because that’s the frequency with which it has Meetings for Business, whereas Meetings for Worship typically happen every First Day, or Sunday. Sometimes we fall back on quaint Quaker jargon, or even take up old costumes. I have a “Quaker look” I threw together which includes a black hat on occasion. I had a special one custom made by Paul Kaufman, a renowned haberdasher in these parts, however that one went missing eventually. These days it’s a Stetson, likewise a gift.

What I wish I were further along with, speaking of business, is a way to give long haul truckers more opportunities to see the world by enrolling in for-credit academic programs that feature driving overseas. A first-timer might ride as a passenger much of the time. I’m not the micro-manager. I’ll watch Youtubes of truck simulators and listen to drivers talk about their lives, however I’m not myself a trucker.

Why this interest in trucking then? I have ulterior motives. Getting more Americans on the road along the route from Istanbul to Kabul would foster greater understanding and motivate all parties to work on road safety as a number one issue. Right now, it’s pretty Mad Max out there, with oil, bullets, water and violent, short lives. That’s not usually a lifestyle people choose, more likely have thrust upon them.

Back to Quakers and slavery: Alfred North Whitehead, collaborator with Bertrand Russell on Principia Mathematica, wrote about civilization as by definition about expanding and guarding our human freedoms. If we want to talk about “advanced civilizations” here’s a criterion one might apply. Makes sense to me. Whitehead mentions Quakers I noticed. I was reading his thoughts on civilization last year, when at Earlham College in my parental role.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, whom I’ve mentioned, showed up in Bertrand Russell’s world wanting to apprentice in Logic. He’d already been to see Gottlob Frege, the other big name logician of that time. Ludwig had enough funds and leisure time to check out professions reserved for elites, such as engineering.

He didn’t want to live high on the hog, an ascetic by nature, however his family was competitive and deeply into culture, and making a contribution to culture was a way to earn respect. Ludwig also went to war as an artillery gunner for his native Austria when duty called. Later he worked as a school teacher, a hospital orderly, and as a medical researcher. He was sometimes suicidal. Three of his siblings had taken that route.

To make a long story short, Russell recognized Ludwig’s genius and for awhile considered him an heir apparent. However, that wasn’t to be exactly, plus Logic wasn’t going the way anyone predicted either. New technology was coming over the horizon, programmable computers in particular. I recommend Logicomix by some Greek writers, for another take on Russell. Wittgenstein also makes an appearance in that work.

Where I went with Wittgenstein is interesting. I connected his “language game” investigations into the foundations of mathematics, to the rising interest, in the 1980s, in the newly published two volumes of Synergetics, by R. Buckminster Fuller with Ed Applewhite. Fuller was widely recognized as a genius, though his detractors are more likely to say “popularizer” of this and that. Applewhite was less famous, but definitely made a name for himself in ways I allude to on ahead.

Fuller wanted to start from scratch in many ways, after a crisis in self confidence following a successful stint in the US navy. He’d gone broke and his first daughter had died. He’d been drinking. After a lot of soul searching, he decided to carry through with a life-long commitment to a very philosophical project having to do with invention and service to humanity. His brand of transcendentalism is quite congruent with Quaker practice.

By “language game” investigations, I mean anthropological inquiries into how we use tools, words and concepts, metaphors, even puns, being considered more tools for his purposes. Wittgenstein was critical of William James while at the same time grateful for such clear passages demonstrating a way of thinking, about occult mental processes, the unconscious. Ludwig wrote about Freud as well.

Rorty, my thesis advisor at Princeton, coined the term “linguistic turn” for what was happening in philosophy. My professors were fine with pegging the start of this movement to Nietzsche, who called language into question more than usual. Friedrich was not one to take “common sense” much for granted. As Wes Cecil, a fine philosophy teacher on Youtube has explained (in his Forgotten Thinker episode on Walter Kaufmann for example) Nietzsche was in no way the monster some people still think of him, through the prism of Nazism and Hitler’s Reich. Kaufmann was another one of my teachers at Princeton.

Let me connect a few more dots at this point.

I came to Princeton from a high school in the Philippines. My dad was an urban and regional planner, who turned to education system planning later in his career. He’d always wanted to travel, and to work for developing countries. He got his big chance in the 1960s, when the government of Libya was looking for planners. Qaddafi was not in power yet, but would be soon, and dad’s planning team continued with their mapping and zoning proposals. A lot of planning is about teaching techniques, which the client nation then customizes and adopts.

Dad was aware of all these interesting developments in the USA he was mostly missing out on, though not entirely. I’m referring to Encounter Groups, Esalen, the whole East meets West thing that inspired my generation as well. Alan Watts, R.D. Laing, lots of somewhat radically new thinking, expressed in the form of disciplines and workshops. I was likewise intrigued by what I called a “smorgasbord” of offerings, and when I got to Princeton felt in a position to avail.

What Walter Kaufman had done the previous summer (I believe we’re in my freshman year at this point), was this new controversial “training” known as the Standard est Training, with Werner Erhard the encyclopedia salesman turned “cult leader” at the center of it all. Walter was seeing a lot of promising and engaging philosophy in that program and didn’t worry he was risking his reputation, in saying as much to Princeton students.

Skipping ahead (yes, I went through the training, the two weekends, and got involved in seminar and training logistics), we get to the chapter wherein Werner Erhard, not unlike Wittgenstein above, is casting about for some way to make a contribution. He had the funds to try Formula One racing, not to become a famous race car driver so much as to push himself to investigate more deeply, what it takes to create working organizations.

Erhard was creating the Hunger Project and discovering Buckminster Fuller at the same time. I’d been studying world hunger at Princeton, at the Woodrow Wilson School. Now that I’d been hanging around est, the natural next step seemed to be to immerse myself in Synergetics, Critical Path and later Grunch of Giants and Cosmography.

I went back and caught up on earlier works as well, such as Bucky by Hugh Kenner, and Ed Applewhite’s Cosmic Fishing. No More Secondhand God, and Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth are more examples of at one time fairly famous books by “Bucky” (as he liked to be called).

What one learns from Cosmic Fishing, is that Ed was a life-long fan of Bucky’s starting around age thirteen. He was also privileged enough to find work with the then newly formed Central Intelligence Agency. He’d retired by the time I met him, but never shy about it. He loved his country, and especially loved Washington, DC, for its architecture especially. He was impressed by Portland too, that time he and June flew out for a visit.

While serving as a mathematics and sometime world history teacher at St. Dominic Academy, in Jersey City, I continued with these studies, which to me were very real and about the world as it was. I started thinking more like my dad, or how I imagined a planner thought, and hatched some plans for the Stanley Theater (then abandoned) and for the back wall of Loew’s Theater on Journal Square, behind which was my little house, on Magnolia.

The Stanley would have IMAX movies (brand new back then), some of which would be “required viewing” as in “on the syllabus” at NYU. College kids would be coming over to Jersey City by PATH train to watch these amazing films that would include the basics of Synergetics.

On the back wall of Loew’s Theater would be this huge high definition billboard with a Fuller Projection map option. Sponsors would rent time to show airline routes or whatever. I also talked up improving rail connections between Newark Airport and JFK.

Such big dreams from an impoverished Catholic school teacher seems pretty quirky, but now that you know about my background, it probably makes more sense to you that I would fall into these patterns.

Nothing much came of these ideas and I ended up drifting from role to role, having many adventures. I traveled the country by bus and so on. My parents had moved to Bangladesh by this time. Later, they moved to Bhutan.

I consider Synergetics to be a work in the humanities. It’s metaphoric. Whereas it may appear outwardly like some kind of engineering or mathematics, owing to the geometric vocabulary, I think philosophy is its rightful home.

You’ll find in my other writings on Medium and elsewhere that I’ve continued to build on these beginnings, on into my relatively old age. I’m a gray haired guy by now, with a lot of projects to look back on.

The “trucker exchange program” is more of that World Game programming the Buckynauts learn to engage in. The syllabus encourages “thinking large” (thinking globally) in a positive way, rather than fantasizing about impending wars all the time. What more exciting and interesting projects besides war might we take up instead? As a Quaker, I like to ask that question. I like to get people thinking about their options, given an opportunity.

These days I think a lot about education.

My mother works with Womens International League for Peace and Freedom, which is over a hundred years old. I’ve worked with American Friends Service Committee, sometimes jokingly called the “Quaker KGB” (much as Friends Center in Philadelphia goes by “Quaker Vatican” in some circles).

I think about how mathematics and computer science are closely related. Will mathematics as we know it survive? Will math teachers be allowed to get out of their ruts?

I ask the same questions around the “Bucky stuff” in terms of the ruts people seem deeply in. There’s no way anything is so drastically revolutionary that it could dislodge the habits of centuries, nor would I see any point in doing so.

Future shock is real and present enough without some about face in how we learn geometry. That’s why I’m careful to talk in terms of “adding spice” rather than suggesting some big overhaul. Yes, I did use the term “makeover” at one point. We’re getting a makeover anyway, regardless of my take on it. I’d like to popularize exploring with tetra-volumes. We get more philosophy pumping that way.

So if what I wanted all along, was a long slow phase-in, despite my best efforts to jump start a reputation as a planner early on, then it looks like I got what I wanted. Easy does it, slow and easy and all that. That’s often good advice. I think of spaceships docking, Soyuz with ISS.

live feed: spaceships docking

True, I’m not tooling around in a “business mobile” in any overtly gas guzzling sense. Charles Kuralt (CBS) had the right idea though. We should mix it up more, as tourists and exchange students. Those roles require their own forms of bravery.

I’m for making Spaceship Earth more a teaching hospital and university, and less a little shop of horrors. I find that to be a widely shared sentiment, nothing peculiarly Quaker about it.

If you’re wondering about how Quakerism relates to Islam, in both historical and current events terms, I’d have to say that’s a longer story than I want to go into, as I wind down in this entry. You’ll find some colorful chapters, worthy of several movies, if you dig, including at least one involving pirates.

However, the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King would be the more defining influences, and Islam features in this chapter as well, starting with Muhammad Ali, as much as with Malcolm X. Bayard Rustin is a Friend we talk about quite a bit. His picture hangs in our social hall in Portland.

You’ll find evidence in my Facebook profile that I’ve been following the careers and music of some hip-hop rappers who pop up within Islam. That could be another topic for a future entry. I also tracked Axis of Evil, the Arabic Persian comedy troupe. One of my good friends back to my days in the Philippines made a documentary film about their trajectory, Glenn Baker.

Quakers have been known to make music videos, one might say “spoofy” in some cases. What Does George Fox Say? is a good one to search for on Youtube. I also like the Drunk History episode on Mary Dyer, who’s statue graces many a Quaker meetinghouse. That’s not a music video and treats of a serious subject, which may seem incongruous on Comedy Central. That too could be a topic. I grew up reading a lot of MAD Magazine.

Quakers met in one another’s homes in Rome. It’s not that Rome was in any way inhospitable, we just liked moving our Sundays about, or at least I did. When we met at the Thomfords I was allowed to read comic books if I wanted, rather than sitting through silent meeting. I’d choose worship sometimes. We’d have potluck after. Those were good times.