Maps with fine-grained census data

Want to know the racial mix around your congregation? Check out Mapping America: Every City, Every Block, an interactive map produced by the New York Times. The level of geographic detail is astounding, down below census tracts to streets and blocks. Unfortunately, since the data comes from the U.S. Census, the five racial categories are very broad: white, black, Hispanic, Asian, other (the census does take more detailed racial information, but does not provide that level of detail with geographic location).

I looked up the neighborhood immediately around the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, and found it is 59% white, 1% black, 5% Hispanic, 32% Asian, and 2% other; I’d estimate that the racial makeup of our congregation is probably 80% white, 1% black, 1% Hispanic, 17% Asian, and 1% other; I suspect those who actually show up on Sunday morning are probably somewhat more racially diverse. (The neighborhood where we live turns out to be only 12% white, which helps explain why my church feels so white when it’s actually more diverse than most of the Unitarian Universalist congregations I’ve been part of.)

Mind you, there are problems with this map. I looked up our old neighborhood in New Bedford, and the map shows people living on the hurricane barrier at the mouth of New Bedford harbor, which is absurd. The underlying data are probably fairly good, but the graphical presentation should not be construed as showing the exact location where people live.

The joys of pop fiction

Recently, I’ve been making my way through P. G. Wodehouse’s books. (You know, Wodehouse, the guy who wrote those books about Jeeves, the butler, and Bertie Wooster, the gentleman of negligible intellect for whom Jeeves worked. Yes, they were books before they got abducted by British television, and magazine serials in the old Saturday Evening Post before they were books.)

The real reason I’m reading P. G. Wodehouse is escapism, pure and simple: his books are worlds of delightful fantasy, with no particular relationship to reality, where everything turns out just fine in the end. But if you ask me, I’ll tell you that the reason I’m reading his books is because he’s such an excellent English prose stylist, and I’m reading him in hopes that I can learn to write better. Both are true statements, but the second statement is the kind of truth that’s so faded that it’s barely there at all.

Yet even though there is so little of substance in Wodehouse’s books, once in a great while, to my vast surprise, he actually has something to say that is more than mere gossamer fiction fantasy. When I read the following passage in the novel Picadilly Jim (Arrow Books ed., 2008, p. 85), I had to read it twice, because it actually said something of substance:

…But his father’s reception of the news of last night’s escapade and the few words he had said had given him pause. Life had taken on of a sudden a less simple aspect. Dimly, for he was not accustomed to thinking along these lines, he perceived the numbing truth that we human beings are merely as many pieces in a jig-saw puzzle, and that our every movement affects the fortunes of some other piece. Just so, faintly at first and taking shape by degrees, must the germ of a civic spirit have come to prehistoric man. We are all individualists till we wake up.

As I thought about this passage, a strange vision came to my mind: Ayn Rand and P. G. Wodehouse in a sort of literary fight club….

…They come out of their respective corners and meet in the middle of the ring, literary knuckles bared. Wodehouse says, “I published nearly a hundred books.” Rand sneers at this pathetic jab, and replies, “Yes, but they were drivel; my big serious novel has sold nearly 7 million copies.” Wodehouse winces; he feels this blow keenly; but he rallies, saying, “Yes, but I was knighted.” Rand reddens in anger, and replies, “I repeat, you wrote drivel, mindless musical comedies in sticky-sweet prose. Whereas I promoted a serious philosophy, an ethical egoism that rejects the ethic of altruism.” Wodehouse smiles faintly, pauses, and says, “Ah yes; so you did: we are all individualists till we wake up.” It’s a knockout blow: Rand grunts in pain, clutches her head, and hits the canvas, out like a light.

Fantasy worlds

Back when we were children, one of my sisters had a book called The Lonely Doll. The author, Dare Wright, illustrated the story with photographs. She used a doll she had had since she was a child, and two teddy bears given to her by her brother, Blaine. The book was reissued a few years ago, and I remember picking it up in a book store and leafing through it. Looking at the photographs as an adult, they seemed a lot more psychologically intense than I had remembered, especially the one of the big teddy bear, named Mr. Bear in the story, spanking Edith the doll. The photographs made the toys seem eerily lifelike.

I found Dare Wright’s autobiography in a used bookstore today. It turns out that Dare Wright had an unusually strong fantasy life as an adult. Her friend Dorothy was present when her brother Blaine went to the FAO Schwartz store in Manhattan to buy Dare a teddy bear:

“Blaine got drunk and weird, as he always did when he drank,” she recalled. “In we went. But when he saw all the bears together, he said it would be terrible to separate them because they would be lonely. With that he directed the saleswoman to pack up the entire lot, all their Steiff bears, hundreds of dollars of bears. Dare’s apartment in those days was just around the corner. We walked over there, carrying all those damn teddy bears.”

Dorothy found the spectacle of a grown-up brother and sister sitting on the floor surrounded by teddy bears, telling stories in imaginary bear voices, disturbing. Soon, Dare added Edith [her childhood doll] to the party — and urged Dorothy to join in. Making no effort to hide her disdain, Dorothy refused.* (The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll: The Search for Dare Wright, by Jean Nathan [New York: Henry Holt, 2004], pp. 158-159.)

I can understand why Dorothy felt disdainful towards Dare and Blaine — that’s what we adults are supposed to do, we’re supposed to give up those fantasy worlds — but there is not much separating Dare and Blaine playing with teddy bears, and Anthony Trollope weeping uncontrollably as he wrote about the death of one of his characters. Nor is there much separating their fantasy world from the worlds that mystics encounter. I suspect we all have different levels of attunement to transrational worlds: some people are what we might call tone-deaf to fantasy, mysticism, and even fiction; others of us are not.

* For the record, Dare wound up keeping just one of the bears, who became the mischievous Little Bear in her children’s books.

Minor UU folk heroes, no. 85

I just heard a rumor that one of the people who developed and built the Rube Goldberg device seen in the March, 2010, music video “This Too Shall Pass” by OK Gos, was formerly a member of a Unitarian Universalist youth group for which I was a youth advisor. Parents, be warned: the Unitarian Universalist values we impart to your children may affirm that creating geeky-artsy-coolness is an acceptable thing to do with one’s life.

By the way, an article in the February, 2011, issue of Fast Company magazine asserts that it took 85 takes to make the Rube Goldberg machine work in time to the music in a single shot. That’s 85 televisions destroyed. That makes it all worth while, if you ask me.

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr., Day.

All the prophets seem to get sanitized. Take, for example, the ancient Hebrew prophet Amos, whom I have recently been re-reading. It was Amos, of course, whom Martin Luther King, Jr., quoted in the famous “I Have a Dream” speech:— “let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.” Amos looked around at his society and saw that those in power trod upon the poor, and took from them “burdens of wheat”; he heard wailing in the streets; and he made violent-sounding protests against the injustice he witnessed.

Amos gets sanitized just like Martin Luther King, Jr. Orthodox Christians manage to turn Amos’s prophecies into some kind of call for personal salvation; atheists mock him for his belief in God but don’t go any further than that; and religious liberals simply ignore him. All these groups seem to ignore the fact that Amos was writing powerful protest literature that was designed to make us feel horribly uncomfortable about the way we treat other people, especially those who have less power than we do.

It’s not too far-fetched to think of Martin Luther King, Jr., as a sort of lesser Amos: someone who set out to afflict the comfortable, a troublemaker who wanted true justice for all persons, a somewhat cantankerous and definitely edgy kind of a guy. And like Amos, King gets bowdlerized: used to promote self-esteem or to keep kids from fighting; mocked for his very real character flaws; or simply ignored. In celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, it’s worth quoting some more of that famous quotation from Amos, to learn how it is that Amos thinks his God will make justice roll down like waters:

Woe unto you that desire the day of the Lord!
   to what end is it for you? the day of the Lord
   is darkness, and not light.
As if a man did flee from a lion, and a bear met
   him; or went into the house, and leaned his
   hand on the wall, and a serpent bit him.
Shall not the day of the Lord be darkness, and
   not light? even very dark, and no brightness
   in it?
I hate, I despise your feast days, and I will not
   smell in your solemn assemblies.
Though ye offer me burnt offerings and your
   meat offerings, I will not accept them: neither
   will I regard the peace offerings of your fat
Take thou away from me the noise of thy songs;
   for I will not hear the melody of thy viols.
But let judgment run down as waters, and
   righteousness as a mighty stream.
   — Amos 5.18-24, KJV

Happy birthday to Martin Luther King, Jr.:— a preacher, a prophet, someone who took Amos’s God very seriously.

Tibetan Monks, closing ceremony

The Tibetan Buddhist monks spent their final morning at the Palo Alto church. In addition to completing the sand mandala, they chanted for ten minutes in each worship service. As beautiful as the sand mandala was, I enjoyed the chanting the most: something about the low notes they managed to produce with their throat-singing, or more properly overtone singing, really got to me.

And of course they destroyed the sand mandala in a closing ceremony. They chanted for a good twenty minutes, and then one of them walked around the table and then drew his hand radially out from the center across the design in each quadrant and then again between each of those places. Then another monk came and swept the sand into the center; he used an ordinary four inch paint brush, which I thought was a nice touch; the best religious ceremonies mix the sublime with the ordinary.

The closing ceremony, just before the monks destroyed the mandala.

After the ceremony was over, I was talking with someone who said that twenty minutes of their chanting was plenty for her; but I said I disagreed, and could easily have listened for another hour.

Tibetan monks, day 3

Another picture of the monks working; the monk closest to the camera is incising a design into a background using a stylus (the point of a compass, actually); the monk at rear is adding a line of sand to the incised design:

At the end of the day today, the mandala was nearly complete:

It is hard to see in this photo, but the mandala is not a two-dimensional work; the sand is built up in low relief that is difficult to capture in a photograph.

Tibetan monks in Palo Alto

We have five Tibetan Buddhist monks visiting the Unitarian Universalist Church in Palo Alto, from the Drepung Loseling Phukhang Monastery. They’re working on creating a sand mandala, which will be completed by Sunday:

Here’s a close-up:

Last night, they had an opening ceremony, which involved about ten minutes of chanting. They wore elaborate yellow headdresses, and accompanied their chanting with a bell and a pair of cymbals. Part of their chanting involves overtone singing, which produced exceptionally low notes. (I happened to be sitting next to Marsha, a professional singer who knows a great deal about chanting, and asked her about the technique, but she said she couldn’t speak with any certainty about their specific technique.) All of the chanting tended to stay in the lower ranges of their voices, and was quite powerful and loud. You can find recordings of this type of chanting on the Web, but they simply don’t capture what it’s like to be sitting a couple of yards away when the monks are chanting.

Now they’re working on creating the sand mandala. As their work on the mandala progresses over the next few days, I’ll post more photos. (Link to a photo on the church Web site.) I’m also including a press release below, which gives more details. Continue reading “Tibetan monks in Palo Alto”