Wednesday, August 19, 2015

OKAY, MAYBE THERE'S ONE GOOD THING ABOUT FACEBOOK...

"Hey, look, here's a bunch of Grandpa's old Facebook posts..."

I’m one of those Facebook users who alternates between railing against the evils of the medium and deciding to post yet another bon mot that the world can’t do without. This desire to share my pearls of wisdom notwithstanding, my frustrations with the site lead me—a number of times a year—to seriously consider quitting it. The hook that keeps me in the game (as is true of many of my generation) is the addiction to the perpetual album of photos of our grandkids. (And, I will confess, Facebook is the only means I can think of to nudge this humble blog on its way into the wide world.)

In the interest of clarity, I’ll state directly that the main cause of my frustration is the disingenuous way that the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world pander to users by introducing the site and its various features (and ever-changing tweaks) with the assurance that they are only providing what we all want: We all want our “Friends” to know about what we’re doing and what we like and whom we’re with and what music we’re listening to. Not only is this an ambiguous half-truth, but it masks the real truth: That the features and tweaks are expressions of ever-more clever ways (tricks) to sell us to advertisers. To repeat what is now a truism: The Facebook user is the product; the advertiser is the customer. (Zuckerberg’s mantra could well be, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”)

I don’t have any objection to an entrepreneur producing, for profit, something that the public finds useful. My objection is to the disingenuousness and, yes, dishonesty. I would happily pay a reasonable amount for an ad-free Facebook—one that applies the principles of, for example, the Duck Duck Go browser: “We don’t read your stuff, we don’t track you and we don’t sell you to advertisers.”

So much for my critique of the Facebook business model. Despite my misgivings, it seems that quite a few (million) people find it useful. And, as it turns out, I just discovered one good thing about it myself (in addition to the grandchild photos). I was scrolling back through my own posts ("status updates")—quite a ways back—looking for a scrap of poetry I had posted, and I found the process to be surprisingly interesting and enjoyable. Not because my entries were so wise and witty, but because, it occurred to me, I was reading a journal—a sort of diary. And that struck me as a potentially good thing about Facebook. Depending on how one uses it, it can serve a function that is very similar to how our forbears in earlier centuries used a diary or journal: to record observations of the passing scene, the politics of the day, family news, a bit of humor or poetry—even, in the case of our family, how the crops were doing and how devastating the cloud of grasshoppers was.  Although historically some diaries have, no doubt, been intended to remain private, most journals have been kept with the idea that the thoughts and news being recorded will one day be examined by a later generation. Thus, the revelation that came to me about how Facebook postings can serve as a journal is not that it is an opportunity for a narcissistic treasuring of one’s own precious jewels of wisdom, but that it may be a very practical way to provide the kind of message-down-the-years that grandchildren previously discovered in their grandparents’ desk drawers or attics.

I started the blog that carries this essay as an attempt at producing a digital journal (the pen-and-ink variety having come to naught for me). It has worked pretty well in that regard (with occasional gaps of varying lengths). And, in a very general sense, the main audience I have in mind for my blog is two-fold: You, dear reader (and thank you); and—just as real to me—my grandkids, twenty or thirty years from now. Not that I’m writing targeted entries to them, but that they might be just as pleased one day to find the dusty papers of a grandparent as I have been.

The more immediate nature of Facebook entries (as compared to blog posts) makes them akin to “daily diary” jottings. Imagine an eighteen-year-old great-granddaughter reading the Facebook Diary of her great-grandmother—produced when she was eighteen years old herself. (And it might actually be beneficial if we all write these digital musings with the understanding that our grandkids will one day see them.)

An1860 letter to Caryl's great-grand-father
from a friend. In a later letter, he sheepishly
reports that his father had just bought him
out of the Civil War draft. Early Facebook?
When I refer to coming across the “dusty papers” of one’s grandparents, I don’t mean that metaphorically or virtually. I think an important part of this time-capsule-like interchange is the transferring of the digital material to ink and paper. To publish it. So it can be found, perhaps as a last resort, in the bottom of a dusty trunk in the attic.

For this very reason, I regularly order a handful of copies of my blog in book form. (One for each of my grandkids to discover in 2035, three to push on my wife and daughters—now!—and one to keep for myself as a, well… journal.) I’ve known of similar publishing possibilities for Facebook, but have not seriously considered the idea because I have equated it with the navel-gazing aspect—the worst feature—of “social” media. (One publishing title is “EgoBook”--for the coffee table!) But what made me give it a second thought—and what made it an “epiphany” for me—is that experience I had of scrolling through months of posts, and realizing the similarity to an old-fashioned journal. That, plus the discovery that one can edit these “Facebook Books,” choosing what to put in and leave out, as one would surely want to do.

So there’s one good thing about Facebook. Perhaps another, I’ll allow, is that I get to peek at your Daily Diary entries. Some of which are more interesting than others.
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I occasionally publish my blog collection (for the purpose stated above) with blog2print. I'm still researching apps for printing a Facebook journal book.


Wednesday, August 12, 2015

THE WOODWORKER, THE FARM BOY, THE COFFEEMAKER... AND THE BEAST

Building and maintaining and sharing a cabin with my sisters and their husbands (Barb & Phil and Betty & Jeff) in an isolated Black Hills creek valley has been, for Caryl and me, an experience of love and joy (and a bit o’ work) for twenty-three years. It’s not that we’ve never disagreed about what color to stain a wall or what kind of dish soap to use, but a certain openness and honesty in communication (and that love thing) makes it work. I have friends who have told me that they wouldn’t be able to do something like this in their family, which makes me feel all the more fortunate when I contemplate that this dream, which Caryl and I could probably not have realized on our own, has been reachable when shared among the six of us.

I’ve mused in earlier essays (here, and here) about this partnership and family experience. But in this post I share a memory of a particular vignette in our cabin-building odyssey—a memory that just now came to me as I was reaching into the refrigerator for some orange juice.

The exterior walls of custom-cut logs, and the roof of the cabin, were erected by Jorgensen Log Homes, the company owned by our brother, Bob (we love him, too); Jeff and Phil and I finished off most of the interior. At that time we were all living six hundred miles away, in Minnesota, where we were serving as pastors of Lutheran parishes. The finishing work was accomplished in a series of week-long study/work retreats, with a daily pattern of examining preaching texts or discussing theology in the morning (honest!), and working on the cabin in the afternoon and evening…and, usually, into the night. In these kinds of projects, we make a pretty good triumvirate: Jeff is a skilled woodworker with experience in home-building, Phil is an old farm boy who knows a lot about a lot of things, and I make a pretty good pot of coffee--and am fairly adept at learning the minor crafts to which Jeff introduces me. A typical workday would start with Jeff giving us our marching orders, including giving me a quick tutorial in my assignment (I am now, for example, learned in the ancient art of scribing: cutting a board-end to fit around an irregularly shaped log), and each of us bending to our particular task. (With the occasional break for that coffee I mentioned.) In this way, we made good progress and solved most problems. Until, that is, it came to installing a propane refrigerator.

In the early years, we had engaged in some earnest conversation and Whole-Earth-Catalog-research regarding keeping the cabin off the grid. Somewhere in those discussions, the idea of a propane-powered refrigerator came up. We researched that, too, and came upon a retired handyman in suburban Minneapolis who repaired and restored these appliances for sale. We called him, described our need, and arranged to pick up a refrigerator in preparation for our next westward work trip. Arriving at the handyman’s address, we were met by his wife, who sadly explained that her husband had died only a few days earlier. After receiving our sympathy, and with some hemming-and-hawing on our part, she invited us into the garage, which was a gallery of used propane refrigerators. Somewhat timorously, the widow pointed to one of the appliances and said, “I think it was that one.” We examined it to the best of our knowledge (there’s the rub!), paid the agreed upon price, and loaded the refrigerator into our trailer. This “loading” was the first of a number of times that the three of us lifted, pulled, pushed, man-handled, and cursed what amounted to the dead weight of a bull elephant into or out of our little trailer. (I don’t think this was the occasion on which, before driving off, we noticed that the trailer hitch was actually causing the front end of the car to elevate noticeably. Another story.)

We said our sympathetic farewells to the widow, and headed for the hills. Six hundred miles and ten hours later, we backed the trailer up to the steps (eight steps!) of the cabin porch, and proceeded to… (see “lifted, pulled, pushed…” etc., above). We hauled the beast up the steps, across the porch, heaved it up another small step into the front door, and rolled it across the floor into its assigned corner.

After our huffing and puffing had subsided, and our faces had returned to their normal color (and, maybe, a well-earned beer), we examined the ancient owner’s manual that we found inside the refrigerator. Jeff had piped in the propane supply in readiness, and he hooked it up. Guided by the yellowed manual, we turned knobs and tried various connections and controls. Nothing happened. We tried again. The woodworker and farm boy and coffeemaker had met our match. We were stumped.

After some head-scratching, my brother helped us to locate a local retired handyman (!) with considerable experience in propane refrigerators. Arriving at our remote cabin, he—a man of few words—proceeded to examine the unit from every angle, including on his knees. He straightened, rubbed his chin, eyed the hulking thing for a few more minutes, and broke the long silence with, “Yeah, we might be able to get ‘er goin’…, but then again... this just might kill you boys.”

We called the trash hauler that day. He and his burly associate bound the appliance to a freight dolly and wheeled it (surprisingly easily, I thought) down the steps and away.

Well, that’s a long way to go to get to what has become a bemusingly appreciated mantra among us. Every once in a while, as the three of us are rubbing our own chins and pondering how to get around some conundrum, I can’t help suggesting, “This just might kill you boys.”

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Postscript: Later, upon further reflection, we determined that the poor widow had probably--completely innocently--directed us to a unit that her late husband had not even started on. Probably a blessing in disguise for us.

Our current (non-lethal) refrigerator.
A sensible Whirlpool.








Thursday, February 26, 2015

I WONDER IF MY VIKING GRANDMOTHER MADE LEFSE

The History Channel series, “Vikings”--now entering its third season--has just as much violence and almost as much sex as “Game of Thrones,” with the added recommendation that it is a dramatization of real events.  And the even higher commendation that it is about my great-great-great-great-great grandfather and his wife, my grandmother, the Viking Shieldmaiden. (More about that later.)

Of course I must boldly underscore “dramatization,” but if the writers of the series have taken a bit of dramatic license, they have done so with the dusty books of history open before them.  The first season of the series is centered on the Viking raid of the monastery at Lindisfarne, England, in 793 A.D., which is also the year (and the event) that historians cite as the beginning of “the Viking era.” After watching the episode, I looked up the year 793 in the Anglo Saxon Chronicles; it was immediately apparent that the “Vikings” screenwriter had done the same:
on the sixth day before the ides of January in the same year, the harrowing inroads of heathen men made lamentable havoc in the church of God in Holy-island, by rapine and slaughter.
Further reading in these Chronicles even corroborates the detail, in the show’s story line, of how the Viking raiders had no sooner pulled their longboats onto the beach than they surprised and attacked the retinue of sheriff’s men who approached them, mistaking the invaders for traders.

And Alcuin, an English priest at the court of Charlemagne, writes to the Bishop of Lindisfarne:
Your tragic sufferings daily bring me sorrow, since the pagans have desecrated God's sanctuary, shed the blood of saints around the altar, laid waste the house of our hope and trampled the bodies of the saints like dung in the street.
And that is pretty much how “Vikings” depicts the action. It is skillfully written as gripping viewing for a 2015 television audience. Gripping, but, it seems, not exaggerated.

Viking leader Ragnar Lodbrok. (Those who know Caryl's
family will tell you that he looks a lot like a Nasby.)
The Vikings are variously described in the chronicles and history books as “Norsemen,” (Norwegians) and “Danes.”  Since these labels also define the lineage out of which Caryl and I have sprung, I have taken to playing a little game--while watching the series--whereby I identify a particularly strong (or beautiful) warrior (one who survives the battle, of course) and claim him or her as Caryl’s or my ancestor. The fierce farmer-King Ragnar Lodbrok, and his wife, the Shieldmaiden Lagertha—who have so far survived
The Viking Shieldmaiden Lagertha
to be the parents of many children—have thus been added to the ancient pantheon of our family: our great-great-greats. (The mathematics of heredity and genealogy show that, in terms of our relationship to real characters living at that time, this is most likely true.)


In claiming the heroes and winners as part of my own line, I am in good company. Robert Ferguson, in his excellent, scholarly, and very readable new history, “The Vikings,” points out that the annals of many early chroniclers, although a source of good general knowledge, are “prejudiced by the author’s inclination to exaggerate the importance of members of his own family in the commission of important deeds.”

Walt, an elderly member of the congregation I served in Anchorage many years ago, was a man of thoroughly Norwegian ancestry. He was a gentle, soft-spoken guy, but his eyes would actually gleam when he got to bragging about how the Vikings literally “seeded” all of western civilization. I, too, am fascinated by “family” tales of world-wide exploration and, yes, conquest. The Age of the Vikings that began in 793 continued until 1066, when—rather than coming to an end—it transmogrified into the conquest of the English by the Normans, who were somewhat more civilized (and Frenchified!) descendants of the Vikings by another name. Some historians suggest that the Norman Conquest was the most complete overturning of one people by another in all of recorded history.

Do you hear that? Like my friend Walt, I’m slipping ever-so-slightly into bragging. When seen through the swordplay-loving eyes of the armchair adventurer in me, it is easy to overlook the fact that, as many historians point out, the experience of being confronted by longboats filled with exotic, armed warriors coming out of the mist of the sea into the local cove or quiet river estuary to wreak "rapine and slaughter" was an experience of violence, fear, and, yes, terror.

The ancestral Scandinavian story with which Caryl’s and my generation are most familiar is that of our doughty great-grandparents leaving the beautiful but impossibly tiny or rocky crofts of Norway and Denmark to settle in the unbelievably vast (160 acres!) and rich prairie homesteads of the Midwest, and of the earnest young pastors they quickly summoned to bring their church to them--a church in which their descendants hold sacramental feasts of the holy food of immigrants and seafarers: Lutefisk and Lefse.

It’s a story that I love and that is in my blood. But I am grateful to “Vikings” and the History Channel for reminding me that--in addition to (and before) that of our pious pioneer grandparents Johan and Ellen and Ole and Beret--my veins also contain the blood of King Ragnar the Fierce. And the Viking Shieldmaiden Lagertha. "Grandma." 


The Sognefjord, in Norway, out of which the Vikings sailed
to invade England, and through which our grandparents
sailed in their journey to America.
In the mountains above the Sognefjord. The beautiful but
impossibly rocky Nesbo farmstead from which
Caryl's Great-Grandfather emigrated in 1878.