Friday, February 24, 2017

Facebook and Death

Last month, I was reminded what a very strange beast Facebook can be sometimes. As everyone knows, it can connect you to friends and family who are far, far away -- which can be a blessing when you live overseas from the place you were born. 

It also often connects you, in some sense, with the past in ways that would not have been possible even 15 years ago. It can bring you in touch with distant acquaintances and schoolmates you haven’t seen in ages, giving you a window into their lives, revealing more about them than you ever knew back when you actually hung out together or just saw them in the hallway between classes. 

For example, Facebook reminds you of the birthdays of long-unseen friends -- although that might be a bit of personal information you were not aware of back in the days when you sat next to each other in geography class.

In some cases, Facebook can also stop time, become a time capsule, make a friend ageless.

Every year about this time, Facebook reminds me to wish a happy birthday to my friend Tom, despite the fact that he died some years ago. It’s always a starling and somber notice.

And Tom is not the only one of the departed to be still listed as a Facebook friend of mine. But he was the first. I’m sure there will be more, sadly.

Tom and I had attended the same tiny junior college in the North Georgia mountains, Young Harris. In fact, he was a native son of the little town, just a village really, centered around the college that gave the its name. Tom was a few years older than me, however, and our paths never crossed there in the mountains.

Instead, I first met Tom at the University of Georgia in Athens in 1979, when we both attended an adult-education class (what in Finland would be called “työväenopisto kurssi”) in “Creative Writing”.

The weekly class consisted mostly of us students critiquing photocopies of each other’s early attempts at fiction, usually short stories. In many cases, they were probably not very good (speaking for myself here). Tom was one of the exceptions. The work that he shared with the group, chapters of a fantasy novel he was working on set in the Georgia mountains, stood out from the rest. I still have my copy of his typewritten manuscript hidden away somewhere in what my wife charitably calls my “archives”.

Those chapters Tom shared eventually grew into his first published book, “Windmaster’s Bane”, about a mountain teenager who was able to detect mystical realms of Irish fairies invisible to regular folk.

After I moved to Finland, Tom and I kept in touch through the occasional exchange of letters. Letters written on paper and enclosed in paper envelops. Old school. Or least, I think we did.

When I returned to Athens in 1987 to study journalism, we reconnected in person. By that point, Tom had published his novel, the first of some 18 books he eventually produced. He had a job working in the University of Georgia’s main library, in the Rare Books department, befitting a writer with a master’s in medieval literature. He was also still active, as he had been when I first met him, in the Society for Creative Anachronism (a legendary costume role-playing group), also befitting someone with a deep interest in medieval life.

We would get together now and then for lunch, often meeting first at his desk in the Rare Books department, one of the least-busy parts of the library (by a long shot) and ideal, as he pointed out, for someone seeking quiet and undisturbed time to work on his next novel.

When I moved back to Finland for good and started raising a family, Tom and I lost touch. Until late in 2008, that is, when he became my friend on Facebook. I had joined Facebook just a short time before, and it hadn’t yet become such a compulsive habit yet.

By that time, Tom had moved to Gainesville, halfway between my hometown and Athens, to take up a teaching position at the local university. We exchanged some messages before Christmas, and after the New Year discussed the drought that Georgia had been experiencing. We talked about Finland and travel. He asked about the typical models of cars here, as he was a big automobile enthusiast. I recall one of the first things he did after regular royalty checks for his books started coming in was to buy a vintage “hobby car” to restore and tinker around with.

I recall sending him a link to a video of Leningrad Cowboys, the wacky Finnish ensemble of musicians in pointy shoes and hairdos, performing with the Red Army Choir. Apparently, it was just his cup of tea.

He was interested in Finland in general and was one of few Americans I knew who had read Kalevala, as befitting a connoisseur of ancient myths. He mentioned he might visit Helsinki sometime, though not until after other upcoming trips he was planning to take to Ireland in a month or so, and later Japan.

Then, for a couple of weeks, silence. I wasn’t necessarily checking Facebook everyday back then, so I wasn’t sure what to make of that. In late March Tom re-emerged online, apologizing for his absence. It was clear something was up with his health.

Then he was offline again. A couple of weeks went by, then messages started appearing on Tom’s timeline from concerned friends. There was something about a hospital, without stating explicitly what was going on. Since Tom was only a few years older than me and as far as I knew healthy, I didn’t consider it could really be anything life-threatening. Optimistic, I know. 

A post appeared from a friend of Tom's in Georgia, informing that Tom would send personals messages to all his Facebook friends in the next few days. It was a desire that he was unable to fulfill. Two days later came the word on Tom’s Facebook page that he had passed into the “Undiscovered Country”. Tom died at the age of 57 from complications from a heart attack he suffered in January, about the time our Facebook correspondence suddenly dropped off. I hadn’t realized he’d had any health issues previously. It was deeply sad and shocking news.

Tom’s Facebook page lives on. Every year since I get the birthday notification on February 17th without fail. And every year on that date, a small online gathering of Tom’s friends posts their remembrances on his timeline. This year, I’m late in doing so. 

I wonder if Tom ever imagined how his memory would live on, not only in the fading thoughts and stories of friends, but also in the strangely permanent cyber world of social media, inside a sterile commercial Silicon Valley creation. 

I know that for many of us the question of what happens to our digital existence after we die is still unresolved. Who knows? Perhaps yearly online gatherings of surviving friends might be a legacy we can all look forward to. At least, for a while.   

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Trump World: The Electoral College Margin

One of the highlights of Donald Trump's bizarre press conference on February 16th was the fact that a reporter actually called Trump out on one of his favorite falsehoods. It was a very welcome turn of events.

Trump had claimed that he won the election by the biggest electoral college margin since Reagan (Trump got 306 electoral votes). This is a dead-easy thing to check. And it’s similar to the claim Trump made repeatedly soon after the election that he won by a “massive landslide”.

Obama got 365 electoral votes in 2008, and 332 four years later. Bill Clinton got even more. George H. W. Bush got 426.

FACT: All those numbers are bigger than 306.

When confronted by the reporter over this fact, Trump first countered that he meant the biggest electoral college win of any Republican president. 

FACT: George H.W. Bush, who followed Reagan, was a Republican president and his electoral college win was 120 higher than Trump’s.

When the reporter confronted Trump with this last point, his response was: “Well, no, I was told. I was given that information. I don’t know... Actually, I’ve seen that information around...”

So, my takeaway is that:

1) Trump isn’t responsible for what he says, since in this case “someone” gave that fake fact to him, or because he saw it “somewhere”.

2) If the “someone” feeding him this fake fact is a member of this staff, Trump should be pissed off because one of his comms team is making Trump look foolish by giving him fake facts that are easily disproved. That, to me, doesn’t sound like a well-tuned machine.

3) Alternatively, Trump knows it’s a fake fact and doesn’t care and is willing to say anything to fool this base and bolster his delusion that he won a great victory.

Of course, this dovetails perfectly with Trump's cavalier approach to the truth, as has been demonstrated over and over. It doesn't matter, of course, since his supporters don't care. And that is again a sign of what a weird world Trump has ushered in. 

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Little Unexpected Mementos

A familiar experience for anyone whose parents have passed away is the inevitable, and unenviable, chore of sorting through all the items they accumulated over many decades. There are few tasks as bittersweet as clearing out your family home, though in the process you sometimes run across little, unexpected mementos from your life.

During one of these episodes of sorting through stuff, I discovered, buried deep in a cabinet packed with stacks of old Life magazines and other papers, a yellowed newspaper clipping I’d never seen before. It told the story about the time my parents’ house caught on fire, but revealed something else as well.

I’d heard the tale about the house fire many times growing up. When I was still just a baby, my parents had bought a house on the low hilltop where I would spend most of my childhood. Before moving into the house, my parents were having it renovated, which included adding a bathroom. Perhaps it didn’t have one already, which wouldn’t necessarily be unusual for an older house in rural Georgia in those days. One set of my grandparents never had one.

At some point while the work was underway, a fire broke out for some reason and quickly got out of control. According to family lore, the only thing that was saved was a cast-iron bath tub, which one of the workmen rescued by picking up and single-handedly throwing  out the window. A least, that’s how I remember the story.

So naturally, it was interesting to see an actual newspaper account of this bit of oral family history.

My parents’ fire was only one of four fires reported in that newspaper story, recapping what must have been a very eventful week in my hometown. In addition to the three other house fires, there was a more dramatic account of how a runaway lumber truck had crashed into a local restaurant. I love some of the details in the description of the damaged caused by the truck:

”The truck demolished the front of the building and wrecked a deep freezer, television set, tables, chairs and a soft drink cooler before finally mowing down a row of counter stools.”

“...mowing down a row of counter stools.” Great visual, there.

Anyway, it was a quaint little window to the past and some small-town events that have now almost faded from living memory.

Turning the clipping over, I found another little window to the past contained in another story. Only a part of that story was visible in the clipping, but it obviously concerned a major issue of Georgia state politics of the day -- voter registration.

In particular, the story discussed a debate over proposed changes that would enforce “tougher qualifications” for citizens wanting to vote in Georgia. In other words, changes that would make it harder for folks to exercise their right to vote. Apparently, as part of this effort the then-governor Marvin Griffin had proposed requiring voters to renew their registration every six months and pay a one-dollar “poll tax”.

As the newspaper article explained, a committee in the state legislature had come out against those two particular changes. The committee found the changes sought by the governor to be too restrictive. The reason, however, for the committee’s opposition is very telling (emphasis added in the passage below).

“The study committee’s proposals provide tougher qualifications for voting in Georgia but do not include the governor’s plan for a bi-annual re-registration and $1 poll tax.

“There is considerable opposition in the Legislature to Griffin’s proposal – particularly the poll tax and re-registration requirements. The governor’s plan is designed to curb Negro voting but would apply to white voters also.

Just a reminder, though to modern eyes a pretty glaring one, of how in the Georgia of the mid-1950s -- surely not unlike the Alabama that newly minted and controversial Attorney General Jeff Sessions came of age in -- politicians who wanted to keep African-Americans from voting didn’t have to be coy about it. Not coy at all. 

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Gospel According to Hannity

Yesterday, I was listening to a Sean Hannity show from last week in which a caller from Jacksonville, Florida, posed a question for all the people who are criticizing Trump’s travel ban and his “America First” philosophy.

“Do they feed their neighbor’s children before they feed their own?" the caller asked. "Or do they pay their neighbor’s bills before paying their own? And if they do not, does that make them racist for not doing so?”

Hannity loved the question. He agreed that many critics of the travel ban are hypocrites and then -- after going off on a passionate tangent about how Ashton Kutcher married a much older woman -- offered his caller a relevant lesson from the Bible.  

“It’s utter hypocrisy. You take care of your family first. You take care of your own life," Hannity agreed. 

"For example, I’ll give you a Biblical example," he went on. "You know, how do you notice the faults of your brother when you’ve got your own problems? And the answer was, well, take out, get rid of your own problems or whatever it is in your eye and this way you’ll be clearer to see other people and help them better.”

In other words, before helping others, help yourself. 

Kind of like the precaution on airliners that, in case of an emergency, you should put your own oxygen mask on before helping others.

Hannity's personal interpretation of that Bible lesson pricked my ears. The lesson he was referring to is, of course, from Matthew, chapter 7:

“And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

“Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?

“Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.”

I remember this passage very well from my days in Sunday School at Liberty Baptist Church in North Georgia. However, the lesson we learned back then was different from the one Hannity apparently came away with, which I would sum up as: “Be generous and charitable only after you have fulfilled your own needs”.

As I was taught, the lesson is instead: “You shouldn’t judge others for their small faults until you recognize, and correct, your own larger faults”. It’s all about not judging others.

In fact, that message is encapsulated in the very first verse of the chapter, for Christ’s sake: “Judge not, that ye be not judged”.

Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe in the Age of Trump even lessons from the Bible are not what they used to be. Alternative Bible lessons, perhaps?