Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Thank you, BBC (a story about trolls)

The BBC just ran a story on Internet trolls, with these words from the author near the end of the story: "Most of the chief protagonists in my book I met online first, and offline second. I always liked them more in the real world. By removing the face-to-face aspect of human interaction, the internet dehumanises people, and our imagination often turns them into inflated monsters, more terrifying because they are in the shadows. For me, at least, meeting them in person re-humanised complex, awkward, and usually annoyingly likeable people. Next time you come across a digital monster, remember there is a person behind the avatar, and he or she is unlikely to be how you imagine."

The story (by Jamie Bartlett) describes encounters with those people who spend their time on the Internet finding and verbally assaulting strangers. We call them trolls, and they pop up all the time in the comment section of news stories and opinion pieces. Bartlett set out to get to know some of them in person, and describes for us what that was like. I am most struck by his words above: "I always liked them more in the real world."

We have become adept at attacking others and are losing our ability to speak with others -- a tendency most clear in the political arena. Bartlett quotes George Orwell, writing about his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, as he was faced with an enemy who was fleeing while trying to hold up his falling trousers. "I had come here to shoot at 'Fascists'," he wrote, "but a man who is holding up his trousers isn't a 'Fascist', he is visibly a fellow-creature, similar to yourself."

We have become experts at de-humanizing each other. I want to be part of re-humanizing those with whom I disagree -- discovering that they are people like me, or (if you prefer) that I am a person, like them.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Dancing with Grackles

Lois likes to leave notes around the house to remind herself (and me) of necessary tasks. I’m learning their value, but often ignore them. I would be a better person if I paid more attention to them. 

Today I saw a note with two instructions that I couldn’t ignore: “Dance”, and “Scare grackles”. Now, I understand both notes. Take the first. Some years ago Lois persuaded me to take dancing lessons. (Is there another word, like “blackmailed”, I could use, without any colour coding?) We went, and learned, and practiced, and I found I enjoyed dancing as much as she did. 

I remember taking lessons—Lois loves the swing dances, fast and rhythmic. She was less fond of the slow waltz, whispering “Boring!” in my ear as we stepped, “One, two three.” From our three years of lessons one set of swing steps has stuck. We use that set to slow music and fast music, to swing music and to the loud booming that passes for music when young people gather. It has served us well! 

Recently she suggested we make sure to dance each evening for a few minutes to help us keep some semblance of fitness. Well that’s good. I like dancing with Lois! (I tried dancing with my sister, which worked for a while, but foundered on the sweetheart wrap.)

But grackles! Well, those silly annoying grackles are back now that spring is here, and we want to chase them early and often. They nest in tall evergreens behind our house. I wish I could bounce high enough to scare them in their nests. They make a mess in the yard. They scare other birds away and take all the bird seed. Last year they broke into the kitchen via that kitchen fan vent (a story told here). 

So “Scare grackles” is a most sensible idea. But the two reminders written one above the other? I wonder if it means that our dancing scares grackles better than anything else does. Or that the grackles would be scared if they knew we were dancing while they are nesting. Or that we are to dance around the backyard throwing stones while doing the swing. 

Or they could just be two notes on one paper.

Friday, April 10, 2015

End of School

Another semester draws to a close. Classes are mostly finished (a few seminary stragglers insisting on one more time together). Exams are about to start. Students stand up straighter as the burden lifts; faculty backs are bowed over with the transfer of weight. 

You can tell how much marking lecturers have to do by the urgency with which they tackle the task. If they are marking eagerly, they are near the end, or have only a bit to do in any case. If the pile of papers on their desks threatens to bend and break the wood, they find something else to do. I once saw one of my colleagues paint his office in order to avoid the pile of marking. 

A week from today we have a banquet. Faculty and staff and students gather one last time to celebrate our lives together, and to send our graduates off. The next day is graduation. Speeches (we all listen, but no one remembers what is said); singing (some of the best of the year for those whose musical style is not primarily “contemporary”);  awards and recognition (well earned); and finally the diplomas as students walk across the stage. Some of my students will kneel and be hooded, award the doctor of ministry. 

Then they leave. I have trouble learning people’s names. I have to work at it. It takes me most of the year. And then they leave and I have to start over. I am grateful for those who return the next year and give me a head start on working out who is around me this time. 

Leaving. At the end of the school year people leave. People who have become important in my life; and they leave. One gets to repeat the experience of parenting many times, repeatedly: You want your children to grow up and leave home, but you miss them when they are gone. I don’t mean that life comes to an end. The summer has its joys; but each summer brings loss as well as opportunity. 

This summer the opportunity is to work on the story of Frances Davidson. Why did a pioneer missionary resign the mission she had helped begin? Why did younger missionaries force her out? Why did she not push back? She was a stubborn and strong personality, fully capable of holding her own, and she chose not to fight the changes new and younger missionaries introduced. Instead, she went home. Why? And what did she and the mission tell the church? 

It’s a wonderful opportunity to dig into a story I have told often to my mission history classes. I’m looking forward to the process of exploration and discovery—however disconcerting it may be. (For example, I have discovered that my grandfather was the secretary of the committee who made the choices that sent Davidson home. I hadn’t told my students about that! Now I have to add a piece to the story that I would rather leave out. 

Meanwhile everyone leaves, and we say goodbye again. And again, goodbye. My mind wanders to other students I have known, to friends from past years, faculty who have left us, change that washes over me as constantly as the ocean’s tide. I used to enjoy change. Now, not so much. But soon enough the time comes that I will be the one going and my colleagues and students will move on into the next year without me. Life’s journey goes on.