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Dispatch from Decorah

Reporting from Decorah, Iowa, where I’m taking a class in stave vessel making at the Vesterheim (Museum) Folk School. My instructor is a gentleman I already knew slightly, having run into him at Høstfest in Minot a few years back.

It’s a disorienting experience, taking a craft class. I’m accustomed to working with my brain, for many reasons. I’m not comfortable making things. I don’t feel like what John Bunyan called “a man of his hands.” So I’m out of my element, which is probably good for me. I’m the most inexperienced of all the students (there are 6 of us), so I’m 2 or 3 steps behind the others. But the instructor says I’m actually on schedule — the others are just running ahead. Nonetheless, I’m gradually improving as I repeat various tasks. I’m reluctant to say that though, because I firmly believe that if I allow myself to think I’m getting better at something, the universe will punish my hubris.

Our teacher is a low-key, patient fellow, which is good. I’ve only cut myself twice, and only one of those required a bandage (not a big one). Manual work and standing most of the day are novelties in my life, and I’m pretty beat by the time I get home.

But I did work up the nerve to approach the museum bookstore people about selling Viking Legacy.

I’ll share pictures after I get home, when I can get my hands on my Photobucket password.

Staving off panic

Workbench
Photo credit: Philip Swinburn

I may or may not be posting intermittently next week. I decided to take a craft course at a certain institution in Iowa, whose name I guess I won’t mention, because I have a criticism to make about one of their practices.

The course is in making a stave vessel. A stave vessel is something like an old wooden bucket, with staves and bands like a barrel – though I won’t be making a bucket, but a traditional Norwegian vessel for separating cream from milk. Cooperage – the construction of watertight containers from staves, has always intrigued me. Knowing my aptitude for any kind of handwork, I’m sure I’ll be no good at all at it. But it might be something worth knowing about, for reenactment and novel writing purposes.

My complaint with the unnamed school is how long it took them to get me a list of the tools I’d need. I waited patiently, and it finally turned up by email on Sunday, too late to do any weekend shopping. But hey, I figured, I’ll go to the big hardware center and pick them up after work one night.

I went last night, and discovered that, thought they had a couple items I needed, your modern hardware center is a little light on cooperage tools. I’d have to try a specialty woodworking store in Minnetonka, they told me.

So tonight I drove out to Minnetonka after work. At that store I found one of the two items I needed. For the other, they told me, I’d need to go to a hobby store in Bloomington, on the far side of town from my home.

I guess I’ll see if I can pick it up on my way south, when I leave (on a date I’ll keep to myself).

My great fear is of showing up at the school without the proper tools, like a foolish virgin without the nightly minimum requirement of lamp oil.

Also that I’ll chop a finger off, of course.

Mr. Whicher’s hat

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher

In the proud tradition of historical dilettantes everywhere, I shall devote this post to nitpicking a dramatic production.

I’ve watched a couple of English TV movies in a series entitled “The Suspicions of Mr Whicher.” The original film, “The Murder at Road Hill House,” is based on a book by Kate Summerscale, describing a sensational murder inquiry in 1860. A young girl named Constance Kent was accused of the murder of her infant half-brother, on evidence presented by Inspector Jack Whicher, a respected Scotland Yard detective. The court found his evidence insufficient, but Miss Kent eventually confessed, years later, at the urging of her clergyman. She served a sentence in prison and then emigrated to Australia, devoting her final years to good works.

The series then parts company from history. In the subsequent movies, Mr Whicher has been discharged from the Force and investigates crimes as a “private inquiry agent.” In real life he continued as a police detective, and retired well-respected. He was an inspiration for Dickens’ Inspector Bucket and Wilkie Collins’ Sergeant Cuff, among others. Continue reading Mr. Whicher’s hat

Steps Toward Healing Wounds of Jim Crow

Social justice is an unwelcome term in some circles, calling to mind political opportunism and race baiting. Many other people use the term to describe what Christians should understand (and should have understood for centuries) as properly loving your neighbor. Author and professor Anthony Bradley says maybe we need to lay aside social justice in favor of transitional justice, the kind of measures taken in response a state that has ignored proper judicial measures for a long time.

In fairness, America did attempt to redress issues with voting, housing, employment, and the like. The blind fallacy, however, was the belief that we could change a few federal laws and move on. But we moved on without addressing the need to foster peace and reconciliation between whites and blacks, especially in the South and large urban areas. We moved on without dealing with the post-traumatic stress of Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement. We moved on without holding people and institutions accountable for massive amounts of person-to-person and structural injustice.

He offers seven principles for America to use in healing the wounds we still feel, urging us not to skip to the application before building the foundation. Here’s #2.

It is quite unbelievable that African Americans were not given formal opportunities to recount, on record, exactly what happened during Jim Crow. A truth commission would allow us to hear the truth about Jim Crow. We need to gather firsthand accounts while we still can. Without getting the truth on record, we run the risk of exaggerations of history on both sides. It would be safe to say, as a result, that the average American under the age of fifty cannot explain the details of what life was like for blacks during Jim Crow. Individual states still have opportunities to establish Jim Crow truth and reconciliation commissions.

And from #3.

Recognizing survivors of Jim Crow as suffering real harm, including economic harm, would have allowed us to contextualize both their trauma and struggles with agency in the years that followed. Instead, America largely chose a “let’s just move on and not talk about the past” approach with a few one-size-fits-all federal legal remedies, which ultimately failed to deliver much of what they promised by the time we reached the 1980s.

‘Samarkand’

What a useless post this is going to be.

I’m going to criticize a song you’ve almost certainly never heard. And when you watch the video, below, you won’t understand it, because it’s in Danish.

But I thought of it last night, during one of my ever-popular sieges of insomnia. I hadn’t heard it since I stopped playing my vinyl albums, back in the ‘90s. So I checked out the video. And the more I thought about it, the more it annoyed me. Because I think it’s a really pretty and sweet piece. But also wrongheaded and soul-killing.

The singer is Birgitta Grimstad, as well-known Danish folk singer. This number, adapted from a modern Swedish popular song, was a big hit for her in that country. What it describes, in brief, is how the singer wakes up on a beautiful morning to find herself alone in her bed. And she immediately understands that “it happened, what we talked about.” Her lover has moved on – he’s searching, metaphorically, for “Samarkand,” which apparently symbolizes some transcendent dream that won’t let him settle down.

Except that’s not exactly it. She says, “…and another will be what I can never be.” In other words, her lover is looking for a new – presumably better – lover. She is sad about it, and cries. But she’s very accepting and hopes he finds what he’s looking for “if you ever find your way to Samarkand.”

There it is, the ethic of the 1970s. “Love” means sex, and sex is temporary. Nobody is obligated to stay in a relationship if some better prospect shows up. I first heard this song on the “Prairie Home Companion” program, and I remember Garrison Keillor praising its “sweet reasonableness.” Well, from what we’ve now learned about Keillor, it’s no surprise he’d consider the song reasonable. The perfect lover is one who lets you go without complaining, when you get offered an upgrade.

So here I am again, railing against sins I never got the opportunity to commit. But I’ll say this – I suspect that a lot of the anger we see in radical feminism today springs from women who were expected to play this kind of submissive game back during the Sexual Revolution years.

Tote that barge, lift that bale

Today was a big day in the history of my little library. A day long anticipated. We began our project of moving our bookshelves closer together, so that we can put in one or two new units in the space we’ve got. The minions of our Maintenance Department at the schools came up with an ingenious system for clearing one unit at a time and sliding them over a few feet using boards and ropes. And it works. So far.

Moving the shelves

I’m fairly sure the pyramids of ancient Egypt were constructed in much the same way.

Social awkwardness in a Chinese restaurant

One aspect of being a strange person is having strange experiences. Experiences that are strange merely because it’s you involved.

A strange sort of coincidence happened to me yesterday evening. Only weird because I’m weird.

I’m a man of routine. Part of my regular agenda is to go to the gym on Wednesday evenings, and then have Sweet & Sour Chicken at Lee Ann Chin’s (a local Chinese chain) afterward. This I did last night.

I was sitting at a table, eating and reading a book on my Kindle. The table was at the back wall, and I was sitting on a long bench that stretches along that wall and serves three different tables. At the time I was the only one using any of those tables.

I was reading another Logan McRae novel – that series whose quality I admire, but which I just don’t like much. But I bought this book by accident, and I wasn’t about to dump it. Continue reading Social awkwardness in a Chinese restaurant

Post-Moorhead 2018

Viking Festival Camp 2018
My side of the camp. There was a lot more to it.

I got things a bit out of order yesterday. First day after a Viking expedition, I’m supposed to tell you about that. Book reviews after. But I forgot. How soon I forget. Anyway, fear not. I shall now satisfy your burning curiosity about the Midwest Viking Festival 2018, at the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead, Minnesota.

This was the first long trip I’ve taken with the new Viking tent strapped to the top of Miss Ingebretsen, my semi-faithful PT Cruiser. I’m happy to report that it traveled well. I’ve developed a philosophy of tie-down straps, and they stayed tight. OK, I had to tighten them a little on the way, but that was because of a miscalculation I made with my anchoring; I learned a lesson from it to guide me in future.

So I got there (this was Thursday), and a couple fellows helped me put my tent up (it’s not something you can do alone). Then I went and checked into the motel. I will not name the place, because I can’t really speak well of it. After I’d gotten settled, I noticed a smear of black grease on my hand. Eventually I figured out it came from a spot on the room door – an area around the latch. In time I worked up the nerve to complain at the desk. The manager told me he could change me to another room, or give me a cloth to clean it up. He didn’t have any staff on at that hour. So I took a cloth and a bottle of degreaser from him, and cleaned the door. Later I found a similar slick on the bathroom door, but by then I was defeated. I just avoided touching that area.

The festival itself was great. The weather was warm, but it could have been worse, and possible rain on Saturday (the second day) did not arrive. We had about 80 reenactors there, demonstrating crafts from cooking to woodcarving to blacksmithing. Plus a group called Telge Glima from Sweden, who do an amusing Viking games show, and the regular cast of fighters (I did not participate in that). Continue reading Post-Moorhead 2018

My theory of Trump

Poker
Photo credit: Ines Ferreira

Did I post on Donald Trump before the 2016 election? I must have said something. The man appalled me. I thought a) he couldn’t be elected, and b) if elected, he’d be a disaster.

My attitude has changed. I still don’t like him. I don’t want to have lunch with him. He annoys me.

But I kind of like (most of) the things he does.

I’ve come up with a theory about President Trump. It’s probably inadequate, but I’m pretty sure it’s better than the theories held by his political opponents, who consistently underestimate him.

My theory concerns words.

I don’t think words mean the same things to Trump that they mean to, oh, to choose somebody at random – me.

For me words are conveyors of meaning. They’re related to the Biblical concept of “Logos,” carriers of truth, spiritual concepts to be handled with reverence and not misused.

For Donald Trump (I think) words are tools. I won’t say that he doesn’t recognize the meaning of words, or that everything he says is insincere. When he says he loves America, or his family, I’m sure he means what he says with all his heart.

But in his public life the man is primarily a game player. A deal maker. And words are the equipment of the game. Continue reading My theory of Trump

Happy Lindsifarne Day!

Lindisfarne Raid, A. K. Rue
Painting of the Lindisfarne Raid by Anders Kvåle Rue. Mr. Rue did not illustrate Viking Legacy, but he works with Saga Bok, the publisher.

I was surprised today to find that fate, or Wyrd, or Providence, had provided me with a perfect excuse to further flog the book Viking Legacy, by Torgrim Titlestad (have I mentioned that I’m the translator?) It turns out that today is the 1,225th anniversary of the fabled Viking raid on the monastery at Lindisfarne, in northern England. Though there’s some dispute on the point, that raid is generally calculated as the kick-off of the Viking Age.

The cause of that raid is an issue Viking Legacy addresses. Professor Titlestad champions (though he doesn’t entirely insist on it) the theory that this raid may have been a preemptive strike, a demonstration meant to send a message to the Emperor Charlemagne. Charlemagne was in the process of brutally subduing the Saxon tribes of northern Germany at the time, and was employing force (including massacre and deportation) to compel them to adopt Christianity. The preemption theory suggests that the Scandinavians, who had good communications and well understood that they’d be next on the agenda for invasion, sacked Lindisfarne (the place where much of Charlemagne’s bureaucracy had been trained) to demonstrate that if Charlemagne wanted Holy War, they could play that game too. From the book:

At the same time, the Vikings plundered goods and gold – as was customary in wars of conquest in those days. By this means, consciously or not, they demonstrated to Charlemagne that an attack on Scandinavia would mean bleeding his own kingdom dry – from the maritime side. If any Norwegian chieftains in the 790s remained undecided whether to leap into this new contest of strength, the vulnerability of the Franks had now been revealed. There was no little glory to be gained in beating down the legendary military might of Charlemagne. Honour achieved in battle meant more to Scandinavians than goods and gold – though gold was nothing to sneeze at.

These violent onslaughts from the sea left Continental potentates in no doubt about the significance of sea power and navigation, something for which they were unprepared. Charlemagne had grounds to fear them. His armies were not trained for defensive war….

Meditation at an intersection

Stoplight
Photo credit: Tim Gouw

There’s a large intersection close to my house. I use it every time I drive to work.

It’s a long light. A long, long, long light. Interminable.

Tonight I pulled to a stop just as it turned red, and I thought I’d time that unbearable light.

It held me up for a whole one minute and forty-five seconds.

Years ago there was a line in a novel I read – I think it was by Donald E. Westlake – where the narrator noted that a particular awful stoplight delayed him an “excruciating” forty-five seconds.

We’re kind of spoiled, you know? I live in constant, low-level fear that Divine Justice will teach me a real lesson in patience someday.

For your Spectation

I have another article in The American Spectator today. I was nervous about writing about Viking Legacy, the book I translated, but editor Wlady Pleszczynski took pity and me and stretched a point.

In time I was delighted to discover a Norwegian historian whose thinking ran very much along the same lines — Professor Torgrim Titlestad, now retired, but then on the faculty of the University of Stavanger. A local historian in Stavanger put me in contact with him, which led eventually to his hiring me to translate his Norwegian book, Norge i Vikingtid (Norway in the Viking Age)…

I heard from Prof. Titlestad’s son, who liked the article, but gave me an additional piece of information I wish I’d known. Prof. Titlestad didn’t retire from the University of Stavanger. He resigned in protest against changes made in the history curriculum. He now works full time with The Saga Heritage Foundation, which he founded to combat the current rush toward historical amnesia.