Are We Amusing Ourselves to Death?

Are We Amusing Ourselves to Death?

A number of years ago I was riding around the country roads of rural South Dakota near my in-laws’ farm on a four wheeler with my two young kids. We were exploring the countryside, stopping to throw rocks off of low bridges into muddy brown creeks, tracing the arc of a soaring hawk and occasionally, pulling into abandoned farm yards to poke around. There are always surprises to find, history to discover and a story to be told in a leaning barn or crumbling house.  Up one such driveway we found an abandoned home that was still standing, albeit open to the elements from every broken window and dangling door. Like so many of its kind, after the residents moved out, the house became a sort of storage shed, a place to put the things someone didn’t really want around but couldn’t bring themself to throw away. And like so many makeshift storage units, the contents were soon forgotten, overrun by rats and raccoons and the decay of time.  

As we climbed the broken down steps onto the front porch and gazed through the doorway with its screen door clinging crookedly by a single remaining hinge, we wondered about the family that had lived here. How long had they been gone?  Why did they leave? And who dumped the enormous pile of clothes and pots and pans and other household items in the middle of the floor of the kitchen. It looked like a bomb had gone off on moving day.  We stepped inside tentatively, aware that at any moment we might disturb a sleeping raccoon or some other animal that we might not really want to meet. The place was a moldy mess and yet the story of the family that had once lived there still hung in bits and pieces around us. A calendar on the wall, brittle with age, carried in its days the happenings of their weeks. A shelf with a few books destroyed by the rain that poured through a hole in the roof gave hints of their interests – gardening, faith, western novels. The colors of the carpet and curtains – had we been from an older generation – would have inevitably told of the decade they were installed.

It was mostly the tale of the decay and the kids were keen to leave before we stumbled onto something that might bite us. One last look around though revealed something worth exploring several feet from the open doorway. On top of an old heater unit in the living room sat a small, white diary. The cover was embossed with the year, 1969, and inside were page after page of the weekly doings of this family, recorded religiously in the small space for each day of the week. Sundays were nearly always spent at church in the “forenoon”, winter days were regularly accompanied by a note about the temperature – February 3rd hit a low of 12 below and was cloudy – and there were matter of fact notes about the farm chores that were completed on the particular day – January 28th – “Butchered drake (duck)”.  

It all seemed rather normal except for one thing: every week this family would either visit or receive visits from neighbors. Sometimes two and three times a week – almost always in the evenings – there were social visits being made. Community was an ever present part of this family’s life. To my modern experience this seemed odd. Not odd in the crazy uncle sort of way but rather, odd in that we just don’t live like that anymore. We text our friends a few times a week at best but we don’t spend time together, not like they did.  

Something has changed. Something drastic really.  I can find pictures and stories in the archives of any small town newspaper of Saturday nights where hundreds of neighbors showed up on Main street to visit and dance and share life together.  Boys gathered over bottles of Coca Cola to talk about the Yankees and school and girls. Ladies shared recipes and stories and prayers for their children. Men complained about the weather, argued about politics and discussed last week’s sermon. We talk of our small towns as “communities” because they truly used to be communities, places where people regularly “communed”.  We ought perhaps to find a new word to use to describe our communities.  

So what happened?  What changed that the average evening for the average American now looks like a face in front of a screen rather than a face to face? Social anthropologists could probably explain what happened with studies and stats but I think the main thing that happened was the screen itself. It started perhaps with the television but has evolved so that our innate narcissistic tendencies are now fed wall to wall entertainment. Who needs community when there is Netflix?  

A few things should be noted in this. First, we accepted this reality without a moment’s hesitation or reflection on what it might actually do to us. We were like the proverbial frog in the pot of water set to boil. We swallowed the television whole hog and then the Internet in our homes and then in our pockets and on our wrists. We occasionally lament the content – violence in the video games and porn on the smartphone in the average teen’s pocket – but we do very little about it. Second, the content is not nearly as destructive as the medium itself.  Neil Postman, in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, warned us before the Internet had even hit the screen. 

No one listened. 

Every medium used to communicate information, every system used to accomplish a desired goal has both intended and unintended consequences. They create behaviors. They shape our lives in ways we rarely expect. By the time we recognize the problems, it’s often too late.

And so television brought entertainment into our living rooms.  It brought the news of the world into our homes. We could know about almost any topic with television and even more with the advent of the cable networks and virtually everything with Google. But while we are solving problems in our world faster than ever (a positive outcome) we are also creating problems at an alarming rate and we are increasingly, all alone.  We have traded the birthright of community for a bowl of entertainment.  We get to see every move (or Tweet) our politicians make and yet it’s all sound bites and entertainment.  Our compassion for the downtrodden refugees of war is replaced with outrage over a politician’s missteps which is forgotten with a football player’s improprieties.  And this all happens in the course of any given day.  The next day we start all over.

Television and now the Internet has changed the way we interact with our world.  We can argue over the scale of the benefits and problems that have come with that, but we must all agree that it has changed our society.  The way we communicate, the way we interact, the way we learn and grow and disagree have all been changed.  The medium, not the content, is responsible for that change.  

The system is creating us anew.

I write all of this, not to merely warn against the unintended consequences of television and the Internet. You can read Postman for that and I’d encourage you to do so soon. I certainly need to reread it for I too often find myself endlessly scrolling Facebook rather than gathering with friends and family.

I also ask these questions because if it is true that the mediums of communication and the systems of life we have adapted shape the ways in which we interact, learn, and live, then we would do well to pause and reflect on all the ways this plays into the forming of our lives in other areas.

What about the systems we’ve adopted for education at schools, and religious formation at churches has created unintended consequences?  Why do we produce so few lifelong learners through our educational systems?  Why do so many churches create consumer driven Christians?  What about the mediums and systems we’ve adapted for school and church lead to these outcomes?

These are questions that I hope our next generations will do better at reflecting on than my generation has? 

Our future probably depends on it.

Photo Credit

The Transformative, Shaping Power of Books

The Transformative, Shaping Power of Books

This last year I read significantly more than years past.  Too much perhaps, but reading has become a sort of hobby for me, an activity away from work that allows me to unwind and relax. I’ve heard that hobbies are important.  A few years ago tried to take up fishing but never caught anything and so, whenever someone asked me what my hobby was I’d reply, “casting.”  It seemed right to name it what it was.

While I”ve always been a reader, last year I read more books than any previous year. The final count came in at sixty six books.  I read widely too: youth fiction, biography, Christian non-fiction, personal development, history and increasingly, those books who find their way into the category of classic literature.  A good two thirds of the books I read were audiobooks and I regularly have two to three books going at any one time. I never read more than one book of fiction at a time but I’ll often have several works of non-fiction that I am working through.

C.S. Lewis said, “Those of us who have been true readers all our lives seldom fully realize the enormous extension of our own being which we owe to authors.”  When I think about who I’ve become, my own journey of discipleship and how I think about the world this rings true.  Books are perhaps the single most constant source of my own personal formation.  They’ve shaped me both directly and indirectly.  Besides good friends, books continue to fire my imagination, challenge my thinking and shape the narrative, the worldview of my thinking.  

Dorothy Sayers said that, “the sole true end of education is simply this: to teach men how to learn for themselves.”  There is little in life that allows me to continue to educate myself beyond books.  Youtube can give me the information I need to fix a faucet but little more.  Books however, and good books for sure, cause the mind to work at the task of cultivation, tilling the soil of the mind and the soul, planting seeds of old ideas made new, waiting in patient anticipation for new growth and, if all goes well, a harvest.  Speaking of reading history, John Lewis Gaddis said, “Standing in the past is no sure guide to predicting the future. What it does do, though, is to prepare you for the future by expanding experience, so that you can increase your skills, your stamina, and, if all goes well, your wisdom.

A good book is more than just paper and ink.  It is a vehicle for formation and as Gaddis hopes, for the gaining of wisdom.  And so I continue to read.  Perhaps not at the same rate as last year but I’ll read on nonetheless.  

How about you? What good books have you read lately?

Understanding Well: Reading From A Broad Range Of Perspectives

I have been reading Mustafa Aykol’s book Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty and it has been enlightening to hear the scope of Islamic history told from the point of view of a Turkish, Muslim scholar and journalist.  Aykol’s perspective serves to reinforce the value and importance of reading widely and from a broad range of perspectives, of reading patiently while waiting for a more nuanced, deeper understanding to emerge before casting judgment.

By way of example, Aykol’s handling of what we in the west call the Armenian genocide – for indeed it was a genocide – is framed in the historic backdrop of the rising tide of nationalism which was sweeping through Europe at that time.  What happened in Germany to the Jews because of this rabid nationalism had happened in the Balkans, the Caucasus and the Crimea twenty years prior as countries there waged wars of independence from the Ottoman Empire and in a victorious wave of nationalism, drove out or slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Turkish Muslims and Jews.  These atrocities fueled the Ottoman people’s own nationalistic impulses which led to the ethnic cleansing of Armenians in the second decade of the 20th century.  What happened in the Balkans in no way justifies their actions toward Armenians in Anatolia, but it does frame these terrible events in the complex context of the tension of those times.

Gaining a deeper understanding of the complexity of the historical and cultural context  helps us to have more meaningful and respectful conversations with those with whom we disagree.  Remaining outside of this place of deeper understanding leads to intolerant and insular positions bound up in the darkness of falsehood, slander, hypocrisy and injustice.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch tells his daughter Scout that, “You never really understand a person until you consider his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”  He might well have added historical events, people groups and even religions to his statement for unless we are willing to climb into the complexity of the historical and cultural context of those, we will never truly understand them.

Click here to find Islam Without Extremes at Amazon.

A Child’s Education And A Poem For Fall

Malachi and Sonora enjoying a cool fall day.
Malachi and Sonora enjoying a cool fall day.

Our two kids have enjoyed the opportunity to be home schooled these past two years.  My wife does a fantastic job and while our homeschooling looks very little like a traditional classroom, the kids are having fun learning.

One of the great things about home schooling is the ability to identify our kids passions, dreams and strengths and then spend more time focusing on them.  There are no bells telling them it is time to move on if they are in the middle of a project or are caught up in the heart of a chapter of a good book.

Malachi is all about story.  He loves stories – both reading them and writing them.  His love for writing has tumbled over into poetry as well.

Poetry is such a great outlet for beginning writers – it’s shorter, grammar matters less and it’s fun.

Today Malachi wrote a poem and I thought I’d share it.  As the leaves begin to fall and the temperatures drop, he naturally chose to write about fall.  Enjoy.

——————–

Leaves

will fall one by one

surely now fall

has come.

Grass will die

and flowers fade.

Green to brown and

crumple down.

The golden corn

swept away.

Winter comes

around the bend.

————

October 2013

Language Coaching

A 6:00 am coaching call.
A 6:00 am coaching call.

I continually get asked the question, “What do you do?” whenever I meet new people.

I suppose as well that many who’ve asked before continue to wonder.

It is a complicated answer and one that I myself fumble around to answer whenever I am asked.  I usually begin with, “It’s complicated.”

It isn’t so much that it is complicated though as much as it is just not traditional, not something that people can find in their own personal memory bank of “jobs.”

I am a language coach.

(or rather, one of the things that I do is language coaching, among other things)

To explain I’ll begin by way of analogy.

Lebron James has a personal trainer.  Why?

Lebron is one of the greatest basketball players ever.  He is one of the most athletic, one of the strongest.

Why would he need a personal trainer?

Pastor and author Andy Stanley said,

You will never maximize your potential in any area without coaching. It is impossible. You may be good. You may even be better than everyone else. But without outside input you will never be as good as you could be. We all do better wend somebody is watching and evaluating.

Lebron knows that he can be better, that  a personal trainer can help him get the most out of himself.

As a language coach, I do the same – plus a bit more.

You see, Lebron knows basketball.  You could say he is an expert.

Most learning another language however are not experts.  Most don’t know where to begin.

Ask yourself, “If I were to want to learn Russian, what would I do?  Where would I begin?”

If you are like most learners, you are probably drawing a blank – or you’ve gone to the only idea you’ve ever known – I’d go to school.

As a language coach I would with clients in six main areas:

  1. Planning
  2. New Learning Ideas
  3. New Resources for Learning
  4. Accountability
  5. Motivation
  6. Assessment

When I work with a client, I help them create a plan for learning which usually begins by helping them understand how they learn best – in a classroom or out in the community, alone (mostly) or in a group, with lots of technology or with less technology.

I help them think about creating a learning plan for the next six months, for the next month, for the next week and for each day.   We break it down.

I give learning strategies and drills and activities that they can use to focus on mastering the different elements of any language.

In this sense, I am never teaching a specific language but empowering people to be able to learn any language.

I help people find new resources – readily abundant  and mostly free – to learn their particular language.

Language coaching is also about holding learners accountable to the plan we’ve created and about helping them stay motivated.

In the end, language coaching is mostly about helping people successfully learn another language as efficiently and effectively as possible.

Around the World

Most of my clients are overseas.  They are mostly working for non-profits and church organizations.

And so my coaching sessions are all online through Skype.

This morning I met with a client in Istanbul.  He was sitting in Starbucks with his iPhone, I was at home in my basement with my laptop.

I could see him, he could see me and for just over an hour we talked about how the language learning journey was going, about where he could be more effective and where he was doing well.

I gave him ideas for activities he could do, for ways to make his daily interaction with the building security guard a better language learning experience.  I’ve sent him three or four articles from my website, The Everyday Language Learner, for further reading to expand on topics we discussed.

It is always a rewarding experience to know that I have helped someone step into another day of mastering a language with more hope, with less fear and with new knowledge for getting the most out of the day.

I meet with clients about once a month for an hour and my goal continues to be to work up to 30 clients.

It also provides a bit of income.

Not enough to pay all the bills but enough to keep doing it.

Language coaching is really what I love to do.  It allows me to continue to be a part of the work we did in Turkey and to play my part to help others even as we’ve returned to small town South Dakota.

It’s just one of the jobs that I have.

The Case of the Missing Bell

A month or so ago I was paging through the beefy book,  “A Tale of Three Cities“, a historic survey of Marion, Monroe and Dolton, three small towns in our area of South Dakota.

As residents of Marion, it has been engaging to learn a bit about the history of the area, to read of the stories of the earliest settlers, their triumphs and tragedies and the oddities of life that make reading history entertaining.

The book itself was produced for Marion’s centennial celebration back in 1979 and is filled with early history, newspaper excerpts and family histories.

It was in the section of early newspaper excerpts of Monroe that I came across this bit of news:

July 1902 – The German Church of Monroe purchased a new bell for their church.  The bell is one of the largest in the country and weighs 1,500 pounds.

1,500 Pounds!

For one reason or another, 1,500 pounds seemed really big.  I was imagining an enormous, six foot tall bell that the whole county must have been talking about.

And yet, there was nary a word more about this bell or what happened to it.

I had stumbled into a mystery.

A small secret from history that curiosity demanded I – or rather we – investigate.

What had happened to the 1,500 pound bell?

I asked around a bit and then, this last Saturday, the kids and I loaded into the van and drove the seven miles out to Monroe to pick around and see what we could find.

There are two churches in Monroe – both with bells but neither seemed to be a 1,500 pound bell.

We wound from one street to another discussing where a church might have been, taking in the quaintness of the town, discovering the lone business – a bar.

And then we decided to head back home.

Thankfully we pulled into the smaller of the two Reformed churches and noticed the sign on the outside of the building.

It read: German Reformed – 1898.

Our first clue.
Our first clue.

Perhaps we were on to something.

We got out of the church to take a closer look at the bell, conveniently hung on an eight foot tall stand alone bell tower in front of the church.

In front of the bell tower.  Sonora - our budding journalist has here camera ready.
In front of the bell tower. Sonora – our budding journalist has here camera ready.

I had assumed all along that this bell would be grand, giant, larger than a normal church bell.

I assumed wrong.

As we shoved Malachi up onto the ledge he read the inscriptions on the bell.

On the back side: E.W. Vanduzen Co.

On the front side:  Buckeye Bell Foundry – 1902.

A bit fuzzy but there's the date - 1902.
A bit fuzzy but there’s the date – 1902.

We had found the bell.

We returned home to do some google searching only to find that it doesn’t take much bell to get to 1,500 pounds.

The Liberty Bell weighs 2,000.

Overall it was a fun little investigation for the kids and I.  They were both excited to be sleuthing around, searching for clues, reporting the facts.

Lessons were learned.

Fun was had.

A bell was re-discovered.

The bell.

Sir Ken Robinson Gets It

(if the video doesn’t play, you can watch it HERE)

I’ve probably watched this video four or five times now, and each time I watch, I’m inspired and encouraged.

It gives me hope.

But it also makes me want more for my kids than I think most public schools are capable of giving them.   The teachers are fantastic for the most part, but the system within which they work is too often crippling their ability to help kids flourish.

At least that is my personal experience  as a teacher of high school English in the Midwest for several years.

Sir Ken Robinson gets it.

The problem is that we are functioning in a system that was developed over 100 years ago in order to prepare kids for a world that no longer exists.  The industrial age is dead.  The old economy has gone the way (or is going) of the dinosaur.

The question then for all of us to explore is what in the old system (if any) do we keep and what needs re-inventing to prepare our kids to live in the world of tomorrow.

Any ideas?

Cobbled Together

As I have contemplated our return to the states from over four years of expat life in Istanbul, Turkey, I have desired to return with intentionality.  Consuelo and I have had many late night conversations about what life will look like, what it could look like and what we would like it to look like.

Turkey has been an amazing experience of growing in faith and in learning to trust God, of learning a new language and to love a new culture, of stepping out of our comfort zone and of making a home here. We will miss our life in Turkey and the many friends – both Turkish and other expats – we have come to love.  Turkey’ stain is one that will not go easily – and for this we are grateful.

But in less than three weeks we will return to South Dakota.  It is there that we will begin to cobble together a life for ourselves.  The dictionary seems to put some emphasis on the hurried nature of the cobbled together project, but I want to focus on the idea that something is being put together from a bunch of various materials.  It is the story of my life after all.

My faith is in many ways, cobbled together.  I am the sum of over thirty years of interacting and exploring, of reading books and of studying the Bible, of conversations with friends and to listening to speakers, preachers, theologians and more.  I am not defined by any one denominational doctrine but am shaped by many.  I believe in the Apostle’s Creed and agree with Augustine when he said,

In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.

It is in South Dakota as well where we will begin to cobble together an income for ourselves.  My online ventures and language coaching will supply part of our needs, but in the beginning at least, not all of them.  I hope that this site might generate at least a little income as well.  We’ll probably do some substitute teaching, help local farmers and will work to reduce costs by growing as much of our own food as time and energy allows.

I would also love to be able to cobble together a structure or two for a home office and guest house.  I’ve had a dream for sometime to build a straw bale house with as many recycled or handmade items as is possible and hope to be able to explore this dream in the coming  years.  A small home office will be a great place to ply my skills, master a few new ones and discover the feasibility of using recycled materials in “new construction”.

There are other areas of life as well: our kids education, continued work in Turkey, church life, living strategically, encouraging community and sharing our faith to name a few.  This and more is what I mean when I talk about living the cobbled together life.