Monday, January 21, 2019

Shutdown but Out in Maine

On Snowshoes
Three weeks of Furlough-di, Furlough-da! are coming to an end.  Funds were mysteriously found last Thursday with which to pay State Department employees, and thus my young friend Catriona and I are in her Land Cruiser somewhere between Bangor and Augusta, ME, as we make our way back to DC.  We’re supposed to report to work on Tuesday, but who knows?  We’re racing a winter storm.  The sky is sunny here, but it won’t be for long.  We’ll overnight in Hartford, CN, and indications are that we’ll wake in the morning to more snow and ice than we may be able to handle.  What will be will be.  There are worse things in life than an extra day in Hartford.

Sigh.  I’d be returning to DC whether or not funds had been found.  Last Wednesday I was re-classified as excepted (essential) and told to report to work without pay.  At least now we know we’ll get some pay, even if it’s unclear how long the mysterious funds will hold out.

Three weeks at home in Maine.  That’s the longest stretch I have been able to spend at home since NN came with me on R&R from Kazakhstan in 2016.  Three weeks is just long enough to feel one has settled in at home, not merely come for a quick visit.  I had been scheduled for a week of vacation at New Year’s, but the government shutdown took us all by surprise.  I decided to stay put at home and canceled my return ticket.  Catriona, also on furlough, drove up to join me mid-way through my second.

Maine is the one place on the East Coast of the US that reminds me of both Romania and Kazakhstan, the countries that came to feel the most like home to me while I served overseas.  The hills and mountains of Maine are like those in Romania, as is the maple syrup.  The snow and wind are like Kazakhstan.  January temperatures down to -18C are normal in my part of the state.  A patch of brown earth would be worthy of shocked surprise.  I love winter.  I love snow.  I love my home in Maine.

How did I spend my time?  I couldn’t get Hillary, my 1991 rear wheel drive station wagon, out of the driveway, and thus I stayed close to home.  I arrived in Bangor by bus on December 29 and did my grocery shopping before paying a princely sum to a Lyft driver to take me all the way home from Bangor.  I easily had food for a month, and my little town’s general store supplies the daily needs of bread and milk.

On other visits home I would drive to Baxter State Park or to Katahdin Woods and Water National Monument for my hiking or winter snow shoeing.  Not getting there turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as it forced me to look for alternatives right where I live.  To my happy surprise, I discovered Maine’s Interconnected Trail System (ITS) for ATVs and snowmobiles.  One of the main routes passes through my town, and during the work week there is no one on it.  I could snowshoe for as long and as far as I wanted and not meet any person or any vehicle.  The woods and hills were just as winter quiet and beautiful as those I usually drive to get to.  I was thrilled to find that I have this outdoor resource treasure right at my doorstep.

I also have my own 32 acres, the front 7-8 acres of which are partially cleared.  I clipped on the cross country skis that I brought with me from Kazakhstan.  I have a long way to go before I qualify even as a novice, but I am able to push myself around on the skis, not to mention get a good aerobic and upper body workout as I do it.

I set my own time at home in Maine.  I mean that not only in the sense of doing what I want when I want but also in the sense of choosing my own time zone.  With a deferential nod to those who determine boundaries, my part of Maine has no business being in Eastern Standard Time.  If the zone boundaries were drawn without reference to borders, we’d be in Atlantic Time with the Canadian maritime.  That’s the time zone I choose to live in while at home.  It lets me see the January sun set at 5pm, not 4pm.  I love nothing better than to sit on my porch even in January and watch the sun go down through my trees.

Evenings were for music, reading, movies, and serials.  Even in Maine I enjoy watching Russian serials, if not Russian news, and after Catriona’s arrival we would take turns choosing what to watch.    She introduced me to The Terror, a fictionalized account of Franklin’s ill-fated 19th century expedition to find the Northwest Passage.  What better place than Maine to watch a serial about explorers locked in ice and eternal winter?  I rejoined by playing Stan Roger’s Northwest Passage, a song that both Sultana and my son love.

Shutdown but by all means out in the great outdoors:  those were my three weeks in Maine.  Only 32 weeks remain until my mandatory separation for age, an event that I look at more as high school graduation than retirement.  Maine is now home, and I feel a pang of regret as we leave.  I want more time in the Maine woods, but if there is a plus to our return to DC, it is that we will be able to participate in person in whatever protests are being organized.  I’ve already appeared in protest once in front of the White House.  There undoubtedly will be more such appearances.

We’re nearing Augusta now.  The sky has already darkened as we head south to the equally dark politics of Washington.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Breaking up with Facebook Is Hard to Do . . . but Worth the Effort?

I've had an uneasy feeling about remaining on Facebook for some time now.  For others there might have been specific events that prompted them to raise the #DeleteFacebook flag.  Perhaps it was the ever growing saga of how Facebook sees user data as a commodity?  Perhaps the Cambridge Analytica scandal in early 2016 was the turning point?  Many of us on the progressive left were sickened by the irresponsible role Facebook played in the 2016 election as a source of disinformation and as an outlet for Russian propaganda.  I know I was, and I was just as much disturbed that such disinformation found a ready audience.

Like many in the baby boom generation, I first opened a Facebook account some ten years ago as a way of staying in touch with my son.  He had stopped using e-mail, and Facebook was all the rage for his age group.  The irony is that he has long since moved away from social media.

I became a large scale user of Facebook after gender transition in 2010-11.  I was in Romania at the time and had become well known in the Romanian lgbtqi+ community.  Everyone was on Facebook, and before long I had more Romanian Facebook friends than I did American.  When I left Romania in 2013, Facebook remained a window into the lives of those I had left behind in Romania.  The same has been true of my friends in Kazakhstan.  For a foreign service officer, Facebook allows at least a glimpse into the lives of those we have known and sometimes loved in the countries where we have served.

But does that glimpse have substance?  I lost count of how many Facebook friends I have a long time ago, but I believe it is now in the 1000 range.  How many glimpses do the Facebook algorithms give when the number of friends has grown that large?  Where do the glimpses that populate our news feeds come from?  I can search for a friend and find out what she or he is up to, but when one comes down to it, isn't it also possible to do that by a simple e-mail to that friend?

If there was a specific time when my relationship to Facebook soured, it was in the crowd tuition funding campaign we undertook for Sultana Kali.  During that campaign we collected more than we had any reason to expect, but almost none of the contributions came via Facebook friends.  The bulk came from outside the social network, a network that turned out to be hollow.

Facebook played a foul role in our 2016 election, a role made all the more foul by its attempts to cover up or belittle Russia's use of social networking as a means of dividing us as a people by playing on our worst instincts.  Without Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social networking platforms, perhaps we would not live in a world today where the occupant of the White House is dangerously unhinged and the U.S. role in the world is in rapid decline?

Anyone who has followed me on Facebook knows that I have published little there since leaving Kazakhstan in 2017.  At most, I spend perhaps 5-15 minutes a day on the platform to glance at the news feed and look for any personal messages.  Even as a messaging platform, I have found Facebook wanting.  WhatsApp is a better way of staying in direct touch with specific individuals and groups of friends.  Kazakhstan as a country seems to run on WhatsApp.  More recently I learned that Telegram is a better, more secure messaging platform not under Facebook control, and I plan to move there.

That brings me to my 2019 New Year's resolution to move off Facebook.  I deleted my Twitter account months ago, and I've never really been a user of Instagram.

Am I cutting off my nose to spite my face?  Will the loss be worth the gain in control over my own data and a clearer conscience?  I don't know.  I've toyed with this decision for months, dancing around it without coming to a firm yes or no.  In the end I've decided that the only way to know is to try.  Rather than deleting my Facebook account outright, I'll deactivate it for a half year and experience what life is like without Facebook.  If the loss outweighs the gain, I can reactivate the account.

I did say New Year's resolution, didn't I?  Let's make that Old New Year, the beginning of the new year by the Julian calendar, January 14 in our Gregorian system.  That will give those who wish to stay in touch with me time to copy my non-Facebook  contact information, which is:
WhatsApp:  pegged to my Kazakhstani telephone, +7 771 164-0368
I also pledge to write more often in this web journal, perhaps not much more at first due to work and travel schedules, but more with time as we move into the year.  I am also still on LinkedIn.

As an experiment I've also opened an account on Diaspora*, a decentralized open-source social networking platform.  There are not many people on Diaspora* yet, but perhaps we can change that together?  If you want to follow me there, you can sign up at and look for me as

That's my #DeactivateFacebook challenge to myself for 2019.  Forward I go into a time before Facebook existed.  Happy New Year, С Новым Годом, and Happy New Networking to all!