Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Meet: Johan Mathiesen, Author of "Blogging a Dead Horse"

The thirty seventh in a series
featuring a member of
The Graveyard Rabbit Association


I like to think of my cemetery work as a preemptive strike. I’m going to be planted at Lone Fir here in Stumptown; so, when you come on through, look for the “Mission Accomplished” epitaph, and you’ll find me. Okay, so maybe I won’t use that epitaph. The humor might be lost in a generation or two. Or in a year or two.

That aside, I should first thank Sheri for asking me to self-profile in public. What greater humiliation hath one person wrought? Here, people, excoriate me as you will.

Lacking access to a professional interviewer, I figured, heck, any question good enough for Sheri is good enough for me. I thought I’d just take the questions her interviewer asked her and run with them.

Without further ado, Thomas’s now-purloined questions:

What Graveyard Rabbit site(s) do you run?

Just good, ol’ Blogging a Dead Horse (BDH). And that’s a stretch. I’m not much of a single-tasker, much less a mutli-tasker. BDH grew as extension to my Flickr site, Dead Man Talking, which has 10,000 photos of 600+ cemeteries, mostly in Oregon and SW Washington. I had/have fantasies about compiling a guide book to local cemeteries, which was the original impetus for the photo-gathering. I’ve pretty much accomplished that on-line at Flickr.

But it’s hard to communicate words to anyone on Flickr, it’s really a photo-sharing site, so I began the blog as an outlet for the conceptual side of cemeteries, if you will. After 600 cemeteries and 10,000 photos, I’ve come to some conclusions about how they fit into the culture of the Oregon Territory, which my ego demands I share along with the pictures.

Also, I’m a perpetual student at Two-Lane University and my interest in cemeteries is an outgrowth of my wife’s and my penchant for cruising the roads on which one is least likely to run across another car. Oregon’s a good state for that.

I just got carried away.

What first interested you in joining the GYR Association?

I was asked by a Flickr friend. When asked, I had no idea who they (the GYR folk) were, and probably still don’t. More than anything, I liked the feel of the term “Graveyard Rabbit,” though, truth to tell, I’ve always referred to myself—and continue to do so—as a cemetery dog.

Did you always have a fascination with cemeteries? Or did this develop out of your genealogy work?

Well, Tom, I’m glad you asked me that, because—again, truth to tell (what kind of interrogation is this, anyway?)—I don’t do genealogy work. I like a good story as well as the next person; and I appreciate the desire to know where all ones relative are, alive or dead; but I don’t have a lot of interest in where your Aunt Lucy is buried. No offense, you understand. (Even though I do think Lucy was a bit snitty.)

I did go though my own personal phase of tracking down my genealogy, but that was a long time ago. The best I got out of it was a rough ability to read Norwegian so that I could translate a 72 page memoir that my great-grandfather had written covering seafaring from 1840 to 1910 or so. I read that with an eye towards finding out more family history. That didn’t pan out, but the reading was amazing otherwise. And now I can say things like “Tusen tak,” (thanks a bundle) and “Ha det bra” (have a nice day).

As it is, I’m a fish out of water in GYR, but I’ve run across some fun blogs in there and some interesting people. Genealogists and I worry the same turf and I can only hope that my approach to cemeteries might give some of them another way to look at the sod they’re treading upon.

Boxers or briefs?

I’ll be brief; I won’t fight.

Do your family members think you are a “little off center” with respect to your cemetery obsession?

It bothers our kids some, but my wife participates along with me, so there’s no flack there.

Friends are generally open to my predilection, if they don’t embrace it fully. I think I’ve gotten some of them to be more inclined to visit cemeteries, when they get the chance. They go out of their way to get cemetery shots for me, now.

I did expect a more positive response from the lay population, so to speak, but it’s not the first time that I’ve misjudged the popular sentiment; nor is it the first time of being ahead of the curve. I’m a touch older than the Boomers, but they’re coming up behind fast. Maybe there’ll be a market for a cemetery guide someday after all.

I’m pretty convinced that the golden days of cemeteries are yet to come. In fact, we’re entering them now. There will be all sorts of new technologies and new visions, but I expect nothing will fully replace stone for an everlasting (in a manner of speaking) memorial. Let New Orleans lead the way.

Make sure there’s a band at my funeral, and let no ones feet touch the ground. It’s going to be a happy day when they finally get me out of the way. Time to, by God, celebrate!

Which situation evokes an immediate response of “Oh! Oh! Stop the car!”
- you spy a yard sale in the distance
- you notice a cemetery from 1⁄4 mile away
- you see a sexy man on the side of the road
- from afar you spy Elvis with your eye

- I try and not be overly acquisitive, so garage sales don’t often catch my eye. Although, on occasion…

- Oh, sure. Any old cemetery is fine with me. And any old distance.

- He’s got to be really sexy. And it’s best if he’s dead.

- What else would I spy him with?

Paper or plastic?

You know, I’m in a quandary about that. Paper is easily recyclable, but it uses up precious growing space; whereas I’m not too concerned about running out of oil. It was a temporary solution, anyway. Oil, that is.

What advice do you have for anyone considering joining GYR and creating their own GYR-affiliated blog?

None whatsoever. There’s no point in having a blog, unless you have something to say. If you have something to say, the blog will figure itself out. What do you say and to whom do you say it? If you’ve got those things figured out, you’re halfway home. The rest is just technical stuff. If you’re having trouble with that, that’s what kids are for.

There are good reasons why genealogists want to communicate with others of their kind, which point them in the direction of joining something like the GYR, but that’s beyond my ken. You’ll have to ask the others.

And now, as Paul Harvey would say, for the rest of the story: Questions Thomas would have asked had he known it was me and not Sheri he was interviewing.

What advice would you have for would-be cemetery dogs?

Not much of that either, because, if you’re already a cemetery fan, you’ve already figured out how they interest you; and, if you’re not already a cemetery fan, I have no idea why you’re reading this.

On the other hand, if you’re a genealogy rabbit who’s become interested in cemeteries in the grander scheme of things, the only real advice I have is go visit a lot of them. I certainly changed my interests after I started thoroughly searching out all the cemeteries I could find. For one thing, my main interest switched from old stuff to new. We don’t have very much old stuff out here, and what we do have is pretty cookie-cutter. The early settlers in Oregon weren’t particularly eschatologically sophisticated. Things picked up considerably by time the 1990s rolled around.

It doesn’t take long to figure out to avoid lawn cemeteries. What were they thinking?

The one solid piece of advice I have is to walk around the outside of the cemetery first; that’s where the new stuff is.

How about photography; any advice there?

I’m an entirely uneducated photographer who hasn’t spent much time thinking about photography as an art, though I appreciate a good picture as much as the next person. I’ve never taken a course in photography nor spent much time reading books or magazine devoted to the subject, so most of what I’ve learned has come from taking a lot of pictures and looking at the results. I think I’ve gotten marginally better through the years. I have spent a lot of time looking at architecture and design magazines, which has provided me with a foundation of what looks good and what doesn’t. Achieving the same has been another matter.

My goal as a photographer has been to show the memorial in the best possible light, so to speak, so that one pays attention to the object being photographed and not the photograph itself. I think of myself as taking pictures for an art history book, where the successful photographer disappears. If I’m successful, you’ll hardly register that you’re looking at a photograph.

I’ve learned to keep my reflection out of the picture, to eschew the full-on frontal, if necessary.

Get as close to your subject as possible. Closer. Shoot both full-on and detail shots of good markers.

The best piece of advice that I’ve read is to not have the horizon in the middle of the frame.

Either get down on the ground or raise your camera high above your head for better angles.

Take lots of pictures.

Anything I missed?

Four kids, five grandkids, one wife, one ex, and one student marriage.

One garden. One banjo.

I believe in Mother Nature, curiosity, and the power of love.


Sheri Fenley said...

Johan, You just made me love you more! Great post and one of the best intros to date.

You're a Rabbit who truly loves the Graveyards!

Diane Wright said...

You are funny!!! I love reading your blogs and your interview is so creative.

Untangled Family Roots said...

I truly enjoyed reading your introduction. Absolutely funny! I will have to make a point to follow you blog more, as I'm sure there is more great material there. Nice to meet you. It's a pleasure.