The very first issue of Nygaard Notes was published on September 5, 1998. That’s 25 years ago! It seems only fitting that I should do something a little bit unusual, or special, to mark the occasion of this newsletter’s 25th Birthday. My plan is to spend the next 4 or 5 issues dredging up some previously-published essays that I think deserve to be recalled. Some of them will be about the Notes itself: what I do; why I do it; where it came from, and so forth. The rest will be selected for reasons that I can’t categorize. I just think you’ll like them!
There are lots of essays to choose from. In 25 years I have published just short of TWO MILLION words! (1,934,796, by my count.) Some of you may wonder what possessed me to embark on such a long journey, begun such a long time ago.
Brief Nygaard Notes Origin Story
In the late 1990s, a group of progressive journalists got together to try to start an “alternative” weekly newspaper that we called The Toaster. The plan included having me, Jeff Nygaard, write a weekly column of some sort. (I honestly don’t recall what sort of column the editorial board had in mind, although I’m sure I knew at the time.)
I was a little nervous about this idea, simply because I had never published on a weekly deadline. I was afraid I might not have enough to say to fill up a weekly column. [I hear you laughing!] So I thought I would test myself. I decided to start writing a weekly column, and sending it to the members of the editorial board, using this relatively-new technology known as “email”. (THAT’S how long ago this was!) That way, they could give me feedback, and we could begin to develop good writer/editor relationships. That was my hope.
I put some other people on the original mailing list, as well. Here’s how the very first issue of Nygaard Notes began:
“I have put your name on my electronic mailing list, either because you are an activist who might make use of some of the information I plan to send out, or because I think you are just the kind of person who might be interested in some of the things I am.
“I plan to send out not very many notes [I called it “notes!”], but the ones I plan to send will be of several types: 1. News and publications of my little project The Social Security Project of Minnesota; 2. News of rallies, demos, pickets, and so forth. Many of you will already know about them, but so what? Some of you may not; 3. Copies of essays and columns I will be writing, on a wide range of things; 4. Other stuff that I think you might find interesting.”
In retrospect, that “other stuff” was the key ingredient, I think. “A wide range of things.” Indeed.
Right from the beginning a funny thing happened. People on the mailing list told their friends, who told their friends, etc. And the mailing list started growing. Alas, The Toaster soon folded, unable to raise enough start-up money to pay its staff. And I expected Nygaard Notes to go down with the ship. But…
At that moment I notified the people on the mailing list that Nygaard Notes would also stop publishing, since the whole point of it was simply to lay the groundwork for a future column in the now-defunct Toaster. Much to my surprise, quite a large number of people asked me to keep publishing Nygaard Notes, Toaster or no Toaster.
So I did keep publishing. And I’m still publishing. And I’ve certainly not run out of things to say! Now, in September and October of 2023, I plan to spend a few weeks looking back at some of the more interesting, important, entertaining, or weird things that have appeared in these pages over the past two-and-a-half decades. I hope you find it interesting. If not, I hope you will indulge me. After all, I only do this once every 25 years! Next one due in 2048.
What follows is a verbatim reprint of Nygaard Notes Number 52, published on October 29, 1999. The issue was headed, Special One-Year Birthday Edition of Nygaard Notes: Who Is This Nygaard Guy?
And it started, as Nygaard Notes has always started, with an editor’s note:
Today’s issue—Number 52—marks one full year of publication for Nygaard Notes. And I still don’t know exactly what it is. Journalism? Scholarship? Opinion? Soap-box oratory? Or something else entirely? Somebody just asked me today, and I couldn’t give a straight answer.
That seems ridiculous, so the one-year birthday is a good time to pause and reflect on the Notes. There will be no Nygaard Notes for the month of November, and maybe a bit longer, while I ask members of my community to help me ponder three basic questions: What is Nygaard Notes? Is Nygaard Notes something that should continue to exist? If it should continue to exist, how can it be better?
To be honest, I think Nygaard Notes should continue to exist, (maybe with a different name?) so I will probably be spending the month trying to figure out how it can be better. But if enough people tell me I could be more effective doing something else, then maybe that’ll happen. The thing is, I enjoy writing the Notes, so that’s gotta count for something. It may mutate and evolve, or it may come back pretty much the same as it is now. You, faithful readers, will be the first to know.
If any readers want to let me know your opinions on any of these questions, or any other questions, just send ‘em in, or give me a call. Now is the time I have allotted to talk about the Notes. As you might expect, I have lots of ideas for changes and improvements, but I don’t want to give out any hints yet. Stay tuned.
In the spirit of the one-year birthday, I have prepared a highly unusual issue of the Notes. It’s all about me! Who I am and why I do it. It seems only fair to give my readers some information about the source of these essays and tirades. Am I who you thought I was? Why, or why not?
I’ll be back in a few weeks with more standard Nygaard Notes fare. Thanks for sticking with me; it’s been a fun year.
Nygaard Notes Numbers 48, 49, and 50 suggested a step-by-step process to use in analyzing a magazine to decide what it is all about. In Issue #50, I said this: “If a complete stranger comes up to you and starts talking about politics, most of us realize that there may be some good reasons to distrust them, or even to refuse to listen to them. For example, maybe they are being paid to talk to you by someone whom you do not trust to tell the truth. Or, they may appear to be nuts. Despite the political content of their talk, they may seem to be primarily interested in your money. Maybe what they are saying does not make any sense. It could be that they are simply talking about unimportant things, and you have better uses for your time.”
I further suggested that some of the questions that you might ask yourself when approached by the above-mentioned stranger could also serve you well when approached by an unfamiliar magazine. Questions like: Who is this person? Why are they talking to me? Why are they talking about this stuff? Why should I trust them, or not? Do I care?
It seems only fair to turn the questions back on myself, so this week, at the conclusion of one full year of putting out Nygaard Notes, I will ask those five questions about myself and my modest weekly.
1. Who is this Nygaard guy?
I am: middle-aged; third generation Norwegian-American; working class; male; heterosexual in practice, omnisexual in orientation; able-bodied at the moment. I grew up in a mixed family – Catholic and Protestant – but somehow always have been an agnostic. I spent my first 19 years in the small farming community of Waseca in south-central Minnesota, and I graduated from Waseca High School. Years later, I went through a one-year vocational program, learning to do counseling and family therapy, with a focus on chemical dependency and sexual abuse. This was related to my family history, which was characterized by sexual abuse and loads of alcoholism and other addictions. In fact, I have a sister who is in a chemical dependency program as I write this, working on recovering from thirty years of addiction.
After I left home, I worked in a number of jobs, never earning a salary, always working for an hourly wage or commission or short-term fee-for-service. Here is a very incomplete list of some of the things I have done for money over the years: musician, bicycle courier, collective member in a cooperative food store, artist’s model, cab driver, fund raiser, non-profit staff worker, delivery guy, factory line worker (more than once), family therapist, teacher, bookstore worker, landscape laborer, newspaper delivery, and house-husband.
As you might guess, I have also worked on numerous occasions as a writer and editor. Mostly this has been in the context of the various political projects with which I have been associated, but I have also occasionally done some writing, editing, or proofreading for mostly mercenary reasons. My average income over the years has been between $8,000 and $15,000 per year.
I have done substantial work on racism over the years, both on a personal and political level. This work informs all of my other work in very profound ways which I will be writing about in the future. All I will say now is that anti-racism work has been for me the starting point to understand issues of privilege, power, and oppression as they relate to class, gender, physical ability, sexual orientation, religion, age, and so on. The process of accepting who I am and where I come from is ongoing.
Political projects in which I have participated over the years include international solidarity work (Southern Africa, Central America, etc), the Minnesota Coalition on Undoing Racism, indigenous people’s solidarity, union stuff, political music, a brief attempt at political stand-up comedy, work with various community development projects (Southside Federal Credit Union, West Bank Community Fund), and various others too numerous to mention here. In some cases I was seriously committed, in some cases I was on the fringes.
I tried going to college once, but I only lasted one quarter at the University of Minnesota before losing interest. I ended up in the vocational program mentioned above, which I completed and in which field I worked only briefly.
My writing and political work has long been guided by four key values: solidarity, justice, compassion, and democracy.
2. Why am I talking to you?
Nygaard Notes has no advertising, and I hope it never will. [2023 update: No advertising yet!] It is not about making a profit, although I hope at some point it can generate enough income so that I can make a living from it, at the modest level mentioned above.
All along the way I have been a thinker and writer. I believe that social change happens when large numbers of people work together in a cycle of action > reflection > action. I write Nygaard Notes as a way of contributing to that cycle. I hope that my writing motivates readers to reflect in a way that leads to action. I will talk to anyone who wants to listen, as I believe my work can be inspiring, motivating, and entertaining.
3. Why am I talking about the stuff I talk about?
In the age we live in, I don’t think anyone needs to get “more” information. So Nygaard Notes is not about offering “more” information. Nygaard Notes is about helping people effectively make use of the barrage of information to which they already have access.
Therefore, I try to write on two levels. First, I try to talk about political or cultural phenomena which I think are important and require action, looking through the lens of the kind of person, and the kind of thinker, that I am. This is the “content” part of Nygaard Notes. I take the time to filter a large amount of information and use my experiences, values, and thinking ability to select what I imagine will be most interesting and useful to people trying to make sense of the world. Then I try to write in plain language that the average 8th-grader can understand.
Secondly, I try to write about how to think about things that are happening, and how to think in general. This is the “process” part of Nygaard Notes. I try to write in the spirit of “popular education.” For that reason, sometimes I write explicitly about techniques that can help people think for themselves. These are my “theory meets practice” pieces, like “How to Analyze a Magazine,” or “Reading the Newspaper: A Four-Step Process.” More often I try to write about something I have seen in the newspaper or somewhere else, and walk my readers through a process of thinking about that thing. My hope and intention is that readers will be stimulated to develop their own, already existing, abilities to think independently in ways that will be useful and empowering for them. After that, they will read Nygaard Notes just because it’s fun and interesting.
4. Why should you trust me, or not trust me?
I am not the person to answer this question. Maybe you know me, or maybe someone you trust recommended Nygaard Notes. Or maybe you just started reading it and it made sense to you. You’ll have to work this one out for yourselves.
5. Why do you care about this stuff?
I start with the belief that, since we live in a democracy, everyone has the capacity to have a positive impact on the society in which we live. I believe, further, that the overwhelming majority of people place a value on justice, and are motivated to a greater or lesser degree by solidarity and compassion. If I am right, then lots of people will care about the things I write about. I hope I am right.
So, that’s where Nygaard Notes started. The next few issues will feature some highlights from the first 25 years. Songs, poems, favorite essays, or just things that I think were particularly interesting, amusing, or that shed some light on subjects that have fascinated me over the years. This should be fun! So, watch your inbox over the next month or so. Who knows what you’ll find?