I still get the Story Worth Questions, even if I do not always write answers. This one asked me to describe my first camping trip. It is below.
The first time I went camping was in when my HS friend Dwayne Gorgon and I rode bikes up to Kettle Moraine State Forest. It was a big adventure for me, more of one than the actual travel would justify. It was not really all that far, a day trip, but a big deal then. It was a hard trip for me at that time. My relationship with Dwayne was a little odd. He was a swim team colleague. We started out together and we used to practice together summer mornings at Kosciuszko Park. I was a significantly better swimmer and our abilities diverged in our junior and senior years. I think he felt it unfair that we worked out the same, but I got better. On the other hand, he had a better bike and I think he was a better bicyclist than I was. It is the kind of rivalry that both spices and sours relationships among teenage boys. I tried not to lord my abilities over him, but I think that made it worse for him. Dwayne was less circumspect in showing he was faster on the bike.
Kettle Moraine is glaciated landscape, that produced wave-like topography. The country trunk roads did not flatten the hills or go around them, so you got a lot of ups and downs. To going down is not usually worth the coming up. You peddle as fast as you can down the slope, but it is never enough to get back up the other side. Crossroads are a complicating factor. Roads tend to cross at the bottom on hills and in those days often featured four way stops. That means you come down fast on one slope and you are supposed to stop before starting up the other. There was not much traffic on those roads, so we tended not to stop. It was scary, however. You could not see over the hills or around the curves, so you always worried a bit that a car would come along.
We ended up at the campground not very much before dark. There is a little poignancy to this story, in that I tried to call home from the phone booth, charges reversed in those pre-mobile phone days. It still made a big difference to me that my parents knew of my exploits, especially my mother. My father answered and said that my mother had already gone to bed. Odd. Turned out that she had gone into the hospital. She would never come home. She knew this was going to happen, but she also knew that we had long planned the trip and did not want to ruin it for me. My mother did not want me to see her in her declining condition and did not want my sister or me to visit. We thought she would be home soon, but we never saw her again. But this was in the future on that night.
That night was the first time I saw the milky way. Milwaukee was darker in those days, but still had streetlights enough to obscure the milky way. I was amazed by the stars, the three-dimensional vastness. But it seemed that the mosquitoes were as common as the stars. We were unprepared for camping (a persistent theme in my camping experience). The mosquitoes tormented us until the wind picked up sometime in the pre-dawn darkness. The wind the blew the mosquitoes away also blew in storm clouds and they dumped heavy rain on us as we rode back home.
It had been a hot ride up; it was cold and wet on the way back. It did not rain all the time. It just rained hard when it rained. In the open country, you could see the rain coming, but could do nothing to avoid it. I was exhausted by the time I got home and went to be early. I still recall my dreams, well images from the dreams. They were letters, like F, HH etc. Wisconsin’s county trunk roads have letters not names.
I still get StoryWorth questions, even though my subscription ran out. I can no longer post to their webpage. I suppose they hope I will re-up, so they keep sending questions. It costs them almost nothing.
“What would you consider your motto?”
This one made me think a little. I have a lot of habitual sayings, but I am not sure if any are mottos. But I came up with one that I use a lot and think is good for my life & others.
Most people take things way to seriously. They inflict on themselves all sorts of needless pain and stress. They get easily offended by slights real and (more often) imagined. And their serious attitude makes it hard for them to enjoy life. They are so dull that they inspire dullness in others.
They just need to lighten up. It is a choice. I know lots of people are going to come back with all the reason why their lives suck and most of those reasons will be valid from their point of view. I would just point to the corollary to lighten up – “get over it,” and the addition to that, “nobody wants to know how you feel about everything.”
Serious people, those who always feel the weight of the world on their shoulders are narcissistic. Let me stipulate that there are some people who really have big responsibility and some times when we all do, but if you let it grind you do, if you take it personally, you are doing nobody any good.
Graveyards are full of indispensable men.
Lots of people are credited with that thought. I first heard it attributed to Charles de Gaulle. Even if he was not first to use it, he is the kind of guy who should have said it, and he was right.
This brings me to another motto, this one much more erudite, Latin no less – “sic transit gloria mundi” – so passes the glory of this world. I always thought it was a classier way of telling me to “lighten up.”
Or maybe from Casablanca, “Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Lighten up.
Odd question and I had to think about it for a little while, but no – I am not proud of my ethnic heritage. Let me explain.
Germans My mother’s family thought they were German. I say “thought” because my DNA indicates that they were not very German at all. Roughly ¾ of my DNA ancestry is Polish and I am more Scandinavian than German, according to the DNA. Since only half my ancestry could have come from my father, my mother’s DNA has a lot of ‘splaining to do. (If it was my father’s DNA difference, it might cause more of a scandal, ex-post-facto) Of course, DNA is not closely related to real nationality. My great grandparents on my mother’s side came from Germany, spoke German, drank beer like Germans and ate sausages like Germans, so that is my heritage on that side.
America is a very much a German influenced place. Germans around 1900 were like Hispanics today, only a greater percentage of the population. When Teddy Roosevelt complained about “hyphenated Americans,” he was talking about Germans. The 2000 census counted 58 million German Americans. Hispanics are assimilating like Germans did, BTW. States and local governments made rules against the use of the German language and native Americans feared Germans would take over the country. German immigrants and their children were majorities in many places (see the map). America absorbed all of that, and in the process lots of German things were modified to become American – apple pie, kindergarten, hamburgers, hot dogs, research universities, beer gardens …
How many Poles…? My father’s family thought they were Polish, and the DNA confirms a lot of that. My grandfather was born in the Russian Empire and people ignorant of history might think he was Russian, but the empire thing explains his “true” nationality, just as a Indian living in the British Empire was not English. Similarly, my grandmother’s family was from Galicia in the Austrian Empire. She was not Austrian. They were Polish speakers and Polish ethnics living respectively in two of the three countries that held Poland in a colonial relationship in the 123 years from 1795 when Poland ceased to exist until 1918 when Poland was reborn.
Ethnicity is bunk Ethnicity is complicated and ephemeral. We think about it reaching way into the past, but this is inaccurate. Whatever you think your ancestors were, you are wrong. Cultures have echoes but they must be recreated with each generation. There is an illusion of continuity. It really does not matter what you were, or thought you were. The past is a foreign country for ALL of us and it all is the common heritage of humanity It would be hard to find a contemporary American more different from me today than my great grandfather would have been.
That is why I am not proud of my ethnicity. I didn’t do anything to build it and it affects me only in kind of a sentimental way.
My own culture was cobbled together from disparate strands.
The Upper Midwest was like Mitteleuropa I think basically that I am “ethnically” Wisconsin, but not Wisconsin of today, the one I grew up with. It was an amalgam of immigrants and old Yankees. We talked a lot about dairy in Wisconsin. That came from immigrants from Central Europe and Scandinavia, but also from immigrants from New England and New York state. They gave us our cheddar, but we invented Colby, which is better. Wisconsin had superb sausages. Our beer sucked when I was young, but that we before the craft brewing renaissance. I learned to love the rolling hills of the glaciated land, all the little lakes and the big one, Lake Michigan. And I learned to love the Green Bay Packers. These things are still “home.” Should I be proud of this? It is part of me, but that is what it is. This ethnicity is much stronger than anything my genetic ancestors were in centuries past.
Greeks and Latins A part of my heritage that I am somewhat proud about is my classical education. This is a completely artificial addition to my “culture,” which is precisely why I can take some pride in it. If I could trace my ancestry back to AD 1, my ancestors would be those barbarians that the civilized folks fought, feared, conquered and enslaved. But the civilized folks wrote literature and developed philosophy and I claim them as my forebearers as my common heritage of humanity.
America swallows ethnicity The biggest part of my heritage is American, just American. None of my ancestors were here for the first part of the American experiment. I suppose I can claim kinship with Kosciusko, Pulaski and Von Steuben, who helped America win its independence, but that is a reach. But I absorbed the experience of the Founding Fathers, the westward expansion, the Civil War and the industrial expansion. My folks got here in time to work in the factories that gave us modern America and fight in the World Wars that kept us free. My German family members fought with equal enthusiasm against their erstwhile German relatives. The great thing about being American is that we can forget or recall our ethnicity at our option. I like lots of the thing Germans and Poles contributed to America, but most of the things I like are from some other sources. I like bratwurst, but generally prefer pizza and I know both those things are American.
I love cultural appropriation In fact, most things I like are mixed and matched. Americans pick what they like best from around the world. You don’t have to be from a place or of a people to take what you think best. All good cultures are glad to share and all great cultures are promiscuous “borrowers.”
So, am I proud of my ethnic heritage? I am proud to be an American and grateful that my ancestors made the choice to come and join America.
My Polish cousin I met one of my cousins when I was in Poland. His name was Henrick Matel. His father was my grandfather’s brother. His father went to France to dig coal, while my grandfather came to America, where he worked in a junkyard. Neither had an auspicious start. I think Henrick kinda looked like me, but lots of people in Poland look like me. All that DNA gives you a distinctive look. Our families had diverged only one generation ago in his case, and two in mine, yet we were not similar besides in having blue eyes and not much hair. He was maybe twenty years older than I was, i.e. he was a little younger than I am now. But he was old and infirm. Living in communist Poland did that to people. And I was American. He commented that I was so upbeat and optimistic, that I smiled easily. He said, a bit ruefully, that I had a lot more to be happy about, and he was right. My grandfather chose to be American. He never was materially successful in his new country. He worked all his life in crappy jobs, but he was a free man.
A heritage of freedom Freedom is my ethnic heritage because I am American. I am proud of my country. I am not proud of my ethnicity that I did nothing to earn, but I am profoundly grateful that grandpa made the right move.
My first picture is my mix of heritage. Espen bought me the German style hat and the Christmas tree is a German tradition. We got the creche in Poland. On the other hand, I have my cowboy style belt buckle and in the background are posters from Chicago and from our American National Parks. The map shows how widespread Germans were/are. They are the light blue.
What is the longest project you have ever worked on?
My longest project is … me. I have been working on that literally my whole life, but the crystallizing moment. When I was going off to college, my father asked me what I wanted to be. Asking me a question like that is like trying to get a drink out of a fire hydrant. I recall telling him that I did not when I came to die discover that I had not lived. Of course, young men don’t talk that way. I didn’t either and when I went off to college, I had not yet read Thoreau for that cool quotation. What I really wanted back then was just to get a well-paying job where I didn’t have to work too hard. But looking back, it is what I wished I had said, what I should have said, and it was the start of my lifelong project. We all want to lead meaningful lives, but what does that mean?
It is actually very simple, if not easy. I am not going to lay out criteria, since each life is different. Everybody needs to find what is important for them but let me give you an example of a good life. There are many to choose from, but my example is someone I knew well, but did not grow up knowing.
Since I cannot be objective with my own parents, let me take Chrissy’s father as my example of a good man and a good life. Arnold Johnson was an ordinary guy. There is great nobility in being an ordinary guy, even if we do not often recognize it. He grew up in Wisconsin around friends and relatives. Worked hard and lived in a green and peaceful part of the world. The Driftless Area of Wisconsin is one of nature’s gifts to all who live or visit there.
When the call came to leave and to serve his country, he did so gladly, landing at Normandy and driving a tank across France with Patton’s army until he was severely wounded and sent to recuperate in England. He returned home after the war, married a wonderful woman, Pearl Olsen, and raised a family on the dairy farm where he had grown up, always providing for his kids and serving his community.
I knew him as an old man. Chrissy was child number six, born when Arnold was already forty-five, so he was about my age now when I met him (maybe not that old).
Arnold & Pearl Johnson retired from farming and move to the town of Holmen, right across form the Lutheran Church that was central to their lives. What impressed me about Chrissy’s parents was their rich social life. I don’t think you can have that anymore. People move too much. They saw friends and relatives that they had know for more than half a century. Arnold took “meals on wheels” to “old people” and was a valuable part of his community almost to the end of his long life.
He was mourned and remembered by many when he died and many more were grateful that he had lived.
The measure of a man is that simple. If lots of people are grateful that you lived, some not even aware BTW like my kids, you have had a successful life. This is available to everybody. It is simple but not always easy.
So this is my life project: to be a good man and lead a good life. If when I shuffle off this mortal coil, if I can be as successful as Arnold, I will be content.
This is my penultimate StoryWorth & this is a good question for the end. I think I will make up my own question for the last one. Not sure what that should be.
My first picture is Arnold & his older brother, Julian. Next is Arnold with his tank. Next is the Johnson Farm in Long Coulee. A coulee, BTW, is a long narrow valley caused by melting of glaciers. The glaciers skipped western Wisconsin, but their effects did not. Picture # 4 is Chrissy’s family. Chrissy is in the middle, stunningly beautiful. I always wondered how I was so lucky. And finally Pearl, Arnold, Chrissy, Espen & Alex.
What was the stupidest thing you have ever done? My StoryWorth for this time.
This is a hard one. I do stupid things all the time, but I often adapt and often make the dumb decision turn out better than an initial smart one. My philosophy is not to make great smart decisions to start but make lots of contingent ones and adjust until I come out right. You might call it sweet serendipity directed.
Generally speaking, you get either a good result or a great story to tell.
Hitchhiking with no plan One of stupid thing I did was try to hitchhike to Florida on spring break, with no map and only $15. It made a good story that I have written about elsewhere. Suffice it here to say that I ended up sleeping in a graveyard in Alabama before high tailing it home. That was stupid, but I was only eighteen, so I can blame youth.
Streaking Another youthful indiscretion was when a group of friends and I went streaking. I could never be appointed to the Supreme Court, now that youthful fun would be reinterpreted as something horrible and oppressive. Take that off my list of ambitions. It was in style back in the early 1970s. They even had a song about it.
There was a joke about two old ladies that decide to streak through the nursing home. They run past a couple of old guys on the porch. “Who was that,” says one old man. Responds the other, “I don’t know, but their clothes sure were wrinkled.”
International travel with no plan When I was a few years older, I saved enough money for a flight to Germany. I had to stay a whole month, since it was a charter flight. Otherwise, I think I would have gone home, since when I got feet on the ground. I had one of those “oh shit” moments. I had a map, but not much of a plan. I spoke bad German and soon found I didn’t have enough money. I hitchhiked around, so I kinda ended up where the flow took me, sometimes sleeping in hostels, sometimes on the ground. I lost about fifteen pounds, since I economized on food. Still tried a lot of German beer, however. It was often cheaper than Coca-Cola and it had calories I needed (liquid bread), so it was okay. I got lots of good stories.
A fool & his money are soon parted I had a few recoverable financial stupid mistakes. One that depressed me for a while was when I bought a whole-life policy. I was in grad school and I thought it was part of being a responsible adult. I was dumb. I didn’t understand what I was doing. I got a lot of coverage and a “savings plan” for very little money. What I did was take out a policy loan greater than the cash-value of the policy. Had I died, my father and sister would have got a good payoff, but the insurance company knew the actuarial odds. It took me a while to pay it off so that I could close the account. I suspect that sequence was part of their business plan and I think it was dishonest of them, even if I signed freely. A young person w/o dependents doesn’t need life insurance at all. Presumably some people would have been sad had I died, but nobody would have suffered financially and that is the only reason for insurance. It was a good lesson for me, however. A fool and his money are soon parted.
I coulda been somebody I also have a financial missed opportunity. As soon as we paid off our student loans, I got a Charles Schwab 1 account. In those benighted days, you still had to call to make trades and I was thinking of my first purchase of common stock. I considered Microsoft & GE, but then I read a book about investing, learned about book value and ratios, so I went with IBM. This was in 1991. GE did well in the next ten years and Microsoft went through the roof. IBM underperformed the market. I feel bad now. I just figured it out. With the IBM, I just about broke even before I generally got out of individual stocks in 1999. Had I invested instead in Microsoft, I would have $88,235.23, but whose counting? Of course, such great gains probably would have made me arrogant and less prudent. Likely I would have taken more risks and lost all that money and more.
Love of the land I have often said that buying forest land was an objectively stupid decision, but one I was glad to make and glad to have made. It was stupid to mortgage the house to buy land in a place I had never been before to work in a business I did not understand because I liked forests. I say objectively stupid, because subjectively it was one of the best decisions I ever made, something I long wanted to do and had thought about literally for decades, almost a lifetime, and it worked out.
Into the desert of Iraq A lot of people told me that volunteering to serve in Iraq was stupid. I suppose it depends on the premises & criteria. I thought then and think now that it was the right decision. I got a lot of shit at the time, but none from anybody whose opinion mattered to me. Of course, a few moved from the “care about” to “not care about” because of giving me shit.
Ignoring life-threatening disease I dodged the bullet with a stupid decision to ignore the pain in my leg that turned out to be peripheral artery disease. I limped around for a year and it eventually got better, but the doctor told me that it was the kind of thing that could cause you to lose a leg or even kill you. This is a kind of non-decision/decision. You cannot go crazy every time you get a little pain. I didn’t recognize the categorical difference. Eventually something will kill me. It will probably unexpected and I hope that it is. Better to go that way, before you have to worry about it too much.
Sometimes the bear gets you There are bears prowling my land. I have never seen one, but I have seen tracks and the hunters capture their pictures on game cameras. One of my joys working on my land is not working. I like to relax in my folding chair, drinking a beer and dozing off before the next shift of work. I imagine the bear coming up behind, catching me unawares and swatting me. Not that this happens often, or ever, but I can imagine it. I told the guys at the hunt club that if something like that happens, they not tell people I was probably taking a nap after a beer. No, they should spread that story that I fought that bear, almost drove him off, and succumbed only after a protracted struggle.
That is the way to be remembered. It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.
What was your life like in the 1970s? Another StoryWorth
I am generally satisfied with the economy and society of today because I spent my early adult life in the 1970s. From the bottom of a hole like that, everything is up. The 1970s were objectively a bad time – the energy crisis, stagflation, fall of Saigon, double digit inflation, long lines at gas stations, Iranian hostage crisis, dollar weakness … Baby Boomers like me had no experience with hard times. Our parents told us about the Great Depression, but that seemed like ancient history, certainly a different America. A messed up decade To clarify, what we call “the 70s” didn’t fit neatly into the decade. More appropriate to mark the period from the start of the energy crisis in 1973 until the economy really started to work well again and American confidence returned about ten years later. 1973 is also a convenient starting time for me too, since I graduated from HS that year and that is where I will start my story. Graduating HS My mother died the year before, but my aunt Florence attended my graduation along with my father. She was proud also to be a Bay View graduate and commented that the music was more triumphant when she graduated. I responded with youthful ignorance that times were so rough for us. She pointed out that she graduated HS in 1939. 1939 was not an auspicious year. Milwaukee was still an industrial city in 1973. We had the industrial pollution to prove it, and we had the jobs. Unemployment was a little higher than it is today, but guys like me had a better chance in those days than now. With a mind that’s weak and a back that’s strong Strong young men did many of the jobs that machines do today. Lack of experience was no disadvantage when success depended only on the capacity to wrestle heavy, dirty and/or hot stuff from one place to another. In fact, ignorance was an advantage. We loaded bags that weighed 70-94 pounds at the cement company. You were almost sure to develop some sort of work-related injury, usually a bad back, if you did this work more than a few years. The work kinda chewed up each new generation of young men. This and the 12-hour days meant that fresh guys like me didn’t have to compete with most men and with no women at all. Call it strong male privilege. The work was amazingly hard, but I made good money and got 20-40 hours of overtime every week, so it was like packing two summers’ work into one. I earned and saved enough money to be content and comfortable over the school year. I still worked in the fast-food and hospitality industries during the school year, but did not depend on that income. State colleges In fall, I started at University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point (UWSP). I didn’t take school very seriously, and neither did most of the people I knew. Our problem was lack of preparation and available beer. Most of us were first generation college students, but with family beer drinking traditions that went back to the middle ages. Drinking age in Wisconsin in those days was 18. That is too young, and we were too stupid to drink responsibly. I learned to sing drinking songs in English & German (actually the one song In heaven there is no beer/ Im Himmel gibt’s kein Bier), but my academic mind was wasted. I didn’t get my act together unit well into my second year. By that time, I got a girlfriend, who helped civilize me, and most of my drinking friends had left school, voluntarily or at the urgent request of school authorities. Not sure how I survived, but I survived, started to study and started get good grades. I believe in redemption. I still graduated on time, four years after I started. Water finds its level UWSP was good for me. I had the test scores good enough to go to a “more competitive” school, but not the habits, skills or culture needed for success in school. Those things I learned at UWSP. Thanks. In the course of learning how to go to college, I decided that I liked it so much that I never wanted to leave college. I did have to leave Stevens Point, however, and go to the bigger and more sophisticated University of Wisconsin-Madison for graduate school. UW was the best university in Wisconsin & non-Wisconsin institutions were largely precluded by my low budget and abysmal grades left over from my time of troubles. Dreams of an academic life My dream was to be a history professor, ancient history. It took me a couple years to know for sure that was not a practical option. Ancient history was not a growth field and all the good jobs were taken. I was a little more than a decade late. Universities had expanded a lot in the 1960s to accommodate students like me. They needed professors of everything and a guy graduating with a PhD in 1965 was golden. Lots of students piled in to fill the gap. The Vietnam war made it worse. Students avoiding the draft wanted to stay in school as long as they could; student deferment kept the out of the draft. This led to an unusual boom in advanced degrees. The first ones out took all the jobs and quickly locked up the supply, and since they were not much older than me, I couldn’t wait them out. I ended the decade with a MA in ancient history. I could read Greek & Latin, but otherwise nothing for employers might want, and Greek & Latin were useful in a very narrow set of circumstances. In fact, an MA in ancient history was worse than nothing even in a normal job market, and I was heading into the worst job market since World War II. I figure whenever you’re down and out. The only way is up. I am not saying the 1970s were all bad. I was healthy and young, and got to experience all those “firsts” of a young man. Nike invented “waffle stompers” in the 1970s and I took up running, which I enjoyed for decades after. There was good music, some good TV programs and they made “Star Wars” & the Star Trek movie. Most important, I became an educated man in that decade, even if my erudition was not immediately useful for getting a job. Besides that, however, the 1970s sucked. On the plus side, it was a good immunization against hard times in the future. It has been up ever since. I Don’t have many electronic pictures from the 1970s life. My first picture I took a few days ago. Picture # 2 is my father on my UWSP graduation day. Next is me lifting weights in the back yard, maybe summer of 1974. Picture # 4 is my old dog Sam, our dog of the 1970s. Last picture is my sister, me and her then boyfriend Joe. She wisely got rid of him.
What food did you like and how has it changed? – My story worth for this week.
I grew up in the days of Wonder Bread and Oscar Meyer wieners and simple foods in general. Milwaukee in the 1960s was not a mecca for a variety of foods, at least around where I lived. We did not even have a McDonald’s until I was in 10th grade. I tried my first Chinese food when I was already in college. I don’t know if you can call Taco Bell Mexican food, but my first exposure to that sort of food came when I was about sixteen. Simple foods to start My mother’s food was good, but simple – meat and potatoes, although never steak. I had my first steak when I was in college. Pot roast and pork chops were our main meet dishes, along with beef stew and backed chicken. We had a lot of spaghetti, Kraft Dinner (macaroni & cheese) and lots of potatoes – mashed, backed and scalloped. My mother’s spaghetti was very simple and not very Italian. Meat with tomato sauce. My cousin married an Italian woman, Irma, and when they lived upstairs from us, I got very good spaghetti. This was when I was already in college, however, and would come home on visits. I admit that I made sure my father told Irma when I would be home, so that I would have her great spaghetti waiting. I have a story about her that I think is funny. Good thing about spaghetti is that it is as good, better maybe the second or third day. Salamander in the basement It is not so much about her as the situation. I had a pet, a red and black salamander. He lived in a terrarium in the basement. I forgot to put the top on right one day and he escaped. I couldn’t find him and presumed him dead. Later, must have been years later because I was off at college and on a visit home, my father told me that he “wondered about” Irma. “Wondering about” someone was his code for saying that he thought they were acting crazy. He told me that Irma claimed to see big lizards in the basement. Milwaukee is a northern city. We do not have big lizards just crawling around like in some places in the south. I asked Irma about that lizards next time I saw her. She said it was red and black and ran off when she saw it. She ran off too, so she was not sure where it went. I never did find this “lizard” but I think it was my salamander. Those things can live twenty years. Our basement was not what you would call “finished.” It still had a dirt floor in some places and the water pipes dripped (my father and grandfather had put them together and there was never a time when they were not drinking beer while they did the work). There were lots of spiders down there, so I presume lots of whatever it is that the spiders were eating. I expect a salamander might feel at home in an environment like that. The best sausage in the world Milwaukee has the best sausage in the world, and I learned to love, and still do love bratwurst, liverwurst & kielbasa. Most of our vegetables came in cans and I still like canned peas better than fresh ones and I like canned peaches, but I am not fond of “real” ones. I don’t like the peach fuzz. College food: good and cheap, well cheap I stayed in the dorms as an undergraduate and had the meal plan. My father paid for it (thanks, Dad). I kind of like cafeteria food, but it was not really very good much of the time. Breakfast was good. You could get eggs and ham or bacon. I liked that. I was lazy my first years in college, so I did not wake up early. Sometimes, however, I would get up early to get breakfast and then go back to sleep. My budgets were much more constrained in graduate school, since I was on my own. With no meal plan, not much money and no cooking skill, I ate mostly baked potatoes and beans. I used to bake up a whole pan of beans on the weekend and then eat them the rest of the week. It is very cheap and so monotonous that you are not tempted to overeat. I lost maybe fifteen pound my first months at University of Wisconsin. My haggard appearance alarmed my father when I went home for a visit. He made sure Irma made extra spaghetti and some lasagna that I took back with me. McDonalds It was also during that time that I worked at McDonald’s. I worked the lunch rush. In addition to the big bucks they paid me for working there, I got a free meal. If you worked up to four hours, you got a small sandwich (hamburger of fish sandwich), small fries and a coke. My colleagues usually made sure my small fries were filled tightly and you could fill up Coke as many times as you wanted, so it was sufficient for my needs. I worked at McDonalds for nine months and then quit because they would not give me a $.05 an hour raise. They said I had the wrong attitude, didn’t take the job seriously enough. The boss said that if I didn’t like it, I could quit. He seemed surprised when I walked out. By then, I was also working delivering mail and running errands at the History Department. Between the 20 hours at McDonalds and about the same at the History Department, I was putting in a full-time job. I wanted more time to study (I was a nerd in those days), so my courageous decision to walk out of McDonalds was not so courageous after all. I ate things I did not like in quantities I did not want, but sometimes good Poland – Zurek One of the most important jobs of a Foreign Service Officer is to eat and drink for your country. This is harder than it seems. Anybody can eat when he is hungry, but it takes a real man to eat when he is full. At official receptions or dinners, I ate things I did not like in quantities I did not want. Our policy was to eat whatever the host gave us and claim that you loved it. Sometimes – often – the food was very good, but not always. You could get used it, however. There is a kind of sour soup you get in Poland called Zurek. I detested it the first time I tasted it. Continued exposure moved me to tolerate it, and by the time I left Poland I looked forward to getting Zurek. Now I miss it. Zurek is hard to come by in the USA. Most Americans have not gone through the learning process I did. Norway – Lutefisk Lutefisk is something I never got to like. They eat that in Norway and also in Norwegian communities in Wisconsin, so I was forewarned. Lutefisk is a kind of decomposed codfish. It has a kind of gelatinous texture, bad taste and strong and unpleasant smell. Norway in the old days was a poor society, with long winters and sparse rations. My guess is this kind of thing was at the bottom of the barrel and everything tastes good when you are really hungry. After a while, they made a virtue out of necessity and called it a delicacy. I guess I never gave it the chance I gave Zurek. Of course, Zurek was commonly served. Lutefisk was reserved for special occasions, thank God. Brazil – Churrasco Brazilians have churrasco. This is great. The main drawback is that it is too good. It consists of various cuts of meat, mostly beef, served on spits. It is all you can eat, and I learned to eat a lot. My favorite was something they call picanha. I think it is a rump or flank steak. The grill it on an open fire with lots of salt and then cut off thin slices, cooked crispy on the outside and still rare on the other side. They have these places now in the USA too. Near us are “Fogo de Chão” and “Texas do Brasil.” I would eat at those places every day, if I knew it would not soon kill me to eat so well. Iraq – Goat grab The Iraqis used to invite us a lot of “goat grabs,” where you had sheep or goat barbecued and put on a bed of rice. It tastes great, but I was less enthusiastic about how you eat it. They put it in the middle of the table, and everybody gathers around, ripping off pieces with their hands. I don’t mind using my hands, but as an “honored guest,” others rip off pieces and give them to you. You have to eat, bad form to turn it down. I always assumed (hoped) that everybody’s hands were reasonably clean, and I never got sick, so I figure it must have been okay. There was a lot of good fellowship at the goat grabs. My translators were often behind the curve. A guy would say something evidently important and sincere, talking for a while. The translator would say something like, “he says the goat if fresh.” My several sentence replies were also distilled into a short phrase in Arabic. I am not sure communications were as well served as the goats. Even though I often could not understand what the others were saying to me, they seemed happy and friendly. Good translation saves my life Speaking of translators, my best was a guy called Sam Said. He got all I said and more. I may owe him my life, as he talked us out of a dangerous situation with an angry mob in Rutbah when I made the mistake of moving around a couple of parked cars in the market, leaving my Marines very close but so far away. I listened intently, smiled when it seems appropriate and answered questions, but Sam supplied all the cultural lubricant. Lucky, I had my best man with me. Meanwhile, the Marines were getting very nervous. “Sir, get the hell outta there.” I told them that I sure would like to do that but, I figured the safest way out was forward. It ended well. The guys were aggrieved by their treatment by local authorities. They had more trust in Americans and their anger drained with every second we listened. I told them I would inquire, and I did. I followed up a week later. The local guys told me all was okay, but I admit to having no independent way of knowing. In Heaven there is no beer, no beer in Iraq either A big problem in Iraq is that there is no beer, at least we were not allowed to have any. As friends know, I am fond of beer, but that is not the reason I missed it so much in Iraq. Beer (vodka in Poland, aquavit in Norway or Cachaça in Brazil, actually beer in those places too, or other alcohol) is a social binder. You drink to others, toast their virtue or just mention some commonality. I suppose you can hold up a piece of meat and say, “this bite is for you,” but it lacks. These days, I often revert to old form. Today, for example, I will bake up a few potatoes and we will have potatoes and vegetables. My first picture is me cooking at the Embassy for our “Burgers w/o Borders,” the event where we launched our participation in “Science w/o Borders”. Eventually, around 30,000 young Brazilians went to the USA to study in STEM. Next is a churrascaria in Goiania. Picture # 3 is a goat grab in Haditha, Iraq, followed by a picture of Polish bison vodka. Last is Arthur Treachers, the now defunct fish & chips place. I liked it a lot, but stayed with it when the quality dropped.
My story worth for this week – What is your best advice when it comes to work?
The simple short advice is not to do what you love rather to learn to love what you do. Don’t follow your passion, since passion is likely to be short-lived and not likely to be something others will pay you to do.
I understand that some people will see my advice as limiting. I see it completely the opposite. Completely the opposite. It is liberating. Rather than being the in thrall to our passions, we choose and create choices. None of us is “self-made” but we have more to do with what we become than anybody else, so it is better if we act on that.
Young & dumb I didn’t follow my own advice at first, mostly because I had not yet developed those ideas and was unbelievably stupid. I just didn’t think much about the future. I just found myself in college and I credit my parents with getting me there. They just assumed I would go to college, so I did w/o much thought. I adapted to college but what was supposed to come after, I thought not much about. I didn’t “follow my passion”. I just drifted into studying history because it was interesting, and I could get good grades.
Going nowhere in particular to being nowhere at all I stayed on this road to nowhere in particular until I realized that it was going nowhere at all. I decided that the quickest way to get on track (I won’t say back on track, since I was never on track) was to get an MBA. My biggest challenge was math. I disliked math and math seemed to dislike me. MBA required calculus and statistics.
Mathematical secret It was then that I learned a secret of math – it requires more persistence than intelligence. I applied the same methods to math that I had applied to studying Greek – just keep going. I perceived that I could develop competence before I developed comprehension. It is counter-intuitive but there are some things you can understand only AFTER you can do them. This is analogous to learning to love what you do rather than doing what you love. It fits together and applies to many things in life and work.
Out of my depth I was way out of my element when I got into the FS. FS had lots of unspoken rules. I didn’t know any of them and I didn’t know who to ask, so I observed and read books. This leads me to my next piece of career advice. You need to learn not only what to do but also how to behave. All organizations have culture and we all need to learn how to move in that culture. All my career, all my life I have felt like I didn’t belong. They call it imposter syndrome. I used to fear it, but I have come to embrace it. My belief now is that if you don’t sometimes feel like an imposter, it is because you are one. My career advice is to embrace it earlier than I did. Understand that you are often playing at levels you think are beyond you, but they are not.
Never complain, never explain My penultimate piece of advice comes from the FS of older generations. They used to advise “never complain, never explain and never apologize.” Of course, never say never, but there is wisdom in the general paradigm. There are reasons to complain, but don’t you just dislike chronic complainers? Explanations can be useful, but people who constantly explain to justify themselves are never respected. I believe in apologizing when I have done something wrong, but not to wallow in it and to move on to the next step quick as we can.
Nobody is out to get you My final advice is maybe more an observation. Most of my career I thought the “they” did not appreciate people like me and would not promote me. We all feel put upon from time to time, sometimes most of the time, and we rarely feel treated fairly. If all of us think that, maybe none of us is right, or all we have done is rediscover the human condition. Despite its “obvious” dislike of people like me, the FS promoted me to very high levels. Maybe “rebels like me” are not very rebellious after all. What we do is normal, expected and maybe even useful. So, my final advice is to enjoy life and career. You are doing better than you think and it really doesn’t matter that much in the long run anyway. Get over it.
Sic transit gloria mundi – it seems like a threat, but it can also be a comfort.
What television programs did you watch when you were growing up? My Story Worth for this week.
The ubiquity of television We were lucky to have two televisions when I was growing up, and one of them lodged in my room. On the downside, both were black and white and neither got good reception. If you have seen video of the moon landing you know what it looked like on our TV most of the time. My father did not watch TV much but when he did watch “Mannix” or “The Untouchables,” it was my task to stand near the TV and move the antenna as appropriate. It never really worked. I also functioned as remote control. We got the big three networks, plus a local channel and PBS. I was always glad if a favorite program was on NBC-4, because that channel got the best reception. Westerns The TV was on almost all the time when I was home. Let me be clear, I turned my TV on. It was my own doing. I just like to have something. Still do, although now it can be computer screen. Usually it was just on and I was not paying much attention. I liked westerns, most of which I saw in reruns. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all and that is what I liked about them. The only way I can differentiate them is when I recall the theme songs. I remember “Bonanza,” “Rawhide,” “The Lone Ranger,” “Bat Masterson” & “Wyatt Earp.” My parents told me that I used to sing the theme song from “Wyatt Earp.” The chorus repeated, “Wyatt Earp, Wyatt Earp, brave, contagious & old.” I learned later that Wyatt was brave, courageous & bold. The “Rifleman” body count The basis of many of these shows was absurd. Consider “The Rifleman,” staring the fierce Chuck Connors. The story is that he is an ordinary rancher who lives near a small town on the prairie. For such a small place, it attracts more than its share of bad guys who need killin’. By the end of most shows, the Rifleman has reluctantly dispatched these bad guys to the promised land – bad guys, plural. Besides the mystery as to why bad guys would come to that small town in general, is the specific mystery about why any of them would make trouble. The murderous alacrity of the rifleman surely would discourage them. Somebody on Internet counted and found that the Rifleman shot 114 men, or an average of 2 1/2 per show. Star Trek Better than westerns, however, I liked science fiction, but there were only three that I recall – “Twilight Zone,” “Outer Limits” & “Star Trek.” I got to know these mostly in reruns and I still watch “Twilight Zone” marathons. I was one of the few original “Star Trek” fans. I watched its prime time three years, their five-year mission to explore strange new worlds cut short by bad ratings. “Star Trek” found its audience – college kids – only when they started to do reruns in the early evenings. Another Internet truth, so it must be true, debunks the myth that the guys on Star Trek with the red shirts always get killed. Of course, when Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the guy with the red shirt beam down to the planet, you know who ain’t coming back. Risky red shirts But there are evidently more red shirts than any other type. Some nerd has done the math. More red shirts died on-screen than any other kind of member of the crew (10 gold-shirted, which are command personnel; eight blue-shirted, who are scientists; and 25 red-shirted). However, those calculations do not take into account that there are apparently way more red shirts on the Enterprise to start with than any other crew type. Out of 239 red shirts, 25 died, about 10%. Out of 55 gold shirts, 10 died, 18%. So you are more likely to die as a gold-shirted command officer. Only 6% of the blue shirted scientists didn’t make it back. So the gold shirted command types are the most at risk. Generally, working on the Enterprise is very dangerous, sure not as bad as making trouble in the Rifleman town, but worse than being in most modern war zones. TV babes I must add a special section on teenage TV crushes. Some TV shows I watched mostly because of the pretty women stars. My favorite was Dianne Rigg on “The Avengers.” Others included Samantha on “Bewitched,” Jeanie on “I Dream of Jennie” and Maryanne on “Gilligan’s Island.” These were objectively horrible shows, but I bet lots of boys 13-15 watched them anyway. Here’s Johnny I joined the swim team in HS and that changed my television habits, among other things. The workouts started right after school and we finished about 5:30. We used goggles, but the chlorine in the pool still irritated our eyes and swim workouts are physically tough. I used to lift weights too, and that was hard to do right after a swim workout. My adaptation was to come home, eat a fast supper and then take a nap for a couple hours to rest my body and let my eyes clear. I would wake up around 9 and do a little homework and then lift weights during Johnny Carson. I thought Johnny Carson was so cool. I especially liked guests like Rodney Dangerfield & Don Rickles. The wonders of cable TV and the Internet mean that I can watch all those old programs just about on demand. My memory of them is better than they really were.
What are some of your special talents? Story worth
There is an old saying that if you really want to flatter somebody, tell them exactly what they think of themselves. Since this a self-assessment, please take that into account.
First the negative. I am a talent-free individual when it comes to arts, crafts or music. I could not learn an instrument. They kicked me out of the music program in 6th grade and told me not to come back. I did better in art class in 7th grade but showed no special talent. I can remember the words to lots of songs and I like to sing but nobody likes to listen to me doing it. I can fix the breaks on my bike. If I try to fix much else, there are lots of left-over parts and “improvisation.”
Improvisation. That is a sort of talent and I am reasonably good at that. I also think I can write well, or at least rapidly. And I am an entertaining public speaker. It was one of my strengths in the FS. At one time, I could give presentations in Norwegian, Polish or Portuguese and was in demand. Of course, it may have been mostly because I would do it. Many colleagues avoided public presentations for fear of getting in trouble for what they said. I had a talent for avoiding trouble in public presentations. I am not sure it is a good talent, but I can talk around an issue and give authoritative answers while not coming down to a single position. I really do believe in pluralism, so it was not as much a challenge accepting many positions.
The work of art I have been working on for years is my forest. It is shaping up in ways better than I imagined but also according to some of what I did or had done. I was looking over some of my blog entries about conservation. I kept notes. I travelled a lot, visited lots of forest types, talked to lots of people and came found lots of ideas to apply to my small patch of land, and took pictures. I sometimes feel small when people talk about managing thousands of acres; my big plans often involve acreage in the single digits. On the other hand, I have put my feet on most of my acres. I have put my hands on many of the seedlings. Though I know that it is unrequited, I love the land and I think that makes a difference to what I do on it. The passion for the land, the curiosity to learn and apply more, this is a type talent. They result on the land is a symphony.
When I shuffle off this mortal coil, I will leave three legacies – my family, my work and my land. None have been my creations, but I have been an interactive in each. I rarely write about the family, even though they are most important because they have their own stories to tell. My work once seemed the most important thing in the world, but the perspective of time shows that I just held a place that many others could have done. The land will persist. The decisions will be evident for decades, even if nobody knows those choices were mine. There is a beautiful burr oak on the playground at Dover Street School. It greeted me as a mature tree when I showed up for my first kindergarten class. It is there still sixty years later. I have no idea who planted it or when. But the legacy of that person has given me joy for – literally – almost sixty years. If I can have a legacy like that, I will be content. That is talent and that is special.