Cities can be very crowded and the countryside usually is a bit lonely and lacking cultural services. The ostensible arbiters of taste hate the suburbs. They critically acclaim crappy movies like “American Beauty” or “Revolutionary Row” that fit into cognoscenti stereotypes of life in the suburbs. Maybe these wise guys won’t understand, but suburbanites are the happier with their lives than those people who live in small towns or big cities, according to Pew Research.
You can see some of the variety of options in the pictures. It goes from the very crowded city of Sao Paulo, Brazil to a leafy and low density City of Milwaukee Street. Frankfurt, Germany has become a very green city, even though it is in the center of a dense urban zone. Cities can also be the crowded density of India or the grimy but vital Chicago street. And there are still places in the U.S. were almost nobody lives. You can see on the picture from my sister’s back yard in the Milwaukee suburb of Oak Creek.
I work in the city, live in the suburbs and spend a lot of time on my farms in rural areas. Each has its attraction and I would not want to have to choose among them and I don’t have to, so in many ways it is a false choice. Let me address it anyway.
The key advantage of the city is that you can walk to the places you need to go, although this advantage is lost on many urban dwellers, since they don’t walk much anyway. Suburbs are a little too much car culture for me. Of course, I am a bit spoiled in Washington, which is one of the world’s most pleasant and walkable cities. Washington really isn’t a city. At least around the Capitol, it is more like a nice park with magnificent monuments and museums. Who wouldn’t like that? In many cities these days you cannot really walk around much.
Diversity used to be an advantage of cities, but not anymore. Today that is an advantage of the near-in in suburbs. Fairfax County, where I live, is more diverse than Washington DC. My homeowners’ association has people from all over the world interacting and getting along, which is true diversity. People in cities tend to have more defined and sometimes antagonistic group identities. Group identify is not diversity; it is just a kind of standoff. The suburbs are now doing a better job of breaking down archaic group-think. I suppose that sort of homogenization is one of the things that offends some people, but I prefer to interact with people, not “representatives.” Rural areas tend to be less diverse, in my experience, because fewer people are moving in.
The advantage of the rural areas is space and I love to hike in the big natural areas and I really love MY forests, but absent those things, rural life holds few attractions for me. The countryside is a place to get away to … and then get away from. It is not a place I would like to live permanently. We lived in Londonderry in New Hampshire, which was an interesting exurb. It has the demographic characteristics of a suburb, but the density of a rural area along with a little bit of a small town. We lived in a kind of cluster development, which I found very pleasant. I like to see my neighbors, but be able to leave them behind when I want to be alone. This may be the blueprint for the community of the future. You can have fairly dense development amid green fields connected to urban amenities.
The old suburbs, where everybody has a rambler or ranch style house set on a half acre lot are soooo 1950s. The gritty urban environment is too unpleasant and the countryside is too vast. Put them together, and you have something nice. I guess that is why I am happy where I am now in Fairfax. Of course, I will be keeping my eyes open for something better. That is the American way.
Speaking of that, Pew has an article about the middle class (available here) and I read the Economist special report on the growing global middle class (here). The middle class is also much maligned by the cool ones. They used to call us bourgeois. But when you think about it, most of the good values come from the middle class. The poor are too screwed and screwed up to think about the better things in life and the rich are too spoiled and effete to care.
This middle class guy in the suburbs is feeling okay. A lot depends on not on the location or the life station but on the person. No matter what how much you make or where you go, you have to live with yourself. If you don’t like the company, you are out of luck.
I don’t acquire as much collectible stuff as some people. I was thinking about how I have almost nothing left from my posts in Brazil, Norway or Poland. Then I started to think that I don’t have much from anyplace else in general.
It is not that I just don’t keep things. I keep things that I regularly use. Chrissy gives me a hard time that I rarely buy new clothes. I really see the need to replace something until it wears out. Pictures of me from years ago show this. Once when traveling to Germany, the border guard questioned my passport photo. Since I got that passport, I had grown older, grown a beard and cut my hair much shorter. He looked up again. “Okay, same eyes and same necktie,” he laughed.
I don’t think I have anything left over from Brazil. That was a long time and several moves ago. We have a few things from Norway. We have a cheese cutter, a print of the building where the Norwegian Constitution was signed and a wooden bowl made by my colleague Leif Somerseth, who made them from burls on some birch trees at his mountain cabin. (The wooden bowl is pictured above. I tossed in my two pieces of the Berlin Wall and that is where they have resided ever since.) We were in Poland twice can more recently, so we have a little more from there. I have a framed antique map of Poland, a reproduction sword, some prints and some wood carvings.
But the most useful thing we have is a set of Boleslawiec ceramics. We should have bought more of it. They were practically giving this stuff away when we first got to Poland. You could get a whole set for around $10. Now a single plate costs that much or more. Unfortunately, it is a wasting resource, i.e. pieces are breaking and one day they will all be gone. I don’t think we should just save or preserve them. It was made to be used and use it we do. In many ways, the experience with the thing is more important than the thing itself.
I never understood those guys who collect things unopened in their original packaging. IMO, the value comes from its use and using it adds the personal value. The things I still have from Poland or Norway are not things I just bought. They are things people gave to me or things that came from some experience. Their value doesn’t come from the thing itself, but from associations and experience surrounding it. Things you keep should have a back story, one of your own, not just a vicarious one or some ersatz tale created by a salesman or marketing department.
You probably don’t need too much stuff in general and keeping in mind the real back story helps slow the mindless accumulation.
My big boss Jeremy is retiring. I will miss him. The generation of great officers who were running the show when I came into the FS is passing. Now I am among the old guys.
We went out for the last breakfast at a downtown hotel and I walked back to work after. Although I walked through an area near the State Department, I don’t usually go this way and I found some interesting things for pictures.
Espen went off to school this year. It is sad for Chrissy and me not to have him around all the time, although we are happy that he is not far away at George Mason University. He comes home a lot, but we sometimes don’t see much of him anyway, since we are generally awake during the day while he is sort of nocturnal.
Experiments in sleeping
He is trying a sleep experiment over the Christmas break. His idea is to go to bed a couple hours later and sleep later every day until he moved completely around the clock and can wake up fully rested early in the morning in time to go back to school. It should work. It is much easier to go to bed later than to wake up earlier and I read that this moving around the clock is one way they use to cure insomnia. He has fallen off the discipline recently, however, since he has been going out with his friends.
Studying computers & interning at Lockheed
Espen is studying computer engineering. He has to take a lot of hard classes, but there is strong job growth for those who make it through. He had a paid internship at Lockheed-Martin working on their computer systems last summer and will probably get the job back next year. That will probably be as important to his future prospects as what he learns in school. They also got him a security clearance, which is very valuable for jobs around here with government and government contractors.
Alex starts at JMU via NOVA
Alex will be going to James Madison University in January and starting as a junior. His is a real turn-around story. He was an unenthusiastic student and wasn’t ready for college when he graduated HS. It was hard for Chrissy and me not to push him in, but I remembered my own early college experience. I wasn’t emotionally ready to go and I didn’t study and managed to achieve a 1.67 GPA in my freshman year. Alex found a decent job at Home Depot, which both helped him with his basic discipline and made him see the value of formal education. He started to go to Northern Virginia Community College and eased into higher education part time, soon studying hard and getting good grades.
Valuable experience at Home Depot
It might have been better for him to wait until fall semester to start at JMU. He has been doing very well at Home Depot, working hard and getting some of the respect and opportunity that comes from doing a good job. I think it would be good for learn some more useful skills. He has been scheduling contractors and working with appliances and fixtures. This experience is worth a lot in the real world, but I understand that he is impatient to get on with the next steps in his life. I will miss him. We have been attending Smithsonian lectures together. Unfortunately, I think that has made him even more eager to get to JMU. He is usually by far the youngest person in the audience and he feels life is passing too fast.
Following in my historical footsteps
Alex likes history and that is what he probably will study at JMU. Studying history is not directly applicable to any particular career but it is a great general background for life. My history MA has been as useful as my MBA, although it doesn’t tend to impress hiring managers as much. I think there is a big difference between rigorously studying history and just coasting along. Alex really tries to understand.
Mariza working at Travelers’
Mariza is still working at Travelers’ Insurance in Baltimore. She is an insurance adjuster for environmental claim, which means asbestos, mold, oil spills & sewage – all the fun stuff. Most the clients are firms and it is usually third party liability. A lot of these things are subject to interpretation. Of course most of the claims are legitimate, but she also has to deal with hypochondriacs who probably really believe that they were made sick by various things and predatory lawyers who prey on insurance companies, firms and putative victims alike.
New apartment not far away
She moved to a new apartment last summer, not far from her old one. It is a cheaper and she doesn’t have to share with roommates. Mariza was the de-facto property manager in his former apartment. It was hard for her to get her sometimes lackadaisical and deadbeat roommates to cough up the cash for rent. The landlord did the old “joint and several” lease, whereby every individual was responsible for the whole rent every month. Mariza’s roommates had a higher tolerance for risking eviction and/or bad credit and that is how she got stuck trying to herd the cats and get them to pay up.
Baltimore has some nice neighborhoods
Baltimore is a very nice city, if a bit uneven in its attractiveness. There are some very distinctive sections that are almost like towns within the city. Mariza used to live on Bolton Hill, which was an area of nice old building, some being renovated. She lives in Mount Vernon now, dominated by an interesting monument to George Washington. It also has some of the spillover of students from Johns Hopkins University. Nearby, however, are some very gritty and dangerous looking places. Espen and I drove through one area after dropping Mariza off. We noticed some really little kids just hanging around and it reminded Espen of a Dave Chappelle skit you can watch it at this link if you are not offended by colorful language.
Chrissy doing HR at Department of Labor
Chrissy is doing well at the Department of Labor. She got an award this year and will probably get her promotion next year. The Civil Service is not like the Foreign Service. Our ranks follow us personally not matter what job we do. The FS system has its disadvantages, but the rank-in-person allows us to take a wide variety of jobs. The all important arbiter in the GS system is the position description. Chrissy spends a lot of her time analyzing and assessing job descriptions. It is, unfortunately, almost impossible to reward well-performing individuals. Managers have to rewrite their job descriptions or move them to new positions. They are not supposed to do that just to reward employees and that is the problem Chrissy often faces. She has to keep them to the rules.
Mine safety is serious business
Her section deals with mines and mine safety and Chrissy gets to travel around to do job fairs and recruitment. Given the nature of mining, these fairs tend not to be in the large and sophisticated metro areas. They have a lot to do in West Virginia and rural Pennsylvania, for example. The mine inspector program has a diversity problem that upsets some of the leadership. Given the location of most mines and nature of the industry, people with significant mining experience tend to be white and male. Also given the life-and-death nature of mine safety, you cannot fake or fudge this experience as you can in many other jobs.
On top of all that, inspecting mines is a physically difficult and demanding task. All this means that “achieving diversity” is a daunting task, which is why they do job fairs in places like El Paso and Puerto Rico.
Federal hiring process is confusing
It is hard to get jobs in the Federal government, hard because of the arcane and Byzantine system they use for most recruitment. They system is designed to be perfectly fair and perfectly transparent, but because it tries to do these thing perfectly in theory it usually means that it is unfair and opaque in practice. It is a frustrating challenge for Chrissy a lot of the time. But that is a story that she can tell, not me.
Public diplomacy moves to social media
My job had its ups and downs this year, but nothing spectacular. I wrote about some of the public diplomacy we helped do for President Obama’s appearances in Cairo and Ghana. IIP has really become a new media center and my colleagues are developing programs very nicely. I am getting a little concerned, in fact, that the new media is getting a little ahead of our capacity to use it effectively in public diplomacy. In the last couple of weeks, I have had the chance to work with FSI to develop training in social media for decision-makers. We are hoping to make this a policy level course, not just a how-to but a why-do. It is too easy to get beguiled by what we think we can do w/o asking what we are trying to accomplish and what tools are most appropriate. I have appropriated the poetic phrase that we must not let our new media reach exceed our public diplomacy grasp.
Our reach exceeds our grasp
I worry that the ubiquity and easiness of new media will convince us Washington that we can reach overseas and influence far-away audiences with a one-size-fits-all strategy. We really need the on-the-ground presence and expertise. There is no such thing as a world brand or a strategy that works all over the place. The strength of our FS is that we can be decentralized and near the “customers,” responding to local cultures and nuances. But this kind of work looks plodding compared to the excitement of the new media. It is tempting to go direct. We tried to bypass our posts in the 1990s. In many ways, the dot.com debacle was like the new media craze. We unilaterally dismantled a lot of our networks in the late 1990s and paid the price later. I hope we don’t do that again and I will do my best to prevent it.
Back overseas for me … in 2011
I suppose I do have a dog in that fight. I agreed to go back overseas, back to Brazil. I will be public affairs officer there with lots of up-close, hands-on opportunities. I won’t be going until summer of 2011, so there is a lot of time to prepare. I haven’t keep up much with Brazil, so I have some catching up to do but I am looking forward to it. My favorite issues relate to economics, environment & Energy and those are the crucial ones in Brazil. I will also be glad to have some line duties again. The Wall Street Journal has a Portuguese version. I have been reading it for the past couple days and can still do it reasonably well. I don’t think it will be too hard to take it up again.
All things considered, not bad
It has been a good year for us, all things considered. Both boys took the next big steps in their lives, but I didn’t see any major turning points and we end this year as we might have expected at the start. Of course, you often don’t see the big changes as they happen. They are clearly evident only later and when you look back you cannot believe you didn’t know at the time. Maybe there is something like that. We go into the new year grateful for the blessing of the present and optimistic about the future.
I was devastated when I first learned about original sin. No matter how good you are or what you do, you can’t overcome the sin carried by all humans. Fortunately, there is a way to redemption. Many in today’s world have rejected this religious concept and some have rejected religion altogether. At least they think so.
If you believe in nothing, you fall for anything
But humans are hardwired to believe in something beyond themselves. The non-religious or the un-religious often develop some very rigorous dogmas of their own. Sometimes they are deadly godless quasi-religions such as Nazism or communism. More often in our own times they are variations of difficult to define new age beliefs. Some people are attracted to these sorts of things because they can fill in whatever they want while still enjoying the safety net of spirituality.
Excessive purity is a perversion
IMO, one of the most pernicious perversions of religion was/is the type of exclusive, bigoted purity (BTW – I avoid using the term puritan because that implies a particular time, place and people.) that declares the very nature of humanity as evil and holds out almost no chance of redemption. We have had outbreaks of this throughout history and it is a deadly disease.
I always thought that if God was almighty he could take care of himself without the faithful on earth having to kill or torture people in his name and a just God surely doesn’t reward those that do. But many of the purists evidently have less confidence in the Almighty than I do and feel he needs their humble human violent interventions. Good people have to oppose this perversion of faith w/o necessarily attacking the God that these misguided people purport to represent.
There is no possibility of redemption in most secular variations of original sin
Unfortunately, secular quasi-religions can also be intolerant, deadly and human-hating and they can and do produce a secular version of original sin. In the Marxist version, your “sin” relates to the class and Marxist theology allowed whole classes of people to be consigned to Gulags, no matter their individual behaviors or attributes. The Nazis did this based on races, as they defined them.
Your carbon footprint = your sin?
The concept of original sin is becoming prevalent in some of the deeper green environmental circles and is manifest most clearly in the concept of the “carbon footprint.” The whole idea of global warming maps closely with original sin. According to the more extreme interpretations, all humans are guilty of greenhouse gas. In a modern version of the medieval mortification of the flesh, you can reduce your “sin” but there is nothing you can do to avoid it. The best thing you could have done for mother earth was never to have been born and some people have advocated holding you accountable for your own carbon footprint and those of your descendants. We could paraphrase Exodus 20:5 by saying that it visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and forth generations, but this modern religion goes on forever. And it is even expanding to include our pets. Yes, owning a big dog may be worse than driving an SUV. Ironically, I think the idea that the human species should voluntarily vacate the planet sits better with some people than the idea that they would have to get rid of their dogs or cats.
Similar to what I wrote about religion a few paragraphs above, good people have to oppose this perversion of environmentalism w/o rejecting the concept that these misguided miscreants purport to represent.
Humans are part of nature and what we do becomes part of nature
Human beings are not some kind of blight on nature that should be extirpated. Humans are an integral part of nature as it exists today. As part of nature, we have the responsibility to use wisely the intelligence given us by nature and natures God. This also means using wisely those natural resources available on this earth. We must firmly and forcefully reject the idea that humans should deny their own right to continued existence on the earth, understanding that having humans on earth means that the earth will be altered by us. This is what every plant and animal does.
I always admit that I don’t have any original ideas and I don’t have any new ideas. I found something I wrote six years ago while sitting in forest shelter to avoid the rain. It has the advantage of being more spontaneous and I really cannot improve on it so I copied it below with a few minor edits.
I have been wandering forests for my entire adult life, most of my adolescence and some of my childhood. I have learned to identify the trees, soil types, & topography. I love forests, but my thinking about them has changed. I used to like to wander lonely as a cloud. I didn’t want to see the signs of human kind in my forests. Maybe that was because there was little chance I would get my wish.
Nature without people is just plain lonely
I have changed my mind. I don’t really like wilderness in the sense of land without man. There was plenty of that in the countless eons before man and there will be plenty more after we are gone. Will “time” stop with nobody left to count the minutes, hours, days and years? It might sound arrogant to say that man is the measure of nature, but it is even more arrogant and downright ignorant for any human to say that he can understand nature in any other way. Raw nature is nasty, cold and incompressible. No human can respect nature in its natural state and it really doesn’t matter if we do. There is nothing the human race can do to add or detract from nature. If we managed what we arrogantly fear (but couldn’t really do) – if we destroyed the entire surface of the Earth, would that make any difference to a nature that encompasses an endless universe of worlds without end with billions of years at its disposal? Is there anything any of us could do that will make a difference a billion years hence?
What can we do to harm nature? In the long run – nothing
It would make a difference to humans in the here and now. We can only add or detract from the human interpretation of nature. Now I am happy to see signs of “good” human intervention and sometimes even the results of a bad intervention healed. More than a century ago, a great man-made catastrophe transformed Northern Wisconsin. The great Peshtigo fire burned everything from the middle of the state to Lake Michigan. You can still see the signs in the type of vegetation and soils. We now call it old growth, but it results directly from inadvertent “bad” human intervention. The people living now benefit from this horrible tragedy of which most of them are unaware. Sitting in alone in a forest shelter in a downpour puts things in perspective.
I don’t think that life runs in circles, but we kind of follow trials, maybe more like a bloodhound following scents. The scents can be stronger or weaker. Sometimes they are washed away completely, but more often it only seems that way. Naturally the course of your career is often determined by your core competencies and talents. You tend to circle around the places where you have expertise. That is why it is so important to start along a path with lots of options, since you may be travelling that way a long time.
The natural circle
Forestry was probably my biggest circle. I have always loved nature and studied forestry in college, but abandoned it as impractical. I believed that was the end of it, but I didn’t know myself as well as I thought. While my conscious mind was not paying attention, under the surface I was always paying attention to the opportunities and – in the Chicago term – when I saw my chances, I took them. I became a forest owner. People wondered not only why I wanted to do that, but also how I knew what to do. I just did. I had learned to identify forest types and assess forest land, not in the professional sense but enough to know what I was buying because that program had been running in background for thirty years.
Now I may well be bookending my career with Brazil. Brazil was my first post and Portuguese was the first language the FS taught me. That was a long time ago, a quarter century ago. Besides my sojourn in Iraq, I spent the rest of my career in Europe. But I wasn’t so completely out of it. In 2000, I went to the EU Summit in Lisbon. Their Portuguese is very different from the Brazilian variety and for a couple days I couldn’t say anything. But then it came back, mostly. A couple years ago, FSI offered an online Portuguese reading course. I had no reason to take it, but I did.
I went down to Sao Paulo and the State of Parana in May of this year. Brazil surprised me. I guess I should have known that it would change in twenty-five years, but it had changed a lot. The country of the future was finally catching up with its vast potential. So when they advertised for the PAO in Brazil, I applied for the job. Yesterday I got it.
Foreign language is hard and you tend to think you sound better than you do
It is well in the future. The job doesn’t start until summer of 2011. I will finish the job here in IIP next summer, so I will have to find something for a couple months before I start the area training and language again. I want to get my Portuguese as nearly perfect as I can and that takes effort and training. I was easily fluent in the language when I lived in Porto Alegre, but I know that at my best I sounded like the equivalent of Sergeant Schultz from Hogan’s Heroes. I want to move up to the Louis Jordan or Ricardo Montalban level.
FSI has language proficiency levels. IMO – the 1 level is like those Japanese fighter pilots on old movies, You can say just enough to make a few exclamations. When you approach the 2 level, you can ask where directions to the bathroom or the train station, but you might not understand the answer well enough to find it. The 3 is Sargeant Shultz. People understand you, but it is often comical. You have to get at least 4 to approach Louis Jordan or Ricardo Montalban, but they are probably closer to 5.
Once more around the track
So it looks like I will be doing another lap around another circle. Brazil is a very good post. The PAO seemed like a real big deal when I was looking at it from the junior officer perspective. Now, maybe not so much, but it will be a good and rewarding work. It has a big budget and a lot to do. This time I will be able to see the country and appreciate it more. Last time we were so poor that we couldn’t afford to go anywhere unless the government sent us. We were paying off student loans, car loans and then the expenses of the kid. Mariza was born in Brazil. We should be on easy street this time. The verse from TS Eliot seems appropriate.
We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time.
Pedestrians are like Rodney Dangerfield. We get no respect. They did a good job plowing the streets for the cars, which means they piled the snow up on the corners, where anybody on foot has to climb a small mountain to get to the road. The problem is often not climbing the snowy mountain, but sliding down the other side and controlling your descent w/o falling on your rear or sliding into traffic.
I have written before about the obvious way the authorities prioritize auto traffic while ostentatiously praising pedestrians. Below – if you look carefully, you see that there is a car in there. Good luck on driving out of that.
This is even the case near the Metro. Presumably some people might be on foot on the roads leading to Metro entrances.
But I have to admit that Washington DC does a relatively better job than Virginia. As you can see from the picture below, they have made a path. Here we have a different problem. Pedestrians tend to walk in front of cars even when the cars have a green light.
I think we have a general disrespect for the law because the law has a general disspect for us. Many drivers in the Washington region don’t seem to understand crosswalks. It is not just because we have a car culture. California is more a car culture than we are but you have to credit drivers in California. They pay attention to cross walks. Many places the “walk/don’t walk” signals require you to push a button and wait a long time. In other places the transitions are too fast. I know of one place where the green turn signal stays on all the time, confusing both drivers and pedestrians.
Above – I just had to include this. It was actually fairly warm in the sun and the guy was snoring loudly. If you look nearby at the bottles, you notice that this guy probably has plenty of antifreeze in his bloodstream anyway. Below is the three-way snowball fight standoff. Something went wrong with my camera settings, which is why we have such “artistry.”
Above is the U.S. Capitol from the back of the American Indian Museum. Below is the Lincoln Memorial on the other end of the Mall.
The Federal government (although the Senate was at work late into the night) was closed because of the snow, but it really wasn’t hard to get down to Washington. I just caught the Metro. I wanted to see Washington in the snow and quiet. There was a lot of snow, but it wasn’t quiet. Lots of people seemed to have the same idea. I took a long walk from the White House to the Capitol. Some pictures are included.
Above is the Washington Monument. Below is the frozen reflecting pool at the World War II Memorial.
Below is the Smithsonian Mall.
Below is the White House from Pennsylvania Avenue.
This was a record-breaking snow for December. They already announced that the Federal Government will be closed tomorrow. Chrissy and I were able to drive around with the Honda and do some Christmas shopping. The main roads were clear but the side streets were still sometimes bad.
Above is the narrow path of the plow on our street. It is actually better that way because the plows don’t make such an impassible bank across the driveways. Below is the front of our complex.
It is useful to have big boys. Below is Espen clearing the driveway. He also did the same for our neighbor. Good boy.
Below is the back of our house. The red oak trees are getting big.
It has been a cool year so far and it looks like it might be a snowy winter. I don’t know if this will be any kind of record, but it is the earliest big snow I remember.
It is Saturday; otherwise government would be shut down and the whole city thrown into panic. Washington doesn’t handle snow well. These are a few pictures from around the house. The blobs of light in the pictures are snowflakes reflecting the camera flash. I took some w/o the flash, but I kind of liked the effect with it.
Above shows our Honda covering in snow. We don’t plan to drive anywhere. The snow will stop tomorrow and the sun will come out again. Snow doesn’t last long in Virginia. I figure that the Lord put the snow there and he will remove it before I need the car again.