This technique is employed big time by the self styled “moral leaders” of our society. We can always imagine better than anybody can achieve, so you are guaranteed to be right when you say that anybody, anywhere at anytime is not living up to standard. You can also seize the rhetorical high moral ground. The only problem is that it is completely dishonest and ends up harming everyone.
I spent my career trying to explain the USA to foreign audiences. When I gave a lecture, I would usually start by saying that anything they think about the USA is probably true. We have great examples of the good and bad in humanity within our borders. We strive to be “more perfect” which implies we will never get there. But we had to apply the “compared to what?” criterion, the only valid measure.
This was not a defensive crouch. It rather expressed a belief in diversity, progress and continual improvement, as well as a preference for the real world good over the ethereal perfection. America, I explained, is lived better than it is often portrayed, and it was not in spite of our lack of perfection but because of it. When I gave this talk before the fall of the Soviet Union, I used to digress into the Soviet constitution, which I said was much better than ours in theory, but horribly wrong in practice. It was good to be compared to such a benighted place.
Most of my talks were give-and-take, so each was different and responded to peculiar audience preference. Each was different and adaptive. In all modesty, I was very good at these things, and always got good reviews and request. I brag about this for a specific purpose here. What made them good was the give-and-take. I never knew exactly what I would say.
And I would close my program with a recognition of that. I would explain that the reason that they liked the program is that they had helped build it, that I could not do it w/o them, and that the reason we could do so well is that we were not scripted. My implication was that we were seeking something good, but did not expect perfect.
I know that I harp on this, but I think it so important. MOST people got it wrong when they think about forests, harvests & markets. Far from harming forest health, strong markets mean healthy forests and lack of harvests leads to widespread decline, disastrous fires & forest killing insect attack. Saving paper doesn’t save trees “Don’t print. Save a tree.” If you have that on your email, you are mistaken. There are good reasons not to waste paper, but these are related to energy costs and use of chemicals in paper manufacture. You do NOT save trees by saving paper. You do NOT save forests by using less wood. Of course, there are nuances. Harvests and deforestation are not the same things. Deforestation for wood production simply is no longer an important issue in Europe or North America. To the extent that deforestation is an issue at all it results from forest being converted to other uses. Real threats to forests are not harvests These days deforestation results from suburban expansion, road building, energy exploration and even for construction of solar farms. And forest ecosystem are destroyed by big fires and insect infestations. Ironically, the “environmentally aware” guys who build beautiful homes in the woods, using bamboo, recycled wood or even hemp, drive electric cars powered by a nearby solar farm and use that car to drive to protests against forest harvests are much more destructive to forests than the guys operating the chainsaws. Save forests, use more wood If you want to improve the health of American forests, you should use MORE wood, stipulating that it come from forests managed according to ecological principles are in harmony with a strong land ethic. This includes most forests in North America. Things are not what they were in the exploitative old days, but people’s perceptions have not caught up. Preserve some, use some steward all Think of our American land in three categories. Some places are so unique that we should try to preserve them. I say “try” because nature is dynamic and cannot be preserved, but some places can be stewarded to keep the local environment much as it was in a time we found it or like to remember it. Some places will be used intensively. There will not be much free living nature in the center of a big city, in a mine or under a road. The disruption may be short-lived or long term, but we have to accept these as the cost of our living on earth. Both the preserved and the intensely used make up a prominent but relatively small part of the total land area. Most land should be stewarded not only sustainably but regeneratively. We have learned to do this in forestry, especially over the last decades and we know how to do it in agriculture, although big challenges remain in implementing what we know and learning more. Let me emphasize that this is a human hands-on exercise, but one informed by science, experience and land ethic. I am certainly not content with the current state of forestry. We can always improve and we are always improving, but the way to improve is by being involved, not by standing aside. And please take that inane saying about saving trees by saving paper off your emails.
Have you ever engaged in an act of spontaneous generosity? My Story Worth question for this week.
We had just harvested timber, so I had the cash. And even though timber harvests are expected and planned parts of our forest enterprise, it still seems like a windfall when decades of waiting come in, so maybe I was more inclined than I might otherwise be to be generous.
I was out in front of Mariza’s house in Baltimore, pulling up some of the landscaping fabric. When they “flipped” her house, they laid the fabric just on top of the dirt and staked it down. It made it look good for a few months, long enough to sell the house, but it was not a long-term solution. Pulling it up along with all the rocks and the plants that have managed to root though the holes is fairly hard work and it was a hot day, so I accepted the offer of the guy who wandered by pulling a lawn mower and some garden tools.
He was a hard-working guy, so I wondered why he seemed to be in such a precarious financial position. He said that he liked to work for himself, and had done okay for some years, but had fallen are harder times lately since he had lost his truck. With a truck, he went on, he could travel farther for business and even employ some of his friends. These are the kinds of enterprises you see advertised as “two guys and a truck,” along with an hourly rate to be paid in cash, usually in advance. Most people are not willing to pay for those two guys w/o a truck.
I asked him if I could lend him money to help him buy a truck. What convinced me that he was an honest man is that he said no. He didn’t know if he could pay it back. It took a while to convince him that I was confident enough to invest in him and that I did not need a quick turnaround. We had a few glitches. I wrote a check, but he did not have a bank account, so got stuck with those fees at the “checks cashed” facilities. I always wondered who used those places.
My father told me that, when he was young, people like him did not have bank accounts, but I figured that those days were passed. I was mistaken.
It would be unfair for me to characterize my friend’s life, since it is not my story to tell. Suffice it to say, our life experiences were different, but we wanted some of the same things. We wanted to take care of our families, be true to our friends, and be respected for the work we did. If I could help this good man do that, it would be worth it.
The truck helped my friend make a living and it helped the people around him. He told me because he had a truck, he could help his neighbors move and drive his kids to events and school. We had an interesting talk about the latter.
Seems he was dropping off his daughter and a cop gave him a ticket for “standing”. He thought that was unfair and as he explained it, I thought it was unfair too. I told him that he should contest the ticket. He averred that it didn’t matter, and he would not be treated fairly no matter. I told him to go to court anyway, if for no other reason than just to make it a little harder on the man. In the end, they dismissed the whole ticket. The outcome surprised him and evidently his friends.
By lending him the money, I showed respect for him and that I wanted to be part of his enterprise. The money was sure important, but I think the dignity was there too. Ours was a relationship of equal adults, interested in a common outcome. That was why it was hard for me to know what to do when he wanted to pay the money back. Not taking the money could be a betrayal of the relationship of mutual respect. Generosity might hurt. Taking the money that he still needed a lot more than I did seemed tawdry.
I got the idea to “pay it forward” from a movie by that name. The movie was silly, but the idea was good, and it worked. I told him that he should put whatever profits thought appropriate into helping his neighbors and his family. I told him that there would be no accounting and I would never ask about it again because I trusted him to do the right thing.
As promised, I never asked, but I think it did help get him over a hump in his life. It has been four years now, so I think we have a success. He kept in touch and kept me in the loop about things, even though I never asked. He is a good man, who deserved my help. It was a blessing to me to be able to give it.
I will be having lunch with him next week for his birthday. I invited him to celebrate his son’s graduation from HS. He sent me copies of his kids’ report cards. They did well.
Update from July 11, 2019 Had lunch with my friend Kevin and his son, KP. I helped Kevin buy a truck a couple years back. He needed it to help him earn his living, which he did gardening and moving. He is one of those “two guys and a truck” you sometimes see advertised. He says it really helped him get over a tough patch in his life and we kept in touch.
I don’t get up to Baltimore much since Mariza moved out. It was fun to walk around the harbor again. I thought I took some pictures, but evidently I did not, except for the “art” picture and the picture of the door of the garage. I take a picture of the place where I park the car when I park in an unfamiliar place. The art pictures are those I take of my figures or just push the button w/o knowing. I guess I just missed on the others or deleted them by mistake. No matter. They were just tourist photos anyway. I do have pictures of Kevin and me, however. We had lunch at Mo’s Seafood and had their signature crab cakes.
My craziest year – Story Worth for this week. My strangest year was the academic year 1978-9. It was a kind of transition zone for me. My longtime girl friend dumped me. I was becoming disenchanted with studying ancient history. I didn’t have much money. My previous verities were just not working for me. Greatest of all weirdness, however, came from a quirk in my housing structure.
Semi homeless Some five acquaintances and I had a joint lease on a big house on Johnson Street in Madison, Wisconsin. I didn’t have a room there at all. In winter, I slept on the couch. In summer, I slept on the back porch (it as screened in and pleasant). None of us had enough money for the full rent. My portion was $65, as I recall.
Unreliable hippie girls The problem came when two of our housemates, Jean and Sybil, decided to leave Wisconsin. They were “hippie girls” (yes, Madison still had residual populations of that now extinct species well into the 1980s) and they decided – abruptly – that Wisconsin got too cold in the winter, so they lit out for warmer climes. I think they headed for Florida with a couple guys who promised to take care of them, and I suppose they did.
Their quick departure put us in a quandary, since they left w/o paying their current shares of the rent nor making provisions for the future. (Hippie girls were like that – interesting at first but a real pain later.) Our task became finding a couple of new house mates with both the money and will to pay their fair share. This was harder because it was into the school year. Madison was a college town and our housing was oriented to that. Those w/o a place to live after the school year started were trouble or troubled.
There was a reason they had no place and that reason was rarely good.
Deadbeats & weirdos We went through a series of deadbeats and weirdos. Some stayed just long enough not to pay the rent and then left in a hurry. I got the impression that this kind of cheating is what they did. Today, I suppose, we would call them homeless. I don’t recall all their names. We were naïve in taking on possible borders. It was a learning opportunity, but not pleasant. Let me give the stories of some of those I do recall.
We had Marcus. Marcus did not go to school. He was a waiter at one of the gay clubs in Madison. Evidently popular with the regular patrons, he made big money in tips, sometimes hundreds of dollars. He paid the first month’s rent in cash. Next month, he seemed strapped on any day we asked him. I knew that he worked on Fridays and had lots of cash from his tips, so the next Saturday I got up early and waited. When he came out, I told him that I knew he had the cash and promised unspecified bad things would happen to him if he did not give it to me. He did, but moved out the next Tuesday, citing a hostile home environment. He actually asked for a refund of the unused part of his rent. I had already paid the landlord and told him no. He didn’t push it.
Marcus always looked good, but he lived like a pig. When we went to clean out his room, we saw he had old food around the room and that he didn’t bother with sheets on the mattress and it really stuck. I had to go to class, so I did. My roommate, Tom, said he would clean it up. When I got back from classes, I found Tom and his friends smoking pot. This was not unusual. Tom was a pothead and so were his friends. They criticized my “redneck” ways of not partaking, but on that day, I think I saved their lives.
There was a lot of smoke in the room, but more smoke than even all their pot could create. I inquired, and in true Cheech & Chong fashion Tom replied, “I don’t know, man. It’s been like that for like an hour, man.” I saw that the smoke was coming out of the former Marcus room. When I opened the door, the rush of fresh air caused the mattress to burst into flames. I got some water from the sink and doused the flames. In those pre-Febreze days, Tom wanted to de- stink Marcus’ mattress and put incense on it. It had burned into to mattress and smoldered. I believe that had I not returned when I did, the house would have burned down. Tom and his friends would have done nothing until they died, probably saying something like “Oh wow, man, sure is getting hot.”
We had to get rid of the burned mattress, but fortunately found another, better one that someone had put on the curb for pickup. You just need to cruise for furniture.
Crazy We replaced Marcus with Dirk, who was well and truly crazy, later certified so. Dirk used to talk to himself – and answer back. Once I heard him tell a joke, laugh and then tell himself to shut up because that wasn’t funny. When I went to look in on him, nobody was there but him. I had no psychological training, but I thought that was weird.
Dirk was very handsome, evidently attractive to women. They seemed to like his brooding personality/personalities. He used to bring women home with him. Mostly they were okay. The one time not was when he brought “Dirty Helen.” We didn’t know her, but we knew of her. She was not the kind you want around the house, hanging around like a fart in a phone booth, as we said. The next morning, Dirk went somewhere and left Helen. When we tried to kick her out, she claimed that Dirk said she could stay. We got rid of her when one of my housemates took her down to the local bar, the Caribou, bought her a beer and made himself scarce. She never showed up again and when Dirk came home, he did not inquire about her.
Dirk stayed with us until he had an incident in a bar, where he evidently attacked a group of larger & more numerous guys for no reason anybody could figure out. Maybe he thought there were more of him. Anyway, those guys did not beat him up too badly, but his mother came from California to get him. He moved back there. Maybe he fit in better in California. His mother was nice. She paid his rent for the next month, but we still had to find replacements.
We finally ended up with two mostly normal people who stayed with us until the end of the lease. It is funny that I do not recall their names. I am much better with the crazy ones. Come to think on it, the guy was called Alex. Don’t remember the woman’s name. They were not a couple. Both paid their rent and didn’t make trouble, so it was okay.
Biker chick The woman was a “biker chick,” at least part time. She had a steady job and would go every day well dressed, but evenings and weekends the bikers would come around. Some were scary looking, but they were nice guys when you got to know them. They had their own bar on Williamson Street. It featured an ominous warning telling you not to come in unless you were a member of the CC Riders. I used to go in if I was with her or some of the other guys. Beer was inexpensive, but you had to drink Budweiser, as I recall. I have never been much attracted to that lifestyle, but it is very welcoming if you are in the in-group. I can see why some people like it.
I looked up the place on Internet to check my memory. It is still there under new ownership. Evidently the CC Riders today are all upstanding citizens, sponsoring kids’ charities.
Knowing lots of people That year was also remarkable for the vast number of people I knew. I was lonely that year and my “home” was uninviting, so I spent a lot of time out. I am not a naturally gregarious person, but I guess I can be. I just recall that I knew everybody around my place and in the Madison student union. My grades went to hell, nothing like my really bad undergraduate grades, but well off the straight A averages I got in my first years. I just lost the drive to excel.
I started to question whether there was much of a future in the study of classical Greek & Latin. I had a steady part-time job at a bookstore on State Street and I read a lot outside my specialty. I am convinced that job helped me pass the FS test, since I read the back covers of so many books. I knew the summary of the great literature, even if I did not read all, most or even very much of the substance.
By the end of the period, I thought that I needed a new experience, so I saved money and worked a second job to get enough money to go to Germany, where I hitchhiked around for a month, but that is a different story, which I have told elsewhere. When I got back, I had decided to move on from ancient history. I did not have a good plan and that transition is also another story.
My story worth for this week. What were you doing when you were 40?
I thought it was the best of times, and it was the best of times up to then. The worst of times was just around the corner, but I didn’t know it at that time and that is another story. It was the middle of my time as public affairs officer in Krakow. It was the best possible job I could have had at my rank and I knew it. Poland was emerging from the darkness of communism and it was an amazing privilege and joy to be there to watch it, have a small part in helping it along. You could see the improvements week-by-week. The air was getting cleaner. Shops were opening and electricity was becoming more reliable. It was like springtime after a long, dark and dreary winter. And my work was rewarding. Opportunities were so thick that my only problem was deciding among them. I got rock-star reception everywhere I went. I liked to think it was me, but I knew that they really loved the America I represented and that was okay too.
My Polish was not great, but it got me what I needed. Polish is hard for English speakers & Poles were glad to hear Americans speaking their language. They seemed to have no problem understanding, but I think my accent was amusing. My nearest guess is that I sound like Pepe Le Pew. I often talked on radio or TV, so it was not an impediment. My best teacher was my driver – Bogdan. My district included the whole south of Poland. Visiting all the places I needed to go kept me on the road. Bogdan and I spent many hours driving together, so much so that my more educated staff members joked that I should not talk so much to Bogdan. I was starting to sound like a peasant, they said. I think it was a joke.
Representing the USA in those days opened lots of doors and gave me lots of work. In retrospect, I think that I worked too much, more precisely that I did not adequately understand the nature of diplomatic work. I should have focused on fewer priorities and applied more leverage to everything else. Good diplomats work through others. I did too much myself and did not let others do as much as they could. I don’t beat myself up too much on this. This is common behavior of mid-level officers. Later when I was the big boss, mentoring younger officers, I tried to explain, but they more often did what I did, not what I said. Maybe it is a stage we need to go through on the way to better understanding. There is a time for energy, after all. It was my job to tell them and their job to do something else. And even looking back with my greater experience, I still judge my time in Krakow was a great success, despite my youth and inexperience.
A few anecdotes from those times.
Espen was a little boy and he learned Polish, at least at the little boy level, but he would never speak Polish with me. He claimed he could not. I heard him speaking to the cleaning woman in fluent Polish, so I asked him about it. “I thought you could not speak Polish,” I told him. He answered, “I don’t speak Polish. Those are just the words I have to use with her.” What an insight! That is one reason why kids can learn language so well. What is language, after all? You make a series of sounds and something happens.
My funniest Polish radio interview had to do with Christmas traditions. The interview was going well. I thought we were talking about Christmas trees. I talked about the tradition of decorating them and how each family had their own traditions. The interviewer nodded. I went on to explain that some people go to the forest to cut their own trees. Suddenly, the interviewer looked very confused. We talked a bit more. Turns out that I was using the wrong word. The Polish work for tree is “drzewo.” I was using “drzwi,” which means door. Funny, that it made sense. You could – and some do – decorate doors. Had I not talked about the cutting; nobody would have been any the wiser. This is a caution when you are speaking a foreign language and everybody seems to understand.
One of my scariest times was when Richard Holbrook came to visit us. Holbrook was one of the smartest men I have ever men and seemed to me one of the scariest. I met him at the train station and introduced myself. He dropped his luggage and walked off. We always joke that diplomats need to be ready to carry luggage, so I carried his. I must have done a good job, because I was placed at his table for a reception are Ariel Café in Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter of Krakow. It was a big table with lots of people well above my station. I laid low, not wanting to call attention to myself. Holbrook held forth on a variety of subjects. Seemed to know everything. I stayed quiet, speaking perfunctorily to the people near me, so as not to interfere with Holbrook, clearly the main event. The guy sitting next to me was the director of the Holocaust Museum. He was nice. We talked a little about the restaurant, which served traditional Jewish food and featured klezmer music. When we got up to leave, and made the usual goodbyes, the museum director was profuse in praise for the restaurant. I came to understand that he thought I was the owner of the café. I saw Holbrook at the other end of the table and I did not want to be explaining this when he might hear, so I just told the director that we try to please the customers.
On the dark side, Poland was a bloodland. Both world wars were fought over its territory and the Nazi occupation was very brutal. A casual walk in the woods will come across monuments to dozens of hundred of Polish civilians killed by Nazis. There were also remains of American pilots and aircraft. During the Warsaw uprising in 1944, the USA wanted to resupply the rebels. Stalin cynically wanted to let the Nazis wipe out the free Polish army.
Stalin would not resupply the Poles, nor cooperate with the USA to do it. American pilots and crews volunteered to drop supplies to the Polish Home Army. Since Stalin would not let them land in Soviet held territory, they had to try to make the round trip. Many did not make it. 1994 was the 50th anniversary of many of these events. I attended a quite a few memorials.
I was often assigned as site officer for Auschwitz. This is for official visits. The site officer makes sure everything is okay for an important visitor. I did some variation of these five times, including visits by Hilary Clinton and George W Bush. Each time I visited; it was worse. You notice more and more terrible details. My last visit was the worst. It was when George W Bush came to Poland. (This was a little outside the period in question. By then I was working in Warsaw, but they sent me south to help.) I went to the camp in the pre-dawn darkness and walked around the camp alone. Few people get to do this, and I do not recommend it. I will never, ever go back. The cruelty and inhumanity came stronger than ever, so powerfully that even as I write I am feeling physically sick. When people deny or minimize the Holocaust, well I wish I could infect them with this feeling. Well enough.
I am not sure why I got it into my head that I should go, but I opened a separate bank account, worked extra shifts at the bookstore, skipped meals and saved my money to pay a trip to Germany. Looking back, I am sort of impressed that I pulled it off. My preparations were inadequate. I had a youth hostel membership, so inexpensive places to stay. It needed to be inexpensive, since I didn’t have credit cards and besides the price of my ticket, I managed to save only a little less than $400. I thought that I could speak some German because of classes in HS and college. I had an okay accent, but my communication skill was mostly limited to asking where things were and ordering beer.
With the confidence of ignorance
The cheapest flights left from Chicago. I splurged on a bus ticket (rather than hitchhike) and caught the plane. My flight landed in Frankfurt early in on a June morning. It was exciting to be in a foreign country for the first time. I had a brief scare. My backpack was absolutely the last thing to come onto the luggage carousel. Then I left the airport. I saw German flags and heard everybody speaking a language I could sort of understand. There was a light rain. My response was – “shit, what have I done?” followed by despair and confusion. I think that I might have chickened out and gone home on the next flight, but my charter ticket was valid only 30 days hence. Since I could not go back, my best option was forward, so I went forward.
I had a map where I had drawn a route, a circuit through southern Germany and Austria. I wanted to go to Salzburg because I read a National Geographic article talking about its charm. I wanted to go to Munich because of the famous beer halls. I filled in along the way with stops that I figured were a short day’s distance and had youth hostels I thought I could find. My first stop was the university town of Heidelberg. This was the setting for “The Student Prince.” I never saw the operetta, but my mother had the album by Mario Lanza. This was the basis of my decision making in those days. I intended to stay at the youth hostel there and I figured on taking the train from Frankfurt.
I easily found the train station, successfully bought a ticket and got on the wrong train. I fell asleep almost as soon as I got on. After all, I had come in on an overnight flight and was tired. When I work up, I was going north when I should have been going south. When the conductor came by for tickets, he was puzzled and asked me where I thought I was going. I told him Heidelberg and he told me that this train would not get me there. I had to get off and go back. As I recall, the proper sentence “Ich habe den falschen Zug genommen.“ That seemed to work.
I got to Heidelberg. It was a delightful town. I probably should have located the youth hostel right away, but I was beguiled by a beautiful beech and oak forest on the way to the castle, so I went up the hill first. It was late by the time I was done, and I could not find the youth hostel, so ended up in a park and slept on a park bench. Nothing like being a bum on your first night. Nobody bothered me but there was a late-night incident. A drunk was evidently trying to take a crap in the bushes and crapped his pants. I heard him swearing and saw him walking off w/o pants. When the sun came up, I looked. Sure enough, there was a pair of pants full of crap – an inauspicious introduction to glorious Germany.
Under financed and looking for free rides Germany was more expensive than I thought. I figured out that I did not have the money for the luxury of taking the train wherever I needed to go, so I hitchhiked. It was not too hard to get rides and it was fun to try out my German. Drivers were tolerant of my bad German. Surprisingly, I don’t recall anybody speaking to me in English, with the single exception below, even though most Germans speak English and my efforts with German must have been painful on their ears. My experience with hitchhiking, both in America and Europe, was that people who pick you up want to do most of the talking. Since it is their car, it is their option. I didn’t need to speak the language very well if I didn’t have to talk much beyond asking where they guy was going.
Only two of my rides still stick in my mind. The one was a guy with a BMW. He had fun showing how fast he could drive his powerful car on the autobahn. I noticed the speedometer getting up to 240 kilometers per hour. I was not sure how much that was in MPH (turns out it was 144 MPH), but I knew it was a faster than I wanted to go. I must have showed that. This made the driver happy. “hast du Angst”, he asked. I would not admit it, but I was full of angst and glad when he let me out.
The other ride I recall was on the way to Saltzburg. I noticed that the driver had an odd accent, but I figured it was a kind of regional dialect. Bavarian was hard to understand, and I figured he was speaking some variation of that. After around 15 minutes, he addressed me in English. Turned out he was French and did not speak German very well. He asked if he could speak English. Okay with me. Funny that both of us were laboring to speak a language that neither of us mastered.
Beware vampires My strangest experience was on the way to Zell om Zee. This one was all my own imagination. It was hard to get rides Alps and I was out in middle of nowhere. (This is what happens when you find a stranger in the Alps. “Big Lebowski” fans will understand.) Darkness was coming, so I just looked for a place to hide and sleep. I walked up a path and found a forest clearing and stretched out. Not long after it got dark, I started to think about vampires. This was not Transylvania but there were European mountains like in the scary movies. When you are alone in the dark, a stranger in a strange land, you think less clearly. I have been afraid of vampires since I watched Bela Lugosi’s “Dracula” when I was around seven years old. I fashioned a cross out of some sticks, just in case vampires came by. None did. When the sun came up, I felt stupid, but a man’s reasoning is different in 2 am gloom than it is in the bright sunlight at 2 pm.
Who knows? Maybe the vampire never showed because of my preparations. Besides the vampire scare, this was a hungry time. Stores were closed or not available, so I had nothing to eat for a day & a half. I got to Zell am Zee the next afternoon. The youth hostel featured an evening meal, but I had to wait until evening to get it. When it finally came, I ate as fast as I could. I could tell food was not very good, but it tasted better than anything ever. I was sitting next to a Danish guy, who also seemed food deprived, judging by the speed of his fork. Coming up for a breath, he commented “hunger is the best cook.”
“We Danes are an ugly lot; you could be a Dane” The Dane and I became temporary fast friends. Danes are generally nice people and the usually speak English very well. We were talking about the relative beauty of women from around Europe, and that extended to a more general discussion of national characteristics. My Danish friend thought that the most attractive people in Europe were people from Italy and Spain. Speaking about his own people, he lamented. “We Danes are an ugly lot.” Looking at me continued, “You could be a Dane.” I objected to “ugly” and “you could be” being so close together. He claimed to be referring only to my blue eyes and blondish hair. I still had hair in those days. I let it go. Danes, IMO, are attractive as a group. It is not a club I would reject.
Speaking of temporary friends, one of the fun things about solitary low-budget travel is the fellow travelers you meet and get to know. Everybody is lonely, so you make friends faster. I found it especially easy to get along with Australians. Australians were more like typical Americans than any other nationality in my experience. They were wonderfully practical, spoke a type of English and they liked to drink beer. (I prioritized beer over food, BTW. It was a good choice. Beer, after all, is liquid bread.) I quickly learned, however, that it was a bad idea to stay with Australians until the end of the night’s drinking. They tended to get into fights. Interesting how they could manage to insult people in languages they could not speak.
The funniest “friends” were a couple of Irishmen I met in Frankfurt. They were looking for their stuff. Seems they arrived in Frankfurt a few days before, checked into a pension and went out to get drunk. They were unable to find their lodging the next day. I walked around with them, as they hoped to recognize something. They had not found their stuff by the time we parted company.
Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose If freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, I achieved freedom. I ran out of money the day before I was scheduled to leave, so I went to the Frankfurt airport a whole day early, since I had no place else to go and just hung around. I was very happy finally to get on the plane. Flying was a little classier in those days. You could get snacks more easily, and I ate enough to make up for the lean day before. Hunger is the best cook. The very big drawback to flying in those days is that they had smoking sections. I got stuck in the smoking section. The stewardess asked me if I would move so that a family could sit together. I foolishly agreed. I really hate cigarette smoke and I sat next to a guy who told me he was afraid to fly. He smoked to assuage his fear. This was a Lufthansa flight and they had free beer. I drank down several and was able to sleep despite the foul air. I woke up only for the food.
When I got home, I felt changed in many ways. Physically, I was lighter by around 15 lbs. My father said that I looked like a scarecrow, but I felt okay. I didn’t really see very much of the German attractions, since I was such a low budget traveler, but I was glad to have gone. I felt like a sophisticated world traveler. I appreciated Germany, but I also appreciated America more. Amerika, du hast es besser.
Coda There is a two-part coda to this story. Chrissy & I went to Germany in 1989. We took the ferry from Oslo to Keil and then drove around. We had Mariza and Alex along this time. I was looking forward to going to all those nicer German places that I could not afford in my poor student days. Now we had more money, but we also had little kids. Little kids do not do well in nice European restaurants. We ended up eating at McDonald’s more often than I would have liked.
The second part of my story relates to language. When I got to Germany, I was surprised that I could still speak and understand German. In fact, it seemed even easier than before. So, I happily spoke to people and usually got what I wanted. We were down in southern Germany when I got a clue. I was talking to a woman at breakfast in a language that I thought was German. Finally, she asked me – “That language you are speaking. It is very much like German and I understand most, but what is it?”
I had learned Norwegian before taking my post there. Norwegian has lot of words like German. What I think happened was that I was simply mixing the languages, sometimes doing Norwegian with a German accent and sometimes the other way around. It was very fluent, which is why the woman thought it was a language, but it was something of my own inadvertent creation. I guess that is how creole languages develop.
Post script Notes from my more recent Frankfurt visit My visit to Germany was in 1979 – my pre-camera days. I spent a day in Frankfurt on my way back from Iraq and have some pictures from then. The place did not change, but I had enough money for good food and drink.
“Do you believe in a higher power?” I had been living away from home for many years, had a family and life of my own. I was an adult far from childhood. But you are never prepared for the death of a parent, and my father’s death affected me profoundly. I was in Poland when he fell seriously ill. My sister called and I caught the first plane home. I think I was over Canada when he died. I admire his last words. As my sister reported, when asked how he was doing, he replied, “I can’t complain.”
For a long time after, I was out of balance – a kind of vague malaise. Then I had a remarkable dream. Words will not be adequate to convey the feeling, and the feeling was what made it remarkable. I felt that in the eternal present. Everybody was there, past, present & future. I don’t try to explain it. My malaise lifted and I have not felt it again. Well, almost never, which is remarkable since it has been more than two decades.
I firmly believe in a higher power, with the stipulation that I can never understand in any rational way what that means. The explanation lies with faith in … faith. That is not say we cannot know anything. Raw truth – the meaning OF life – is unavailable to the mortal man, but we can come to a likeness of truth by seeking meaning IN life. We humans are hardwired to seek meaning in life and to persist in the journey that we know will never be completed. All of us must find our own way.
Some people seek truth by meditating or studying ancient texts. I have great respect for those who do these things with rigor and commitment. I never got into meditation. I fall asleep. If that counts, I am adept at my daily meditations. And although I still sometimes enjoy parsing ancient texts, that is not where I find answers to profound questions. IMO, those answers cannot be found in the intellectual sense but can be perceived. I learn the parts by study and effort; I perceive how they fit together -the whole – only when in motion and engaged in some activity. Just don’t sit still. My favored way is to immerse in nature and try to recognize natural principles, accepting that the joy & connections come from searching, not finding. I welcome a new horizon opening after I summit each ridge. I recognize that is my way and not the only way.
Was taking a walk on this very beautiful early fall day and thinking about some of my core concepts. I took a few minutes to write them down in my notebook. Will try to refine them. I do not say that they are original. (I put in quotes when I think it is direct.) In fact, one of my aphorisms is that nothing is original. A good education means that we can borrow or steal from superior minds. They are not in any special order but as they came to mind, so they are sometimes related to those near.
All success starts with failure
All greatness is based on contradictions
Diversity is not compatible with equality
Nobody has a really original idea
All history & culture is the common heritage of humanity
Avoidance & denial are valid strategies
Your past does not determine your future
You cannot control what happens to you but you can control your response.
If you want to do something for the long term, make haste slowly
Don’t care what people were. Ask what they are now and what they can do in future.
You do not always need to know where you are going to get there.
A good process is better than a detailed plan
Most people are good, but all people are flawed. Reach for their better angels
“You cannot step twice into the same stream”
You know less than you think but usually enough
Don’t spend a dollar to make a dime decision
Act decisively even when in doubt
Make decisions iteratively – think, do, reflect, do better
Resilience is better than strength
History has no direction. It emerges.
Will think of more later, but would welcome suggestions.
I am a hypocrite and I proudly so. Hypocrisy is a prerequisite for civilization and the basis of courtesy. Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice plays to virtue, since hypocrisy implies acceptance of the value you pretend to have.
Diplomacy, Politics & Courtesy are Hypocrisy Codified All good diplomats, all good statesmen & most good people are hypocrites. They must work productively with people whose values they do not share, often with people they personally dislike. Would it be nobler to be sincere and express their “true” feelings, presuming they have thought through what the true feeling even are? It sure would not get more done.
The right question is to ask what people CAN do, not what they can’t. Effective people look for common goals among opponents and common aspirations even among enemies. You need not agree on everything to work together on something.
Look for Agreement In my diplomatic career, I have usually followed the maxim that – “You make friends shoulder to shoulder not face to face,” i.e. working together on common aspirations is better than talking about your problems. I do not want to disparage dialogue, but you should be looking for shared aspiration, not just airing grievances. Just talking about differences as often leads to finding more differences rather than resolving those you have already. “What can we do together?” is better than “Why don’t you like me?”
When I meet someone, I look for common aspirations – looking for the doors or windows – the ways in – not the stone walls that keep us out. This just makes sense. I do not know why you would do anything else. Yet, I find more-and-more people rejecting this. I hear people saying that they cannot talk to “those people” because “they” are unreasonable. Yeah. They say this w/o seeing the irony.
I joke that when I was serving in Iraq (2007-8) I ate lunch with guys who would have – maybe tried to kill me only weeks before. I do not think it was always just a joke. I have found common aspirations with communists, religious radicals, former (maybe current) criminals and lots of people who just hated people like me or what I represented. It was rarely pleasant at first and often never got better, but sometimes we found something we both wanted and could set aside our dislike to get it.
Feeling Righteous or Being Right It is satisfying to be self-righteous, to assume that you or your group has a monopoly on “the good.” We all want to think we are fighting the good fight. After the fight, however, how many times have you regretted the need for the violence (real or intellectual). Surveying the carnage and destruction after the battle of Waterloo, his great victory that he had anticipated for a decade, the Duke of Wellington reportedly said, “The only thing worse than a battle lost is a battle won.”
If we can (and should) look for common ground with foreign enemies, we certainly cannot deny this to our fellow American opponents.
It is NOT a betrayal of principles to work with opponents and find common purpose with enemies. In fact, it is affirming a greater principle of inclusiveness. It is how civilization works. Let’s maybe be less indulgently sincere. Hypocrites often get more done and almost always are more pleasant to be around.
And if you look for it, you may sincerely find good in those you think hate you and maybe you can hate the a little less and maybe learn not to hate at all.
Whether or not we have specific religious faith, all successful lives are faith-based. I am aware that I am using this phrase in a specific way, so let me explain.
We rarely can immediately see the results of our decisions and most of the things that makes us happy and prosperous in the long run give little satisfaction in the here and now. More often they are even unpleasant or painful. This is not deep wisdom, although an astonishing number of people seem not to understand it, or at least it is not reflected in their choices. I think the explanation is not that they have too little intelligence but rather that they have too little faith.
“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” This is the best practical definition from a trusted source. We can better apply this to the secular world by inserting one word. … the evidence of things not YET seen.
When the out-of-shape guy starts to eat better and exercise more, he does it with the faith in the vision of his thinner healthier self, aware that he will not be seeing this reality for a long time. He can’t see how any particular hour at gym or day spent defying donuts makes a difference. He has faith.
When a twenty-five-year-old buys the first stock fund in her new 401-k account, she does in contemplation of a better life that by definition will not show up for at least forty years. That $50 investment seems less than a drop in the ocean and could be much more enjoyably deployed buying beer of coffee. But she has faith.
In my old job in diplomacy and my new vocation of promoting forestry products, networking is important. You must see and be seen. I am mostly an introvert. I do not enjoy big social gatherings, but I know that I have to get out there. When I come home from any particular event, and ask myself if it was worth the energy spent, it is very easy to answer in the negative. “Yeah, I saw a few people and they met me, but what really happened? Nothing.” But I know that with time and persistence good things happen and opportunities open. I do not know what they will be. I act out of faith that I will find them and know what to do when I do.
Maybe this secular faith comes easier to forestry folks, since our whole outlook is faith-based. I plant trees that I will never see mature and rely on forests provided by others. When I bought my first “forest” in 2005, it didn’t look like woods. It was a recently cut-over mess of weeds and brambles. The most prominent trees were invasive tree-of-heaven that I knew I would have to battle. The loblolly were there, but you had to look really hard to find them. But I had faith that the pine trees would grow and that I could control the invasives. Twelve years later you see what we have in the attached photo. The one below is what it looked like in 2005. Notice the very big tree of heaven patch and the smaller pine trees. Faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not YET seen. A guy with a forest gets to see it, if he has the patience and faith to wait. But everyone can and needs to find the evidence of faith in their own chosen sphere.