Happy Birthday Espen

Below is Frogner Park in Norway, where Espen was born.

Today is Espen’s birthday. The youngest of the kids is now eighteen. I remember the day he was born eighteen years ago.   Espen was born in Baerum Sykehus near Oslo. It snowed the day before he was born.  The snow mostly stays on the ground in Norway between November and March, but I remember looking out the hospital window at the fresh coat of white.  

Espen was named after a little Norwegian boy who we hardly knew.   It was one of Mariza’s classmates at the preschool and evidently a brat.    Mariza would come home complaining about this Espen.   “Espen slo pa mai.” (Espen hit me) Espen kastet jord pa mai.” (Espen threw dirt on me.)   My apologies to any Norwegian readers for the mistakes I made in spelling and grammar.   We liked the name.    All of the kids names are associated with countries.  Mariza was born in Brazil, so she has a Brazilian name.   We spelled it with a z instead of an s so that Americans would pronounce it closer to the Portuguese and not call her Marissa.  Alex’s  name was chosen when I expected to go to the Soviet Union.  Espen is actually a Norwegian name with a Danish origin.

The third kid in the family gets the advantage of having the first two break in the parents, so Espen developed fast.   He really loved a kind of bouncing swing that hung from the door frame.   I taught him to swim at the Kolsas pool before he could walk.   Like all kids, he could climb before he could walk, but he was especially good at it.   Our house in Norway had three floors, so he could make us nervous on several levels.

Espen only spent a year and a half in Norway, so he doesn’t remember it, but Norway was a great place for little kids.   It is safe & clean and there are lots of parks.  I am sure it made an impression on him, although the detail is forgotten.   

We moved to Silver Spring, Maryland for Polish training when Espen was about 1 ½ years old, so his first language was American English.   We got a house with a big yard and a fence.   Espen learned to climb over the fence right away. We moved to Krakow about a year later.

Espen adjusted well to Krakow and went to a Polish pre-school up the street.   He called it “two cats” because the woman who ran the school had two cats.  He learned Polish w/o knowing what he was doing and I got a great insight into language learning from him.   I heard him speaking to the cleaning woman in Polish, but he denied being able to speak the language when I asked him about it.   He told me that he didn’t speak Polish.  “Those are just the words I have to use with her,” he explained.  

We bought a house in Virginia after we came back from Poland in 1997.  Espen went to Strevewood Grade School.  Espen and Alex had a lot of friends during our three years there.   Espen played on the Fairfax County little kids’ league. His team was called the little wizards and they were good.

We moved back to Poland in 2000, this time to Warsaw.   Espen and the other kids attended the American School in Warsaw and they were lucky enough to get a brand new school building.   The American School in Warsaw was a very posh place.  It is hard for working diplomats to have kids in this sort of school, because many of their local classmates are fabulously rich.  The government pays for our kids but those local guys who can afford the tuition themselves are very well off.    Espen went to one birthday party where they drove around in little Mercedes go-karts and got helicopter rides.   He wondered why his birthday parties were so pedestrian.   The locals think that all American diplomats are rich, but we just can’t play in their world.   

Below is our home in New Hampshire.

We came back to the U.S. in 2003, but lived up in New Hampshire, as I got the job as State Department Fellow at Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy.   Espen attended the Middle School in Londonderry, NH.   It was hard for the kids.   Many of the families have been established there for generations.   It is hard for newcomers, especially since we knew we would be there only for a year. 

We moved back to Virginia in 2004, same place where we lived before.  Espen went to Kilmer Middle School and then George C Marshall HS.  He still had some friends here and made new ones.  As I write this, I hear them all downstairs talking.  Parents can’t compete with friends at that age.  Virginia is home now.

These are my brief thoughts about my son on his birthday. Of course, there is a lot more than I am writing.  Suffice to say, I am thinking about the last eighteen years.  I miss the baby and the child, and I love and I am proud of the young man he has become.  

Cranes of the Southwest

We lived at the Oakwood temporary apartments near Waterfront Plaza in SW when I was studying Norwegian in 1988.  The area didn’t change much over the next two decades, until a few months ago. Now it is a forest of cranes and new construction is going up all over.  The crane above, BTW, is on the frozen river.

A lot of the change is related to the new Metro. Development follows the Metro, even if it takes a few years, even in bad neighborhoods.   But the neighborhoods have also improved.   Back in 1988, this area was not so nice. That was the time of the crack epidemic.   During my year in Iraq, I never heard a shot fired in anger.  During my six months in SW in 1988, I heard several.   DC also had that horrible mayor back in 1988. I couldn’t understand how he could get elected and reelected, but his constituency evidently viewed honesty, law & order with less enthusiasm than I did. That Washington is just a bad memory and things are getting better.

SW has lots of advantages.  You could see that even in the bad old days. There are lots of parks. The waterfront is pleasant and features restaurants and shops selling the harvests of the Chesapeake and other seafood.   You are within walking distance of the Capitol and the Smithsonian museums, as well as the Library of Congress.   Now that the Green Line connects this neighborhood to the rest of the Washington Metro region, it has everything.  

Below used to be the Oakwood Apartments where we lived in 1988.  Now they are condos.

Places can bring back memories and this place reminds me of Alex and Mariza when they were little.  Alex was born while I was taking Norwegian and we brought him home to the Oakwood.   I remember walking with the kids over to the Waterfront Mall, the one that is now torn down and rising from the rubble.  It was a sad place back then and we didn’t go after dark, but it had a Roy Rogers, Pizza Hut & a Blimpie and it was within walking distance.   We used to walk the kids.   Alex was a happy baby and Mariza was cute.  

Below is just after dawn on the Mall.  I am taking pictures more or less from this same spot to look at the changes of seasons.

I was posted in Brazil when Chrissy got pregnant with Alex.  Mariza was born in Brazil, but Chrissy and Mariza were medivaced to Wisconsin for Alex’s birth.  They left in mid-January because after that time it would not be good for Chrissy to fly.  I had to finish my duties in Porto Alegre and stay until March, when they sent me to Washington for Norwegian training. I had to take annual leave and pay my own way up to Wisconsin (the FS was less into those family rights in those days). I was up there for Alex’s birth, but then had to go back to Washington to finish Norwegian.   Chrissy stayed with her parents and came down a few weeks later with the kids. Mariza was just over 2 years old.  A few weeks is a long time in the life of 2 years old and when I met them at the airport she was a little shy, but then she stood next to me and followed me around.  I remember those times fondly, but it was tough. I don’t think I could learn a language under those conditions today. 

Below shows the tough market.  A couple years ago you couldn’t find a rental. 

I developed a system for language learning, not very original or subtle but effective.  I just memorized about ten minutes of useful generic sentences, things like comparisons (on the one hand … on the other hand) or intros (Considering the conditions five years ago …) etc.  When I would walk around or run, I would just repeat the whole story. Over & over.  Language is a physical skill.  You just have to keep saying it out loud until it is driven down into the subconscious. From the basic words and phrases, you can branch out with variations. People think you are crazy talking to yourself, but it works.  For weeks I talked to myself constantly. When I finally passed my Norwegian exam and went silent, I felt strange.  I remember running around Haines Point and noticing how lonely it was with nobody to talk to. 



The picture is our first dog, Fang.   Springer Spaniels are supposed to be gentle and he looked sweet and docile, but he wasn’t.  In those days before the dog whisperer, he was an incorrigibly bad dog.  He got increasingly out of control.  If you left him alone in the house, he would chew up whatever he could reach.  He knocked over the fish tank and scratched holes in the rugs.  He once even chewed up the metal Venetian blinds.  You would have thought that impossible, but you would have been wrong.  You had to literally fight him off to eat your lunch.  He would sit there growling and lurch at your food if you made eye contact or gave him an opening.  As I think back, it is amazing how long we tolerated his aggressiveness.  He bit everybody … except my mother.  He was afraid of my mother, but one day he bit her too.   After that he bit no more. We were sad to lose our dog, but it was good to be able to eat w/o having to watch for the rushing dog.   The vet told us that he was a “fear biter.”  I don’t know what that meant.  I think he made that up.

Our next dog, Sam, was the most docile dog in the world.   He never bit or growled.  He would bark at visitors, and it was hard to get him to be quiet, but then he hid in back of us when they came in.   I was locked out of the house once, so I climbed in through the bedroom window.  I didn’t hear a sound from Sam, except I could hear his claws on the linoleum kitchen floor as he backed up.  I still couldn’t find him, until I saw him hiding under my father’s bed.  As soon as he saw me, he came out bravely.  Everybody liked Sam.  He was a good looking dog, a Chesapeake Bay retriever.  He had some of the instinct.  He used to point at rabbits and squirrels, although he never bothered to pursue them. 

Our last dog was Xerxes.   He was the dog of my father’s later years and he reflected some of the infirmities of old age.  Xerxes was even more cowardly than Sam and not at all aggressive.   He is cringing in most of the pictures, because he was afraid of the camera.  If he heard a loud noise, he would go crazy.  Thunder storms and the 4th of July were not pleasant times.  My father treated him with a gentleness bordering on deference.  “He has rights too,” my father would say.  Probably as a result of this, Xerxes paid no attention to my father and would not come when he called.   

I have seen the “Dog Whisperer” on TV a couple times and it is clear to me now that we just didn’t know how to treat dogs.   Dogs are pack animals.   They need to know who is master.   We were always ambiguous about that, so the dogs personality and natural inclinations came to dominate the relationship.   Sam was my favorite dog and gave us no reason to complain except that he was too timid.  But compared with Fang, who you constantly had to hold back, it was a better situation.    I think Xerxes just got corrupted.  My father spoiled and indulged him.    We used to have cats until I was around five years old.   They were not really our cats; they just sort of moved into our house sometimes, sort of community cats.  They all had the unimaginative name of “Kitty.”  It made it easier to remember their names and there really is no use in naming cats anyway, since they never come when called.  In those days it was considered cruel and unnatural to keep cats in the house and they wandered the streets.   You “put the cat out” at night.  Sometimes they would come back.  In between, they would enter cat society and alternatively fight, mate and kill birds & mice. They came back when they got hungry and/or when they couldn’t find a better offer.  Cats have no sense of loyalty.  Once Kitty had kittens.  One of them had six toes, so we called him “six toed Richard” after one of my mother’s similarly endowed cousins.  We got rid of the ultimate Kitty and never permitted cats again because she scratched my sister once too often.  My sister was a toddler+ at the time and wanted to play with the cat in a way independent felines evidently didn’t appreciate.  I got along well with that particular cat and even once gave her a bath, w/o getting scratched up.  I guess it all depends on how you approach things. 

My cousins Luke & Irma and their son & Tony, who lived upstairs from us, had the meanest cat I have ever seen.  I don’t remember what its name was, but we called him “Heathcliff” after the obnoxious comic book cat.  He was the Fang of the cat world.  One Christmas, my sister and I were watching Tony while Luke and Irma went to midnight mass.   We didn’t know where the cat had gone until we saw the tree shaking and found the cat climbing inside and batting at the ornaments.   I chased him away from the tree and he ran off and disappeared.  Soon he reappeared.  He had climbed up the back of the couch and was attacking my sister.   I drove him off again and he went and hid in the basement. 

His sojourns in the basement were his undoing.  He didn’t care to use his litter box and preferred to crap on the basement floor.  He did this with monotonous regularity until my cousins got sick of cleaning it up.  That, plus his unusually ornery temperament, doomed him.  I was sorry to see him go, since he was unfailingly entertaining, but I could see the logic in getting rid of him. 

The only other pets we had were fish and salamanders.  We never were very good with fish, so we raised guppies.  They require no care.  I had a green salamander, a newt that sat on an island in the fish tank until once we filled it up too much and he crawled out.  My mother thought that it was my fault because I used to take him out and let him crawl around where he got a taste of freedom.   He didn’t savor it long.   We found him a few days later dried up under the radiator. I subsequently had a red and black salamander that fared better.  He too escaped, but he survived in the basement, where it was damp and where he could eat spiders etc. We had an old house and part of the basement still had a dirt floor.  About a year after his escape, my cousin spotted him, much bigger and apparently thriving.  I don’t know how long those things live, more than a year, evidently.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

The old Jimmy Stewart classic was on today.    I suppose that it was scheduled well in advance, but the movie is particularly appropriate these days given the Senate seat sale apparently underway in the great state of Illinois.   “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” was made in 1939, so I guess it shows that political corruption is nothing new.   But I fear that we seem to have lost the capacity for shame.   Now we see things in terms of political maneuvering and tend to treat it more like a game. It should not be. Politicians do not own their offices.  They just are holding them for the people. 

That film made an impression on me.   I saw it on TV for the first time on the day before my mother died.    That whole day is strongly pressed into my memory.  We didn’t handle it well.  My father was trying to protect my sister and me, but I think it ended up isolating us.  I figured if I just didn’t believe it was possible, it wouldn’t be true.   My sister was only fifteen.   My time would have been better spent being with her than watching television by myself.   Sorry.  Seeing that movie brings back those memories.   Thirty-six years later it still stings.  But that’s not all.

As with all real classics, the impressions from the movie grew beyond it with the outside experience.  When I joined the FS and came to Washington for the first time, I walked around the Capitol Mall, as Jefferson Smith does in the movie and I had a similar reaction.  I still do.  Even after all these years and daily familiarity with the monuments, they still move me. 

Of course, it is painful that Jeff Smith is such a complete rube.  We have a kind of fetish of the outsider in the U.S. that innocence and inexperience are the keys to successful political leadership.  I think that is wishful thinking and a caricature of the valid argument that not all expertise and intelligence resides with experts and professionals.  We need and benefit from a constant influx of new people and new ideas.   It is too easy for people within the beltway and the political class generally to think they have cornered the market on knowledge.  But like anything else, there are skills and experience that are useful in government and they are not always self evident or easily acquired. 

My view on the movie is more nuanced than when I saw it when I was seventeen.    Then I just saw the good little guy against the big corrupt machine.    I used to think that politics was about right and wrong, that there was a RIGHT answer.   Now I understand that we have politics because we disagree about what is the right thing to do.  When we all agree, we don’t have politics; we just have laws or customs.   Politics is about compromise in all the connotations of that word.    I don’t believe that a politician as a person must or should abandon principles or values, but the TOOL of politics is at best amoral.   That is why it is best to keep as much out of politics as possible.   Reserve politics for the real disagreements. 

As I watched the movie again today, I thought of how Jeff Smith should have gone about his work in the Senate.   He could have built that boys’ camp, but maybe not at that exact location.   In fact, the dam the Taylor machine wanted to build might have improved the setting.  They could have a nice lake and get to watch the nearby construction.     If all parties to negotiations have positions they cannot or will not compromise, it is unlikely they can come to any kind of mutually beneficial deal.   The idea is that everybody gives and gets.  When one of the parties takes a “my way or highway” stand, as Jeff Smith does, nothing moves.  

There are sacred principles that cannot be compromised.   There are things we will fight for and die for, things we will impose on others.  If you cannot think of any, you are soul-dead.   If you can think of too many, you are a self-indulgent narcissist.   Given a few more years of experience, Mr. Smith would have been more effective, if less certain of his righteousness.     It probably would not make a very interesting movie, however.

Thanksgiving 2008

Thanksgiving is the best holiday.  It is the one where you make a conscious effort to think about and be thankful for the good people, things & experiences in your life.    No matter how hard we think we have worked, none of us achieves happiness or success by ourselves, and all of us are lucky to live in a society that gives us so many chances. 

Below – my parents on their wedding day.

I had trouble learning to read and in first grade my teacher put me into the low group.   My mother convinced the teachers that I was not stupid, just bored and a little stubborn.   To placate my mother and probably teach her a lesson, they jumped me into a higher group.   I did well there.  W/o that intervention, I think I would have been a failure at an early age and then continued down that road to earthly perdition.    I am thankful for my mother’s confidence and flexible teachers.

My father dropped out of school when he was in 10th grade, but he nevertheless saw the value of education.   He just assumed I would go to college and because of that and because of him, I did too.   My father didn’t have the experience to understand what college meant, but he knew enough to launch me in the right direction. 

Below I am standing in front of Medusa Cement Company in Milwaukee.  The picture is from 2006.  My father worked there for thirty-six years in the dust and the noise.  I put in four summers, which gave me only a small taste of the hard work he did to support the family.   His work helped put me in a position to get a great job where they pay me to do what I would pay to do.

I was seventeen when my mother died.  My sister was only fifteen and my father didn’t know what to do.   My mother’s sisters stepped in to help.   I am thankful for my aunts, who carried us through those hard times.    They took turns and one of them came over every day.  My whole extended family has been good to me.   I still always have a place to go and a home in Milwaukee. 

Speaking of Milwaukee, I was lucky to grow up in Milwaukee & Wisconsin, with the wonderful parks, nice museums and inexpensive education at the University Wisconsin system.   I am also thankful that it was easy to get into university in those days.    With my grades and habits when I was eighteen, I am not sure they would let me in these days.  There is way too much for me to say about Chrissy and the kids and besides it is too personal to put on the blog.   No matter what you achieve in your professional life, you need good family relationships to be really happy.  

Below is angel oak in South Carolina. 

My list is of good things is long.  I sometimes cannot believe how lucky I have been and how many people & events have helped me along.    Good fortune in important.   We should pray not merely to be fortunate, but to be able to do the things that make us deserve to be fortunate.

Bolton Hill Baltimore

Below – Mariza on her street in Bolton Hill

Mariza rents a house along with some roommates in Baltimore’s Bolton Hill district.   I was a little apprehensive when Mariza got her job in Baltimore.   I remembered the crime and squalor.  But the city has improved a lot in recent years and there are some really nice and neighborhoods.   The Mount Vernon area, right next to Mariza’s area is very nice.  A lot of her co-workers live in Federal Hill, evidently a yupifiying district.   We walked around there.  It is not that nice, IMO, but it does have large numbers of restaurants.  It reminded me of State Street in Madison. 

Mariza moved her last year.  She started out by looking for apartments in the Inner Harbor area, which is superficially attractive but too expensive and a little artificial, sort of like living in Disneyland.    Actually, I have to admit that it was our advice that she look there.  It was the only area of Baltimore that Chrissy and I knew.  Her further investigation turned up other, better opportunities.   

Where she lives now has lot of parks and museums and the Maryland Institute College of Art is there.    Many of the old buildings have been recently renovated and it is a mostly intact 19th Century neighborhood.    It is within walking distance to restaurants and stores and has good access to public transportation and the light rail system, which is important because Mariza doesn’t have a car.   It is a nice place to live and seems safe.   

I like the fact that she has roommates.   She has the usual roommate woes.    The landlord forgot to pay the electric bills for the previous period and they were about to lose power, so Mariza had to pay.  The others owe her money.  This is not a big problem; she is in touch with the landlord and can just deduct it from the rent, but she is now in the position of managing the landlord relationship.    They have the mirror image problem with water bills.  Mariza and her roommates were supposed to get the water bills, but they went to the landlord instead.   Now he wants to be repaid for those bills.  It looks like Mariza will again have to front the money and get it back from the roommates. 

Below – We were a little worried about some Baltimore neighborhoods.  Mariza didn’t look for houses where we saw this rolling bail-bond truck a couple summers ago.

I had six roommates one year when I was in college in Madison, but we had trouble after two women moved out and went to Florida.   We had a joint lease and we all had the responsibility to pay our shares of the rent, so we had to find new roommates.  In a college town, there is usually something wrong with anybody looking to rent an apartment in October or November, but we were desperate and got some real weirdoes.  Some were more responsible than others in paying.   I got the enforcer job.  One of my roommates, Marcus, didn’t pay until I threatened him.  This I had to do two months in a row.  After that, he claimed it was a hostile environment and he moved out with one day notice just before the third month’s rent was due. 

These pictures are from our town house complex in Vienna, VA.  The trees are turning nicely.

Marcus was slob who didn’t use sheets on his mattress and it was stinky and dirty.   When I came home the day after Marcus moved out, I found the house full of smoke.   One of my other roommates, Tom the stoner (this was the 1970s), was sitting around with his friends in the living room.   I asked them what was going on and Tom just said, “I don’t know, man.  It’s been that way for about an hour.”    I thought it a good idea to find out where the smoke was coming from and found it was coming from under the door in Marcus’ room.   When I opened the door, his bed burst into flames.   Tom had wanted to get the smell out of Marcus’ mattress, so he put some incense on top it.   It burned through into the mattress and was smoldering inside so that when I opened the door, the rush of air ignited it.   I expect it would have started flaming soon enough in any case and I believe that had I not come home when I did, Tom would have burned the house down and he and his friends would have been caught in the conflagration and become literally burnouts.  When he saw the flames, Tom just said, “Wow!”  I beat the flames out with my coat.   We dumped some water on the mattress and got rid of it.  Roommates can be challenging, but they provide interesting stories.    The stories are funny when you look back; not so much at the time.

Our complex again.  I just like the trees in their fall colors.

Back to the present, I like Baltimore and have been pleasantly surprised by the charm. 

SAT, College Admissions, Achievement & Fairness

Below – I drove Espen over to Falls Church HS to take his SAT test.   Sorry for the dim.  It was just before sunrise.

The SAT test is an annual ritual for HS seniors.   College admissions have gotten harder and more complicated over the years.  Some families are hiring consultants to get them through the experience and many kids take various SAT course to improve their scored.  I have very little confidence that the process has gotten better for its new intricacy.  In our quest to make everything fair & equal (often mutually exclusive goals), we have mostly made it capricious. 

Standardized tests were designed more than fifty years ago in to create fairness and give poor but smart kids a chance to compete with the sons and daughters of the rich and well connected.  They worked.  That is one reason I like them. In interests of full disclosure, these sorts of tests revealed my hidden talents and abilities and helped me jump the socio-economic divide.   W/o the Foreign Service written test, I never could have gotten a job like the one I have.   The rich and privileged can help their kids by massaging their resumes and using their contact networks.    Working class kids don’t even know they are playing that game until they have already lost.  Standardized tests are less subject to manipulation.  They level the playing field.

I am convinced that many educators and politicians dislike standardized test because they actually do work to differentiate fairly among applicants, and fair doesn’t mean equal – something they really don’t want.   Standardized tests are also difficult to influence politically and they stubbornly fail to produce politically correct results.    No test is perfect and opponents attack from that angle.   They abuse the reasonable argument that we should not overemphasize one measure and try to devalue to whole judgment process.   They point to the exceptions that prove the rule. 

We should use multiple criteria, but let’s not pretend there are no valid criteria or that some criteria are not better than others.   If a kid has high grades and high test scores, he/she is almost certain to have the ability to do well in college.   If a kid has bad grades and bad test scores, he will certainly be challenged in school.   That does not mean he/she cannot eventually excel at school.  It just means it will be a stretch and the odds are long.  It definitely does not mean he/she will not be a success in life.   Success in school and success in life are not the same.   It is possible to be an educated fool and not everybody finds his best self at university.  But among those who are college-bound, the kids we should find most interesting and give more consideration are those who have poor grades and high test scores or the reverse.  This is where the testing has value. 

I object to the “whole person” concept in college admissions.   It is in fact a way for admissions to introduce bias into to process.   The combination of grades and test scores provide the necessary useful information.   When dealing with eighteen-year-old applicants, with virtually no work history, additional information will not provide valid basis for decision.  There are some exceptions, but they would be rare.    The only case I can think of off-hand is when a kid has a unique talent that shines through an otherwise mediocre record. 

IMO the rejection – proponents would say the broadening – of criteria is just a way to cheat.   The rich and privileged are unhappy that objective criteria weaken their influence, so they make a tacit alliance with “the underprivileged.”    That helps account for the statistical anomaly that elite universities have lots of rich kids and a good representation of poor kids but not so many middle-working class kids, relative to their representation in the actual population.    These are the ones who would provide the real completion to the privileged.

At my first post in Porto Alegre I met a woman who hated me.   She was the American wife of an expatriate banker.   I couldn’t figure out how I had provoked such a strong reaction in someone I hardly knew.  Finally, I asked her.  It turned out that she didn’t like me, or my colleague the Consul, because of what we were.    Both of us were from working-class backgrounds and both of us had gotten ahead through the standardized Foreign Service test.   As it turned out, her brother wanted to be a diplomat.  He had taken the test on several occasions, but was unable to pass.  

She explained to me that her ancestors had come to America on the boat right after the Mayflower and that her family had been leaders and diplomats ever since.   It was only in the most recent generation that they were pushed out of their ancient redoubts by upstarts like me and those darned standardized tests that breached the walls.    People like me, she said, didn’t really deserve or appreciate the exalted jobs we had.   I am not saying her argument was completely w/o merit.  I am sure her brother came with all those social graces that I had painful and imperfectly to learn. He knew what jacket to wear and what fork to use, but we were smarter, or at least had a better memory for tests.    It depends on what traits you value most.  The “whole person” approach to recruitment would have preferred him.

Above is Bay View HS where I went to school in Milwaukee.  I got a good education there, but as far as I recall nobody ever mentioned FS as a career option.   I think if someone had asked me if I was interested in a career at State Department, I would have asked “State department of what?  Roads? Parks?”  BTW – the school was badly damaged by another “fairness” social engineering – bussing.  That was one of the dumbest ideas ever, unless the goal was to destroy neigborhood schools, but that is another story.

Becoming American: Then & Now

Above is Howell Ave looking north as St Augustine Catholic chuch, where I occassionally went. 

Milwaukee’s old ethnic communities are gone, replaced by new ethnic communities.  I clearly saw that the Polish immigrant community around 6 and Lincoln is now a Hispanic immigrant community.  All over the city it is the same. The workingmen with the big forearms speaking with accents that sang Eastern European rhythms (where the streetcar bends the corner around) even into the second generation are gone.  We shall not soon see their like again.

Below – Public schools Americanized generations of immigrants, my ancestors included and I suppose me too  This is Dover St school, founded 1889 and still in the same place.  When I went there, it was still black from the coal smoke.  I thought all brick building were black, but I found that most were a nice light brown (cream city) color when they were cleaned up.  I don’t like the paint job.  Dover is made of nice Cream City brick.  They should just clean it up and let it be natural.

I miss them.  These were the hard working, blunt and practical guys who went to war to save America from fascism & communism.  They literally built & protected my world.  Their patriotism and loyalty to the country of their or their parents’ choice was enshrined at the VFW posts, their hard work evident in the busy factories and their troubles washed away at the many taverns.  A new generation of immigrants and their children is at work in the old neighborhood.  They come from places like Mexico or Honduras.  I have confidence that they too will build America and in process become Americans, just as the Poles, Italians, Serbs and Germans did before them.

After a couple generations all that really is left of the immigrant are T-shirts saying “proud to be Italian” or “kiss me; I’m Polish,” along with some food preferences and two or three phrases in the old language that make genuine natives of the old country smile.  Imagine someone whose language was learned and frozen in the slang of the 1940s or even the 1960s or 70s.   Language changes; immigrants keep and propagate the old stuff in groovy and copasetic ways.   They just don’t know it. I know it from personal experience, when teachers at the Foreign Service Institute who left their native lands long ago taught me phrases equivalent to “23 skidoo” or “now you’re cooking with gas.”  

Below – These steps lead from Chase Ave to … nowhere.  I suppose they used to connect neighborhoods before the freeway went in. 

I do have some concern about too many immigrants coming from the same place and concentrating among each other.   When you get immigrants from many sources, they have no choice but to learn English and become Americans very quickly.   This is what happened circa 1910, when immigrants made up a greater % of the American population than they do today.  If immigrants from Poland, Russia, Germany, Italy and Greece were all together, none could dominate.  The only language they could use was English, even though it was nobody’s first language.  I saw it happening with my kids friends in Fairfax County.  Arab kids, Chinese kids, Korean kids and other from countries you cannot even find on a map get to be friends and speak to each other in English.  Diversity is really strength.  Immigrants from one place can maintain their separateness.  Separateness is a bad idea.  I value true diversity, with lots of different groups all contributing to an American identity.

Once & Future Frankfurt

Frankfurt was the first city I visited outside the U.S.  That was almost thirty years ago.  Time flies.  Things have changed in Frankfurt, but not that much.  I use Euro instead of Deutsch Marks and the city seems more international than German.  There are a lot of immigrants and Irish pubs.

I met three Irishmen in the youth hostel when I was here in 1979.  They had checked into a hotel and went out to get drunk.  That night, none of them could remember where their hotel was located and they still couldn’t – three days later.  It didn’t bother them too much.  They seemed to have money.  During the day, they walked around the city trying to recognize their erstwhile lodging.  At night, they went out and got drunk.   Maybe they got stranded permanently and founded one of those Irish pubs.

The Irish wandered Europe and the world in those days looking for work.  Germany was booming and they could find unskilled work.  Today the Irish economy is one of the most vibrant in the world and the Germans envy their low unemployment rate. Ireland used to have high taxes and a government unfriendly too business.  No more.  It is now easy to set up shop in Ireland and the country has one of the lowest corporate tax rates in the world; it around 12% compared to the Germans’ (and ours) of around 35%.   Some things change. 

BTW – I heard that number on the debates today AFTER I wrote this.  I guess I am topical.

But a picture is worth a thousand words.  Below are some pictures with captions of less than a thousand words to explain them. 

I was hungry most of the time when I visited Germany in 1979.  I didn’t bring enough money, so I lost weight.  One of my favorite dishes was goulash soup at Weinerwald.   IT was cheap.  I loved it.  Hunger is the best cook and it doesn’t taste as good now as then, but I still eat it when I can, for old time’s sake.   Below is what I like to eat now.   This is breakfast at Courtyard. Much healthier food, but still enough fat to make it good. BTW – Courtyard Marriotts in Europe are great.  They are usually in nice, wooded locations and they are not too expensive.

Even with my meager funds in 1979, I still could afford beer – liquid bread, cornflakes in a bottle.  My favorite beer was Heniger, a local Frankfurt product.  It still is good.  The picture is from the old town square.  It is great to sit in the sun on a cool day and drink a cool beer. 

Es gibt kein schoneres leben

You can tell a good beer by the “cling”.  Cling is the foam that adheres to the sides off the glass as you drink it down.  It should look foamy, with small bubbles.  If there is not much cling, the beer is too light.  If the bubbles are too big, it probably means that the cup is a little dirty.  Don’t order anything containing mayonnaise at that establishment.  Below is good cling.  The beer is Bitberger, with the slogan “bitte ein bit” – please a bit(berger).  It doesn’t translate so well.

Germany has a good street culture, with lots of sidewalk cafes an food shops.  This is typical of the bread and pastry shops.   I couldn’t stay in Germany too long.  The beer and chocolate would be too tempting.

This post is getting a little long.  Let me continue in the next post.

P.S. It may seem like I drink a lot of beer.  I don’t …usually.  The Marines (and me) drink not a drop of it during deployment.  I do like beer and during my time in dry and beer free Al Asad I developed an aching hunger for the liquid bread.  As luck would have it, I spent a day in Germany on my way home.  I saw my chances and I took ’em.

Im Himmel gibt’s kein Bier,
Drum trinken wir es hier.
Denn sind wir nicht mehr hier,
Dann trinken die andern unser Bier.