What influences us? We often do not know because very profound influences come in small packages.
The picture above is a good example. I took that picture more than ten years ago (October 2009) at a conference on creating bobwhite quail habitat. I took the picture because I thought that open woods was just beautiful and I was learning that it was very productive for wildlife. It reminded me of the open ponderosa pine landscapes of the west.
I have referred to that picture many times and its influence on my choices has been significant. It informed decisions on thinning my the pines on Brodnax and Freeman. I sacrificed some timber value for wildlife and aesthetic reasons. Having that picture in mind helped me … well visualize the result.
In the ten years since that picture, I have learned a lot more about forest ecosystems and the forest-grassland savanna of the American South. Back in 2009, I had not yet planted my first longleaf pine and I really did not know much about that ecology. Now that I know more, my vision for the future is more longleaf than loblolly, with more complexity on the forest floor, but the picture still is similar.
I need that kind of inspiration, that visualization. I will never see the results of my efforts. I can only hope that my kids, or other future owners of the land I have come to love are willing to carry on.
St Paul defined faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” I have often been inspired by those few words. My forestry work certainly is faith-based, but I am glad to have a glimpse of something like what I will not get to see.
I take great joy in my forestry for many reasons. It connects me. I feel part of something that I can both control and not. The paradox of human existence is summed up in the work in the woods, beyond my understanding but still within my grasp.
There is a more prosaic and practical thing that I love about forestry. A curse of old people, a group I now count myself, is to worry about becoming irrelevant, losing my memory and being unable to learn new things. The dog barks but the caravan moves on. I do feel mentally slower than I used to be, but maybe I just recall being cleverer than I was. Life is often remembered better than it was lived. My practical reason for loving forestry is that it proves that I have not lost it.
Old dog and new tricks I know a lot about southern ecosystems, fire ecology and the business of timbering. I do my own planning, contracting and land management. I know for sure that most of these are things I did not know when I was younger and smarter, i.e. all of it was newly learned after I was well into middle age. For example, when I was going to buy my first forest land, I asked the seller what kind of trees were growing there. He told me loblolly pine. I had heard the name, but I was unfamiliar with the species. I could not tell a loblolly pine from a longleaf pine, from a Virginia pine or even from the red pines I knew from Wisconsin. I still have trouble telling a loblolly pine from a pond pine, but I can identify them, get a fair estimate of their age and know a lot about their patterns of growth. I can even identify loblolly by their smell. All of this is old man knowledge.
I am not here to tell you that working in forestry keeps me young, but it does keep me more vigorous in mind and body than I would otherwise be.
Don’t give a f*ck Owning my forest has also given me a “don’t give a f*ck” attitude toward lots of other things in life. I have my woods and I care a lot – I care passionately about everything related to my woods. But that allows me to dismiss lots of other things. I know that it infuriates some people that I am not deeply offended by Trump, not concerned with social justice or not even very concerned with making more money. I just don’t really care, and I don’t really care if others are offended that I don’t really care. This is a new feeling for me. I used to be much more concerned with what other people thought of me. Don’t get me wrong, I like almost everybody, even people who don’t seem to like me. I try to be generous and have good manners. I try never to offend unintentionally or take offense easily, but I can pursue “deep” discussions on all sorts of sensitive subjects with a disinterest that I never felt before. (Please note that disinterest is not the same as uninterest.) I often think in terms of “this too will pass, but the trees will still be here. The world’s problems are not mine, except as a disinterested observer.
Should I care more? I have considered whether this is an abdication. As a recovering historian of ancient Rome, I have sometimes wondered whether the detachment provided by Stoic philosophy common among Roman aristocrats contributed to the decline of civic virtue. I want to participate in the life of my country, as well as the life of my forest, but I worry that I do not have the passion for politics that I once did. Political participation used to be fun. Now it is more like a duty.
Anyway, those are my old woods guy thoughts. I still like to write, even if I don’t think many people will read it. I hope that pleasure does not diminish.
My picture is an old one from my earlier life, one I still look back to with pleasure but now detachment. I met a guy in Bahia, Brazil. He was simply called “the Poet”. He lived in the woods, observed nature and wrote poetry about his observations. Seems a very happy man and a balanced one. He made an impression on me. I liked what he was doing. I am not a poet, but I do love to observe nature … and participate with it.
Any story that begins, “I was having a few beers …” may not seem promising, but I am going with a version of “in vino veritas” here.
So, I was having a beer while waiting for Chrissy. I don’t mind at all waiting. It is a great time to think. I was thinking about land ethics and by the second beer, my thinking became clearer.
Ethics is simple, if not easy. It means that we practice self restraint. We do not take all we can, or demand all we “deserve.” We leave room for other people, and in the case of land ethics, other things.
I cannot tell you what a land ethic means, since it is not a final code but a process. We develop land ethics in interaction with the land over time. I can share my experience – eager to share – but I cannot share the feelings and the tacit knowledge. The best of what I think I know, I cannot say: the joy of finding a grove of cypress trees I thought had not survived, the resigned sorrow of finding one of my favorite beech trees blown down in a storm, redeemed by the little ones ready to fill the gap, the feel of the ground under my feet, the honest fatigue of a good day’s work … I could go on.
The meaning is not in the things themselves but in the mixing of ourselves with them and feeling the complexity of relationships. It is what is between them and us that make meaning. All of our lives have meaning. It is the fortunate among us who find meaning in life.
I know my love of the land and the biotic communities growing, crawling and developing on it will remain forever unrequited. That in no way subtracts from my experience. When we read and learn from the thoughts of some long dead thinker, we sure do not commune with him. We get to appropriate those things for our own use, our own benefit. I am not saying we make them better, but we sure make them more appropriate to our circumstances. But I think it goes further. I believe in transcendence. I will not try to convince those who don’t. Suffice to say that I know that each of us adds threads to the great tapestry. One more thing about ethics & self restraint. It is good for us as well as ethical. I am wondering about that next beer. I can afford this and nobody will know or care if I schluck down another. In fact, the waitress will be happier. But I am an intelligent man. I can bend the arguments to my desires.
You might say that ethics is a way to balance the legitimate needs of the individual with those of the community. My decision is easy. The waitress, the restaurant and the brewers are better off if I have another beer. I will suffer the consequences and risk a headache for the good of others.
I am invited to address a Department of State Public Affairs Officer conference to provide insights from someone who had crossed the bar from active diplomat to retired Foreign Service Officer. Some people in that audience might be reading this. I don’t mind tipping you off to think of questions or counter arguments. I may not get to all the points and may introduce others. It has always been hard for me to stick to a script, even one I wrote myself.
Life in and After the Foreign Service “I improve the intelligence of any group I join. I like to think this is because I am so smart, but I suspect it more likely that I am so obtuse that others need to explain things to me. In doing so they question assumptions and come up with new solutions.” This is what I wrote in the EER that got me promoted to MC. You wouldn’t think that kind of insouciance would be career enhancing, but then you never know.
I am here to talk about work-life balance. This implies that work and life are separate. But they are no more independent than your heart from the lungs while you are living and breathing. Making work meaningful is key to balanced life. As a retired FSO, I am also here to talk about life after the Foreign Service. It exists, and it is glorious, BTW. I will make brief comments – tell my story -and be ready to respond to your questions and comments.
“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?” Lighten up. You know I am right, and I know it is much easier for me to say than for you to do. Career is important. Promotions have consequences. They are a judgement on us. I still recall the dread of promotion lists. My wife had a friend who got advance copies. She helpfully called my wife and told her when I was not on the list. We take promotions personally, but they are less about you than you think. I served twice on promotion panels. They were big ones: career ending or saving transition panels that promote FS-01 to FE-OC. Promotions are statistical. You don’t always get what you deserve. Good people tend to get promoted faster, but not always. And we all end up in about the same place anyway. The day after you retire is the day you are a former FSO. So, lighten up.
Every FSO needs TWO types of examples. The first one is obvious. We need to think of the best FSOs and try to be like them. I thought of guys like Tom Shannon & Brian Carlson. These are the best. We can be excellent but still not reach a Tom Shannon level, and this is demoralizing. So, we need a second sort of example – high-ranking FSOs who are – shall we say – less competent. I will not name names, but there are a few. The good example makes us reach farther; the other sort is solace when our reach exceeds our grasp. “If that guy can do it, I can too.” This is maybe not a logical or noble sentiment, but it can keep you going during the lean times.
We few, we happy few We (now you) have the best jobs. We meet great people, learn languages, dive deeply into societies worldwide, explore myriad topics, and they pay us for this. We have remarkable access and opportunity for meaningful work. The FS let me pursue an encompassing passionate interest in learning about one country, its language, society and history, to make it an obsession, and then disengage to move to something completely different. FSOs enjoy an unusual blend of remarkable continuity and radical change. Some of us refer to posts as “incarnations,” because it sometimes seems like we are different people living different lives. On the other hand, we stay in the same career, in the same State Department, in a society of long-term colleagues, subject to the strong gravity of Foggy Bottom. This peculiar combination suited me just fine. It is a unique life. I am sure most of you feel similarly.
I got a lot of status and personal identity from being a Foreign Service Officer – a diplomat. And when I thought about leaving this simultaneously challenging and comfortable environment, about retiring, I was terrified that I would be lost if separated from the Foreign Service. No more incarnations in a system that dominated my life for more than three decades. What was I w/o that?
Becoming a “Gentleman of Leisure” In each of my Foreign Service assignments I learned things that I could apply in the next. They were new beginnings, but I began with a head start, with more tools to use and more skill in using them. Of course, I could not choose the circumstances where I would deploy them. It is the paradox of skill. The better you get, the more consistent your skill, the bigger role luck plays in the outcomes. I was extraordinarily lucky as PAO in Brazil. Colleagues were so good and so many things went my way that I figured that was the best I could ever do. After that, was senior international advisor at Smithsonian and then I did think tanks and NGOs. I did all I could do, and it was time to go and do something else.
It was also important to me to go out on my own timetable. I didn’t want them to kick me out. That seems less important to me now. Always leave when they still want you to stay. Don’t hang around like a fart in a phone booth.
I decided to become a Gentleman of Leisure, even wrote a job description. The Foreign Service gave me a lifetime of diverse experience, maybe many lifetimes, the incarnations I spoke of above. It also gave me a taste of variety. AND – this is important – the pension and the TSP can support the moderate lifestyle of a Gentleman of Leisure. I have an additional permutation of forest ownership.
My Gentleman of Leisure job makes me a sometime diplomat (WAE), forest owner & land manager, conservationist, and member of a couple boards of directors. I attend lectures and have leisure to read broadly. My life now is like my life in the Foreign Service, with the big difference in that I get to choose where, when and how I work, and I no longer live in dread of those promotion lists.
I have been pleasantly surprised at the easy transition from Foreign Service Officer to Gentleman of Leisure. I am very lucky to have a supportive wife, reasonably good health & a lifestyle within my means, but I think that a big reason for the smooth transition is that it was not so much a transition as a reordering, as I mentioned above, a new incarnation with more freedom.
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
Becoming a successful Gentleman of Leisure means that you proactively manage your life and learning, including research & reflection to decide what among many possible interests to follow and mustering self-discipline to pursue them, minimize those wasted days and wasted nights drinking beer and watching reruns on TV. I want to use my freedom to seek meaning in life. Not the meaning OF life. That is unknowable, but finding meaning in life is possible by thinking, doing, reflecting and doing again, each iteration coming closer to excellence, sort of like we should be doing in our diplomatic enterprises.
Thoughts on my 42 Days in Brazil Examining my time in São Paulo & Brazil, July 29-September 8, 2018 (slightly redacted version)
————————————————————— Minding the Gap
The State Department asked me to “hold the post” in São Paulo, to cover an unusually long gap between American officers in the public affairs role. They needed someone who could step in w/o missing a beat and then as easily step out again when the work was done. My experience meant I could do it and my love of Brazil meant I would do. They needed me to stay in São Paulo for 42 days. That was my mission.
The mission that I set for myself was a little more than merely minding the gap. The mission I assigned myself was (switching metaphors) to grow the pie with an energetic program of outreach to meet important people, especially those the USG had chosen for exchanges in times past, and to engage them again. Diplomacy is about engaging people. I wanted to see and hear about what had happened with those we engaged. This had the added benefit of keeping out contact network alive and vital. In diplomacy, sometimes just being there is the job. Very often the process of setting up and attending meeting is also the product.
During my too-brief time in Brazil I had in depth contact with dozens of interesting and important people, and more fleeting contact with literally hundreds more. I feel I earned the “vast sums” the State Department spent to send me here. An important truth I learned in the FS was that our individual efforts disappear like tears in the rain unless we pass them along by writing notes. I wanted to examine the experience, as well as document it. I wrote notes about some of the more interesting meetings. So as not to stall the narrative, I will make only passing references to them.
We Americans sometimes complain that people in other countries do not like us, or at least not properly appreciate us. This has not been my experience. Of course, nobody is universally liked, and everybody can find something not to like in a great and active power like the United States of America, but my interactions were generally friendly, from taxi drivers, to youth reps to professors or officials local and national. It may be a blow to American ego, but most people do not think about America most of the time. This means that they are often not aware of the good we do around the world or about those things we are less proud to have done or tolerated. Brazilians are certainly not uninterested in the USA, but their interest in the details of our politics or society is not as acute as we might hope or fear.
That is not to say America is absent. On the contrary, America is ubiquitous in Brazil. This is soft power and exercising soft power is like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall. So maybe we should just appreciate it for bringing our countries closer. The irony is that Brazilians sometimes do not think about American culture as American. I know this sounds odd but consider our own consumption of foreign culture. When we watch Downton Abby, we are not thinking “Ah British culture,” at least I am not. We are not appreciating the Germans when we listen to Beethoven, nor are fans of manga usually thinking much about the Japanese. Yet these are indeed vehicles for cultural expression and could be said to be transmitters of soft power. Rather than being purveyors of these cultural products, a good diplomat can tag along with them, using them to help make connections. If we want to look like we are leading the parade, we can get in front, but it rarely depends on us.
For example, the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra played a tribute to Leonard Bernstein, including selections from Candide, West Side Story, Slava & On the Town. Good to see American culture showcased in Brazil. The concert was at the beautiful São Paulo Municipal Theater. The Consul-General and I attended the concert, as guests not sponsors. Yet we could have achieved no more if we had covered the costs and been the impresarios. The Conductor praised Bernstein and implicitly the culture that produced him. They brought a 1950s era Ford Fairlane as a prop outside the venue. People lined up to take their pictures with it. It would be one of the year’s highlights if the Consulate-General had organized the event, but all we needed do was be there to enjoy the music and the praise. Of course, it does make it better if we officially attend. Showing appreciation for the work of others is more than just good manners: it is an influence enhancer. As the old Yogi Berra joke goes, “Always go to other people’s funerals; otherwise they won’t go to yours.”
Talking to Those Our Programs Touched
We cannot deeply engage with large general audiences, like the hundreds that attended one of the Bernstein concerts (plural – it was a series). My focus and effort were on a subset of the general population – Brazilians who had been directly touched by one or more of our USG programs. This included IVLPs, youth exchanges, Fulbright and speaker programs. These programs are resource intensive for the USG. I was confident that participants would have great and good stories to tell, but I did approach with my research with a twinge of trepidation.
Full disclosure – I am a true believer in the value of exchange. What if it turned out that the exchanges did not work? I would certainly suffer a crisis of faith. And what does it mean to say that they did work anyway? I settled on a general idea that an exchange worked to the extent that it improved Brazilian-American relations, provided lasting connections between our two nations and produced desirable outcomes in Brazil or the USA, preferably both. My fears were unfounded, and faith rewarded. I understand that my sample was small and not random, biased toward those who had been successful, since they would be the ones easiest to talk to and mostly likely to want to talk with us. But I found enough great results to make up for the less successful instances I might have missed. This was not my first foray into this territory. As public affairs officer in Brazil (2011-14), I made a special effort to reach out to former exchange participants whenever I traveled. With no exceptions (and I mean zero exceptions), the returnees talked about their experiences in glowing terms, often calling them life changing. But this time I was looking for a little different angle. Besides asking what they visit had done for them, I was also looking for the longer-term impact on Brazilian-American relations and on common aspirations of our nations. Some of the Brazilians I met came back from their exchanges decades ago. There was even one that I would call a second-generation beneficiary, who represents Harvard in Brazil, told me that her father had been an IVLP (or whatever it was called in those day) in the 1970s. His experience made an impression on him and his family, i.e. her, making connections with the USA seem much more normal and natural. Others, especially many of the youth exchange participants were newly returned within the last couple of years, sometimes months. To address first criteria – improvements of Brazilian-American relations – these exchanges were a clear success in that we could easily access these important Brazilians. They all took our calls and were happy to talk to us. This fact alone satisfied the requirement that the exchange be useful for Brazilian-American relations. Our one serious glitch actually illustrates the power of the program. I reached out to former IVLP a Brazilian federal judge famous for the prosecution of the crimes identified in the Operation Car Wash (Portuguese: Operação Lava Jato), a case of high-profile scandals of corruption and bribery involving government officials and business executives.
He participated in an IVLP where he visited U.S. agencies and institutions responsible for preventing and combating money laundering. It is widely appreciated that this guy acted with remarkably strong ethics and probity, even going against members of his own party to root out corruption. This series of investigations resulted in the impeachment of a sitting president and the conviction and incarceration of a former one. Did his IVLP affect his thinking and action? I cannot know for sure because we did not discuss it, could not discuss it. He accepted my invitation to talk (a plus for the program’s reach) but we decided that it was not a good idea for representatives of the USG to be talking to someone with such a high profile when some of those affected by his opinions were involved in upcoming elections. Strong circumstantial evidence, however, points to a program success. At least that is what it looks like to me.
I spent many hours talking to alumni and have a few observations to share. Let me start with IVLP alumni. You can see more detail in my write-ups at the end. They were doing all sorts of valuable things along the lines of their programs and keeping contact with Americans, not only with USG, enhancing the common good. One participant had started a blog and movement to tell women’s stories of the challenges with sexism in the workplace and with life. She was not only inspired by American counterparts but was clearly inspiring some of them. A true continuing exchange. Another was using information she had gathered on her IVLP sojourn and working still with American colleagues to identify illegally harvested wood. American colleagues were learning from her and often together they were taking insights arrived at in the collaborations to other countries around the world where tropical forests were threatened. These efforts are helping us effectively enforce our own American laws, like the Lacy Act. During a program on volunteerism, I was embarrassed by the praise heaped on the USA by participants. They said things about us that none of us could have said. The program was the launch of a volunteering platform, expected to reach millions of Brazilians created by an IVLP alum whose program had been on volunteerism a few years back. BTW, this was the national launch. He already had created or inspired a half dozen such projects on the state level. We met an IVLP whose visit centered on addressing toxic waste in water and soil and was now facilitating USA investment, among other things, by inspecting and remediating brownfield sites. In short, among IVLP alumni I found nothing but success and mostly resounding success.
Brazil’s flagship youth exchange is the Youth Ambassador Program. This has been going since 2002 and remains highly competitive, often with more than 10,000 applicants for 50 slots. Since 2006, the Mission sponsored English immersion courses for runners-up and hundreds of young Brazilians have enjoyed the benefits. Our binational centers, American Centers and EducationUSA branches all participate, drawing participants from all the regions in Brazil. It would be easy to take all or most of the participants from places like São Paulo or Rio, only from big cities, but emphasis on Brazil-wide inclusion makes the program more effective. Youth Ambassadors and related programs have now affected hundreds of young Brazilians and the earliest recipients are now in their early and mid-30s. More recently we have been doing Young Leaders of the Americas Exchanges (YLAE) for aspiring entrepreneurs.
During my 42 days in Brazil I spoke with dozens of Youth Ambassador Alumni and have been in contact with more. These supplement and update my previous contacts as PAO in Brazil 2011-14. Whenever I traveled, I made a point of inviting local youth alumni to pizza lunches. Then and now, I found uniform success. Youth touched by our programs had become successful and all were grateful for the experience. “Life changing” was the way I heard the programs described again and again. But there is more. Many alumni are now in positions of significant authority in business, government and in NGOs. One Youth Ambassador Alum is running for Congress in this elections cycle. We have a strong network throughout Brazil and one that is growing in both size and importance each year. I spoke to a few Youth Ambassador Alums about “reach back.” How did they think that their experience affected their larger communities? This was important, since all of them came from challenging circumstances. It is gratifying to give a few a chance for a better life, even better if the ripples of their success move others along. I got thoughtful and sometimes inspiring answers. All thought (hoped) that the power of their example was helpful, but most had actually reached back with concrete effort. One very good example was a YA who right after coming back set up a leadership program in high schools in his state. The program he set up in his own high school reached an estimated 800 kids and it inspired the creation of a network of seven similar programs throughout the state. The idea is to make the kids agents of positive change. I am not sure how we can measure that, since in the process of expanding the programs and ideas are adapting to local conditions and so becoming harder to trace. I am sure that the effects are real, persistent and positive.
During my time here, I had the chance to attend only one speaker program, this on bio mathematics. This visit satisfied a couple of our goals. First was the simple connections principle. One of the most important functions of diplomats is that we act as connectors, putting Americans in touch with counterparts in other places. Connectors play a key role in the information ecosystem but they (we) are easily overlooked or dismissed. I have confidence that the follow up will be significant and lasting. Second was the USA example of women in STEM.
I also had an experience that I will credit as a speaker program but let me explain the trajectory. It was gratifying to meet Jeremy Buzzell, Chief for the Accessibility Management Program at the National Park Service, maybe more a vindication of old school people-to-people diplomacy. I connected Jeremy Buzzell with Juarez Michelotti, from SESC São Paulo at the request of then former State Department colleagues, former since this was 2016 and I had just retired from FS. For me it was a simple matter of looking up on the internet making a few calls. USG is USG no matter the branch. I did not know the particular people at the Park Service, but I know how the system works generally. It was harder for Brazilian friends. Imagine how it would be to find similar Brazilian officials for someone outside the structure. Anyway, I called Mr. Buzzell, made the connection and mostly forgot about it. I did keep in sporadic contact with Juarez, however, because of my personal interest in his work of ecological restoration of Brazil’s Atlantic forests, and when I came on my sojourn to São Paulo I got in touch to with him to meet him in person and maybe see the forests. So, my colleague Joyce Costa and I arranged to go. With the date set Juarez gave me the good news that coincidentally Mr. Buzzell would also be there helping them with a program on accessibly.
The high point of my FS career came with my involvement with the Brazilians Science w/o Borders program. I am morally certain that the Mission’s quick and sustained support was instrumental to the program’s success. Ultimately around 33,000 Brazilian students went to the USA on this program. It contributed an estimated $1.5 billion into the American higher education economy and the benefits of long-term contact I believe will be immense. Unfortunately, I was unable to do extensive meetings with returned students, since they had dispersed throughout Brazil. I did, however, talk to Luiz Loureiro, executive director of Fulbright in Brazil, and with academics who worked with the program. I became aware of a Brazilian Academy of Sciences study that determined that around 20% of SwB participants went on to advanced degrees, compared with only around 5% of similarly situated students who did not go on the program. The researchers also reported an even greater positive impact on low income participants when compared to their peers. The study found it too early to say definitively, but so far it looks like a success. That comported well with my anecdotal evidence. I have reasonable faith that sending more than 30,000 Brazilians to study STEM in the USA is bound to produce good results. The only caveat in the studies I read were concerns that that the money committed by the Brazilian government might have been better deployed in improving primary education. That is a value judgement about which I will not voice an opinion.
Interest in studying in the USA declined with the ending of the SwB program in 2016, no surprise there, but has since rebounded. I was able to attend an EducationUSA event in São Paulo where around 2500 prospective students showed up. Our EducationUSA offices throughout Brazil are showing increases, according to director Rita Moriconi. She is considering opening a new one in far off state of Acre. We opened one in distant Roraima during my last months in Brazil and it is still going strong.
English Teaching and BNCs
I was able to visit three BNCs: Casa Thomas Jefferson in Brasilia, Cultural in Porto Alegre and had a long visit with Silva Helena Correa, who directs Alumni, the BNC in São Paulo. I spoke to a group of Access Students in Porto Alegre and to English teaching through sports at SESC in Bertioga in São Paulo state. Our programs are strong. Particularly impressive is the maker space in Brasilia that was built in cooperation with Casa Thomas Jefferson, Smithsonian and Mission Brazil. I wrote more extensively about the maker space in an earlier post. Rather than risk stalling the narrative again, I refer you to that. It also has pictures.
And Just Because it’s Fun … A Visit with an Old Colleague
A maybe off-beat but rewarding “event” was my visit with Paulo Agustoni. Paulo had been working for the USG for more forty years by the time I started in the FS and he was waiting from me when I took up my first post in Porto Alegre back in 1985. All counted, Paulo would spend more than fifty (50) years in the service of the United States of America. He showed me his service pins from ten, twenty, thirty and forty years of service. They evidently do not have one for fifty. It so rarely comes up. Paulo must be one of the longest-serving employees in the USG. We will not soon see his like again.
I visited Paulo at his home in Porto Alegre on a rainy Sunday morning. He is now 91 years old. It was a great history lesson to hear him talk and I just enjoyed meeting and reminiscing with an old friend. I also got some insights into the immigration history of southern Brazil, things I had not known about Paulo or the State of Rio Grande do Sul. Of course, my couple of years with him 1985-8 representing only a little wrinkle in time for his long career. Nevertheless, I heard from multiple “grapevine” sources that my visit had been an important day for him. I was happy to do it.
Taxi drivers are often a source of good information. I talked to them less after I figured out I could walk so many places in São Paulo, but I learned a few things nevertheless.
I find it surprising that the drivers do not immediately guess where I am from. Of course, they know that I am some kind of outsider. We Americans think that others think about us more than they really do. Taxi drivers are aware of the USA. How could they not be? But the USA is not top of mind for them. They have plenty of other problems, hopes and dreams. I have did asked any of them specifically what they think of the USA and none volunteered any general attitudes, although many have friends or relatives who have been to the USA. Some of their questions, however, illustrate their impression. One driver asked me if we had homeless in the USA. Another asked if we had traffic that requires a rodizio (where different license numbers cannot enter town during rush hour on different days). I talked to one guy about relative prices. Food is generally cheaper in Brazil than in the USA, but not in relation to salaries, and many other sorts of good, electronics for example, are more expensive both nominally and in absolute numbers.
My assignment was to hold the post and that I did also in those thing that fall between the banal and the mundane. I attended the mandatory meetings and tried to give useful advice, drawing on my experience, about upcoming official visits, media and meetings. I signed, cleared and commented as appropriate. I never much liked this part of the job, but it seems a lot less onerous when you know it is not your fate to be doing it for very long. My grants warrant was no longer valid. It would have been useful to post for me to have a valid grants warrant, but that is maybe a consideration for another time. I took part in the briefings, most notably (i.e. I actually produced notes) for the Smart Cities trade mission and at the social event at the CG’s residence I interacted with the USA representatives and their Brazilian colleagues, I think to some benefit for connections and I interacted with the advance team for a potential visit of Alex Azar, head of Health and Human Services.
Business Cards: Prosaic & Exotic
I brought with me around 100 business cards with only my name, email and the State Department golden eagle, those fancy and expensive Department of State variety. I had them made years ago when I was between tours and wanted something to give. I still had a box left. I like to give cards and entice my interlocutors reciprocate. My memory for names is weak and the card also gives me an email to follow up. I usually write notes or send something if I think we have some connection. I very quickly ran out of the State Department cards and had to resort to my personal cards. My personal cards were popular. Several people commented on them and a couple people approached me to ask for one, evidently having been shown one by someone else. I think the picture does it – me standing smiling in front of a forest fire – but people also comment on my gentleman of leisure title. The big problem with my personal cards is that I need to explain my status. This is good and bad. On the one hand, it tends to hold the person long enough to make that personal connection. On the other hand, it is confusing. At one event, they made a name tag for me that said, “Consul for Virginia Tree Farm.” On the third hand (yes, third. Who knew?), it does allow them to find me later, after I am gone from São Paulo, not sure if that is entirely good or bad. One interesting permutation, I got a call asking me to meet someone at CETESB (São Paulo’s environmental regulatory agency), seemed a useful meeting, so I went. They wanted to see me because of the card. Someone showed the card to them and they were intrigued by the picture and the function. We talked about the need for certification of timber products, among other things. It fits generally (vaguely) in our Mission goals, but I was speaking more as a subject matter “expert” (I dislike using that term for myself) more than a representative.
Human Relations I will assert that I improved morale among the LES. Since they will be among the potential readers of this report, I hope I am right. I knew most of them from previous tours and visits. I think they benefited from having me around. I served in Brazil in a remarkable time. The Brazilian economy was booming. People were optimistic about the future. In our particular work, Science w/o Borders, English w/o Borders and various outreach and exchange programs were reaching their apogees, or at least local peaks. These were good old days, objectively and make to shine even more lustrously by the passage of time. I could be a souvenir of that.
I also like to think that I improve the collective intelligence of any group I join. My preferred explanation for this is that I am smart and energetic, but I suspect that the real reason might be that I am obtuse but persistent enough that people have to explain things to me and in process are motivated to think through their ideas in new ways.
Whenever I reached out to contacts, I did it through my LES colleagues. I think that I provided a good pretext for outreach. I tried to make the contact and then let them get to their business.
Grateful for the Chance to Do it Again I enjoyed being in Brazil again and in São Paulo for a longer time than ever before. I enjoyed trying to revive my Portuguese and reach out to once and future contacts. I walked many of the places I needed to go, including usually the hour and fifteen-minute walk to and from the Consulate-General from my hotel. I got to know São Paulo from the slower, pedestrian perspective. There is a lot more to this great and big city than you can easily see from the window of a fast-moving car. Of course, in São Paulo traffic is rarely fast-moving, but in those cases you too often see only the brake lights of the cars around. There is some crime in São Paulo (I hear) but I did not and do not feel the city was a very threatening place, if you are aware of where you are going. I was not a victim of crime, at least I hope not. I am writing this on my penultimate day. Could be I am ultimately unlucky.
I did not achieve all the goals I set out for myself. My biggest gap was not being able to do a more comprehensive assessment of Science w/o Borders, but that was a task beyond my reach, as I determined when I started to work on it. I did an active program of meetings and discussions. I reached out to Brazilians in some way every single one of my 42 days in Brazil save one – Sunday August 26, when I had no appointments and it rained most of the day. I hunkered down. Some random folks that I approached to talk about … whatever … may just remember the crazy American who wanted to talk to them about their work and thoughts, but I think they will remember.
I coulda/shoulda/woulda done more, but I think I did a lot in 42 days. It is was a great experience but I treated my time as sprint, rather than the marathon if I had more time. I am kind of tired now and ready to go home, even with some things I wanted to do still undone. Anyway, a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, else what is a heaven for. All my pictures are from my 42 days in Brazil except the one below. That is my Virginia tree farm. Got things to do, trees to manage. You don’t think trees will just grow by themselves, do you?
As a parting thought, let me say that my tree farming has informed my understanding of everything else. I see complex ecological relationships in all human interactions and have implicitly and explicitly applied ecological principles to my work in Brazil, and elsewhere. Trying to find insights in complex adaptive systems is a true joy, whether ecology on the farm or ecology in the community.
I have been lucky enough to have diverse interests and lots of opportunities to examine & indulge them. You need not decide what you “really” like best when you have options. I have long noticed, however, that when my mind wanders, it mostly wanders into the woods, so it will be nice to be back.
Thank you, John Matel – Temporary Diplomat, Gentleman of Leisure, Conservationist & Tree Farmer
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.
I don’t like things too orderly, at least not in the usual sense. I have to emphasize, not in the sense usually understood. I have been reading and studying for the last couple of years about randomness, chaos and spontaneous order. Most systems have an element of self-organization and all are subject to randomness. I am beginning to think that there is a higher order, a more subtle one but one more appropriate to the complex and changing situations we generally face. There is much we cannot control and it is probably better not to try. Instead of making plans that won’t work, it is better to have robust processes in place that take advantage of many situations. If you want to plan, maybe optimize it for the most likely scenario, but be ready to adapt.
I have come to accept and even celebrate my ignorance, uncertainty and lack of detailed plans. It can be difficult to explain to others. I sometimes find it useful to have a profound plan that I can explain. Who knows? It might work. But I rarely believe that. I know with moral certitude that I will have to vary the plan, so it really is not a good idea to get too detailed into the planning. I suppose it is related to the “don’t spend a dollar to make a dime decision” rule of thumb. Don’t spend a lot of time and resources on something that is likely to be overtaken by events.
Things have been working out very well for me with my belief in the contingency nature of planning. I trust it will continue to work like that. People with plans seem to have things better in hand, but when those plans work it is merely a species of my random contingencies.
It doesn’t mean I don’t have any plans of my own, but I keep my goals firm and my methods flexible. IMO, some planners get this exactly wrong. They are less clear where they want to go than about the steps they will need to take to get there.
I was thinking about this today as I was weeding my “garden”. You can see the pictures of my flowers. It is disorderly in some senses, self-organizing and others and goal oriented for me. I pull weeds all the time and I move plants around. For example, I am establishing that ground cover you see with the blue flowers. Once in place, there will be no grass to cut in that place. The grass never grew very well there anyway. I have been gathering plants from other parts of the yard. The flowers come from seeds I gather when I ride my bike and then spread. They are all volunteers. I weed out what I don’t like, so it is not unplanned, but I do depend on what grows. My system is maintained w/o any power tools and I compost everything, so there is no garbage going out.
When I briefly had a gardener, we “exported” several bags of organic waste every week. I got rid of the gardener because he dissed by disorder and composting. I have not cut the whole lawn since May of 2012, although I knock down parts with my hand mover and scythe. There are lots of bees and butterflies and I suppose perhaps some of the nastier denizens of nature too, but they need a place to live too. The disorder gives us more diversity and more of everything in its disorder.
I think that is a good metaphor for life. It might be easier just to mow everything down, as it was when I got here. It would seem much more orderly, but it would be less interesting. Next week it will be different in ways I can anticipate but don’t control. I am always interested to see what will grow and how. I get to play in the garden every day and exert my influence, but there is the aspect of randomness. I like that. I established order in my peculiar way.
Things should be lost and only sometimes found. We try too hard to preserve things for a posterity that should be left alone to discover for themselves what we knew, what we were and what they have become. It is sad when something of old beauty disappears and tragic when hard-won lessons are lost, but it might be sadder and more tragic still if they persist and crowd new beauty and lessons to be learned by another age.
We have a passion to preserve, or at least try to. We embrace change in theory but in practice try to hold onto everything, memorialize each moment. But things pass and when they are gone they cannot be persevered, perhaps only fossilized, a lifeless impression reminiscent of the vital living thing, but w/o any of its essence. The essence of vital life is change and the fossil preserved cannot do that.
Sometimes just let go, let that moment pass into obscurity, with maybe some lingering meaning to be discovered by an explorer or an antiquarian of a future generation, when it will be rediscovered and misinterpreted to fit their needs.
Things preserved are things dead. The world should belong to the living. My historian’s heart loves the past and knows that we can learn from the experience of others. Our ancestors left us a wonderful legacy and I count as MY ancestor every human who came before me whose legacy I touch: good, bad and indifferent. Events change but human nature abides. But with all due respect to what went before, the future is what matters. Knowing what came before should enable us, not hold us down. They are our ancestors but we have no responsibility for what they did.
I often feel most awe in lonely places. I recall coming on a big pile of rocks while hiking in Norway. It turns out that it was a Neolithic monument. Thousands of years ago, the local hunters and farmer just piled rocks. There was a marker, which is how I knew what it was, but it didn’t really have a good explanation. Maybe it was just that somebody started to do it and other just did it too. The tradition perhaps persists along hiking trails, where you find piles of rocks that people create as a type of fetish.
When I come on a sign of some great past event, I feel pensive but also connected. I feel connected, however fleetingly, to humans who like me strives, achieved, failed and overcame. I know that all I do will soon be like all they did. I take a moment to respect them and also myself. I try to take a lesson and then I move on.
One of my favorite movies is “Groundhog Day” with Bill Murray. It is an old movie now; maybe you could call it a classic. The lead character – Phil Connors – relives the same day – February 2 Groundhog Day, over and over thousands of time. No matter what he does during the day, he wakes up in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania at 6:00 am on February 2 to a clock radio playing Sony and Cher “I got you babe” and nothing has changed. Nobody except Phil has any memory of the past experience. He gets to move to the next day only after he gets the endlessly repeating Groundhog Day just right. He starts making better connections among the people of the town fitting into their lives and helping them. Finally he feels he has done the best he can and the next time he wakes up it is February 3. I saw the movie dozens of times and probably read too much into it, but the reason I like it so much is that it made me think about pursuing excellence.
Way back in my classical education days, I was enamored with the Stoic philosophy. I read Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations” in Greek class (although mostly on the English side of the Loeb Classic, I admit) and studied how Stoicism influenced Western thinking in general. What I took away was that you accept your task, do your duty, not expecting necessarily to get credit or even to succeed. You cannot control what happens to and around you, but you can control your response. It is more complicated than this but IMO “Groundhog Day” tends to follow the outlines of Stoicism.
In the end, it is not so much about what Phil does as what he becomes. He realizes that perhaps he cannot change the things that happen around him, but he can change and improve himself; control his own responses to the circumstances and in that way find his own place and control his own destiny. When he achieves excellence, and lives the perfect day, he can move to the next step.
Foreign Service life can be like “Groundhog Day.” We go to assignments in different places but lots of things are the same. I often had the feeling that I am reliving the same experience. I do the same things and apply similar strategies and sometimes I feel like I have not really made any progress. Things seem pretty much the same after I leave as they were before I arrived. Each time, however, I hope that I can learn something and do better next time. I always joke that it is better to be lucky than smart, but joke or not it is true that much depends on circumstances. You have to adjust to the environment and its particular opportunities and threats. Sublime plans executed by superb teams can fail in an unfavorable environment and poorly planned and executed plans can succeed when things are just right. You have some control in that you can sometimes choose the environment where you will act, but not always and things will change, often in unexpected ways. Today’s royal road to success may be tomorrow’s path to perdition. Brazil may be the last day in my “Groundhog Day” saga and I think this time it will be the perfect day, or at least as near perfect as possible in this imperfect world outside the world of movies. Circumstances are great. Our Brazilian friends want many of the same things we do in the key area of educational exchanges and they are willing to put resources behind their aspirations. This opportunity arrived almost exactly the same time I did and it made education and related institution linkages the theme of my time here. My team in Brazil is as good as I could get. I am halfway through my time here and things have worked out much better than I expected or predicted. My problem has been too many opportunities. I have had the luxury of taking choosing from among them. This is harder than it seems, since I have to turn down good proposals, but it is better than the alternative.
In fact, sometimes I am tempted to look for a reason to flee Brazil early so that I can quit while I am ahead, before my Royal Road turns into perdition’s highway. I am afraid my luck won’t hold. But then I think again about the Stoicism. My job is not done. I need to persist until the end, take the sweet with the bitter. Besides, sneaking out early is not a realistic option and I am reasonably certain I can hold it together.
Most other jobs I could get would be a letdown anyway. I cannot think of a better place to work as a public affairs officer, no place I would rather work and no time I would rather be doing it. In public affairs, this is the chance of a generation in Brazil. I always tell people that five years ago would have been too soon and five years from now might be too late and I believe it. The connections we help create between the American and the Brazilian people shape relations between our countries for the rest of my lifetime and beyond. It is too important to let it go before I have done everything that I can do.
My picture up top is a posed picture of us in front of a group of Brazilian English teachers who will go to a variety of U.S. universities to learn to teach English better. Two years ago, we sent twenty. Last year we sent fifty. This year we will send 1080. This is an example of the opportunities. Our Brazilian friends want to send them and pay for their tuition. U.S. institutions are happy to have them and we (the Mission) facilitate the connection. All of us “suits” look alike, don’t we?
I put the boys on the plane back to the U.S. I talked to Chrissy on Skype. Right now I am watching a nature show with Portuguese narration about New Zealand. New Year Eve party. As you can see the picture up top, I have all I really need.
I do not plan to swim in that whiskey river, at least not very far, maybe one drink when the clock strikes midnight Brasilia time.
I don’t feel sorry for myself. This is my choice and among my preferred outcomes given the other choices. I had several options for New Year events, but I don’t much like the sorts of parties. It goes beyond just being boring, which I suppose I am. New Year has never been a happy time for me. I suspect it is not happy for lots of people, which accounts for much of the alcohol addling that accompanies most celebrations.
When I was a kid, New Year meant that I stayed up late watching the late-late movies. In those days TV was not twenty-four hours. On most days, the stations would sign off around 2am with the playing of the Star Spangled Banner. New Year was different.
My strongest New Year memory is a very sad feeling. It must have been 1972. I had been in the hospital after spiting up blood. Our doctor called it an ulcer. The diagnosis later kept me out of the Air Force. It also ruined my swim team season. I think it was a misdiagnosis, since it never recurred, but who knows. More serious was my mother’s health. We knew there was something seriously wrong, but the (same) doctor couldn’t figure it out. She died of leukemia nine months later. I didn’t know this would happen, but I remember thinking that things would not be the same, if for no other reason that I was growing up.
I went down into the basement, where we had a refrigerator with Coke. Even then I drank a lot of the stuff (even though I was not supposed to because of the “ulcer”). Our basement was a little bit creepy. It was not finished. My father and grandfather had done a little work, but they were usually drunk when they worked and you could tell. It was also full of spiders and perpetually damp, so damp and full of spiders that when my pet newt escaped his terrarium he managed to survive two years down there, with sufficient habitat. When you wanted to turn the lights on or off, you loosened or tightened the bulbs on the ceiling.
It was one of those times when reality just bites. Outside was sub-zero Wisconsin winter and I could hear the wind. The one bulb that I screwed in threw harsh light that didn’t reach into most of the corners. It was around midnight and I was the only one awake. I sang auld lang syne to myself in a quiet voice, not all the words. I didn’t know all the words then and I don’t know them now. And I didn’t know what auld lang syne meant. But I mumbled as much as I knew and then went back up to watch the Late-late movies.
The movies were a strange choice for New Year festivities. TV 6 showed a bunch of World War II movies. I don’t remember details, except that one of them ended with an American soldier in the Philippines trying to make a radio broadcast as the Japanese advanced. He repeated “Manila calling, Manila calling”.
I don’t vouch for all the details of this forty year memory. But that is what I recall.
I spent the New Year 1974 working at Medusa Cement. I was working the night shifts unloading hopper cars. I made good money, but it was cold outside and the work was outside, in the dark. We had to open the bottoms of the hopper cars with heavy crowbars. I couldn’t get a good grip with my gloves on, so I took them off. Cold metal against warm skin gives you a good grip but creates a bit of pain. We would work outside as long as we could tolerate it and then retreat to a shack where we had a kind of propane heater shaped like a torpedo. That thing threw off lots of heat and fumes. My associate, a guy called LC Duckworth, the strongest man I ever met, actually set the leg of his coveralls on fire by trying to warm his feet too fast. I helped put him out.
I most enjoyed riding the cars. We had to push them off and jump on the back, turning the break as fast as we could when we got near the end of the track, which would have taken us in the KK River. It could be kind of exciting.
Our operation was on the river, as mentioned above, from which I could see the clock at Allen Bradley. At the time, this was the largest four sided clock in the world. We used to call it the Polish Moon. Next to it was a temperature sign. As I watched the clock reach midnight on January 1, 1974, the temperature listed was minus five Fahrenheit.
You can see my old cement company as it looks now at this link. Below is the Allen Bradley clock in a different season.
My work during the Christmas break kept me solvent through the spring semester, but I didn’t use all the money I earned wisely. I bought a bunch of booze and held a belated New Year party for my friends. I was determined to enjoy their company w/o drinking myself. I learned that it is impossible to enjoy yourself as the one sober person in a room full of drunks. The jokes just are not as funny. So I decided to catch up. In short order, I drank a full bottle of Tequila and I remember nothing else until the next morning, when I tried to get out of bed, but couldn’t. I had never been so sick before and so far have not been since. I couldn’t actually move around, or even keep down water until around 7pm. Then I was really hungry and thirsty. Tequila used to be my booze of choice, but I have not consumed a drop of tequila since January 4, 1974. Can’t even abide the smell.
A few years later, when I didn’t have a Christmas break job, my friends and I went out to the bars and night clubs. I don’t recall the year, but it was probably around 1976. In those days, you could legally drink at 18 in Wisconsin. We went down to Lincoln Avenue to a place called the President’s Club. I don’t know how we chose it, but it was full of old people. They did not appreciate us and we didn’t enjoy their company, so we decided to go to Crazy Horse, a younger person club near the airport.
I don’t recall why, but our friend Mark decided that he would ride on top of the car, mind you that this is Wisconsin with -10 nights in January. He got up on top of the car, sort of like a deer during hunting season, and hung on for the 2 ½ miles from Lincoln Avenue to the airport. He was never quite the same after that, but you have to respect his ability to hold on. There really isn’t a lot to hold onto on top of a car. Jerry had a Cutlass Supreme, which had landau roof, giving a little more traction, but not that much.
After these experiences, I adapted to a more boring party scene. The only one that really stand out in the latter days is New Year 1985. Chrissy and I were invited to a kind of command performance at a fancy club called Leopoldina in Porto Alegre. It was actually a pleasant time. With a lot of good canape. The place was not far from our house, so we could walk back, making it possible for us to drink more freely. It was a warm night in the middle of the antipodal summer and the place had a pool with a cover on the middle. Our friend Pedro drank a few too many caipirinhas. He jumped in the water and swam under the cover, coming up on the other side, evidently just to prove he could. It was not the usual type of behavior expected at such events. All of us just kind of pretended it didn’t happen – even when it was happening – and never spoke of it again. But the next year Pedro’s invitation ostensibly got lost in the mail.
This New Year will not produce any funny or sad stories. Well, maybe an old guy drinking a glass of Jim Beam chased by Coke Zero is funny or sad, but I am content. “Sou Cesar” is coming on TV. That should take me through the new year.
BTW – if you doubt the theory of evolution, take a look at my boys in the second picture. I kind of expected one of them to pick up a bone and start smashing stuff to the strains of “also sprach Zarathustra”. In fairness, the sun was in their eyes.