My birthday 64 years old

Rituals are important, even little ones. Since I was 40 years old, I have been doing the bar flip on my birthday. That is now 24 years. The other pictures are from lunch. Chrissy & I went to Blackfinn. I forgot about the pictures before the beer was gone, as shown in the photos.

This is the link to my bar flip – John’s 64th birthday

Next day

A typical Saturday. Chrissy & I went walking around near Navy Federal and then to a new (to us) brewery in Manassas, called Two Silo Farm Brewery. The Brewery was a nice place full of families. There were also lots of the Rolling Thunder motorcycle participants, all enjoying a beautiful spring day.



Posted in My life | Comments Off on My birthday 64 years old

Did you consider other careers?

Story Worth – Did you consider other careers? How did you choose?

Little boy dreams

I wanted to be a paleontologist. I was maybe five years old. Most boys like dinosaurs. I loved dinosaurs. I could spell that word before I could read because before I could read my mother read me “All about dinosaurs.” Over and over. I respect her patience and persistence. It was not all about dinosaurs. A lot of it was about the author’s – Roy Chapman Andrews – adventures in the Gobi Desert, where he found fossil dinosaur eggs. Andrews was a kind of Indiana Jones, a worthy role model for a little boy. My next career aspiration was archeologist. It required a similar skill set but fit with my then current interest in ancient history. I could read by that time and I read a book about Henrich Schliemann finding Troy and Mycenae. I was worried that I was too late. All the good things had been discovered, I feared.

My interests drifted throughout my childhood. I got interested in becoming a “naturalist” sometime around 5th grade after a day camp experience at the Kettle Moraine Forest. I thought that there was such a job that I could apply for, but I was not sure what a naturalist would do besides be in nature. My 7th grade ancient history class convinced me to be a historian, but my 8th grade life science teacher said I should be a biologist. Nobody ever told me that I should be musician and unlike many kids of that time and place, I never aspired to be a rock star, race car driver or football player.

I was on swim team in HS and briefly flirted with being a gym teacher and coach. I told this to one of my swim teammates. He told me that I did not have the personality for it. I am not sure how much thought he put into his answer or why I cared, but I decided that he was right and never much thought about that again. I don’t like sports. I liked to swim, run and work out, but I never got into watching sports. A coach should be interested in sports.

To college

I went to University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point to study wildlife management and forestry. I was a horrible student. I didn’t go to class enough during the day and I drank way too much every night. You could drink beer legally in Wisconsin when you were 18. I did. Absent that, I may have been successful, but it is a kind situation like “besides that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play.” When I finally sobered up a little more than a year later, these subjects had become less relevant.

I drifted into history and anthropology because I could do those subjects naturally well. They fit well into some of my old interests in history and archaeology. I ended up majoring in those subjects. Sometime in my junior year I decided that I wanted to be a college professor and teach ancient history. I had no real idea how to go about that. I only knew that I would need to go to UW Madison and get a PhD. I set about making that so. My time horizon was never more than a couple years.

No jobs for history majors

It is hard for me now to conceive of my decision-making process in those days. There was no future in teaching ancient history. But I set about learning Greek and Latin and doing research into ancient lives and sources. In retrospect, I can see this is good preparation for becoming a gentleman of leisure and it is the classic way preparation from a diplomat, but those I things I know only in retrospect. Back then I knew nothing and that was blissful ignorance.

It took me a couple years to figure out that I would never find remunerative work in ancient history, so I bailed out after my MA.

With no other prospects in mind, I got a book called “International Careers” that told me that a guy with a liberal arts education could get well-paying jobs in international business if he took some courses in accounting, statistics & organizational research. People make money publishing those books, but nobody ever makes anything from having read them. I have described my attempt to become a military officer before, so I will skip that here. Just having taken accounting and statistics did not work as the book mentioned above implied, so I decided to get an MBA.

Gender discrimination

My MBA concentration was market research. I chose this concentration precisely because it was different from what I did before, the career path that was not working out. It was math heavy and statistics dependent. I figured those skills would be useful. My career goal was to become a market researcher. Specifically, I wanted to work at a place like General Mills (they make Cheerios, among other products), which was a big deal in Minneapolis where I went to business school.

I know it is considered bad manners for white males to complain about their lack of privilege, but I think I have a legitimate complaint. Many firms, including General Mills, interviewed ALL the female MBAs before any of the males, and on the day before my FIRST interview, one of my female friends told me that General Mills offered her the job. They made the right choice. She was better at market research than I would have been, more appropriate for the job, but you interview with less enthusiasm when you are aware that the job has been filled. I can be magnanimous after the passage of decades. It hurt at the time, but worked out very well in the long run.


I could tell you that I always wanted to be a public diplomacy foreign service officer, but that would not be correct. My career advice is NOT to do what you love, but rather learn to love what you do. I knew I could learn to love the FS. Public diplomacy was also not my first choice. In fact, I scored lower on the public diplomacy part of the FS exam than on any other part. My best was commerce. I scored 94% on Commerce. Public diplomacy was only 82%, but public diplomacy offered me the job and I took it. My rationale was the public diplomacy was much like the marketing I had studied in my MBA. The choice was a good one.

My plan was to work at the FS for around 7 years and then get a high-status job in the private sector, make the big bucks. I thought big bucks would be good to have. Lots of the self-help books I read implied that should be a goal. I figured that 7 years was the ideal time to stay in the FS. You got enough experience but not too much specialization. I meant to leave after that, but never got around to going. There was something interesting to do in the FS, so I ended up hanging around like a fart in a phone booth for 32 years.

Big bucks not all there is

At about seven years, I wandered back to Minnesota and talked to some of my old MBA colleagues. Every one of them earned more money than I did. In fact, new MBA graduates were usually making more than I did in the FS after around seven years. So much for those big bucks. But my job was interesting, more interesting than any of my former classmates. And it meant something to me that I was serving the USA.

Frozen peas

There is no such thing as a businessperson. Everybody has to do something specific and that is usually boring. My most successful colleague worked at Green Giant. He made the big bucks and has high status. As I recall, he was a brand manager. He was in charge of frozen peas – not all peas, not all frozen vegetables – just frozen peas. While I am sure that is fascinating, and I am sure that by now he has moved up to all frozen products, maybe even canned goods too, but I thought my work was better, so I doubled down and decided to finish my working days as an FSO.


Let me share a few insights into my FS career. Foreign Service is not something you do; it is something you ARE, at least that is what it was for me. But in 1998, I decided that I needed more to life than the FS. I was desk officer for Russia, and I was working those 12-hour days you hear about. I decided to analyze my work, so for a couple weeks I wrote down exactly what I was doing in fifteen-minute intervals. I figured out that I could bunch some of the tasks, streamline others & eliminate some entirely. I got it down to nine hours a day on average. This was effective, but it did go against some of the State Department “face-time” culture. I also made an effort NOT to do work after hours. In fact, when I ran the worldwide speaker program at State Department, I forbade my subordinates from working form 10pm until 6am. I did not want to see any emails read or sent between those times except in dire emergency. And I discouraged any work outside 8am – 6pm. Working too much is as bad as working too little. I did not always succeed.

“Work,” however, is hard to define for and FSO. In Brazil I worked lots of hours, but it was joyful work, studying Portuguese, meeting with Brazilians or learning about that great country. Diplomacy overlaps with tourism or intellectual activities. As a gentleman of leisure, with no “duties,” I attend lectures and do outreach in almost the same ways I did for my FS job. I do it now for pleasure and they don’t pay me to for it. My choice of subjects is a little different, but not that much. Love what you do. I did and still do.

A success secret

Finally, let me share a secret of my success. I used to ride my bike to work. It was a 17-mile ride each way. It was fun in the morning. Since I was heading east, I had the west wind pushing me along most days. It is also mostly downhill from Vienna, VA to downtown Washington. The way back was arduous, usually against the wind, in the hot end of the day and mostly up hill. So, I started to ride down and take the Metro back. You cannot take your bike on the Metro until after 7pm, so I waited until the time and stayed at work. I had no place else to go. People saw me in the office or found m there when they called and they thought I was working hard. In fact, I was working much of the time, since I had nothing else to do. You can get a lot done when others have gone home. But some of the time I was just waiting for the Metro. I benefited from the extra time on the job AND being seen on the job that extra time. I am convinced that contributed to my promotion. I told anybody who asked me that I was just waiting for the Metro. Even that worked in my favor. People thought I was being modest. Sweet serendipity is my life.

Pictures show “All About Dinosaurs,” the college of natural resources at UWSP and a big bur oak at Dover Street School.

Posted in My life | Comments Off on Did you consider other careers?

How America has changed in my lifetime

My story worth – How has the country changed in your lifetime?

The surprising success of a fundamentally lazy man

I thought of writing a book about my life’s experience. I didn’t get very far, but I came up with a title – “The surprising success of a fundamentally lazy man.” I am not saying that I was not active, but rather that I was always very lucky and did not have to exert myself doing lots of things I did not want to do. My luck, however, was not the windfall type. My sort of luck has been the changing environment in our country. On several key occasions, conditions developed in ways that suited my peculiar talents and predilections, so I have a personal view of how the country changed in my lifetime.

My chances would not have seemed that good when I was born in 1955. There were fewer opportunities for people like me. My father, like everybody else in my family and neighborhood, was a worker. He was intelligent and a hard worker, but those were the kinds of opportunities available to people like him. Nobody had a college education. My father never even graduated high school. Nobody traveled internationally except at the invitation of their Uncle Sam to fight in Europe, the Pacific, the Korean Peninsula or Vietnam. There is no reason to believe my life would have been any different had I been born a few decades earlier.

Right time and right place

But things were changing, and it was good to be born in America in the 1950s and this was my first bit of good luck. Call it “American privilege” along with “temporal privilege,” i.e. right place at the right time. America had become the richest and open large society in the history of the world and opportunities were everywhere. This lucky break was further enhanced by an emphasis on science education and physical fitness in school in response to perceived threats by the Soviet Union. When the Russians launched Sputnik, the USA responded urgently, and a generation of Americans benefited. It was like standing on an escalator. I am not saying that individual effort was not important, but we were all moving up. So, I grew up in the Space Age and was immensely proud to watch Americans bouncing around on the moon. In all candor, the images were bad, and our crappy TV made them worse, but it was enough to know that they were up there. The moon would never look the same.

Boomer babies and the generation gap

My generation was part of the baby boom, the largest generation of Americans. Each generation must reestablish civilization by converting barbarians (i.e. young people) to the ways of civilization. Our generation almost overwhelmed the system. There were more of us and more of us went to college than ever before. Our parents’ generation was much less educated. Many of us were the first in our families to go to college, and that made some of us think that made us better than those on whose shoulders we stood. It created a “generation gap” and the young often rejected the values of their elders.

“When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.” – this quote attributed to Mark Twain. The whole country went through something like this in the 1960s.

Not just for rich kids anymore

And opportunities were becoming more widely available. I have often quoted what my father told me when I told him about the Foreign Service. “Don’t bother. That’s only for rich kids,” he said. He was wrong for me and my generation but probably right for him and his. People like my father could not aspire to something like the FS, if they were even aware that it existed (usually not). That clearly changed in my generation.

The 1960s were a time of great change. Technically, the 1960s started in 1960 and ended in 1970, but if you look to how events played out, it is more accurate to say that the 1960s started with the Kennedy assassination in 1963 and ended with the resignation of Richard Nixon in 1974. The 1960s produced a lot of change, much of it good especially in the area of civil rights, and the music was good, but the times were generally unpleasant and divisive because we were fighting a divisive war. The Vietnam war was permanently changed the way Americans saw their country and created political fault lines you can still see today. President Johnson fought the war at the same time he was expanding social programs. In the parlance of the times, he wanted both guns and butter. It worked for a while. We paid of it in the 1970s. Overspending in the 1960s and the breakdown of the post-war economic system stored up inflation and economic challenge. When OPEC quadrupled oil prices in 1973, the good times we had enjoyed since the end of WWII were not what we were living anymore.

A cold, dark and generally depressing decade

I graduated HS in 1973 and the country was embarking on a decade long series of crises. We had an energy crisis, a population bomb, an ecological crisis, and various political challenges. Even winters were worse. The 1976-7 & 1977-8 winters were record cold and snow, at least in the Midwest. We worried about global cooling in those days. In those years it had never been colder before and it has never been as cold since. Anyway, the 1970s sucked, and the prognosis was for worse. If I went back and told my younger self how life turned out, the young guy would not have believed it. During those dark and cold 1970s, however, technology was being developed that would help me personally. They were calculators and computers that could check spelling.

Technology takes away rote tasks

I am reasonably competent at math, but I cannot do arithmetic well. Similarly, I can write well, but I spell poorly. Arithmetic ability and spelling well are/were “threshold skills.” I would have had a hard time jumping over that threshold. Technology cheapened those skills. It is helpful to be good at arithmetic, but you no longer need it for math. Spelling is now almost optional. If I type anything near the word I want, the machine fixes it.

This is part of a very important change in America, but one that is almost invisible. Technology like this changed our point of view about the very meaning of intelligence. In that past, intelligence was associated with skills like doing arithmetic or being able to recall facts. This has changed. What matters today is capacity to assemble and relate concepts. The ability to add, subtract, multiply or divide columns of numbers is more a curiosity than a valuable skill. Just as power tools replaced human muscles, computer power has replaced human clerical and arithmetic skills. People used to do what machines do. In Dickens’ famous book “A Christmas Carol”, Scrooge’s employee, Bob Cratchit, is a computer. That is what they called people like him in those days. His job mostly consisted of doing arithmetic and filling in forms. Today, as Excel program does in seconds what Cratchit had to stay late to do on Christmas eve.

And the Internet

I dreamed the impossible dream in grad school. I envisioned a world where knowledge would just be available. I thought how great it would be if I could just search through the accumulated wisdom of the ages. I thought that would never be possible. The very rich could hire researchers. The rest of us could haunt used bookshops. The dream came through faster and better than I imagined. How much is the Internet worth? It does not appear on our accounts because it is free. How impressive is that? Today, I have better access to the world’s knowledge, to maps, charts and research than even a president had when I was young. We take it for granted now. It is so big that it is hard to see.


America became much more open and diverse in my lifetime. In many ways, this was back to the future. America in 1910 was more diverse than America in 2010 in that there existed a greater variety of cultural norms and disparate lifestyles. It is true that most of the immigrants came from Europe, but a Polish peasant or an Italian worker in 1900 would have had less contact with Americans than just about anybody has today. The world is just much more connected today. But America in 1960s was the least diverse in our history. The Immigration Act of 1965 changed this. The 1960 census found that almost 89% of the population was white. Immigrants made up the smallest percentage ever of the American population. Immigration was the experience of our grandparents. We thought of it as a historical heritage thing. The country had gone through the homogenizing effects of the Great Depression, World War and Cold War. Most people had access to no more than three TV stations. We all watched the same things. (72% of Americans tuned in to watch the last episode of “the Fugitive” in 1967) Much of this changed in my lifetime. It is great to have the variety but maybe a little sad to lose the unity.

Healthy, wealthy & wise?

How would I assess the changes in my almost 64 years? America was great when I was born; it is even better now. Most of the thing I worried about as a young man were either problems solved, or situations transcended. I was profoundly worried about the environment. It is so much better now. I worried about the energy crisis. That has been transcended. We have our share of problems, but we are certainly healthier & wealthier than we were when I started to pay attention around 1970. You know the phrase is “healthy, wealthy and wise.” I do not think we have acquired much wisdom as a country and in fact maybe lost a little. The long prosperity did not make us so much complacent as resentful. It is odd in people so well off. We have magnified our little problems and they seem burden us more than some of the big problems faced by other generations. My father’s generation faced existential threats. They experienced real hunger in the Great Depression. Their world was almost destroyed in the great world war and they lived with the real threat of nuclear annihilation. Yet they persevered and gave us a fantastic legacy. Maybe it would make us happier to be more grateful and less demanding.

We don’t know how good we got it.

My pictures are not related to the story. They are the usual beer photos, plus around Washington

Posted in My life | Comments Off on How America has changed in my lifetime

Brodnax visit May 2019

As a gentleman landowner, I am unaccustomed to actual work. Today was a lot of actual work in the forest.

I had some success and some not success. I cleared a couple acres of sweet gum and poplar in order to give oaks a better chance. This took two tanks of gas on my machine, i.e. a little over three hours of cutting and another hours of pilings and pulling. I think it will work.

Next I went after the gum and popular in my 2016 pine plantation. Here I ran into Japanese honeysuckle. This is a beautiful plants with a wonderful fragrance. It is also a horrible invasive. It can overwhelm, cover and kill small trees.My machine did not work well against them – too many stems, too close the ground and the vines move when you cut at them. I worked hard but accomplished little of value.

The only viable option is chemical warfare. I am going to have to spray them or maybe get someone to do it for me with a helicopter. I have around 30 acres of this 2016 pine. Not all is inundated with honeysuckle, but a lot of it is. I am not sure I can take it all on with my backpack sprayer. Actually, I am sure that I cannot. I will need to call in air support.

Also checked out the burning. The winter burn is looking good. I don’t think we lost any pines. We will need to burn a couple more times to establish a nice grass and forbs layer.

The burn from May of last year killed a couple dozen trees. It got too hot. I was very depressed when I saw it, but now with the passage of time it has become a kind of science project. I planted some longleaf under the dead trees and I am using this as one of my oak regeneration experiments.

Biochar is one of the parts of the science experiment. I have long been interested in “terra preta” in the Amazon. This is anthropogenic soil created by the natives by mixing charcoal with soil. It holds water better and produces a lot more plant life. We created some terra preta by accident. When the fire looked like it might escape, DoF pushed a line and trapped lots of wood in with dirt. It burned slowly and turned to charcoal and dirt, i.e. biochar. I will watch how it does.

My first picture shows the honeysuckle. Next shows the dead trees from the May burning, follow by the biochar heap. Picture # 4 shows the winter fire result – live trees and quick recovery. Maybe too quick. It did not burn enough. Last is some of my oak preference. I knocked down the gum, red maple, popular and sycamore anywhere near an oak. All the time I was working out there today, I was thinking of the Aldo Leopold essay “Axe in Hand.” –

“When some remote ancestor of ours invented the shovel, he became a giver; he could plant a tree. And when the axe was invented, he became a taker; he could chop it down. Whoever owns land has thus assumed, whether he knows it or not, the divine functions of creating and destroying plants.”

Posted in Conservation & Environment | Comments Off on Brodnax visit May 2019

Freeman May 2019

Feeling overwhelmed today. Visiting the farms. So much to do. I have an idea what I want, but there is so much land and so little me.

I know this happens to me every spring and I will get over it very soon. But just now I am down. I also picked off two ticks. Generally my Repel works to keep those little nasty things off, but it seems a season of numerous ticks. Maybe all the rain.

Some of my wildflower/pollinator flowers are coming up. My plan was/is to plant patches in hopes they will spread. The seeds are very expensive and I could not cover all the territory even if seeds were free. Give it a month.

I am staying down south tonight. Tomorrow I will use my power tool to clear around some white oaks, so that I can help with oak regeneration on the Brodnax place. I identified the places last time and now I have to do the work. I dis like the power tool because it makes so much noise, but it sure is faster. I can clean off several acres with the tool. With my hand tools I can maybe do 10%.

My first picture is one of my “wildflower nodes”. I don’t know what flowers those are, but the are nice. I planted the seeds in handfuls of dirt. It seems to have worked. I have lots of those pods around. Hope they proliferate. Next shows the problem with longleaf. One is a longleaf in the grass stage. The other is actually grass. It is hard to tell the difference visually. If you touch them, they feel very different, but it is hard to find your new longleaf. Picture #4 are the longleaf now in going into their 7th year. The new growth is nice. Last is my prickly pear and rattlesnake master. They are growing.

Posted in Conservation & Environment, Virginia forestry | Comments Off on Freeman May 2019

Eager beavers

I am not eager about beavers chewing down trees on my farms or flooding, but it depends. This book gave me some better appreciation of beavers as ecological engineers and creators of green infrastructure.

History was interesting. Beavers were exceedingly common in pre-settlement North America. You can still see that in place names. Many of the most fertile fields were former beaver ponds.

Beaver ponds are transient. They silt up, become wetlands, then forests or prairies. Beaver move on. The useful part of their green infrastructure is that the beavers never stop. The challenge of beavers is that they never stop and they can flood lot of other places. Besides that, the beavers never “build to code.” In places with human infrastructure, beavers are less welcome.

Beaver ponds slow water, help with flood control and help recharge aquifers. They provide wetland habitat & fields. On the other hand, they can be a real problem for irrigation systems, culverts, roads and buildings. Are they good or bad? It depends.

We cannot “re-beaver” all, most or even much of America, but we probably can benefit from using their never ending passion of making dams.
Check out this great listen on In Eager, environmental journalist Ben Goldfarb reveals that our modern idea of what a healthy landscape…


Posted in Book Reviews | Comments Off on Eager beavers


Not a bad book, but I would not rush out to buy it. His best, IMO, was “Truman”. This is not like that.

It is mostly about the settlement of the area of Ohio around Marietta, told through the stories of a few people. You get a good picture of some of the hardships. These people worked all the time and the work was very hard.

Interesting subjects include the struggle to set up public schools and the fight to keep slavery out of the Northwest Territories (hard to think of Ohio as Northwest).

The slavery issue is featured prominently in many histories today, sometimes inserted awkwardly. In this case, it makes sense. The Ohio River was the border between slave and free. Imagine if slavery had been allowed to infiltrate into places like Ohio. It is likely that the Civil War would not have played out the way it did, or at all. Slavery might have persisted longer. Recall that Brazil did not ban slavery until 1888 and it persisted in much of world until well into the 20th Century. The African nation of Mauritania did not end it officially until 1981. How different world history would have been if the USA had not banned slavery when it did and given a few changes among a few people, because settlers were so few in Ohio in the early years, everything could have been different. History is contingent.
Check out this great listen on Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough rediscovers an important and dramatic chapter in the American story – the settling of the Northwest Territory by dauntless pioneers who overcame incredible hardships to build a community based on ideals t…..

Posted in Book Reviews | Comments Off on Pioneers

What were you like when you were fifty – story worth

What were you like at 50? Story Worth question.

What was your life like when you were fifty?

The most significant thing that happened in my 50th year was that we bought our first tree farm. I have discussed the details of that purchase elsewhere, so let me talk here about the long thinking that went into that moment of spontaneity.

Forest people versus cabin people

I cannot remember a time when I did not love trees, but I never gave serious thought to owning a forest because it just seemed unrealistic. Who owns a forest? I was a city boy. I knew people who owned maybe a few acres. Chrissy’s parents were farmers and there was a lot of land on her side of the family, but they inherited those places. Just buying rural land was completely outside my experience.

At first, we were thinking “cabin.” Lots of people we knew had second homes in the woods. That seemed doable. We thought of West Virginia. The guy in the office next to me, Jeff, had a place in West Virginia. In fact, he had bought rural land several times. The more I talked to him, however, the more I came to know that that his experience would be more useful as a lesson on what to avoid rather than an example to follow. He had lots of experience buying rural land, but not much success keeping it.

Good neighbors

Jeff had trouble with his neighbors wherever he went. He warned me that rural people were “different.” Jeff was an FS classmate. I knew him well enough to suspect that the constant in all his bad neighborly relationships was him. Another classmate, Mark, had successfully bought – and kept – rural land near Appomattox. He loved his rural neighbors and they were helpful to him. We both knew Jeff and at lunch Mark told me that Jeff’s problem was that he did not meet his neighbors on their ground, figuratively as well at literally.

Jeff’s daughter fervently believed in animal rights. Evidently when Jeff bought land, he succumbed to his daughter’s entreaties and banned hunting on his land. This is not a smart idea in long established rural communities. Worse, he made his feelings clear to his neighbors, and his feelings were that they were not the friends of nature that he and his family were.

Funny, we diplomats know that we should treat foreigners with respect even when they disagree with us, but we often fail to understand we might want to show similar respect to our fellow Americans.

But Jeff’s advice was good in other ways. I don’t think I would have had the gumption to go through with my land purchase w/o Jeff. He did know how to buy land. It was Jeff who made me see that I was not a “cabin person.” I was a forest person. Cabin people like to fix things in the cabin. I do not. I don’t care at all about cabins, only the forest that surround them. I went looking for land where I could grow trees and do some real forestry. That was not West Virginia, BTW. It is too hilly. There are lots of trees in West Virginia, but not that much timber. Southside Virginia was the place to get timber.

Make haste slowly

I would like to claim that I was decisive, but I made haste slowly. The idea of buying land really came to me in earnest when we lived in New Hampshire, and I had been thinking about it years before that. I read about land going cheap after forest fires. So, the forest land purchase gestated for years w/o issue. It just got realistic around 2003.

There were other factors involved. I was a little worried about my career. (ALL foreign service officers worry about their careers all the time. Keeps us on our toes.) I thought that there was a good chance that the FS would kick me out, i.e. not promote me to senior FS. I wanted an alternative, and forest owner/manager seemed like something I could be proud of being.

Scared the shit out of me. Buying the forest was our biggest investment besides our house, and a foray into a lot less familiar territory. I figured the numbers. I did the due diligence. I went down and checked the land records. I looked at the soils and the trees, walked the boundaries. I checked the location of the mills. And after all that logic, I made an emotional decision and bought 178 acres of cut over land in Brunswick County because I really wanted to.

One of the things that made me more confident in the purchase was that the sellers didn’t seem to care about selling. When we looked at cabins in West Virginia, sellers wanted us to make a decision that same minute. Some even offered to take credit card for the down payment. Not so with this land purchase. When I called the guy in Brunswick to make an offer, he said that was good and that he would forward the paper work next week, since he was going fishing.

The dog that finally catches the car

I couldn’t believe I really had the land, and so much of it, too much to handle with my machete and shovel I took the kids down to see “their” new land. It was a very hot day and they were not as enthusiastic as I was to walk the length & breadth of the place, but they did it. I was lucky to have a hunt club using the land. Their “rent” pays the property taxes, but more importantly they provide a local connection. I got lots of good advice from hunt club members. They knew lots of things I wanted to know. Unlike Jeff’s experience, I found my neighbors exceedingly friendly and helpful.

Besides marrying Chrissy & having the kids, buying the forest land was absolutely, positively the best life decision I ever made.

Fulfilling the life’s dream

Becoming a forest landowner was the culmination of a life’s dream that I was not fully-aware I had. Forestry defines my values. I am never sure how much I am reading the past into the present. For example, did I “rediscover” my values in Aldo Leopold, or did I just think I did. I can look back at my life through the lens of conservation, but is this just hindsight bias? Since I know then end, am I recalling the events that “led up to it”?

I don’t know and never will know for sure. What I know for sure is that interacting with my land changed me. I feel responsible and connected nature in way I never did when before and it has given me a much deeper feeling for communities of all kinds, how they exist in both time and space. In the Aldo Leopold method, I can think, do, reflect and do something new based on what I learned. I have feeling of being of nature, not just a sojourner in it. Maybe I am fooling myself, but I feel it. I am reading all sorts of books and articles about land ethics, but I am also learning and connecting with the land itself and the biotic communities on it. It is a consuming passion in a good way.

Lots of things to do, even more to learn

We bought our first forest land in 2005. Got more in 2008, and more still in 2012. I have managed four harvests, planted more than 40,000 trees, got NRCS grants to plant pollinator habitat, contracted with hunt clubs, applied biosolids, thinned, burned, sprayed and protected stream management zones. People ask me if forest land is a good investment. It depends. All the things I did above, the actual work and the general contracting, I have wanted to do and enjoyed doing. Forest investment pays dividends in the joy of doing those things and being part of the land ethic. If you do not want to do that, it is not a good idea to own forests. It is like being a “cabin person” who doesn’t like to do fix-it. The payoff in joy is amazing but the payoff in money is paltry. I figure that I will “break even” about ten years after I am dead, but all that forestry has meant to me sure it worth a lot more. It connects me to the past and the future in a way I can more easily feel than explain. Best investment ever.

Had I never “invested” in forest land I sure would have more disposable income. Instead of tossing rocks, chopping vines and planting trees, I could be laying on a beach at some expensive resort, drinking margaritas and eating the best steaks. What a wasteful and boring life that would be.

Pictures are from the early years of our forest adventure. First is Espen Matel on the back of the truck on the way to throw rip-rap. Next is our first forest when we got it. Cut over. Picture #3 shows Espen and Alex Matel after spraying vines. Next is our beech woods. I think they are very beautiful. Last is completely different. He is an indigenous forester from the Amazon. We talked to him about planting trees. We were so separated in space and culture, but our feelings about trees and forests were remarkably similar.

Posted in My life | Comments Off on What were you like when you were fifty – story worth

Stoicism and Seneca

Rode down to a presentation at Smithsonian about stoicism and got a practical  lesson in stoicism on the way down. I used the hourly weather prediction to get plan to ride my bike when it was not raining. About 15 minutes into my ride, it started to rain, really hard.

Stoics do not seek suffering, contrary to popular perception, but neither do they avoid it if it stands in they way of what they want. Once you get really soaked, you cannot get any wetter, so it does not matter.

The lecture at Smithsonian was about Seneca. He was an interesting case. He wrote beautifully about Stoicism, but he was one of the richest men in Rome and he worked for the very immoral Emperor Nero. It is not necessary for the person to be personally virtuous in order to preach virtue.

But I think it might go deeper than that. None of the ancient philosophers can really play in the big leagues today. They simply did not have the intellectual resources we enjoy, since they were the ones building the intellectual resources we enjoy. Ancient Stoicism did not have the moral structure that we need to go with the methods they used. It is great to practice self-control and reason, but modern readers are also looking for a moral structure. Reason is not sufficient. It must be right reason. At least that is the way I feel about it.

The lecture was good. I learned a little about the life and times of Seneca. I like him less than I did before the lecture.

My pictures show the rain on the way. It stopped when I was about a 30 minutes out, but I did not dry out. Next to the bike trail if Four Mile Creek. I took the picture at the underpass at Wilson Blvd. The creek floods there. It was filling up as I watched. I enjoyed the lecture a little less being soaked and itchy. Last picture is the lecture.

Posted in My life | Comments Off on Stoicism and Seneca

Describe the worst part of your life

Leaving out periods of sickness or bereavement, two periods of my life compete for “the worst.”

Crashing at the takeoff

It was the worst job year since the Great Depression. Unemployment in 1982 hit post World War II highs (think of it like the Great Recession, only worse) and I was not among those employers most wanted.  Sure, I could read Greek & Latin; employers were unimpressed. Who knew?  I thought I might never find a job outside the fast-food or hospitality industries.

I needed a change, a jump start.  Maybe I thought maybe I could join the Air Force, get some practical experience and maybe get them to pay for some practical education.  I was physically fit, college educated with no criminal history & I did well on standardized tests, so the recruiter saw me as a good prospect.  I got excited about officer training.  I saw “Officer & Gentleman” with Richard Gere.  I figured that I could do that. My plan was to marry Chrissy, go into the Airforce to become and officer and a gentleman.  The marriage was wonderful; the rest, not so much.

The shock came out of nowhere.  As I went through the steps, my blood pressure was excellent, my heart strong and everything was good.  I felt sorry for some of the guys around of me – the one with such high blood pressure that he had to lay down to lower it, the one with only one testicle (Evidently the rule was that you need two); the one humps on his back, kind of like an ankylosaurus. They all passed. Not me.

The doctor told me that I had some earwax and that I was not capable of military service.  Earwax? Turns out my “ulcer” from 11th Grade made me ineligible.  I protested that it – whatever it was – went away.  I was spectacularly healthy, as the tests showed.  I lifted weight, ran long distances and I ate and drank whatever I wanted w/o problems.  It didn’t have an ulcer. It didn’t matter. I was out.

It was like bouncing on the diving board and then seeing the pool was empty.  There was no plan B and no prospects.  I was an “employment refugee,” a ragged man wandering through a ragged landscape.  I worked episodically at “Flexi-Force,” doing things like stuffing newspapers on the night shift and sweeping floors. The idea was to get experience and maybe work into a steady job.  My MA in history meant less than nothing. My less educated co-workers were eager to tell me that we were in the same boat.  The difference was that I had spent years to get there and I had thousands in student loans. My best prospect for continued employment was selling phone service for MCI. I made a good impression on the boss, at least he said so, but I was gone after the temp period.

A good thing about being loosely connected to the job market is that you have time.  I studied for the GMAT and learned some of the math I needed for an MBA, and I took the Foreign Service written test.  The FS test was free and the study books for the GMAT did not cost much.  Things got better in the economy and for me.  I passed the FS written test and started an accelerated MBA program at University of Minnesota in the summer of 1983. They gave me a job as a TA, not sure why, sweet serendipity.

Management is a kind of applied history & even the math was sometimes fun, once I figured out the patterns.  When I took the FS oral exam soon after starting my MBA, I was completely relaxed. I had the MBA thing going for me, so the orals were just exercise.  That is probably how I passed.  Fortunately, the security background check took a long time and I finished my MBA before I got a call for FS. By then I was “director” of Marketing Research at Microdatabase Systems (MDBS). I put “director” in quotes, since I was the only one in the department.

MDBS made a wonderful data base software that was nearly impossible for non-experts. I learned the system with the help of the engineers and after a couple weeks the founders-owners called me. Nice guys. They asked me how I liked the product.  I told them truthfully that it was great but added that it was too hard to use.

The founders were taken-aback.  “If people are too stupid to use our product,” one explained, “perhaps they shouldn’t buy it.”  I figured I ought to flee that scene before it all fell down. I accepted the FS offer the next day. I had worked at MDBS for all of three weeks. Oddly, they asked me to stay on until I needed to leave for Washington, so I worked a couple more weeks, then set off for my new career.

Falling from the heights

The second dip was not existentially as bad.  I still had a good job. I was just worried that there was no future. I feel into the career pit right after the summit of my best of times in Krakow (discussed earlier).

The bureaucracy has no memory

Past accomplishments are no guarantee of future good treatment. The late 1990s were a time of cuts in the FS, especially in public diplomacy.  Lots of good officers were pushed out and those of us left had fewer opportunities.  I got a job at the Operations Center. This sounds exciting, but it was not, at least not for me.

Ops Center is 24-hour shift work. I never adapted.  I was sluggish most of the time, ate too much junk food, & gained weight. My blood pressure went up to “pre hyper tension.  My joints hurt. It was not only the shift work.  I thought my career was finished. I had done my best and ended up on the night shift – better than 1982 but similar time zone.  Our political leaders seemed uninterested in our work. Our USIA director at the time did not like people like me.  He thought the FS was too pale, too male and too Yale, and said so openly.  I had two of those three attributes. His team also emphasized youth. The under 30 crowd had some special attributes, they thought.  So, at 42 ½ I was too old, too pale, too male and maybe not Yale enough, since graduates of Midwestern state schools were lumped in but with none of the privilege or prestige of the Ivy League.

After he found he could not mess with the test to change his “elitist” workforce.  He did the next best thing – shrunk our numbers.  We hired almost nobody and promotions trickled down to almost none. We lost about 1/3 of our public diplomacy officers in those years.  I am convinced that one reason we were unprepared diplomatically after 9/11 was that we just did not have enough experienced boots on the ground, but that is another story.

I hated the Ops Center.  It was the only time in my FS life that I looked for another job.  Fortunately, I got another opportunity before I got too far in to the job search.  They needed someone in Poland to honcho public affairs for Poland’s perspective NATO membership.  I volunteered.  Fluent Polish speakers are not that common and/or not available in mid-year, so I was probably the only one available.  This shows the value of networking, BTW.  I spent a lot of time just talking to people.  I got the job because of my qualifications, but I knew about the job only because of my networking.

They sent me to Warsaw for three months with the mission to care for American academic & media delegations studying NATO. I believed then – and do today – in NATO.  I believed Poland would be a great addition and I worked to convince others to believe it too.  I took visiting delegations to Poland’s great universities and introduce them to Poland’s intellectuals and leaders – living treasures of Poland.  It worked. In a verified example, an editorial writer for the “Chicago Tribune” wrote me that his visit had changed his mind and his paper’s editorials.  I still have the letter.  All I did was make the truth available.  I believed in what I was doing, and I could devote a lot of time to my work, since I had nothing else to do. You can be very effective working full out, but probably cannot keep it up.

I had to go back to the Ops Center. Nothing changed and sill hated it. My work in Poland gave me visibility to get a job as desk officer for Russia and then press attaché for Poland.  You can tolerate almost anything if you can see the finish.  I spent just nine months in the Ops Center, closer to six months if you subtract my sojourn in Poland.

It reads better than it was lived

Looking back, my worst of times were not very bad, but they read better than they were lived. In the 1982 episode, I almost lost hope.  In 1997, I thought that the career that I had learned and loved had hit a brick wall.  In both cases, the despair was fueled by outside issues.  In 1982, it was the economy – stupid, but after that we enjoyed a quarter century of good times, which encompassed much of my working and investing life.  1997 was a more nuanced. We were being cut and the powers that be made it clear that they did not like people like me.  In both cases, the remedy was to adapt and overcome, but in both cases I was saved more by changes in climate than by my own actions. What I did to adapt was necessary to success, but not sufficient.

In the 1997 case, there is an interesting coda.  The 1990s were plague years for the FS.  Lots of good colleagues were pushed out of their jobs, especially at the 01 level.  As I wrote, we lost about 1/3 of our public affairs officers, and the carnage hit hardest at the FS-01 level.  After the end of the plague years, Colin Powell rightfully saw that we needed to rebuild.  His diplomatic readiness initiative brought in hundreds of new people above the attrition rate. They came in as junior officers. The plague opened the way for middle ranked (at the time) people like me.  As after a medieval plague, there were lots of empty spots to fill.  The hard times of the 1990s almost certainly delayed my promotion to FS-01, but likely created opportunities after that, so on balance the hard times were good.

For better and worse

The most important factor through these hard times was Chrissy.  I try not to comment too much about family, since I don’t think it is fair for me to tell their stories, but w/o her love and support I well might have got stuck in the swamp of despair.  Studies show that people with stable relationships are happier, healthier & wealthier.  I can well understand that. I talk a lot about sweet serendipity, but nothing is sweeter than that relationship.  It takes a lot of effort to be spontaneously lucky.

Posted in My life | Comments Off on Describe the worst part of your life