My notes from “Water @ Wilson: 50 Years of Water, Conflict & Cooperation

My notes from “Water @ Wilson: 50 Years of Water, Conflict & Cooperation

I attended the above conference on November 28.  Below are notes.

Water is critical. It grows our food, generates our energy, and ensures our prosperity. To address the challenges that stand in the way of building healthy, prosperous, and peaceful communities, we must first tackle the challenge of water insecurity. As the Wilson Center celebrates its 50th anniversary, the Environmental Change and Security Program marks water’s central role in our work at a special event highlighting innovative approaches to water, health, and security.

A rapidly changing climate and shifting demographics means the future of water resource management may not look like the past:

    What is the new face of water conflicts?

    Where are the opportunities to secure access to water and create more resilient communities?

    How can we protect our oceans from pollution and conflict?

    What are governments doing to elevate the importance of water security?

Join us on November 28th as we take stock on the 1st year of the 1st U.S. Global Water Strategy; explore new research and practice on water, peace, and conflict; and highlight the centrality of water to global prosperity.

 

Introductions

Lauren Risi, Project Director, Environmental Change & Security Program, Wilson Center opened “Water @ Wilson: 50 Years of Water, Conflict, and Cooperation” to an overflow crowd.  Every seat in the main auditorium was taken and others watched the video stream in an overflow room.  She introduced Jane Harman, Director, President, and CEO, Wilson Center, who emphasized the importance and complexity of water management, referencing experience in her home state of California.

James Peters, Deputy Assistant Administrator and Acting Global Water Coordinator, Bureau for Economic Growth, Education, and Environment (E3), U.S. Agency for International Development

Keynote speaker James Peters, Deputy Assistant Administrator and Acting Global Water Coordinator, Bureau for Economic Growth, Education, and Environment (E3), U.S. Agency for International Development talked about the problems we face today in water management but compared it to the situation fifty years ago. Fifty years ago, he pointed out, we didn’t even have data on water.  We have come a long way.

Clean water is an ideal entry point for development, since it not only provides concrete health benefits but also is an organizing principle.  Mr. Peters talked about South Korea. Fifty years ago, South Korea was as poor as poor countries of Africa when they decided to provide clean water to everybody.   Korea is now among the world’s rich countries.  Korea went from aid recipient to self-sufficient to itself an aid donor.  This is as it should be. The purpose of aid is not charity but rather to bring recipient countries up. Partnerships not charity makes everyone better off.

Mr. Peters also talked about the Global Water Strategy published last year and its four interconnected strategic objectives:

  • Increasing sustainable access to safe drinking water and sanitation  services, and  the adoption of key hygiene behaviors;
  • Encouraging the sound management and protection of freshwater resources;
  • Promoting cooperation on shared waters; and,
  • Strengthening water-sector governance, financing, and institutions.

 

Aaron Salzberg

Next up was Aaron Salzberg, from State.  He covered some of the same ground and gave some figures about how lack of access to clean water impedes development, saying that GDP of some countries could be cut by as much as 6% if water issues remain unaddressed.  Water issues also lead to tensions among states, but Salzberg pointed out that actual conflicts among nations based on water are not common.  This goes against speculations and fears of “water wars.”

 

John Matthews, Lead and Co-Founder, Alliance for Global Water Adaptation

John Matthews, Lead and Co-Founder, Alliance for Global Water Adaptation finished the keynotes.  Infrastructure, he said, is meant to last decades or even centuries. Unfortunately, they are often built with ephemeral political or short-term analysis in mind.  He mentioned the Kariba Dam that straddles the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia.  It was already obsolete when it was completed in 1977, and since has gotten worse. It just is not designed for condition.  He compared this to the Dujiangyan water project in China that has been working since around 256 BC. The difference is that the Dujiangyan project took cultural and natural ecology into account and was robust to change.

You need not leave the USA to see problems of planning gone wrong.  A classic example is the Colorado River. Decisions about water allocation were made with data from only a few years and those years were usually wet.  This means that more than 100% of the usual flow of the Colorado was allocated.  The problem we face now is that the past may be less useful in predicting the future, given rapidly changing climate.

We also need to change how we plan large projects in general.  The paradigm of the past was engineering dominant and top-town.  Experts determined what to do and where to do it and then executed around that one thing.  Today we need to take into account many more stakeholders, as well as factors like demography, urbanization, climate change and change in general.  We build infrastructure today for a world of tomorrow that might be very different.  Beyond that, the infrastructure itself is likely to be a catalyst for change.  Consider again the Colorado River and how the Hoover Dam played an instrumental role in how the whole region developed.

 

I was reminded of the old saying that yesterday’s solution is today’s problem.  This argues for a more incremental decision-making strategy, rather than betting the farm on one throw of the dice.  Adjusting might be more useful than a perfect plan.

Mr. Matthews talked about Climate Risk Informed Decision Analysis (CRIDA) and the importance of nature-based solutions – green infrastructure.   We build infrastructure to last centuries.  It might be a good idea at least to try to think some ways ahead.

Raging Waters: The New Face of Water Conflicts

The program went right into the first panel featuring:  Syed Imran Ali, Fellow in Global Health & Humanitarianism, Dahdaleh Institute for Global Health Research, York University; Richard Matthew, Director, Blum Center for Poverty Alleviation, University of California, Irvine; Scott Moore, Senior Fellow, Kleinman Center for Energy Policy, University of Pennsylvania; Janani Vivekananda, Senior Advisor, adelphi and Moderator: Cynthia Brady, Senior Conflict and Peacebuilding Advisor, Center for Resilience, U.S. Agency for International Development.

Scott Moore started off with some myths about water.  The good news is that some of the bad news, or at least the bad projections, is wrong.  There was a lot of concern that water would lead to international conflicts. It has not.  In fact, water scarcity has been more likely to lead to cooperation. The exception is at the subnational level, especially when water access is tied to identity politics, but even this is much less than was feared in the 1990s.

Next up was Richard Mathew (not to be confused with John Matthews above), who talked about how bigger and better data analysis was changing how we can deal with uncertainty.  Number crunching that used to take days (if it could be done at all) can now be completed in minutes.  The practical effect has been that more scenarios can be run and presented to decision makers.  (I am old enough to have done regression analysis by hand and recall that once you did one, you made it fit if at all possible, rather than try alternate scenarios.) It also permits the melding of local knowledge with information developed by experts. Another big advance is the capacity for visualization.  We can make maps accurate to a few feet featuring simulations.  For example. It is possible to show which streets even what part of a street will be flooded in particular scenarios.

These have been making a difference.  A picture is worth 1000 words. When people can see the situation, they can more easily be moved take appropriate action.  Mr. Mathew is convinced that this information is saving big money and avoiding lots of suffering, but it is hard to prove a negative.  A disaster avoided cannot as easily be counted as the damage of one suffered.

Syed Imran Ali followed. He also talked about the need to know more than immediately meets the eye and talked about a nice, dry field where authorities set up a refugee camp during the dry season.  They did not think to ask what the local name meant.  It meant “swamp” and when the rainy season came, that it what it became.  You have to look at the whole system over time.

Last up was Janani Vivekananda. She used the case of Lake Chad to illustrate the need to get the narrative right.  Lake Chad is a big lake in the Sahara Desert.  The narrative is that it is shrinking due to climate change and there are expensive plans to pipe water from the Congo River basin. But this narrative is wrong. Lake Chad is currently EXPANDING.  It will shrink again.  The natural behavior of the lake is to expands and contract with the rains.  The challenge is variability. People have adapted to it by varying their activities.  They fish in the rainy season and then farm was the lake retreats.  The exposed silt is excellent farmland.

A problem here is weak property rights. In many cases, the “records” of property are in the head of some old people, sometimes only one old person. Since all men are mortal, this record is mortal too.  The system could be very robust, but the property rights problem remains.  The local famers could use dykes, as the Dutch do to create polders, but this investment will not be made if property rights are so weak.

Oceans of Cooperation

A panel on the oceans came after lunch and featured: Rebecca Karnak, Senior Director, Global Public Policy, Dell; Roger Pulwarty, Senior Scientist, NOAA; Mike Sfraga, Director, Global Sustainability and Resilience Program and Polar Institute, Wilson Center; Deirdre Warner-Kramer, Acting Deputy Director, Office of Marine Conservation, U.S. Department of State and Moderator: Sherri Goodman, Senior Fellow, Wilson Center.

Mike Sfraga started off with his “Seven Cs” about the Artic Ocean.  He admitted that this was a gimmick but said that it got attention much better.  The Seven are climate, commodities, commerce, connectivity, communities, competition & cooperation.  Climate change is radically changing the Artic Ocean.  A new ocean has been created, with all that entails. So far, there has been decent cooperation among the parties adjacent to the Artic Ocean.  Most are friendly, but even the Russians are cooperating. It is one of the few areas where they cooperate about anything.  However, this might not last as the riches of the new sea become more apparent and available.

Mr. Sfraga lives in Alaska and he talked about his personal experience with global warming.  He has seen whole villages inundated by rising water (or sinking land) or impoverished by changing in animal migration patterns.  This will be messy.

 

Deirdre Warner-Kramer talked about fisheries. It is hard to regulate fishing, since the seas are big and the reach of authorities small.  However, fish need to be landed at a port somewhere and at the ports fish catch can be checked.  Among the leaders in regulating fishing are small island nations (They have reframed themselves at “large ocean nations.)  that have a lot of their national territory at sea. Maybe the best is Iceland.  Unfortunately, this cannot be easily scaled.

Roger Pulwarty gave a very lively and amusing presentation.  He said that the subject was serious, but we need not be. He talked about the need to plan iteratively as a way to adapt to an uncertain world. He quoted Ruth Bader Ginsberg who said that any change that is sustainable is incremental.  He also cautioned against letting yourself be rushed into bad decisions with the quip, “hurry, the lemmings are gaining on us.”

 

The Future of Water Peace

 It was worth it to stay for the last panel of the day, featuring: Ken Conca, Professor of International Affairs, American University; Melissa Ho, Vice President, Fresh Water, World Wildlife Fund; John Parker, Deputy Director, Sustainable Water Partnership (Tetra Tech), and Aaron Wolf, Professor of Geography, Oregon State University with Moderator: Geoff Dabelko, Senior Advisor, Environmental Change & Security Program, Wilson Center; Professor and Director of Environmental Studies, Ohio University

Ken Conca said that he could not predict the future but would speculate that the future will mean more water storage, more recycling of water and more thinking about flooding.  All these things are challenging for engineering and social standpoints. Storage, for example, means more reservoirs. Recycling runs into the “yuk factor,” since we are using sewage. We overclean our water now.  Of course, drinking water needs be drinking water clean, but there is no useful purpose to super-clean water used to flush toilets or water the grass.  There is a lot of resistance to using these.

 

Mr. Conca also talked about how making decisions needs to adapt. We need to get away from the idea that we have a fixed goal, an end state, but rather see projects as evolving and emerging. Flexibility is more important. For a long time, the economics of scale have been dominant.  We built big. Maybe flexibility is overtaking this, and it might be better to do smaller projects and learn.  It is a kind of portfolio theory and similar – to extend the financial analogy – to buying stocks over a long period to mitigate risk.  Similarly, we should not get too enamored with any one solution.  The great promises of the past have usually turned out to work only in limited space.  Lots of diversity trumps the big solution.

It is also better not to concentrate power. It is tempting to want to use big power to make big breakthrough, but this is more a triumph of imagination over intelligence.  Our messy system of consultation and overlapping authority produces more robust results in the long run. More ideas are proposed and vetted.

 

Melissa Ho gave case studies from Africa and from the Pantanal in South America.  The need is for landscape level solutions. She also advocated green infrastructure.  John Parker recounted the case study of the Mara River basin in Kenya and Tanzania.

 

Aaron Wolf was both encouraging and cautionary.  Like some others, he pointed out that the dire prediction of water wars did not come to pass.  He only half-joking said that we got into that big worry because the experts who had so-long fought the cold war just needed another big worry to replace the decaying Soviet threat.  In fact, hydro-cooperation has been a peace building exercise.  Scarcity is not a driver of conflict but can be a drive of cooperation.  What matters is resilience of institutions.  He pointed out the Israel “ran out of water” in 1968, but in the time since cooperation with Jordan on this issue has improved, despite tensions in other areas.

 

He talked about the need to communicate with different audiences.  Don’t forget that people love water.  River festivals are popular. People like to be near water.  And don’t forget the spiritual aspect of rivers, water and nature.   We post-enlightenment moderns do not much consider this a valid concern, but many others do.  In fact, many of us still do too.  Interesting.  I already ordered his book from Amazon.

 

Thank you

 

John Matel

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Seeking Meaning In Life

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.

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Fires in California – Fire is NOT the Enemy

Let’s just get the California politics out of current partisan bickering. Let me be plain about this. If you are blaming Trump or blaming Jerry Brown or thinking of this in any current political way, you are ignorant. Cut it out. This issue is too important and too long lasting for dummies to get upset about and upset others with partisan politics. Sorry to be so blunt, well not sorry.

I was looking for some perspective, so I went to the work of one of America’s leading authorities on wildfire. I read some of his books before, but this time I picked up the one specifically on California, “California: A Fire Survey” linked below.

Let me highlight a few points.

This fire controversy has been going on for more than 150 years. It is not a Trump problem or a liberal-conservative issue. It is a discussion of what is right AND it is protean, in that science is being developed constantly and practices are informing and shaping realities on the ground. There are few things more complex than wildfire and the politics (not the current partisan ones) make it worse.

The controversy about prescribed fire is very old. Native Americans burned in patches. They had thousands of years of experience and practice living in an exceptionally fire-prone region. They evolved appropriate responses. Spanish and the Mexican colonization did not greatly impact fire regimes. Fires still burned regularly, sometimes still set by Native Americans and sometimes by ranchers. The population was not dense.

All this changed rapidly after the 1849 gold rush and rapid population growth. Californians debated fire. Some were on the side of what they called “light burning”, as the Indians had done. Others wanted to excluded fire. This was part of the original progressive wave that sought to rationalize everything and manage nature. In 1923, a commission formally anathematized the practice of light burning.

Let’s explain a little. You can identify at least three “fire cultures” in the USA. The SE has a tradition of burning that persists to this day. The Rockies manages fire over large areas and sometimes experiments with natural fire. California has been in the forefront of suppression. Fire there is put out and not started by humans. The idea is to protect assets, houses, infrastructure and timber.

The idea that goes with suppression is that fire is an enemy to be attacked and defeated. There exists a type of “fire-industrial complex.” It deploys fire fighters in military fashion and brings with it military style equipment, big machines, helicopters and airplanes. All these things make great and heroic pictures. There is also the wonderfully poignant quality of homeowners fighting flames and the profound sadness of loss of homes and lives.

The problem with this whole Hollywood style narrative is that it is often very much effort and heroism applied to a problem that might better be avoided against an enemy (fire) which need not be our enemy and may be an ally in land management.

Fire is unavoidable. It is not an enemy that can be defeated. It is not an enemy at all. It is a part of the natural order. If you think in ecological terms, fire is an apex predator. It orders much of the natural landscape and when it is taken away that landscape declines Unlike an animal predator, however, it cannot really be extirpated. There is no extinction. In fact, it grows bigger, angrier and more destructive when excluded and transforms from a cleaner of the landscape to a destroyer.

In the midst of these big fires, it is inappropriate to fix blame, but when they go out, we need to put in better fire regimes. We need to recognize fire’s power and know that we cannot defeat it but we can live with it and thrive in fire adapted landscapes. We can get more if we do not try to have it all.

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November Trip to State Department

Yesterday was miserable; today was glorious, brisk and brightly sunny. I rode my bike to State Department. Most of the ice and snow from yesterday was melted. Only on the bridges did it persist. I had to be a little careful with the slippery wet leaves, but these disadvantages were compensated by a strong tail wind, perfectly placed. The only time I had to head into the wind was coming down the bike trail parallel to Route 50 and that I welcomed. It is a steep downhill. With the strong headwind all I needed do to slow to a safer speed was sit up a little straighter and catch the wind.

I went down to State to see who I could see and what I could learn. I suppose you could call it networking if I was a little more organized about it. I did have a goal of talking to the folks at Canadian affairs office. I have lined up a “gig” (I don’t much like that word, but it is descriptive of how I work these days) helping with the Columbia River treaty negotiations.

This is the treaty between the USA and Canada that concerns the flow of the Columbia River. It is a wonderfully complex system that features woods & water, as well as stakeholders in American states, Canadian provinces and Native American nations.

My part of this work will be prosaic, but I think the subject is fascinating. I just love anything involving woods, water, mountains, fish, wildlife and dams and I hope to get a few trips to the region. Always liked Montana and some of the negotiations are supposed to take place in Vancouver, a place I have long wanted to visit.

My first picture is the slush covered bike bridge over Leesburg Pike. The bike path itself was almost completely free of ice, but on the bridges it persisted. Second picture is Gordon Biersch at Tysons. Chrissy and I went out there for supper and beers. I just neglected to get the usual beer drinking pictures, so on the way out I got the sign. Not as good, I know.

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Comments on Fire in the Forest

These are some of my thoughts related to the big fires in California.  They are keyed off the articles at the top.

Megafires More Frequent Because Of Climate Change And Forest Management

It is very distressing that President Trump has jumped in on one side of the wildfire issue and that many of his critics have felt it necessary to jump in on the other as a consequence, as if this was like a football game where you could cheer for one side.

Two or more things can be true at the same time. We do not have to choose sides on MOST things. This is not a game where somebody wins and another loses. Rather the only way for one side to win here is for them the other side to win too.

The linked article is good and has the right title. But even here, we have the competitive set up discussed. “California Gov. Jerry Brown …hit back …”

Many factors contribute to increase in the destructiveness of wildfires. There are three big ones – climate change, population growth in the wilderness-urban interface (WUI) and land management. Far from having to choose which one we need to address, we need to recognize that NONE of them can be addressed properly w/o addressing all three.

If you think climate change is the big issue, you better address land management, since it is the most effective way you can adapt to the coming changes. If you believe land management is the big issue, you better consider climate change, since decisions made today must be adapted for the situation decades from now in a changed environment. And no amount of good management can save houses from burning if we do not develop and build in “fire wise” ways. This is true no matter how the climate changes.

Trump is right. Jerry Brown is right. Lots of other people are right too, but nobody can understand the whole situation, and no solutions apply equally to every particular situation That is why we need to respect the myriad idea and let them create the synergy we need to do things that need to be done.

And we will never know the truth. We have to think, try, assess and think again in this never ending quest. And just stop with the fighting each other. We need all the ideas.

Fueling the Fire

Maybe this is working out okay. Trump’s tweet was unfortunate and I worried that it would set up land management for a fall. But the attention is bringing the complexity of land management to a wider audience. I do not believe it will long hold the public attention, but it may move the discussion.

The author of this article is one of the gurus of fire management. I read a couple of his books and treasure his insights.

There is no single answer to this problem, nor an answer that will be right for all time even for the same places. We need appreciate the nuance. Maybe Donald Trump, perhaps the lease nuanced of our presidents, has helped contribute to a better understanding.

There Are 200 California Inmates Fighting the Camp Fire. After Prison, They Likely Won’t Be Allowed to Become Firefighters

Part of my fire theme but also my deep belief in redemption. These guys are risking their life and health. They should feel the consequence of their crimes but at some time there should be redemption.

“… most of California’s inmate firefighters will not be able to work in the firefighting profession after they are released because of the state’s deliberately exclusionary licensing laws. Firefighters in California are required to be licensed as emergency medical technicians (EMTs), which requires taking classes and passing a few state-administered exams. No problem there, but state law allows licensing boards to block anyone with a criminal record from getting an EMT license.”

Give them a break. Wouldn’t it be better if guys getting out of prison could then be of service to their society while helping themselves.

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Happy Birthday, Ma

My mother was born on this day in 1923.

Ma

I never got to know my mother after I was an adult. She died when I was seventeen. So my memories are seen through the eyes of a child or at best a teenager. The one thing that I remember very clearly was that I was always sure that she loved me. Everything else is less important after that and I know that she shaped a lot of my character.

Our house was the center of family activity while my mother was there. She had three sisters (Mabel, Florence & Lorraine) and two brothers (Harold & Hermann) and we had much of the extended family, minus Harold, who I don’t remember ever meeting. The family didn’t get along with his wife, Sophie. I don’t know why. All the other aunts and cousins would come over to play cards. Usually the cousin would come too, so while I had only one sister, I feel like I had lots of siblings. I really don’t know what card games they played. I just recall the constant chatter of a kind of mixed German-English. “Wat’s spielt is spielt” and “now who’s the high hund?”

Ma

As I wrote above, I didn’t get to know my mother as much as I would have liked to and I am astonished at how much I don’t remember or maybe never knew. Kids are rarely interested in their parents’ life stories until they get older, maybe because they just cannot believe their parents were ever young enough to have anything interesting to say. Besides, kids in my generation spent most of their time outside and away from the house. Parents and children have much more intense relationships these days, if for no other reason than that they are together when parents drive the kids everywhere and arrange various teams, trainings and activities. We didn’t have a car and we didn’t belong to any organized activities. I spent most of my days hanging around outside with my friends who lived nearby and I didn’t ask much.

I know she was born Virginia Johanna Haase (Mariza has her middle name). Her father was Emil and her mother was Anna (Grosskreutz). She grew up on the South Side of Milwaukee and married my father after the war, as they always called World War II. Of her childhood, I know little. Her father was an engineer who remained employed throughout the Great Depression, evidently a rare achievement. My father’s family was less fortunate.

Virginia was an unenthusiastic student in HS and dropped out of Bay View HS (same place I later went) in the tenth grade, but she always encouraged education for my sister and me. She worked at Allen Bradley during WWII but not long enough to get Social Security benefits. After she married my father, she no longer did any paying work, besides occasionally free-lance catering with her sisters. My mother made really good German potato salad, which was always in demand at family gatherings.

Virginia Haase was phenomenally good-natured and I remember her always cheerful. My father told me that he was lucky to get my mother to marry him, since she was extremely popular because of her open personality. She later became a woman of substance, as you can see in the bottom picture. My father was fond of big women, so I guess they had a good thing going.

My father enjoyed beer every day, but Ma drank only a little and only once a year at Christmas. She had one bottle of Gordon’s Gin in the downstairs refrigerator. She had a drink at Christmas and that bottle was down there as long as I remember, only gradually emptying. It was still half full when she died.

Sad to say that my most vivid memories come from the end of my mother’s life. I was riding my bike up to the Kettle Moraine State Forest when my mother went into the hospital for the last time. It was a big trip that I had planned for a long time. My parents kept my mother’s urgent condition from me so as not to ruin my camping trip. When I called from the pay phone at Mauthe Lake, my father told me that ma was sleeping. I thought that odd. She always wanted to talk to me, but didn’t think that much about it. When I got home she had gone to the hospital. I never saw her again.

We talked on the phone, but my mother didn’t want us to visit her in the hospital during the last days. I feel guilty about that still, but it was a good decision. She wanted us to remember her from better times and I do indeed remember her healthy and happy instead of what I imagine it must have been after the chemotherapy and ravages of cancer.

My father got a call from the hospital about dawn on the day before my mother died. I heard him talking on the phone and inferred what was happening, but didn’t come out of my room when he went to the hospital. We didn’t handle the whole thing very well, but in retrospect I am not sure how it would have worked out any better if we did things differently. I lived in dread the whole day, but she didn’t die that day. I know it is illogical but I convinced myself that she would be out of the woods if she only survived the day, that one more day.

But miracles happen only on television & in the movies.

They cut down the last of the big elm trees soon after Ma died. I thought it was symbolic and I paid special attention. She loved those trees and felt bad as they succumbed one-after-another to the Dutch elm disease until there was only one left standing. The tree by the alley was the last survivor near the house, and Ma was happy to have at least one left. It was in its yellow fall colors as I watched it fall to the ground. It was a pleasant fall day with wispy clouds.

I don’t want to end on this sorrowful note because that is not the end of the story. Among many other things, my mother left me a special legacy. Ma followed my various interests and encouraged them. All I needed to do was mention an interest and soon a book appeared.

I thank my mother for all the books on dinosaurs, ecology and history. Even more important, she gave me the gift of reading itself. A well organized or impressive child I was not, but my mother had confidence in me anyway in a way that only a loving mother can.

My first grade teacher put me into the slow reading group and I lived up to her low expectations of me. My mother complained to the school, essentially arguing that I was not as dumb as I seemed and my problem was not that the reading challenge was too great, but that it was not great enough to hold my interest. She convinced my teacher to put me into a higher reading group. Although I couldn’t meet the lower standards, I could exceed the higher ones with Ma’s help. She made flash cards and we studied not only the day’s lesson but also anticipated the next one.

Being able to do more but not less – this kind of paradox is not uncommon. I wonder how many kids w/o mothers as good as mine were/are trapped by the gentle cruelty of low expectations. Ma saved me from all that. She just expected me to succeed. I did, by my standards at least.

Thanks Ma. Without you, I would be nothing. I wish you could have met the grandchildren. They would have loved you. It has been decades since we talked. Memory fades, but I have not forgotten that I was so very lucky to have you there for me.

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G Washington Distiller

George Washington was good manager and smart investor. He diversified his crops and always looked for profitable enterprise. Among them was a grist mill and – partially based on the – a distillery.

Washington: A Man Who Appreciated Good Spirits

Washington was fond of wine and spirits. He also favored porter beer. He opened the grist mill and distillery later in his life. It soon became a big profit center. We did not learn much about Washington’s booze making enterprise when I was in grade school. There was some effort to keep the whole story obscure, as temperance movements, & even prohibition came to prominence. It wouldn’t do to have the father of our country a prominent boozer and booze maker.

Washington was an extraordinary person. We know Washington the general, Washington the president, even Washington the explorer & surveyor. Washington the builder and practical businessman seems way too much for one man, but this is also a very impressive part of this life, and it was the source of most of his joy. In a less revolutionary time, he would have been content to work his farm and industries. Even as president, he got regular, detailed reports from his plantations (plural) and industries.

We know a lot about how Washington ran the place by these reports and Washington’s replies. He never stopped running the show and it was clearly his passion.

The Distillery Reopened

The distillery was reopened in 2007. They asked for donations from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States and within a few hours had millions of dollars in donations. Good PR. The distillers were able to figure out recipes for Washington’s whiskey by looking at records of the types of grains that went into it. The first batches of whiskey were not good; they are learning and improving.

Whiskey Flavor is Mostly Oak and Char

Newly distilled whiskey is clear and not very good. Whiskey takes years to age to get its flavor. MOST of the flavor (60%+) and all its color comes from the wood in the barrels. At temperatures rise and fall, the whiskey is absorbed by the wood and released. Whiskey barrels are always made of white oak and for American whiskey they can be used only once. There is a brisk after market for barrels. Some of them are used by Scotch makers, who do not have the new barrel requirement, and lately some are sold to craft beer brewers. The need to age whiskey is one of the barriers to entry to new distillers, since they have to wait some years to sell product. In Virginia, you can get decent, but not good, whiskey in two years. The minimum for reasonable smoothness is four years. Standard is seven and you can go to about ten years to get the best. It takes longer in places like Scotland because of the cooler weather. Scotch is not much good until it is at least 12-years-old and gets it best at around 18. After that it becomes more expensive but not much better.

Setting the Mash

We got to watch the distiller “setting the mash.” They mix the grains with nearly boiling water and stir it all together. Then they let it cook, i.e. start to ferment. Sweet mash relies on new yeast to make the product. Sour mash, which is more common, takes some of the mash from earlier batches. Sour mash can have a more consistent quality.

More details about the distillery are at this link.

What is art?

Setting the mash is a form of performance art and the act of making whiskey in the traditional way is an art in itself. Consider what it means to create art. We can appreciate paintings and sculpture for the finished product that we can see. But more of the art is related to its production. That is the “act of art” and the act of creation is often more meaningful than the creation itself. Creation of something like whiskey is meaningful to the creators and those around them.

Part of finding meaning in life, as search we should all be making, is working toward excellence and a state of flow, where things just fall into place. We have all experienced this but find it hard to express. What we are doing is less important than the rigor we put into it. A craftsman finds this meaning in making his furniture, pottery, beer or whiskey and seeking excellence in the production. You may seek intellectual excellence. I find great meaning in my forestry. Whatever it is, it is important that it be challenging and NOT all under our control. That is the art. We are responding to changing conditions to create the end we have in mind. The people working at the distillery are artists.

My first picture is me in front of the wheels that work the grist mill. Next are from the distillery. the techniques and tools are like those of Washington’s time.

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Crash & Bang

Crashing, banging, feeling queasy & nearly fainting. These are some of my impressions of the crash-bang course I completed yesterday. I hope I never need to most of what I learned, and I am happy to report that I have never needed any of the more dramatic lessons yet. Much of the less dramatic lessons are good sense. Stay away from bad situations. Don’t make yourself predictable to crooks or nefarious types. Be aware of your surroundings. Common sense too often not commonly applied.

Security is central to all our success, but I do worry that we make a fetish of security to the detriment of other parts of our important work. Diplomacy means getting out, meeting and talking to people. Most of these people will be good or at least okay, but some will be questionable or even nefarious. Most of the places we go will be benign and even pleasant, but some will be unsafe. Even with the most circumspect and careful diplomats will run risks if they are doing their jobs right, and even if we do all the security right, some of us will be hurt and some of us die.

My colleagues and I, we look preposterous in our body armor and oversized helmets. We are awkward when we wear the gear and clumsy putting it on. We don’t do well crawling under the simulated smoke and some of us feel light-headed even looking at pictures of horrendous wounds. I know that I quietly closed my eyes when they showed bloody stumps or sharp objects protruding from parts of the body they do not belong.

But I am proud of my colleagues and proud to be among them. After they learn all the risks, they are still eager to go out and do diplomacy, meet those good people are risk meeting the bad. Some are going to the high-risk posts like Afghanistan, Iraq, South Sudan or Yemen, but there is always some risk. Nobody expected the embassy bombings in Kenya or Tanzania. As long as I am on this topic, let me emphasis the contribution of our Foreign Service National staff. They are also State Department employees of contractors. They work in their own countries for us. They are often truly on the front lines and when our facilities are attacked they are often the ones injured or killed.

And the kids are okay. Most of the people in the classes are younger than I am (it is hard to be both older than me and still in the FS), and many are new officers. I don’t like it when they are called snowflakes. Old people always think young people are not as good as they were. They are wrong. Every generation has its heroes and this one is responding to its challenges too.

Well, that is my editorial comments. Now for a little of the personal impression. I won’t go into detail, as we are not supposed to.

The part that sounds the most exciting, but I do not much like is the driving. It is okay when I am driving, but I get motion sickness when I am a passenger with all the weaving, fast accelerations and abrupt stops. It was fun to ram other cars. When I did it before, it hurt more because I did it wrong. You have to accelerate just as you hit the other vehicle. That way inertia is on your side. You are being pulled back by the acceleration and so when you hit and are thrown forward it is just kind of equalized.

The emergency medicine was scary. We are not trained treat most wounds, but just preserve life until competent people come along. The key to this is the tourniquet. Most of what I learned about tourniquets is wrong and much has been changed in the last few years. The misinformation came from good sources based on experience in World War I. The thought was that cutting off the blood supply caused gangrene. Doctors observed that many of the wounded with tourniquets developed gangrene. Their problem was with the sample. The ones they saw had lived. The ones w/o the tourniquets were dead. The gangrene came from infections. It is true that a tourniquet can cause damage by starving the tissues of blood and oxygen. But it is not like the blood is likely to get where it is needed anyway. The reason you need the tourniquet is because the blood in coming out through a wound. It is not going to nourish the tissues if it spills out onto the ground.

We learned that the ugliest and most gaping wounds are not always the most important and that internal bleeding can be at bigger threat than the blood we can see. They showed a picture of a guy who died from his heart being impacted by a fast stop and his seatbelt. He seemed okay but died the next day from internal injuries. The lecturer said that old guys like me didn’t have to worry about such things. That begged the question, and somebody asked why. The answer was the old guys are too fragile. We don’t die the next day, because the initial impact kills us.

Now for the bang part. The impact of the shock wave, even from a small explosion, is impressive. I could easily tell the difference between the Glock, AK, M-4 and shotgun when I heard them right after each other, but I don’t think I could do it just hearing one of them in isolation. It is also very hard to tell the direction.

One thing that is clear – and I think something they want to as a take-away – is that it is a lot easier to imagine what to do than do it. Under time pressure and stress, the world is a lot different. It was hard even when we knew the threat was not real and the stress was artificial. Consider if you had a real physical wound. I have never been under angry fire. In Iraq I heard distant bangs a few times and once observed “celebratory fire,” a crowd shooting into the air, which can be dangerous since what goes up must come down. But I was often nervous walking on the streets, even with armed and trained Marines all around me, or riding in the armored vehicles. I know it affected my judgement. They want you to think about the danger before the danger is manifest, since it is too late after.

I took a variation of this course way back in 2007 when I was on my way to be a PRT leader in Iraq. This is what I wrote about it back then. I wrote the above before rereading the below. Some things are different; a lot is the same.

September 23, 2007
A Car Sick & Melancholy Resident of the Twilight Zone

September 20, 2007

Today was the kind of day I will look back on with some fondness, but it was not a good day. I can liken this experience to going to the amusement park and getting to ride the roller coaster – ALL DAY. I am in W. Virginia for evasive driving training. It was good at first. We did some driving on slick surfaces. It was fun to skid around and not too hard for me. Next was also fun, driving around the racetrack dodging orange plastic cones. I did that well too. But then one of my car mates got sick and threw up out the window. I figured that if he was sick, there might be a reason. After that I felt sick myself for the rest of the day.

Of the 28 people in my class, about half of us got sick. It was very jarring. We had to avoid objects and break rapidly. It did not like the smell of exhaust and burning rubber. Hardest for me was driving backwards. I have never been good at backing up and doing it at high speeds is scary for me. Suffice to say, I drove over a few cones. We also had to crash into other cars and ram them out of the way. This was interesting. It is not something you get to do very often w/o pushing up your insurance rates. Tomorrow the bad guys will attack us and we will have to respond by evading driving out of danger. Like so many things relating to Iraq, it will be good to HAVE done, but not good to be gonna do. I think this will become my catch phrase.

September 21/22

It was more fun today. I did not get sick. We had to evade and escape. I did that okay. I enjoy it a lot more when I am not sick, but I am really glad it is over.
At the end of the day, the instructor blew some things up, including an old car, to show us how the different explosions look, sound and smell. That was cool. It is interesting how you can feel the shock waves. Once again my joy in seeing such strange things was mitigated by the knowledge that such things may no longer be so strange in my future life.
Going to these courses makes you a little paranoid. Security guys take some pride in their ability to stimulate unease. They kind of look down on us ordinary guys who do not find the world so immediately threatening. I understand that the situation in Iraq is dangerous and I admit that there are times for vigilance even in America. But I am glad that most Americans can live most of their lives in a state of general unpreparedness. Isn’t this what we want from security? It is a great advantage to be able to walk down the streets of home lost in our own mundane thoughts. I hope that we can help the Iraqis get that back soon and we have to make sure Americans do not lose it – the right to be distracted, the right not to pay attention, or maybe just freedom from fear.

I also called to confirm my milair flight from Amman to Baghdad. They are efficient there. I am on. They said they will inform me of the “show time” when the time gets closer.

I am in that funny twilight zone right now between my former and future lives. I still have to do a few things for IIP/S and I still am the director. People are asking me for decisions and I still have authority. But there is not much left. I will be in Iraq by the end of next weekend.

Now I am going through all the “lasts” at least for a long time. Mariza came down for her last visit before I leave. I went to Arthur Treacher with CJ for the last time this morning. Tomorrow I plan to run for the last time along the upper bike trail. On Monday, I will ride for the last time to work on my bike. Unfortunately, I will not have the time to go down to my forest. I think it will be a lot bigger when I get back. Those trees grow really fast. It is a melancholy time. The feeling has nothing to do with Iraq. This is always the case before a PCS move. I think of all the things I have become accustomed to doing that I will not do for a long time to come, maybe for years, maybe forever. Iraq will be quite an experience no matter what. It will be good to have done it.

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Crash, Bang, Some Blood & Lots of Beer

I am at the crash-bang course. Not supposed to write about details and not allowed to take pictures. I have to take it so that that I can spend more than 44 total days overseas. I have no current specific plans to do so, but this is a kind of a advance down payment in case something comes up. The certification is good for five years.

The training is not much fun, but there is beer here and good colleagues to drink it with. Since Mariza Matel wrote about how I like beer and others have seen so many pictures of me glass in hand, I have been thinking about my relationship with the golden liquid. I do indeed like the taste of beer, but it is the social aspect, the ritual that I enjoy. I am carrying on an ancient tradition passed on by my father and passed to him by his, nigh onto the middle ages.

Rituals are important. I am not saying that beer drinking is some sort of mystical philosophy, but it is one of those things that lubricates life and relationships. I know that some people feel that way about wine or fine foods, or any number of human activities.

My first picture shows some beer drinking with a couple of colleagues. The others are from a walk I took around my Fairfax neighborhood on Saturday. Pictures 2 & 3 are Dunn Loring woods. #4 shows some suburban fall colors. The last one is near the Metro. Planning is done well. You have the necessary parking garage, but it is insulated by a “sleeve” of retail and restaurants. Parking garages are ugly, but when they streets are protected from the eyesore by useful businesses, it is good.

Still at crash-bang, so do not have much to say, since I am not supposed to share details. Suffice it to say that today we trained in simple defense and how to get out of burning buildings. I am (I think) the second oldest guy in group and I am pleased to say that I did okay. I do not really think I could fight off a serious attacked nor very heroically get out of a burning building, but I could deal with the minor versions of these things.

Had a few beers with colleagues. I like my FS colleagues. We have an odd set of characteristics and this is a group where I fit in reasonably well. My younger colleagues did some karaoke. They had a good time and it was good fun. My picture is a bit out of focus, which is probably a good thing. They said it was okay to post the pictures, but maybe better not to be identified. Funny that they even supply the singers with a cardboard guitar for air guitar playing.

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The Givers

Americans are exceptionally generous and more likely that people in most other places to volunteer. This is something foreigners noticed since the time of Alexis de Tocqueville. It is the special ingredient that allows us to do with less government. The civil society in the USA often takes on tasks left to government elsewhere.

I just finished The Givers: Money, Power & Philanthropy in the New Gilded Age. It was a very thought-provoking book, maybe because I thought a lot about the subject recently as part of my gentleman of leisure job description but also for my whole FS career. Discussion of volunteerism was part of my lecture repertoire. We sponsored speakers and visitor tours on the subject.

The author David Callahan clearly does not share my general cultural/political outlook, but his approach is complete, reasoned and reasonably balanced. I highly recommend it. When reading such a well-reasoned approach that came to different conclusions, I wondered about some of the causes.

Let me first state an assumption that I believe, and I think the author would too. All good societies are based on interaction among government, free market enterprise and a strong civil society. The weight of each varies over time and among countries, but I cannot think of a single successful society w/o a reasonably efficient government, a robust market and a vibrant civil society.

One of his themes is that government is underfunded and that many things now done by philanthropy should be done by government. His justification is that government is democratically elected and so represents the will of the people. So far, so good. But I think that he misses two points. First is the problem of agency and second is definition of will of the people.

The problem of agency is straightforward. The people do not directly run government. They elect politicians who have come through a process that most people do not understand. These politicians do not run the government either. They create systems that appoint leaders of the parts of the government. These leaders also do not run the government. They work with professional employees. All of this is influenced by particular interests and each of the parts (officials, appointees, employees) has their own preferences and interests that may not coincide with those who elected them.
The issue of “will of the people” is a bit more nuanced. We learn in grade school, at least I did, to view the will of the people in strictly political terms. But it is much more than that. A good government gives the people scope to express their will in non-political ways too. There is no such thing at THE people. There is a ever changing mosaic of individuals, whose preferences (will) is never set.

The problem with politically expressed will of the people is that it is usually binary. Somebody wins, and somebody must lose. A plurality (not necessarily even a majority) can vote its will leaving others with nothing. The others left out may be a large number, maybe even a majority. The will of the people expressed in non-political ways can be much more diverse. If I like Coke but you like Pepsi, we can both be accommodated, and we can include the Doctor Pepper drinkers and even those who favor Seven-Up. Nobody needs lose.

Returning to the book’s idea, the author worries that unelected philanthropists are taking the initiative from elected officials. This troubles the author. It does not trouble me. In fact, I think it is likely good for democracy, since it is more diverse and more pluralistic. I share the concern that a few very rich guys can unduly influence government policy, but that circles around to the problem of government.

A just democracy requires much more than elections. Our Constitution wisely limited the scope of democracy but ensuring both majority rule and minority rights. They did not specifically mention civil society, but they clearly just assumed its presence and protected it by limiting the scope of government.

So, let’s think about the scope of philanthropy. When people make decisions individually or in voluntary groups, they are expressing the will of the people as relates to the things they care enough about to invest their own time and money. These decisions are made collectively but decentralized and distributed. People can have a plurality of preferences. They need not choose the one and fight over which one that will be, as would be with collective political decisions. Most decisions should be left out of the political arena, not in spite of democracy but for the sake of a just democracy.

The author worries about the arts and that funding for the arts will be the scope of private patrons. I immediately thought about the history of arts and literature. Art was usually done by private patrons. But almost before I could make my mental counter argument, the author addressed it. He talked about the Medici and the great art of the renaissance. I respect that he addressed it, but I remained unconvinced of the problem. I would go back to the problem of agency. If government is the primary patron of the arts, it is not done by the people by rather by bureaucrats. I don’t have a problem with most art funding coming from private donors. Leonardo, Michelangelo & Mozart might have preferred to get government grants, but they did great work w/o them.

His last big concern was “accountability.” Big donors are accountable to nobody. I thought about what it means to be accountable. Maybe accountability is not a great thing. Accountability implies that someone judges and may substitute his judgement for ours. It also implies that we know “the good.” Accountably is great for accountants and most places where procedures are clear, and results agreed. In a dynamic and creative environment, the innovators cannot be accountable based on the former criteria or on the judgement of the established experts.

Donors are accountable to the dynamics of the system and to the marketplace of ideas. They need not and should not be accountable to anybody else, except in the sense of obeying general laws.

Anyway, I enjoyed the book. I listened to the audiobook as I drove down to the farms and back and as I walked around with my I-pod. I found the author very thoughtful and though provoking, as I wrote above. I have not included all, or even most of what he said. Buy the book. It is worth it.

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