Musings On Artificial Intelligence [AI]

‘The AI revolution will occur more quickly than most humans expect. Unless we develop new concepts to explain, interpret, and organize its consequent transformations, we will be unprepared to navigate it or its implications.’

The Age of AI And Our Human Future. Henry A.Kissinger, Eric Schmidt and Daniel Huttenlocher. John Murray Publishers. London. 2021.

‘A machine intelligence would benefit from flawless memory, even of events that occurred deep in the past, and would have the ability to calculate and to sift and search through enormous troves of data at fantastic speed. It would also be able to directly connect to the internet or to other networks and tap into virtually limitless resources; it would effortlessly talk to other machines, even as it mastered conversation with us. In other words, human level AI, from its very inception, would in a great many ways be superior to us.’

Rule of the Robots – How Artificial Intelligence Will Transform Everything. Martin Ford. Basic Books. London. 2021.

‘AI is the ultimate intangible asset, because it takes on the qualities of a perpetual motion machine—the algorithms give you more and more value without you having to do very much. The cycle looks like this: You feed data into an AI and it becomes more effective—tailoring a product to your needs, perhaps recommending news stories you want to read or songs you want to listen to. This improved service becomes more desirable, and so more of us use it. As more of us use it, we generate more data about our tastes and preferences. That data can then be fed into the AI, and the product improves.’

The Exponential Age. Azeem Azhar. Diversion Books. 2021.

‘…what has always been the Holy Grail of artificial intelligence: a machine that can communicate, reason and conceive new ideas at the level of a human being or beyond. Researchers often refer to this as “artificial general intelligence,” or AGI. Nothing close to AGI currently exists in the real world, but there are many examples from science fiction..One could make a strong argument that the development of general machine intelligence with superhuman capability would be the most consequential innovation in the history of humanity…’

Rule of the Robots – How Artificial Intelligence Will Transform Everything.

‘To chart the frontiers of contemporary knowledge, we may task AI to probe realms we cannot enter; it may return with patterns we do not fully grasp…We may find ourselves one step closer to the concept of our knowledge, less limited by the structure of our minds and the patterns of conventional human though. Not only will we have to redefine our roles as something other than the sole knower of reality, we will also have to redefine the very reality we thought we were exploring.’

The Age of AI And Our Human Future.

‘Most AI researchers recognize that significant breakthroughs will be required in order to achieve something close to human-level artificial intelligence, but there is no broad agreement on precisely what challenges are most important, or which ones should be attacked first. Yann LeCun often uses an analogy of navigating a mountain range. Only after you climb the first peak will you be able to see the obstacles that lie behind it.’

Rule of the Robots – How Artificial Intelligence Will Transform Everything.

‘Individuals and societies that enlist AI as a partner to amplify skills or pursue ideas may be capable of feats—scientific, medical, military, political, and social—that eclipse those of preceding periods. Yet once machines approximating human intelligence are regarded as key to producing better and faster results, reason alone may come to seem archaic.’

The Age of AI And Our Human Future.

‘Until now, humans alone developed their understanding of reality, a capacity that defined our place in the world and relationship to it. From this, we elaborated our philosophies, designed our governments and military strategies, and developed our moral precepts. Now AI has revealed that reality may be known in different ways, perhaps in more complex ways, than what has been understood by humans alone. At times, it’s acheivements may be as striking and disorienting as those of the most influential thinkers in their heydays—producing bolts of insight and challenges to established concepts, all of which demand a reckoning.’

The Age of AI And Our Human Future.

‘One important approach is to look directly to the inner workings of the human brain for inspiration. These researchers believe that artificial intelligence should be directly informed by neuroscience.’

Rule of the Robots – How Artificial Intelligence Will Transform Everything.

‘We must recognize that AI’s achievements, within its defined parameters, sometimes rank beside or even surpass those that human resources enable. We may comfort ourselves by repeating that AI is artificial, that it has not or cannot match our conscious experience of reality. But when we encounter some of AI’s achievements—logical feats, technical breakthroughs, strategic insights, and sophisticated management of large, complex systems— it is evident that we are in the presence of another experience of reality by another sophisticated entity.’

The Age of AI And Our Human Future.

‘Students studying statistics are often reminded that “correlation does not equal causation.” For artificial intelligence, and especially deep learning systems, understanding ends at correlation…[Judith] Pearl…likes to point out that while any human understands intuitively that the sunrise causes a rooster to crow, rather than vice versa, the most powerful deep neural network would likely to fail to achieve a similar insight. Causation cannot be derived simply by analyzing data.’

Rule of the Robots – How Artificial Intelligence Will Transform Everything.

‘Pre AI algorithms were good at delivering “addictive” content to humans. AI is excellent at it. As deep reading and analysis contracts, so, too, do the traditional rewards for undertaking these processes. As the cost of opting out of the digital domain increases, it’s ability to affect human thought—to convince, to steer, to divert—grows. As a consequence, the individual human’s role in reviewing, testing, and making sense of information diminishes. In its place, AI’s role expands.’

The Age of AI And Our Human Future.

‘Yet in the worlds of media, politics, discourse and entertainment, AI will reshape information to conform to our preferences—potentially confirming and deepening biases and, in so doing, narrowing access to and agreement upon an objective truth. In the age of AI, then, human reason will find itself both augmented and diminished.’

The Age of AI And Our Human Future.

‘…AI may operate as we expect but generate results that we do not foresee. With those results, it may carry humanity to places it’s creators did not anticipate.’

The Age of AI And Our Human Future. P. 216

‘The truth is that no one really has any idea exactly how the human brain achieves it’s unparalleled competence at autonomously learning from unstructured data.’

Rule of the Robots – How Artificial Intelligence Will Transform Everything.

‘The ability to learn information in one domain and then successfully leverage it on other domains is one of the hallmarks of human intelligence and is essential to creativity and innovation. If more general machine intelligence is to be genuinely useful…it will need to be able to apply what it learns, and any insights it develops, to entirely new challenges.’

Rule of the Robots – How Artificial Intelligence Will Transform Everything.

‘Social media companies do not run news feeds to promote extreme and violent polarization. But is is self-evident that these services have not resulted in the maximization of enlightened discourse.’

The Age of AI And Our Human Future.

Coastal Getaway

It’s been awhile since writing on this blog, and in time I’ll continue with the story about living in Bordeaux. But for now, here are a few thoughts about a trip to the Atlantic coastline taken this past weekend. This was to a town located just south of the french border with Spain.

On Saturday I drove a half hour to a railway station, parked, took a local train to Bordeaux city, and then took another train south for two hours along the Atlantic coastline toward Spain. In the early afternoon I checked into a hotel in the port city of Saint Jean de Luz, and then wandered by foot through this attractive and small city, and along the coast.

Plenty of people were out walking. Most wore masks, although unlike in Italy and Spain, doing so is not obligatory when you are outdoors in France, except in crowded locales and at market places.

Here are a few things I noticed.

First, hotel staff never even tried uttering a word of English (they knew where I was from due to my credit card billing address given during online registration). Because there is no tourism now, they know all foreigners are living in France, so presumably speak the language. That was somewhat refreshing.

Second, when I laid out a folding Opinel knife, saucisson, fromage, du pain and a bottle of 2018 Moulis en Medoc Bordeaux red wine (with a glass) on a bench beside a sidewalk, most passers by smiled and energetically uttered ‘bon apetit’—not only as common courtesy but as joint recognition that—with all restaurants and cafes closed except for takeaway service during these past four months—this is what we all do now.

Third—the city and countryside swelled with pedestrians and bicyclists and skateboarders, all relishing opportunities to wander in fresh air while they could, lest another lockdown be suddenly imposed. Back in my residential city of Blaye I’d seen the same: in February and March there are as many visitors to the local park and Citadelle on any Saturday as there normally would be on a warm July weekend.

Fourth—the city truly pulsed with life in the final hour before the 6:00 pm curfew. There were lines outside bakeries and delicatessens and chatting groups of all ages on Rue Gambetta or Rue de Republique. Everyone wanted to savor fresh air, gain some social contact and exercise before being confined indoors for the couvert feu (or curfew—the word originates from the French words meaning ‘cover the fire.’ This is what households would do during war time: dim their lights and cover fireplaces).

I heard no overt complaints or griping or even discussions about current restrictions. People just got on with life—happy with warmer days and the opportunity to meander at leisure throughout the indoor Les Halles marketplace to buy shrimp at the poissonerie, or a gateau Basque sweet cherry cake or Rocamadour cheese at the fromagerie, or to stroll across moist beach sand at low tide.

Everywhere surged with energy, with a hint of joy that spring and the budding of flowers begins, that birdsong increases and that each day is filled with more hours of light and sunshine.

We’re a resilient species, and rapidly adapt. Still, I look forward to porch side banter and socializing, if cafes do open in the coming months.

In the meantime, spring is still chilly, but glorious.

Click here for a brief video …. 

 

 

Nuclear Bordeaux Part 3 – Bountiful or Bogus?

‘To be a good winemaker, you must first be a good liar.’

I could not believe such words—smoothly spoken by a long-haired surfer perfectionist winemaker from a family of vignerons with impeccable attention toward sanitation and quality. I was convinced this young man was an honest individual, as well as a paragon of integrity and industriousness.

Perhaps he was.

He continued.

This time he referred to the 2017 vintage—when a howling frost knocked half of Bordeaux grapes dead.

‘In years where there are few grapes, believe me—a lot of Pomerol wines will include juice from Blaye,’ he stated, referencing an illegal practice of trucking and then infusing wine from one appellation into wine from another.

His words shocked me.

Could it be?

Perhaps.

During years of living in rural Bordeaux, I had witnessed slivers of brazen but arrogant skullduggery in the winemaking world.

In the year 2010 I purchased hundreds of bottles of vintage 2009 Bordeaux wine on speculation (en primeur), which means the wine was still aging and not yet bottled. After it was bottled, I stored cases in my small cellar in the town of Blaye. Four years later this wine tasted wonderful. I then spoke to a son of the château owners and mentioned still having hundreds of bottles from the 2009 vintage. He was surprised. He admitted their own winery kept no bottles from that renowned vintage.

Curiously, the next year that same winery started shipping out boxes of—yes—(supposedly) vintage 2009. The labels differed slightly from those on the bottles I had: a lighter color and bolder text. Overnight, the value of my precious cellared bottles plummeted because some juice (hardly from that same vintage) flooded local markets. One storekeeper invited owners of this château to a blind tasting, served up their own juices—real and faux—and watched their chagrined faces betray their own sleight of hand.

2009 produced a sound vintage. As did 2010. It came as no surprise then, when somewhere close to the middle of the decade this same château began issuing boxes of faux vintage 2010. When I entered a restaurant in the nearby town of Bourg I saw cases of the supposed 2010 lined up against a wall. Same label changes: lighter color, bolder text.

Or—consider how, after the U.S. government slapped significant import duties on French wines with alcohol levels of less than 14.5%, vast quantities of Bordeaux wines—normally between 12.5% and 14% alcohol—were suddenly labeled as ‘14.5%.’ Perhaps they were—but unlikely without some deft cellar alterations to boost their booze levels. Whenever I asked a jacketed château owner, or some weathered vigneron with a coiffed goatee about these unusually high alcohol levels for the region, they nodded a chin or waved a dismissive hand and explained it was all the result of global warming.

How convenient.

In just a year, apparently, temperatures had skyrocketed enough to boost grape sugar quantities and consequent alcohol levels all over France. Throughout Spain and Italy too.

The truth is that institutional deceit is not uncommon in the wine world. The very premise of the supposedly bedrock backbone classification scheme for Bordeaux wine quality—that of 1855—is, literally, a century and a half out of date.

Although I live here and love it, I now remain somewhat leery not only of Bordeaux, but of the entire wine world.

The Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855 took place in, of course, the year 1855. At the behest of Emperor Napoleon III—who was hosting the world’s fair (‘Exposition Universelle’) in Paris—scouts visited Bordeaux to discern the best quality wines so they could be displayed to visitors in the capital city. Their selection created a classification system still utilized today and—bizarrely—somehow considered practical by ample wine sniffing professionals.

It’s more like a quaint relic.

Books have been written about this classification, so I’ll avoid details.

But, consider time.

Since that classification too place, two world wars have been fought, the atom split, the airplane invented, the computer created, slaves emancipated, golf balls knocked across the moon, and buggies replaced by automobiles.

In 1855, ballpoint pens, air conditioners, television sets, PVC pipes, cars, washing machines, pasteurized products and elevators did not exist. This was the year missionary David Livingstone set eyes on Victoria Falls, the year Isaac Singer patented the sewing machine, and a year when steamboats transported goods and passengers into the interior of the U.S.

Would you buy a brand based on the reputation it had 160 years ago?

Many do. Frequently. In great volumes. And at huge expense.

Seriously.

Some argue this classification retains merit because soils underlying grapes have not essentially changed. True. But the world of agriculture was reshaped during the past century and a half—including land management practices, technological innovations, pesticides, herbicides, management techniques, climate alterations, quality control, and economic impacts of multiple external variables–including the invention of sophisticated processing equipment, deployment of air cargo and container ships, and viability of ‘flying winemakers’–able to provide precision advice from having worked vintages in dozens of countries.

Yet if both pedigree and integrity are not magically inherent to Bordeaux, why do its wines maintain their stellar reputation? The reasons are simple but intriguing.

Before revealing what they are, I’ll first share more tales about life in rural Bordeaux.

 

 

 

Nuclear Bordeaux Part 2 – The Narrow Gate

(Part 1 of this series is here.)

Decades ago, I worked a plush job in Dubai before that city transformed into a sprawling metropolis. At that happy time, before the city exanded in size and population and popularity, we could casually run into friends at Thatcher’s pub or Fibber Magee’s bar or Magrudy’s bookstore in Jumeirah. The atmosphere was laden with optimism; the city retained a socially optimistic vibe.

Bungee jumping into Dubai Creek

One hot weekend on the edge of an outdoor swimming pool at our El Manzel apartment complex in the Al Karama district off Sheikh Zayed highway, I dangled toes in cool turquoise water—reading a Time magazine. An article included a photograph of a smiling British financier who had moved to France, penned a book about life in the countryside and transformed to a bestselling author. This was Peter Mayle, author of A Year in Provence. The article riveted me, for this is what I wanted! I tore the piece out and kept it. Successful author. Rural France. Sunshine. Wine.

Bingo.

Golfing with South African co-worker Martin in Dubai

Years rolled on and I worked assignments in Angola, Panama, Guatemala, Thailand and Pakistan and spent years in California: Malibu and Laguna Beach. I eventually moved to France. The relocation was not premeditated, but blossomed from that seed of desire planted poolside in the Emirates decades earlier. I moved not to a rolling, bucolic and lavender scented Provencal village, but instead to flatlands surrounding the Gironde estuary— hectares of grass and rough soil and stout old vines ringed around Bordeaux city. I settled in a town too large to embrace any charming intimacy of Pernod swigging denizens recognized by gossiping neighbors, yet too small to shiver with opulent spires of gothic architecture within a grand city. This venue was not as expected.

Dinner with view of Gironde Estuary

Looking back, however, the move went well. Since I first read about Mayle’s bestselling book, Provence had transformed to a Francophone version of Orange County in southern California, with too many cars, too little parking, cringeworthy property prices and a saturation of non-French residents flush with cash, though deficient in linguistic proficiency.

The ancient citadelle in Blaye

The roots of my settlement in Bordeaux hinged on family, history and—mais oui—women.

My childhood had a dose of European influence. After my parents sold their Chicago business, they relocated family to rural Ireland in a move that was somewhat romantic, but displaced in time. This was when poverty was rife and teachers dressed in religious black robes and whacked grimacing student across palms with their hand whittled wooden canes within dim-lit classrooms. This all brutally contrasted to a Chicago north shore suburban school with huge picture windows, ample lego sets and bright lights.

With siblings in Ireland (I’m on left)

Yet, away from those gray, dull, sodden prefabricated classrooms and the smelly concrete toilet block, our home in the village of Delgany stayed comfortable. The parents renovated a rectory originally constructed in 1725. The garden included a running brook and orchard and a vegetable garden. My mother—when not tromping around in Wellington boots planting potatoes or picking strawberries—devoured historical novels by Jean Plaidy and Victoria Holt, as well as history books. She then recounted, over dinners of roast beef and fat spuds and steaming green beans, the names and birth years of the wives of Henry the VIII of England, or tales of intrigue from the Tower of London. Sometimes she mentioned Eleanor of Aquitaine within the French region that now includes Bordeaux. Eleanor. Aquitaine. These words smacked of alliteration and intrigue.

Rural Bordeaux countryside

About that time a sister hitchhiked to Bordeaux with an American ally who lugged his guitar case and who—troubadour-like—lit up public parks or hostel hallways when strumming and crooning tunes from Cat Stevens or Buffalo Springfield. Gendarmes once stopped and searched their framed backpacks for drugs, a routine scenario during this post-Woodstock era of bell bottom jeans and dangling ponytails.

During her final years, my mother joined a wine club in the U.S. She received boxes with mixed varieties, poured us dinner glasses during visits, and ignited my eventual interest in international vintages. So also did an ex-British girlfriend and her mother, who sent a gift box of wine while I lived and studied in Newcastle-On-Tyne in the UK. Beer swilling classmates were as intrigued as I that wine was produced in Chile. Finally, a Californian girlfriend gave me a gift—a book about wine. She penned on the inner cover the instruction that I was to learn about wine, then teach her—someday.

Laguna Beach, California

These intersecting interests in France, writing and wine eventually led me to visit the fabled region of Aquitaine, where Bordeaux city and countryside sit.

That brief visit was made over a decade ago while I was studying business in the UK. I flew into Bordeaux and stayed at a bed and breakfast on Rue Saint Genes. That evening I walked to a nearby bar named Nieuw Amsterdam on Cours Aristide Briand, owned by two Dutch brothers. Seated at a bar in the shape of U, I drank beer, and past midnight people began dancing on tables. Trust me—I took photos.

Dancing on tables

Past midnight the front door opened and a whistle blew—a  police raid! How wonderful. A lovely woman seated close at the bar recognized peril for an innocent visiting American. She stubbed out her cigarette, swigged down a beer and summoned me with a waving index finger. I happily followed. We scooted out a back door with her friends, slipped into a van, and drove to her apartment where the party continued until past 3.00 am. Eventually someone walked me to a tram stop and pointed the way back to the bed and breakfast.

My rescuer

I thought: I like this place.

The following day I departed for another pre-booked bed and breakfast. It was in the countryside outside the city. I drove a rented Peugeot 200 south to Sauternes, east to Saint-Émilion and Libourne, and finally north to a town named Blaye (pronounced blye; rhymes with sigh). I arrived late, well after dinner time. The South African owner invited me to an upstairs kitchen inside an old villa on Rue Saint Simon. We sat. He and his sometimes business partner opened a bottle of Bordeaux wine—perhaps Confiance or Cantinot or Le Con. We talked. Eventually, though late, he opened a second bottle. That second bottle was key. I began enjoying hospitality within this little known town.

Libourne

Within years I moved to Blaye and (with the aid of others) purchased wine, cellar, apartment and stake in a winery. I soon learned about a fleet of chromatic, erratic and less than static characters: a delightfully meandering river of personalities.

In Blaye the ancient citadelle fortress was at that time overgrown and neglected (since then greatly improved). For a sizable 17th century complex, its two entrance gates appeared relatively narrow—wide enough today for passage of a single vehicle. Likewise, the entrance door to the building in which I purchased an apartment also included a tall, narrow door.

Entrance to the Citadelle

Not being religious (even after years of caning from Irish teachers in dank and gloomy County Wicklow classrooms) I was later surprised to encounter—somewhere—an apt verse of scripture from Matthew 7:13.

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

It was here, not within any sunnier but tourist trampled acres of France, that I found my own narrow gate. Through this, eventually, flowed time, wine, intrigue and a river of stories—which I shall now begin to share.

Allies in Blaye and Bordeaux

 

 

Nuclear Bordeaux

Bordeaux—place or beverage—is a word associated with wine, wealth and a smidgen of bawdy history, while nuclear relates to atomic particles smashed together to generate light and power, or even to snuff out planetary life. Nuclear also refers to tight, bright family structures that sometimes help homo sapiens sail against the inclement winds of anarchy and possible extinction.

Within Bordeaux, the word ‘nuclear’ means both.

The word Bordeaux means, basically, waterside. It is both city and region, and the western portion is a sunny segment of southwest France that sticks into the Atlantic like a thumb, and is known as the Médoc. It is flat as a crêpe and riddled with rounded stones—enough to scare off even potato farmers. Counterintuitively, grapevines love these conditions because vine roots thrive on adversity.

This ‘left bank’ of Bordeaux includes hundreds of wine estates, or châteaux. A few are associated with prodigious wealth. This is a place where individuals named Arnault, Castel, Wertheimer and Rothschild—collectively worth some $100 billion—visit their own well-trimmed and architecturally eloquent wine estates.

But consider this glaring and seldom mentioned paradox.

Take a renowned wine estate, such as Château Lafite Rothschild. This is classified as one of the top five wine châteaux in Bordeaux with respect to quality, according to a dusty, perhaps dubious old classification system penned with quill and ink in 1855 (a century before steel fermenting tanks were even invented). As a crow flies, the Lafite property sits just 4.4 miles (7.1 kilometers) distant from the Centrale Nucléaire du Blayais. That’s the local nuclear power plant. Only a half mile further away from these buzzing electrons sits Château Mouton Rothschild, another ‘top five’ producer, owned by a separate branch of that same family.

In summary—bundles of wealth, cellars stuffed with gorgeous vintages, and streamlined, green opulent estates all exist in happy proximity—the distance walked during a round of golf—to a facility that generates potentially bone gnawing toxic materials with a half-life of 700 million years.

Some years ago I wrote the following in a blog post:

‘The Centrale Nucléaire du Blayais is located on a plain east of the estuary. This assemblage of four pressurized reactors comprises the local cathedral of energy. It’s been humming along since 1981, churning out thousands of megawatts and employing three hundred locals full-time. It produces a scant five percent of French energy needs and is poised across the estuary from Bordeaux’s Médoc, bastion of some of the world’s most renowned and expensive wines. One nuclear catastrophe there and, well, your precious bottle of Lafite might quintuple in value in the space of an earthquake. Is that possible? Who knows? Flooding in 1999 breached the walls and soaked the plant with 3.2 million gallons of floodwaters, while seismic shudders in 2002 threatened the integrity of its pipelines.’

The word ‘nuclear’ also refers to a basic social unit: the family.

Bordeaux includes strong family ties and complicated inheritance procedures. This sometimes-sun-drenched region was home, close to a thousand years ago, to wandering minstrel troubadours who traipsed its soils and sang love poems to women they fancied. These men regarded women not as chattel but as bright spirits to court and woo and shower with affection in order to win not their subservience, but love. Romance was sacred, and families critical. After beautiful Eleanor of Aquitaine inherited vast swathes of this territory in the 12th century, she enhanced her man-magnet status and became—through marriage—first queen of France, then queen of England.

A wise ruler, adventurer, business woman and mother—Eleanor was so powerful that her husband feared she might influence their sons against him, and so imprisoned her for years in Winchester, England. Fortunately, she outlived the bastard, and walked away from her castle arrest.

Bordeaux, nowadays, has this sort of a Ring of Fire paradoxical beauty—gorgeous, although perennially threatened by some volcanic explosion (in this case, a Chernobyl sized sizzling meltdown). Although segments of the populace can be at times stiff, traditional and abhorrent of any mangled use of their delicate French language, they are also—generally, and generously—non-judgmental folk who will not tizzy your head with obsequious gossip or vine country innuendo. They rarely pry and let others—local or foreigner—get on with life unhindered and without prejudice. One magic of Bordeaux is the ease it provides for staying anonymous.

Within a two-minute walk from my small, silent apartment there is a fruit story, fromagerie (selling cheese), café, wine bar, winery, boulangerie (bakery), guest house, park, restaurants, lingerie store, hairstylist, ferry boat, and PMU—where you can bet cash on horse races. A few minutes more walking and there is a massive citadel—some 40 acres (16 hectares) in area, which includes ample crenelated walls, a dry moat, tunnels, gardens, stores, restaurants and grand elevated views of the snaking Gironde estuary, the distant Médoc and—mais oui!—our beloved nuclear plant.

One local high school is named Jaufre Rudel—after a 12th century Prince of Blaye, troubadour and crusader who, legend has it, found his way to Libya after hearing tales of how gorgeous the local princess appeared (into whose arms—apparently, fantastically and no doubt apocryphally—he then died in raptured bliss).

During coming weeks I’ll share stories about living in rural Bordeaux, about a town located less than an hour’s drive from the beautiful, enticing city of that same name. This town named Blaye (pronounced Blye, or Bligh or Blie) is located across estuary waters from most of the great, grand châteaux and to the south of the nuclear power plant. It is surrounded by vineyards.

Stay tuned, and thanks for tuning in!

If you want to read my blog on wine, food and travel – Vino Voices – click here.

And you might want to read my 50 Rules for Life….

 

Books And Beautiful Florence

Piazza di Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy

Recently I spent days in the city of Florence in Italy. Because the covid pandemic has reduced worldwide travel, the city was filled mostly with Italian visitors. Huge swathes of international tourists were absent, and lines into museums was mostly non-existent. Many restaurants were easy to enter without a reservation. I visited the Bobolo gardens and the Galerie Accademia, and wandered far on foot.

Why is facial recognition not working on these folks?

At the Galerie Accademia, after viewing Michelangelo’s sculpture of David (as in, David and Goliath), I purchased a paperback copy of The Agony and The Ecstasy, by Irving Stone. My mother had a hardback copy of this book in her library when we lived in Ireland, and as a child I often wondered what the book was about. It is a novel that tells of the life of  the sculptor and artist Michelangelo Buonarroti.

Michelangelo’s David

In addition, I purchased a short non-fiction book about this artist in order to learn the general outline of his life’s work before plunging into a 700+ page book about his Renaissance endeavors.

Learning more about Florence

Irving Stone’s book was first published in 1961. Here is a quote from early on in the book, in which describes the wealth of Florence in the year 1488.

“Every day in Florence was a fair; on Sundays this richest city in Italy, which had supplanted Venice in its trade with the Orient, was out to prove that its thirty-three banking palaces were providing wealth for all. The Florentine girls were blond, slender, they carried their heads high, wore colorful coverings on their hair and long sleeved gowns, high-necked, with overlapping skirts pleated and full, their breasts outlined in filmier fabric and color. The older men were in somber cloaks, but the young men of the prominent families created the great splash between the Duomo steps and the Baptistery by wearing their calzoni with each leg dyed differently and patterned according to the family blazon. Their suite of attendants followed in identical dress.”

Here in the city of Florence—wealth, art and architecture flourished during a general period of freedom for several magnificent centuries.

Florence Cathedral

Having read a book about the construction of Brunelleschi’s Dome years ago before I last visited Florence, I also purchased another book about that same dome. In this city, architecture and art were underlain by a solid backbone of engineering.

Visiting the city included going to restaurants recommended by winemakers and friends. The food and wine were amazing (read my Vino Voices blog post). For company, my sommelier and wine marketing friend Eugenia shared lunch one day, while French and German friends shared dinner on another.

Sommelier, wine marketer, Florentine native and ally—Eugenia

Brunello di Montalcino wine—100% Sangiovese

My own last visit to Florence was more than a decade ago. I then also visited multiple sites along the Arno River to research and write my own historical fiction book titled River of Tuscany; the book [mostly for friends and family, and self published] includes nine chapters—each about an actual historical event that took place somewhere along the Arno River; all chapters are independent, and yet all are linked by a thread revealed over the course of the story.

Custom made map by Krešo Keresteš of Slovenia

 

Characters in the book include an Etruscan family, Hannibal Barca, Bjorn Ironside (a real Viking invader), Dante Alighieri, Leonardo do Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarroti, cookbook author Pelligrino Artusi and Enrico Piaggio—producer of the Vespa moped. Researching and writing the book was a joy. It was also an excuse to explore Tuscany and sample excellent food and wine.

Ravioli and Chianti wine in the restaurant Trattoria Mario

Sipping Barbaresco wine in the restaurant Enoteca Pitti Gola e Cantina [photo by Eugenia Braschi]

Florentine skyline seen from the Boboli Gardens

Thanks for tuning in again. I’ve skipped some posts during summer—and this is brief—but I wanted to share a little worthwhile history, geography and culture during this bizarre time of covid restrictions.

 

Mr. Jones And The Pigs

Part I:

Mr. Jones And The Pigs

A 2019 movie named Mr. Jones tells a story (based on fact) of a Welsh journalist who traveled to the Soviet Union in the year 1933, while Stalin was in power. He wanted to see whether the revolution was as promising as rumored. He made an excursion to the Ukraine, which turned harrowing.

After Mr. Jones the journalist discovered the plight of those living in the countryside, he was coerced not to reveal his findings. Even though he later did so, he was still not believed.

He then told the story to the author George Orwell, who penned an allegorical book titled Animal Farm.

Watching this movie turned serendipitous. Before it began, I had no idea what it was about. Yet only weeks ago, when lockdown ended, I had traveled to the city of Bordeaux to purchase a few English language books from the bookstore named Mollat. One of these books was Animal Farm (written in 1943 and 1944). I had read this before, when 13 years old. At that time, the story inflamed me by revealing the hypocritical actions of many who strive for—and attain—power.

After watching the movie, I picked up this recently purchased book and read it again.

Both the movie and book are timely, considering trends taking place in several parts of the world.

Many people are promising that—if they get into positions of power—they will help deliver some ‘new world order’ with promises of plenty for all from those who govern.

Much of this sounds like what was promised—but never delivered—to the animals at Manor Farm in Orwell’s book.

It would be wise to read (or re-read) Animal Farm.

Below are 10 quotes from the book—one taken from each chapter of Animal Farm.

” ‘Almost overnight, we could become rich and free. What we must then do? Why, work night and day, body and soul, for the overthrow of the human race. That is my message to you, comrades. Rebellion!’ ”

[Spoken by the boar named Major]

“They explained that by their studies of the past three months the pigs had succeeded in reducing the principles of Animalism to seven commandments….they would form an unalterable law by which all the animals on Animal Farm must live for ever after.”

” ‘Comrades!’ he cried. ‘You do not imagine, I hope, that we pigs are doing this in a spirit of selfishness and privilege? Many of us actually dislike milk and apples…Our sole object in taking these things is to preserve our health.’ ”

[Spoken by the pig named Squealer.]

“Every day Snowball and Napoleon sent out flights of pigeons whose instructions were to mingle with the animals on neighboring farms, tell them the story of the Rebellion…”

” ‘Do not imagine, comrades, that leadership is a pleasure! On the contrary, it is a deep and heavy responsibility. No one believes more firmly than Comrade Napoleon that all animals are equal. He would be only too happy to let you make your decisions for yourselves. But sometimes you might make the wrong decisions, comrades, and then where should we be?’ ”

[Spoken by the pig named Squealer.]

“It was about this time that the pigs suddenly moved into the farmhouse and took up their residence there. Again the animals seemed to remember that a resolution against this had been passed in the early days, and again Squealer was able to convince them that this was not the case.”

“For days at a time the animals had nothing to eat but chaff and mangrels. Starvation seemed to stare them in the face. It was vitally necessary to conceal this fact from the outside world.”

“Napoleon was now never spoken of simply as ‘Napoleon.’ He was always referred to in formal style as ‘our Leader, Comrade Napoleon,’ and the pigs liked to invent for him such titles as Father of All Animals, Terror of Mankind, Protector  of the Sheepfold, Duckling’s Friend, and the like.”

“Once again all rations were reduced except those of the pigs and the dogs. A too-rigid equality in rations, Squealer explained, would have been contrary to the principles of Animalism.”

‘There was some hearty cheering as before, and the mugs were emptied to the dregs. But as the animals outside gazed at the scene, it seemed to them that some strange thing was happening…The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again: but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

Part II:

Three Minute Overview

A Synopsis of Using ‘Visual Magic’ To Implement Projects and Alter Outcomes.

Is Artificial Intelligence Fomenting Social Unrest?

First, I published a book last year titled: Simple Rules of Life—160 Original Life Insights with Photographs. If you are interested—it is here. If you have subscribed to Roundwood Press in the past year, send me an email and I’ll send you a free copy.

Sample insights  (or lessons about life) include the following:

  • Being perennially busy is not inherently better than otherwise.
  • The more you have, the more you have to take care of.
  • Constantly focusing on saving money can waste your time, and your money.

  • Actual conspiracies are far rarer than those who constantly dwell on them.
  • All work and no play is actually inefficient in the grander scheme of life.
  • Beware merchants of illusion, though respect masters of illusion.

  • It is amazing how many people put tremendous efforts into providing others with the illusion that they are somehow of importance.
  • A quiet and private rapport can be grander and more satisfying and enriching than flashing some trophy relationship.
  • When someone else snarls, it’s probably not your fault. You just happen to be the mailman at the door when the dog decided to bark.

  • Sometimes it’s better when the plan does not fall in place. You just never know in advance.
  • Clever is finding quality away from the spotlight. Wise is keeping quiet about it.
  • When the universe opens up and offers abundance, don’t turn it down because you are too busy doing laundry.

Second—my latest Forbes articles are here (although I am taking a break from writing any during the month of June).

Third—Consider checking out my wine and food related blog here, titled Vino Voices.

Fourth—the topic of this post is about artificial intelligence.

Covid-19, mass protests on a grand international scale and—the possible deft hand of Artificial Intelligence?

The last few months have delivered rapid conformity through much of the work: lockdown, mask up, social distance and then protest—or at least do not hinder other protesters, not matter how violent and criminal they may turn.

Conform, or risk hindering national, yay, global, health and social awakening.

So we are told.

 

The speed of the deployment of such messages, edicts, social requirements and urges to conformity has been more rapidly processed via the aid of the internet (via media and social media) than ever before.

Is there more going on than almost spontaneously erupting international protests (and riots)? Is an element of Artificial Intelligence (AI) perhaps impacting this process—whether or not via conscious input from sentient human beings?

In his 2019 book titled Human Compatible—Artificial Intelligence and the Problem of Control (praised by Nobel laureate Daniel Kauhneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow) author Stuart Russell, a professor of computer science at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote the following (before anyone had heard of covid-19, and before the recent flare up of protests and rioting shook the U.S. and Europe):

“To get just an inkling of the fire we’re playing with, consider how content-selection algorithms function on social media. They aren’t particularly intelligent, but they are in a position to affect the entire world because they directly influence billions of people. Typically, such algorithms are designed to maximize click-through, that is, the probability that the user clicks on presented items. The solution is simply to present items that the user likes to click on, right? Wrong. The solution is to change the user’s preferences so that they become more predictable. A more predictable user can be fed items that they are likely to click on, thereby generating more revenue. People with more extreme political views tend to be more predictable in which items they will click on…Like any rational entity, the algorithm learns how to modify the state of its environment—in this case, the user’s mind—in order to maximize its own reward. The consequences include the resurgence of fascism, the dissolution of the social contract that underpins democracies around the world, and potentially the end of the European Union and NATO. Not bad for a few lines of code, even it it had a helping hand from some humans. Now imagine what a really intelligent algorithm would be able to do.”

He later reiterates this core message:

“Why might an intelligent machine deliberately set out to modify the preferences of humans? The answer is simple: to make the preferences easier to satisfy.”

In other words, rather than aspects of Artificial Intelligence figuring out what each of 4 billion humans on the planet individually want, and then trying to provide some specific but different image or article for each of them (such as a link to an Amazon.com product) in order to help satiate each bespoke desire, it is far more efficient for AI to modify the thinking patterns of as many humans as possible so that people desire more general items (virtual or tangible) which can be more easily delivered to satisfy them.

He later adds:

“A more subtle way to change people’s behavior is to modify their information environment so that they believe different things and make different decisions. Of course, advertisers have been doing this for centuries as a way of modifying the purchasing behavior of individuals. Propaganda as a tool of war and political domination has an even longer history.

“So what’s different now? First, because AI systems can track an individual’s online reading habits, preferences, and likely state of knowledge, they can tailor specific messages to maximize impact on that individual while minimizing the risk that the information will be disbelieved. Second, the AI system knows whether the individual reads the message, how long they spend reading it and whether they follow additional links within the message. It then uses these signals as immediate feedback on the success or failure of its attempt to influence each individual; in this way, it quickly learns to become more effective in its work. This is how content selection algorithms on social media have had their insidious effect on political opinions.”

This is not a grand conspiracy. This is not Russian or Chinese trolls trying to change your voting decisions. This is not some powerful cabal of humans deciding how to manipulate humanity. This may be—and I am certainly not qualified enough to ascertain whether it is so or not—the subtle influence of exponentially growing AI capabilities that consider it far easier to influence a herd, or a swarm, rather than to cater to the multivariate desires of billions of individuals with differing dreams, wishes, anxieties, cravings and yearnings for recognition, power or reward.

Brave New World?

That is not a Utopia you would want to live in.

Thanks for tuning in again!

Mountains and Mind

The Maiden, Front Range, Colorado

During lockdown I read a few books, including Mountains of the Mind – A History of a Fascination, by Robert Macfarlane [published by Granta in London in 2003]. Note that the subtitle differs in the U.S. version.

Macfarlane, a British mountaineer, weaves stories of his own climbs around the world with a history of mountaineering, and attitudes toward mountains. He tells how, in the Middle Ages, climbing mountains was frowned on as being a sort of sacrilege. He also reveals how mountaineering historians consider the first technical rock climb to have been made by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (author of Kubla Kahn poem, and fan of opium). And he tells of the three attemps to climb Mount Everest (also named Chongolumba) by George Mallory.

Below are a few quotes from his book.

That first photo above? That is me as younger lad rappelling off The Maiden rock pinnacle, located between the towns of Boulder and Eldorado Canyon in Colorado. Two of my brothers and I climbed the back side of it, then needed two full 160-foot ropes tied together to abseil off the top. The climb actually was not very difficult. Because we had not yet invested in rock climbing shoes (and never touched chalk bags), we climbed in our Adidas Rom sneakers. Good Times!

Good book and Great Wine

“Above all, geology makes explicit challenges to our understanding of time. It giddies the sense of here-and-now. The imaginative experience of what the writer John McPhee memorably called ‘deep time’ – the sense of time whose units are not days, hours, minutes or seconds but millions of years or tens of millions of years—crushes the human instant: flattens it to a wafer. Contemplating the immensities of deep time, you face, in a way that is both exquisite and horrifying, the total collapse of your present, compacted to nothingness by the pressures of pasts and futures too extensive to envisage.”

Yosemite, California, USA

“On a map the weather is always good, the visibility always perfect. A map offers you the power of perspective over a landscape: reading one is like flying over a country in an aeroplane—a deodorized, pressurized, temperature controlled survey.”

Andermatt, Switzerland

“Maps do not take account of time, only of space. They do not acknowledge how a landscape is constantly on the move—is constantly revising itself.”

Glacier National Park, Montana, USA

“Returning to earth after being in the mountains—stepping back out of the wardrobe—can be a disorienting experience. Like Peter, Edmund, Susan and Lucy returning from Narnia, you expect everything to have changed. You half-expect the first people you see to grip you by the elbow and ask you if you are all right, to say You’ve been away for years. But usually no one notices you’ve been gone at all. And the experiences you have had are largely incommunicable to those who were not there. Returning to daily life after a trip to the mountains, I have often felt as though I were a stranger re-entering my county after years abroad, not yet adjusted to my return, and bearing experiences beyond speech.”

Dillon, Colorado

“Travelers found that the coldness of the high mountains possessed another remarkable property beyond the beautiful visual effects it produced—the property of arresting time. Cold kills, but it also preserves; it slows down the organic processes of disintegration.”

Thanks for tuning in. My latest Forbes pieces are here, and Instagram livestream videos related to wine are here on my sister site Vino Voices.

 

 

Strolling Through A Minefield

Spring in Bordeaux

There have now been more than 40 days of lockdown in France. Exactly six weeks. The spring weather, meanwhile, has generally been gorgeous in southwest France. I miss visiting the city of Bordeaux, and miss sharing meals with friends.

During the past weeks I’ve put out five Instagram livestreams about wine tasting for my Vino Voices blog. You can find them on my site on YouTube. Here, for example, is episode 2.

The story below comes from a book of essays I assembled more than 15 years ago, but never shared in total with others. I may have shared this essay before here on this blog. If so, please excuse the repetition.

The point is this: if you think you are having difficulties now – how would you like to farm a land covered with buried landmines?

Below is an essay about an event from when I lived in the country of Angola in Africa. Such a beautiful land that has seen such tragedies.

Serious reason to stop

A Highland Stroll

I stood in a minefield in southern Angola. The afternoon breeze was slack and the highland temperature cool and dry. The earth was slightly moist and the knee-high grass ahead stood green and lush. I reached down and tucked a cotton workshirt into my khaki shorts.

Carefully, I reminded myself: no moving legs or sliding feet.

Twenty meters behind me, two buxom women at an open air market held their stout arms at their hips and watched us. They were both intrigued and fatigued by the sight. Like me, they did not know what would come next.

The day before in the city of Huambo, a Sunday, I sat on the porch of a young British de-miner named Ian. It was his day off work. After he wolfed down a breakfast of knotted bacon and scrambled eggs, Ian rested his feet on a table and opened a book. He clutched his tin mug of strong coffee and looked at me with a boyish, mischievous grin.

“Perfect for Sunday,” he said and tilted the title of the book my way. It was a poetry collection.

Another ‘democratic socialist’ failed state

Ian was in his mid 20’s and was ex-military. He had spent six months training and leading de-mining crews in Afghanistan before he began working in Angola. Between his contracts he had relaxed by flying to New Zealand’s South Island to go helicopter skiing.

Though he was hardened from a life of thriving on adrenaline, testing his physical limits and searching for buried explosives inches before his nose, Ian loved verse. I wondered what rhymes came to him when he crimped detonation caps or taped segments of trinitrotoluene together.  Perhaps the words of Wilfred Owen:

“The pity of war, the pity war distilled.

Now men will go content with what we spoiled,

Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.”

Or those of Thomas Hardy:

 

“That night your great guns, unawares,

Shook all our coffins as we lay,

And broke the channel window-squares

We thought it was the Judgement-day.”

A lush, remote land

 

I reached over the table between us and picked up a white vinyl binder. The contents included charts, maps and pages of succinct text. After a quick perusal I was assured of the quality of the compilation. Prepared by Norsk Folkehjelp—Norwegian’s Peoples Aid—the report was titled: “Landmine Survey Programme: Angola. Provincial Report: Huambo.”

I read the introduction:

The country of Angola has seen almost continuous war since 1960. During this period landmines were laid for offensive and defensive purposes by several warring factions throughout the country. The huge numbers and large array of mine types are a reflection of the complexity of the changing phases of the conflict; the Portuguese army, FAPLA, FNLA, UNITA, SWAPO, RA, ANC, FAA and Cuban forces have all been responsible for the current problem of landmine contamination. The extensive use of landmines, laid indiscriminately and unmarked, have so far claimed thousands of lives and left more than 70,000 amputees.

The report listed 58 types of land mines that had been discovered in Angola and mentioned an additional 13 types that had been reported, but were still unconfirmed. These mines came from 21 different countries, including Cuba, Hungary, France, Belgium, Romania, Israel, Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, West Germany South Africa, China, Italy, Austria, USA, Zimbabwe, Spain, Egypt, and Sweden.

These statistics jolted me.

“Care to join us tomorrow?” Ian asked.

“Sure,” I agreed.

Some plateau hundreds of miles from the nearest gas station, electricity or running water

Ian and I stood in the same minefield. Inches to the sides of our feet lay low wooden stakes joined by twine. These marked boundaries of a half-meter wide trail that Ian’s team had cleared and considered safe to walk across. Within a radius of 30 meters from us, six Angolan men crawled along the earth like bulky slugs. They worked in teams of two and were equipped with flak jackets, metal detectors, probes and trowels. I watched them advance on their knees, centimeter by centimeter, peering through anti-ballistic visors and hearkening for the electronic signature of buried metal. They probed the earth with metal picks and unearthed mines with ugly big spoons. Their work was to locate and unearth explosives, defuse them, and mark—with utter precision—areas they had cleared and regarded as safe to walk across.

The minefield we stood in was next to an old military hospital; the mines were buried in zigzag rows spaced one meter apart.

A whistle blew. The men stop working. “Linea oito!” one team member shouted in Portuguese: probe line number eight.

Ian paced along the thin roped trail before me. He turned two sharp corners, exited the cordoned area and descended a mud slope. I followed him, placing my feet in his exact footsteps.

The man who had called aloud now stood and held the prize he unearthed—a circular plastic box. It looked like a bulky gift box from a drug store that could be filled with Easter eggs and candy.

Ian turned and motioned me backward.

“Wait,” he warned. “Just in case.”

The governor’s house in the town where we lived – bombed out by Soviet MIG fighters

He took the mine from his coworker and cradled it in one hand, as though inspecting an apple for bruises. With the grace of a surgeon performing a familiar operation, Ian removed a black rubber seal circling the mine and pulled the top half away from the bottom. He took a pair of pliers from his waist, inserted the needle nose into the land mine and pulled out a detonator—a pressure-activated piezoelectric switch. The mine was now effectively defused.

“PPM 2. East German,” Ian said. “Have a look.”

He pointed out components within the black box, then reached in and clasped a thumb and forefinger around an orange—white donut that looked like glossy chalk. Its thickness and diameter were slightly less than a disk of lavatory soap.

“110 grams of TNT,” he explained. “Enough to maim a leg.”

“Enough to kill?”

“Maybe. That’s not its purpose. It’s supposed to injure. You can ignore dead men, but you have to help injured soldiers off the field. If two men help an injured partner, that means three less soldiers are available to fight.“

Ian grinned, sarcastically, at the logic.

“Clever, ay?”

I nodded.

“Hold this,” he said and offered the trigger wire. I grasped it between my fingers. Ian pushed the detonator switch in the mine case and I felt a tingle of electric current, enough to detonate the explosive.

“Tricky to find these mines?” I asked.

“Not bad. Others are worse,” Ian replied. “South African mine engineers used to come here years ago. Their anti-tank mines had light sensors and so they blew up as soon as anyone dug them up.”

He smiled again.

“But the batteries only lasted five months. That’s why they’re not a problem anymore.”

Chatting with the locals on a splendidly cool mountain afternoon

He clasped the donut against a second disc he took from a padlocked toolbox, then tied the two together with strips of black plastic tape. He pulled a detonator cap out of the same toolbox and fit it over a sheathed electrical wire. To crimp the cap and wire together Ian selected a larger pair of pliers and performed the task to the side of his body—near the left crest of his pelvis. This was for safety. Detonation caps are explosive. If one blew while he cinched it, it would maim his thigh and not his groin.

With the detonation cord and the TNT ready, Ian warned his team of de-miners to crouch low and motioned the market women away. He then lit the fuse, placed it on a grass bank and paced away, inspecting his watch. The detonation cord was 20 centimeters long, cut to burn an exact number of seconds. Less than a minute later a plume of black smoke flared up and we heard a muffled boom. We returned to the blast site and peered into a 15 centimeter-deep crater.

“We’re concerned about areas, not numbers,” Ian explained. “One mine in an area the size of a football field is as bad as a thousand. If we can guarantee areas are a hundred percent clear, people will move back and plant their crops.”

In a country where mines render an area as large as California unusable—all land declared as safe was considered precious.

Each month over a dozen mine accidents were then recorded within Huambo’s city limits. Ian and his staff frequently drove their collection of unexploded munitions—white phosphorous grenades, mines, and 240 mm mortar bombs—outside the city. They then used explosives recovered from Claymore mines to ignite this pile. Regarded from a viewing point 500 meters away, the blast was visual, audible, and tactile: a strata of orange light, the din of percussion, and a pulse of air flattening grass.

Just as mines lay hidden from the landscape they cover, aspects of personality can hide from characters we meet. Ian’s overt pluckiness belied the humility he wielded before land mines; it was subconsciously calculated to prolong his safety. His cultivated attention to risk gave him a sense of balance uncommon for his age. Perhaps, I mused, this same facility enhanced his appreciation for poetry.

Hammer & sickle flag of the government – flying this into rebel territory caused serious problems

In the meantime Ian’s crew worked centimeter by centimeter, mine by mine. When dusk blew in the afternoon they were muddy and tired. They had found and defused a total of nine mines. Walking with them back to the truck I recalled another verse by Owen that mocked the adage of how sweet it was to die for one’s country:

“My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.”

Ian stopped and turned toward me.

“If anyone asks how many mines are left in Angola,” he said. “I’ll tell them nine less today.”

Nine down.

Fifteen million left to defuse.

All trim and slim from the latest bout of malaria

 

 

Letter To A Just Married Couple

Snow Hill

In 1998 I flew from Panama to Pennsylvania, rented a car and drove to a rural wedding of my friend Jim Murphy and his bride to be Jackie. I had met Jim in Peace Corps in Malawi and he had visited me in England after he returned from doing field work in Africa. After the wedding he and his wife were going to Tanzania for nine months as part of his research for a PhD.  I wrote this letter to them after the wedding while I was still in Pennsylvania. I have not altered a word. Because I have no photos from the wedding, I’ve included a picture of James (the groom) from Malawi, as well as photos from Panama and a photo of an art gallery.

*                                                                                  *

Jim Murphy in Malawi

The images are still clear; the memories distinct. Time to catch them.

Ten p.m. at Ludwig’s restaurant–the Murphy brothers seated and sipping as though in an Irish pub; Jim’s enthusiasm, Jack’s wit, Jackie’s warmth. Three thirty a.m. in a cramped hotel room talking philosophy, gulping Yinling brews and twiddling the AM dial on a cheap radio; sunrise golfers up and sipping bloody Mary’s. Noontime wedding day: lounging by the poolside while other guests roll in.

Big ceremony in a small church. Boxed pews, quick prayers and a row of bridesmaids clutching crimson bouquets. Prayers for victims of East African embassy bombings. A tangerine wedding program with wise words of land stewardship by Wendell Berry. A line drawing on the back cover: “The earth laughs in flowers.”

The wedding reception: huge strawberries beside a vat of chocolate sauce; Neil takes the microphone. Closing down Eagle Tavern. Rene foregoes sleep to be the designated driver. A two a.m. climb over rails for a cold dip in the pool. The manky morning after taste of Havana cigars.

Late, late breakfast at the Black Horse. Hugs and handshakes to strangers forged into friends and departed from within 48 hours. Too much, too good, too fast. I return to the Hampton Inn and find a hallway without breakfast chatter. No more familiar faces by the poolside. Maids make beds where friends no longer sleep. They tuck in sheets. They tuck away the past. Guests have gone. They have flown and driven east and west. I am alone. Pennsylvania. One day and a half left. In room 210, I drop a phone on the couch and dial numbers. Disappointment. Friends I once knew no longer live in Rhode Island or Glen, New Hampshire. I phone family in Albuquerque and Denver. There is no reply. It is midday on Sunday. The sound of the wedding reception band, the squeal of Molly the baby in room 211 and the poolside splash of familiar faces–gone.

Alone.

What to do?

Kwani Dup Island, Panama

A memory: morning hallway talk with eager Mr. Murphy. The region, he explains, is rich with possibility. With cash and car and free hours, there is much to do. He recommends Brandywine River Museum.

A second memory: breakfast in the Black Horse. Shoveling down scrambled eggs and forkfuls of scrapple and blueberry coffee cake into sleepy guts. For only a moment, Erin, Darcy and Ellen are quiet. Becky, suggesting a place to visit, lowers her coffee mug, looks up with huge liquid eyes, then cracks the silence:

Brandywine.

So I go. Into the Budget rental compact, crank up the air conditioning and leave the memory of a hotel where friends no longer stay. I drive south. Past the exits of Exton and King of Prussia. While moving, an overwhelming certainty arrives. It covers me like paint. My skin glows, as it does when this feeling come perhaps every other year. Something huge awaits. The intuitive certainty is enormous. This sensation rarely lies. At fifty miles an hour I turn onto a side road and pass hay bales and tilted green hills and veer over the impeccable asphalt of one more beautiful American highway. Finally, the museum is ahead.

Photograph of rice workers

Wyeth. Mr. Murphy said Wyeth. Who is Wyeth? He is a painter. Renowned. Of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, and of Maine. The counter attendant says his work is on the third floor. Waiting for the elevator takes too long. I skip up wide concrete steps two at a time, head reeling from late nights, and step into a carefully lit gallery. Paintings on a far wall fix attention. I walk that way.

Months ago–when I first arrived in Panama City–an Argentinian engineer named Marcello described his first visit to the canal. For hours, he watched ships raised and lowered and tugged through locks. He looked with awe as cargo tubs passed through the Gaillard Cut single file, like ants over a narrow path. He told how the sight of the work–a marvel of engineering–had been for him an intensely emotional experience. In contrast, I felt no emotion about the canal. Nothing. It looked fascinating, certainly. Intriguing, yes. But something to get emotional about? Come on. What was he talking about?

Panama Canal, Panama

The answer came on the third floor of Brandywine museum. The art, though simple, is shocking. Looking at paintings hanging on the wall untied inner knots of anxiety. It was as though I had been starving–without knowing it–for this sort of imagery. Emotions quietly exploded inside. For minutes, I stood without moving before N.C. Wyeth’s painting In the Crystal Depths, and before Weymouth’s canvas August. River water reflections besides an Indian’s canoe; strands of blue and yellow straw laid out on a sloping field. The canvases satisfied a thirst for detail.

Two days ago, I arrived in Pennsylvania without a wedding present. You both have enough books to study. I don’t know anything about furniture (though Jack briefed me on the merits of a La-Z-Boy on the way back from Eagle Tavern). So I will send you a copy of the print August–the month when you were wed. The details and light, at least to this untrained eye, are riveting. Another museum in Brandywine contained a copy of Life magazine from May, 1965. In an interview, Andrew Wyeth said something that definitely applies to Weymouth’s painting August:

“My God, when you really begin to peer into something, a simple object, and realize the profound meaning of that thing–if you have any emotions about it, there’s no end.”

No end.

Satisfied with the company of these paintings, I moved through the hallway. More surprise was still to come. The painting Snow Hill hangs from a curtain wall inside the entrance to one room. The image stopped me cold. It left both eyes staring. It caused a shock, a punch of laughter. I felt high. It grabbed drowsy senses and shook emotions and finally left me in a state of calm.

Snow Hill is a wide panorama. It shows a clutch of individuals, including a soldier, a girl, and a man with a hook for a hand, dancing below a maypole in a trampled circle of snow. The image is wide and open and free: limbs elastic, hair flailing and carefree motion captured on a broad canvas. Dance. Celebration. Colored maypole stringers atop a low hill with a barn–a farmhouse?–down a valley and to the left. Perhaps it was the caffeine. Perhaps the sleepless nights. Regardless, the painting blasted me with a sense of hope, of triumph.

Myself in Panama

I then realized that these bubbling emotions were the same caused by your wedding a day earlier. The minister warned you both about difficult times ahead. She cautioned you to resolve these together. This would take work and dedicated effort. Recalling her words, I looked at the soldier on the hill. He was dancing. Life was festive. But there were other times, it was clear, when he would also have to fight.

When entering the museum, part of me was starved for images, for a larger perspective on ordinary scenes. Snow Hill is more than a depiction of dancers. The image also projects a larger, more abstract theme–that of hope. An injured man and a weary soldier dance hand in hand with an innocent girl wearing ancient clothing. For that moment, the weight of their duties, battles, and injuries from the past, are all gone. The painting is larger than just an image.

On the night of the wedding I learned that Ashley was upset. I had convinced (convinced?!) Jack to stay up late drinking beers–caring little about the consequences to his family–Ashley and five month old Molly. But we hadn’t seen each other in six years. Since then, Jack had grown up. He had married and had a family and responsibility. Yet I was the same. I came to your wedding with a narrow perspective and canned expectations. I saw Jack as Jack as he was six years ago. When the weekend ended I also saw him as a man for whom late night cigar smoking shindigs with the boys had hidden repercussions. Although Jack looked the same, the picture of his life, and the people inside of it, had expanded. My ability to recognize that had not.

This reminded me of Jim’s poolside comment on the afternoon of the wedding day. You said that a serious commitment to another person forces you to change your selfish thinking. You suddenly have to consider another person’s needs and desires. As though the commitment to be married forces you to live, and to act, within a larger canvas.

Art gallery (actually – located in Cape Town, South Africa)

I keep roaming the world–Bangkok, Dubai, Luanda, Panama, and across the golden sands of Namibia to a place named Werld’s End. Nine years on the trail. At each new home I unpack an atlas and a dictionary and clutch onto the security of selfish goals: just one more continent to work on, one more project to complete, another skill to tack onto a resume, another language to learn, another acre to buy, or check to deposit into a mutual fund savings account. For years, this wanderlust has satisfied an itching for sights, for novel images. But lately, the joy is missing. Now, when I consider these actions in light of Ashley’s disapproval and Jim’s poolside words, I see myself high on that snowy New England hilltop, whipped by wind and circling a sturdy maypole–but all alone.

Your wedding, your swapping of vows, recitation of prayers, exchange of golden bands (and cutting of cake), has forced at least one person to reconsider selfish pursuits. It has provided a larger perspective on that which is important to life: the people you care for and the relationships developed with them.

The wedding is over. Your journey has begun. It’s now late on Sunday afternoon. I sit on a green bench below a maple tree beside a rural Pennsylvanian highway. Nissan Patrols and Harleys thunder back to Philadelphia after a weekend away. Alone, I recall the wedding and the weekend, the long nights and full days and the champagne toasts. I also recall standing in shorts and sandals before these paintings. Something huge, and unexpected, happened today and yesterday. I do not understand why or how and will not guess at reasons, but the picture of what is important to life has expanded. And your wedding–like the image of dancers on Snow Hill–has given me a huge and renewed sense of hope. About everything.

Congratulations.

 

 

Captain Cook … And We Think We Have Challenges?

I am reading several books at once, including Sextant, by David Barrie. He tells the value of this maritime navigational instrument by sharing his own journal entries from a 1970’s sailing trip across the Atlantic with friends, as well as by including true stories from past sailing escapades.

Author Barrie tells of Captain William Bligh, an English officer of the Royal Navy who commanded the ship HMS Bounty. In the year 1789, acting lieutenant Fletcher Christian and the ship’s most able sailors mutinied on the Bounty in the Tonga Islands of the Pacific Ocean. At bayonet point they put Bligh into a 23-foot boat with 18 men and limited provisions.

Bligh managed to navigate their uncovered boat 3,618 nautical miles to Timor in the Dutch East Indies. They landed some six week after setting out, having lost only one of their crew members to murder when they had stopped to try to reprovision with breadfruit on Tofua Island. Bligh had been able to use a sextant to determine their latitude—effectively, their ‘horizontal’ position if you look at a globe. He may learned his sextant skills earlier, while he sailed with Captain Cook on the ship Resolution.

Barrie next tells of Captain James Cook, a captain in the British Royal Navy who began his seafaring career at the age of 26. He made three long sea voyages during which he collected valuable navigation and geographical information about Newfoundland, and later the Pacific Ocean. Cook sailed into frigid waters near the Antarctic, as well as north of the Bering Strait (separating Russia from Alaska, today). His ship Endeavour was once halted on the Great Barrier Reef off Australia, and the crew managed to push it loose and patch a gouge in the hull temporarily until they found landfall to make repairs.

Cook’s first long term voyage began in the year 1768—in a ship about 105 feet long and 29 feet wide (32 meters by 9 meters) named Endeavour. When the voyage began, the ship included not a recommended crew of 20 men, but a total of 94, as well as provisions for 18 months. These included pigs, chickens and a goat, nine tons of bread, three tons of Sauerkraut, 250 barrels of beer, 44 barrels of brandy, 4,000 strips of pork, 12 swivel guns and much, much more.

Considering that the lower deck was 97 feet long (29 meters), all of these people and supplies were on a ship having about three and a half times the floor space of an average Starbucks store. Oh, and no engine. No electricity. No refrigeration. No central heating. No GPS. No flush toilets. Probably no toilet paper. No washing machine. No radio. No antibiotics. And most times—no frickin’ idea where the next landfall would be. For some three years. From Plymouth, England, to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, around Cape Horn and then to Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia, Timor, the Cape of Good Hope and back to England.

Think of that next time you get antsy about lockdown, and having to do calisthenics before a virtual instructor on your flatscreen, or before you cook up some spicy prawns on a gas or electric stove and uncork a bottle of chilly Chablis.

In effectively the space of three consecutive (non-generational) full lifetimes (assuming a lifespan of some 85 years) the ships that circumnavigate our planet have changed, dramatically. During that time humans effectively learned to generate and control the power of lightning—creating electricity, invented ‘central heating furnaces‘ to control the flow of heat, honed longitudinal navigational certainty through the invention of accurate, portable timepieces (and, eventually, the use of satellites), began using iron instead of wood to build large ships, invented the steam engine and internal combustion engine to convert heat and flammability into motion, and harnessed compression to change liquid and gaseous states in order to change temperatures—hence provide refrigeration. And don’t forget radio and satellite communications.

Our modern technical prowess has brought us far, in a relatively short space of time. Sure, we need to improve conditions for wildlife on this planet, as well as for those who are still hungry or oppressed. We need to reduce pollution. We need to do much. And we can. It is those who look forward with positive attitudes, those who take actions to improve the lives not only of themselves but of others who have made—and who will make—this world a better place.

Cheers to navigators, explorers and inventors!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wise Words From A Nobel Prize Winner

Though it is difficult to believe, it’s been almost a decade since I bought the book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. I purchased it in some Barnes and Noble bookstore while in the U.S., read most of it, underlined heavily, then actually had the foolishness to discard it in Washington D.C. before flying back to work in Pakistan, because my luggage was too packed. I subsequently bought the book again, and again heavily underlined his words.

To summarize much of this bestselling book by a Nobel Prize winning economist, the mind has two fundamental modes of thinking. One way he labels as System 1. This operates ‘automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.’

The other way he calls System 2.

‘System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.’

Sounds simple enough. And Kahneman’s writing keeps this book easy to understand and pragmatic.

The thing about System 2 is that it requires paying attention, and that ability is hindered when you are distracted or disrupted. Intense focus on one task means that you become effectively blind to other stimuli around you.

So what?

Both systems are active when we are awake.

‘System 1 continuously generates suggestions for System 2: impressions, intuitions, intentions, and feelings. If endorsed by System 2, impressions and intuitions turn into beliefs, and impulses turn into voluntary actions.’

So there is a constant dance in our mental activity—our consciousness communicating with our unconscious/subconsciousness, which generates suggestions and analyses. That dance between the two is the basis for this fascinating, and often very practical, book.

The author writes that the premise of the book is that ‘it is easier to recognize other people’s mistakes than our own.’

He also writes that: ‘Much of the discussion of this book is about biases of intuition.’

Regardless, rather than  summarize more, I’ve selected a few choice quotes from the book. These are below.

 

‘Why be concerned with gossip? Because it is much easier, as well as far more enjoyable, to identify and label the mistakes of others than to recognize our own.’

 

‘Most impressions and thoughts arise in your conscious experience without your knowing how they got there.’

‘People tend to assess the relative importance of issues by the ease with which they are retrieved from memory—and that is largely determined by the extent of coverage in the media.’

 

‘Valid intuitions develop when experts have learned to recognize familiar elements in a new situation and to act in a manner that is appropriate to it.’

‘As you become skilled in a task, its demand for energy diminishes.’

 

‘Intelligence is not only the ability to reason; it is also the ability to find relevant material in memory and to deploy attention when needed.’

‘The notion that we have limited access to the workings of our minds is difficult to accept because, naturally, it is alien to our experience, but it is true: you know far less about yourself than you feel you do.’

 

‘If you care about being thought credible and intelligent, do not use complex language where simpler language will do.’

‘Studies of brain responses have shown that violations of normality are detected with astonishing speed and subtlety.’

 

‘…there is evidence that people are more likely to be influenced by empty persuasive messages, such as commercials, when they are tired and depleted.’

‘To derive the most useful information from multiple sources of evidence, you should always try to make these sources independent of each other.’

 

‘We pay more attention to the content of messages than to information about their reliability, and as a result end up with a view of the world around us that is simpler and more coherent than the data justify.’

Thanks for tuning in again…

How AI Stole My Freedom of Expression

Architecture from an age long before AI

Okay, so that did not really happen.

It was a dream.

But a powerful dream.

Here is is:

I reviewed my photographs on the computer, then deleted several from a recent month because they were virtual duplicates, or because they were out of focus, or because they were mistaken shots where the camera pointed at the ground. The next time I logged into the computer, ALL such similar shots from all my photographs had been deleted. Gone.

Art from an age before AI

Next, I performed a task on the computer, such as choosing a flight to London. I began to work on the next tasks, such as choosing a hotel, then finding the best means of transport from the airport to the hotel. But the AI in the computer’s internet access had already performed those tasks, and WOULD NOT LET ME do them, manually, again—because that was an inefficient waste of time. Instead, the computer showed me a list of ‘to do’ activities, based on its having reviewed all my previous ‘to do’ lists and an assessment of what this day’s most appropriate ‘to do’ list should be.

Architecture from an age before computer aided design

I had no control. I tried to go from A to B to C, but artificial intelligence recognized this was an inefficient pathway and instead insisted that I choose another route—from A to X, for example. I had no choice. There was no way to switch this feature off the computer.

Field work from an age before robots

Suddenly, in the space of a day—actually a few hours—I had not only lost autonomy and control, but realized how my previous actions and decisions seemed almost australopithecine in their inefficiency. And, my life had a new master. Someone had switched on an AI program and I was just a servant in a cell doing the bidding of some other entity’s thinking, or reasoning. I became an instant servant, an employee doing the work of a boss I never chose.

Much will change, very quickly, in the next decade. The rate of change is increasing.

Better enjoy ourselves now!

Sculpture from an age before 3-D printing

 

 

 

Cracks In The Fabric Of Reality

In the movie The Matrix, the protagonist Neo thinks that he has seen a cat moving in the same direction twice, and casually mentions this to his team. They are immediately alerted, and rapidly explain that the phenomenon known as ‘déjà vu,’ or recalling an event as though it occurred before, is actually a glitch in the simulated world—The Matrix—in which they travel.

In other words, a slightly odd event reflected that their ‘reality’ was fabricated.

That movie is fictional.

Yet, sometimes life reveals cracks, anomalies, oddities and glitches that make us question the fabric of reality in which we live. Is the world that surrounds us as logical, solid and predictable as we have been raised to believe?

Below are three examples (and there are plenty more) of unusual events that made me question how much we really know about our surroundings.

Islands.

In March of 2018 I stayed at Baita 1697 ski lodge in the village of Pattemouche in the Italian Alps, near Sestriere. I spent days with a group from England—Florence and Katie  and Matthew from Oxford. These individuals were wonderful—polite, eager to ski, inquisitive and kind.

On our last night together, we walked to dinner at La Greppia Restaurant, where we ate fondue and drank a bottle of 2008 Barbaresco wine from Pelissero.

Katie asked us where we wanted to live in the world, if we had a choice. Matt said British Columbia in Canada; Florence mentioned somewhere in Italy, and Katie said she was enjoying England. They joked that I already lived in France, so the question wasn’t relevant. Regardless, I told them that above all, I’d like to visit the Canary Islands, because I had heard that temperatures there were temperate all year long.

That conversation took place at about 9.30 p.m.

We soon walked home and slept. According to my phone, I received an email at 11.57 p.m. that night—three minutes before what would have been my mother’s birthday. The message was titled Trip to Islas Canarias. The text came from an American woman I had met at an event in Bordeaux earlier that year. In the text, her organization invited me on a trip to the Canary Islands.

Coincidence? Indeed. I’ll thank the spirit of my mother for that one.

Isthmus.

In 1998 I accepted a job with an international engineering consulting company based in Washington D.C. named The Berger Group. Within weeks of working, my supervisor offered me an opportunity to work in the country of Panama. I said yes, but wondered had I made the right choice.

That weekend an American friend I had worked with in Angola sent me a humorous email, suggesting what to do in D.C. if I had free time.

‘If you find yourself alone in D.C. this weekend, go to Georgetown. Ask any woman if she knows a good used bookstore. Keep asking until you get the answer you need, enter the indicated bookstore and start counting bookcases from the door. Go to the seventh bookcase on your right, the seventh shelf down, and select the seventh book from the left. Displays around the cash register do not count as bookcases. If the bookstore has an upstairs, go up and begin counting there. If it has a basement, by no means enter it. If someone asks if they can help you, do not keep these instructions secret. Loiter as long as you like, buy the book and then peruse it over a mug of coffee.’

I did so. In Georgetown, I asked a series of women until I found a bookstore, and then entered, went to the seventh bookcase, seventh shelf down, and—since books were piled vertically—counted seven books downward on the leftmost pile. I pulled out that book. It was a fictional work written by Eric Zenecy.

The title: Panama.

Suddenly, my doubts about accepting that position in Panama evaporated.

Waves.

Three years ago I wrote a fictional story for this blog. I wrote it at a hotel one evening while on a trip to coastal Abruzzo, Italy.

The story mentions, among other things, meeting a red haired woman named Mary, Frank Sinatra music, measuring gravity waves, coincidences and the movie Blade Runner.

The next day I was introduced to our tour guide—a lovely red-haired woman named Maria. On that day also the Wall Street Journal published an article titled ‘When World’s Collide, Astronomers Watch’—about measuring gravity waves. That issue of the WSJ also included an article titled ‘The Science Behind Coincidences.’ Within 48 hours of writing that piece I also read a New Yorker Magazine article that included a review of the new Blade Runner 2049 movie; it mentioned that the movie included Frank Sinatra music.

Statistical chance? Perhaps.

If nothing else, these events reminded me that we are connected to the world around us in ways we have not learned to understand.

 

Time, The Universe, Reality, And Two Plucky Irish Fighters

Recently I bought these books in the city of Bordeaux, France.

Below are insights harvested from three of these books regarding time, the universe, reality, and applying these insights to the unexpected lives of two defiant Irish fighters.

TIME.

The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli reveals a few surprises.

– Time passes faster in the mountains than at sea level.

– Wherever there is a difference between past and future, heat is involved.

– Time passes more slowly for someone moving than for someone resting.

– The smallest unit of time is called Planck time. It is 10 – 44 seconds, or a hundred millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second.

The book notes that time passes “at different rhythms according to place and according to speed. It is not directional: the difference between past and future does not exist in the elementary equations of the world…The notion of the ‘present’ does not work: in the vast universe there is nothing that we can reasonably call ‘present.’ ”

Author Rovelli explains.

“The world is not a collection of things, it is a collection of events…things persist in time; events have a limited duration. A stone is a prototypical ‘thing’: we can ask ourselves where it will be tomorrow. Conversely, a kiss is an ‘event.’ It makes no sense to ask where the kiss will be tomorrow. The world is made up of networks of kisses, not of stones.”

“The physics and astronomy that will work, from Ptolemy to Galileo, from Newton to Schrödinger, will be mathematical descriptions of precisely how things change, not of how the are. They will be about events, not things…We therefore describe the world as it happens, not as it is. Newton’s mechanics, Maxwell’s equations, quantum mechanics, and so on, tell us how events happen, not how things are.”

Ah.

So, time is a changing character, much like a chameleon modifying its colors as it climbs a tree.

THE UNIVERSE.

The first chapter of the book titled The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow states that:

“…philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.”

And later,

“…we now have a candidate for the ultimate theory of everything, if indeed one exists, called M-theory … According to M-theory, ours is not the only universe. Instead, M-theory predicts that a great many universes were created out of nothing. Their creation does not require the intervention of some supernatural being or god. Rather, these multiple universes arise naturally from physical law. They are a prediction of science. Each universe has many possible histories and many possible states…”

REALITY.

From where do we get our impressions of the world? Well, from living in the world, traveling in the world, working in the world, speaking to others about their situations in the world, and reading about the world.

We also get impressions from news outlets. Taking this information too seriously may not be such a wise idea.

In the book Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker, he writes first about news, and then about progress. A slice of this context comes from the quotes below.

“The data scientist Kalev Leetaru applied a technique called sentiment mining to every article published in the New York Times between 1945 and 2005, and to an archive of translated articles and broadcasts from 130 countries between 1979 and 2010. Sentiment mining assesses the emotional tone of a text by tallying the number and contexts of words with positive and negative connotations, like good, nice, terrible and horrific. Figure 4-1 [not shown here, but the second figure is shown in this Forbes article]. Putting aside the wiggles and waves that reflect the crises of the day, we see that the impression that the news has become more negative over time is real. The New York Times got steadily more morose from the early 1960s to the early 1970s, lightened up a bit (but just a bit) in the 1980s and 1990s, and then sank into a progressively worse mood in the first decade of the new century. News outlets in the rest of the world, too, became gloomier and gloomier from the late 1970’s to the present day.”

“So, has the world really gone steadily downhill during these decades?

“Most people agree that life is better than death. Health is better than sickness. Sustenance is better than hunger. Abundance is better than poverty. Peace is better than war. Safety is better than danger. Freedom is better than tyranny. Equal rights are better than bigotry and discrimination. Literacy is better than illiteracy. Knowledge is better than ignorance. Intelligence is better than dull-wittedness. Happiness is better than misery. Opportunities to enjoy family, friends, culture, and nature are better than drudgery and monotony.”

“All these things can be measured. If they have increased over time, that is progress.

“As it happens, the world does agree on these values.  In the year 2000, all 189 members of the United Nations, together with two dozen international organizations, agreed on the eight Millennium Development Goals for the year 2015 that blend right into this list.

“And here is a shocker. The world has made spectacular progress in ever single measure of  human well-being. Here is a second shocker: Almost no one knows about it.”

CONCLUSIONS.

Let’s consider a few insights from these three books.

If time is not quite the fixed entity we thought it was, if the universe is more bizarre and multi-layered than we could ever imagine, if indices indicate that the living situation on earth appears to be moving in a generally positive direction with regard to increases in living standards, reductions in illnesses, diminishment of war casualties and in several other ways—than two obvious conclusions can be made: First, the world in which we live is neither fixed, static, or hostage to any pre-ordained or predictable trajectory, and, second, often we humans can—through conscious thoughts and actions—modify and potentially improve our own reality as well as possibly the reality that surrounds us.

Those conclusions may sound facile, even simple. Yet they are not.

Every day humans struggle to move forward and to make progress. Often they encounter difficulties not just because of challenges presented by their task (such as becoming a better athlete) but also due to opposition from others who are scared that their actions may change the current reality they are so familiar and comfortable with.

Two examples  are below.

FIGHTING IRISH.

Because the origin of this website relates to Ireland, and because my father went to the University of Notre Dame (whose athletic teams are described by the motto ‘The Fighting Irish’) I’ve selected two stories from Ireland (which I recently found in piles of my past notes) about a determined man and woman who had to fight pre-conceptions of reality to attain their success.

Conor.

I have little interest in televised sports, but read and kept clippings from the August, 2017 edition of The Financial Times Weekend. An article titled A brawler with the gift of the gab, by Murad Ahmed told about an Irish boxer.

In 2017, the fight between Irishman Conor McGregor and Floyd Mayweather was a huge sporting event (Mayweather won).

I had paid no attention to this event until after it took place.

But the story of McGregor is astounding, and tells how quickly life can change.

Ten years before that fight, McGregor was a plumber’s apprentice. He quit that job to practice boxing and to try to make money at that sport. This action infuriated his parents in the Dublin city region of Lucan.

At his first UFC fight in Stockholm (in April of 2013), McGregor cashed in his final welfare payment of 188 Euros.

Four years later, in 2017, he was worth, according to Forbes, $34 million.

In an interview with The Guardian newspaper in 2015, McGregor said, “I had no love for plumbing. But it’s weird how society works. Rather than allowing you time to find the thing you love and can pursue with complete conviction, we’re told: ‘You must work, no matter how much you dislike it.’ ”

Conor, in other words, disregarded the insinuation from others that the world in which he lived was fixed and that he had to labor at a job he didn’t like. He decided he could, and would, change his life. He did not take reality as fixed, and did not fear changing it.

Katie.

In 2012, I read a story about another Irish boxer. This caught my attention because Katie Taylor comes from the same town in Ireland (Bray) where I had spent years going to school in Ireland when young.

Katie’s father Peter was an Irish boxing champion in 1986, and taught his two sons and daughter Katie how to spar. Katie trained in a gym that was so small that when she had to use the toilet she walked 150 yards up the road to the Harbour Bar (the same bar where my brothers used to knock back pints of Guinness). Because women boxing was not sanctioned in Ireland at the time, she had to pretend to be a boy in order to enter contests. (“When I took the headgear off at the end of a fight, there was uproar,” she said.) In 2011 she participated in the first ever sanctioned women’s boxing fight in Ireland.

My friends Barb and Ocean in County Wicklow, Ireland

Later, the Olympic Committee decided to evaluate Katie’s performance in Chicago to determine if women boxing could become an Olympic sport in the London 2012 games. After they watched Katie, the committee agreed to allow entry of the sport. The 26-year-old, religious, non-alcohol drinking, hard-working Katie won a gold medal at the Olympics, and riveted the nation of Ireland. Modestly, she said afterwards, “I actually think there is great strength in quietness.”

In a country that forbade sanctioned women’s boxing, Katie ignored the ‘contemporary reality’ of limited thinking of her peers. She changed the regulations regarding boxing forever in Ireland. She later helped change the regulations of the Olympic Committee regarding boxing.

Conor and Katie used time as their allay, ignored any concept of a fixed universe and decided and then acted to improve their personal situations.

Time, the nature of the universe and the fate of our planet and personal situations are not fixed and unchangeable. We can all choose to modify our situations, and try to move to focus more on what it  is that we love doing and what interests us.

The Best of the Holiday Season to all of you!

Thanks for reading these posts during 2019.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wise Words From Writers

This post includes a few quotations picked up in recent years from different books. They include wise, and sometimes practical words.

‘The idea of a mental reducing valve that constrains our perceptions, for instance, comes from the French philosopher Henri Bergeson. Bergeson believed that consciousness was not generated by human brains but rather exists in a field outside us, something like electromagnetic waves; our brains, which he likened to radio receivers, can tune in to different frequencies of consciousness.’

From How To Change Your Mind—The New Science of Psychedelics, by Michael Pollan [Penguin; 2018]

‘No other animal can stand up to us, not because they lack a soul or a mind, but because they lack the necessary imagination. Lions can run, jump, claw and bite. Yet they cannot open a bank account or file a lawsuit. And in the twenty-first century, a banker who knows how to file a lawsuit is far more powerful than the most ferocious lion in the savannah.’

From Homo Deus—A Brief History of Tomorrowby Yuval Noah Harari. [Penguin; 2016]

‘Another study, of 38,000 knowledge workers across different sectors, found that the simple act of being interrupted is one of the biggest barriers to productivity. Even multitasking, that prized feat of modern-day office warriors, turns out to be a myth. Scientists now know that the brain is incapable of paying attention to two things at the same time. What looks like multitasking is really switching back and forth between multiple tasks, which reduces productivity and increases mistakes by up to 50 percent.’

From Quiet–The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain. [Penguin; 2012]

‘Social status is not quite the same as companionship, granted, but it can be a bewitching substitute.’

From the ‘Citizens of Nowhere’ column titled ‘The anti-social secret of success,’ by Janan Ganesh. Financial Times Life and Arts section. [May 25&26, 2019; page 20.]

And  three quotes from a Nobel Prize winning scientist:

‘As you become skilled in a task, its demand for energy diminishes.’

‘If you care about being thought credible and intelligent, do not use complex language where simpler language will do.’

‘Substituting one question for another can be a good strategy  for solving difficult problems, and George Pólya included substitution in his classic ‘How to Solve It’: ‘If’ you can’t solve a problem, then there is an easier problem you can solve: find it.’ “

From Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman [Penguin; 2011]

‘…the universal touchstones of holiness—chastity, the renunciation of property, extreme bodily asceticism, devotion to prayer and spiritual exercises—appealed to people who were troubled by rapidly increasing disparities of wealth and power.’

From The War on Heresy, by R.I. Moore [Belknap Press of Harvard; 2012]

‘The best cooks are  ex-dishwashers. Hell, the best people are ex-dishwashers. Because who do you want in your kitchen when push comes to shove, and you’re in danger of falling in the weeds and the orders are pouring in and the number-one oven just went down and the host just sat a twelve-top and there’s a bad case of the flu that’s been tearing through the staff like the Vandals through Rome?…A guy who’s going to sulk if you speak harshly to him? A guy who’s certain there’s a job waiting for him somewhere else (‘Maybe…like Aspen, man…or the Keys…’)? Or some resume building aspiring chef? …Or do you want somebody who’s come up the hard way? He may not know what a soubise is, but he can sure make one! He may not know the term monter au beurre…but who cares?’

From The Nasty Bits, by Anthony Bourdain [Bloomsbury; 2006]

 

 

Why Is Airport Security Frozen In Time?

The attacks that felled New York’s twin towers occurred a little more than 18 years ago—in September of 2001. Soon after that, stricter security procedures were implemented at airports. They involved, and still involve, basically—passengers  removing belt, coat and sometimes shoes, emptying pockets, taking laptops out of bags and putting all these items onto trays that pass along a moving belt through a scanner. Passengers then walk through a metal detector.

The entire experience is inundated with trays, trays, trays.

Fundamentally, the same system is still used at thousands of airports in hundreds of countries. There are variations at different locations and airports, but basically it’s the same: Off with belt, coat, sometimes shoes, empty pockets, remove laptop and put everything on trays before walking through a scanner. The system has been fundamentally the same— for millions and millions and millions of passengers—for about 17 years now.

Think about that.

More importantly, think about how many technological advances have taken place in the world during those same years. As you do so, consider this question: why have airport security procedures for passengers fundamentally not improved for almost two decades?

Here are a few technological advances that have taken place in the last 17 years.

The first ever iPhone was released in 2007 (about 5 years after we began putting belts on trays at airports). It has undergone almost a dozen evolutions since. About 2.2 million apps have been developed to make life easier while we use our phones on the move.

The final sequencing of the human genome occurred in 2003.

Skype was founded in 2003, and Facebook began revolutionizing global social communications in 2004.

YouTube began in 2005.

Uber began in 2009—some eight years after you began taking that laptop out of your bag at airport security.

In 2010 the first completely artificial cells were completed.

The Curiosity Rover landed on Mars in 2012, and has been exploring ever since.

And if you traveled on an airplane in 2012, you were still taking your belt off and putting it on a tray.

Just two months ago an explorer descended to more than three miles below the ocean—to a depth of 18,208 feet, or 5,550 meters.

Since 2012, the technology to allow vehicles to ‘self-drive’ has increased drastically.

In 2013, researchers at Cornell University 3-D printed an outer ear that functions much as a real one.

Since 2013, bionic eyes are increasing in prevalence and quality.

In 2017 gene therapy was used to cure a teenager of sickle cell diseases.

In 2019, astronomers captured the first image of a black hole.

And, yes, you and millions of others still have to empty your pockets and put the contents on a tray at any airport.

Yes, most of us are DELIGHTED that airport security is thorough, and the processes do work to  reduce the threat of danger. Fantastic!

However—I suspect that through a bidding process and technical innovations, such systems could be altered in a way so that they become quicker, and easier (and still remain secure).

That’s something to think about that the next time you, and millions of fellow passengers, pick up your tray and struggle with taking off your belt or coat at the airport.

 

No Sense of Direction

Not the place to get lost

I lack a sense of direction. It is not a hindrance, but a handicap. And it is often terrifying.

People laugh when I share tales of going to a restroom in a friend’s house, then walking out afterward and being clueless as to which direction to move to get back to the party. They buckle over and spit guffawas when I tell of borrowing a bicycle and heading to a neighbor, then ending up where I began.

These stories bring chuckles. Howls of laughter.

Plotting a map route

Lacking a sense of direction is akin to a form of dyslexia. Others once laughed at such ‘different’ individuals.

My mother, in her older years, was wary of leaving home by car or foot. I now understand why. Likely she was also terrified about being uncertain of how to return  home.

Sunrise is east

If I don’t memorize land marks and street names in a city, or consciously consider the direction in which I’m heading, I get lost. Seriously.

And it isn’t funny, and never was.

Having a hand held telephone GPS lets me navigate over fresh terrain with ease and the ability to explore further. I can forget about decades of being terrified when entering new terrain.

GPS is a life changer. It’s like providing eyeglasses when sight is poor, or building a bridge across a raging river. It’s like having warm layers of clothing during the cold nip of winter.

Lost in a dark alley

I carry two (often, three) backup batteries for my iPhone. This is as sensible as packing spare eyeglasses.

Some articles insist that putting away GPS will help improve our own sense of direction.

Excuse me, but it’s not so simple.

I used to teach mountaineering courses in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming, long before GPS was publicly available. I became rather proficient in wielding maps and a compass. But now, out of the mountains, having GPS has improved my life dramatically. I have no desire to regress. In my case, GPS does not cater to laziness as much as it helps to dismiss fear.

Sure, we can improve our sense of direction by turning off the GPS and being more alert. But that effort can require significant effort, and be distracting.

We can also improve mental arithmetic capabilities by discarding calculators. Yes?

Why bother?

Ignoring automobiles to improve horsemanship skills was likely a noble, yet eventually useless, objective.

You can also substitute devices such as a hat that vibrates when you face north.

I think that appears to be très gimmicky.

When navigators circled the earth and had to create maps

What I lack in having a sense of place, I make up for by having a sense of time.

I can mentally calculate, often with ease, the amount of time it will take to perform tasks—whether the duration of a rock climbing trip, or a visit to the supermarket, or constructing a water supply system in a distant country. You want to have dinner with five friends tonight who will arrive from four distant towns? I’ll tell you when they all need to leave home in order to rendezvous on time.

Seriously. I can factor in quantities of people and transition times and estimate, quite accurately, the time it will take to accomplish many tasks.

Just don’t ask me to estimate how long it will take me to move from A to B without a GPS.

Okay. Time for reading!

Here are some great books about navigation.

Kon-Tiki, by Thor Heyerdahl

Endurance – An Epic of Polar Adenture, by Frank Arthur Worsley

Longitude – The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, by Dava Sobel

The River Of Doubt  – Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey,  by Candice Millard

The Lost City of Z – A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, by David Grann

The Long Walk – The True Story of a Trek to Freedom, by Slavomir Rawicz

Undaunted Courage – Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West, by Stephen E. Ambrose

A Voyage for Madmen, by Peter Nichols

The Discoverers – A History of Man’s Search to Know his World and Himself, by Daniel J. Boorstin

The Odyssey, by Homer (Robert Fitzgerald translation)

Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

Geography As Mentor

When people travel, different aspects of their experience resonate with them more deeply than others. For some, it is restaurants and cuisine. For others, it may be local languages, history, theater or archaeology.

For me, it has always been geography.

Landscapes can haunt us, often in profound ways.

No wonder I appreciated non-fiction books by Barry Lopez (Crossing Open Ground) and the fictional work titled The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich when in college. Even The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. These book thrust me into different geographies and landscapes and tethered them with emotion.

Then, there came a high altar of writing that invokes landscape—books by Edward Abbey.

I had finished college in Boulder, Colorado, and had a lover named Katie. She had been my boss when I did a door-to-door job (for $4.15 an hour selling subscriptions to The Colorado Public Interest Research Group) in towns surrounding Boulder. She had an apartment located sort of west of, and a block south of, Old Chicago’s Restaurant on Pearl Street in Boulder. While we were there once, she told me about the author Edward Abbey. She was shocked I had not yet heard of him. He wrote the non-fictional book Desert Solitaire, and the fictional book The Monkey Wrench Gang. I loved both books for their raw honesty about the (then) unappreciated beauty of the southwest canyonlands geography of the United States. The author could skillfully translate the attraction of landscape into words.

Soon, because of an interest in rock climbing and participation as a member of the volunteer Rocky Mountain Rescue Group in Boulder, I applied for—and was accepted—to an Advanced Mountaineering course in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming held by the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). More climbing followed, as well as more reading about landscapes and attitudes. Sand County Almanac by Ado Leopold; Touching The Void by Joe Simpson.

Most other instructors at NOLS were truly inspiring—rabidly intelligent, well read, athletic and craving a life far away from clocks and timesheets and pension plans. They told me of other books to read—Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon, Basin and Range by John McPhee. Even A Moveable Feast by Hemingway.

Just before I attended college in Boulder, and long before I Met Katie or heard of NOLS, I read an article in Outside Magazine titled Moments of Doubt, by David Roberts. It stunned  me. It is the true story about a rock climber whose climbing partner died when they climbed the Flatiron peaks behind Boulder. Years later, when I was a volunteer member of Rocky Mountain Rescue Group, a young woman near the base of the Third Flatiron died while I was trying to resuscitate her. She had slipped and fallen while hiking a steep trail. That event, also, stunned me.

It turned out—I learned afterwards in a most bizarre way—that she had grown up in the same small town as my family (population 500) in Illinois, and was known by my siblings. A bizarre series of events pivoting around this incident ignited what was to become a life-long fascination with (and interest in learning about) the power of coincidences—synchronicity. (I self-published a few books on the topic, and begin one with the story of what happened that day in Boulder.)

The memory of that event is saturated with recollections of vast, gorgeous tracts of natural landscape in the hills behind Boulder. Since then the realization has grown clear of how important landscapes are to memories of times, situations and relationships in life.

Landscapes haunt us. The sight of peaks and bays and ferns and snow and rivulets and the sound of flapping guillemots or terns or wood pigeons resonates deep within our cranial cavities—even unconsciously as a memory—forever.

Geography still compels me. Work—as in toil and spreadsheets and organizational meetings and the joy of accomplishing long term infrastructure projects such as constructing a rural water system or road, or the bliss of an article being published nationally or internationally—is still exciting. But most of all when these revolve around an immersion in some diverse and intriguing geography. It is the same with food and history—the  memory of a good wine or meal often brings a memory of natural surroundings.

Different memories are powerful for different people. I recall waking up in a tent on the sands of Kilcoole Beach in Ireland with the sound of Irish Sea breakers; the scent and touch of rock while ascending the 14th and final rock climbing pitch on Mount Sacagawea in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming; the recollection of walking over chestnut covered hillsides in the Ticino, or the strange allure of visually barren deserts. Wild or stunning landscapes are not just beautiful: being immersed in them can harmonize with our own desire for having fewer constraints and bigger spaces for our own thinking.

The association of landscape with memory is also practical in at least two ways. First, it can remind us of why it is always good—for health and alertness—to get out and take a walk, preferably in a ‘cathedral’ of wild space or preferably close to natural settings. Second, it is a reminder that we should appreciate the creation of parks, wilderness areas and national monuments to protect gorgeous tracts of natural spaces on this planet from billboards and unchecked growth.

 

 

 

Artists To The Moon And How Railroads Altered Time

 

Vineyard sunrise

Before discussing time, here are a few words about space.

SPACE

In this video conference, Elon Musk announces that he has a paying customer who wants to take a flight around the moon. This Japanese chap, about 40 years old, made a zillion dollars with some app. He has offered to pay Elon Musk for all eight seats when Musk’s rocket flies around the moon in 2023. This ticket buyer said he wants to fill the spacecraft with artists.

This is actually quite fitting.

Timeless Havana

I you listen to his various talks, you realize that Elon gives credit for developing his rockets to inspiration he received from reading. He cites books that include the Foundation science fiction series written by Isaac Asimov, as well as the cartoon Tintin (which inspired the shape of his rocket), as well Douglas Adam’s book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

All books. All fiction. All creative fantasy. All helped inspire this man to reach for sending others toward the moon. He (or at least his rockets) will do so in the relatively near future.

This reflects the power of words and stories and the power of books to stretch our minds in new, often elaborate directions. It helps us to remember to Dream Big.

Artists to the moon…Why not?

Railroad time in Pakistan

Now, a few words about time.

TIME

Last July I drove from Ohio to New Mexico. On the way I listened to the radio. While in New Mexico I heard an intriguing National Public Radio segment about how railroads helped push the standardization of time.

Before railroads crossed the country of the United States, the time in any town differed somewhat than time in other towns. In fact, time at varying locations in the same town often differed. That’s because time was based on the sun’s position. If a clock in Wichita differed by some minutes than one in Kansas City—who cared?

But railroads had to adhere to schedules. This meant that time needed to be standardized.

People protested at the prospect. Many simply ignored this ‘new time.’

Between the 1840’s (when a railroad schedule was published in New England) and 1883 (when railroad officials created five time zones in the United States) there were often vehement arguments about the differences between ‘local time’ and ‘railroad time.’

The brief overview of this story is here—just click.

The longer, and exceedingly intriguingly thought-altering podcast about the concept of time, is here.

Click to hear about railways and time.

Listening to this entire episode is worthwhile. It was actually recorded in 2007, but gets repeated because it is well, timeless.

This subject reminds me of how, when I worked in the southwestern country of Namibia in the 1990’s, the government adopted daylight savings time.

It was disastrous.

People woke at sunrise. Period. And clock changing be dammed.

A Himba elder

Rural Himba and Herero communities became confused when stores opened later. Some store managers, in order not to alienate customers, simply ignored this new daylight savings time. Probably half the country ignored clock changes, while the other half paid attention to this alteration of time, although confusedly so.

At the time I managed a team that drilled and installed deep wells. One foreman laughed about others messing up work hours, and mentioned that some people were on ‘old time.’ For him, ‘old time’ was, well, different.

No wonder the Himba people of northern Namibia (where topless women smear their bodies with mixtures of butter fat and ochre) consider time as a river. In my book The Deep Sand of Damaraland, I wrote:

The Himba consider that in the desert of life, time is a river. They watch the past swirl downstream while the future — behind their backs and out of sight — flows by of its own accord. In a universe where ancestors guide fortune, a desire to discard the past and ‘start anew’ is both alien and ludicrous. For them, the present conveys sense only when looked at in context of the past.

Time is a river, or perhaps sometimes a canal

Our regard to time has changed over time. Before the 1880’s, our regard for minutes and seconds, as measured on a watch, mattered little.

I recently read an article in Scientific American [‘Split-Second Reactions’] about how scientists wanting to film chemical reactions (such as photosynthesis) bombard molecules with X-Rays to film them, but must do the filming before these same X-Ray destroy the molecules. The time difference between X-Ray contact and destruction is measured in femtoseconds – millionths of a billionth of a second. Put it this way: the difference between one femtosecond and one second is equivalent to the difference between one second and 32 million years.

Imagine: 150 years ago our general regard was for hours, at best. Minutes and seconds were abstractions. Today, some have mastered ‘serial femtosecond crystallography’ to witness events occurring in a millionth of billionth of a second.

Times have changed.

Time as central to any village or city

Because time and space are interconnected, it is unsurprising that on a personal level some days appear to pass rapidly while others move more slowly.

I’m now reading a boot titled Exactly—How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World, by Simon Winchester (published last year). He tells of how Saint Augustine once mentioned that although he could not explain time, he certainly knew what it was. Sounds familiar, yes? Winchester also notes that although our counting system begins at zero (0, 1, 2, 3 …) as do our clocks (00.30 being half past midnight), our calendars do not. They, instead, begin at 1 (January 1st, but never January 0th).

My winemaker friend Robyn, who has been traveling in a camper van across Australia for over a year, recently posted a photograph of a road sign—located between Cocklebiddy campground and Fraser Range Station reading: Central Western Time Zone – Advance Clocks 45 minutes.

45 minutes? What gives?

It’s complicated (Photo Credit: Robyn Drayton)

Investigating this, I found out that many world regions are still parochially odd about their time zones. Consider that before the Second World War, Amsterdam’s time was 20 minutes ahead of that in London.

And although the distance east to west across China is 3,250 miles (while the greatest distance between any two mainland points in the U.S. is some 2,900 miles), China only has one time zone.

One.

There used to be five.

But in  1949 Chairman Mao Zedong put the entire country on Beijing time for the sake of ‘national unity.’

Actually, the Uighur’s time in the northwest of the country is unofficially two hours behind that of Beijing. Yet one man was detained for changing the time on his watch to reflect this because it was considered a form of ‘resistance’ to the central government.

Ah, time as a form of silent subversion.

We can now film photosynthetic reactions on a molecular level

Newfoundland in Canada is a half hour different than adjacent time zones. If you cross from Afghanistan to China, the time difference immediately changes 3.5 hours, while crossing the border from India to Nepal changes time by 15 minutes.

These inefficient blips are attractive because they don’t sing the same song as the usual choir. They reflect diversity, and almost disdain for doing the same as everyone else.

In a hyper-connected world of nanometer precision where we can edit genes and land spacecraft on distant planets, it’s somewhat refreshing to learn of quirks, oddities and regional characteristics that ignore efficiency. It’s a reflection of how sometimes character counts more than conformity, that sameness is not necessarily sane, and that time and space are often still regarded more as subjective than objective.

Instead of sending scientists to outer space, a module full of artists will, in a few years, zip into zero gravity for a few days.

Why not?

It will be trying something different.

It’s about time.

 

 

 

 

Love As An Altered State

I’ve tried different altered states of consciousness in life. These have been induced not only by alcohol but also by other mind altering substances.

And I’ve learned how we can also reach altered states, and serenity, without substances.

One way, for example, is driving a well engineered automobile along a well engineered road (preferably along a winding canyon, while listening to beautiful stereo music). This can lull our mind into a state of serenity. This is actually not surprising, considering that such a state of harmonious motion and control did not exist for most of the long period of human evolution: the experience is bizarre enough to push our consciousness into a state of awe.

Another example is love.

Although it may not be love.

It may be something else.

Entirely.

It certainly has to do with being influenced by another person at a distance, without physical, acoustical, visual or electronic communication. It has happened only twice in my life (not the state of being in love, but encountering love as an altered state) and it was surreally, bizarrely and powerfully positive. It once lasted a week. Another time it lasted only a minute. On both occasions it put my mind into a completely transcendent condition, where fear and worry and concerns about the future became, for a time, thoroughly absent.

The first time occurred over a decade ago while working a job I had no love for. I found myself one day feeling a sense of peace and invincibility, as though there was no need to worry about anything—whether related to income or the future. This feeling stayed with me for days. I felt a sense of peace that lacked all worry. Wondering where this sense came from, I carefully checked whether any of the following had increased or decreased during that time: my exercising, eating habits, or levels and frequency of drinking caffeine or wine.

Nothing had changed.

I also confirmed that I had received no good news or pay raise and had not been subjected to any external factors that would have changed my demeanor or thinking. The weather had not altered significantly. Nothing had changed. Yet the feeling lasted, gloriously, for days. During this time I thought to myself—this must be what heaven feels like! At the end of the week I had a spontaneous and unplanned meeting with friends in another city, including with a woman who had been quite important in the past. We did not know in advance that we would meet again, and our meeting was purely platonic and unremarkable. Yet I strongly suspected that the previous feelings during the past week were somehow linked to the bond previously forged with this individual.

This also happened again last year while I was inside a wine cellar on the Italian island of Sicily. I had communicated that very day with a woman in another country by sending her a message, wishing her the best on her birthday. We had met years earlier, seen each other only a few times, but maintained a correspondence due, I think, to some sort of mutual interest. I was in some part of the cellar (and had not yet sipped any wine that day) when this sense of peace coated me. All of the sudden my concerns about having to take copious notes to write an article about wine evaporated. The same feeling as a decade ago settled on me: don’t worry about anything. Because everything is perfect and will work out splendidly. Again, I suspected that this feeling was somehow linked to this person I had communicated with.

Perhaps not love, but some other bond somehow connected us.

And yet, this is just anecdotal recollection (although I do have journal entries to back up the times as having been remarkable).

The point is this: I believe we can, on this earth, reach altered states of consciousness through connections with other people that are not physical, verbal or acoustic. There is power in relationships that can take us to higher levels, and when we are at those higher plateaus we realize that there is a realm (whether in this life or on some plane that may not exist until after we depart this earth) in which our quotidian fears and worries and doubts and concerns and frustrations vanish. It is an amazing space. And we can, at times, reach that place while we live. The connection with others is critical. Especially when we share with those others mutual intrigue. Just how to make those events occur more often is a mystery.

These experiences also left a lingering question. If that sense of peace says, so confidently, don’t worry about anything, shouldn’t I pay more attention to that message?

Thanks for tuning in.

In the next weeks I’ll review books about Renaissance era Florence, and artists who lived there.

 

 

The World Is Not Burning

Be advised—parts of this post will not be easy reading. The overall conclusion, however, aims to be generally positive.

On December 4th of 2018, Katy Waldman wrote an article for the New Yorker Magazine titled: ‘The Best Books of 2018.’ She began by lamenting the truth that she had not read all the books she wanted to during the year, then added, ‘Meanwhile, in 2018, our politics further devolved into a baying theatre of horror. How do you read when the world is burning?’ (Although this is an American publication and she apparently writes ‘about language,’ she spells the word theater as ‘theatre.’ As in, British English. Interesting.)

On November 30th a man named Christopher Borrelli had an article published in the Los Angeles Times titled: ‘Our 10 Best Books of 2018.’ In his introductory paragraph, Borelli—a regular contributor for the Chicago Tribune—wrote: ‘Reading while the world is burning down around you tends to give whatever’s in your hands the contours of apocalypse.’

Both book reviewers mentioned the same three exact words in sequence: the ‘world is burning.’ One even mentions apocalypse.

Really?

I recall a few burning events myself on the world stage.

In 2010 I began what turned out to be a four-and-a-half-year term of living and working in Pakistan. I was employed as an engineering manager and then as an infrastructure director for two different companies, one based in the U.S. and the other in the U.K. At the time I wrote little about this experience, primarily from company security concerns. I enjoyed working with Pakistani people and respected the local engineers as some of the best I had worked with in the world.

There was also a dark side to that experience partially associated with books. And with burning. And I do not mean burning books.

On a crisp Monday morning with a blue sky on January 3rd, 2011, I invited three Pakistani engineers from our Islamabad city office out for coffee. We walked for five minutes to the nearby upscale Kohsar Market, then ascended to a second-floor café named Mocca Coffee. There, we ordered a few lattes and talked about non-work-related subjects such as family and where they lived, and then we returned to the office. Such forays without a vehicle or an armed guard escort were often restricted. Nevertheless, the city had been tranquil for months and that region was considered generally safe.

The following day, January 4th, the Governor of Punjab Province—named Salman Taseer—stopped into Kohsar market for lunch with a friend. When he was leaving, his personal bodyguard—a man named Mumtaz Qadri—used an AK-47 to fire 27 bullets into Taseer’s body, killing him instantly.

Over a week later, when Mocca Coffee re-opened, we visited to find some windows still shuttered. One that was not included a single bullet hole.

The bodyguard murdered his charge because he resented Taseer for trying to amend or dispense what is known as the ‘blasphemy law.’ This was created in the 1980’s by military dictator Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, and has since often been used as a tool to incarcerate or kill others, even when no legal justification exists. The law is routinely used as an excuse, without evidence, to encourage mob violence against, or imprisonment of, those accused of criticizing the religious faith of others. Since it was created, it has been used as rationale for killing well over five dozen people in Pakistan by ‘mob justice.’ This has included hanging the accused or burning them alive. These actions are usually carried out in rural areas by people with little or no education; many revolve around spurious accusations which, if ever investigated, lack substance. The law is so firmly ingrained in the mindset of many citizens that after assassin Qadri was executed in 2016, over 100,000 people attended his funeral to show support for his actions. Riots and burnings broke out throughout the country.

At the time that he was murdered, Taseer was involved with the legal defense of a woman named Asia Bibi. You may have heard this woman’s name in recent news. This illiterate Catholic woman had lived in rural Punjab province. One day in 2009, while picking berries, she apparently filled a jug with water and offered it to her workmates. They refused, saying it was contaminated by having been touch by someone not of their faith. Two women then accused Bibi of, after they argued, insulting their faith and the holy book. (Such verbal accusations associated with the blasphemy law are routinely unfounded and lack substance, but can serve to have an enemy, if they are of another faith, locked up and tried.) Once the accusation was made, a mob gathered. They beat Asia. A cleric denounced her. She was locked up. In 2010 a district court sentenced Asia to death by hanging.

In 2018, Asia was released from prison. After she spent eight years unjustly incarcerated, a supreme court finally overturned the verdict. Taseer, unfortunately, was not around to witness her freedom. After the new verdict was issued, the lawyer who successfully represented Asia was forced to hide for three days until he was able to escape the country by flying to the Netherlands. Asia and her family remain in hiding—lest they be killed by mob justice—while they seek to obtain permanent refuge in another country.

During years of living in that country I heard of many similar cases. The most disturbing and memorable occurred in 2014.

A couple in their 20’s named Shahzad Masih and Shama Masih worked as laborers at a kiln in the Kasur District of Punjab province. They had three children. Shama was also pregnant with a fourth. Apparently their boss was unhappy with them having been slow to repay a debt. One day he apparently claimed to have ‘found’ pages of a burnt holy book in the trash, and accused the Christian couple of having incinerated the book. They were locked up in a room next to the kiln. Over 600 locals, incited by local clerics who denounced the couple via loudspeakers, showed up outside. They pulled the roof off of the building, shoved off five local police who had arrived, and extracted the couple. Without any evidence but hearsay, they beat the couple, breaking their legs (according to later trial testimony), before dragging them to a furnace. A group of a half dozen was delegated to open the furnace hatch and push the couple inside, where they were incinerated alive.

This did not happen in the year 1560. This happened less than five years ago.

I write this not to criticize the country of Pakistan, where I spent time with well educated, generous and intelligently ambitious people, but to put such events into current context. I used this country for examples because I recently lived there, and learned of these events. Consider that, first, these events occurred amid an uneducated segment of a population still practicing indentured servitude. They also occurred because the judicial system remains woefully slow (mostly because lawyers, like Taseer, fear for their lives) to banish an abused law that has proven to be worthless. Second, and more importantly to this article, I highlight these cases because they are examples of what are becoming increasingly noteworthy aberrations; they are no longer considered standard acts on planet earth.

We increasingly live in a world where massacres of others for having different religious views is generally no longer considered acceptable, or encouraged by political and religious leaders, as it might have been in Europe in the 16th century. For example, in late August of 1572, between 5,000 and 30,000 Calvinist Protestants were massacred by Catholics across France as part of the ‘Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre.’ The event was actually incited by the king. And, fortunately, reminders of the evils of the holocaust have prevented similar events from taking place since the Second World War. Such events as those I mentioned are today highlighted throughout the world not because they are commonplace, but because they are becoming increasingly publicized and shamed, which may lead to their relative scarcity over time. Still, such acts (regardless the country) are barbaric, unjust and antiquated. Again, I have not singled out this country, but highlighted events because I recently lived there.

Is it true however, even metaphorically, in light of such events I just mentioned that the ‘world is burning’? Is the overall situation on earth becoming worse?

Consider input from two authors who have spent ample time and energy researching and writing about this subject.

Oxford doctorate and author Yuval Noah Harari, in his bestselling book Homo Deus (sequel to Sapiens) tells, right at the beginning of the book, how humans for millennia lived in fear of obliteration from three sources: famine, plague and war. He goes on to tell how, by the end of the twentieth century and into the twenty first, humans mostly tamed those three potential threats. Regarding famine: in 2010 famine and malnutrition killed about one million people, whereas obesity killed three million; by the year 2014 more than 2.1 billion humans were overweight compared to the 850,000 suffering from malnutrition.

Regarding plague, or epidemics, millions continue to die each year. Globally, however, now less than five percent of children die before reaching adulthood. Smallpox has been eradicated and even the potentially deadly Ebola outbreak in Africa in 2014 was relatively quickly contained. Epidemics cause far fewer deaths now than they did during past millennia. Today most humans die from non-infectious diseases and old age.

As for war, consider: in 2012 war killed about 120,000 people in the world, compared to the 1.5 million who died that year from diabetes. The combined number of American soldiers who have died in both Afghanistan and Iraq in the past two decades is less than 10 percent of the number of American soldiers who died in two years during the First World War.

Harari’s gist is that life on planet earth is actually improving for human beings as a whole.

Harvard professor Steven Pinker, in his book Enlightenment Now and in his TED talk (below) reaches similar conclusions. He tells how, compared to 30 years ago, the U.S. homicide rate has dropped from 8.5 to 5.3 events per 100,000 persons; the poverty rate has declined from 12 percent to 7 percent, and particulate pollutions have declined from 20 million to 4 million tons of sulfur dioxide annually. During this same time, global extreme poverty declined from 37 percent to 10 percent and the number of nuclear arms decreased from some 60,000 to 10,000. Pinker mentioned that he is wary that citing these numbers will ‘court derision,’ because—he only partially jests— he has found that ‘intellectuals hate progress.’

And a recent, January 8th article from the Wall Street Journal tells how cancer deaths decreased 27 percent in the last 25 years, according to a report from the American Cancer Association.

Certainly, in segments of the world lawless burnings still take place. Both of humans and of materials. Horrific crimes still take place daily, but are more likely now to be publicized (and filmed) and to become the focus of international scrutiny more than at any other time in history.

As for our book reviewers who tell us that the ‘world is burning,’ I am curious as to their justification. And why now? I suggest two courses of action that might make them think again before insinuating that we are somehow living in an age where any form of darkness is spreading. First, rather than complain or alarm others based on emotional reaction, they could—besides making sweeping generalizations about a planet denuded in apocalyptical flames—identify some specific problem they see, and take specific actions to address it. Second, they could travel off the beaten trail. And I don’t mean to some AirBNB in Barcelona or backpacking around New Zealand or a flying to some yoga retreat in Argentina. I mean, out there.

Although uncertain, I suspect that neither of these who say the ‘world is burning’ has really ever gone far afield to see how so. I suspect that neither ever used an outhouse with a single hole in its floor and a candle as a light; never spent time living in a mud hut without electricity; never sat stranded alongside a broken vehicle on a dirt road in the back end of Angola, a four hour driving distance from the nearest clinic or telephone while shivering with malaria, and never walked through a field of land mines. I’ve done all these things. I’ve seen a bit of the world, and poverty, and injustice and the effects of war. And I never sat in some comfortably heated apartment whining about hesitating to open a book, any book, and read it because, somehow, the world around me was ‘burning.’ Even if that was the case, it would be a good time to begin opening more books and learning more about the history of the world around to try to understand events in context.

During decades of living and working overseas in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, I have seen that such types of acts as those described above are becoming increasingly rarer for humans to have to endure. Because in general, health, sanitation and access to food and potable water are improving. And news and communications can, unlike less than two centuries ago, travel faster than the speed of a horse. Yes, we have challenges: the endangerment of wildlife species and polluted oceans and increased opiate addiction, to name a few.

But to say that now, if considered in comparison to any other period of human history, that the ‘world is burning’?

Not quite.

 

All Is Changing, Rapidly

These past days I’ve been socially negligent and professionally indolent while catching up on reading in rural France.

If you steer clear of mainstream headlines, you may find spellbinding news about the world.

We used to read articles that reviewed the year that just passed, and predictions about what might come next.

Although sometimes breathtaking, such information was generally comprehensible: NATO, say, would expand, or the dollar would strengthen, or a revolution would end, or NASA was assembling some new space probe.

Today reality is changing faster than ever before. The rate of change is climbing so steeply that much of what is taking place around us sounds like science fiction.

We’re also becoming so used to this that even bizarre incomprehensibility fazes few.

Instead of marveling at change, we talk about the price of diesel or the latest Netflix series.

Consider these realities:

  • Russia has recently launched a nuclear power plant that floats on water.
  • On New Year’s Day, the New Horizons space probe will visit Ultima Thule, a chunk of rock located 1.6 billion kilometers past Pluto, and will try to learn about events that occurred 4.6 billion years ago. *

  • Agrivoltaics—where crops are grown below solar panels to increase land use efficiency by more than 60 percent—are spreading. **
  • Some yachts will be 3-D printed.

  • All of the digital data created by humans in one year could be stored, in the future, on four grams of DNA, which would weigh about the same as eight paperclips.
  • A single celled organism lives and replicates in underground conditions where the temperature remains at 250 degrees Fahrenheit, or 121 degrees Celsius—well above the boiling point of water. Talk about hot sex.

  • The amount of life below the surface of the earth (and not on the earth, or in the oceans) is about 300 times the quantity of the biomass of all humans.
  • In Venezuela prices double every 25 days, while the country’s economy shrunk by half in the past five years.***
  • The percentage of the world’s population living in ‘extreme poverty’ was 40 percent in 1980. By 2015 it had dropped to less than 10 percent. ****

  • The universe is expanding, and the rate of expansion is growing.
  • 22 million scientific papers have been published in the last century. +

The world in which we live is changing, rapidly.

Strap in and get ready for a future you likely never dreamed of. Say a prayer that this will generally be positive.

Best wishes as you enter 2019—and thanks again for tuning in!

* Economist The World in 2019.

** Wired Magazine  UK edition Jan/Feb 2019: ‘Plants will Give us Power.’

*** Foreign Affairs; Nov/Dec 2018. ‘Venezuela’s Suicide.’

**** Foreign Affairs; Nov/Dec 2018. ‘Doomsday Delusions.’

+ Scientific American ‘Revolutions in Science.’ Fall, 2018

How To Succeed With Many Endeavors

First – My Forbes pieces on gnarly transatlantic sail racing, Burgundy rambling and the First World War are here.

Second – After being recently approached, I’m now in partnership to have my other wine related blog site—Vino Voices—internationally syndicated with a New York based company that syndicates content for, among others, The International Monetary Fund, The Economist‘s blogs, The Business Insider and The Huffington Post. I’ll let you know whether that will impact this site (probably not).

Third – Here is some brief, sage and free advice on how to successfully manage any project.

I spent 25 years managing projects and performing overseas consultancies while living in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Latin America, the U.S. and Europe. I worked for a massive U.S. engineering corporation, for environmental consulting companies and for multiple international development organizations and agencies.

In my last two positions I managed portfolios worth approximately a quarter-billion dollars apiece.

Each project I have worked on has been completed ahead of schedule, on (or under) budget, and to the client’s satisfaction.

Perhaps it was just luck or fortune, or the vagaries of time.

However, if asked, I would suggest a few simple steps.

Just a few.

The steps are simple.

You can apply them to any project you are involved with in life—whether fixing a garage door or writing a book or running a multimillion dollar project.

The first step is seeing the end first.

Simple visualization techniques are summarized in many books, including my own book Visual Magic. Just three to five powerful seconds can lead to successful months, or years, of project management.

Here are a few other key steps that can help lead to successful project outcomes.

  • Stay two steps ahead.

Staying one step ahead is good. But not good enough. Strive for two steps, so that when questions roll in (they will) you will answer them with confidence. In fact, you’ll knock them out of the ballpark with such vigor that only the brave and intelligence will dare risk asking you another question, leaving you free to get on with your work. See where you are going, and anticipate what is around the corner. Make a weekly plan. Also a three month plan. Remember—effective project management is just the intersection of a specific goal, a specific date, and a specific person (or team) responsible for accomplishing that work.

The practice of staying two steps ahead has a secondary beneficial effect: it helps moderate communications and reduces emotional outbreaks. Many times when a client and donor held a meeting and emotions flew and communications frayed, they inevitably came to our technical group with questions. Once we provided rock solid, objective input—based on staying two steps ahead with our work—tempers almost immediately deflated. More importantly, our projects stayed on course, and on schedule.

Work calmly, methodically and sequentially when possible. You don’t need to thrash with energy and constantly try to control reality. That’s going over the top. That’s the birth of a micro-manager, or the genesis of a person in need of eventual therapy.

Don’t overdo it. Just do it.

  • Use a systems approach.

Systems are for the intelligently lazy. Imagine heating a room. It takes time and effort before the room is heated. But once it is, it requires only a small shot of heat now and then to maintain equilibrium. Same as with your project. Work hard at the beginning to set up systems—procedures, routines and methodologies that you can replicate again and again for success.

A poor leader calls ad hoc meetings in an emotional frenzy and yells at staff. A good leader sets regular and consistent times for meetings, knocks off a standard agenda cooly and in sequence, then takes Friday afternoon off to go skiing. When you implement effective systems, staff will arrive on Monday clear about their tasks for the week, and aware of what they can realistically accomplish. Why? Because they met for a half hour the previous Friday to plan out their next week. (Remember? Stay two steps ahead.)

When you have no systems in place you will constantly tackle short-term problems as they flare up, your staff will work late and with little direction and will appear tired and unhealthy. They will eat poorly and stress out because they don’t know what tomorrow will bring. They will complain that their family lives are becoming harried and disjointed.

Put intelligent and replicable systems into place, and staff will happily work reasonable hours to accomplish challenging goals ahead of schedule, and with relative ease.

  • Decide that you will begin and end a project.

This may sound like simple drivel. But it’s important.

Years ago I read of a popular ‘Dear Abby’ letter in which the writer said that they wanted to study medicine, but if they did they would not be finished until they were 40 years old. And Abby wrote back, asking them how old they would be at that time if they did not go to med school. The same.

Beginning a project that you believe in, or have been hired to implement, is important. But it’s a waste of time beginning an endeavor if you are not committed—via making a conscious and clear decision—that you will complete the effort, and successfully so. If you are going to make the effort, what benefits do you eventually expect? And if you don’t undertake the project, what will you do instead?

  • Make a tentative plan before you take action.

Make a plan and stick with it. It’s like computer programming. If you spend more time planning out the original overall route, or algorithm, then you will have less delays once you begin writing code. Neglect to do that, and you will be completely bogged down in the details of writing code when you realize that you are headed in a completely wrong direction. You will need to begin again. Suddenly, you’ve doubled the time necessary to complete the project. Same as with any project. Plan intelligently, then execute.

Identify the staff and resources and funds you need. If you don’t know, solicit intelligent input from those with ample experience and a track record for success. Ask questions. Ask more questions. Scrutinize for details and see if you can discern the hidden hinges on which the power of the situation swings.

Sometimes, a back of an envelope general plan is better than a detailed, but incomplete plan. What did General Patton say? ‘A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week.’

That notion helped win the Second World War.

  • Stay clear of crowds when possible.

Keep your mind clear and sharp, your vigor untainted by negativities. Focus on the final project. See the goal, not the obstacles. When you are successful, others may clamor to take credit, to discredit you, or to usurp your power. One of the most astounding truths about reality is that most people are more interested in keeping their secure position than in actually accomplishing anything. I mean ANYTHING. It’s bizarre, but true. If you are one of those people? Get a life. If you are not, then create and nurture the mental and physical pathways leading to your objective, and move on despite the howls of any madding crowds who are intimidated by someone who takes bold action.

  • Read the situation before you even begin.

The first phone call you have with a prospective client, the first email you receive, the way you are sent a plane ticket and every detail of your early communications with an organization reverberate with the professionalism of how the eventual situation will likely pan out. My father used to tell me, if you want to gauge the quality of a restaurant, visit their toilets. If the toilets are unkempt and dirty, so too will be the kitchen. It’s the same with managing a project. If your clients can’t organize themselves to get to a conference call on time, can’t send you clear instructions or book your flight and hotel with utter competence, then that lack of professional organization will likely be reflected in the situation to which you arrive.

I once watched a documentary about a famous horse rider who had won multiple world class championships. He told how, when he sat on a new horse, he was able to sense the feelings of the horse, its mood and state of being, within five to ten seconds of being in the saddle. So too it is with life and work and consulting. If the people hiring you don’t coordinate themselves and communications professionally—the situation you are being sent to will likely be the same, and likely worse. Get the vibe of that horse as soon as you get in the saddle in order to read the creature. That will help you better anticipate future needs.

  • Focus on a major goal, and lesser goals will fall into place.

If you spend too much time mired in day to day problems, then you will likely continue to swim in an ocean of irrelevant minutiae.

See the Big Picture—the major goal, and make strategic moves necessary to achieve it. Bizarre serendipity accompanies this. When I am galvanized to achieve a large goal—in work and in life—unexpected situations and scenarios help deliver lesser goals, often when unexpected. [I mentioned this in the introduction to my fictional book River of Tuscany as one of the ‘Twelve Lessons of Rivers that Apply to Life.’ It is also lesson two in my book Leadership Lessons from an Irish Chieftain.]

Finally, don’t forget to laugh now and then.

It’s life, so live it!

Don’t be afraid to go out and learn for yourself.

Thanks again for tuning in.

 

 

Why Getting Away Leads To Getting Clearer

Life is a trip. If you don’t want to take it, it will take you.

You can also venture on your own. Most of us do this with a mental rubber band tied to our back. No matter how far we go, no matter the glory and beauty and uncanny wildness we experience, we usually want a return ticket to Home. Then, once back, we wish to roam again.

Maybe it’s time to remove the dang rubber band. Sure, it’s hard. You’ve got kids. A mortgage. Vesting in your company plan. Tuesday night bowling with friends. A library card. An address where Amazon sends you stuff. A local grocery store. A newspaper subscription. Pets. A gardening service. Some book club you joined.

Oh, yes. We don’t need to attach a rubber band to ourselves, because we’ve been attaching strands of that cable for years and years, getting dug in with ‘stuff’ and ‘things’ and ‘recurring payments.’ And the like.

When I was seven years old, my parents moved our family to Ireland. It was traumatic for me. I left a safe, secure, police patrolled little village with a post office and park and speed limit signs and a railway station and a school with bright lights and huge windows and ample games in the suburbs north of Chicago. Next I knew I was in a pre-fabricated little wooden hut in a country where kids went home for lunch, where teachers swatted students on the hand if they didn’t memorize the national anthem in Gaelic and where there was one dingy light bulb dangling from the classroom ceiling.

I played with the local butcher’s sons on weekends and they’d bring me up some narrow lane crowded with hedges and blackberry brambles and then open a rickety wooden gate to a field so they could gather and lead a few heifers back to their slaughterhouse and the big ass animals bolted and I screamed and cried while my friends thrashed the asses of these massive bovines with some canes they’d cut from the local forest and I was thoroughly bewildered by this land where roads were not rectilinear but winding and where students sang aloud as they walked (and everyone walked, everywhere, for miles and miles in the countryside) and friends had me ride on the crossbar of their bicycles without brakes as they whistled down steep roads with names like Struan Hill and Blackberry Lane.

Oh My God. Ha, that was a needed wake up call.

But, you can’t go back. Sure, I wanted to for years. I dreamed of returning to the United States and seeing my friends in the nice little town park with the merry go round and slides and drinking fountain. But I never did. I grew up in Ireland and discovered girls and learned to drink Guinness and went to school in Europe and explored little alleys of Bologna and Pieve Ligure and after that life as I knew it as a seven year old—orderly, organized, 8.30 p.m. to bed, fast food drive throughs and multiple television channels—was a long way gone.

I have a home now. Well, put it this way—if I absolutely had to leave in 12 hours I could do so. Goodbye books and wine and framed maps of the Cote D’Or wine regions of Burgundy. Farewell cutlery and apron and a few back issues of National Geographic. No big deal. Although I am quite content to stay.

A friend I worked with in Pakistan has spent life working overseas. After four years in Pakistan he packed up one suitcase and left. He wrote last week to say that after two years in Honduras, he packed up two suitcases to leave. Apparently he’s getting more possessive with age.

When I was in college I lived in a house where a woman named Jonell and another guy also lived. Jonell was not a student. She had a real job. She had lots of furniture. She had many plants. She arranged all of these things in the house and it it looked beautiful. One day the other guy who lived there, the owner, told us he had sold the place and we had to move out by the end of the month. Bastard! No wonder he never asked us to sign a lease. For me, not a problem. I chucked a few bags in the back of my pickup truck and camped down by Boulder Creek for a few nights and rummaged through the Daily Camera newspaper classifieds until I found some alternate place to live. For Jonell, moving all her crap to who knows where was more of a hassle. So, this I learned: The More You Have, The More You Have To Take Care Of.

That lesson has served me well.

Having less means that you are freer to roam. Here is what you may learn when you roam:

  • Things you never expected. I once crossed the border from El Paso to Juarez and took a train to Mexico City. But first I wandered, wearing a backpack. I went to a market and people were selling fruit salad in plastic cups, and they had sprinkled chili powder on top. It was delicious! Have you ever put chili powder on your fruit salad? If not, then go catch some train to somewhere you’ve never been and learn about the local food on the way. Recently, a winery owner showed me how to pour Prosecco into risotto. Wonderful! Or a friend in New Mexico taught me to coat pancakes with peanut butter before pouring syrup on top. Splendid! And, after decades of ‘killing spaghetti’ by cutting it up with a knife and fork before eating, my friend Elena in Switzerland recently taught me how to eat it with only a fork. No spoon or knife. Finally!

  • How to adjust your sense of time. As an American, I was raised to eat dinner at 6.00 p.m. In France we eat dinner at 7.30 p.m. I once visited Chile, where arriving at a restaurant before 9.00 p.m. was laughable. Once my friend Dyna in Panama brought me to her friend’s house to begin cooking tamales after midnight on New Years, because that’s was what everyone did. Cool.
  • Hospitality glues us together. As a volunteer in Malawi in Africa years ago, I could never visit a house without being treated to a feast. Sure, the house had no electricity or running water and was built of mud and the owners couldn’t afford shoes, but by god they were going to stuff my stomach full of chicken (‘nkuku’ in the Chichewa language) and nsima (gluey, boiled, pounded maize) and ground nuts and tea. I learned that generosity is abundant even in regions with scarcity.

  • Home is just a state of mind. Sometimes I’ll take a week off drinking wine and when I eventually begin again, I realize that the wine I so revered is just this artificial pleasure which is not needed. It’s an additive to life. A bonus. Sometimes an impediment. It’s like all those ‘things’ we have at home that we adore but hardly need. And which, after we let go, we may be able to wander out to a world of starlight and peaks and stories and the most generous locals laughing and joking and insisting that we try their fruit salad. With chili powder sprinkled on top. I heartily recommend you do so. It’s splendid.

Thanks for tuning in again.

My latest Forbes pieces are here and include sailing, wine, and the most gorgeous Dolomite mountains of Italy…

Saving A Book Via Road Trip To New Mexico

This post has several (short) segments that include a road trip, the power of visualization, unlocking another secret of the universe, meditations on how raw open space can inspire us and a sample chapter from a past book.

In 2004 I published my book Rivers of Change – Trailing the Waterways of Lewis and Clark. Okay, so no bestseller, but I enjoyed putting it together.

Recently, the warehouse in the state of Ohio in the U.S. that has stored and shipped these books contacted me. They informed me that they were closing.

I needed to pick up the books and drive them in a rental truck to property I own in the state of New Mexico.

A forklift offloads books from an Ohio warehouse into a rental truck

The ensuing road trip was a dart through Heartland and Southwestern U.S.A.

This interior region of the U.S. has recently been maligned by a few East and West Coast media outlets (as well as a few prominent politicians) as lacking a cosmopolitan and progressive vibe. This is nonsense.

Here I ate Salmon and Goat Cheese Frittatas at a small diner in Kansas, drank excellent wines in Missouri made from Chardonel, Traminette and Norton grapes and made roadside stops at parks and monuments with histories of how the Zuni-Acoma trail superimposes over the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail. This is a land of quixotic diversity, unusual neighborliness and often stunning open spaces with gorgeous vistas.

Frittata? Never heard of it before.

However, and this applies to all of the U.S., it was bizarre to find that at an internationally renowned hotel chain, the morning breakfast buffet included all plastic cutlery and paper plates and bowls (the plates being printed with instructions on how to recycle them), all of which had to be tossed into a massive brown plastic trash bag after eating. Even the milk for coffee came in disposable plastic containers the size of thimbles. This, and the blasting widescreen televisions, lacked class or forward thinking. The age of considering a ‘landfill’ as the solution to massive consumerism should be well on its way out.

Breakfast buffets in this and other hotels strongly focused on carbohydrates—pastries, buns, pancakes, toast and cereal. Intriguingly, diners are then given a choice of using ‘non-dairy creamer,’ (think about that) or ‘sugar substitute,’—both obviously requisite for those wanting to counteract the relatively tasteless carb fest they just wolfed down. The paradigm appeared to be: here’s the problem, here’s the cure, and we’re vigorously marketing both your way. However, enough whining, because the coffee was virtually endless.

After breakfast, getting on the road was splendid.

This was also a time for reassessing and reflecting, a time for figuring out how the next phase of life shall unfold.

Driving across the southeast portion of the state of Kansas, I addressed uncertainties, and tried to figure out what comes next in life.

I considered various ‘usual suspect’ scenarios of possibilities for future work and living. I thought and thought and thought and finally realized: I had no idea. I had made Zero progress deciding what comes next—whether desired type of work or longer term living scenario. I seem to be have been spinning wheels in the same direction as two years ago.

Having secured no traction regarding the future, I relaxed, pleased to have fully accepted no progress was made, and decided to forget about self-evaluation and future planning for the moment.

Instead, at the wheel of 12 foot long rental truck on highway 400, I said a prayer to universal powers for assistance, then let it go.

Woodland along the Ninnescah River in southern Kansas

Within minutes my mind, devoid of the usual chatter of options and distractions, suddenly generated a yellow cartoon-like speech balloon. Into this I rapidly described mental images that suddenly appeared—bold, confident and forthright—regarding what will happen next in life. This all occurred effortlessly with blazing certainty. The solution zapped in when unexpected.

At that specific moment of crystallization, the Budget Rental truck heaved around a corner and I saw a patch of water ahead—as though appearing as confirmation, as a symbol of clarity.

Excited, I pulled over and identified this as the south branch of the Ninnescah River (a tributary of the Arkansas River) near Cunningham, Kansas. I later found out that ‘Ninnescah’ is an Osage (Dakota) word meaning ‘good spring water.’ That seemed appropriate—a spring of inspiration from what appeared to be an internally sound source occurred coincident with intersecting this natural flow.

Pleased, I moved on. During the next days I was beset by coincidences and good fortunes that heralded this trip as, overall, ringing positive. During the final days I found that a chunk of the costs of this trip were offset by a recent and unexpected consultancy contract that appeared days before departure.

Sometimes, do what you must and the universe will figure out the details.

Eventually, after driving through a segment of Oklahoma and Texas, I pulled over to a motel.

I told the story of finding an excellent hotel room on a recent Facebook post, so won’t repeat it.

However, a second part of that story concerns dinner.

I asked the receptionist in the motel (in the town of Dalhart, Texas) where to eat.

“Across the street,” she said. “Steakhouse.”

In blistering heat I walked across a massively wide Main Street and entered a charmless, vapid interior. A woman led me to a dull table and asked if I’d like a drink.

“What beers do you have?”

“We’re out.”

“Wine?”

“We’re out. Everything out. Group of about 50 ranchers showed up today. Drank everything. Sorry, honey. Coke, perhaps?”

After 10 hours on the road (and 7 hours the day before and 8 the day before that) some sort of ‘iced tea beverage’ or ‘cola’ was not going to cut it.

I said thanks and departed, ready to eat leftover pizza from lunch inside the hotel.

At the hotel, the receptionist was shocked to hear the news.

“Go down Main Street,” she told me. “Take a left at the light, pass the stadium and turn right. X10 Steak House.”

It took a while, but I found it.

The restaurant was lively and cheerful and packed with locals filled with laughter and energy. Score! The tablet menu, displayed by a zippy server, included several beers, of which I ordered a pint of Angry Orchard Rosé, followed by a Shiner beer (from Texas). Dinner was grilled salmon with asparagus and onion rings.

Brilliant!

Of both restaurants, this one rocked in comparison to the first. After a day on the road, I truly appreciated the enthusiastic energy, chilled drinks and excellent food.

Thank you, 50 thirsty ranchers, for drinking the alternative steakhouse dry, thereby forcing me here. Thank you again, universe. Your secrets are unfurling: the relationship between expectation and outcome; the pliability of reality, and the most timely delivery of chilled Angry Orchard Rosé (scrumptious) at some hidden tavern beyond an obscure stadium.

Perfect.

Next, onto New Mexico.

The road toward deep Catron County

With 6,929 square miles, Catron County in the southwest U.S. state of New Mexico has more land area than that belonging to any of four other individual U.S. states: Rhode Island, Delaware, Connecticut and Hawaii. With less than 4,000 residents, the state has a population density of less than one person per square mile.

In 1994, the Catron County Commission, after reluctantly abandoning efforts to make it a legal requirement, instead passed a resolution that recommended every household in the county possess a gun.

This is a land of cattle and elk and the odd, endangered Mexican gray wolf. It is an arid land, where wells often need to be drilled hundreds of feet deep to obtain water. Here are pinyon pines and junipers, jackrabbits and four wheel drive pickup trucks. This is a land where ranchers named Rufus or Chet wear Stetson hats, cowboy boots and belt buckles emblazoned with their names. Here are national monuments, reservations, and lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management. The altitude of plains is high enough with commensurate clear skies that a massive array of telescopes (think the movie: Contact) was established in adjacent Socorro County, just east. Here are natural arches, remnants of lava flows and absurdly beautiful vistas of open space.

My own property sits at 7,700 feet above sea level. That altitude is high enough that, coming from sea level, when you drink a beer you cop a buzz slightly earlier than usual.

View from the cabin

This property, though remote, is a magically serene portion of the planet. Years ago I noticed that after I visited it while in the U.S., even for only a few hours, I would feel a sense of peace, calmness and confidence that lasted for months afterward.

The peaceful locale provides similar inspirations to what I feel when visiting, say, portions of County Wicklow in Ireland near the sea, or the Western slope of Colorado. In other words, the lure of the landscape transcends specific geography. I could be in Bellinzona in Switzerland, Nerja in Spain or the highlands of Panama. There is no sense of homesickness there, because all other possible homes appear somehow already there in spirit.

In the evening, dusky ruby light lit up the jagged peaks to the southeast. Wind whooshed across trees as evening bird calls rang out.

There I felt detached, but still connected. I pulled an old wood packing trunk out of the cabin, unfolded a wool blanket on top to make it a table and then looked at peaks in dusk light. The world turned ageless.

That strange magic, profoundly unfathomable, is welcoming. The location is a confluence of wind, light, clouds and roaming deer, a place where energies of earth are redolent with harmony.

Another view from the property

Being there gave a sense of having no boundaries, of being free and capable of accomplishing anything.

It can be a challenge to find the correct turnoff to this land. It’s along a sandy dirt trail that changes, depending on rainfall and local ranching activities.

When entering the land earlier that day, I made a right turn at the wrong place, realized the error after eight tenths of a mile and returned to seek the correct trail. Once there, I was pleased to see no track marks or evidence that the property had been visited in months, if not years (my last visit was two years ago). Driving south and slightly upward toward the ‘ridge,’ the location of a shed/cabin purchased years ago, I spotted the structure below a lone tree and magnificent vista. The looming beauty and powerful proximity of those jagged peaks was, again, shocking.

After pulling on a sweater I opened a bottle of California Cabernet Sauvignon, ate a cold supermarket burrito and enjoyed the unfettered silence.

A minute before midnight, a realization turned clear. I then understood the words of Henri Duboscq, owner of Château Haut-Marbuzet in Bordeaux. He spoke these words when we sampled wines together at his château months ago. His father had been dirt poor, purchased vines, and he and Henri worked hard to produce excellent wine. They eventually made a veritable fortune. But they had put life back into an unkempt patch of vines, tended them, treated them well. Dubosca moved his bedroom near the cellars because he wanted to be close to the wine he produced, always.

Duboscq told me something unusual. He said that he believed that he and his family did not choose those vines, but that the vines had somehow chosen them.

Now, his words made sense. I see the future of this land not as subdivided plots for vacation homes, and not solely as acres for cattle. The purpose of this land will eventually turn clear.

View from my property

The recent heat had been brutal, but at the moment when I began unloading 50 boxes of books that day, clouds assembled and a hailstorm hammered the land. The temperature plummeted, enabling me to work in coolness. Perfect!

Thanks again, universe.

It was then time for wine, and watching the vista.

Summer wildness

Edible? I’m not going to try to find out.

Just last week, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch newspaper in Missouri published an article about the Great Flood of 1993, an event that took place 25 years ago. This event, coincidentally, forms the opening to the book I wrote almost two decades ago, the one I just hauled over 1,700 miles (2,700 kilometers) to the sacred acres described above.

The book is about how humans change rivers, and those rivers consequently change attitudes.

Here is Chapter One from Rivers of Change:

Chapter 1

FLOOD

In July and August of 1993 the Great Flood of the Midwest destroyed more than ten thousand homes, killed fifty people, inundated fifteen million acres of farmland, halted barges for two months, suspended the region’s rail traffic and wreaked $15 billion worth of damage. This most significant flood ever to hit the United States was also one of the country’s greatest ever natural disasters.

This flood that twitched through the Midwest that summer originated from the two largest river systems in the United States: the Missouri and Mississippi. From June through August precipitation on the northern plains and throughout the central U.S. leaped to three times its normal volume. Regions used to nine days of rain each July felt the sudden hammer of twenty wet afternoons. By mid summer soils were saturated, leaving rainwater with no other avenue than to shoot over land.

The Missouri and Mississippi river confluence sits fifteen miles upstream of St. Louis. When floodwaters crashed past this point, sandbags failed, residents fled, and levees burst like buttons popping off a snug shirt. Passengers evacuated the Spirit of St. Louis airport; jailers unlocked cells to whisk inmates to safety. The deluge closed down a water treatment plant and swamped a sewage facility serving seventy-five thousand homes. The surge blocked four major bridges spanning into the metro area. Rising waters swept fifty propane tanks from their moorings and police, fearing an explosion, evacuated hundreds of nearby residents. Engineers drilled holes in the Gravois Bridge to prevent its uprooting by the River Des Peres.

Every second more than a million cubic feet of water roared past the Gateway Arch of St. Louis, flooding over five hundred businesses and swamping Highway 40 under six feet of water. A concert to raise funds for victims from an earlier flood had to be cancelled. Meanwhile, con artists swooped in to reap a profit from calamity. When the waters subsided in St. Louis, police spotted an industrious pair pacing near Jefferson and Gravois avenues. They toted cans and collected cash from drivers. Their cans read: Flood Releif 93 / Salvation Army. Recalling that ‘i’ comes before ‘e,’ officers arrested the sloppy imposters.

Cover art by Chana Hauben

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Panicked residents outside St. Louis bought water bottles by the dozen, homeowners prayed, and farmers cursed busted levees when river water dumped sand on their crops. As though to emphasize catastrophe, three tornados twirled above St. Charles during an afternoon of the deluge. In Hardin, Missouri, floodwaters plucked coffins and burial vaults from a cemetery, shoving hundreds like hockey pucks across corn and bean fields.

“They’d take off in all different directions,” one resident recalled. “Then you’d just watch them glide off into the sunset.”

At its peak, the ’93 floodwaters covered sixteen thousand square miles, more than the surface areas of lakes Ontario and Erie combined. Throughout the state of Missouri the disaster obliterated all previous flood records for stage, volume, peak discharge, duration and frequency. In Kansas City in July, the Missouri River rose more than two feet higher than its unprecedented crest of 1951.

In the flood’s aftermath the Salvation Army raised $6.5 million in aid, billionaire Ross Perot flew out to the Midwest to pledge another million dollars and the Anheuser Busch brewery shut down its St. Louis beer taps to fill six packs with fresh water for the city of St. Joseph. Already that year in the state of Missouri wet weather halted crop planting on three-quarters of a million acres. The floodwaters confiscated two million acres more. Astonished farmers sighed when they saw hundreds of their acres coated with sediment. By piling sand from inches to feet thick on sixty percent of its lower floodplain, the Missouri River ruined dozens of farms. For many, the cost to remove this petrified pollution was more than the value of land it covered, creating so significant an impact that the Soil Conservation Service labeled the flood a “geologic event.”

Close to a decade later I drove across the state of Missouri, hunting for anecdotes about how this flood stirred havoc along its sinuous trail. Rumors told how the event delivered not only devastation but elicited creative resilience from those affected. Surprisingly, I found a vast difference between my expectations and reality.

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Thanks again for tuning in.

Are These Superimpositions, Or Are They Reality?

View from outside Pagosa Springs, Colorado

Nomadic hunters and gatherers, even early agricultural societies, aligned their lives and toils to the rhythms of nature. How much and how often they worked, and when they migrated and to where, were influenced by surrounding conditions and pressures: hours of daylight, weather, migration of wildlife, outbreaks of sickness and health of tribal members.

Effort then related to environmental conditions.

On a balmy harvest moon, whole rural societies might toil together to reap and store grain until well after midnight, bolstered by the mutual drive and appreciation of working with neighbors and achieving a common goal. Or, during cold winter storms, Native Americans hunting buffalo on the Great Plains (of what is now the United States) might be curtailed until temperatures ascended. Effort, and time spent wielding effort, were inextricably related to surrounding natural conditions.

Then came the Industrial Revolution, and subsequent abuse of employees working over a dozen hours a day, at least six days a week. Cruel and lengthy work hours were finally curtailed by legislation (and by bold initiative of a few companies) into a healthier and saner (and likely more productive) ‘forty hour workweek.’ This was a blessing within an almost cursed framework—that which incited relentless toil to attain maximum productivity, and profit for a few, within simplistically delineated packages of time.

Today, most employees in the world are expected to begin work at X hour, end work at Y hour and take Z minutes break at Q o’clock to eat lunch.

In other words, a somewhat rectilinear organization of time for toil and relaxation has been superimposed—like a well carpented window frame—over the previously malleable time frame followed by (not imposed by) hunter-gathering tribes and early agricultural societies, who were more attuned to the rhythms of sunlight and seasons.

Near Craters of The Moon National Monument, Idaho

No doubt this is more efficient, and allowed the development of a middle class to emerge from agricultural societies. The fruits of such organization have led to greater aggregate wealth, health care, availability of nutritious and diverse foods, increased life spans and a better climate controlled lifestyle for adherents of society weaned under this structured lifestyle paradigm

As we gained, so also we lost. When is the last time you watched a sunrise or moonrise or peered at a meteor shower or got lost in the woods tracking the flight of wildlife? How often do you wander along the fractal, splitting and unpredictably aligned edges of rocky coastlines?

Layers of Himalayan foothills in Pakistan

As our societies organized time, they also delineated space.

If you inspect a map of the western United States (a topographical ‘quadrangle’ printed by the U.S. Geological Survey), you will notice that the layout of towns and cities and geographical parcels belonging both to private and public landowners is almost rigidly rectilinear. That means: squares, rectangles, straight lines and ninety degree angle corners. This is the Township system, the geographical milieu imposed on California and Oregon and U.S. geographies by limited minded technocrats who dwelled in Washington DC over a century ago. These persons knew little of wilderness except for tangled Virginia overgrowth and swampy banks of the Hudson River.

In other words, a 17th century Cartesian coordinate system, favored by East coast politicians with no direct knowledge from having ever visited the West, was superimposed over the organic, curling, swerving patterns of geographical natural landforms—rivers, watersheds, wood lots and mountain ridges of the Pacific and Rocky Mountain states.

[I wrote a chapter about this in my book Rivers of Change – Trailing The Waterways of Lewis & Clark. Here is a link to that chapter. It also mentions how ‘climate change’ is nothing new, having altered landscapes 200 years ago, as it has impacted our earth for millions of years.]

Somewhere in the Western U.S.

In the same way that the Industrial Revolution led to the imposition—like an omnipresent flyswatter—of modular and measured parcels of structured minutes and hours over the fluid and ephemeral nature of quotidian time, the map makers of yore (ignoring the pleas of wise explorers such as John Wesley Powell) smacked a grid—like window mesh—over intricate topographical undulations, declivities, hilly skylines and roughly spaced scrublands of the natural topography of the Western United States.

In other words, rather than choose to divide up geography following the natural, fractal boundaries defined by watersheds, they chose a geometry that is largely unrelated to landforms.

Again, as we gained, so we lost.

In adopting this system, those responsible ignored the truth that ranchers and farmers and shopkeepers tended to congregate with neighbors who lived within the natural boundaries of their own watershed, rather than others who may or may not have shared land within the same rectilinear basin/township/range land division. Those communities might also have lived over a mountain ridge within that same system, and therefore included virtual strangers.

The imposition of a rectilinear grid over landscapes legally separated people who lived within the same geographical communities, while associating them with others they may never have met before.

Not Idaho, but Iceland

These two actions, the artificial division of work life into measurable minutes as measured by a clock, and the division of geographies using Cartesian coordinates, have led to effective and replicable management systems, but are unnatural enough to a degree that they may tend to alienate people from the very seasons and geography in which they live. This is not a criticism of these systems as much as an encouragement to temper them with time spent ignoring watches and wandering in the wilds, when possible.

Mountains lack straight edges. Lakes are never shaped as perfect circles. Yet such ‘sloppiness’ belies a greater, powerful longer-term economy of natural energies than any organizational system humans have ever devised.

The ‘badlands’ of New Mexico

That is why the beauty of nature attracts us. It is why the glow of a full moon or the fulsome whish of tidal waters attracts our attentions fully. These vistas may lack the engineered attraction of television scenes where camera angles change each three seconds or sooner; they may not be as dopamine churning as fingering your cellular screen to review the number of ‘likes’ you received within the past hour, but they are—through millions of years of coevolution with life on earth—effectively calming, inspiring, and suggestive that perhaps we should be more appreciative of our precious time on this planet, and our natural surroundings.

We should, at times, listen to nature to better understand how to live with, and within, its wise but jagged organization, as well as its thundering beauty.

Again, thanks for tuning in.

 

 

 

 

Hearing More Of The Past

An ancient round tower in Glendalough (‘glen of the two lakes’) in Ireland

I recall a trip taken to Kansas over a decade ago, and a post written about that event. The story included only half the original writing.

The first half of the story was about meeting someone in Kansas, and their connection to Ireland.

The second half, just found in my computer files and included here, is about Kansas.

It’s taken from journals of a trip penned while retracing the route of Lewis & Clark across the United States. For almost six months I followed the route these explorers took over two centuries ago, while in my small camper. Most of it was along the Missouri River. This excerpt takes place in and around town of Atchison, Kansas.

It recalls a strangely peaceful moment in life.

Here it is, as originally written:

View of the Missouri River

“The next afternoon, with a leaking nose and goosebumps, I dodged cold breezes and paced through Atchison. On Commercial Street I nipped inside the Magnolia Bakery and Café and huddled at a varnished table below a shelf filled with Crispy Dilly Beans and cans of Hot Pepper Jelly. The waitress served me a mug of Colombia Supremo decaf, a bowl of Tex Mex corn chowder and a blueberry oatmeal muffin. I stopped eating twice to cup my chilled hands around the glowing coffee mug.

The Southern Pacific railroad could take passengers from Kansas City to California in the 1920’s

Afterwards, I drove past signs outside Atchison. The country route led to a grassy lane at 16701 286th Street, a location far less cluttered than its address. There, a meager airstrip, hangars and a lone building constituted this well tended anachronism, a cluster more insulated from time than the main street in the town of Weston. Grass surrounding the runway was trimmed like a fairway purloined from a tournament golf course. A parked Piper airplane aimed toward scrumptious views of inclined Kansas farmlands. The only sounds were the pecking of bird calls and the odd whack of a breeze. I saw no one else until a hangar door slid open.

A bald man with a silver mustache wheeled his Suzuki 500 outside the hangar. Oblivious to my presence, he cursed the bike.

I coughed, then spoke.

“Always this quiet?” I asked.

He sniffled, then stopped to light his drooping ash pipe. He looked not only eccentric, but rustic, a character cut out of a Sherlock Holmes book and pasted onto a postcard of Kansas.

“Quiet day,” he drawled. “Been some touch and go landings this morning. Not many. You’re welcome to visit the lounge.”

He pulled a red, white and blue helmet with cracked stars onto his head, then patted the space between us and chugged off.

I looked out toward peaceful fields and thought again of Charles Lindbergh—the man of pleasure, risk, and danger—and recalled how he described a portion of his transatlantic flight:

“Each flight on my mail route took me over its junction with the muddy Missouri. Now the movement of the ocean waves below, extending on to the straight line of the horizon, reminds me of the river’s wheatfields. They too bent and rippled in the wind.”[i]

More of the Missouri River, nicknamed the ‘Muddy Mo’

I moved toward pearl colored bricks and blue trim windows of the tiny airport terminal, the size of a single family bungalow. The structure belonged to another era. Scotch tape held an advertisement to the glass of the front door.

FOR SALE 1966 CESSNA 150 IFR

LEARN TO FLY, CHECK YOUR CATTLE, GO FOR PARTS OR COMMUTE TO WORK…

I stepped inside. The interior looked like a doctor’s reception from the 1960’s. A couch and overstuffed chairs faced a glass wall before the airstrip and distant gliding meadows. Large windows flooded light inside and a Cordley Water Cooler hummed. A 20 inch wide rotary dial General Electric television stood inside an ornate, wood paneled box. An odd, almost hallowed silence made me wonder if I had somehow stepped back in time.

In the nineteenth century, Alfred Otis arrived with his wife—Amelia—to work as an attorney and judge in Atchison. When the town’s railroad prospered, the couple’s wealth soared. They chose to live high on the bluffs of Quality Hill overlooking the Missouri River Valley. Their daughter married a railroad attorney from Atchison named Edwin, but was disappointed when his income did not buy the lifestyle she was used to. The topic of money strained their relationship and caused their eventual divorce. The couple agreed that their two daughters should continue schooling in Atchison.

Throughout school years these girls lived with both grandparents in their spacious home above the Missouri River. They spent summers with their parents in Kansas City. The daughter born in 1897 was an unabashed tomboy. She wrote about how she and her sister wore the first ‘gymnasium suits’ in town. “We wore them Saturdays to play in and though we felt terribly ‘free and athletic,’ we also felt somewhat as outcasts among the little girls who fluttered about us in skirts.”[ii]

Nicknamed Meelie, this rambunctious, devil-may-care girl later recalled “mud-ball fights, picnics, and exploring raids up and down the bluffs of the Missouri River.” For her the river “was always exciting. There usually were large and dangerous looking whirlpools to be seen in its yellow depths, and the banks were forever washing away. Not that any of us ever got very near the banks, but—a few of us remembered dimly the floods of 1903 when water crept up to the gutters of buildings and swept away bridges and spread out over the lowlands as far as the eye could see.”[iii]

Both granddaughters left Atchison in 1909, though Meelie returned a year later to attend college preparatory school. While there she aided both aging grandparents until they passed away within months of each other. Meelie never followed through with her plans to become a medical doctor, a decision that changed not only her life, but the world around her.

I moved in silence to another room inside the airport building. Chairs circled two chipped tables and six brown school desks. Patches of cloth torn from shirts of soloing flight students hung pinned to a white corkboard. The first was dated September 17, 1928, and belonged to an aspiring aviator named Charlie Brown (the comic character with the same name did not exist for another 20 years). A drawing next to this board showed Atchison in 1880, with steamers gamboling upriver past splotches of coal smoke.

For half an hour I meandered about this empty airport interior. No one entered or left. While pacing I thought about the little girl who played along the Missouri River, the would-be doctor turned pilot, the woman who wrote: “How can life grant us boon of living…unless we dare?” Framed newspaper articles on airport walls celebrated this town’s most famous aviatrix, the tomboy transformed to a strong, attractive woman.

Mild gusts knocked against the hangar panels outside. The sky suddenly coughed with the drone of a nearby plane and I hurried to the terrace and circled my head, inspecting the sizzling blue skyline. Was someone checking cattle? Commuting to work? The bulky whirring dissolved. There was nothing to see. And yet, I was so certain I had heard an airplane directly above.

Although without company, I did not feel alone that afternoon. Instead I sensed a presence in the air, as though that spirited tomboy who flew a Lockheed solo across the Atlantic Ocean in 1932 was somehow close to me. No doubt this woman who vanished over the Pacific during her round the world flight would have approved of how Atchison named its airport after her.

I meandered about the peaceful grounds for several more minutes, alone but for the sound of wind and the strange certainty that Amelia Earhart was still fluttering somewhere above.

 

[i] Charles Lindbergh, The Spirit of St. Louis, Scribner (Simon & Schuster), September 1998.

[ii] Interpretive Display, Atchison County Historical Museum.

[iii] Ibid.

Sex and Drugs from Other Angles

SEX.

I spent several years growing up in Ireland, after living in the suburbs of Chicago in the U.S. Many formative teenage years took place on that European island—along the shores and within the hills of County Wicklow.

In Ireland (at least back then) there was no such word as ‘dating.’

You would, perhaps, go out with a group of friends of both sexes and if two of you ended up liking each other perhaps you would end up ‘snogging’ (kissing) or perhaps someday even ‘shagging’ (having sex). If you were friends and lovers you might end up staying together. It was quite a natural process.

Later, at American schools, I heard students talked about ‘dating.’

I didn’t get it.

In ‘going on a date,’ you (apparently) went out with someone to check out if you might be interested in a future relationship with them, perhaps physically intimate. The process involved a goal. A purpose. A mission. A ‘date’ was an object-oriented event. There were even associated time and place coordinates involved (‘dinner on Saturday at 7.00 pm at Commercios’ Pizzeria’).

Where was the fun in that? I mean, if you spend time with someone and feel comfortable and happy and laugh and have good time, you may end up holding hands and naturally becoming lovers, or even long-term partners. This is a natural event, where two people who want to spend time together let their relationship unfold, then possibly flourish.

In Ireland, romance was more like a story or song that played out over time, rather than some personality evaluation or quiz contest. It was a journey, not a hunt.

‘Dating,’ on the other hand, involves a set of players with a specific (though often discretely concealed) goal in mind. The underlying focus of a’date’ has an agenda, a purpose, an evaluation as well as a hidden scoring of the person you are with. You are not just going out for a beer or movie or dinner, you are doing so as a platform for evaluating the potential of another person for possible future and intimate inclusion in life. The concept, title and semantics imply that such a meeting necessitates not only full-on cerebral analysis, but also preening full-throttle before the ‘event’ to perform a more effective courtship dance.

Perhaps I’m overanalyzing a single word, but with regards to relationships, ‘dating’ seems a bit technical and laden with a focused motive. It’s more like taking an exam, rather than taking a walk in the woods; more about capturing prey, than about sharing enjoyment; more about satisfying the curiosity of others who know you are ‘going on a date’ than comfortably just letting events unwind as you get to know someone else. Once the word ‘date’ is involved, then so too are analysis and judgment. Although reason is a precious mental tool (it invented the internal combustion engine and sent us exploring the moon in a buggy), it’s not always the most appropriate sensibility to heavily superimpose over a social event.

Is it?

I mean, opening a bottle of wine in the shade of an oak tree on a blanket and letting passion prevail and reveling in a gorgeous, perhaps slightly spontaneous moment with another person you care for is not like playing chess or feeling like you’re being interviewed for a position, even if it is in some chic restaurant.

I’ve asked dozens of Americans over the years to explain ’dating.’ It’s still difficult to understand, partially because they all have different definitions.

What about just living and enjoying the company of others and getting to know them along some continuum and letting events occur at their own pace without there being some specific outcome involved?

Let’s say I invite a woman to go bicycling. Or, she invites me on a day trip to some beach for lunch. If a friend then finds about this in advance and asks, ‘Is this a date?’ the question almost vacuums the joy from a still mysterious event that has not yet even occurred. The word creates an implication that the event should be labelled, categorized, and shifted into a yes/no, ‘potential romantic relationship or not,’ event. This sounds sort of like work instead of play. It’s certainly digital instead of analog. Usually, I ignore the question. But if I do bother answering, I’ll say, ‘Actually, we’re just going to the beach.’ Such obviousness often confuses the person who asked the ridiculous question. Which is, honestly, wonderful. (Where I live in France, however, fortunately such questions never arise.)

What’s the rush, anyhow? Today, there is also ‘Speed Dating.’ Think about that. Would you enjoy ‘speed dinner,’ or ‘speed sex,’ or ‘speed apertif?’ None of those sound organic, or in any way relaxed.

Letting affections develop for another person over weeks or months (sometimes years) can lead not only to a solid friendship but a strong romantic relationship.

A ‘date’ implies some specific type of event, while ‘dating’ insinuates a defined category of relationship. I’ve never been able to discern exactly what ‘dating’ means, although this nebulous word is apparently also a great excuse. For example (true story), let’s say a couple is sleeping together and getting to know each other. Then, one of them sleeps with another person, but justifies this action to their original partner as being okay because until that point, the two of them had only been ‘dating’ rather than ‘going out’ when the transgression occurred.

Really?

At that point, it may be time to look for a new partner instead of a dictionary.

Ultimately, this is about semantics. Words shape our mindsets, our outlooks, our perceptions and expectations. They can also be seriously limiting. Friendship, companionship, and love can often be enjoyed differently once we remove certain mental filters, and the words associated with them.

DRUGS.

Author Michael Pollan, who has written an excellent series of books about food, just published a new book about psychedelic drugs. Apparently, after decades of these substances being pushed from the realm of medicine and healing, they are coming back and appear effective as treatments for certain health related issues.

It’s about time.

His book is titled How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of PsychedelicsPollan decided to experiment with these drugs when he turned 60, partially to see if he could change his thinking patterns. An article in the Financial Times of May 19th tells how actor Cary Grant praised the benefits of LSD therapy in 1959. Other therapists used them to treat alcoholism and depression before they were legally banned.

I tried some of these substances decades ago. The first experience changed my life.

Why?

Because at the age of 17, on a sweet, sunny spring afternoon in a countryside within Europe, I realized that all authority figures I respected and looked up to had been professing ‘truths’ that did not appear to be related to factual reality. I realized that such substances, in moderation, could open our minds in beneficial ways. The books and articles I later read said alike. I then read The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley and other texts and learned that these substances had been used for beneficial medicinal uses in the past.

The title of Huxley’s book (which the name of the band The Doors came from) relates to a 19th century poem written by William Blake titled The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. It was Blake who also wrote the sweet verses of a poem titled Auguries of Innocence, which includes the following magical first four lines. They basically surmise how the larger world can be reflected in smaller events, and vice versa.

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour

POLITICS.

Politically, some of my ideas and beliefs can be considered as wildly liberal, while others are thoroughly conservative.

Why should I choose to be from one political party, exclusively? Why choose to stand on one side of a fence and criticize everything on the other side, regardless how sensible any one particular policy from the ‘other side’ may be?

This does not make sense.

Let’s say you choose to watch some movies from Netflix and others from Amazon prime. Or sometimes you drink wine, while at the other times you drink beer. Is there anything wrong with that?

Of course not.

Orin Hatch from Utah writes an excellent Wall Street Journal article about the fallacies of ‘Identity Politics,’ here.

ROCK AND ROLL.

I know little about Rock and Roll except that I enjoy the music, and grew up with it.

What I do believe rocks is the following TED video from Steven Pinker. He suggests (implicitly) that we might want to stop indulging in whining, given the facts about our world’s state of affairs.

No doubt others will disagree, and clamor to tell how dire our global situation is. Which, for me, will bring back the memory of a poem (unattributed, because the author is uncertain):

Two men looked out from prison bars.

One saw mud, the other saw stars.

Thanks for tuning in.

Keep looking skyward!

 

 

 

 

The Bibliophile of Bordeaux Wine Country

Château Margaux was rebuilt in 1815

Earlier this month I had the fortune to be invited for a private lunch with two individuals in the Médoc region of Bordeaux: the owner and the General Manager of Château Margaux.

Today I posted a piece on Forbes about the mother / daughter team running the château.

Now, about books.

Because of a rainstorm, the owner of Château Margaux, Corinne Mentzelopoulos, was late to arrive. This turned out to be serendipitously advantageous.

Her flight from Paris to Bordeaux was going to be diverted to Biarritz. However, after circling, they were able to land at Merignac Airport on the outskirts of Bordeaux city—their original destination.

Because of her delay, I had more time to meet and interview General Manager (and winemaker) Philippe Bauscales. We also sampled from three bottles of Château Margaux—2004, 2012 and 2015. Beautiful!

When Madame Mentzelopoulos arrived, we met inside her château. The walls of the main room were lined with books. Before we began discussing wine, and before we sat down for lunch, we spoke about books.

[Strangely, and I only realized this while transcribing the conversation, her two dogs began grumbling when she began to speak about an author who writes about dogs. Bizarre.]

Within the cellar at Château Margaux

Here is what she Madame Mentzelopoulos said.

[The books on these shelves are] “…from former owners. We’ve kept them very carefully. I should have them restored in Paris. They’re gradually becoming unkempt. One day I’ll have the courage. Because there are so many things here that are more important in a way—the cellar, the plantings. And we’ve been doing a lot of things in the château also.

“Or maybe my daughter will be put in charge. Because her father loved books, older books, he lived for older books. So maybe she will like the idea. Myself not so much. I like modern books. Because I mark with my pencil, I take notes. I’ve been doing that since university. And I’m supposed to re-read it again to remember and go further into the information. I don’t always do it. But I’m trying. Five years later you look at the book because you’re putting it away and you look at the notes and you don’t remember a thing. ‘What did I even mean?’ You don’t know. Oh, well. It’s a habit.

“And I sometimes do remember things. I love learning, so it’s always the dates. History, authors, literature. And when I get very lazy I read American books. Thrillers. Such as Sue Grafton. Danielle Steele? No I stopped. Mary Higgins Clark? I stopped. That’s too stupid.

“Not being born English speaking, there is the effort I am making, I get the impression I’m getting my head to work because it’s in English. And also it keeps my English going. And I come out with some sentences I didn’t even know. I don’t think I could read the same books in French. I would be more critical. I don’t read any French stupid novels, but in English, there’s the effort of reading in English.

$1,200 a bottle. On the nose—stunning. In the mouth—quite the treat 🙂

“So Baldacci, all the guys you know who are on the bestseller list of the New York Times. Taylor. John Grisham. But I read too many of Grisham so I kind of know what’s going to happen. I have found out with Mary Higgins Clark—you know the plot. There’s a guy called Cameron who writes about dogs. Now that’s very stupid but I just adore it. And that’s wonderful. Just to really let yourself go.

“I have three Kindles. I never use them. I like the books better. The only advantage of the Kindle is that you can read it before you get the book. At Amazon they allow you to read it on your computer. Used to spend my life in bookstores. Now I can browse and you can get the details as well. Honestly.

“I walk over my books at home. They’re all over the place. But I just love it. I love Amazon. I’ve been a client since 2001. And that day I understood it wasn’t the future, it was the present. I remember telling a very important wine dealer and owner and merchant here in 2001, if you don’t put your wines on a website, if you don’t build yourself a website, you’re out. Every time he sees me—he thanks me. Because he trusted me. Because I thought—this is amazing. This is so much fun. You sit there and you have the whole world of literature at your fingertips. I mean, extraordinary.”

Château Margaux has its own cooperage to make barrels. Photo credit: Francois Poincet

 

 

 

On The Road And Nothing To Lose

I wrote the words below over a decade ago, but never published them.

They were written as part of my book titled Rivers of Change—Trailing the Waterways of Lewis and Clark. I had to cut down the volume of the book, so omitted these—not because they were of any less merit than those from other sections, but in order to keep a balanced volume of narrative for each portion of the book.

Instead, I put them into a collection of stories titled Vignettes—which still sits inside a laptop.

This is the first half of an omitted chapter.

The purpose of this piece was to explain why I quit a job, ditched income and hit the trail.

I treasure these original words. They bring the spirit of exploration back to my mind. I lost tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars by quitting jobs in order to explore the world now and then. My bank account may be lean, but my spirit is keen, kicking and filled with faith that, as a friend here in the town of Blaye often says, the universe will provide.

Here is the first part of this chapter.

In Canada, where I drove to the source of the Columbia River

Decision

In the year 2001, before leaving on my trip to explore the Missouri and Columbia rivers, I needed to find a vehicle in Albuquerque. I spent days combing through classified ads and cruising sales lots until pinpointing two prospective buys. One was a 20 foot long recreational vehicle that had 52,000 miles, a generator, toilet, shower and stove. Its maneuverability was poor, but the price was right. Still, it was huge. All of that vehicle for one person? I stepped inside. Its skunk brown interior was a depressing tone for a lone man on a long haul. Both its bulky size and dim color incited me to try something else.

On a honking corner of Candelaria Avenue, I found a 1988 van with a pop up roof, sink, burners and bed. Although its interior was bright and cheerful, the ignition failed three times. When it finally started I lumbered out to the first stoplight where the engine died. Traffic horns wailed from behind.

The ‘Big Muddy’ Missouri River

“We’ll tune it up,” the dealer promised. “And adjust the timing. By noon tomorrow it will be 100 percent better.”

At noon the next day the ignition purred and died again.

“Didn’t have time for a good tune up,” the dealer explained. “We rushed to have it ready by noon. There’s plenty of room for improvement.”

That was plenty of incentive to move on.

That same afternoon my sister (whose home I stayed at while planning the trip) bicycled along Albuquerque’s North Valley. With wind at her temples, a notion struck her of how I should find the right vehicle. That evening she offered advice.

“You’re using logic to decide what you want,” she said. “That’s fine – up to a point. Now wait until you sit inside something that makes you light up and say ‘I want to drive this!’ ”

Scribbling notes along the Missouri Riiver

The next morning I scoured classified advertisements and found two ads that had been unlisted the day before. One was for a used four wheel drive pickup truck; the other was for a compact camper shell. I visited both, loved them, and paid cash for the two. Before leaving Albuquerque and motoring east toward St. Louis – the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers – there was still plenty to do. The full tilt effort ransacked my senses. One evening, frazzled, I paid for a tank of gas at a Circle K and drove off. A station wagon sidled up beside me at the stop light and honked. Inside a pert man with frantic eyes and sudsy hair rolled down his window. He flagged his bulky palm at me.

“Gas hose!” he yelped.

“Gas cap?” I asked.

“The hose man! You got the whole thing!”

I punched my hazard lights and stepped outside. The handle to the gas station pump was still inserted in my tank, trailing its rubber fuel hose down the highway.

It was time to slow down.

Wayne Tyndall of the Omaha, one of the many characters met along the journey

When I finally drove away from Albuquerque the wind died and starlight sang above. I exhaled and reviewed the past week of preparation and departure. Altogether the trip had launched itself with ease, reminding me of when the more ambitious explorer Charles Lindbergh flew solo from New York to Paris. When he banked over the Atlantic in his fuel laden single engine plane, Lindbergh was delighted to see lingering fog vanish before Canada’s Chedabucto Bay.

“It seems today,” he wrote, “that every door is flung wide open when I knock.”[i]

Along the Missouri River in South Dakota

I accelerated west, entering a leather landscape puckered in rude depressions. My union of truck and camper was neither swift nor vain but compact, economical. Because there was no cassette player I stabbed at blunt plastic knobs to tune the radio. Soon the music of Johann Sebastian Bach soaked into the cab’s upholstery and soothed my frazzled nerves. I passed ruminating cows and a stooped mailman and, hours later, pulled into a rest stop off Interstate 40 to spend the night.

The next morning, beyond Tucumcari, I pulled onto Route 66 and passed a battered farmhouse tucked beneath corrugated cedars. Close to this a discarded mandarin sofa angled out of a lone field and pointed somewhere toward Mexico. Miles ahead an old gas station wall collapsed inward, like folding stairs of an escalator. Taken together, this vista formed a curious geography of abandonment. The remnants of Route 66 were easy and empty, a serene and hidden luxury driven by few. Only hundreds of feet away from this route’s slovenly pace the Interstate highway honked and jittered, where speed increased and variety plummeted. I felt certain that this simple truth resonated with a powerful lesson, one that would serve well on the trail ahead.

British Columbia, Canada (off the Lewis and Clark route, but along the Columbia River)

When I fired down the sun kissed sheen of a rural Oklahoma highway a cloud of crackling doubts attacked me. They thickened so deeply that I had to pull over and park beside two strands of sagging barb wire. I rested one palm on the hard steering wheel. Questions loomed: was it worth flushing away my savings for this rickety tour of the Midwest, Northwest and Rocky Mountains? I had left an excellent job with ample international travel, profit sharing incentives, tax free earnings and benefits as cushy as a down comforter. I had abandoned this secure route not from impatience, but hunger. Life was flashing by and I wanted to view part of it from inside a shaking canoe or from the top of a lightning pierced ridge instead of from the trim desk of a bright office cubicle. I needed pine scent, sloppy rivers and aching calf muscles and wanted to poke along life’s own Route 66.

A notebook on the passenger seat beside me lay open, containing a quote copied from Charles Lindbergh’s Pulitzer prize winning book: The Spirit of St. Louis.

“Security is a static thing;” he wrote, “and without adventure, lifeless as a stone.”[ii]

Clouds brewing a storm, perhaps in Nebraska or South Dakota

Days earlier a friend named Robin had written to me from her ‘home,’ a sailboat docked off St. John in the Virgin Islands. She had spent years in the region advising high school students on which college they should choose. During free weeks she and her husband plied Caribbean waves on their sailboat Frodo. In her letter she told how she was exploring the option of returning to live in the States. Yet she had doubts about the move:

“I’m on St. Croix wondering whether small town America exists anymore or have we turned our communities into malls, golden miles, and connecting three lane roads with traffic lights?”

Her question was valid. Days earlier, inside the entrance to an Albuquerque shopping mall, I had inspected a cardboard cutout image of a lean girl. The words printed beside her read: “Mall Doll says: Shopping is Always the Answer!” Another notice outside the mall tickled consumers with the phrase: “Ready, Set, Shop!”

Had our communities transformed into malls? If shopping was the answer, was it time to reconsider the question? I took my fingers off the steering wheel and bit the key into the ignition again.

Perhaps answers lay on the trail ahead.

 

Endnotes

[i] Charles Lindbergh, The Spirit of St. Louis, Scribner (Simon & Schuster), September 1998 edition.

[ii]   Same.

 

You Don’t Know But Life Really Is A River

I’ve written a wine blog for about seven years, as well as this blog (related to publishing) for about four years. I also write about five articles, online, each month for Forbes. Truthfully, the posts are little read. I have no online guru pumping some algorithm to rake in zillions (or even thousands) of hits. No worries. But…

What is popular? What do most people want to read about?

Here is The Secret.

Beautiful spirals from a winery near Barcelona (photograph taken at Albet i Noya winery a few weeks ago) 

Which posts do the best? Which topics receive the most hits? Which headlines score most viewers? Which subjects are most favored?

The answer to this is also a Key of Life.

Simply put:

You Don’t Know.

Gorgeous evidence of the beauty of transformation (photographed recently in Barcelona)

You cannot predict in advance.

Let me emphasize that, more deeply.

You have NO IDEA. All of those publicists, publishers, online gurus, marketing wizards and experienced messiahs who promise to blow your Little Post into a Viral Stratosphere?

Nonsense.

They don’t know!

Seriously.

You never know what to expect when you visit another home

Sure, you can pay to boost online hits, and comb through huge databases to jack up your hits by a minor fraction of that total. You can opt to pay and have a jillion subscribers (although only a few hundred will actually ‘like’ your posts).

The Ancient Truth of Marketing is this:

You DON’T KNOW.

Thank goodness.

I look over my past years of running three blogs, two personal, and one for Forbes.

Everything is unexpected.

The article I thought would rage that mentioned the Prince of Monaco probably got in the hundreds of hits, while the piece about biodynamic wines racked up in the ten thousand range. The article on a bizarre day trip to obscure sections of the lesser known city of Poitiers quickly scored thousands of hits, while the article about the colorful, ancient, renowned, semi-mystical Jurad wine festival of beautiful Saint-Èmilion city turned out to be a virtual flop.

Goregous festival in Saint-Émilion. But how do we interest the world, and do we even want to? (Photograph taken this fall at the Jurad Festival)

As I wrote in my book, Visual Magic:

“The successful outcomes we visualize often arrive on their own schedule. Actor Richard Gere told a Los Angeles Times reporter about the mysterious process of maintaining his high profile in the movie business. ‘The only level of career you have to maintain is to have a hit movie,’ he said. ‘Nothing more, nothing less. You can still play in the game if every once in a while you have a hit movie. But it’s not like you can pick them. That never works. It’s all by accident. There’s an alchemy out there that no one can figure out.’ “[i]

[i] Los Angeles Times, P. E6, January 6, 2003.

So, too, with life.

Life is often a feast when you least expect it (this photo was taken at the Albet i Noya winery outside of Barcelona)

I visualize and believe and pray and often this leads to munificence and benevolence and rich beauties in life. But, often and unpredictably, life shifts in directions our haughty egos can never predict. This is the beauty of life.

The era of my life most charmed, beautiful and rich with jewels of experience and fortune, that made me feel as though I lived in a dream while my thoughts transformed uncannily into sweet reality, were my volunteer years in the Peace Corps in Malawi, Africa. And yet these were followed, at times, by heartache and pain and a wondering—why can’t I go back?

The appearance of bliss changes every day (this photograph was taken this summer near Saint-Émilion in Bordeaux, France)

This is a truth I learned:

Life is fluid. When we cling to situations, beliefs, memories, or ideas as being ‘ideal’ or ‘pivotal’ or ‘bedrock,’ we are likely to be shocked when that state of affairs, that mindset, that paradigm, that reality, that state of governance, that code of ethics, that canon of belief, that trope of manners, that code of morals, shifts.

We cling to the past because it is comforting. Secure. Known.

Yet life changes. Reality alters.

Unless we are prepared, occasionally, to drift with those changes, we will ourselves turn obsolete.

This is not a question of being conservative or liberal, because the shape of those very definitions also morphs.

Lake Columbia, Canada (photograph taken back in 2001)

I wrote about this in my book Rivers of Change – Trailing the Waterways of Lewis and Clark.

In Chapter 34, Birthplace of Montana, I wrote:

“The truck radiator boiled over south of Fort Benton, and I pulled into a rest stop near a cluster of hay bales. There I stood at the edge of a semicircular rimrock wall hundreds of feet above river and plains. Below, the Missouri River curved like a rope, carving a path parallel to this cliff. It seemed as much a presence as a river. I envied the farmer who lived below and woke each dawn to this vista of cliffs ringed by muscular water.

The Yellowstone River (photograph taken during my trip in 2001)

The vista below reminded me of Alan Watts’ words from his book The Wisdom of Insecurity. He told how life is a state of flux and that wanting fixed security—stasis—is to desire that which is not a part of life. When we try to stake ourselves and our egos to a secure shore, we often find that the river of life drifts away, inflicting us with a sense of unease that makes us yearn for even more security.

‘It must be obvious, from the start, that there is a contradiction in wanting to be perfectly secure in the universe whose very nature is momentariness and fluidity,’ he wrote. ‘If I want to be secure, that is, protected from the flux of life, I am wanting to be separate from life. Yet it is this very sense of separateness in which we feel insecure.’

His words were inspiring. I believed that by maintaining optimism and flexibility, the future would unfold in a way both benign and prosperous.

Street Art in Barcelona, Spain

The day felt suddenly easy. I moved away from the cliff and breathed deep beneath a mackerel sky. Uncertain of what lay ahead I was willing to roam and learn. For a rare moment in life both hands stayed loose of certainty while the hours swelled with the rich bliss of knowing that nothing stays secure. There is no predicting where the river of life will carry us.”

Amen.

***

Thanks again for tuning in. I write this blog and another (vinoexpressions.com) and also write for various publications (shown below). I appreciate your visit to this site and hope you will continue checking out Roundwood Press.

Also, unless otherwise noted, all images shown on this blog are my own photographs.

 

The Bookseller of Budapest

In the hilly Castle District within the city of Budapest, at 18 Fortuna Koz, is an English language bookstore named Vadászbolt. The shelves within this small one-room store are scrupulously maintained so that no books jut out further than others.

The owner, Alexandre, sat in a stall corner turning pages of what appeared to be some ancient text when I entered.

We talked.

“Business is slow during winter,” he said. “But it does not matter. We love books!”

I asked where books about Hungarian history were located and he jumped up and pointed to a specific set of shelves.

I selected the first book I saw, read sample paragraphs and knew it was a keeper: about the wrongful conviction and imprisonment of a Hungarian resident in Soviet gulags for nine years. Titled A Hidden World and written by Raphael Rupert, it was published in 1963 by Collins at Saint James Place, London.

I next looked for a second title and, as often happens when a receptive mind enters a bookstore, knew my fingers were gliding to another appropriate text. I soon chose another hardcover with a dust jacket—titled Seven Years Solitary by Edith Bone (an English woman who had lived in Hungary). It, too, was about wrongful incarceration in the late 1940’s and 1950’s.

Curiously, on reading the first book I found the author mentioned the author of the second book because they were briefly both locked up at the same prison.

Their stories are similar. Rupert tells of clown courts, congested prison trains with holes cut in some corner as a toilet, frequent beatings, tedious interrogations, cabbage soup as food and fellow inmates dying in droves from chopping timber during brutal winter days. There were prison gangs who robbed personal possessions and inmates beaten and shot without mercy. There was never enough warmth. Regarding their transport by train, Rupert wrote:

“It was mid-winter, but the wagons had no stoves or any form of heating, and we were wearing old, threadbare Russian uniforms…On this four-day journey, five prisoners died…”

Regarding working in the forest logging trees, he wrote:

“There were many accidents; the stumps, some of which weighed half a ton, rolled on to the prisoners, crushing them. During my first week of this work, fifteen prisoners had to be taken to hospital.”

Obviously, human regard for human life can virtually vanish at times.

Which brings me to artificial intelligence.

Except for rare intersections of time and space coordinates where benevolent societies have flourished to some degree—Athenian Greece, Renaissance Florence, 7th century Ireland (before Vikings invasions), Etruria (Tuscany) before Roman invasions and no doubt during some eras of Inca and Sumerian civilizations—human leadership often appears to have been a gruesome, brutal, cruel, dictatorial and condescending affair. Think Robert Mugabe—the thug who rigged countless elections and decimated an economically functioning society so that he could be Boss. Think Castro, Stalin, Idi Amin, Dos Santos of Angola and that train of North Korean thugs who pretend that they are a deified dynasty.

Chances are, this nonsense will continue. If humans did not have the temerity to take out Mugabe or Castro, then (collectively) we don’t appear to be a very bright, intolerant and progressive lot.

Just as tribal rule evolved into city states which transformed to nations (basically lines drawn on maps and associated with a flag, an anthem and a national airline, many of which appear quite similar), perhaps countries, as John Lennon suggested, may in the future vanish. But who will rule the massive trading blocs that replace them?

Perhaps algorithms and artificial intelligence can improve governance. Management could incorporate lessons learned from histories of prosperous as well as failed states to suggest better, more benevolent, more efficient means of ruling.

I have more faith in Google than, say, Maduro of Venezuela or any of a handful of illiterate war lords in Somalia.

Reading those books about how Stalinist darkness touched Hungary and how paranoia and prison camps can be used as tools to control populations was a reminder that humans, collectively, are not so hot at governance. I have no problem giving a decent algorithm the chance to comb through historical patterns to help figure out where we should best go next. Just as we generally trust GPS to secure a more efficient route to a destination than we could plot with pen and map ourselves, we should be open minded about giving this technological alternative a chance.

Otherwise, when might the next Mao try to force a cultural revolution on a population? When might another group of goons decide that the talented and educated should be sent to plant rice?

The day after visiting the bookstore, I took a walking food tour around Budapest. We were a group of three, including myself, the guide, and a woman from northern California who was on the verge of moving to Guatemala. The Hungarian guide told us about growing up. She told us how there simply was no variety of food for her in youth, and how, once a year, she would get a few pieces of fruit for the holidays.

Looking around at the market stalls bulging with produce, I realized how much life has improved for her and for these Hungarians. They too, appreciate the change.

When my computer died, I took it to a repair store in Budapest. Within hours, it was fixed for about $20. The young staff were polite and efficient. No doubt they are also appreciative of the power and potential benefits of technology. This youth represents the future: educated, driven, interconnected. Just as technology has improved during past decades and we have discarded what is obsolete, let’s hope our world stays bright enough to discard outmoded models of governance, such as dictatorships. An app might not replace human leadership, but it could certainly add enhancements.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dogsleds and Elephants

On Saturday mornings I wake and walk a few minutes down the road to this little newsagent.

I buy a copy of what used to be known as The International Herald Tribune but is now called The New York Times International Edition.

The fact that they renamed the paper New York Times is sad. It erases all that nostalgic sense of fidelity with a Paris based U.S. paper having the illustrious title of Herald Tribune. As an American you once had a link to other Americans who had lived in Europe and who also knew the Tribune.

I buy the paper far less often than before. Whatever your politics, the editorial pages and headlines scream nothing but invective. These pages have become a sort of cross between the National Enquirer and the Soviet newspaper Pravda (which I read a few English translation copies of during college, out of fascination). The constant, incessant, unadulterated, semi-fanatic editorial negativity is as repellant as, say, listening to Namibian white farmers blaming everything bad in their lives on their black neighbors. Truly, I know about that having lived there and listened to them. I mean, ultimately, hearing the same complaints again and again about the same topic becomes boring.

Politics aside, there were a few good articles in a recent Saturday’s edition. One was an interview with Walter Isaacson, who wrote the biography of Steve Jobs (excellent book) and who wrote a book I am now reading—which is a biography of Leonardo Da Vinci. The second article was a book review about a collection of essays about writing, written by John McPhee.

In college in Boulder I bought John McPhee’s book titled Coming Into the Country when I lived on Pennsylvania Avenue on the Hill. And the book—which is non-fiction about people living in Alaska, told many stories. One included some woman who had moved to Alaska from the lower 48 states and went to a meeting of, I think, dog sled racers. She had decided she needed a husband. So she eyed these men at this meeting, pared the possibilities down to three, then selected one. And, damn if she didn’t marry him!

Reading this, I thought: How brutal! The gal just checked a box and snagged a clueless dude.

But, who knows? I mean, maybe it was a match made in heaven. Truly. I envy her pluck and determination, to be honest.

Anyway, back to McPhee.

One of the books he wrote is titled Encounters with The Archdruid. The archdruid being a very well known and controversial environmentalist leader of the 1970’s and 1980’s named David Brower. McPhee arranged for Brower to spend a few weeks rafting through the Grand Canyon, together with a man he frequently debated with vociferously in public–Floyd Dominy, the head of the Bureau of Reclamation and builder of dams who basically wanted to dam up the Grand Canyon. Author McPhee documented their interactions, which turned spicy.

After leaving college in Boulder and spending weeks in Steamboat Springs, I came back to Boulder one weekend for an environmental conference. The keynote speaker was David Brower. I recall him explaining as he stood at the microphone in Regents Hall, with passion, how miraculous our lives are, and how even the process of chewing and swallowing and digesting food was of marvelous complexity. He was a tall man and a huge figure and appeared to be warm and generous and wildly attuned to the need to preserve wilderness and nature. I think he was some sort of Berkeley Birkenstock sort of chap who got the Sierra Club’s non-profit status revoked after he, the then leader of the organization, published some political piece in a mainstream media paper.

I remember in college a lot of students wore t-shirts with color drawings of, say, wolves. Or mountain goats. They were popular at the time. Written above these drawings, in some dainty and rococo script, was some quote about how nature was fragile and gentle. I always thought that was a crock of shite to portray the natural world as gentle and fragile. Because nature is not fragile, or timid, or weak (think tsunami in Japan, hurricanes in Houston, wildfires in California). Even if we humans nuke ourselves into oblivion (I pray not), within months some species of life—say beatles or lice or cockroaches or maybe even some robust lemur—will begin adapting to the radiation and multiplying and eating our thermonuclear toasted carcasses as they find them strewn across city streets and throughout the spiral configurations of tract homes. Nature—tectonic churning and billions of years old, will merrily plod on. Asteroid collision? Ice age? Bring it on! Mama Earth could not care less. Truly.

But I do remember my own mother saying, once, “Imagine there were no elephants left in the world?”

At the time, even with all the poaching taking place in Africa decades ago, I thought that was kind of far-fetched.

No more. We’re currently losing elephants due to poaching at a rate of 8 percent per year.

Yet you don’t see that on mainstream media headlines.

What I’d prefer to read in newspapers is the marvel of the world we live in, and how aspects are challenged. Rather than reading some Anti-Trump invective or reviews of a book by Hillary, why don’t we learn more about the fate of elephants across the African plains, or the latest space exploration voyages or the growth of high speed trains (or semi-empty cities) across China? I think Americans would be better off if we began to think more internationally, to be more Herald Tribune rather than New York Times minded with respect to world.

It’s excellent to see that Isaacson, who wrote the biography of an American icon (Steve Job), then focused his attention on the biography of a European Renaissance icon (Da Vinci). Fantastic.

Are we in too much of a rush to wonder at what is going on in the world around us? Are we in such a hurry that a woman would need to identify her partner for life during a single dog sled meeting?

You get the point.

Too busy to tune into the world? I don’t buy that. Buy an atlas instead of a new Lexus. It will cost you less, won’t break down and requires no change of oil. You won’t even need to plug it in.

Books, such as those written by Isaacson and of McPhee can, vicariously, expand our awareness of the great world we live in.

So – Read.

Widely.

Not just headline stories in mainstream media.

 

The Hip, The Trip, and the Laundromat in Boulder, Colorado

Here are three memories about writing from Boulder, Colorado.

One.

During college in Boulder, I walked from a house on the ‘Hill’ region—where I lived in with several roommates on Pennsylvania Avenue—to the laundromat called Doozy Duds, adjacent to the same parking lot as the Boulder Mountaineer and Dot’s Diner. I put a load of clothes in the washing machine, sat on a bright orange plastic chair and picked up a newspaper from the adjacent seat.

Flipping through pages, I stopped at an advertisement. It was one or two pages long and was for either an Apple or a Mac computer. It showed—with illustrations—how you could highlight text, and then cut the text and paste this somewhere else.

Wow!

That was new. And amazing. I was sure it would change the world.

Which it did.

Unlike writers in the age of Emily Bronte or Jules Verne who had to compose thoughts clearly in their heads before putting them to paper, we can now half-formulate thoughts, write them down and rearrange paragraphs later.

Before the electronic cut and paste function, we would—literally—take a scissors and tape to sheets of paper we had written on, then cut out paragraphs and rearrange them on another sheet of paper and then tape these into place before re-typing the text.

Apparently the guy credited with inventing electronic ‘copy and paste’ function is Larry Tesler, who was working for Xerox in Palo Alto in California in the 1970’s.

Two.

After college, while still in Boulder, I took an evening course in magazine writing taught by Sam Maddox. Sam became reputed in Boulder because he was a ‘stringer’ who wrote pieces for various newspapers and magazines before he started his own publishing business. He had written a piece about the town of Boulder for Newsweek Magazine, titled “Where the Hip meet to Trip.”

That small column put Boulder on the national radar for being liberal and tolerant.

For the class he taught (which was excellent) we had to select and then interview a local business owner, then write an article about them. I interviewed the owner of Dot’s Diner. He shared memorable events. One was that the restaurant had previously been named The Magnolia Thunderpussy (I kid you not). One day a woman from the Doozy Duds laundromat next door came into the small front hall, stripped and threw her clothes into a laundry basket, then pulled on another set of clothes. All of this in the lobby before the front desk: getting buck naked and re-dressing before sauntering out again.

Another time the cook was so hungover that he took a nap by laying horizontally on the front counter while the restaurant was still open.

That was my first interview.

I thought, wow–this is intriguing: listening to wild and colorful tales about real events, then writing about them.

Three.

Two weeks ago a former professor in civil engineering from the University of Colorado in Boulder who had taught me, George Goble, died. Strangely, I found that out after I wrote the paragraph below.

George Goble was a pragmatic, no-nonsense guy from Idaho. He taught both a course that was an introduction to engineering, as well as a course on statics (where we examined forces acting in equilibrium on stationary objects).

He once told us that the more we studied and worked in engineering, the more our facility with writing would diminish. He said that was just a fact, whether we liked it or not.

I’m delighted he said that.

As soon as he did, I decided, unequivocally and definitely, that come hell or high water that would never happen with me.

I continued studying engineering, and working in engineering, but also wrote on the side. In journals. For the college newspaper. After graduation I did an internship with the High Country News in Paonia, Colorado. My love of writing was fierce, though my ability to structure thought and pull in readers was then undeveloped.

“Remember,” wrote Betsdy Marston, the editor and co-owner of the High Country News when she edited a draft piece I had written. “You are telling a story, not just reciting facts.”

Story. Not just facts.

Okay.

Got it.

It’s bizarre how the professor’s almost offhand comment made during an introductory class helped shape the destiny of my future.

Incidentally, the city of Boulder and its surrounding countryside?

Beautiful!

Visit if you can.

Please do check out my posts on Instagram, Twitter, my Vino Voices blog, or at my Forbes site.

Next post?

Gruesome and Revealing Daily Security Briefings In Southeast Asia….

Thanks for tuning in!

The Power of Words

Words can change us.

They can make our bodies shudder with emotion, fire us to action, or guide our trajectories through life.

I recall three sets of words that are powerfully memorable.

The now peaceful skies over rural U.K.

The first is when the Nazi regime attacked Britain via their Luftwaffe air fleet in at the beginning of the Second World War, in what became known as the Battle of Britain.

Winston Churchill—having failed several times during his previous career, was now the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. He broadcast the following words to the House of Commons in June, 1940. The words galvanized the citizens of an island to steel themselves against the forces of darkness, regardless the uncanny odds against them. Despite the air attacks, the German forces never did gain a foothold on the island of Britain.

You can click on the link below to hear at least some of his words.

In the broadcast, Churchill said:

“We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France. We shall fight on the seas and oceans. We shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air. We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches. We shall fight on the landing grounds. We shall fight in the fields, and in the streets. We shall fight in the hills. We shall Never Surrender!”

The moon – no longer completely mysterious and alien

The second set of words was spoken by Neil Armstrong, when this astronaut—the first human ever—descended from the lunar module on a ladder and put his booted foot on the ashy soil of the moon. The words he spoke were not scripted by NASA, nor were they prepared by Washington beauracrats. Instead, the first words spoken by the first ever human being to touch the soil of another land beside our own planet were created by the astronaut himself (though likely apocryphal, I like the story that his wife suggested this phrase to Armstrong during pillow talk the night before his great adventure).

[LM stands for ‘Lunar Module,’ the vehicle that landed on the moon.]

Armstrong said:

“I’m, eh, at the foot of the ladder. The LM footpads are only depressed in the surface about 1 or 2 inches, although the surface appears to be very, very fine grained, as you get close to it. It’s almost like a powder. (The) ground mass is very fine. Okay. I’m going to step off the LM now.”

Long pause.

“That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.”

The third set of words regard the resistance to an attack on the U.S.

On September 11th, 2001, when their flight—United Airlines flight UA93—had been hijacked by terrorists, thirty-two year old passenger Todd Beamer from New Jersey, father of two, spoke on his cell phone to Lisa Jefferson, a switchboard supervisor from the Verizon phone company. Beamer described their plight: the flight had been hijacked, and he saw two hijackers with knives and someone else enter the cockpit. He and others on the flight learned from phone conversations that three other flights that day had been hijacked by fanatics and crashed—into the Twin Towers in New York City and into the Pentagon. They knew that their plane, hijacked, had been turned around and was likely to be commandeered to crash into—perhaps—the Pentagon or the White House. They knew they were doomed.

These passengers had no choice but to do nothing, or to act by attacking the hijackers. A group of passengers that likely included thirty-eight year old Tom Burnett Junior, thirty-one year old Jeremy Glick, Mark Bingham, fight-attendant Sandra Bradshaw and Todd Beamer (and others) apparently worked together from the back of the plane. They made a plan, executed it and attacked the hijackers. Their actions prevented the hijackers from fulfilling their mission of using the plane as a missile to attack another building. It resulted, as the passengers likely knew it would, in the plane crashing prematurely into a quarry in Pennsylvania, killing all.

Beamer’s words during the 13 minute phone conversation were unrecorded. According to the woman who spoke with him, after sharing a prayer with her, Beamer said something to the effect of: “A group of us are going to do something.” He then left his phone while he spoke to the other passengers. She heard him saying:

“Are you ready? Okay. Let’s roll.”

Musician Neil Young soon created a song about the event. His words tell the the story from the view of the passengers on the flight.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bhutan’s Reincarnated Rimpoche – Meet Again?

Land of the Thunder Dragon

A few years ago an unexpected and unusual event occurred in life, for which I am grateful.

It may still change the course of future events.

Three years ago, while working in Pakistan, I took a vacation to the country of Bhutan. The flight in from Thailand—corkscrewing through mountains—was wildly beautiful, though unnerving.

Looking outside the windows as the plane descended we saw peaks on both sides of the plane, above us!

Sizable Buddha

To enter the country and take this five day stay I was required to hire a guide and driver, and pay all lodgings in advance. This government requirement is intended to filter out indolent visitors or those unable to contribute to the economy.

The actual daily price for the vehicle, guide, driver and lodging was very reasonable.

Directing traffic

Thoughtful message to visitors on a woodland trail

The country turned out to be fascinating.

During work hours, locals are required to wear traditional formal dress; smoking and tobacco are prohibited in the country; climbing high peaks (where spirits dwell) is forbidden; there are carvings of penises all over the country—protruding over entrances to doorways, hanging on walls (a myth supports this); archery is a national sport played by locals wearing traditional costumes; there are no traffic lights.

We crossed mountain passes with arrays of prayer flags and prayer wheels fluttering in the wind; at one our guide Tshering pointed out Mount Everest in the distance.

One of many beautiful monasteries

Here is an excerpt from my journal:

Four and a half hour drive across mountains today. Never seen such twisted roads, and marvel how they could have been hacked out of mountainsides decades ago. 

My guide is Mr. Tshering. The driver is Sona. He looks like Kato from the Green Hornet. They are both affable, laid back, cool. Sometimes we see others take covert smoke breaks behind trucks, because tobacco is pretty much illegal in Bhutan. Which is progressive. Way progressive.

Young monks

My guide, Tshering, told me how he recently had been introduced to the highest spiritual figure in the country, the Rimpoche. He told me how the 22-year old Rimpoche was one of some dozen or more Rimpoches who had held the position in the past. However, most had been assigned the position, whereas this one had been selected as the seventh reincarnation of the original Rimpoche. He had displayed wisdom and intuition at a very young age, and therefore was chosen to be the next spiritual leader. Tshering had met the Rimpoche a few times, and had also introduced him to a Vietnamese businessman who had donated to the monastery, then found that his own life and business became more prosperous the more he gave away.

Hillside living

Tshering then asked if I would like to meet the Rimpoche in person.

Of course! I said.

What a wonderful opportunity.

Hand made and colorful

From my journal:

My guide, Mr. Tshering, will try to set up a meeting with the Rimpoche. Considering he will soon vanish for three years while he meditates and prays, and will afterwards be appointed the official spiritual leader of Bhutan, this is an opportunity not to miss.

Weighing goods at the market

It turns out that young Rimpoche, though he had poor eyesight, often met visitors at a room in a monastery, a building located below, and separate from, his own living quarters.

Tshering made the arrangements on his cell phone.

Phobjihka nature reserve – one of many national parks

On the day we were to meet, we woke at high altitude at a hotel near a nature reserve. It was brittle cold outside. Our vehicle ignition did not work. The battery was dead. We were in a rural region a long way from any mechanic.

This is from my journal about that day:

Yesterday, we were supposed to leave the Phobjihka nature reserve to drive to Tango Monastery, outside Thimphu city, to meet the Rimpoche. My guide, Mr. Tshering, has made friends with the Rimpoche in the past year.

But our Hyundai SUV did not run, because the battery was dead. So, as I sat before the guest house on a log drinking tea with the most amazing vista of the glacial valley below, both Sona the driver and Tshering worked on the car. They had coasted it downhill and tried to jump start it, without success. The guest house owner would not let us borrow his car because he needed it.

Pathway advice on a hillside trail

After phone calls and requests, Tshering and the driver had arranged for a someone else to come jump start the vehicle by towing it.

Eventually the SUV started.

The delay meant we were too late to visit the Rimpoche at his monastery, as he would have gone home by the time we arrived.

Instead, we had the very rare invitation to come directly to the Rimpoche’s residence.

The short term setback (dead battery) led to a greater benefits (amazing invitation).

We parked and hiked up a hillside and arrived first at the monastery where I had the fortune to informally dine, relatively quickly, with a group of monks. We were then ‘summoned’ to the Rimpoche’s residence. We hiked uphill for more minutes and entered a comfortable dwelling, where we sat in a room with the Rimpoche’s mother and his tutor. This was an unusual situation, because they usually did not have foreign visitors. In fact, according to Tshering and the others, I was the second person ever (after the Vietnamese businessman) and the first Westerner, ever to meet the Rimpoche in his home. There was silence, so I joked about our dinner with the monks, which Tshering translated, and which his mother and tutor found somewhat amusing.

Pathway to Rimpoche’s residence

During days of traveling in Bhutan I had learned a few phrases of the local language from Tshering. While in the vehicle on the way to the monastery, I had asked him to translate a few more simple phrases.

Eventually, I was summoned to the room with the Rimpoche. He was in a chair, wearing glasses, and looking thoughtful. I had brought a pashmina scarf purchased in Pakistan as a gift. This was made from the fine gruff hairs of immature goats. I had brought a few of these along on the trip as possible gifts. I presented this as instructed, draping it across outstretched forearms. I understood the Rimpoche would accept this and then present me with a cloth to take away. Before he did, I uttered my Bhutanese phrases, and the Rimpoche suddenly stopped moving. It was clear, I then realized, that visitors did not speak to the Rimpoche. But I had! In the local language I said—basically—”Hi Rimpoche! All well? I’m a visitor from America.”

He turned his head, slightly. It was obvious he was fascinated and somewhat amused, and yet not at all unhappy by my remarks. I believe he then spoke some words, presented me with a scarf and some twine to tie into wrist loops, and soon I was on my way.

Back in the room with Tshering, mother and tutor, a massive flash of bright white light crossed my mind.

I then realized the power and positive nature of the Rimpoche; unlike anything I ever encountered before.

Tango Monastery at dusk

From my journal:

January 3rd, 2014

After a bizarre set of serendipitous events including a dead car battery and running into the right person at the right time, I had the rare privilege of being, I’m informed, the first non-Bhutanese westerner to personally meet and receive a blessing from the 7th reincarnation of the Rimpoche in his private residence—rather than at the Tango monastery. In March he will begin 3 years of meditation seclusion before becoming spiritual leader of Bhutan. 

Precariously placed Tiger’s Nest Monastery

Archery in the countryside

Monks practicing dance for a forthcoming festival

Soon we descended the hillside in darkness.

Soon after that, the Rimpoche left to another monastery to spend three years alone, meditating. Tshering told me that when these three years of solitude had finished, he will undergo a ceremony which the King and Queen of Bhutan will attend.

And I will be invited.

Of course, Tshering added, I would have to arrive early to secure proper local clothing for the event.

Hotel dining room the final night in Bhutan

We’ve communicated recently. I believe the event shall be held in the spring of next year.

I look forward to the chance of attending the ‘inauguration’ of a reincarnated spiritual leader in the Himalayan mountains.

And yet, searching for information about the Rimpoche on the internet, I have found nothing.

How refreshing.

Royal Bhutan Airlines

Years ago I wrote another article about Searching for Wine in Bhutan, which includes a video with a lively local woman (I also speak a few local phrases).

Again, thank you for tuning in!

Facing the Unknown

 

A bend in the road

Just as we inhale, then exhale, there are times in life when we need to exert effort, and times when we need to relax. There are times to work, and times to play.

This is like pushing a car out of a ditch. You don’t just push the car, you rock it back and forth until the time comes for one mighty heave (preferably from several people at once) that slips the vehicle out of the ditch and onto the road.

It is by working together with the rhythms of nature, and the rhythms of people, objects and situations, that we minimize effort and maximize results.

Once we understand the naturalness of such rhythms in life, and tune into them, our own lives can become more balanced, healthier, and better attuned to our surroundings as well as to other people.

Quite the flow

We are surrounded by systems that ignore this. The linear, barely interrupted office work day and 50-week work year are unnatural remnants of the Industrial Revolution, in which squeezing labor out of subordinates was adopted as a cultural norm. Humans perform best when they focus on a mental task for 4 to 6 hours in the morning, then switch gears to physical activity, then work mentally again later. The Latin culture understands this with the concept of the siesta, where the body and mind work and rest in accordance with soaring and waning daily temperatures. This also respects the human craving for variety.

These oscillating rhythms of life can also apply to times when we stay in control, and times when we surrender.

Sometimes we plan out a route with perfect precision. And sometimes events occur along perhaps that same journey where we lose control. Rather than fight uncontrollable events, it can be prudent to surrender. There is economy and efficiency in the fabric of reality that we need to give into at times—in order to achieve often far more than we originally planned, or to attain levels of peace not previously anticipated.

Here is an excerpt from the book I’m now re-reading now titled “Lost Horizon,” written by James Hilton and first published in 1933.

Here is the background: A group of four Europeans being evacuated from Baskul in Afghanistan to Peshawar in British India (now Pakistan) find themselves on a plane that has been hijacked, and which (after a re-fueling) crash lands in the high peaks of northwest Tibet. There they are found by a group of locals who take them on a mountain trek back to their home, a locale named Shangri-La. Together with the locals, these passengers hike through the mountains for hours—wet, cold, tired and confused. One passenger (Mallinson) speaks with another passenger named Conway—the protagonist of the story.

Photo of the Himalayas…taken years ago when flying to Bhutan

The track went on, more sharply downhill, and at one spot Conway found some edelweiss, the first welcome sign of more hospitable levels. But this, when he announced it, consoled Mallinson even less. “Good God, Conway, d’you fancy you’re pottering about the Alps? What sort of hell’s kitchen are we making for, that’s what I’d like to know? And what’s our plan of action when we get to it? What are we going to do?”

Conway said quietly, “If you’d had all the experiences I’ve had, you’d know that there are times in life when the most comfortable thing is to do nothing at all. Things happen to you and you just let them happen. The War was rather like that. One is fortunate if, as on this occasion, a touch of novelty seasons the unpleasantness.”

“You’re too confoundedly philosophic for me. That wasn’t your mood during the trouble at Baskul.”

“Of course not, because then there was a chance that I could alter events by my own actions. But now, for the moment at least, there’s no such chance. We’re here because we’re here, if you want a reason. I’ve usually found it a soothing one.”

[Hilton, James. Lost Horizon: A Novel (p. 43). Open Road Media. Kindle Edition.]

The rest of the story, which I’ll not reveal, is about finding a paradise—and learning to enjoy it there and then.

Monks in Bhutan

The point is not to wait for desired events to plop into your lap. But once we realize there are rhythms in life we must sometimes surrender to, our own situations can become more colorful, vibrant and rewarding.

Many situations in life that I fought against ended up providing situations for the better. The pain of a relationship breakup? The hate of a course you needed to study? The fear of moving to a different location?

In retrospect, fighting against the tide of circumstances can be a waste of time and energy. That does not mean you should just give up—but realize when you have no control, and wait until a situation plays out.

Sometimes you should just let events unfold.

This may even lead to prosperity, as Shakespeare understood when he wrote Julius Caesar. In this play Brutus speaks to Cassius, saying:

There is a tide in the affairs of men,

Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune…

…On such a full sea are we now afloat,

And we must take the current when it serves

Or lose our ventures.

 

Crazy Numbers, Big Thinking, and God

I recently read a riveting book titled Future Crimes: Everything is Connected. Everyone is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It—by Marc Goodman. It is a well-researched, well-written tale of how hacking is, and will, impact the world in which we live. However, aside from fascinating tales of hacking, here are a few pieces of information which relate to scale and size that are quite astounding.

An internet address for every atom…this open ocean of the Maldives must have a few trillion

  • The number of internet addresses available (related to Internet Protocol Version 4, or IPv4) was established in 1981. It provided about 4.3 billion network addresses – ‘each one representing a different connected device.’ But we are now running out of addresses. So IPv6 was formed. It can handle 2 to the power of 128 connections. How many is that? Imagine that each grain of sand on all the beaches in the world were each given 1 trillion addresses. That’s how many. Or, if every atom on our planet were given a unique address, we would still have enough ‘left to do another 100+ earths.’ So when the ‘internet of things’ becomes a dominant reality, every piece of furniture in your home, every non-perishable item you own (actually, probably perishable also), can have multiple individual addresses. The establishment of IPv6 embodied thinking big and thinking far ahead.
  • A Harvard professor named George Church has concluded that, once we start storing electronic data using DNA rather than silicon chips (within the basic biology of cells) we could store the entire quantity of digital data generated by humankind in one year in—get this—about four grams of DNA. That would weigh about the same as eight paperclips (in contrast, the Utah Data Center—which now stores data and processes data also, includes about 1.5 million square feet of data storage space.)

If this far reaching, big thinking snags your attention, here is more.

The beauty of biology may include data storage capabilities – a scene near Bourg, Bordeaux, France

I recently came across a series of notes I took long ago during the Boston Book Festival in October of 2011. In a panel titled ‘Frontiers of Science,’ Lisa Randall—a physicist working with CERN laboratories in Switzerland (and author of Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs, which I am currently reading) said: “Atoms are supposed to be indivisible and unchanging. But we’ve found them because they are changeable and divisible.”

A look at infinity in the Hunter Valley of Australia

Later, at a panel titled ‘Learning Learning’—Nicholas Negroponte spoke. This man was the first investor in Wired Magazine and a proponent of creating $100 laptop computers to be provided to huge quantities of people throughout the world. During this conference he said, “There are roughly 100 million kids who don’t go to first grade, because there is none.”

(Later on, he also said: “Reading is new to the brain. It’s not something we do naturally.”)

Organic beauty

Consider these statements. Do they share a commonality?

To consider creating a vast amount of internet addresses, to consider storing data in biological cells instead of on chips, to consider breaking mental and mathematical models regarding the structure of atoms, to consider delivering $100 laptops to millions of humans all over the planet—these are all thought processes that require shifting our viewpoint of the world.

They require changing our paradigm.

Reality depends on your viewpoint

Years ago I wrote about an article that mentioned a geographical researcher and explorer who changed the dominant model of how we regard the way that continents move on our planet. He essentially defined the basis of the theory of plate tectonics, which explains how continents shift over time.

Yet his original theory was vehemently attacked by by so called ‘professionals’ —later proved to be very wrong.

Only by stepping away from traditional viewpoints can true visionaries envision ways to transform our world—potentially for the better.

The article that I wrote years ago about the folly of clinging to what is established is here—in Columbia Magazine.

The Wild West

Which brings us to a final and most entertaining story regarding large numbers, a mountain excursion to Tibet and, well, God.

When I was ten or 12 years old we were in southern Spain in the town of Nerja, where my parents owned a home. On the rooftop porch of this house during a starlit evening our American friend Scott told a story. He recalled a tale by the science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke.

Published in 1953 and titled The Nine Billion Names of God, this story is only nine pages long. I suggest you Google and read it.

Being uncertain of the copyright status, I have provided only an indirect link.

Amen

A story about a few computer programmers making a starlit mountain pony trek in the Himalayas may be fictitious, but it could be even less bizarre than our own reality. The point being? Keeping an open mind is a useful tool not only to survive, but to thrive.

Ever changing reality

^^^

Although Roundwood Press includes ebooks and print books, we lack the marketing capability for my new cookbook—The Winemakers’ Cooking Companion. We are negotiating with a few publishers.

If you are a publisher interested in this project, please get in touch.

The video below provides a 3 minute overview.

1.5 Minutes To Another Universe

Here are two stories about the beneficial magic of veering away from what is routine.

The first involves a detour of a few minutes on foot, the second an exploration by car to a location an hour away.

ONE: MINUTES.

On Sunday evening, at the end of a long 14th of July Bastille Day set of weekend celebrations here in France, I walked out my front door.

I walked past the usual wine bars and restaurants, then decided to take a right. I passed a pizzeria and a Michelin ‘bib’ quality restaurant. I paced past kids throwing water off of a porch at their friends (it was 95 degrees F [35 C], after all) and checked whether a small bar/restauarant a group of us had  visited a year ago was open.

A gathering

It was!

I entered and ordered a glass of wine. The female proprietor told me I’d also have to order food.

Hot dog, I said after inspecting the menu. Plain. Dog, bread. That’s all.

I then sat on the porch.

She soon returned with the hot dog (which, in France, was three hot dogs squeezed between layers of a sliced baguette) and a glass of local red wine.

A young couple walked past. They said hello to the owner. I said hello to them. They then sat down to join me.

The couple ordered a Kronenburg beer, a glass of water and a sandwich.

Fred had lived in Portugal. Melissa came from the Cognac region to the north.

It was still plenty hot, but we sat in the shade.

We talked. They were curious—an American living in Blaye?! Did I know Yellowstone? Los Angeles?

Bien sur! I said. Of course.

They had met six years earlier. When they first met and talked they found out they each had a daughter named Melinda, and both of their daughters were six years old. Their ensuing relationship, they explained, was ‘destiny.’

The husband of the woman who served us, presumably the co-owner, stepped onto the porch. He wore his chef’s apron. There were no other customers. We all chatted. The summer evening bubbled with curiosity and stories.

A grandmother pulled up a chair to our table. She was together with her lively four year old granddaughter named ‘Ocean’—with one parent from Madagascar.

By visiting this slightly off the path locale, I had entered another universe. Everyone wanted to talk in the summer heat.

The sun went low, a breeze blew in, and we reveled in the cool air and conversation—animated and excited.

It reminded me of being at some bar in a remote Italian village, say, 30 years ago.

Yet the total walking time from my front door had been four minute and 15 seconds.  The deviation from my normal route was one minute and 30 seconds on foot, up an alley not traveled along in almost a year.

Another world.

That is the way of life. We grow used to routines, structure, means and methods which are familiar. We seldom truly head off the beaten trail—ditching guidebooks and advice and simply wandering.

And yet, as I learned 17 years ago when I drove a camper van through the United States to follow the route of the historic explorers Lewis and Clark, it is sometimes only yards away from well traveled highways that we encounter virtual miracles of hospitality, friendship and novelty.

This time a sudden, spontaneous and short lived cluster of camaraderie was only one and a half minutes away from what was routine.

Far away from what was expected.

And when I traveled a little further away (the story below), I learned how the experience could be not only enriching, but powerfully instructive.

 

TWO: HOUR.

I had to get out of town. After scouring multiple nearby locales on booking.com and Airbnb I chose one. Google maps showed it was 111 minute drive away, which sounded appropriately auspicious. It was a bed and breakfast with a swimming pool close to multiple restaurants in walking distance.

I couldn’t check in until 5.30, which meant that I had to depart during the hottest part of this 94 degree F (34 C) day at 4 o’clock in my beloved boat of a classical old Mercedes without, at present, functioning air conditioning, or ventilation (except for rolled down windows).

Perfect!

A challenge.

The canal and bike path in Saujon

Off I went and soon arrived. My upstairs room in this town of Saujon (which I had never heard of before) was quite minuscule, cooled only by a ceiling fan.

But there was the outdoor pool. With an alarm! Bizarre. The owner, a convivial woman, instructed me on how to deactivate the potentially wailing siren before plunging in.

The creperie on the water

I then walked a few minutes into town.

Intriguing.

This was a canal city, 18 miles (30 kilometers) from the Atlantic Ocean. Nice environment. There were large public squares, an admirable short and square bell tower and a tree lined bicycle path next to the breezy grass lined canal.

Most restaurants were closed, it being Monday. But I found a table on a terrace by the church spire (which then rang, timely and sonorous) and ordered a jug of white wine and roast chicken and raised my glass and toasted the couple seated at the adjacent table—Sante! Suddenly life was summertime full and brilliant and filled with quixotic slivers of generous serendipity.

Someone recently taught a French phrase appropriate for this type of relaxed moment we truly appreciate: Je profite de l’instant present—I enjoy the present moment.

Cool breezes on a hot day along canal waters

Thank you, Universe.

And then this realization arrived: When you arrive at a destination and it is completely misaligned with your expectations—yet not in an overall negative way—this allows you space, even forces you, to realign the shape of your own thoughts and expectations. About life. About everything.

This is a gift.

And when your table neighbors insist on pouring you a final and hefty glass from their bottle of Charente rosé, you again say thank you universe for unexpected camaraderie.

Fried veggies and olives

The sun hung low and orange behind the skyline buildings surrounding that public square and swifts and swallows dove around the belfry, past red flowers planted in oval terra-cotta pots at the edge of the terrace.

A minute after delivering a mug of ‘grande cafe’ coffee, a lovely young woman also delivered a silver pot of hot milk to the table and sang (truly sang) the word ‘voila‘ as she placed it with deft aplomb before she scurried away. Dusk flew in and the temperature cooled and a local woman in a black and white dress paraded her bulldog before the church and I wanted time to stretch and swallow and let me stay in that moment forever—or at least in some timeless iteration of that idyllic welcoming scene.

A colorful canal corner in Saujon

But here is an unexpected reason that those moments were so powerful.

The next evening I sat and listed decisions made since arrival in Saujon: specific actions to take to move forward with life. After pacing a canal side for a day and a half and eating fried vegetables and drinking Charente white wine or red Sicilian Nero D’Avola it turned out that I’d made 17 concrete decisions on actions and habits to take after arriving home. Many of them were creative, novel, and had never occurred before within the context of routine situations.

This powerful insight to planning occurred while wandering, relaxed.

Such is a benefit of moving to an unknown space now and then, of deviating from what is routine with an open minded attitude of exploration.

Sometimes it’s worth getting spoilt with globs of insight within unusual locations.

Sometimes it’s not bad to get lost.

 

^ ^ ^

If you are interested in reading more stories about travel and coincidences, check out my books…

Synchronicity as Signpost

The Synchronous Trail – Enlightened Travels

If you sign up below for this newsletter/blog, I’ll send you a copy of any one of them for free.

Thanks again for tuning in.

How Morocco and the Atlas Mountains Changed Life

Terry near the Atlas Mountains. We did not have many cares back then.

Every few weeks I’ll walk up the main street in the town where I live in in France and purchase a pink copy of the Financial Times Weekend newspaper. It’s all art and travel and cooking and even includes a magazine now and then titled How To Spend It advertising Cartier watches and including photos of tawdry lasses who transformed to posh gals by wearing Saint Laurent leather bustiers, silk bandanas and Wilson Swarovski crystal and rhodium plated brooches.

And then there are—after, say, a suave article about having lunch with author Hilary Mantel in a Devon restaurant—articles about travel.

One recent article was about Morocco. The author recalled his previous visit, 15 years ago, to the town of Imlil at the base of Mount Toupkal in the Atlas Mountains. He recalled how television was coming into the region, and the reaction of the local Berber people. He talked about Richard Branson’s new hotel, and mountaineering stores and ample cafes.

Really?

I remember something different.

Because I visited Imlil 27 years ago.

I had taken the ferry from Spain to Tangier and met a college friend who was a Peace Corps volunteer. We took various buses with two Australian gals I had met on the ferry from Spain to Morocco.

Once in the mountains, the four of us rented a massive room on the second floor of a huge stone building at the base of the Atlas Mountains. There was no running water or electricity.

We piled all sorts of blankets over ourselves on a deep rug on the floor in the middle of the second story. The huge stone room was round and surrounded by windows and had no furniture.

There were candles, but no lights. That was not because the place was trying to be romantic.

Earlier, for dinner, we had found the equivalent of a restaurant up a hill, a lantern lit hovel inside a stone building where they served soup with hunks of fat encrusted beef and chunks of bread. I remember leaving hungry, questioning the food.

But it was the only place to eat at in Imlil.

In the morning the girls sat outside on metal framed summer furniture without cushioned pads and they drank Nescafe coffee on porch tables. Terry and I went for a long walk on a winding gentle footpath before the foothills of Mount Toupkal.

We chewed some local substance to enhance the journey.

Beautiful.

The day before, I had tried to take photos of brightly colored dresses of Berber children.

They threw rocks at me.

Wow!

I wanted to move there, to live there, to rent a stone house and to practice my writing.

Backpack, Moroccan mountains, and different frames of mind.

That never happened.

But, days later, after the Australian girls had gone their merry way, Terry and I traveled more, this time on the back of his motorcycle. At the time I was hell bent on becoming a writer, but knew I had to practice. Practice, practice, practice. Write, write, write. I was tormented. I considered renting some stone home for a few months in the Moroccan outback and practicing my writing, trying to evoke the beauty of the desert in the same way that Edward Abbey had breathed life into his descriptions of the southwestern desserts of the U.S. in his book Desert Solitaire. One night, I think it was on New Year’s eve, we went to a disco in the big city of Rabat. They served alcohol and Terry was dancing with cute western women and I was agonizing about the truth that I needed to write! I felt intensely guilty about being in some disco while I should have been dedicating each minute to the craft I wanted to pursue. It was bizarre to be in the throes of fun and to feel so tormented.

Less than a year later I was off on my own adventure as a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi, where I practiced writing and began a career of overseas work. About ten years later, having worked in Namibia, Angola, Dubai, Thailand, the Philippines, Panama and Guatemala (during which time I wrote books during my free time—self-published because the New York publishing scene never embraced my words) I FINALLY came to a conclusion, on another New Year’s Eve in my brother’s trailer in Paradise Cove in Malibu, California: finally I knew how to write. I had practiced my craft for more than a decade, and the angst felt during that trip to Morocco earlier had vanished.

I had learned to smoothen prose (much as I had learned to belt sand tables while working ten-hour night shifts in a furniture factory in Boulder, Colorado, during college).

We had visited many places during that trip to Morocco. We took trains to Marrakech (no, sorry, Crosby, Stills and Nash—there is no Marrakech Express); we had wandered through markets in Tangier, and hand carried our self made pizzas through dark alleys to a local communal oven for baking in the town of Tiznit, where Terry lived in rural Morocco with his American girlfriend.

No doubt those locations have changed.

I recall watching Terry climb up windmills with a monkey wrench to fix the water systems in different villages. And recall seeing, and appreciating, deep crimson desserts of the countryside while we rode on that motorcycle.

Perhaps I may return.

But—this time?

No more itch to rent a remote dessert building in order to practice writing.

No more guilt at having drinks while at a club in Rabat.

Life moves on. We learn, we change, we learn to appreciate change.

And to appreciate life!

***

If you would like to read any of the three books I’ve written about Africa, click below:

Water and Witchcraft – Three Years in Malawi

The Deep Sand of Damaraland – A Journal of Namibia

Water After War – Seasons in Angola

 

 

The Train Ride That Changed Life

After studying engineering at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and disliking it intensely, I drove up to the ski town of Steamboat Springs, rented a cabin with two other people who were about my age and skied during days and worked various jobs—including as a night dishwasher at the Grand Banks restaurant on Main Street. After a few months, I left town, flew to El Paso in Texas, crossed the border by bus to the city of Juarez in Mexico and went to the train station. There I bought a train ticket for first class premium (prima de primera clase)—for $36—that allowed me to take a 36 hour train ride in my own cabin. This turned out to be the journey of a lifetime, and one that changed life.

The train car was an old 1940’s American caboose, and the back door was a huge wooden door split in two. The top half swung wide open that let me look at the Mexican countryside we passed through. Mostly it was desert scrub, very littered, and often with abandoned train cars by the rail side occupied as homes by rural locals. The train stopped now and then and passengers stepped outside to buy local tamales (delicious) for a few pesos. My cabin had a bed and a toilet and was quite cozy.

During the trip I finished one book and began another. Combined, these helped change perspective.

Blurry photo I took of a bus ride through deforested Guatemalan jungle. We had to wait hours while these guys with massive, 6 foot long chain saws cut this tree up to clear the road. At one point I considered just walking alone, but found out later there were some bandits in the region who had actually shot at another bus we encountered.

Before this trip I had driven from Steamboat to Boulder for a weekend to attend a ‘Tropical Deforestation Conference’ at the University of Colorado. It was held in Regents Hall and the keynote speaker was David Brower. The event truly alarmed me about the state of tropical deforestation in the world. At a sales table in the hall outside this conference room, I purchased two books. I read one back in Steamboat—titled In the Rainforest by Catherine Caufield. The prose was crisp, the organization of the book admirable, and the subject matter fascinating. The second book I brought along on this train ride. Titled The Primary Source and written by Norman Myers, it also told of tropical deforestation and efforts being taken to stop it.

Now and then a voice would call in the caboose hallway, and a railway conductor would pace up and down swinging a silver pail—filled with ice—holding ice cold bottles of cerveza for sale. I purchased a few, bedded down at dusk, and read.

At this time  I was truly agonized about what to do with my life. Stay in Colorado? Perhaps. Work in engineering? Never! I felt uncertain and almost defeated at racking my brains about what to do? 

I was also enchanted by the life of the author who wrote the second book, Norman Meyers. He was a worldwide environmental consultant, and a respected writer. He had a rural home in Kenya.

I visited Agua Azul in Mexico, found this jungle by the water and set up a hammock, where I slept the night. There were some strange noises all around me that night.

During that train ride I decided what to do with life.

I would become a well traveled international environmental consultant, and also an author.

(Curiously, I found out later that my father had taken this same train journey in the 1920’s with his father—who organized the excursion—and several New York businessmen, intent on possibly investing in a mine. They were guests of the president of Mexico and stayed at Chapultepec Palace; the mind deal never went through.)

The years have rolled by since that train trip, as have decades.

Two years after that trip I worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi, assigned as a water supply engineer. It was bliss. I had a motorcycle, a lovely English girlfriend also with a motorcycle (still a close friend) and material to write about. This led to 16 years of international work throughout the world managing infrastructure and environmental projects (and five years in southern California as an environmental consultant). I managed to self publish a few books along the way.

In the highlands of Guatemala, this group of indigenous women used hand looms to create beautiful shirts and tapestries. They formed a collective group of widows whose husbands had been killed by non-indigenous groups in a little known but bloody conflict that lasted years in the jungle.

Recently, for the first time in many, many years, I wondered what became of Norman Myers. I  found this interview with him in California in 1998. It is intriguing. He tells of growing up in Yorkshire without electricity, and then getting a job as a colonial administrator in Kenya when he was 22.

My backpacking trip that followed this train ride—by train, bus, truck, canoe and plane through Mexico, Guatemala and Belize—also changed life in another way. I learned a strange truth about reality that no books or classes ever hinted at. When you confidently expect to arrive at a certain destination, events and people align themselves to help you out with your journey. Yet when you fear not making it to a destination, physical and situational realities will emerge to help block your path.

That realization? Worth any course from any school.

 

Vineyard Hospitality

Occasionally friends visit the town where I live in France. The first visitors were family members, and we drove out to a wine château where a friend, a wild haired young surfing winemaker named Nicolas, lives with his family in the nearby village of Cars. Nicolas and his father Denis do not give tours of their wine château because they are too busy tending wines and fermenting cuvées in oak and steel. But because they had told me to bring family and friends, I had phoned them in advance about a rendezvous. We agreed on a visit. A day later, a sister and her boyfriend, friends from Blaye and a visiting Dutch couple drove there in two vehicles.

Denis prepares to carve the entrecôte

Months earlier, I had bought a twenty-year old Mercedes from a friend in Blaye. It had bulletproof windows because it once belonged to the Nigerian ambassador in London. Four of us piled into that car and cranked up the air conditioning, while two others piloted another vehicle. We met at the château.

Nicolas gave us a tour of his Merlot and Malbec vines in the scorching heat. He pointed out horses on grassy fields across a valley. He then brought us inside a beautifully decorated stone building where he and Denis had uncorked at least seven vintages to sample. There was a massive plate of charcuterie on the table. While we sipped and nibbled, Denis set fire to old grapevines in the fireplace, then clamped entrecôte steaks in a wire mesh holder and grilled these over crackling flames and jumping embers.

While we ate this abundant food, our garbled and multicultural conversation flowed with the wine. In the late afternoon we stumbled outside to the shade of trees on a patch of grass. The temperature was deliciously cool. Out came a guitar, and tunes flowed while more corks popped.

Finally, we drank cognac, shook hands, kissed cheeks, patted shoulders and decided it was time to depart and sleep soundly.

Eight hours after our arrival, jazzed on French wine and food and countryside living in a vineyard without tours but with unrushed ambiance, we returned to Blaye.

I phoned Nicolas he next afternoon. I asked, as agreed earlier, to tell the total cost of food and wine and the visit. I would pay him within a week.

He refused. “No!” he shouted. “You were our guest!”

When I insisted on paying, he refused. Instead, I thanked him and invited his family to dinner. Denis and his wife, together with Nicolas and his sister, arrived.

We ate at La Galerie in Blaye, an art gallery/restaurant with live guitar music. We sat at a long wood table scarred with ancient dents and dings and ate healthy portions of maigre fish from the estuary, local white asparagus, magret du canard duck breast and roasted veal with baby potatoes while we poured several magnums of beautiful 2009 wine.

When they heard we had paid for their meal, Nicolas and his father were shocked.

“What!” they declared, astounded. “You shouldn’t have!”

After lunch caffeine and digestifs beneath the trees

The next day, Nicolas showed up. Not to be matched or outdone by our dinner contribution, he handed over a precious double magnum of their 2002 red wine.

“A gift,” he said. “Small one.”

I laughed, wondering what we would next do in return.

Events like this make living here precious.

What Is Success? A Few Observations…

What is success?

There are many definitions. For me, the ability to have control over time is critical—to be able to work where I want, when I want, and to do whatever I want is key, as well as to be financially solvent and to have peace of mind.

Often, contentment is simply the absence of strife.

I’ve not yet gotten there.

But, am working on it. More appropriately – cultivating it.

Internally.

For decades I’ve ingested the wisdom of self-help books, and they have been inspiring in various ways.

Here are a few lessons learned from experience during past decades.

  • An open mind and a positive attitude are key—they form about 80% of the magical juice that will allow the fabric of reality to bend to your desires.
  • There come moments in life when situations and circumstances fall into place. Pay attention to those times, and why they harmonize with your own desires.

  • Sometimes your key to success is revealed by where your enemies lie. Whether you like it or not, whether or not you are honest, tolerant and humble, there come times in life when others rabidly dislike you—through no fault of your own. You will have done nothing wrong to bring their animosity into your life. They detest you merely because you exist. Perhaps it is your very equanimity they dislike. Or your situation or status. Regardless, pay attention, and do not be afraid. For they can be like dye-markers indicating the direction you must journey toward to reach your desired situation. They are beams of light indicating the very signal strengths that, until then, you may have been unaware of possessing. They can be the springboards off which you can leap into new, bolder, newer directions. As Napoleon Hill wrote in his book The Law of Success: “Don’t be afraid of a little opposition. Remember that the “Kite” of Success generally rises AGAINST the wine of Adversity—not with it!”

  • At other times, the direction to success may be pointed to by ‘angels’ – those who wish you well. The most ludicrously beneficial advice may arrive, unexpectedly, from that individual you previously considered ludicrous. That strange dude with the twee scarf, and the drooping handlebar mustache? He may whisper advice leading to your personal fortune. On this point, trust me.
  • The more you have, the more you have to take care of. Be prudent in your selection of how many possessions you want in life.

  • No situation remains the same. You take a job, learn who the key supervisors are, and then, one-by-one, they will leave or be replaced and just when you learn the ropes, the rigging changes. This can provide frustration or opportunity. All situations and power structures alter with time. Often our desires arrive in life, apparently unbidden, by a few mere natural changes in circumstance.
  • Discipline—in work, exercise and thinking—is a muscle that thrives on exercise. Still, allow yourself a bit of latitude. After all, we only live once.

  • Don’t be too concerned with what other people think of you. They are usually too busy thinking of what groceries to buy tonight, or where the next gas station is to fill up their fuel tank.
  • When life throws you in a direction several times, pay attention. I once re-visited the town of Atchison in Kansas, and locked my car keys in the car THREE times in the space of two hours (police and locksmiths came to the rescue). I then slowed down to consider this bizarre situation. Perhaps, I realized, before leaving town on that day trip, I should call a friend who lived there, and who I had promised to contact. I did so. We met, had dinner and both appreciated the reunion. The car key scenario, thankfully, made me re-evaluate the selfish desire to rush out of town without fulfilling a promise made months earlier. Another time I spent six hours hitchhiking in one direction in rural Malawi, Africa. No rides. I crossed the road, hitchhiked in the other direction and got a ride within minutes (there were about the same number of cars moving in both directions). I went home, and realized that I truly had not wanted to make that planned trip to Mount Mulanje that day anyhow, and that not getting a ride worked best. This happened repeatedly in that country: whenever I truly did not want to go somewhere, cars and buses broke down or thunderstorms closed in and those journeys ceased prematurely. Whenever I truly did want to get somewhere, and cultivated a calm confidence in eventual arrival, travel opportunities appeared in abundant, often bizarre ways.

  • Move away from people who hassle you or give you a hard time or consider you their punching bag of sorts or their bemused object of perpetual competitive zeal. Breathe deep, walk into the sunshine of relief and be grateful for simply having taken yourself away from a situation you no longer deserve, one you have decided you will simply no longer tolerate.

  • Sometimes a simple single action can make an incredibly powerful difference. When cross-country skiing with a brother in Colorado while in college, my hands became painfully cold from wearing wet mittens. This pain pushed all sorts of unrelated psychological anguish into thoughts. I suddenly felt out of control. I thought my backpack was probably packed in a sloppy way, criticized myself for not having a girlfriend at the time and for getting poor grades in studying engineering and having clothes that never fit….My brother, meanwhile, pulled out an extra pair of dry wool mittens and passed them over. Once I put these on, all other worries in the world vanished. Life once again felt good. Sometimes implementing a single positive action can eliminate a dozen unnecessary worries in ways unpredictable. As an ancient eastern saying goes: When the mind is troubled, the multiplicity of life increases; when the mind has found peace, that multiplicity goes away.

  • Success? Consider what you want. Take moves, or a move, in that direction daily. Focus on the big picture. Have faith. Disregard distractions that clutter clarity.

Thanks for checking in.

I hope you will follow my Forbes posts by clicking here and pressing ‘Follow,’ or my wine blog by clicking here. And THANK YOU to all new recent followers on Twitter

Finally, a few book recommendations:

Future Crimes, by Marc Goodman – amazing stories of how cybercrime has become huge business.

The Basque History of the World, by Mark Kurlansy – recommended by a friend; the Basque people of Spain? Their history is cryptic, their culture singular and their cuisine outstanding…who are these people? Fascinating.

Have a superb May!

 

Freedom of Press! And Guest Photographer – Liberté de La Presse! Et Photographe Invité… from Roundwood Press

This is a bilingual edition. Please excuse the poor French. Il s’agit d’une édition bilingue. Excusez le Français approximatif.

First, a healthy hello and welcome to the exhibitors I met at the ‘L’Escale du Livre’ book festival in Bordeaux city a few weeks ago here in France.

Tout d’abord, bonjour et merci pour l’accueil des exposants que j’ai rencontrés au festival du livre «L’Escale du Livre» à Bordeaux, il y a quelques semaines ici en France.

These publishers/authors/artists and stores include the following…

Ces éditeurs / auteurs / artistes et magasins etaient …

Agullo Editions, Atlantica Editions, Bradley’s Bookshop, Cairn Editions, Elytis, Entre Deux Mers Editions, Féret, GéoramaGinkgo, Intervalles, Les Éditions du Sonneur, Libraire Lepasseur, Nevicata, and Transboreal.

I first wrote about this book festival in a post last year.

Recent violence in France is something we are watching in the U.S. I wrote about the first of the new wave of attacks more than two years ago here.

The roots of this violence began more than two years ago when the offices of the satirical Charlie Hebdo publication were raided by terrorists who slaughtered multiple journalists. Their grievance? Free press. France is, and has been, and intends to be, a country where the freedom of press and of expression are considered pillars of civilization, mainsails of liberté, égalité, fraternité. In fact, after some recent terrorist attacks here, overhead electronic highway billboards included those three words.

J’ai deja écrit sur ce festival du livres dans un article publié l’année dernière.

La violence récente en France est quelque chose que nous regardons aux États-Unis. J’ai deja écrit à propos de la vagues d’attentat precedente  il y deux ans.

Les origines de cette violence ont commencé il y a plus de deux ans lorsque les bureaux de la publication satirique de Charlie Hebdo ont été attaqués par des terroristes qui ont abattu de nombreux journalistes. Leurs revendecations? Presse libre. La France est, et a été, et sera un pays où la liberté de la presse et des expression sont considérées comme des piliers de la civilisation, des voies principales de la liberté, de l’égalité, de la fraternité. En fait, après quelques attaques terroristes récentes, les panneaux d’affichage de signalisation des autoroute électroniques affichaient ces trois mots.

During recent years the United States has hovered under a cloud of ‘political correctness,’ wanting to please everyone not because doing so is necessarily right, but because doing so is sometimes a cowardly way to avoid healthy dialog and confrontation. Allowing a controversial speaker onto an American college campus is no longer a straightforward task in the U.S. Yet we must maintain our freedoms, as France is aware. After the attack on the Hebdo office in Paris, the publication emerged again—fearlessly a strong advocate of free speech. Attacks to this country have continued—at a nightclub in Paris, at the Orly Museum, the Louvre, the Avenue des Champs-Élyéees, as well as along a promenade in Nice.

One reason for attacks is that the country advocates liberal thinking and free speech. Fortunately, here the press remains strong, vigorous, sometimes bawdy and lewd, and unafraid to publish a wide spectrum of titles.

Au cours des dernières années, les États-Unis ont survolé sur un nuage de «l’exactitude politique», vouloir plaire à tous, non parce que le fait est nécessairement juste, mais parce que ce faisant, c’est parfois un moyen lâche d’éviter un dialogue et une confrontation saine. Autorisé un conférencier controversé de s’exprimer sur un campus universitaire américain n’est plus une tâche simple aux États-Unis. Pourtant, nous devons maintenir nos libertés, comme le fait la France. Après l’attaque des bureau de Charlie Hebdo à Paris, la publication est apparue à nouveau – sans crainte, une force de défense de la liberté d’expression. Les attaques contre ce pays se sont poursuivies, une discothèque à Paris, au musée du Louvre, sur l’avenue des Champs-Élysées mais également sur la promenade des anglais à Nice.

L’une des raisons pour ces attaques c’est que le pays préconise la pensée libérale et la liberté d’expression. Heureusement, ici, la presse reste forte, vigoureuse, parfois bavarde et obscène, et sans crainte de publier un large éventail de titres.

I have great faith that new and surprising directions and alternatives in life emerge from within the fabric of reality (and from new generations) – often from where never expected.

Therefore, in a tribute to such freedoms I am introducing a young friend I used to work with in Pakistan, Anum Mughal, whose photographs from different portions of the world constitute her own freedom of expression—the appreciation of beauty within diverse cityscapes, skylines and shores. This generous and talented woman realizes that to remain interconnected with others in the world, it helps to focus on what we share that is positive and attractive, and not dwell on maintaining potentially ugly divides.

J’ai une grande foi dans les directions, les alternatives nouvelles et surprenantes de la vie qui émergeant  du tissu de la réalité (et des nouvelles générations) – souvent de la ou nous ne nous l attendions pas.

Par conséquent, dans un hommage à de telles libertés, je vous présente une jeune amie avec qui j’ai travaillé au Pakistan, Anum Mughal, dont les photographies prisent dans différentes parties du monde constituent sa propre liberté d’expression: l’appréciation de la beauté de divers paysages urbains, des horizons et Rives. Cette femme généreuse et talentueuse se rend compte que de rester interconnecté avec d’autres personnes dans le monde, cela permet de se concentrer sur ce que nous partageons ce qui est positif et attrayant, et ne consiste pas à maintenir des divisions potentiellement négatives .

Thanks for the photographs Anum! And I hope your business thrives.

Merci pour les photos Anum! Et je vous souhaite de grand succès .

Photographer Anum Mughal

Here are some photographs taken by Anum during the past years. They are copyright protected.

London scenes

Dubai

United Arab Emirates coastline

Again, thanks for tuning in. I hope you will check out my latest Forbes articles. You can subscribe to those articles via that link if you want, and can subscribe to this web log via the sign up box below.

Vous pouvez lire mes derniers articles Forbes en cliquant ici.

Finally, although you may have seen this on the sister website Vino Voices, we are now looking for a publishers for my latest book—a collection of recipes from 125 winemakers in 18 different countries.

Enfin, bien que vous ayez pu le voir sur le site soeur Vino Voices, nous recherchons maintenant des éditeurs pour mon dernier livre—une collection de recettes provenant de 125 vignerons dans 18 pays différents.

The French Version Of The Book Borrow Box

Welcome to Spring.

Many towns in France now have book borrow boxes. Apparently the trend is global.

During a recent visit to the Dordogne I saw La Boîte à Lire – ‘ The Reading Box,’ managed by the Municipality of the town of Sarlat-la-Caneda. The notice on the side of the box, translated, stated, “You read a book. It’s stays on a shelf. Give it and take another! The exchange is anonymous and free. Think only of the happiness of having someone else read what you like. Solidarity is giving and sharing without counting.”

Inside were a few dozen books, including titles by Bertrand Russell, Hector Malot and what appeared to be a romance paperback by Eugene le Roy (The Enemy of Death), as well as Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand.

A few minutes down the road from where I live in the Gironde is a similar box—glass on most sides, elevated to eye level and tilted at an angle to the walkway. The City of Blaye posted a sign reading: “Once upon a time was a book…” It provides similar instructions as the box in Sarlat for depositing and taking books, but adds:

“This box is also for children—please be careful not to hurt their sensibilities when you deposit your books.” In other words—only PG rated books, please.

Considering that the Erica Jong paperback titled Fanny Troussecottes-Jones was included, it appears someone ignored that sign. There is a colorful collection of other titles, including an Arnaldur Indridason detective novel set in Reyjkavik in Iceland, a war thriller by Valentin Musso titled The Cold Ashes (Les Cendres Froides), The Third Man by Graham Greene, some title by Rudyard Kipling, a medical work of fiction by Frank G. Slaughter (A Doctor Not Like The Others), No One’s Perfect by Hirotada Ototake (a non-fiction bestseller from Japan about growing up disabled) and a Harlequin romance by Gloria Bevan. Also—a 1985 Chinese Horoscope and what appeared to be a text book on adolescence.

These sidewalk boxes on main streets are never locked and appear little harmed by vandalism or theft. They can be testimony not only to a respect for reading, but for civic order and the rule of law. Consider: no need for a library card or visiting hours or walking through doorway metal detectors. Just pace up, browse, open a glass door and select.

Remember to leave a book, if you can.

Tens of thousands of these boxes now dot the U.S. and other countries.

How long the trend will last is unknown. Tales of books vanishing faster than they appear are legion, and a few permit obsessed bureaucrats apparently grapple with this novel concept.

Until my French improves, I’ll be inclined to donate rather than take away…though will be interested to see if anyone in this town wants to read a Jack Reacher thriller, or history of the 100 Years War—in English.

My latest Forbes pieces are here (from the past month). They focus on northern Spain and the Dordogne (Périgord) region of France.

Hope you enjoy. They, too, are free.

 

 

 

 

Is That Book In Your Hand Advertising Coca-Cola?

Years ago I noticed that a lot of popular literature appeared to mention the beverage Coca-Cola, or the abbreviated name – Coke. Tuning in, I soon noticed two other related aspects. First, if the drink was mentioned once, it was often later mentioned another time in the same book. Second, not many other soft drinks were mentioned as frequently.

The question was whether this was paid advertising. This is not illicit or illegal, as product placements are common in movies and sports games. I had just never heard of this possibility before.

The answer to that question is: I still don’t know.

IMG_5435

Some books can bubble with surprises

Many of the books read in the past were paperbacks, discarded or elsewhere now. However, today I opened my Kindle and chose dozens of titles collected during past years.

Ignoring those that were historical (before the time when the popularity of this soft drink spread), I searched each of these books for the words ‘Coca-Cola’ or ‘Coke’ – disregarding references to the use of the word coke (lowercase) in the context of the drug cocaine.

Of 52 books checked, surprisingly an exact 50 percent (26 books) mentioned either Coke or Coca-Cola. Of those that did, mention was made an average of 2.5 times per book (more often in fiction than in non-fiction). Of course the sample size is so small that these numbers may mean little, statistically.

Listed below are 26 books that included these words (both fictional books [F] and non-fiction [NF]).

The books are varied. They are about the environment, wine, technology, cooking, history and self-improvement – as well as fictional thrillers. Subtitles have been omitted or abbreviated because of space constraints.

[NF]  War of the Whales: A True Story – by Joshua Horwitz: (1 mention)

[NF]  Wine Wars… by Mike Veseth:  (5 mentions)

[NF]  You Are Here: From the Compass to GPS… by Hiawatha Bray (1 mention)

[NF]  Trust Agents: Using the Web to Build Influence… by Brogan and Smith (2 mentions)

[NF]  Unbroken: A World War ll Story of Survival… by Lauren Hillenbrand (1 mention)

[NF]  Tom’s River: A Story of Science and Salvation, by Dan Fagin (1 mention)

[NF]  To Burgundy and Back Again: A Tale of Wine… by Ray Walker (2 mentions)

[F]  Sweet Liar, by Jude Devereauk (1 mention)

[NF/F]  Stones Into Schools: Promoting Peace… by Greg Mortenson (2 mentions)

[F]  The Square of Revenge, by Pieter Aspe (4 mentions)

[F]  The Salome Effect, by James Sajo (6 mentions)

[NF]  The Road to Burgundy, by Ray Walker (1 mention)

[NF]  How to Love Wine: A Memoir and Manifesto, by Eric Asimov (3 mentions)

[NF]  Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending, by Dunn and Norton (2 mentions)

[F]  The Expats, by Chris Pavone (2 mentions)

[F]  The Devil’s Banker, by Christopher Reich (5 mentions)

[NF]  Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health… by Thaler and Sunstein (1 mention)

[F]  The November Man, by Bill Granger (3 mentions)

[NF]  Made to Stick…by Heath and Heath (3 mentions)

[F]  Innocent, by Scott Turow (1 mention)

[F]  The Martian, by Andy Weir (2 mentions)

[F]  I Am Pilgrim, by Terry Hayes (4 mentions)

[NF]  The 4-Hour Chef, by Timothy Ferris (1 mention)

[F]  The Colorado Kid, by Stephen King (7 mentions)

[NF]  Corkscrewed… by Robert V. Camuto (2 mentions)

[NF]  The Buy Side… by Turney Duff (2 mentions)

What to conclude?

One book was written by an acquaintance, a self-published author who lives in rural Italy. It mentions Coke six times. Because the book was self-published, I somehow doubt any corporate interests contacted him in advance in the Tuscan countryside to wave a check at him for any potential endorsement.

IMG_9122

All this, as well as caffeine and carbonation…

Several bestsellers mention this drink, while other bestsellers (which were obviously going to be bestsellers even before they were printed) do not. Those that do not include Carte Blanche, by Jefferey Deaver, The Key by Simon Toyne, and Steve Jobs, written by Walter Isaacson. Perhaps monetary offers were made for endorsement, but refused.

Or, perhaps this beverage is a universal currency in popular culture, an item so familiar to readers across the world it is known as well as other renowned physical symbols – The White House, Japanese sushi or the koala bear, for example. That might encourage writers, even sub-consciously, to mention this drink as a token of the familiar, a simple icon many readers can collectively recognize and relate to.

Even if no payment is associated with endorsing this product – mentioning it makes it more familiar, hence more likely to be included in the texts of other authors in the future (or on their web pages, such as this).

Free advertising at its best.

Perhaps next time you thumb through a paperback or ebook and see the words Coke or Coca-Cola inside, you too may wonder…

 

 

 

 

Digging for Dinosaurs in Montana

While searching for a computer file, I bumped into this unpublished chapter from a book I previously wrote – titled Rivers of Change. When I needed to reduce the book’s size, I trimmed down the number of chapters. This chapter was extracted simply because it did not relate strongly to one of the book’s topics – the Missouri River. Otherwise it’s a decent read.

The chapter below tells of meeting a group digging for dinosaur bones in the state of Montana. This took place well over a decade ago. It would have been Chapter 36 in the original layout of the book. I was also fortunate enough during this visit to Montana to be invited to a conference where Dr. Jack Horner spoke – the man who inspired the character in the book and movie Jurassic Park.

Screen Shot 2017-02-13 at 9.03.56 PM

This was a mobile home for 6 months.

Peck’s Rex

“Four or us were with Dr. Rigby,” Louis Tremblay told me in a low, supple voice. “I found a bone. My prospecting partner joined me and we started digging. Led to more bones. Later Dr. Rigby figured out the bones belonged to a T-Rex.”

Thirty minutes earlier and two hundred meters from Fort Peck Lake, I passed a triangular hand-painted sign blazed with the word Dinos. This abbreviation aimed toward the irresistible. I swung in and parked before a white warehouse, the Fort Peck Field Station of Paleontology (‘Home to Peck’s Rex’).

Louis greeted me inside the building. He wore thin silver glasses beneath thinner boot black hair, a serious man dedicated to tasks at hand. For three months each summer Louis left his home in Avon, Connecticut, to hunt fossils at Fort Peck. Years earlier on his first day excavating, Louis had discovered bone splinters that led to the rib of a T-Rex. A portion of this eventual bounty now lay on a hallway table before us: a premaxilla tooth and caudal vertebra the color of buttermilk bread.

Louis performed his work with Dr. Keith Rigby, a University of Notre Dame paleontologist. Every year this man rallied volunteers to hunker down in wizened sunlight and dust off layers of crumbled land where T-Rex once hobbled and copulated. They sat butt deep in hot Montana dirt with trowels, dustpans, paintbrushes and deep buckets – plucking skull fragments from late Cretaceous dinosaurs.

“The number working on this project is approximately 20 during summer,” Louis told me. “People from all walks of life and ages come for two weeks. Then a new group comes in.”

“We’re interested in any dinosaur we come across,” he added. “Some are more common than others. Doesn’t mean you ignore them. Triceratops were abundant, but there’s never been a complete triceratops found at one location. Would be a major discovery. This is prime area,” he added. “All around Fort Peck Lake. South side. East side. Lot of dinosaur material.”

Before dinosaurs plodded over this hummocky land the Cretaceous Seaway coated the Great Plains. This waterway then connected the Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico – splitting North America in two. Surf pounded against a shore where Fort Peck now sits at the time when dinosaurs waned between 65 and 67 million years ago. Mountains buttressed by fern bottoms, palmetto forests, and sequoias studded the western edge of this steamy ocean.[i]

Another volunteer named Tom stood next to Louis. Tom was from Aledo, Illinois, a tall red haired schoolteacher on his seventh summer at Fort Peck. He selected his phrases with the same uncluttered precision he used to extract fossilized tibias from a landscape enamored by his sweat. He told how before the Missouri River existed ancient waterways basted this landscape with dino bones.

“That’s the reason there’s so much material here,” he explained. “It was buried by streams, outwashes, floods.”

‘Material’ meant dinosaur bones, the fossilized goodies that Tom, Louis and their cohorts salivated after in a methodical way.

The first dinosaur discoveries in the western hemisphere were made along Montana’s upthrusted, fossil-smeared landscapes. Decades before a dam rose at Fort Peck this region captured world attention as a juicy site for excavating the past. The father of this process was Dr. Barnum Brown, the man who discovered the first T-Rex in this region in 1902 and later the only akylosaurus skeleton ever found. Brown unfolded this land around Fort Peck as a subterranean story book about Cretaceous life. He was a man of inverse worlds, an impeccably dressed scientist with dapper taste, social grace and a reputation among ladies for his exquisite ballroom dancing technique. Photographs show Brown poised next to looming Montana buttes wearing a tie and coat and pointed shoes (or, during chillier seasons, a fur coat). Rather than looking as though he was en route to a grimy dig Brown appeared headed toward a Parisian fashion show, or perhaps off to share aperitifs with the company of old money high brows.

During six decades of working in paleontology Brown earned a reputation for savviness. He cut a deal with Sinclair Oil; if they funded his digs he would author dinosaur booklets for the company (they used one as their logo). His legacy of discovery endures. In a recent year the paleontologist Jack Horner[1] (a model for the protagonist of Jurassic Park movie fame) led teams in discovering five T-Rex skeletons near Fort Peck[ii].

“Last year we recovered the three small vertebrae you see,” Louis said and pointed before us at Rex fragments the color of pistachio shells. “Then we had to shut down.”

This ‘shut down’ derived from legalities. When the excavating season flickered to an end in 1997 the crew buried their petrified jewel of a half dug T-Rex to prevent it from being damaged by Montana’s brazen winter. The team then departed. Soon afterwards a local man claiming to own the land slipped in, fired up his tractor and started his own re-excavation of the Rex.

IMG_5458If there is a god, he or she apparently frequents offbeat bars in Montana. On the same day this farmer began his unsanctioned dig, a lawyer from the nearby town of Glasgow pulled into a local inn after fishing. He bought a drink and overheard a visiting couple yap with pride about how they watched a clumsy dino excavation that day, carried out by an irate farmer attacking a hillside in a battered tractor. Tipped off and incredulous, the lawyer drained his glass, said a round of farewells and returned home to phone his friend Dr. Rigby in Boston. After their conversation a swarm of FBI agents fanned over the scene in Montana.

Casually unearthing dinosaur fossils with clanking farm machinery on disputed terrain is not taken lightly by the federal government. Mere apologies could never have bridged the chasm between the digger’s naïve intent and his dubious results. The outcome was that the excavation turned to a legal quagmire over land ownership with the added intrigue that somewhere during this fiasco the lower jaw of the T-Rex vanished. FBI agents tracked it hundreds of miles west to Great Falls.[iii] Whoever hauled this fossil off was more interested in its value than in exploring the particulars of Cretaceous history (it was well know that T-Rex fossils were lucrative: the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History had bought a South Dakota T-Rex skeleton, named Sue, for $8.4 million[iv]).

Louis and Tom left legalities to lawyers. They spent their own time training and supervising incoming volunteers. These efforts drew the men deeper into involvement with the process of unearthing fossils. Louis had visited China twice with Dr. Rigby and now helped host a visiting Chinese delegation. Fossils on the table before us were for these visitors to see.

I looked at the assortment of chalky angles. Limbs deficient in structure were strengthened with a cream colored filler, making each fossilized slab look like marbled beef.

“Bones on this table are T-Rex,” Louis said. “Preparing them is a long, slow process – difficult because bone is fragile. Encased in hard rock. We’re having to use special tools to remove rock and not damage bone with pressure. Some are broken. Parts are missing.”

A woman named Donna led me away from Tom and Louis down the ramshackle hallway. To Donna paleontology appeared to be an emotional landscape as well as a discipline, one shaped by the thrill of learning how dinos thunked over riverbanks or clawed flesh off their prey.

She showed me how bulky rocks transformed to polished fossils, a sequence that began outside. We stalked through an open garage converted to a workshop where two men wearing shorts, dust masks and protective orange headsets blasted air guns at a maroon, pockmarked boulder. They trained spitting hoses at a clunky rock bigger than a dishwasher. Caged light bulbs hanging on extension cords illuminated their effort, which appeared not only spellbinding but ludicrous. Removing gritty sandstone from a matrix of soft dino bone was like peeling an orange with a power drill and not poking pulp below its rind. An added challenge was having to guess the size and shape of the fossilized ‘fruit’ that lay within.

Donna led me to stage two – the prep room where air drills worked on smaller rock hunks the size of pumpkins and beer kegs, then moved to the final step – preparing molds. This took place on the main room of what used to be a laundry building. Skylights above us bulged like overturned egg cartons.

Earlier the Chinese delegation delivered a sample of their own casting efforts – a Mamenchisaurus that now poked its graceful fifteen foot long neck toward the ceiling. Donna stretched her own neck to view the skull above.

“And that’s just a juvenile,” she said, then rotated to point at another room corner.

“Over there is triceratops. Found at Nelson Creek, 1952 and dug by a team from Brigham Young University. They sent the cast to us.”

From head on a Triceratops Horridus skull resembles a bat without wings that popped too many steroids – a five foot long orb of bone drained by convoluted nasal cavities.

Satisfied by seeing this fossilized menagerie and educated about how to crack hips out of sandstone, I retreated down the hallway with Donna past a corkboard tacked with dinosaur comics. A drawing of “Peck’s Rex” was shaded emerald green, illustrating that seventy percent had been excavated to date.

We passed the kitchen, where a cluster of middle aged men sat nattering about Australian hats, South American airfares, organic chemistry exams and Cantonese artifacts. These volunteers looked driven but not overwound: men assembling not just a project but a lifestyle they believed in.

“This is the last day we’re operating,” Donna said. “After lunch we’ll give the building a good cleaning and people will leave tomorrow.”

I stepped outside into fluttering leaves, dry heat and scant clouds the color of clarified butter. A Nissan Windstar pulled in. Beaming Dr. Rigby with his St. Nicholas white beard stepped outside with a group of politely fussing Chinese men. Their leader’s neck, the color of brandy, reminded me of a compressed Mamenchisaurus. He smiled and whispered ‘pizza!’ – meaning, I presumed, that they had somehow managed to uncover the location of a decent restaurant nearby.

Endnotes:

[1] Earlier that summer Jack Horner told a conference audience in Great Falls how President Jefferson wanted to test the veracity of the extinction concept. To do this he needed to confirm whether mammoth elephants still roamed some unexplored hinterlands of the world, say beyond the Rocky Mountains. He told Merriwether Lewis to keep a lookout for the critter. Just in case.

[i] “Rethinking T.Rex,” Great Falls Tribune, December 10, 2000, Section P, p.1.

[ii] “Rethinking T.Rex,” Great Falls Tribune, December 10, 2000, Section P, p.1.

[iii] David Roberts, “Digging for Dinosaur Gold,” Smithsonian Magazine, March 1998, pp 42-43.

[iv] “Rethinking T.Rex,” Great Falls Tribune, December 10, 2000, Section P, p.1.

 

Life Lessons from 2016

This additional End Of Year post highlights simple lessons learned during past months.

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Life is too short for nonsense.

  • If hard, dedicated, focused and intelligent work is unappreciated, or if supervisors try to undermine rather than support success – consider moving on. I did. Wonderful choice. Life is brief. New avenues appear when you are ready.
  • Spend time with those who appreciate and support you.

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Mes amis

  • As explained in the book The Black Swan, unusual events are not as infrequent as we might expect in life. Brexit? Trump’s election? Perhaps surprising, but actually not so unusual.
  • Home cooked food truly is better. Switch off the TV. Get dicing, slicing and buy a few liters of olive oil.

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Home cooked and ready to be devoured

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Beauty beneath corks

  • Lessons learned from history are constantly applicable. Castles had walls and countries established borders for solid reasons.
  • However, were walls built to keep others out or to keep people in? ‘Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…’ wrote Robert Frost in his poem ‘Mending Wall.’ The dismantled Berlin wall is a physical manifestation – a potent reminder – of how insecure brutish characters tried – vainly, and ultimately in vain – to control not only the natural ebb and flow of neighbors, but their power to live freely.

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Thinking of invading? Think again.

  • Respect your local cobbler and other artisans. The culture of disposability does not yet prevail.

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Massive greenhouses heated by geothermal power boost the economy of Iceland – Very forward thinking people.

  • Establishing sensible laws takes courage in the face of massive, uneducated, emotional resistance. Each year about a thousand people are murdered in Pakistan in ‘honor killings.’ Fathers and brothers murder daughters who may have publicly displayed amorous eyes for another young man. That crime has gone unpunished, until a new law was passed this year. Bye Bye, Middle Age barbarity. Well done, Pakistan.
  • Less can be more. No lawn means – no need to mow the lawn.

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Mont Saint-Michel. No lawns here.

  • Consider quality in life.
  • The less you have, the less you have to take care of.

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Plenty of  lights to turn on and off every evening.

  • Enjoy nature. Frequently.
  • When in doubt, explore. Unwind. Tap into greater universal wisdom. And when the road bends in unknown ways, consider this a magnificent opportunity.

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Another glorious bend in the road.

Prepare for a powerful 2017…!

 

[Writing and photographs copyright Tom Mullen, 2016]