Thoughts on Cultural Shift

I’ve always said that communities evolve and that things change – there’s no stopping it. Businesses come and go, people come and go, and the character of the place changes. It isn’t good or bad, right or wrong; but when it happens to you, when it messes with a reality that you’ve held in your head as a high water mark that helped define you as a person and served as a benchmark in your life, it isn’t pleasant.

When Wal-Mart first came to Vermont, the last holdout state in the country without one, there was public outcry from all directions. The end of innocence, many said; if they come our way of life is over, small businesses will be forced to close, entire communities will change. “It will be the same as what happened to small towns when the interstate highway system went in,” said a man holding a STOP WAL*MART sign in front of the newly-opened store. “All the cars will bypass the towns and the towns will die. There’s no upside – everybody loses.” Everybody, that is, except the 200 or so people who got full-time jobs there and the countless people in the supply chain who indirectly found jobs as a result of their presence. But like it or not, in spite of the perceived downside, Wal-Mart’s arrival had a positive impact on the local economy – a net add. The same is true of Costco, and Home Depot, and Linens-n-Things, and countless other faceless box stores that funnel money into the local economy. I may not like certain aspects of the evolution, but after the final accounting, things are in the black.

Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for my childhood home.

In 1968 my father’s job as an exploration geologist for Chevron took our family to Madrid. This was still Franco’s Spain, a right-wing police state of rules and pomp and circumstance constructed around a core of self-importance. The country was clean and well-maintained, there were monuments to self everywhere, and the only perceived social ills were the omnipresent Gypsies that would rob you blind if you let them (one of them once tried to carry off my dog). Spain was the safest place on earth – you could walk down the darkest, dingiest street in the city at 3 AM without a fear in the world, because the criminals knew: mess with the public order and you will disappear.

I was reminded of this recently when I found myself in a taxi in Chicago and the driver began to extoll the virtues of the city’s mayor. My wife and I were there for a trade show, and while riding back to the hotel from the convention center, we chatted with the driver, commenting about how clean the downtown area was and how safe we felt. “Yessuh,” said the taxi driver, a black man from New Orleans who was as big as a house and who played trombone in a local jazz band. “You can thank the mayor for dat,” he explained. “Dis mayor cares about his city and he spends a lot of money to make it what it is.” Then he paused for a moment and said, rather ominously, “You mess with the Mayor’s city and he gonna f**k you up.”

That’s what Madrid was like in the 60s and early 70s. Draconian? Perhaps. But who am I to judge?

Time shift, now, to February 2012. I was in Barcelona at Mobile World Congress to give a series of talks, and decided to spend a few days in Madrid afterward. The last time I was there was mid-2001, and the tech bubble was on fire – it wasn’t due to collapse for another few months. Spain was happy, vibrant – even the Gypsies were profiting, harvesting riches from the hordes of tourists that swarmed the city. If they weren’t fleecing the public through pity (hungry babies, fake disabilities) they were flagrantly stealing. My wife once chased a group of Gypsy women away from an American woman whose backpack they were rifling, while it was on her back – in a crowd. They were completely unconcerned; she was completely unaware.

This trip, though, the Gypsies are nowhere to be found. In three days I saw two, not the swarms I’ve learned to be wary of. What I did see, though, were immigrants of another sort: West Africans, Romanians, Albanians, all with a game or an angle, street-tough (and street-worn) Russian prostitutes who disappeared into the shadows when the police passed by.

Spain is currently in the top ten of the European economic failures. With unemployment topping 20% and national debt at a staggering € 680 billion, only Greece and Italy surpass it in terms of economic morbidity among developed European nations.

The Plaza Mayor is the historical center of Madrid. Built in the 17th century as the administrative center of the city, it is an enclosed, cobblestoned square with arched stairways leading off in all directions. Architecturally it is a treasure. There are small cafes in each corner, perfect for people-watching, and there have always been clusters of students scattered about, often surrounding a guitarist playing soul-stirring Flamenco. There were artists as well, and under the arches of the inside perimeter of the Plaza there were always coin and stamp vendors, selling to collectors. But now things have changed. Instead of the old Spanish men selling coins and stamps, they have been replaced by north Africans who, at the first hint of a police presence, grab their blankets and bootleg products and melt into the crowd.

The artists have been replaced with marginally-skilled caricaturists. And the guitarists and students are now overwhelmed by an armada of Brobdingnagian cartoon characters. Over there you can have your picture taken with seven-foot Smurfs. Here, Mickey and Minnie Mouse. In that corner, Garfield. And in the center, in the shadow of the giant bronze statue of Felipe III, an extremely fat man dressed in a Spiderman suit tries desperately to look superhero-like, a wedge of hairy belly sticking out between the two halves of his costume.

Leaving Plaza Mayor I stroll up Gran Vía to the Plaza de España, a monument to the author of Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes. The centerpiece of the plaza is a tall marble monument with fountains. The monument itself is covered with carved likenesses of characters from Cervantes’ many books, and on the back side, facing the royal palace, is a massive bronze statue of the errant knight himself astride his horse Rocinante, and his sidekick Sancho Panza on his mule. It’s a massive execution, ten feet tall at least. But today it is covered with graffiti, and at 9:00 in the morning four very drunk Russian teenage boys are climbing on Rocinante, making lewd sexual movements with the horse. Two police officers standing nearby watch but do nothing. When I lived in Spain many years ago (and I must say, admittedly, many years ago), that statue was a point of pride in the city, and to touch it or deface it was to risk losing a hand. The Guardia Civil, the state police agency, was a group to be revered – and feared. What the hell happened?

One of the beer bottles falls over and breaks; the teen boys laugh loudly, ask if I want beer. The police continue to ignore them.

But it wasn’t just the Plaza de España in Madrid where I saw aberrant behavior. On March 1st, while I was attending Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, the 60,000 attendees of the conference were joined by 25,000 protesters, many of them students, who flooded the city’s Plaza de España in front of the bullring, which is now a covered shopping mall. Protesting the rising cost of tuition, the moribund economy, and bleak employment prospects, the crowd swarmed the Plaza in a Facebook and Twitter-coordinated assault and stopped traffic in all directions. They were loud, a bit rowdy perhaps, but relatively well-behaved until an uglier element arrived in the afternoon (anarchists, I was told). That was when the damage started; they set trash bins afire, broke windows in cars and businesses, and created violent havoc until the police arrived, breaking heads and dispersing the crowds -- An “Occupy movement” of a whole different sort.

As I watched all of this going on, I could not help but draw references to Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point. In that book he tells the story of New York City before Giuliani, when the city was garbage-ridden, police were not respected and the subway was for fools – or those looking for trouble of the worst possible kind. The city had stepped over that invisible line, that tipping point, beyond which the decay of social order accelerates rapidly and often, cannot be stopped. But Giuliani did stop it, by identifying and eliminating those elements that empowered the lawless element in New York.

Is this transformation a necessary part of the evolution of Europe, and by extension, Spain? Perhaps. But for someone who remembers a very different place, that doesn’t make it any easier to watch.


Terry's Tale

This is why I am storyteller.

I met Terry on a flight to Omaha. He was an older man, kind and gentle, with a quick and easy smile and a never ending story to tell – the kind of seatmate that makes a long plane ride almost enjoyable, especially for someone who loves to listen to a good story as much as he likes to tell one. After we got situated I introduced myself, and we began to talk.

“My grandfather ran his own winery in southern California until the day he died,” he told me, his eyes far away. “We lived at that winery, and I played hide and seek among the grapevines. I remember the smell of the fruit in the hot summer; it was so sweet it was cloying. And toward the end of the season, just before harvest time, there was a very different smell in the air – a heavier smell, a smell that you just knew meant that the grapes were ready to be picked. The weather was different too: there was dew in the morning, and we didn’t go out to play until later.

“He had a wonderful old house on that winery with a huge cellar – at least, to a kid, it was huge. It was deep, and long, with hand-laid stones lining the walls. On one side was a long row of sour-sweet-smelling barrels that contained different vintages of his favorite wines. I loved to go down there; it was a secret place, one that my grandfather and I shared. It was our fort.

“On Saturdays, he would make dinner – pasta, salt cod, sausages, whatever we wanted – and he and I would go into the cellar to pick out the food we would prepare that day. The place was a jungle of savory foods, most of them hanging from the ceiling. There were handmade salamis and pepperonis, white and chalky and smelling musky; big, yellow rounds of cheese; and gallon jars of tomatoes, pepperoncini, and pickled onions. Depending on the menu for the evening he would walk among the foods with the big pocketknife that he called his matasuegras (mother-in-law killer), slicing off huge chunks of salt cod, great wedges of hard cheese, and thick, greasy slices of salami. We’d sit down there in the cool dark air and eat smoky sausage and hard cheese and drink secret glasses of wine from his personal cellar, ruby red from the bare bulbs, watching the snarly shadows on the walls from the tree roots that hung from the low ceiling. For dinner he’d make big steamy bowls of pasta, with meatballs the size of tennis balls wrapped around seasoned croutons, and a thick, rich tomato sauce, cooked all day long in a big battered aluminum pot with sausage, pork chops and a big handful of basil in the bottom.

“He was a special old man, and he lived until he was 95. My own kids got to know him, and he lived long enough for them to realize how special it was for them to get to know their own great-grandfather. I have pictures of them all together, and I treasure them.”

 He smiled at the thought, and drifted away for a few minutes. I interrupted his reverie to ask him the reason for his trip to California. Retiring, I asked? He shook his head, smiling. “No, I retired a long time ago. After being bored for a few years I decided I’d like to run a winery of my own. Since I wasn’t working, I had time to think about my grandfather, and those memories I had of him were so good I made a decision. The time was right to do it now, so I did it. I bought a winery.” I told him how great I thought that was, and how he must already look forward to drinking the first glass of his first vintage. “Oh, that’s the only pleasure from this great and grand venture I won’t get to enjoy,” he chuckled. “Not a drinker?” I asked. He laughed out loud at that. “No, I like wine as much as anybody. The problem is, I’m dying. I have cancer. The doctor tells me that I have about two years if I take care of myself, so if I’m going to die, I want to die in that basement, smelling those smells. If anything’s going to take me away I want it to be those smells.”


Red Oak, Iowa

I travel to many places in this work that I do that could be called exotic, off the beaten track, unusual, and strange. I like them because they tend to knock me off kilter, stagger me a bit, cause me to run through my mental inventory of the many realities I have accumulated and catalogued in my travels. But every once in a while I visit a place that creates a new category of reality, one that stops me in my tracks and makes me happy once again to do this job, in spite of all the time it requires me to be away from my home and family.

The most recent of these occurred last week, when I found myself in Red Oak, Iowa, a tiny place about 35 miles East of Omaha. It’s beautiful: This is farming country, corn, mostly, and everywhere I looked I saw ramshackle barns and turn-of-the-century farm houses in various states of disrepair. I was about halfway there in my rental car when I received a text message from my client, the owner of a small but extremely forward thinking independent telephone company. WE’RE IN THE BAR, it said. And since the only bar in town is in the only restaurant in town which is in the only hotel in town, as near as I can tell anyway, I knew where to find them.

There is a kindness to this part of the country, a geniality, a genuine sense of welcome that is part of life here. After handshakes all around and much back slapping, we settled down to eat. It was harvesting time and the talk over dinner was about corn (most of it headed to ethanol plants in China), crop yields, moisture content, and new grandkids. It's funny: Even though these people own and operate successful and profitable (albeit small) telephone companies, many of them are also farmers or at least come from families with farms. I had been with them several times before, and at one point in the conversation one of them asked me if I had taken any good pictures on my way over from Omaha. I responded that yes, I had seen a large corn harvester off in the distance with the sun setting behind it, and with the dust cloud it created I had managed to get a few good shots. He then told me that I should've gone over to get closer to it because they're pretty cool machines, to which I responded that it was way off in the distance on the other side of corn field, and that while it would have been nice to be closer, I couldn't very well take my rental car bouncing across a half-cut cornfield. He smiled, and I knew something was up. “That was probably my buddy you saw,” he smiled, “and he’d love to show you his combine if you'd like to see it.” Needless to say I effusively accepted.

This kind of thing happens to me, it seems, all the time. By showing enthusiastic and real interest in the working lives of others, I have had the opportunity to walk up the cables of the San Francisco Bay Bridge, spend three days on a cable-laying ship in Singapore, tour an 800-foot supertanker, land in Los Angeles sitting in the cockpit jump seat in a 747 (well before 9/11), wander through the unbelievable inner workings of a cotton gin in north Texas, and now sit in the driver seat of a combine with tires taller than I am. Does it get any better than this?

The remarkable thing about this machine – besides the fact that it is HUGE (look at the size of the tires in the photo, below) – is that it is 100% guided by GPS. It knows the dimensions of the field, and performs least cost routing to ensure that it drives the most efficient possible path as it covers the corn field. As a consequence, this thing saves the farmer as much as $120,000 per year in fuel, and at least that much in seed, fertilizer and pesticide.

When we finished, we drove over to Stanton, the next town over, and took a driving tour of the place. It’s a beautiful little town and is also the home of Mrs. Olsen, whom people my age will remember as the spokesperson for Folger’s Coffee back in the 60s and early 70s. And because she was from Stanton, they designed the water towers in her honor (below).

I love this job.





Sabine and I sat down last night and watched my friend Jan Cannon’s latest film, “An Uncommon Curiosity,” his biography of Vermont biologist and acclaimed author Bernd Heinrich (photo at left by Jan Cannon). I know Bernd, and the movie left me - charmed. There is a sense of childlike wonder that surrounds Bernd, and it is as infectious as a virus. He spots a carefully sculpted leaf in the forest and wants to know why the caterpillar ate it so methodically (to disguise the fact that a caterpillar was around as a way to confuse birds). He notices the shapes of the trees in the forest around his home, wondering why some conifers have long leaves, others stubby (better adaptation by native spruce to snow load). He wonders how certain insects are able to survive and even thrive in Vermont’s harsh winter, and figures out a way to measure their internal body temperatures.

Cannon’s film is a story about scientific curiosity, but it is primarily about Bernd Heinrich, the man. He is an enigma of sorts; he is a committed runner, and was the first person in the world to run 100 kilometers, largely without stopping. He holds world records for ultra-marathon distance running, and has even written about it in his lyrical book, “Why We Run.”  But it is his other books for which he is best known. They include “Winter World,” about the natural world in the depths of New England winter; “Summer World,” about the fecundity of the same area in summer; “Mind of the Raven,” an entire (and wonderful) book about Heinrich’s extensive work with these remarkable birds; and “The Geese at Beaver Bog,” about the birds in and around the pond adjacent to his home.

Cannon spent a year with Heinrich, documenting his life, getting to know him, his family, his students, and the rich, remarkable curiosity that drives him.

You won’t be disappointed: For $25 (which includes shipping) you can be as charmed as I was. Order it here, and enjoy!


A New Idea: DigiBrigade

I was thinking recently about some of the work I've done in Africa and how rewarding it is, both personally and professionally, and during those musings it also occurred to me that many of the projects I've had the honor to be involved in in Sub-Saharan Africa (as well as the results of those projects) could teach us a thing or two here, in North America. One in particular, captured in this White Paper, is particularly interesting to me. Please download and read, reflect, enjoy, act.