Sunday, December 30, 2012

Sun After Snow
Here in Boston we've waited nearly two years for this -- the joy of a Sunday morning with sun glinting on fresh snow. My camera skills don't do justice to the lacey detail of our Kausa dogwood. For as far as the eye can see, every twig, every marsh reed, every pine needle is encased in a coating of ice. Add to this blue skys and the sun at a very low horizontal angle -- and you have the makings of an art book.
The wind is picking up and the big old pines asre swaying. Every so often they shake free a load of ice which falls in little explosions, sparking as it settles.
It helps enormously that it is a Sunday. My only disagreeable chore is to pull on boots so I can make the journey to dig out the New York Times at the end of the driveway. Soon we are feasting on fresh chocolate croissants and Medaglia d'oro coffee, listening to Baroque music in the background. A perfect morning. 

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Sixteen years ago today I left on a diplomatic voyage into hatred. I was headed to postwar Sarajevo, to be part of (so I thought) a diplomatic team trying to implement the newly signed Dayton Peace Accords. As often happens on short term postings, I came away with far more than I brought.
I had never thought much about hatred. Most Americans rarely encounter it. Now I regard hatred as an essential part of understanding foreign policy. It's hard to find good writing on it. Diplomatic texts are full of "constructive talks," and "dialogues based on partnerships."  Writers seem almost embarrassed to acknowledge this raw, least-understood emotion. 
As a society, we Americans are no strangers to violence. But much of it is random, from madmen with easy access to guns. After a shooting atrocity, all corners of American society unite to condemn the act. Not so with ethnic cleansing, which left entire villages of houses and barns systematically burned, hamlet by hamlet. This occured not in Asia; not in Africa. Not in Europe of 1944-45, but in Europe of the 1990s. Sarajevo.
I saw the results of ethnic cleansing first hand because, in that heavy winter of 1997, I could not get to my destination because of illegal roadblocks. I landed in Zagreb and then traveled overland, like most international staff going in and out of Sarajevo, in lightly-armored vehicles. The airport had never been an option, with its Swiss cheese-shelled runways that were years away from being serviceable. The overland route gave me a chance to see close-up what it looked like when a countryside had been emptied. At the time, some 4 million Bosnians and others from former Yugoslavia had fled to other parts of Europe. Empty villages were devoid of farm animals. The leafless trees of early January added to the lifeless feel. 
Even in downtown Sarajevo, local people were hard to find, overwhelmed as much by the many international security forces, rebuilders, and aid workers as by the heavy winter. Cars were scarce and all the trams had been blown up, so I walked nearly everywhere. As I ventured beyond the international corridor I began encountering people surviving in the ruins of Sniper Alley for another winter without heat, but smouldering in the knowledge of all they had lost.
Carl Bildt was in charge, and the U.S. enthusiastically endorsed Europe's effort to create a parliamentarian form of government. I joined Western diplomats in liaising with Bosnian MPs, booking them for trips to the U.S. to meet colleagues, and helping groups of visiting European Union parliamentarians connect during brief visits. Creating a parliament meant re-creating journalism as a means of carrying news of the parliament to the electorate, and herein I learned firsthand what hatred meant.
Joined by international colleagues, I met with some of the reporters who had worked in the newspaper building seen above, a much-reproduced iconic image of the toll of war in Sarajevo. Our mission was to bring Serb, Croat, and Bosniak reporters together to report on what we hoped would be an equally integrated parliament. Soros and other foundations had provided plenty of money.
"If a Serb comes here I will kill him," said one Croat television journalist. Her colleagues nodded grimly. No amount of international blandishments, trips to Vienna, Denmark, or Washington, would entice our colleagues to broaden their views.
We traveled to Pale, where our Bosnian staff would only accompany us on condition that we would never separate from them -- not even a meter. We traveled to Tuzla and to Banja Luka, and everywhere we heard the same resolute rejection. We let our E.U. colleagues speak of a brighter future for Bosnia, not excluding the possibility of E.U. membership, and we didn't have to wait for the translation to see how flat those offers fell.  
On the long drives back to Sarajevo, the grim words were reinforced by the empty villages we drove through. We returned utterly exhausted -- and defeated -- by the power of hatred. No amount of U.N., E.U., U.S., or "Western diplomacy" would influence people who could no longer hear anything but the reverberations of four long years of shelling.
Years later, I followed debates about the South African truth commission, a similar one in El Salvador, and many other permutations in other countries. What combination of exhaustion, goodwill, and positive outlook does it take for war-torn people to gamble on reconciliation? 
Each country finds its own answer in its own time. But it sure wasn't there that long winter of 1997 in Sarajevo.

Saturday, December 22, 2012


Winter has come to Brigantine and our project is now in hiatus until Spring. Earlier this month we took a break from the stonework to focus on the river, and we cleared out all the underbrush so we could have an unimpeded view of the marshgrasses and the water. I would like to remove a few more saplings and trim out some of the lower branches, but that will have to wait until the big project is complete.   
The stone above is the pride and joy of our architect who rapsodized over the indentation and dubbed this the "bird bath stone." It does indeed fill with water which gradually drains.  
The photo below represents one of the surprising elements of stonework -- the way it evokes other places. When I conceived the idea, I thought it would be very much in keeping with New England's traditional landscapes. But as I have watched the stone steps go up -- currently a staircase to nowhere -- it is reminiscent of nothing so much as the dry and dusty landscapes of Spain, with the imposing stone architecture of the paradores.  

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The mild autumn that saw us through our project is rapidly coming to an end. The temperature was in the low 40s today, but a biting wind made it feel much colder. The masons were out in force, and they took an elongated, indeterminate slab of granite and honed it into the fine steps you see above. The project manager chased all over the state to find this recycled granite, specially chosen to blend with the wall to the left. 
Tomorrow is likely to be the last day of the project for the year. The firm closes on Friday for the holidays, which is also the first day of winter. Given that Friday will be a day of freezing rain, tomorrow will mark the end of the season.
We are at a good stopping point. The driveway, although not permanent, is functional, and the stone that has been laid is now here forever. If there are unseasonably warm days in January, the masons might be back. They made a template of the serpentine stone wall and are now crafting the wall cap from the comfort of indoors. Still to come: lighting and irrigation. Last of all, of course, the plants.
But all that will have to wait until next spring.   
Tomorrow the blog will offer be a photo montage of where things stand at year's end.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Saying Goodbye to Endicott
This week I finish an 18-month stint at a lovely college on the North Shore. I will fondly remember Endicott as a safe harbor from which I weathered a major career change from diplomat to academic. I learned here (at least a little) about the mysteries of good teaching. I tried on a variety of roles: Professor of American Diplomacy; Professor of U.S. Higher Education; Professor of Modern European Studies. I taught undergraduates and doctoral students. I struggled to understand how technology could/should be incorporated into the classroom, worried about how to grade students' work, and pondered what to do when students simply would not read the magnificent Tony Judt book, Postwar. (OK, it was 945 pages).
In between the teaching, I oversaw international programs in Mexico and Madrid and experienced the difficulties of bridging the chasm between undergraduate and graduate programs. I created slide shows and syllabi. I saw organizational management theories unfold before my eyes, and I was dismayed to see that academia struggled with many of the same bad habits that proliferate in government: too many meetings; too many long meetings, and even meetings about meetings.
I created the kind of office that lives in every professor's mind. I brought in bookcases from home and spent my first autumn lugging in small parcels of books each day. I hung my degrees, added some maps, and tried to inhabit the role.
Alas, Endicott lies 57 miles from my home on the South Shore. While I could mitigate the effects of traffic on the drive in by leaving before dawn, I was often caught in going home traffic that would extend my commute to three hours. Harold's illness was a deciding factor -- I need to work closer to home. Thus I will "transfer" to Northeastern University at the start of the year, and meanwhile I have a few precious days of being between jobs.   

I leave with some small disappointments. Perhaps unrealistically, I had envisioned a new life in which the campus was not only my place of work, but also my playground. I imagined us attending concerts, lectures, dinner parties, and building, over time, an academic life. Subconsciously, I was clearly looking for a home.

But sadly, at this scenic school which boasts three beaches -- I was never once able to get to any of them. Reason enough for moving on.

Saturday, December 15, 2012


Yesterday we awoke to banging and a remarkably prolonged crash. The boulders were being delivered.
There are stones – refined things that sit sedately in their walls – and then there is Wild Rock. These are the elephants, the blue whales, the T-Rexes of the landscape world.  As big as small cars, traffic stopping, and sitting in my yard.

This collection – nearly a dozen – came from Western Massachusetts. They may as well have come from the moon, looking more like meteorites than anything from this world.
They were all chosen by the contractor, based on virtues specified by the architect. Size matters, but so does shape, proportion, and dimension. Color is important. Lichen is good. As are striations, fissures, and other geologic elements of interest. They pull me up out of my two dimensional world of often-unfurled landscape plans into the tangible third dimension in which everything has height and heft.

Suddenly we have left the tame, magazine-slick world of pretty lawns, manicured shrubbery, and carefully pruned specimen trees. Now we are in the realm of earth science with these artifacts of raw energy; matter at its most massive.  I think of Stonehenge, of Easter Island, of stellae personifying ancient gods. I think of these rocks as alive. 

Awe-inspiring they may be, but, as it turns out, they are here only on spec.  They sit like sprouted toadstools, awaiting the discerning eye of the architect, who will say which shall stay and which shall go. Talk about bringing the mountain to Mohammed.
He arrives. We exclaim over them in turn, giving each its due, and he pronounces his verdict. They shall all stay. He will incorporate them as found objects into the work.

So now I am now the bemused owner of a sculpture garden.   

Friday, December 7, 2012


Broken fences mark a time,
When men paced off the yards of pine.
Confident, they drew their lines,
Borderlands of hearts and minds.
Rusted wire strung by hand,
Casts a shadow on the land.
Cars of teens cross after dark,
To see the line and make their mark.
 Poorly lit and ill-defined,
Confusion over where’s the line?
Entire townships redefined,
Patriot Acts for the non-aligned.
The pointless flag, the unread sign,
A no man’s land of man’s design.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012



I can never think of the Hallelujah chorus without recalling one of the most unlikely performances it  ever inspired.  In 2005, Guatemala was the venue for my one and only foray across the invisible barrier from listener to performer as a true insider for Handel’s Messiah.
In the midst of a three-year tour, I was finding Guatemala a tough post. The crime took me by surprise. Every week brought news of appalling attacks against American citizens – and members of the Embassy community. In our first year, we left for a quick trip home at Christmas, only to learn our house had been burglarized. While we were away, a prison gang uprising deteriorated into scenes of decapitations and cannibalism. Our relatives were horrified and we returned with misgivings.

In the months that followed, the election campaign got ugly. General Efrain Rios Montt, perturbed by a court ruling that questioned his status as a candidate, trucked in thousands of partisans from rural communities.  He unleashed the infamous “Black Thursday” in which rabble shut down the country. Mobs went after journalists with particular vengeance, making the conflict very real to us inside the embassy, as reporters and contacts called in live descriptions of the scene in the streets. One reporter was doused with gasoline, another ran from a machete-wielding crowd only to drop dead of a heart attack before reaching safety.
The elections brought a better regime, but not before the former president fled to Mexico and several of his former cabinet were arrested. Everyone was staggered by the amount of money stolen. I found myself in danger of losing my respect for the country – something I’d not faced before as a foreign service officer, even in war-torn places such as Bosnia-Herzegovina. I’d always found ways to admire and appreciate things about the places in which I served. But this time I was struggling. 

I saw the ad for singers for The Messiah. I’m not much of a singer, but I can read music and hold a tune. I’m not much of a joiner, either,  but something about the preposterousness of the project appealed to me. Fortunately, auditions were not a prerequisite and I was soon folded into the altos. The group, more than half Guatemalan, rehearsed for months and suddenly I had a new place to be every Sunday afternoon.
The idea originated from an expat American woman from Alabama who missed hearing the familiar oratorio at Christmas and thought it could be a way to raise money for charity. She found a kindred spirit in a music teacher from one of the international schools, and they began a collaboration that continues to this day. The production builds slowly, Sunday by Sunday, as additional musicians come in, including Guatemala’s National Symphony, and finally the international soloists. 

I reveled in the language barrier. The Messiah is written in English, and there were more than a few smiles when we worked on “His Yoke is Easy,” which comes out “His Joke is Easy” when sung by Spanish-speakers. But it was the Guatemalans turn to gloat when the choir had to learn to roll the r in “Prince of Peace.”
We gave two performances. The first was in the overwhelmingly large National Theater, built during Guatemala’s long civil war and still bereft of a resident company. Mounting a program there must include the costs of cleaning and supplying toilet paper and soap for the restrooms, a down-to-earth reality I had never considered.  In the midst of the rainy season, the weather was terrible, but an undeterred crowd stood for hours waiting to purchase tickets. Like middle-schoolers, we kept peeking through holes in the huge velvet curtains in disbelief as people kept flowing in an hour after we were to have begun. We actually filled the hall.

The second performance, in gleaming contrast, was at a five star hotel in Antigua. The altar-stage glittered with masses of fairyland votive candles.  A posh venue, it lacked the warm connection with the audience we experienced the first night, but the colonial ruins made a romantic, if very un-Handel-like setting.
Anyone who has ever done any kind of theater can anticipate the end of this story. Through the magic of a live performance, I reconnected with the country. I met dozens of decent and talented Guatemalans from all walks of life, united by a love of choral music and the chance to do something really, really big.  The soloists sang brilliantly, the audience was bowled over, and after many curtain calls, abrazos, and tears, it was all over.

The criminal violence and political corruption were not over, of course. And they continue to plague a country that deserves better. But sometimes it is important to give music its due. Even, or perhaps especially, in the most unlikely places, it can bring people together like nothing else can.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Lessons in Progress and Patience
I keep thinking that I have learned the art of patience, and then I disappoint myself (and others) with some new evidence that I have yet to master it. Our stone wall is a case in point. Would that it were done, would that the driveway were paved. Despite our best efforts, the house is full of mud and dust, which sifts in the crevasses like gloom. I think to myself, with annoyance, that the masons have been building this wall forever.
I watched them add more courses, off and on, last Friday. They neither hurried nor stalled -- they kept at it steadily, no doubt glad for a day with a relatively high temperature, aware that the days are getting shorter, affording them less time in which to complete this project. 
I observed them selecting each stone from the massive pile, just out of range in the photo above. These stones are too big for hefting, but the masons run their hands and practiced eyes over them, and there is some trial and error in the selection. The process cannot be rushed.
I would like to have Harold's return home an accomplished fact. I would like to have the hills and mountain peaks of his recovery behind us, and I would dearly like our life to go back to normal.
It will take great patience for any of that to happen. It may never happen. We may find ourselves in "a new normal." His progress too, cannot be rushed.
Not only am I impatient by nature, but I hate change, I hate the chaos of illness -- the unpredictability, the underlying fright that comes at 3 am. What's going to happen next?
The damned wall answers me. We'll do it stone by stone. There are rainy days when the masons don't come at all, and days when I see no improvement in Harold. There are days when I work from dark to dark, and cannot evaluate the wall's progress, save for what is reflected in my headlights. But there are better days, too, when I am home at midday, the sun is out, and I am astonished at all that has happened while I've been at work all week.
The wall is fast becoming an irritating monument to patience. Despite my ill temper, I am starting to feel a kinship with it, as though, in due course, it will also be something friendly and welcoming. Something solid in a world of treacherous uncertainty.