Friday, May 13, 2005

Climber Sets Alpine Record

Ed Viesturs, an American of Latvian descent, has just climbed Annapurna, to become only the 5th person ever to climb the world's 14 highest mountains without oxygen. He has now climbed peaks of more than 8000 meters 22 times, the only person ever to do so. Apsveikums, Ed!

I Try to Spy

Putin's paranoia just went up a notch. Just after I write something sympathetic towards Russia, I see today on Salon that his "Security Chief" (head of the old KGB) is accusing the U.S., Britain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia of spying. Specifically, he accuses some NGO's of funding and supporting "changes of power" in the former Soviet Republics. Even more specifically, he calls out the Peace Corps, which exited from Russia in 2003 after allegations of spying.

I was in the Peace Corps in Latvia from 1993-96, and helped train a new group of English teachers after finishing my stint. Maybe he's on to something because I always wondered about those freshly minted college graduates and retired teachers watching their reflections as they walked past shop windows. All this time I thought it was because they hadn't had any hot water for a month and their hair was getting pasty. I just knew those sly Latvians had an ulterior motive for asking us to wear oak leaves on our heads during Jani.

Honestly, we all know what Putin is really afraid of: people with the guts to start questioning his authority. (Or Lukashenko's). Those people see what's happening in other places and understand that they aren't getting any. And in Russia, the lies just keep coming. They are on the wrong side of history, and it will be painful for all involved to set it right. If our helping the pro-democracy groups is espionage, bring it on. . . .

Thursday, May 12, 2005

My wife. Teacher.

As we stood outside the bank this morning waiting to get money from the cash machine, an old woman approached and asked my wife if she could help her.
"My daughter usually does this for me," she said.
"That's alright. Do you have your card?"
"Yes. Here."
"Why don't you put it in the machine, here. OK, now put in your number. Do you know your number?"
"Yes. Where do I put it?"
"Here on the number pad, see? That's it. Now press Latvian. How much money do you want?"
"Fifty lats."
"Then press here. Do you want a receipt?"
"I guess not."
"OK, take your money and don't forget your card. That's it."
"Thank you for teaching me."

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Russian Suffering and Sacrifice

With all the attention being paid to the 60th anniversary of the end of WWII in Europe and the controversy over Russia's occupation of the Baltic states, let's never forget just how much the people of the Soviet Union suffered and sacrificed. As an American living in Latvia, I've written my fair share of negative comments about Russia and its behavior here. So when I saw this photo of Russians painfully remembering those dark war years, I wanted to acknowledge the terrible price they paid in blood. Maybe Putin is paranoid about the West pushing to surround him, but this picture of Russian rememberance day was taken in Bellevue, Washington, USA, where hundreds gathered to hear the heartbreaking stories of Russian immigrant veterans.

I'll never forget the vivid images from Harrison Salisbury's 900 Days, the incredible story of the siege of Lenningrad where more than a million people died from starvation, cold, and war. Would young people today follow the tragic orders of their favorite teacher to take a molotov cocktail in hand and throw it at a tank before being swiftly gunned down? There is no side to be taken in the controversy over whether President Bush should have gone to the Baltics or Russia or Georgia when all we really want to do is pay our respects to all those silent millions who never lived to see this day.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Bush Comes To Latvia

I have to admit I had a lump in my throat at times while listening to President Bush's speech in Latvia yesterday. It was correct for him to accept some responsibility for America's role in leaving Latvia inside the Iron Curtain with Roosevelt's deal at Yalta. It was correct for him to appreciate that celebrating the end of WWII in Europe meant something far different to the Latvians who were left outside the borders of freedom. And it was correct for him to remind Russia that democratic neighbors are no threat to its security.

Bush is a lightening rod to many people in Europe, but let's make one thing perfectly clear: countries with recent experience of tyranny have a different view of him than do countries who have forgotten it and take their freedom for granted. The free and prosperous countries west of the Elbe have forgotten that their current condition was nurtured for more than 50 years under the American security guarantee. Whose soldiers and billions of tax dollars enabled them to rise out of the smoking ruins of WWII? Now, their eastern neighbors are finally joining them and that is a reason for celebration.

Russia's paranoia about this is historically typical, but unfounded. They just don't get it. They still think they are entitled to an empire. Maybe because their written history has been so full of lies for so long, they don't understand that those days are over. They just cannot admit that they perpetrated on the world one of the most rapacious systems ever devised. It takes my breath away when they complain about how their minority in Latvia is so exploited. This from a country who deported and murdered tens of thousands of Latvians in the camps of Siberia. Is there something in their genetic code that predisposes them to permanent political thuggery? They've still got their head in the sand and are trying to turn back the clock. History is not kind to such thinking. The clock is ticking. . . .

So many Americans have so little understanding of history. Too many students today haven't a clue about Yalta, the Iron Curtain, or the Gulag. This isn't just an occasion for head-shaking, it can be dangerous. Freedom, individual rights, minority protection, open elections, and freedom of expression (like this blog) can't be taken for granted. Thomas Jefferson and the Founding Fathers understood this perfectly well. They understood the dark side of human nature and took pains to check and balance it. The defense of freedom requires constant vigilance, for the dark forces are constantly chewing on the edges our hard-won liberties. I love my freedom. I can sit out here as an American in Latvia and write whatever I want. This reminds me of an old joke told to me by one of our Egyptian advisors when I worked at the Military Language Institute in Abu Dhabi.

An American and an Egyptian guy are talking on a street in Cairo:
"You Americans think we don't have any freedom here in Egypt."
"That's right," said the American. "I can stand on any corner in America and criticize George Bush without any problem. Can you do that in Cairo?"
"Sure," replied the Egyptian. "I too can stand on any street corner in Cairo and criticize George Bush without any problem!"

Of course, freedom often depends on who you are criticizing. This is always a good test of how much of it actually exists. In Putin's Russia, the independent media has shriveled to almost nothing. His unreconstructed KGB roots are revealing his true nature. Russia is again heading in the direction of centralized power. Its economy is rife with corruption, its infrastructure is crumbling, its military is poorly equipped and fueled by vodka. The country has massive, almost insurmountable problems. I'm not surprised by Putin's rhetoric, but it's a bad turn with a predictable outcome. It's going to be a long, long time before Russia is ready to join with the rest of Europe. Let's be very clear about that.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

The Anglosphere

I've been reading some things in the past few days which have crystallized thoughts I've had for a long time. It started with a reference from Roger Simon to a blog by Dr. Sanity which attempts to explain how aspects of narcissism and the self can have economic and political implications. Then, I came across a link on Instapundit to a review of James Bennett's book, The Anglosphere Challenge by Keith Windschuttle at the NRO review of books.

This could get complicated, but the essence, at least to me, is that there is emerging a robust awareness that new cultural, economic, technological, and security arrangements are justified among the primarily English-speaking countries of the world. This "network commonwealth" would share the basic values, and traditions of our cultural roots. At a time when the world's primary international organization, the UN, is being battered by financial and moral challenges; when its Human Rights Commission includes such paragons of freedom as Cuba, Egypt, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Zimbabwe; what is needed is a new structure built upon a broad foundation of beliefs which has produced the most good for the most people: Democratic Capitalism combined with Democracy and individual freedom.

In her three-part series on narcissism and society, Dr. Pat Santy describes how the fundamental and often contradictory parts of ourselves are best served by a system which:

"will provide the greatest measure of happiness and well-being (by encouraging a Cohesive Self) for the greatest number of people. It allows for optimal expression of the Grandiose Self and limits (but does not suppress) it by the Rule of Law. And Democracy limits the power of the state also by the Rule of Law and by specific protection of minorities from the majority. The optimum advancement of each individual person will occur by securing for the individual the greatest amount of mental and physical freedom compatible with the general welfare."

". . . Any political or economic system that expects to succeed in the real world will have to accommodate that tension, and find a way to optimally negotiate the needs of BOTH sides of the Self--that is, they will have to take into account human nature."

I tend to agree that the fundamental ideas of the Anglosphere provide the greatest security, prosperity, and individual freedom for the people of the world today. I agree with Bennett that this is not merely an attempt to resurrect imperialism. There are "nodes" of Anglospheric support in places as diverse as the English-speaking populations of India, South Africa, the Philippines and Singapore. This intellectual universe is wide enough and flexible enough to include virtually any national or ethnic group willing to subsribe to its basic tenants. Tolerance for, and protection of minority opinions is, after all, one of its most attractive features.

Ideas have never been able to travel faster, cheaper, and easier than today. This trend will only continue. As people begin to better understand themselves, the ideas of the Anglosphere grow in attractiveness. I think this "network commonwealth" is already taking shape in a spontaneous, swirling, global conversation. Look at the explosion of blogs, not just in America, but in every country with a degree of internet penetration. What will ultimately come of this conversation is certain to be influenced by many forces, but the ideas of individual freedom which form the very bedrock of our anglospheric selves will continue to be persuasive.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Boys to Men

Are boys in school falling behind the girls? Not so long ago this would have been an almost heretical idea, but lately there has been much discussion about just such a possibility. University of Wisconsin law professor Ann Althouse is having thoughts about it, as are PBS and the New York Times' Ann Hulbert.

As a teacher of many years both foreign and domestic, I agree that there is something going on here. When I was teaching at a public high school in the States back in the 80's and 90's, there was a saying among the teachers that for many boys it was "better to be tough than dumb." Better to be macho than not be able to answer the question. Better to sneer at the sheer irrelevance of such learning than to actually attempt to learn it. What it often thinly disguised was that the student couldn't read the text. It was too hard for him. What guy is going to admit that?

I remember sitting on numerous occasions after class with individual guys encouraging them to not give up. They usually still had a seed of desire, but already understood how far they had fallen behind and how hard it would be to compete. Their idea of the future was to go set chokers in the woods, work on cars at the local gas station, or get a job at the local paper mill. Well, as we all know, too many of those jobs don't exist anymore.

When I went back to Washington State for my 30-year high school reunion a couple of years ago, it was interesting to see how some of these guys had fared. What's your prediction? Loss of union-wage jobs and a struggle to make it on what's left out there? Yes, some of that, but the majority had done OK and some amazingly well. Those who had started their own businesses had done the best, and these were guys who back in the day would have been thought of as near hooligans.

My brother is another example of a guy not having any interest in academics, a high school dropout in fact, who nonetheless has prospered outside the college route. After 30 years in the electrical trades he'll retire next year at 54 with a pension that will allow him to live in moderate comfort as he divides his time between Latvia, Costa Rica and the States.

I guess I'm just not that worried. After all, who commits 90% of the crime in the world? Seen any ruthless women dictators lately? Isn't it Men With Guns who spill most of the blood we read about every day? We live in a testosterone fueled world. It is our history. Maybe there's another way... Not the feminization of men, but perhaps a modulated masculinity along the lines of Robert Duval in Tender Mercies, or Richard Farnsworth in The Straight Story. A full bodied, grown-up understanding of what a man is. This is what our boys are missing...Where are the men out there to show them the way?

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Week One . . .

How does it feel? Good enough to keep going. I'd do it anyway, but thanks to all of you out there somewhere who have taken a look. I know Latvia is an easily exhaustible subject for most people, so today is a day for random thoughts.

I woke up early and restless this morning. It's light at 6 now and dark at 8:30. The long days of the northern latitude have already begun even though there are still patches of snow on the ground and the sea is still frozen. There are times when I wonder what I am doing here. I think anyone who has lived for any length of time abroad has these thoughts. Where is "home" anymore? I've been "gone" for 10 of the last 12 years and have been in the States once in the last seven. My brain is jumbled between two languages. I still identify as an American, but it gently drifts farther away each year like the slowly receding shore. It will never disappear, of course, nor do I want it to. It's just a simple fact.

I still believe in the ideals which founded our sometimes great country, but at times I am completely exasperated by it. I supported the war in Iraq. I was living in the Middle East during it. It wasn't particularly pleasant, but it wasn't particularly as unpleasant as you might think. Contrary to the general run of opinion at most faculties in the States, a slim majority of my colleagues where I worked also supported it. Maybe this was partly latent jingoism, but I think it went deeper. It's easier to feel a threat when you are among many of the people making it. That's not to say that all of the natives there were against us, far from it. The day of the invasion, I had been working for several months with only one student, a 38 year old Colonel close to the royal family. His English was quite good and he was getting ready to go overseas for graduate study. We had become pretty relaxed with each other over the months - we were together three hours a day - and he told me that the UAE had guys on the ground in Iraq who were helping the Americans find targets to bomb. He said Saddam was "crazy" and I agreed with him. Despite this, the general feeling was wariness at being an American living in an one Arab country while fighting a war with another. My wife an I took to speaking Latvian in taxis.

At work - the Military Language Institute - were also a group of French teachers. We had been quite friendly before, but after hostilities began so did the chill from them to us. Sad, really. Maybe it's more of a man thing, but egos get caught up in it. Too much testosterone in an all-male environment. Silly, really. We all had to pass twice a day through gates manned by young Arab guys with guns. full of Americans. A nice, juicy target? The thought crossed our minds.

Still, I think the worm has turned in Iraq. So many people have been so wrong with their dire predictions: the tens of thousands of dead, the hundreds of thousands of refugees, the quagmire mindset. My generation was seared by Vietnam and many can't get past it. The progressives of the past have become the reactionaries of the present. Just this week influential Sunni groups are now recommending their members join the police and security forces. Shopkeepers are shooting first at insurgents (I really dislike that term) and ratting them out ever more frequently. Look at the crowds in the streets in Lebanon. Where goeth the "Arab Street"? Freedom is on the march and my heart is warmed by it.

The MSM -MainStreamMedia - just doesn't cover the good news in Iraq as well as the blogosphere. To balance those views just go here, here, and here. Also, check out Mark Steyn, Thomas Friedman, and the guys at Power Line. Finally, the people listed on the right-hand side of this blog are top notch and not to be missed.

I consider myself a centrist. I'm firm on bad guys and soft on people in need. I believe that we need a pretty hard outer shell to protect the gentler life we want to live inside. We need a fist and an outstretched hand. As for Bush, I voted for him. He's been solid with the fist and has shown the hand at times, but could do much better on that score. Abu Ghraib is a shame on our ideals, read Andrew Sullivan for the full, disgraceful story. His energy policy is a short-sighted ticking bomb. We are paying for both sides in the war on terrorism: billions in tax money for the fight and billions in gas money for those who fight us.

That's enough for now. I'll save the rest for later...

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Spring Comes to Latvia?

Today was such a nice day we drove out to the coast to check out the Baltic Sea. Even though it's still frozen several hundred meters out, the temperature was mild and the sun made it seem even warmer. It was about +8C or about 45F. That's pretty good for us! I love the pines along the dunes leading to the shore. It's like this all along the entire coast of Latvia, and in the Summer it even gets warm enough for swimming if you're the least bit hardy...

Help...I don't know how to fix the mess below... What is a 001

It looks like we're getting ready to cross into Antarctica...

Friday, April 01, 2005

The March of Freedom

In these photos of the struggle for Latvian independence from my friend Miks Ignats, we are reminded that the struggle for freedom is universal. Poland, Hungary, The Czech Republic, the Baltics, Georgia, Ukraine, and now Lebanon, Kyrgyzstan, and yes, Iraq all have risked life and limb to reach for some semblance of freedom. Its success or failure will be measured only in time, but the prognosis is overwhelmingly favorable. The genie is out of the bottle now and the big lies told by the big men of authoritarian regimes are crumbling. Thanks to the Internet, blogs, mobile phones, SMS, instant messaging, and all the other quick and easy forms of mass communication, people finally do have the means to shine a light on all the kleptocrats liars and thugs who have compelled their lives for too long.

Here are some real freedom fighters who know from very personal experience what it is to live a life under occupation. The sign reads: (We) "will be vigilant". They are at the barricades in Riga during the days of the "Black Berets", the Russian special forces who were threatening to crush their uprising for freedom in January 1991.

Worry, anger, determination, all are visible in these wonderfully expressive faces out in the cold winter air of 1991.

Thursday, March 31, 2005

More Women Of Latvia . . .

Seen here at her son's wedding, Marija was the undenied chief of the home where I lived when I first came to Rezekne, Latvia in 1993. She raised three children and now has four grandchildren. Still going strong, Marija is always quick to laugh and even quicker to put a tasty full plate in front of you.


One of the most impressive women I know in any country is my mother-in-law, Regina. She's lived and worked her entire life in the time of the Soviets. With a sustaining sense of humor and a keen awareness, she's someone I'd want on my team if the chips were down.

Inga and Solvita

My wife Inga and her friend Solvita. They went to high school and college together an have remained good friends despite our separations. Both are fluent speakers of English, Russian, and of course, Latvian. They are two of the new generation capable of carrying on the best characteristics of their ancesters.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Women of Latvia

I just returned from my Latvian coaching session with Valda. She is so interesting to talk with because of everything she's seen and experienced. It's real oral history.

She remembers living on her family's farm before the War when Latvia had it's short period of independence from 1920 to 1940. They weren't rich by any means, but they had their own land and house. When Hitler and Stalin signed the Molotov-Ribbontrop Pact in 1940, they knew all was lost. Soon enough, Stalin's men came and took their land and home. Then the deportations to Siberia began. 50,000 of Latvia's best and brightest were sent away in cattle cars. Many died. Imagine the impact on a country the size of West Virginia with less than 2 million people. Trauma....

Latvia has been a victimized country, squeezed for centuries by the power disputes between Germany and Russia. Still, their language and culture has been sustained by their stoicism. These are tough people who know how to survive. Especially the women. They are the heart and soul of the country. There are many statues and monuments to their maternal force. I've lost count of how many families are headed by women while the men are non-existent or indulge their taste for booze. This has been a chronic problem here for centuries, yet the women just carry on with strength and dignity.

Latvia's Maternal Force

This wartime photo shows the famous "Mara" still standing after a bombing in Rezekne. She can be seen protecting the children and defying the invaders.

Mara Today

Restored to her previous glory, she is the site where every September first, all the school children, teachers, and dignitaries pay their respects on the opening of the new school year.

Riga's Freedom Monument

Here's the most prominent monument in the country. Again, Latvia's preeminent symblol is maternal. In the square below is where Clinton spoke in 1994, and where I presume Bush will speak in May.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Riga 1994

It's interesting to compare views of the same place after a peroid of time. Here's Riga in the late summer of '94 when I was there in the Peace Corps. This was less than 3 years after Latvia gained its independence from the former Soviet Union. Life was beginning to improve, but it was still a bit grim. They had just suffered through a two-year bout of hyperinflation where many peoples' life savings had been reduced to the price of a bicycle.
Ten years on, things are a little brighter. . .

Riga 2004

. . . You can clearly see the difference freedom and a market economy have wrought. From darkness into light was not just a metaphor to the Latvians. That's not to say that all is rosy here these days. There is still too much unemployment outside Riga and wages are low, especially for doctors, nurses, and teachers. Still, in the last year or so, big chunks of EU money have started to flow in and the results are becomming more apparant, especially with the infrastructure. The highway to our town - about an hour away - from Riga, has been much improved, leading to increased property values. The rebuilding of Latvia, and all the states of the old Soviet System, will take at least a generation. Let's go!

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Before: The Beach

Before we moved to Latvia last summer, we lived for several years in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. We used to ride our bikes down here to swim, sunbathe and picnic before some sheiks turned it into . . .

After: The Palace

. . . the fabulous $3 billion Emirates Palace Hotel which lays claim to being the most expensive hotel in the world. So now you know where your money goes when you fill 'er up!