~ LIFE STORIES ~
1957 | 1961 | 1963 | 1965 | 1967 | 1975 | 1977 | 1980 | 1982 | 1986 | 1989 | 1992 | 1994 | 1996 | 1999 | 2000 | 2001 | 2002 | 2003 | 2004 | 2005 | 2006
1957 - Escape from the Iron Curtain Map index
October 1956 saw the invasion of Budapest, Hungary by Yuri Andropov's Soviet tanks. My parents were pregnant with me, and decided that if they ever were going to emigrate, it better be done before I was born - crossing the border in secret with a babe in arms would be well nigh impossible. So Dad got a permit from his employer underhanded (Dad was a geologist working in coal mines then, and his boss, um, left in his drawer the signed notice that allowed him to leave town for work). They went to the New Year's eve party of a friend, who alone knew they would not return home that night. They boarded instead the train bound for the Austrian border, and when police control came by they stayed in the toilets - those were simply holes in the wagon floor, so you can imagine an eight-month pregnant mother enjoying the draft on a cold December night! They disembarked, paid off a farmer boy who led them to the mine fields along the border, which was just being closed after the unrest. They thread their way past the miradors across the border river Laita frozen at this time of the year. Austria was nominally neutral, but it happened to dispatch empty postal lorries along its eastern border, to pick up refugees on foot and ship them to a disaffected train station in Vienna. It had been converted into an immigrant processing center, to which converged head-hunters from Canada, South Africa and Australia among others. Hungarian refugees were mostly white-collar workers with some means and unattached to the land, and thus a rich crop for nations in post-war growth.
My Dad's best friend from university (they were born the same day and thus were registered together) found my parents on a bale of hay, and immediately had Mum whisked off to the Semelweiss clinic (named after he who reduced infant mortality by simply instructing nurses to wash their hands before assisting in childbirth). I was born three weeks late no doubt due to the stressful voyage, and a kindly old member of parliament took care of us. I was baptised in the Stefansdom (St. Stephen's cathedral), from which I got my middle name. My Dad actually got a job with Exxon in Calgary, but the Canadian government would only ship us from its eastern seaboard. This was the dead of the winter, all liners were full and my parents didn't care to risk the passage with a month-old babe on a cargo ship (either there were no flights then, or they couldn't afford them). So Dad accepted a post in Paris because Mum got a Ford scholarship to study at the Sorbonne in Paris. '57 was about as bad as '87 and my Dad bounced among jobs until he landed his career job with the French national oil company which would become Elf a quarter century later. We also moved to southern France and started a new life under idyllic circumstances. Pau was small and not unfriendly as many Spaniards had just emigrated to escape the Franco regime. There were however only two Hungarian families around, and Pau was very provincial in that nothing foreign was available.
1961 - Out of the frying pan into the fire Map index
Dad worked as a geologist for the international team of French national oil company Elf-Aquitaine, and the north African Sahara region was just yielding its riches to seismic and drilling investigation. We thus went to Algiers, but unfortunately landed amidst a revolution, when local chiefly Muslim Arabic people were pushing the colonial French into the sea - we moved seven times in the six months we spent there, and I clearly remember tying my shoelaces the first time outside in the driveway to the boom of distance howitzers. A pump jockey was shot dead for serving gasoline to my Dad's French car - I sat across the window glass when the sharp pop was followed by the thud of a body, the roar of the engine and squealing of tires as my Dad sped off.
In stark contrast I was introduced to the vast expanse and unending light in the Sahara. L'ombre du désert (desert shadow in the sky) as the setting sun cast earth's shadow above the eastern horizon in dusty air. Silent hommes bleus du désert (blue men of the desert) appearing as if by magic on their solemn dromedaries (single-humped camels), then disappearing on their quiet footfalls in the soft sand: tuaregs robed in blue from head to toe, sun-tanned skin stained with blue dye pounded into the fabric with no benefit of water; bright eyes and teeth flash briefly as they turn away with the grace and supreme confidence of desert masters. Bright light and knifing shadows in villages, houses close together to keep out the sun and the heat, awnings bridging buildings and trapping air into suffocating dark corridors infested with flies, cries, kids both children and goats. Men running with a litière, improvised stretcher to rush a body to be buried before sunset per Muslim rule. Women in black chadors and men in white jelebayas, counterpointing the stark sunlight and deep shadows.
Dull winter days in cinder-black houses with tile floors and no heating to cut the chill. Curfews and bodies shrouded in brown paper, which we learned to step over all too casually. War is random: all quiet in one street, the muffled report of a bomb exploding around the corner, crowds rushing to the scene and taking us with them, my parents attempting to turn me away from an empty blood-stained pram akimbo in the rubble. I was young, but my parents had lived through this during World War II then the uprising in Budapest, and their parents before that during World War I, and theirs yet before in the Prussian wars of late 1800s. When would it ever end? When would I stop jumping every time something popped, the exhaust in an old car or gunfire in movies? When would I quit being fascinated by things military? My parents refused to talk let alone cry, a total blackout on anything before my birth. I learned by age four that they might provide for me materially but not emotionally.
1963 - Nirvana at last Map index
After the desert debacle, my Dad was offered a plum posting in Brisbane, on the northeastern coast of Australia. We traveled widely thru North America (New York, Grand Canyon, New Orleans, Dallas and LA), S. Pacific (Tahiti, Fiji, New Guinea), SE Asia (Philippines, Japan, Kampuchea, Hong- Kong, Sri Lanka, Kashmir and India no less than twice), as my Dad's firm sent us abroad and then back home at regular intervals as expatriates. My parents could afford all they wanted, a new company car, a large house with veranda and lush tropical garden, delightfully open Aussies and tightly-knit expats (expatriates), private school for me, bridge for Mum, field work in the vast Australian interior for Dad, long road trips up the Queensland coast and the Great Barrier Reef, down New South Wales and the Snowy Mountains. I learned English in no time in the streets with a very broad Queensland accent, ran barefoot and half naked, indulged in swimming, rugby and cricket, and started a 30 year-long love affair with horseback riding and pets. Life was good, at last.
On the downside we were far from what Mum and Dad called home, while I vowed to stay down under. The labor régime brought endless strikes, so much so that cooking stoves had both gas and electric ranges so one could cook regardless. One never knew when mail would arrive from halfway across the world where everything seemed to happen. Alcohol was big, some workers took weekly pay, drank at the pub, and women took the car on Saturday to shop on what money was left by their men. Racism and misogyny were not even perceived as such, and Aussies still turned their backs on their southeast Asian neighbours (giving Sukarno free rein in Indonesia and looking on as the US engaged in Vietnam). The country's socialist traditions mirrored those I knew in France, and thus helped form my political education with more continuity than my peregrinations might initially have lead to believe.
I also learned a lot on life at an early age: I was exposed to eastern religions early and countering my Catholic upbringing. My parents were not really religious, a dislocation that was reinforced by back-to-back French and Australian (read: British at the time) education. History for example was seen so differently by those two former empires, that I relied on dates and place names to recognise matching events! I was only to learn later on that my parents had emigrated with an empty suitcase filled with a rucksack, so they were hard up for cash to early on. They were however well treated by the French government, and afforded privileges not given to native French: refugees' welcome already brought ill feelings from their hosts still learning to cope with the post-colonial era: This would go on through the end of the century, and wrack society post-Soviet régime and -Balkan wars.
1965 - Family ties Map index
After escaping Hungary and living halfway across the world, my parents finally felt ready to face family again, and we visited both grandmothers in Southern France and Dad's brother's family in Geneva. We daren't return to Hungary, because we had no citizenship as yet. My Mum's Dad had died in prison, having been part of the pre-communist régime, though her Mum lived on alone for almost 30 years (I was closest to her, though I rarely saw her). My Dad's Dad suffered from depression and already could not travel. My uncle was also an expat in Sudan, part of communist régime's help in parts of Africa, Southeast Asia and South America, which wreaked so much havoc for example in Cuba and Vietnam. My uncle was to die soon of untreated cancer, ironic considering that he taught medicine. Resulting unresolved and/or unexpressed grief from my Dad, would further add to tension in the family. For example he would leave for months in the bush for his job and never call back, when I never believed he could not.
Two trips were highlights for me, Papua New Guinea (1964) and New Zealand (1966) in the intervening years the company didn't pay for our trip home. Papuans still saw stone age co-exist with modern era, mountainous interior stayed much as it had before colonisation, and coastal areas thrived in modernity. That really struck me as a youth, and I'll always recall the village festival near Mount Hagen in the Papua highlands. Mountain men had a big toe that was almost like an opposing thumb for climbing up trees and muddy slopes, so imagine my surprise when a man riding a bicycle in loin-cloth and feathered head-dress used his big toe as a brake by sticking it between front tire and fork. Or to see women stick their afro in a pail of bleach and have lighter hair above a straight line over their ears. New Zealand was a less happy experience, as we toured North Island but never reached South Island due to a terrible car accident near Gisborne (it would gain fame later as the first major city west of the dateline and thus into the new millennium). Suffice it to say that while our old car had lap-belts in Brisbane, new shoulder belts in our then-new our rental car saved my parents' lives!
[2016 update: what are the chances... Did you know we rented a semi
near Cambridge UK, because the land lady joined her Kiwi husband near Tauranga...
and that her husband said that, 50 years later it is still a black spot on the
coastal road to Gisborne!]
1967 - Second home and citizenship Map index
Mum and Dad and I returned to Pau in southwestern France at the end of an expat cycle, and now we were able to gain French citizenship (our first opportunity was in Algiers when everyone knew he'd be conscripted if naturalised, and our second opportunity was in Brisbane that had no French consulate or embassy, so our application for naturalisation got delayed over a decade). Interestingly enough, only two countries did not let us in with out titre de voyage, travel document, in all our worldly travels until then... by which time I had been around the world twice at age ten! My parents bought an apartment and finally decided that France was it. My Mum having had a hemorrhage after my birth, had not been able to conceive since, but new treatments allowed her to have my sister and brother 18 months apart, over a dozen years after me. Her body took it hard however at age 40 as she was never strong physically, and was ridden by depression as we would learn later. So I ended up raising my siblings as a teen, which proved a disaster for me and an effective psychological contraceptive for my next 25 years...
I worked hard and well through school, and life was good next to the Pyrénées mountains, where Dad bought a condo and I skied and hiked a lot. Also renewed my love affair with horse and pet, in a town with long-standing British traditions (Pau boasted golf-course, casino and horseback riding facilities since the early XIX c., when Wellington fell in love with the place upon returning from a Spanish military campaign). My parents' efforts that I keep up my English also helped me maintain an English-French duality that would become critical later on.
1975 - The end of a cycle
I earned my baccalauréat with much difficulty, but forged lifelong friendships with three boys and a girl (one boy would die of cancer later, and the girl was to be lost and found again on the internet after 25 years). They were surrogate family, who helped negotiate my challenging teens. I was confused around homeland, got caught up in French student demonstrations and basically learned to dislike France. Civil law didn't sit well with me (one is deemed guilty until proven innocent, unlike common law I knew in Australia), neither did the French manifesto liberté, égalité, fraternité (I thought freedom encouraged initiative and inevitably lead to inequality, while equality maintained by government rules curtailed freedom, and the brotherhood of man did not look good in my world travels and turbulent family history): For example one always had to carry positive identification, and I was once hauled off to the police station during a demonstration in 1968; I was an innocent bystander who left his papers at home, at age 11 when politics and papers are not one's greatest concern!
My parents were also on a down cycle after paradise down under in Australia: Dad's career shunted aside, Mum's weak health, and siblings kicking up all manner of unresolved issues as young ones will do. Closer proximity to Hungary helped little, as we dared not return until well after our naturalisation, just before my Dad's Dad went into the night after a life at dusk. I would later learn that depression is the silent killer, is passed down-generation, and quietly oppresses close ones unawares. It would remain undiagnosed for half my parents' life. I seriously considered escaping this to become a priest, but then again I was wracked by self- inconsistencies, which were to haunt Catholicism in the new millennium. I took a keen interest in both early Christian and early Medieval history, as I saw there the seeds of modern events.
1977 - New beginnings Map index
My parents moved to Calgary, and that gave me another escape route. I joined them later to become a landed immigrant and finish my education in geology in Canada. The decision, the wide open skies, a world that reminded my of Australia in its people if not its climate, all added up to a renewed life and belief in myself. I plunged head-long into Canada and turned my back to France, and as it would turn out later, my family. I was on top of the world and thought I could do it alone, carrying on the splendid isolation men are trained to. The western Canadian prairies, the eastern slopes and central ranges of the Rocky mountains, the long dry winters and a small friendly university, an honest a friendly people all helped me develop a parallel life to my parents' where I lived.
Little did I realise the developing rift between Mum and Dad, as she too found freedom and ended her education started in Paris when we emigrated! How did I not see that Dad dreamed of a son with the same career who would return with him at the end of his expat cycle? Or that siblings were bystanders deemed helpless by my parents... that Calgarians reflected what they saw, thus my parents would push themselves back home, as I watched them go back where I no longer belonged? Parents will not reject their own at first, so they sought to blame Calgary and thus were blind to my decision. I would call it home for twenty years, the longest I'd lived anywhere, and thus consider myself Canadian.
1980 - Riding into the sunset
A trio of events capped this. My entire family acquired our second citizenships, Mum and I graduated within a year of each other, and I met my first wife-to-be. A native Calgarian, artist and horsewoman, she was soon to be blamed for my earlier decision to call Calgary home. An interesting flip happened actually: in our three year courtship her conservative parents were horrified, while mine looked on benignly (deep inside they love Calgarians, but I doubt they admitted it to themselves). When we got married her parents heaved a sigh of relief and I gained a second family, while mine panicked at the implication that I would not return to France. The wedding was all my in-laws', and it would usher a decade-long cold war with my parents that would only end with that marriage.
France has compulsory military service, the alternatives to which were civil service or conscientious objector. I got extensions while I was at university in Calgary, and before I could even consider alternatives I was told to report upon graduation or be considered a deserter. So I went back to the foreign registry, then on to the military barracks in W France, not quite sure how I'd be exempt if at all. Much to my surprise during medical examination, the doctor himself in service understood that one does not arrive from W Canada just to visit, and saw an opportunity: I had had problems with my hearing through my youth, indeed two operations to fix my drum and hearing bones; he tried to exempt me for poor hearing, as that is a critical function in military service. He thought that it being the end of the day, the chief medic might sign my papers absent-mindedly. Sure enough he did, and they regretfully signed me off with one day's wages at he army. No regrets here however, that money bought me the sweetest tasting bottle of wine celebrating my newly found freedom.
No wonder I thought I was on top of the world! I went on to grad school in Kingston, Ontario, where I discovered the second third of this vast land. I capped my love affair with horses with a decade of dressage and competition with one then two horses of our own. And I found a woman whose search matched mine: well traveled, critical of the system, steeped into folk music, health-food nut, believer in doing everything herself, and talented at everything she put her mind to. She took refuge with me in that isolation we thought was it, and we both rode off into the sunset humming our own tune.
1982 - Supernova Map index
Every bill eventually comes due: when we returned to Calgary from Kingston to marry and start my career in petroleum, we were actually heading to a black hole. My parents went supernova when they discovered my life direction, just as they headed back to their home in France. My family life thus collapsed into a nucleus of two, and I looked for no support. Sure we bought a house straight out of college, started work at Shell and rode our horses daily, but I was to dig my own grave in not resolving my own issues around father, family and societal acceptance. I lost my job in the shrinking oil sector, and found odd jobs in geology that kept me going, but I was anaesthetising myself against past hurts that drove me astray.
Relations with my Dad took a nose-dive - he had actually planned for my career in France, first at the vaunted Institut Français du Pétrole (French Petroleum Insitute), then at a major oil company in Paris, and so on as his clone. I admit that geology was my choice, but how could I have expected this and the fact that my future wife, who I had met at a time after deciding to stay in Calgary, would be blamed for this plight? This was nothing however compared to what happened with my thesis: it was used of whole cloth in my Dad's publication to be a summary of his work in N America. Did his absolute lack of acknowledgement indicate that I was considered his chattel, to be disposed of as he wished as in former centuries? It's one thing to read about it in Dickens or Balzac, it's another to live it! I soon overcame this however as my career quickly turned to computer geology; in organising continuing education classes at the local geological society, I actually introduced my Dad to my counterpart at the international geological society: that effectively launched his second career in early retirement, continuing education in N America then E Europe using his otherwise unpublished paper.
Life went on very well just the same. In-laws helped us financially in between jobs, my thesis got published in a journal of some renown, I worked with the Geological Survey, and that allowed me to stretch both in geologic data management and field work. I discovered the last third of my new country, the Arctic Islands. I actually got paid to hike, but most importantly it laid the foundations for my next career in computers. Contract work gave me the freedom to pursue continuing education in ways I hadn't seen before. This lead me also to help run courses and initiatives for local geological and computer societies. And my wife launched an artistic career in ceramics, complete with studio in converted garage and kiln in back yard (much to the consternation of our Block Watch captain across the back alley, who would burst onto the scene much later on).
1986 - Entrepreneur
Three years' contract at the Geological Survey was all a Canadian federal agency could offer (they had been previously sued to hire, when they were deemed then to control one's workplace). I kept my stride however in starting a joint venture with another geophysical firm, for whom I was to offer mapping a geographic information system (GIS) services, while continuing work at the Geological Survey (now safe from aforementioned suits). I call that period my untitled MBA: little did I know if it was hard ot start a venture, it was even harder to wind it down; my joint venture partner ran into trouble at the biggest bust in the petroleum sector, and a recession is very real when even the federal government has to cut back its programs (this was the beginning of the irresistible urge for politicians to cut entire segments of civil service: it gave them rapid returns in cutting deficit at the expense of social contracts, launched by the French revolution and British industrial revolution; ironically this new trend was ushered in by British PM Thatcher and brought across the Atlantic by US President Reagan).
I loved every minute of it as I continued to stretch my own envelope. Self-employment gave me the freedom to follow my nose, and I soon discovered that GIS was the next wave. I partnered with a brilliant surveyor, who also sang madrigals (I was to revisit him a decade later in Houston, after his turbulent entrepreneurship). I also was a volunteer at the XV Winter Olympic Games in Calgary: interpreting for the Hungarian cross-country ski team left me lots of free time to watch the live video feeds throughout the facilities, front-row seats without the bother of sports commentators; those games ushered in far better computer and sound systems, as well as the large-scale use of volunteers inaugurated in the previous winter games of Sarajevo (the fate of that beautiful city in the subsequent Balkan war still my tightens heart). I took a romantic interest then in a fellow Hungarian interpreter, a flirting lass who I left due to a heritage I had yet to come to terms with.
I also took part in another new venture to publish data on compact disks (they were so rare then that CD readers had to be eased with the data). I learned then that CDs did not take off with Microsoft to distribute its ever-larger software, but for military intel as backups if an atomic blast at high altitude neutralised all circuits in the US (that included the fledgling internet, itself started as a link among academic and government institution). Little did we imagine how topical that scenario might become in the new millennium, with terrorists expanding in geography and sophistication (they also use the internet both to communicate via coded messages and to circumvent government censorship of traditional media).
1989 - Second souffle (second wind)
I had buried myself in my entrepreneurship and neglected family life, so that when the firm went so did my marriage. My in-laws put as much money into launching that firm as I put into the house, so we forgave each others' loans, called it quits and had a free-and- clear divorce. This was not about personalities but about priorities: either my wife kept the horses and got a paying job to help with upkeep, or she maintain her thriving studio but not the horses; the answer was no to both so I exited left stage, and ended up with $50 to my name. No-one noticed that's about the same as what my parents started with as émigrés, but I noticed that at least I was settled in a country I loved. I suppose that not having had any kids in almost a decade was not insignificant. This break would however put me on the path to real growth, upon all that I learned so far in my variegated life. Reality is what you make it, so I started with forgiving in my heart all ills I perceived my parents to have begotten. I told them too, but if they were unable to hear me then, later events suggest that it had seated in deep recesses of their consciousness; I wrote about: people are good regardless of their behaviour in a recent poem.
I moved into the city core where I could walk to work across the river at all seasons, as well as shop or go to the specialty cinemas or folk clubs. I made or renewed friendships especially among men, reporters at the CBC and CKUA (Canadian radios), fellow entrepreneurs, and forged what would be a lifelong relationship with a fellow geologist also on the path to re-evaluation. Talk about favorable alignment of planets: I accompanied him to one of his early dates with his wife-to-be; and he came to the first date with my wife-to-be. I sought counseling, aware communities and a church, in brief rebuilt my life from scratch to avail myself of all that I had learned. I made mistakes, such as one woman actually a nymphomaniac, a new Jeep that did nothing for me, and new jobs that were not always a good fit. I did meet a woman at the folk club who would be a delightful lover and friend - her church would be a great support group as they were all refugees from mainstream religion, a congregation lead by a southern Baptist who moved north in search of spiritual truth - that would not survive however a job offer back in Europe, which I turned down after visiting them north of Paris (premonition served me well once more, as I saved myself an expensive move when they went bankrupt shortly after).
Having decided to stay put in Calgary, I met another woman at Hallowe'en upon her return from a round-the-world trip with he best college friend from England. We found on our second date that she had been my Block Watch captain and neighbour across the back alley in our previous marriages (and I actually knew her ex professionally... Calgary wasn't that big). Suffice it to say we married a year later and the rest is history. I joined her community derived from Re-evaluation Counseling (RC), which imploded in Calgary after taking on its leaders' distresses (as can happen with small groups). An extra dimension of kinship was that she grew up in England, was an oil-patch bride (after war brides who returned to America with soldiers after World War II), and also decided to remain in Calgary after her divorce. The fact that neither of us had kids previously not only helped us, but also heightened our awareness to clear up emotionally before embarking on the delightful but difficult adventure of parenting. We both had intermittent contracts so we often alternated our pay-cheques and learned how few toys one actually needed. Our record? An evening out with meals and cine-club tickets at $5 each totaling $20 (US and CDN dollars were about on par then...)!
1992 - Entre deux eaux (transition)
I bounced around various contracts and volunteer opportunities for quite a while. I tried out new ventures, digitising in Guyana, real-time 3D computer software in defense and aerospace, publishing via new encryption on CD-ROMs and the internet, creating digital databases from satellite imagery on a new supercomputer in Calgary, and brokering data providers in the resource industry in Canada and US. None of these amounted to much in the long run, especially no income: I realised that while I was well engaged in geographic information systems (GIS), I could not do it outside of my original profession of petroleum geology. I also helped organise short courses in various fields like GIS, geostatistics and probability, but none of these connections furthered my career much.
Throughout all this I had an equally rich extra-curricular career. I capped a decade in the Ski Patrol system, which allowed me to ski freely and well, as well as offer service to society; first aid however took its toll, as little was known or done about post-traumatic stress disorder. I also helped the Calgary Folk Music Festival, and ran its computers which freed me up to enjoy performances during the festival itself. I also started counseling through the Pastoral Institute, which lead me to examine my own issues and get a grip on my melancholy. I joined a hiking group that allowed free associations and friendships. I found it hard to stay unattached as everything in society seemed to be geared toward couples &/or families. Also I found it hard to find male friends, as I was to learn later that we are trained to separate. With female friends I confused being close with having sex. This lead to one disastrous and one useful relationship prior to meeting my future wife. Our wedding day between Christmas and New Year turned out to be the coldest of the year - a third of the invitees couldn't start their cars or open their doors at -39, where Celsius and Fahrenheit scales merge - we figured it could only warm up from then on!
1994 - New career
A decade after I left my first employer, Shell, and my original petroleum geological career, I had firmly set my sights onto computing geology, and more specifically geographic information systems (GIS). It would take me another five years to land on my feet at the premier GIS company worldwide, but everything seemed to gradually converge toward that: my flexibility toward changing directions when the job market demanded it, an intuition which I trust even when poorly understood at first, an ability to listen to clients and friends and sort out the real issues, and a global outlook which allows to see things in different contexts and formulate new answers. Take my languages for example: I learned French, Hungarian and English in rapid succession as a toddler, then German, Latin and Spanish as a teen; I thus was fluent in the first batch and had a good grasp of grammar and syntax in the last batch. I used this however as an adult not as languages per se, but as an ability to pick up programming languages with no formal training in computer science!
As programming was in such high demand however, I was constantly pushed toward the technical realm. I quickly fell in then out of love with the technology (see quote in my home page), and learned that I really wished to help people help themselves with it. I also learned that this is best performed in the context of my original geologic profession, chiefly in petroleum but also in surveys (government) and mining. Having earned what I call an untitled MBA, in launching then winding down my own business, I augmented my broad global outlook with a deep business sense. And I was well on the path to understanding my own psychological strengths and weaknesses: an intangible that proved so useful in helping me manage my colleagues and organise associations of all sorts.
1996 - New home, for now Map index
I eventually was hired by a small engineering firm who engaged in GIS, and was subsequently bought out by a large petroleum software firm, in turn gobbled up by one of the largest: Halliburton. I thus regretfully moved from Calgary after 20 years to Dallas, not an obvious adjustment to one of the consumer capitals in the US deep south (pars of the US southeast with traditions going back to separatism, land ownership and slavery prior to the American Civil War). We found our tribe however, through work and African drumming for me, yoga and dance for Sandra, and re-evaluation counseling plus the Unitarian Church for both of us. Sandra had a non-working US visa so she took a break from ten years work with mental health agencies and an education certificate, took her Texas Mediation Certificate and then we had Petra. We managed to find a natural birthing clinic amid the medical-industrial complex, where insurance virtually governs the delivery and quality of medical treatment - quite an adjustment for us who lived in UK, Australia, France and Canada with universal health care and education.
Quick calculations showed that we paid almost the same amount less in taxes, in US vs. Canada, as we paid more in insurance: this amounts to a bulk transfer of funding medical coverage from the public to the private sector; implications are that governments which answer to the entire electorate will support social programs for a majority of a population, whereas corporations will only look after their own subscribing minorities. Thus emerged gradually what was to me a fundamentally new interpretation of democracy: in the US, relatively little is under federal, state or municipal jurisdiction in health and education; they are largely covered by private insurance and schools, many of which are funded by churches. The implied blurring of state and private (incl. church) realms of responsibility pose quite a challenge in the US, where the first Amendment to their Constitution clearly separates Church and State.
All this set me up quite nicely to keep a sharp eye a country that was to become my home soon after: we listened to alternative radio NPR then KPFT (both were listener-supported until NPR sold out to corporate funding, and surprise! it's incisiveness was washed down soon after), and read World Press Review as well as the local news s.a. Dallas Morning News and Houston Chronicle. In fact I happen to have lived in Texas over most of Bush Jr.'s governorship: unbeknownst to me at the time, was the fact I'd know more than may about the man to become the President of the USA five years later. My ultimate boss at Halliburton was also Dick Cheney, his role sandwiched then between those of Secretary of Defense under Bush Sr. (remember Desert Storm?), and Vice-president under Bush Jr.
1999 - A year of moving Map index
While we found our place in Dallas, we certainly didn't call Texas home and I started looking afield to our next step - I had a good job at Landmark however, more stable after being bought by giant Halliburton. So I found a job near London where lot a the new development in my area were happening; only problem is that it took me a year to execute the move, and we had to move to Houston in the meantime: Houston was really Landmark's headquarters and Dallas was a waning office, and try as I may, I couldn't get telecommuting to work even though communications were excellent (fast internet and hopping airplanes there like buses or trains elsewhere!).
So we move into an apartment in Houston near my workplace, in the vain idea I could walk to work (that happen until a few years later in California, where ironically car is king more than in Texas...). We had a lovely apartment manager from England, who we were to keep in touch wit hover the years. My main problem was that six months of the year in Houston was spent commuting to Bakersfield, on a project in central California, south of which I'd end up so soon after! It was however a successful data management project that earned me a raise and helped me get my job near London - I was stymied in my move as an expat, so I asked Landmark to hire me in England as a European citizen, and my recent raise roughly matched the difference in cost of living from Houston to London.
Presto! I was in Guildford southwest of London in a New York minute, and we found a lovely house to rent in Walton-on-Thames - it lay halfway between Sunbury (BP's global center harking back to WWI, where I worked so hard on a so-called Y2K project), and the Weybridge office of Landmark Halliburton in Brooklands (next to the race track now a shopping center, renowned for racer Malcolm Campbell and Vickers Aircraft whose legends I grew up with in Brisbane). We could afford this due to a real-estate quirk that turned into our favour: housing market was so hot near London, that the wealthy bought houses to invest rather than to live in, and that created a glut in the rental market that dropped rents to a level we could afford. So we rented a three bedroom house overlooking that which Julie Andrews grew up in, and we could never afford otherwise! We loved the Southeast as it's called there, walking along the rich network of pathways in the woods, visiting the rich manors opened to the public by the Heritage Trust, and visited Sandra's parents often as Cambridge lay only a couple hours up the motorway. Petra developed a close relationship with them at age two, which she never did unfortunately with my parents (they visited a whole four days in the year or so we were near London).
2000 - Millenium Map index
No sooner was I done with the Y2K project at BP that I turned onto other projects which took me to UAE and Oman, Nigeria, France and Scotland. Again a lot of traveling in project work, that taxed my time with my family - even though Sandra was 'at home', I loved this work and Petra was happy near her gramps, this was not to last forever as it was. My next project lay in Kazakhstan, which may have been a great adventure as a younger bachelor but not with family with the brewing geopolitics of that area. It didn't help that while the previous fall was glorious, this year would turn into the wettest on record, since data were kept starting in 1865 (little did we know then that three years later would see the hottest summer on record, at least we didn't witness both...)! We spent lovely summer holidays nonetheless in the Devon near Bishop's Lydiard and Minehead - lush hill country as you imagine it from romantic English writers, some of whom frequented the adjacent Quantox Hills. We were also southwest of London which is Jane Austen territory, and Sandra's a fan of hers, as well as lots of airplane and automobile history which I grew up with in Australia (Brisbane was far more British than anyone would admit to then!)... My highlight were the fireworks in the 'real Millennium as the English called it, that is January 1 of 2001 not 2000! Barges were set up along the river Thames from Greenwich (the astronomic base for mean time) to Windsor (the royal residence) - not only were the fireworks a sight to behold form each barge, but they were lit in sequence upstream from east to west at the exact second when each barge was at the midnight! Petra slept through it, but what struck me was the quietness of the crown - there were hundred of thousands pressed along hte banks in central London, and never did I feel in any danger of sudden crowd movements or stampedes (not my experience at the 14 Juillet fireworks in Paris a few years prior, where kids threw firecrackers into a smaller crowd which grew restless as a result).
And then the manager I dealt with in southern California at ESRI whose software I used at Landmark, asked me if I'd like to replace him in a few years as director of marketing for petroleum? I thought that 'a few years' would leave us the originally planned time near family in Europe, and while I wasn't looking for work Landmark wasn't offering me a bright path. Most importantly however, project work did mean weeks if not months away from home abroad, whereas a possible sales job might mean weeks if not days away from home on tradeshows. And ESRI worked across many industries, and was thus less subjected to the vagaries of the petroleum industry (or the dot.com and financial debacles we would learn later). If I gave a qualified yes, I had no idea that he'd call me late that summer in a panic - his boss had passed away, he took that job, and would be running two jobs until he found a replacement... So would I please consider moving from London to LA, later that same year?! Well, we had just moved from Houston to London and barely settled in a country I always had wanted to live in (perhaps I married Sandra to vicariously live that?). And Bush Jr. was being elected just then, but we decided it was an issue for Americans not us. So to Sandra and Petra's credit, we pulled up stakes and moved lock, stock and barrel back across the Atlantic ocean and the American continent to Redlands, halfway between LA and Palm Springs in SoCal (as southern California is called there). I learned a lot of fortitude from my in-laws, when said: "we look at it as a year more with you, than we would have had otherwise".
Pre-9/11 note - we spent a weekend mid-October to fly to LA for an interview, and Sandra was invited. The weather was perfect interview weather meaning that the air was crystal clear and anyone would want to move there seeing that, and not the haze and heat mid-summer here. What was wonderful in the pre-9/11 era is that we could nip&tuck before our transatlantic flights a visit around Redlands that would never happen today - the Sunday morning before our mid-afternoon flight form LAX an hour and a half drive further east, we went up to the mountains above Redlands that we saw in its pristine state before five years of forest fires destroyed it at the outset of a five years of drought...
[I learned that the east end of the valley that opens to the ocean at LA harbor was called by the original Indians Valley of Thousand Smokes, not hippie joint heaven, but rather that there were so many natural wildfires in the dry area, that fire smoke naturally stayed put in this geographic cul-de-sac... This proved to be prophetic in the 2003 - 2004 fire seasons that were as terrible as they were natural. White Man simply built houses where grasslands and woodlands naturally burn. And to top it off, not only were unnatural pine forest planted in original sparse oak woods, they remained unmanaged through forest fire prevention that let them overgrow, so that a five-year drought turned the whole region into a tinderbox. I wonder what the Indian elders thought of that, if they weren't too busy building or running casinos on their federal lands?!]
Back in England, that summer having been the wettest on record, the joke on me was that I was fleeing to the sunshine in SoCal, more on that later. But as many people at Landmark still remembered my move from Calgary to Dallas - midwinter when winters grew colder again in Calgary - the overlain joke was that I kept moving toward better climes... and that prove to be true re: my next move too! Read on...
So we arrive in Redlands on 10 December, and rent an apartment at a local Lawn and Tennis Club on Barton Road, walking distance away from work. It was a moving nightmare, as we had to move our stuff in two lots, one for the apartment, and one for storage - together with our faithful Honda Civic this all fit into a 30 foot trailer, but when we unloaded, we didn't examine what we put into storage - only much later would we find what went missing, too late to claim any damage from moving (in fact only a box of misc. stuff left at the end of packing went missing, but it was maddeningly random like a sleeping back, kitchen utensils etc.).
The move itself in Walton was quite a palaver. It was raining solid (as it had all summer, see right above), and Sandra was busy making tea for the movers who took morning and afternoon breaks, and packed in three days not two - what a contrast with US movers who brought an army of low-paid Mexicans, and did it all in two days not three as planned! As my last show with Landmark at PETEX in London was the week of my move, I had to bow out and they were OK if not happy. But hen my future boss shows up and sets up visits on behalf of ESRI before I even get started, and guess what? We go to PETEX! So I had then to tell my old boss that not only do I not help Landmark at that show, but they might see me with my next employer... Together with my pre-Christmas move, this was a harbinger of things to come in Redlands, but hindsight is 20-20, isn't it?!
I'm not sure what grabbed me that Christmas, but I was caught up in the excitement of the move, and I suppose I daren't stay in an empty apartment with neither friends yet nor family any more - on the face of it, it was rather rude of ESRI to steal my second Christmas with family, but as you'll see this was nothing compared to me exit at the other end. So staying in the present, we spent the week between Xmas and New Years in Venice Beach, where I found a funky hostel that took us back to our travelling days in SE Asia... talk about regaining your youth on the beaches of Southern California! But that is where we got the low-down on the fables sunshine, which is just that, fabled. As there's a cold ocean current offshore, there is constant evaporation and mist offshore that hugs the coastline. The same breezes that keep the coastline cool (and thus attracts everyone, pushes prices up and makes the mile band along the coast a millionaire's alley) also keep the mist swinging back and forth atop the beaches. So where is the sun? Nowhere to bee seen until it's burned off until about noon... We even had to buy Petra a jumpsuit to keep her warm in her pushchair, so much cooler it was than expected! Welcome to VVVVVenice BBBBBeach...
2001 - New home, for now Map index
My first year at "the Institute" or ESRI is a real rush. I find out why the speedy hiring, I had a petroleum show (the PUG or Petroleum User Group) to manage mid-February, with my boss' micro-management irking me as much as that in Dallas, the more things change... On the other hand that summer my first international show (the UC or User Conference) is also a real shock, as my boss cut me totally loose and I hosted almost a hundred petrol-heads among almost ten thousand geo enthusiasts - I knew that Esri co-founders Jack & Laura Dangermond had an almost cult following, but there I got it full on. I learned through our back neighbour - part of the terrible three with Jack and former petrol manager whose passing prompted my hiring - that Jack had a miserly youth (he shared ice cream cones wit hhis brother now running Dangermond Nurseries just up the road from Esri, next to Nader Auto Cars from yes, you guessed it, Ralph Nader's family) despite the fact they own a good part of the land, he was real trouble in school so much so that they sent him to Harvard just to get him out of town (that would put him @ Harvard Graphics Lab that lead to early computer mapping, and the rest as they say is history), and the he and Laura belonged to religious cult once (when asked a difficult question, Jack would bow his head and ruffle his hair, a latent reaction from days when he protected himself thusly when books were actually thrown at him). But that had a lasting effect on his company Esri - a tightly held private corporation with no shareholders, thus no-one knows its actual value, so don't believe any valuation - which they ran as their extensive family... at ~ 2,500 hirees then they considered to have that many children of sorts, and the 10,000 UC attendees their extended family. And Esri had truly a sound business model: software sales paid for R&D (meaning that as sales went up&down then software releases were simply brought up or delayed), maintenance revenue paid for salaries and infrastructure (this was rock solid after almost 40 yrs so that employment was super secure... so much so that sales people worked for salary sans commission), voila!
So come September we find ourselves a nice place 36 Hastings Street, as the house we kept five years in Calgary had appreciated enough, to give us a healthy down payment on a house here. I lay halfway up the north-facing hillside that was basically Redlands (the valley had the freeway from Palm Springs to LA), the mountains to the north were opposite straight up to Dripping Springs, Big Bear and Lake Arrowhead (a vertiginous drive straight up 9,000 feet to The Rim of the World, so called because when the valley was filled with smoke, mist of fog then standing along the ridge looked like you were at the rim of the world), and the next valley to the south had the railway and the remaining orange groves. The hillside itself used to be orange groves too, the odd garden showed remnant like our neighbours, and street ran along strike as their gutters were original irrigation ditches, and the streets straight uphill were original cart tracks to service the groves. You see families from Chicago and Montreal owned most of these, came down in the salubrious winter months and for the fall harvest, but left a skeleton staff of Chicanos to manage the orchards in the oppressive summer - oppressive that is before the days of air-conditioning. We learned that Orange county developed around two forms of a/c: cars in the fifties so that people didn't suffocate during traffic jams along the interstates to LA (yes even back then, that's why automatics were also introduced, so you could drive traffic jams without killing you clutch or developing varicose veins), and offices and homes so that that entire area could be opened up to offices that rapidly took over orchards - after the military industry left largely post-WWII (though bases still abound and it significant part of the economy, for ex. Iraqi invasion was staged from Camp Pendleton near San Diego, and troops were shipped via private charters from the airfield near Moreno Valley just south of Redlands) the entire area was taken over by secondary sector like insurance and finances, as the balmy climate attracted hordes from the cold & damp East Coast and blustery tornado-prone Mid West, and now a/c removed the last impediment of hottish summers.
We were however out-of-step with everyone it seemed: we went down to the beach in the winters that were both mild and clear skies while everyone went skiing in the mountains; and everyone went to the beach summers when the fog didn't lift till early afternoon and we went to the mountains where the air was cool & crisp. It was less than an hour down to Laguna Beach on a tollway, and the nearby Crystal Cove State Park was our favourite hangout. In fact next to it was an old village of abandoned huts built during the Depression as people could live cheaply there of fishing, same as they did in Apple Valley above Yucaipa just next to Redlands: both uphill and along the coast the summers were bearable in the pre-a/c days. The California coast in fact has a 5 - 10 mile wide strip where the perennial coastal breezes (and fog) keep the temperature reasonable all year long, thus LA is very pleasant all year round but sais strip is called millionaires' alley as everyone want to live there and the pressure on real-estate makes that inside London look like nothing (and London is a small bubble w prices double the rest of the country, as everyone on earth wants to invest there, esp. new Chinese, Mid-eastern and Russian money). Out of step was also our desire to buy a car w manual gears, mostly because of the mountain roads (automatics didn't downshift to provide engine brake then still) and fuel consumption (even tho prices were half that in England), plus we didn't plan to live on the freeways. That's a serious decision to only have one car, meaning that we didn't go to, say, the opera in LA and I walked to work until I bought a scooter to save myself time esp. in the summer heat. Sandra couldn't work again, so while we had Petra in Dallas she went back to do an MA in Sociology at Cal State San Bernardino... Can you believe that the main street next to us extended down and across the valley to become the 30 turning parallel to the valley straight to San Bernardino? Now how handy is that!
[2015 update: Crystal Cove village has indeed been restored in a private - government partnership program that turned half of the houses into swanky B&Bs
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2003 - Manifesto:
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