My COLIMBA

24 years ago I served in the Argentine Army, B Com 602, as a conscripted soldier. It was not my own election because there was a draft at that time in Argentina.

The informal, slang for the mandatory military service is (was) “Colimba”. You would use it like “I am a Colimba” meaning, “I am a soldier”. Or “I’m doing the Colimba”, as in “I’m doing my military service”. The term “colimba” comes from combining the first syllables of 3 different words:

  1. Correr (run)
  2. Limpiar (clean)
  3. Barrer (sweep)

Which is what supposedly you spent 99% of your time doing while serving in the armed forces.

My own personal acronym would be “Limadin“:

  1. Limpiar (clean)
  2. Administrar UNIX servers (admin UNIX servers)
  3. Instalar (install stuff)

I did have my share of running, and yelling and drilling for a month, while I was going through bootcamp:

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It was an interesting month, summarized as:

  1. Wake up at 5am to a lot of screaming
  2. Change clothes (in 5 seconds)
  3. Get outside to raise the flag
  4. Lot’s of screaming and running around, push-ups, sit-ups, followed by more screaming and running
  5. Lot’s of mud
  6. Breakfast (tea and bread)
  7. More of 4, 5
  8. Lunch
  9. More of 4, 5
  10. Dinner
  11. Cleanup, sleep

We slept in an abandoned barrack in the middle of nowhere. It had walls and a roof, but all windows were broken or missing. We slept on the floor inside sleeping bags. We were 100 recruits or so.

In between the 10 steps above, there was a lot of instruction: how to salute, the ranks, the jargon, the etiquette. Everyday stuff has a different name in the Army. The doctrine at that time was borrowed from the German Army, so you addressed everyone with a possessive: “yes, my Captain”, “no, my Sergeant”, “yes, my General”. It was intense, and after a week or so you knew everything you had to know, and you acted without thinking, and thought in fractions of a second. Our Sergeant told us:

Tienen que ser una pelotita de nervios, no unos pelotudos nerviosos

Which is difficult to translate, but roughly means (in Spanish, there’s a play on the words)

You have to be a ball of nerves, not nervous morons.

I learned to dress quickly, wake up fast, go asleep quickly, sew everything, carry a FAL, clean up a FAL, fire a FAL.

Shortly after my bootcamp, we all went back to our base, where I’d remain for exactly one year. My unit’s mission was to keep everyone connected. This was the BCOM 602 after all (Communications Battalion 602). We were in charge of connecting all Army units, including those deployed in Antarctica, and all UN Peace missions (e.g. Bosnia, Haiti, and others). I remember the thrill of listening to guys stationed in the Antarctic bases.

At that time, a complete overhaul of the communications infrastructure was taking place, and that included a bunch of UNIX based servers. And I spent 1 year learning and working on that. My routine looked like this:

  1. Wake up at 4:30 – 5am
  2. Quick breakfast
  3. Clean up bathrooms, sweep halls, haul trash, get food from the mess, etc.
  4. Every other week, I’d be on “guard duty”. So, I’d be on a desk guarding one of the doors to the Unit, just scribbling C programs on a piece of paper.
  5. The rest of time, I programmed on a UNIX terminal. Learned sed and awk and shell, and many other things.
  6. I’d crash at 9 or 10PM.

In retrospective, I feel very fortunate to experience all this. I learned a lot, and I met two of the many people that have shaped my life.

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On my right, (then) Captain Alejandro Luis Echazú and on my left side (then) Sergeant Major Angel Luis Puñet. Exceptional people, who taught me different and profound things. And I’ll be forever grateful to them. Both exercised leadership in the way I respect the most: by example. I met them in late 2017 to tell them in person how grateful I am.

I mention them in my blog post on self-made men.

Even though I was a plain low-level soldier, Captain Echazú showed respect, and care. I saw him many times leading his men (and myself) with conviction, passion, and compassion. Everyone (and I mean everyone) in the ranks had the utmost respect for him. I was impressed by the unanimous respect, and authority.

With Sergeant Major Puñet I worked side by side all year long. The most impactful things I remember from him are his resourcefulness and good humor. He’d make fun of everything, and I think I laughed more that year than all the time combined before it. Nothing would stop us from working on cool stuff. We’d beg, steal, borrow, hack, whatever. We got the job done. From him, I learned there’re no excuses. I’ve kept him in my heart since then.

A close encounter with my grandfather in 1930

There was a family story about how my grandfather (Carlo) left Italy and went to the USA. Only to be deported back to Italy. Presumably the reason was that he hadn’t paid the boat ticket. Not many details were offered, but the story was that he and a couple friends sneaked into a ship and in the middle of the ocean showed up to the crew and said “surprise!”

It was one of many anecdotes of our family.

Then, in 2016, my wife, sons and I went to New York. We all like architecture, and NYC is full of great buildings. We took a boat to the Statue of Liberty and then to Ellis Island.

It is a beautiful building. We walked it all around. We took pictures of the graffiti left by many immigrants. The halls, the infirmary, the docks, etc.

Then I causally searched for “Carlo Pace” in the archives….and I found this:

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There he was… 3rd row. PACE CARLO, Laborer, from San Vito lo Capo, Sicily. And a “Stowaway”. Notice how the agent scratched “Passengers” and replaced with “Stowaway” on the header. The ship left Italy from Genova, but apparently it stoped in Napoli. Likely the city he sneaked into it.

The 2nd page offered a few more details:

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Looks like his intended destination was someplace near Chicago. Which makes sense, considering that his sister was living there. And lived there all her life, only returning to Sicily to die in her country.

Google maps shows a gas station in that address, but it is surrounded by a few older homes. Who knows, maybe I’m looking at the houses I would have visited if his life had continued there. An alternate future that never came to be.

Sometime after February 18th, 1930 he went back to Italy, only to take a new ship (the Belvedere) to Argentina. He arrived in Buenos Aires on January 25th, 1931. Almost a year after his New York adventure. And exactly 10 years later, my father was born.

His adventure perhaps is not that remarkable compared to what others from his generation lived and went through. But I still find it an example of tenacity, struggle and desire for improvement. Values I share and live up to every day.

When I was 15 years old, I casually asked him to read something for me while we were walking in his incredibly productive garden. That’s when I learnt he didn’t know how to read (or write). I can still clearly remember the shock, and the embarrassment I felt. Followed by an immediate surge of respect and admiration: how far he had gone, with so many disadvantages, so many obstacles stacked against him. I loved him more that day, and over time. And I continued to love him a little bit more every day through the years after he passed away. And I like to think he’d be proud of me, as I’ve tried to live up to his high standards over the years.

Obstacles are not there to prevent you from moving forward, but to test how much you want what’s behind them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The tree of time

My school was exactly 1.3 kilometers from my house. In the mornings, my father or mother would take me. For some time, I took a school bus. I liked that the driver would allow me to stand next to him, sometimes he even allowed me to operate the doors  (somewhat unbelievable in today’s “seatbelt culture”).

But as I grew older (older being 9 or 10 years old), I started talking the public transportation bus. Bus 59.

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Although at that time, the bus looked more like this one:

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Because taking the bus meant paying, I figured that if I walked, I could keep the change and add it to my allowance. Smart, wasn’t it?

So I walked a lot through all those years, always on the same path. I also raced against the bus. It sucked when I walked and the bus would just beat me by 50 % of the route. But it was great when I was just one block away from home, and saw the bus coming. I would run as fast as I could, and get to the stop before it. I’d WON and my allowance just increased by a few pesos.

Anyway, the path from school to home took me through a few milestones. One of them was a tree. Someone had nailed a sign on it with the name of the street: Tucuman.

It looked like this:

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For more than a decade I witnessed the growth of the tree, as it slowly swallowed the sign.

It is now end of 2017, and I retraced the road from my school (that doesn’t exist anymore) to my home (that does exist still), with my son. And I had to stop by the tree. I like to think that I’m one of the few that remembers what’s behind its skin. But I showed it to my son, and I told him: “Look. This is the Tree of Time. It has many treasures inside it. It has a sign that guided me for many years. It is a also witness to my life”

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Self-made men do not exist

Marcus Aurelius Meditations starts with a long chapter of recognition and thanks to all those he thought influenced him in a positive way:

From my grandfather Verus I learned good morals and the government of my temper.
From the reputation and remembrance of my father, modesty and a manly character. 
From my mother, piety and beneficence, and abstinence, not only from evil deeds, but even from evil thoughts; and further, simplicity in my way of living, far removed from the habits of the rich. 
From my great-grandfather, not to have frequented public schools, and to have had good teachers at home, and to know that on such things a man should spend liberally. 

….

A good reminder that there are no “self made men”.

There is no such thing as a ‘self-made’ man. We are made up of thousands of others. Everyone who has ever done a kind deed for us, or spoken one word of encouragement to us, has entered into the make-up of our character and of our thoughts, as well as our success.

George Burton Adams

As George put it, we are the product of countless people that contributed to our education, progress, and learning.

Following Marcus example, I decided to write my Book I. So here it goes:

From my grandfather Carlos, I learnt respect and admiration for nature, and all living beings.

From my grandmother Violeta, the art and pride of craftsmanship.

From my grandmother Consuelo, courage and endurance, and to be fair.

From my grandfather Eugenio, the tremendous power of words. And the legacy of written ones, one of the reasons I’m writing this.

From my father, the principle of leaving things better than I received them, and to never give up on your dreams.

From my mom, the joys and love of parenting, the concept of carpe diem, that impossible is nothing, and to not being afraid of getting out of your comfort zone (frequently).

From my sister Mariela, the bliss of a happy childhood, and the gift of imagination, to play with anything around you, and the warmth and safety of infinite trust.

From Viviana, my high school Spanish and literature teacher, I learnt how to communicate, and express myself.

From my physical education teacher, I learnt the value of mens sana in corpore sano. That body and mind are two parts of a whole that cannot be separated.

From my best friend Rudy, I learnt first the power of humor, chosen loyalty, and the value of finishing projects. I also learnt how to sell for the first time. And how difficult that is.

From my first math & physics teachers at college, to be humble, and that you always know much less than you often think.

From my Sargeant Major in the Army, Angel Puñet, I learnt discipline, commitment to a cause larger than you. That you can do good things without all the resources you wished you had. And that laughing at yourself often is healthy.

From my Captain in the Army, Alejandro Echazu, I learnt the power of strong convictions. That great and strong leadership, are not incompatible with generosity and compassion.

From my CS teacher Eduardo, I learnt the C programming language which turned out to be foundational in my professional career.

From one of my first managers, Roberto Schatz, I learnt how to take pride in your work, how to break rules you don’t believe in, and to identify the difference between how things “should be” and how things “are”.

From my father in law, Roberto, compassion and selfless service to others. And care for our body.

From my mother in law, Hebe, I learnt about building and running business and the social responsibilities it conveys.

From my wife’s grandmother Margarita, I learnt that authority and power are earned, not given.

From my wife Magdalena, I learnt how to be a father, a husband, and a provider. I also learnt what unconditional, endless, pure love for those you care looks like. It would have been impossible to achieve what I have achieved in life without her. She’s my partner, my indistinguishable half. My checks and balances.

From my son Joaquin, I learnt empathy and grit. I learnt about endurance, and to never underestimate anyone. That each person fights battles you rarely know about. And that focusing on your strengths pays off way more than trying to improve on your weaknesses.

From my son Agustin, I learnt to keep a high degree of curiosity about everything. How to ask great questions, and not to take anything for granted; to admire and embrace your passions. And true concern for others and circumstances in life.

From my friend and partner in business Matias, I learnt that beauty is a feature. That simple is very hard, and how to build a company you would want to work for.

From Kate, our lab, I learnt loyalty, and unconditional love.

Among the Pace’s in Redmond.

 

This is going to be more of a living document that I will refine from time to time, as I encounter other people that influence me in a positive way, and I reflect more on my journey.

 

 

Teachers are immortal

I never called her Vivi. I called her “Profesora”. The respectful title we used to address teachers at high school in Argentina in 1970’s and 1980’s. We sometimes called her “Profe” which was much less formal. I sat six rows back, three rows to the right in an often cold, damp, but clean classroom with two large blackboards on the front. On sunny days, you could see the constellation of chalk dust flying through the air, as the sun rays inundated the room from the windows.

Viviana Coppolillo was one of my high school teachers. She taught Spanish & Literature, but the classes that marked me for life happened outside the normal schedule. She organized and run a drama workshop after school hours. And I took them every year I could. I don’t know how it started, or what led me to. But I feel fortunate of having done them.

These are one of those things that have left a long impression on me. Some of the scripts of those short plays are still in my memory, and I can recite them from beginning to end, more than 30 years later.

Viviana taught me how to express myself, how to be funnily serious, and seriously funny. How to weave stories from small, disconnected threads. How to improvise. How to unleash a self I didn’t know existed before. Today, I’m sometimes told I’m a “story teller”. I like to think I owe that to Viviana.

From her, I also learnt to love books, stories and travel. I learnt each book is a door and a window into entire worlds: real ones and fiction. I learnt that they have the power of setting you free.

I never reconnected with her after I left school in the late 80’s. Many years later, I learnt she was no longer with us. And I felt a terrible sense of loss when this happened. I miss the conversations we never had. And cherish those that we did. Being a teacher must be one of the most fulfilling jobs. Great teachers become immortal through their work, as their influence, advice, teachings continue to live on on their students. Viviana was a great teacher.

Serendipitously, I learnt that her daughter Magdalena, whom I’ve never met in person, published a book with a selection of her poems and short stories.

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I contacted Magdalena and after a long, adventurous trip, a copy of the book is now lying on my desk where I’m writing this. Once again I can enjoy her beautifully crafted words. Once again, I can hear her voice coming from the ink on the neat pages of her posthumous printed sentences.

Thanks Magdalena, and thanks Viviana.

Lucky

It was veteran’s day here in the US, a time we remember those that served in the US armed forces. It coincides with at least two other celebrations that transcend the USA: Armistice day and Remembrance Day. I went to a British school when I was a child, so I was already very familiar with them, having bought my decent share of poppies.

While reflecting about it, I took the opportunity to show my sons how lucky we are. Lucky to be living in the late XX/early XXI centuries. And to appreciate the fact of living in an era of relative peace.

Not long ago, I got a link to fallen.io. The data presented by the project clearly shows a special time in our history, despite what we perceive or think.

In watching it, I couldn’t help stopping many times, and rewind often to double check the staggering numbers of deaths and losses our world has suffered during the 1900’s. This video puts things in a slightly new perspective.

The immensity of this tragedy is difficult to grasp in the abstract, but looking at the graphics is shocking:

  • In just 1 day (Omaha Beach, D-Day), more american soldiers died than in 13 years in Irak. 2,500 soldiers died in 1 day…that’s about 15X the size of my company. All those gone, in just 1 day.
  • 6 million jews were murdered. A number I knew well, but still shocking to see.
  • The USSR lost +20M people…many in combat, many not.
  • And more, and more.

Humanity lost so much during WWII that we might never fully grasp its entirety. And we have certainly lost so much in addition to the lives of all those people.

The music that we will never listen to. The gadgets that didn’t get invented. The houses that were not designed and were never built. The children that were never born. The cures not found. The paints not painted. In a nutshell, the enormous opportunity cost of WWII.

A good moment to celebrate the opportunities that we can enjoy. And to renew our commitment to make this pale blue dot, a better place.

 

Naked in clothes

As I wrote, one of the greatest gifts I’ve received is the opportunity to travel. When we travel, we are exposed to the discomforts of not knowing the rules, not understanding the words, being from a different place. We are vulnerable. Guests to someone else. Naked in clothes to new flavors, new smells and sights.

I’ve traveled to +30 countries around the world. I’ve felt stranger and welcomed in all of them. I’ve been stared at for 30 min in a Beijing metro. I’ve walked the cold streets of Leningrad late night and the beautiful and peaceful gardens at Peterhof. I stood in Checkpoint Charlie and walked over the trail of the former Berlin Wall. I felt the most intense sadness in the Holocaust Memorial. Watched the change of guard in Moscow, and mastered its metro system. Dined at Cafe Pushkin, and pretended to be an intelectual. I watched the blue Danube in Vienna and Budapest. I drove through Foy, and wandered through the deafening silent forests and the dead. I walked deep into Kiev’s catacombs, lit candles, and prayed a silent prayer to the surrounding saints. I got lost in Madrid while feeling like home, admired the wonderful roman architecture and engineering in Segovia. I climbed the hills in Cinque Terre. I swam my ancestral mediterranean waters in Sicily. I smoked with Palestines and Jews, in a small coffee shop in Jerusalem, while casually discussing politics. I walked 15 km over the Great Wall. I walked the underground Yokohama and never mastered anything there. I swam the Caribbean, the Atlantic, and the Pacific. I climbed to the top of a few (smoking) volcanoes. Waded crocodile infested waters in Guanacaste, Costa Rica (on a 4WD, and I didn’t see a single one, but hey…there was a sign!). And I properly rode the sands in Giza on a camel. I sailed Puget Sound, faced the wind and salty water, and I imagined being an explorer.

Throughout all that, I felt various levels of discomfort, comfortably. And, while I’ve been lucky to experience that much, I know I barely know the world. Which is exciting! So much more to do, learn, and experience.

Traveling makes you realize that despite all the differences, most people share, and care about a (surprisingly?) vast number of common subjects. I’ve been helped by completely different, anonymous people of all ages, and for a few minutes I’ve felt friendship, and what we are capable of doing when we do our best. After all, we are all together in this Pale Blue Dot.