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.

 

Traveling – The early days

One of the greatest gifts I’ve received is the opportunity to travel. When I was young, my Mom & Dad would surprise us with an unexpected plan: “let’s go to Salta!”  or “tomorrow we go to Patagonia”. And those were 4000 Km trips usually, not just a walk on the park.

And these would not be just trips. It would be “Epic Trips”. First would come the preparations: food, drinks were topmost in our list. My Grandma would work side by side with my Mom, and would produce a seemingly infinite amount of sandwiches, snacks, cookies, etc. Then one of the most challenging aspects of the preparations would come: fitting everything in the car. The Ford Falcon trunk was tricky: it appeared to be large, but it wasn’t really. It had a weird shape and (worst of all) the spare wheel would take 1/3 of the space. And if you knew any better, you would never travel in Argentina without a spare.

If Tetris existed at that time, my Dad would have been a champion. It amazed me the incredible optimization of space. He would use every freaking cubic cm. in that trunk. There would be some trial and errors, but in the end, everything would fit: clothes, shoes, cans of food, fishing poles, first aid supplies, kites, food, clothes. Oh, and more food and clothes, because….just in case.

We prepared with the detail and dedication that you would for re-settling to a new place. I think we had enough supplies to start a new life somewhere each time.

The car would be checked: gas, wheels, tire pressure, oil levels, water levels, windshield cleaning level. All glass surfaces would be polished. Tools would be carefully selected from the toolbox. Which wrench should we take? Worse: which ones should we leave? It was nerve wrecking. Imagine being stranded in the middle of nowhere needing precisely the screwdriver you decided to leave behind. Think about it. Yes, nerve wrecking.

Our departures were all stealthy. Mostly because we operated under the assumption that bad guys were looking around the clock checking who was leaving and who was staying. And of course our house was a fortress. It would take a small army to break into it.

We’d left in the early hours of the day. And, naturally, we’d start eating 2 blocks aways from home because, you know, we could starve, so better be prepared. And we’d have about 2000Km until our destination. So better start early. Or, if you are going to die, better die healthy and full.

And our trips were all long, dusty, hot and awesome. One game we played was guessing when the AM radio station would fade into crackling sounds. Yes, the car’s radio was just AM, but it had buttons. With memory! The (real) radio-buttons would mechanically memorize 6(?) stations. I also pretended I was the copilot, so my window winder would be the gear shifter, and the pedals were …. imagined.

There was no AC, no entertainment system, no seat-belts. One of my favorite places was the “shelf” in the backseat, up next to the back window. Laying up there. But then I grew up and wasn’t fun anymore.

There were many other games we played to kill time: singing, counting poles, guessing where the rail tracks were or when they would cross the road, check and count license plates from all states. We (my Dad) drove at night, morning, afternoon. We saw sunrises, dawns. We crossed creeks. We got stuck in the mud. We wondered at the marvel of the sight of the first mountains after hundreds of kilometers of plains. Or when we saw the sea. Or that little bridge that we thought would simply break with the weight of all of us.

Many roads were not paved, and there was the long discussion on how well the gravel was set or not. Or if the conditions would be better or worse. We’d press the windshield with our hands to prevent it from exploding into millions of little pieces if a stone hit it.

My Dad was a big fan of the “Automovil Club Argentino” (the equivalent of the AAA in USA, only that AAA in Argentina means something completely different). We’d stay in their motels which were like civilization outposts in the middle of nowhere. Good food, clean rooms, hot showers. Nothing fancy.

The familiar “ACA Robot” (as we called it), was a relief sight in the middle of nowhere: it meant water, sandwiches, chocolates, coffee for the driver. Oh….and gas for the car.

(And yes, I’ve been to that particular one I got from Wikipedia. It is in Cordoba).

The ACA produced incredibly detailed cartography. My Dad was a big fan, and would buy several of these maps, even if we didn’t have plans to drive there. It was the equivalent of Google Maps I guess.

One of my favorite “jobs” was being the navigator: “right turn ahead”, “steep slope in 5 km”, “Construction for 10 km”. I was very impressed by the details it showed and how accurate it was. How could “construction ahead” still be relevant in months or years after the are had been surveyed and a map printed?

I used many of these maps years after they were printed. And the key features of the route were still there. Some places were still under construction. I guess that’s one of the positive side effects of living in a country with slow moving public infrastructure projects perhaps.

Spread out in the roads you would see these little guys [1]:

Unless you’ve just landed on this planet, you can probably guess this indicates the distance to someplace (usually to “Km 0“).  One of my favorite mind games was measuring the time between two of these milestones and then compute the average speed. I would then quickly glance over the (amazing) Ford Falcon speedometer to double check. And there it was: 90 km/h. My Dad had a very steady foot on the gas. And the speedometer was very accurate. But what I was the proudest of, is my own mental calculation abilities. Each calculation would only take about 20 Km.

And this is how we traveled for the first ~15 years of my life. And we traveled a lot. It’d take a few more years to take an airplane for the first time.

[1] The milestone picture comes from this blog.

Happy 4th of July. We are never going to sell the KG.

So we’ve got the new floor pan from our friends at karmannghia.com:

2015-07-05 11.23.44

Looks great, now we’ve got renewed pressure to accelerate the removal of the body. Today we made a little progress, but progress nevertheless.

1. Unlocked the steering wheel axle.

2. Removed the horns (that never worked)

3. Removed the fluid container for windshield cleaning.

All has been properly bagged and tagged for the future:

2015-07-05 15.47.33 2015-07-05 15.47.25

And fairly easily too. Just a little messy and dirty. I think I’m going to pressure wash everything soon. There’s so much dirt accumulated everywhere. I’m sure there are seeds of extinct species in there. Any botanical experts interested?

This car has lived a lot under a pine. There’re pine needles everywhere. I wish it could talk to me. But even though it doesn’t speak (only roars and coughs sometimes). It is definitely telling us a story: this one.

I’ve refrained from throwing away anything, but the most broken things. I think we are going to try salvage and repair as much as we can. Rubber kits, we’ll need a lot. Wiring too.

Yesterday was July 4th and in good Americana tradition all the neighbors met on the street for BBQ, beer, catchup, and some (very timid) fireworks. It is always a great event. We live in a very tiny street with about 10 houses. I counted at least 7 countries represented so the BBQ is very eclectic. But I digress. The big news was that one of the neighbors got curious about our little project, and offered to connect me with a potential buyer for the car. That’s encouraging and flattering. We are not selling though. I will never sell this car.

My next conundrum is the plasma cutter: Aye or Nay. Wire welder is an Aye for ample majority.

My other Dads

I’ve been fortunate to have many good examples in life. Other men that have loved, guided and taught me. Two of them are my Grandfathers, the other one is my father in law.

I bear my two grandfather’s names: Carlo and Eugenio. Italy and Spain. The longer story is that, as I wrote before, my parents decided to follow the (very) old Italian tradition of naming me after my paternal grandfather (Carlo). But my mom wasn’t very keen on it, so she named me after her own father (Eugenio). And she never called me Carlo…long story short, my Dad is the only guy that ever calls me Carlo, or the Spanish variation Carlos. But only when he is upset enough to not care about upsetting my Mom which was very rare. I’ve been Eugenio all my life. And of course it has made pronunciation to my fellow, english-speaking (north)american friends an act of lingual Cirque du Soleil.

I’ll start with Eugenio then. I never met him. In person that is. He died a few years before I was born. But I got to know him through his (many) writings. I’m writing this in part because of him I guess. I might have inherited that from him (together with an old, portable, Remington writing machine with cavities).

Eugenio had a very tough life. He was born in Buenos Aires, from Castilian parents. His mother was pregnant before leaving Spain on a ship for the great ocean crossing. She was pregnant (oh, the shame) before marrying. But she eventually married her boyfriend, and started a new life in Argentina. My grand dad thought of himself as “mostly Spanish, somewhat Argentinian”. The family whereabouts are foggy. Because we tend to forget what’s painful. What I do know is that a little brother died very very young (perhaps starved), and that he lost his own dad at 15. He essentially become the father of his 7(?) brothers and sisters. When I look at my own son (14), I cannot possibly imagine the enormous burden, and the overwhelming responsibility of helping his mom, and raising 7 (seven!) kids at that age. But he did it. Or, better said, did his best.

He wrote about it here, in this poem dedicated to his own Dad:

poemas-a mi padre

But life would not be easier for him. A self-taught man, he worked as a cinema operator and was always interested in politics and philosophy. He lost his job(s) many times because of his political ideas (socialist). I inherited many of his books. Most are very cheap editions of many classics: Proust, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Kant, Hegel. I read some of them (and can still recall the smell, and the coarse texture of their yellow pages).

2015-07-31 11.54.10

Many of his other books are lost though. Hastily burnt to avoid political persecution. His views were not compatible with the government at that time, and my grandmother felt they had enough troubles.

My mom was his 2nd child. His first son, Jorge, died when he was 8. From all the blows he suffered in life, this was probably the worst. I believe he never fully recovered from it. In his style, he wrote about him a few times. This is one of such poems:

poemas-canto al recuerdo del hijo

When he died, my Mom was already dating my Dad. He died knowing her daughter was loved very much. I hope he had some comfort after all.

I like to think I would have made him proud, if he had met me. He certainly taught me a lot, even without being present. Through his writings, and through the memories of my Mom and my Grandmother.

Carlo, my father’s dad, was born in one of the most beautiful places I’ve been to: a very tiny town in northwest Sicily, Italy. I was very fortunate to meet him. From him, I learnt the love and respect for nature. My fondest memories are from his apparently endless garden. That tiny patch of land he tended to (even at a very advanced age), would produce what appeared to me as infinite amounts of carrots, beets, celery, and any other edible plants. He also raised rabbits, geese, and chickens. He ate snails. And loved garlic. He barely went to to school, but taught my dad (and through him me), the value and ethics of work. Figlio mio, se non si lavora, non se mangia. A simple but powerful lesson that I have carried with me since then.

Here’s a picture of him, the only time I recall seeing him in a suit. Dressing like this is so alien, I can barely recognize him. He was boarding a plane for the only time he ever returned to Italy. He was going back to a place he couldn’t recognize as his anymore. He had left before the 2nd World War, and returned 40 years later. He did it only once.

nono-Ezeiza

The (very little, and broken) Italian I know, I practiced with him (actually more of Sicilian). Although, he lived many years in Argentina, he never spoke a word in Spanish. I guess it was the one thing that reminded him of who he was.

And then there is Roberto, my wife’s father, who “adopted” me. Roberto (a surgeon), taught me compassion, and the value of being of service to others. Like he has been to hundreds of people. Something I use everyday in my job. I have always admired his ability to build bridges with anyone, well-known or stranger.

His generosity and humility are hard to match. He’s the type of guy who will always pick up the phone, who will always listen, who will always be there to help you. He’s the guy you can count on, no matter what. Once, I called him, he took a plane, flew 20 hours and was on my house ‘s door the next day. Yes, that kind of guy. A real “gaucho”.