Remember when you were a kid and the carnival came to town for a hot summer weekend? You couldn’t wait to go, you begged your parents until the big day arrived, cotton candy, the shooting gallery for a teddy bear and, most exciting of all, the merry go round.
You wanted to ride a horse without your Dad holding you, he wanted you to ride in one of these weird carriages that looked like a fancy restaurant booth with stuffed benches, weird but safer than the horse.
Life is, or should be, like the horse that goes up and down and moves around at the same time. Slow at first, but gradually faster as the carney steps on the throttle
Our emotions are like that, they move up and down in a continuous circle that accelerates in youth, peaks out in middle age and slows down with maturity.
I haven’t figured out the mystery of life, why we’re here, why we’re born into given circumstances why we live, love and hate as we do? All I know is that this merry go round of life is all that we have, the ups and downs, the fast and slow are either preordained by a divine presence or a cosmic act of nature.
“It is easier for a camel to go through the eyeofaneedle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
There are certain chapters and verses in the bible that we remember, not sure why, maybe a word a phrase or a thought that resonates within us like a tuning fork vibrating for attention.
Money, and things it buys, including social position, power and, in the early church, indulgences is a recipe for self-immolation. As the Camel gets fatter the eye of the needle gets smaller.
I don’t know why I’m musing about this, truth be known I know lots of rich people, most of whom will never fit through the eye of that needle but some who will. Some of my rich friends are kind, generous and charitable. Their riches have not gone to their head and their relationship with God is probably a good one, at least in terms of their riches.
So why is Mark so universal in his condemnation of the rich?
I guess it’s because riches attract possessions, possessions attract comparisons and comparisons mean I’m better, smarter and richer than you. Hardly a recipe for moving through the eye of that divine camel.
So, let’s rewind this and look at riches another way. Let’s step away from the notion that money is the root of all evil to money being the consequence of God’s munificence and a rich man’s opportunity to be his enabler.
Think of Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that is being funded with billion-dollar donations from the Gates, Warren Buffett and others who magnify the word of God and ignore the temptations of man.
Today with so much emphasis on the infamous “one percenter” the super wealthy individuals basking in the shadow of Donald Trump’s largess at the expense of the other 99% we applaud the Gates, Buffets and others who demand more taxes for the wealthy.
This is not wealth redistribution; this is common sense. Warren Buffett who is worth $81 billion once famously compared his tax rate of 16% to his secretary paying a substantially higher rate.
Consider these individuals who make up a class of their own, the 1/10th percenter, grossing more than a $ billion per year.
This is not to say these men didn’t earn their place on the list, they are visionaries and brilliant financial strategists. That said, the question remains, if wealth is how we keep score in the game of life, I think we need new rules and better referees.
Driving down the interstate Nick Hahn would watch the cars and trucks go by and think to himself, ‘if I drop dead of a heart attack this very moment would a single person on this highway blink other than to curse the backup after I hit the bridge embankment, not likely’.
He used to think time was eternal, a never-ending compendium capturing the sparks of our existence and glowing forever. That was years ago, when the idea of mortality was barely a passing thought. This is now, when it’s not about mortality, it’s about living and how he will leverage 80 years of life experience doing it right this time.
As he approaches his eighth decade, he knows the glow will fade and extinguish, not all at once, but one spark at a time.
This book is a way of keeping Nick’s life glowing a little longer, perhaps less brightly than in the past, but able to light the flame that has kept him interested, interesting and alive all these years.
His life has been one of fire and ash, burning with passion and wonder only to flame out again and again with the residue of reality.
This is not memoir or biography, this is a story, Nick’s story, creative non-fiction, a narrative laced with places, times, events and characters that Nick experienced during a lifetime of travel to some of the most exotic and, occasionally, dangerous places on earth, including of course, NYC.
I’ve known this man for 80 years, by any measure, a long time. I know his failures and successes, his passions and desires, his loves and hates. He is a complicated man, brimming at once with creative ambition while suffering from anemic self-confidence.
There is no schadenfreude in Nick, he takes no pleasure in another’s misfortune. He is a man preoccupied with self-discovery, often defining himself by the opinions of others.
The storms and calms of his life have moved him back and forth like the tide. While the detritus of living has often pushed him to places where he doesn’t belong. As a young man he thrived on the ignorance of youth and the fantasy of dreams.
If you recognize yourself in this story, be careful, you’re riding a wild horse, snorting and unbroken, running through the mutability of life with total abandon and, what’s worse, disregard for common sense.
I’ll skip over the formative years and get right to the heart of the matter, the drivers of Nick’s improbable existence. His life is about vanity, unjustified self-confidence, empathy, courage, addiction, depression, and exorbitant passion for people and places that should not have mattered to him.
This story reads like fiction but it’s all true.
Chapter-1 (Sri Lanka)
The story begins in 1997, when I stepped down as President & CEO of
Cotton Incorporated, the iconic textile fiber research and marketing arm of the US Cotton industry, headquartered in a glass tower overlooking Central Park in New York.
My life up to that time was boring and predictable, upper middleclass background and education followed by corporate internships leading to a business career in New York and a corporate lifestyle.
I had it all, big job, beautiful wife, accomplished children, house in the Connecticut suburbs, a country club and the respect of peers.
Then it happened, an epiphany, a realization that something was wrong, there was a missing link that would connect my comfortable self with my bold and risky self.
I took a big step, one which I’d live to regret in some respects but one I needed to quiet my anxious spirit.
I resigned from Cotton, left New York and embarked on a 30-year odyssey as an economic development consultant in the emerging economies of the third world from Sri Lanka to Brazil. There was uncertainty, mystery and danger with indigenous people so different from those I knew in NY.
Sri Lanka was my first assignment, I never heard of it much less know where in the world it was? I had no idea what I was doing or what I’d be letting myself in for, seriously. It was the thrill of discovery, like Columbus when he set out to discover Asia and new trade routes only to discover America.
Life is a journey not a destination, at age 62 when my peers were calculating their retirement benefits and playing golf my journey was just beginning.
Christ, what was I doing here, they didn’t tell me about this? I didn’t expect the bright lights of NY, but this was ridiculous. I didn’t sign up for a blistering hot corrugated barn watching tea tasters slurping, swirling and spitting the current harvest from a Lipton plantation.
When I arrived, blurry eyed and disoriented from 18 hours of flight time with no sleep in my USAID required economy seat, it hit me, I really did it this time, thrown my comfortable life as a corporate executive with first class privileges into a mash pit of low class amentias among the proletariat of an undeveloped country.
Did I have 2nd thoughts, you bet your ass I did, and they weren’t sweet dreams, more like night screams.
The crowd waiting for passengers was anxious, jostling each other for a better view of the human detritus stumbling towards the gate with bloodshot eyes locked in a confused stare from 18 hours of no sleep, bad movies and worse food.
My contact was there, small and dark with a wide toothy grin etched on his face. The sign was homemade, dirty yellow cardboard, my name was in capital letters, misspelled as HAN, it stood out in the monochromatic crowd.
I walked towards him with a thumbs up sign of recognition, he acknowledged with a nod and worked his way through the rolling sea of dark faces to the narrow exit gate.
He grabbed my bag without a word, I hung on momentarily, not knowing if this guy was my pickup from the hotel or a street thief. He smiled and flipped his sign to the backside exposing the name and logo of the Galle Face Hotel, I released my grip and we headed for the door.
The Indian made Tata sedan was parked across the road, I felt the springs in the back seat as we jerked and stumbled over the bumps and potholes towards the entrance to the airport. There was a gate, a guard house and armed men spot checking vehicles for contraband. There was a cannon, an M-198 Howitzer, American made, I recognized it from my tour at Ft Knox, Ky. It was nestled in a circle of camouflaged sandbags manned by two soldiers dressed in battle gear, helmets and flak jackets.
My only thought was oh my god, what have you gotten yourself into Nick? My active duty in the Army was limited, but I knew about guard duty. The sight of that gun emplacement made my gut tighten. What or whom were they guarding against? I should have told Toothy to stop and head back to the terminal so I could catch the next flight to NY.
I didn’t, and that would prove to be a seminal moment, a moment that would change my life from the stupor of an upper middle-class existence protected by the guardrails of my peers to one of audacious adventure, unplanned and undisciplined for which I was totally unprepared.
Think about it, a month ago I was commuting from Darien, CT to mid-town Manhattan in a three-piece suit, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal tucked under my arm and my only concern was the 7:08 running late.
Today I’m in the backseat of an old sedan I’d never heard of with a cranky air-conditioner, worn out springs, and a driver who doesn’t speak English. Not to mention being inspected by armed guards backed up by a US Army M-198 Howitzer.
You can’t make this up, and the real adventure hadn’t even begun which brings me back to the corrugated barn and the guys spitting dark liquid into a funnel.
So here I was, being paid for my expertise as a non-profit association executive being hired to organize small stake-holder farmers into marketing cooperatives to build leverage in pricing and sourcing for their commodities.
Lipton was hardly a small stakeholder plantation owner, they were a leader in production systems, quality control and marketing. They were competitive in world tea markets from years of experience and, should I say, exploitation of the Siri Lankan workers who traversed the verdant green hills where small tea bushes grew in abundance in the mild sun-drenched weather of the Indian ocean. Lipton was beyond the scope of my project, but their operation was a good introduction to tea production, quality control and marketing.
Her name was Ashine, in local Sinhala it meant “a strict natured, serious and diplomatic person”, her Mother knew what she was doing when naming this girl, she was all of that and more.
Ashine would be my guide and translator for the remainder of my engagement in Sri Lanka. She spoke excellent English with a minimum Sinhalese accent.
I was working for a large US consulting group that had a USAID contract for economic development work in the agribusiness sector.
This was my first assignment and I must confess, I felt like a fish out of water not knowing what was expected of me or how I would deliver on the SOW (statement of work in USAID speak), I would have to get used to the acronyms among many other things like how to say thank you, hello, goodbye and where’s the men’s bathroom in Sinhalese. Asheni was helpful in a formal way, she took it upon herself to teach me the language, at least the basics like how to order a beer after work. I didn’t know how I would get along with Ashine at first, she was middle aged, I guessed about 45, attractive, well-educated and seemed friendly enough but not too friendly. She had spent time in the States which, I accurately guessed, was one of the reasons she was assigned to me in the first place.
How does a 63-year-old married man still in his prime, physically fit and by all accounts still attractive work with a woman in her mid to late 40’s, still in her prime and by his account still attractive, very attractive. Ah, the eternal question? You focus on her professional skills, and consider how she can help you perform your job in spite of the fact that your thousands of miles from home on a long-term business assignment in a bucolic location with unlimited opportunity for after-hours intimacy? The answer is you suck on a lemon and keep your eyes on the road.
Ashine turned out to be my secret weapon as I stumbled through the bureaucratic requirements of USAID report writing and the strange world of local culture. She had worked on several USAID projects in the past and was intimately familiar with the terms and conditions of their contracts.
I was not the only Western expat living and working in Colombo, there were other Americans, Brits, Aussies and a large contingent of Danes. We tended to flock together like birds of a feather but, of course, we had our own differences in culture, languages and custom.
The guy spitting in the funnel looked at me and pointed at the spoons used to taste the tea varieties lined up on a table in front of him. The liquid color went from pale green to yellow to brown to black with several cups in each category. He was nodding the question; would I like to try it?
I nodded back, yes.
This would be the first affirmative decision I would make during my three-month engagement, with one exception, and that exception was obvious, more about that later.
The green tea was, to my tongue, tasteless as it has always been for me, even out a box of Japanese Tea back in the States. The flavor of green tea is nuanced, my taste buds are unmistakable and obvious, I would never make a good tea-taster.
After clearing my palate with water I tried again, this time from the black selection, as soon as the liquid hit my tongue, I knew, it was strong and slightly bitter, after quickly spitting it out in the funnel I turned to the professional and gave him a thumbs-down, he smiled with a huge laugh.
Ashine, with a wide knowing grin, simply shook her head, another nuanced signal that she enjoyed being with me despite the professional circumstances.
This was the beginning of a long climb up the learning curve of the tea business, next would be the Coir, aka Coconut, fiber business, another leading commodity underpinning the fragile Sri Lanka economy after their world leading position as a producer of fine gemstones, primarily Sapphires.
Ashine had a car and driver assigned to us, she sat in front next to the driver telling him where we had to go in Sinhala then turning to me in English pointing out national landmarks. This woman attracted me on an intellectual level, I’ve always preferred being with people smarter than myself, especially women. In Sri Lanka Ashine made me feel inferior without bruising my tender ego, not easy to do.
The plan was to visit several tea plantations and spend the night at one of them. The large operators, like Lipton, had converted their barns into Inns nestled in the rolling hills of the tea growing estates.
Approaching a plantation, the first thing you saw was a carpet of green dotted with the primary colors of the picker’s saris and sarongs, the sight was not a tourist postcard, these women were working hours a day to fill the baskets strapped to their backs with the 18kg of leaves needed to earn their daily wage of 2.70 British pounds.
The workers lived in barracks style housing at the foot of the hills, they shopped in plantation owned stores and their children went to plantation run schools. All I could think of was the US textile industry in early 20th C, where the workers “owed their soul” to the company store”.
I kept peppering Ashine with questions, were the people happy, did they have unions, could they survive on 2.70 BP per day, what did they do for entertainment, did they have churches or temples?
Her answers were measured and convincing, just like everything else about this woman.
For some reason I felt that Ashine was hiding something, her demeanor was too fixed, too perfect her answers were robotic. I don’t believe in male intuition; I leave that talent to women but in this case, I have a strange feeling about Ashine that I can’t explain.
I’m one of 16 expat consultants working in Sri Lanka on economic development projects. USAID had budgeted $22m US dollars to enhance the competitiveness of their agricultural sector, infrastructure, urban planning, health and rule of law. I was a small peg in a large puzzle but working on Tea, Spices and Coir gave me outsized visibility as these commodities found their way into consumer markets of the Western World.
Traveling around the country in a chauffeured car with a smart, attractive guide was the envy of my expat colleagues back in Colombo.
It was late in the day, we were tired and ready for a shower, a cool drink and some good Fish Ambul Thiyal, a sporous fish dish popular with the locals.
Ashine registered for the three of us, the converted tea barn was charming, maintaining much of its original purpose but with all the modern conveniences and amenities.
I asked Ashine if we should dress for dinner, she answered with a wink,’ probably a good idea, it gets chilly here in the evening.’
That retort was unexpected and surprising, this uptight woman had just let her guard down for the first time since we met, maybe that’s what my male intuition was telling me, even in Sri Lanka human chemistry doesn’t change. I wondered what her astrological sign was and how it would match up with my Leo?
We were to meet at in the cocktail lounge at 8 o’clock, like most places outside of the Western World they ate late here.
I arrived first. The lounge was quietly lighted, local décor with a decided western flare. The bar was backlit with a mirror reflecting every brand of premium liquor I’d ever heard of and several I hadn’t. I ordered my usual, Stoli on the rocks, double lemon peel with a club soda chaser.
The driver arrived next, he sat beside me with a nod and ordered a beer, local brand, I’d never heard of. The bartender obviously knew him, they had a congenial chat, I assumed this was a regular stop on the tourist trail the driver followed when not working for the project.
I saw her reflected in the mirror, the image slightly blurred, and color toned behind the bottles. There was no mistaken Ashine for a stranger, she was smiling and purposeful as she slid onto the stool next to the driver with a nod to both of us and a greeting in Sinhala to the bartender who was already preparing her martini in a lowball glass, 3 olives and a Perrier chaser.
I started the conversation over the driver’s head, a bit awkward but unavoidable. After speaking in English, the driver slid off his seat with a hand signal for me to move closer to Ashine, I happily accepted.
She asked me about my life in the states, wife, children, where I lived and how I was selected for this assignment.
My dad, a lifelong Republican, was a B-17 pilot and POW in WWII. He was shot down over Berlin on his 12th mission. He was captured by the Nazis and was held as POW in Stalag Luft One. He didn’t know if he would survive and he didn’t know from day to day if the war would end. During the 9 months of his captivity, he lost 70 pounds. He was covered in lice and his feet were frozen. But one day, he awakened at dawn and stood up to listen. He could not believe his ears. He was hearing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” our national anthem, being sung by prisoners, an act punishable by death. At first it was 100 voices, then a 1,000 voices and, soon 8,000 POWs were singing the American national anthem. That is how my dad knew WWII was over and that the Germans had abandoned post. He with other POWs were rescued and he came home to marry my mom and raise a family of six children, including me. He risked his life to protect American lives and to fight for the freedom of a country he loved.
As a junior high aged girl, I was asked to write an essay on how Thomas Jefferson was able to write the Declaration of Independence. Knowing how much my dad valued peace and freedom, I asked him what he thought. My dad sat down and began describing what he believed inspired Thomas Jefferson’s passion and compelling vision to write this influential and inspiring document. I can vividly remember writing down my dad’s words and ideas that day. He described qualities of courage, integrity, compassion, and most of all, the vision of creating a nation with liberty and justice for all, a country of democracy and respect for all people.
My dad served in WWII because he loved America. He fought for all Americans. He did not fight for just Republicans. He fought to preserve our freedom and to protect us from tyranny from foreign governments. He staked his life on it.
Today our country is in a crisis—a hot, divisive mess. If my dad were still alive, I wonder what he would say and think about the lack of compassion, unity, and patriotism. Like many of my Republican friends, I believe he probably would no longer recognize the party to which he ascribed all his life. Nor would he recognize the chaotic and horrific state of our country—the nation he was so proud of. All this week, while watching the Democratic National Convention, I have been moved to tears with hope that the soul of our country can be restored. For this to be done, we need a leader with a soul
Ok, let’s get this straight, August is a pivotal month for me, one more year one more chance.
I think of myself as the auteur of my life, “a singular artist who controls all aspects of a collaborative creative work, a person equivalent to the author of a novel or a play.” The problem with this is that if you fuck it up the play closes after opening night.
My play didn’t close but my backers had me on life support after opening night. It took rewrites, lots of them.
“Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.”~John Steinbeck
Steinbeck’s advice for writers is advice for life. “Abandon the idea you are ever going to finish” but when you do, make sure you’re surprised.
Life is a constant, not a straight line, lots of bumps and curves but the only one you’re likely to have. So, forget the 400 pages you have written before and start over again, one page at a time. It’s your story and you, only you, will write the end. Make it exciting, make it creative and make it your own
I’ve found more inspiration, more cheerleading, more personal success, more love in the 7th chapter of my life than all six that came before.
So what’s the big deal, I’ve had an epiphany, what am I supposed to do, pat myself on the back or share the love?
It’s about the love my friends. I know it sounds hackneyed, corny even but that’s the only word that works. When you love you expose your vulnerabilities, as the kids say, you let it all hang out. The weakness and the talent. Love does that to a person, it’s the magic sauce, the inspiration, the motivation. Love doesn’t compromise it just is. I suppose I’m preaching but I don’t know any other way to say it except to say it.
I started my 7th chapter after a 25-year career in industry, I thought at the time this must be all there is, “love-work-play-die”. Then the epiphany. I woke one day with Confucious on my mind-why Confucious, I have no idea!
His words resonated with me:
“Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life”
That’s when I realized that I had spent the first 25 years of my career in a job I was good at but really didn’t love.
This decade of my life turned that around, I found the work and the people I love and that has made all the difference. I can’t wait for the next chapter of this improbable memoir, I’m writing it now and it’s a page burner~stay tuned.
CLOSING ThOUGHT: “–well, it’s true that I have been hurt in my life. Quite a bit. But it’s also true that I have loved, and been loved. And that carries a weight of its own. A greater weight, in my opinion. In the end, I’ll look back on my life and see that the greatest piece of it was love. The problems, the sadness … those will be there too, but just smaller slivers, tiny pieces. ”
That August morning was like any other in Kabul, quiet and sultry with nothing but my overworked air-conditioner complaining through the thick, dark stillness.
The morning call to prayer interrupted my thoughts at precisely 4:53am, this varied by a few minutes daily but was unfailingly reliable.
The rooming house lacked definable architecture, it was plain and undistinguished, like most things in this tired, war-torn city of 4.6 million souls
My room was on the third floor, no elevator, three sets of stairs justified by the only room in the house with a private bath, I would have climbed five sets for that.
Each room had a galley kitchen; sink, refrigerator, hot plate, and microwave not fancy but serviceable. There was a sitting area with a couch, dining table, desk, and chair. The bedroom was not describable, plain, small, single bed, table, and dresser with a threadbare Afghan rug that slipped on the stained linoleum floor. There was a closet, but the door was missing.
The window views were chaotic, the drabness of a dirty street punctuated by scurrying black burqas dodging the indiscriminate trucks and bikes carrying mountains of stuff known only to the consignee and consignor.
The street scene was like the view inside of a monochromatic kaleidoscope that had been twisted one too many times.
I accepted this assignment in spite of my family intervention, Sarah and the kids were dead-set against it and begged me to turn down the recruiter. I listened to them and nodded when I was supposed too but the base pay plus a hazardous duty bonus was catnip to an old capitalist like myself.
My name is John Carlisle, people call me Jack. This was to be my last hurrah, my final act in a 50-year career of managing and consulting. I had spent the last 24 of those years doing economic development work in the emerging markets of a dangerous world in Central and SE Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, and Latin America.
I’d become immune to the dangers once I arrived in-country and found myself working and socializing with the locals who were unfailingly kind and appreciative.
That is until now, Afghanistan is not your typical developing world hot-spot.
This beleaguered country has endured terrorism, war, occupation, and reoccupation for over 2000 years by global players intent upon taming her wild culture and religious zealotry.
It hasn’t worked, time after time invaders have been repelled and left with their tails between their legs in an embarrassing retreat.
The US is only the latest to test their resolve, the Taliban and Al-Qaida have dominated the geography outside of the capital city of Kabul and government troops with US support have tried but failed to gain a foothold.
I’m here to convince local farmers that cotton production can compete with opium, the ubiquitous cash crop demanded by the Bad Guys, as the ex-pats liked to call the terrorists. Both crops thrive in this dry hot climate, albeit opium is easier and cheaper to grow with a ready market. A dangerous assignment, you bet your ass, but it’s about the bonus and the $1 million life insurance policy I demanded for Sarah and the kids.
Our first day on the job was devoted to orientation conducted by UN and US security personnel.
Don’t look locals in the eye, never make a pass or even show curiosity about local women, you’d break the honor code and lose your head, figuratively and literally. Remain in the designated green zone, that protected perimeter around the US Embassy and ex-pat housing. While “the zone” provides all the services you need and safe entertainment, curiosity killed the mouse and for energetic young ex-pats life beyond the zone becomes irresistible.
Working with farmers was considered the most dangerous assignment in Afg, requiring travel outside of the zone into isolated communities and dealing with men who owed their livelihood, if not their lives to the bad guys. Like trying to convince Starbucks to delete coffee from their menu and replace it with Gatorade.
1928 Democratic National Convention, Houston Texas
“A Clear call comes to us today to fight anew under the Jeffersonian banner, with the Jacksonian sword, and in the Wilsonian spirit, and crashing the gates of privilege, make Jeffersonian democracy a living force again in the lives and homes of men”
Claude Bowers, keynote address.
“I'D BEEN REJECTED, BUT I WAS STILL IN LOVE, SO I DECIDED TO START OVER” Nick Hahn, Writer, Narrator, Traveler