||June 1, 2018
Resilience in the Face of Nature’s Challenges
Visiting Iceland leaves one with a feeling of awe at the incredible resilience of the
Icelanders. The country is populated with volcanoes in every region of the country, many
of which have exploded in the last few decades. (In 2010, the Eyjafjallajokull volcano
erupted, the ash disrupting air traffic throughout the world for almost a week.) Yet,
Icelanders continue to build their farms right next to the craters. You may think this is fool
hardy, but the Icelanders have an allegiance to their lands which makes them believe that
destiny wins out in the end. If a volcano erupts and the lava swallows them, it may be sad,
it may be tragic, but many believe they have no other destiny.
This is a very interesting character trait among the Icelanders I met. As Americans, we
are often thinking if there’s a problem, there’s a solution. But in Iceland, land of elves and
magic and compelling rainbows, they have a different take on what’s important in life.
Remaining on their lands is vital to their identity.
In conversations, I learned of the pride of Icelanders over their writer, Halldor Laxness,
who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1955. He is little known outside of Iceland, but
his works detail the struggles of everyday Icelanders to make sense of living in a frigid,
volcano-plagued environment. If you’re inclined, check out his most noted novel,
||February 22, 2018
Pura Vida, living your best life in Costa Rica
On a trip to Costa Rica, I re-discovered some of the joys of my life. As a diplomat I had
often traveled. It was part of the job. I really enjoyed being in a culture that was not much
like the American culture, and I found particular satisfaction in functioning in another
language. For some years in my retirement, I opted not to travel much, but when I landed
in San Jose, Costa Rica’s capital, the joys I used to know so well came flooding back.
Walking through the central market in San Jose, there is a bustle, there is a hum, of
people making their best life. The Ticos (what Costa Ricans call themselves) call it “Pura
Vida.” It doesn’t translate directly but it means you’re making the most of every moment to
make your best life. Everywhere you travel in Costa Rica, someone is wishing you Pura
Vida. The Ticos use it for hello, good-bye, but more precisely it means “don’t miss an
opportunity to have the best life you can.”
My six days in the country were fantastic. Between mounting hills beside volcanoes,
touring a coffee plantation, swimming in the Pacific Ocean, or ziplining high above the
rainforest, I felt blood pulsing through my veins in ways that were astounding. On the
zipline, my FITBIT told me my heart was pulsing at 145 beats per minute. Exhilarating!
Travel is a wonderful way to wake up dormant senses and remember to make your Pura
||February 9, 2017
Trump’s loose social media habits
After watching Donald Trump in the White House for a mere 20 days one is left with the
exhaustion that usually accompanies any adult who must “watch” over a child, unmoored
to reality, wedded to his own narcissistic ego where only his wants matter. One wants to
avoid being overly dramatic, but this is a man who fails to appreciate that the world is
reacting to his every word (tweet or otherwise). His ego feels bolstered by that kind of
attention, but his loose social media habits put Americans around the world at risk.
As a retired Foreign Service officer, I had to defend policies with which I disagreed, but I
never had to fret over the competence of the White House occupant. For today's
diplomats, real fear and trembling exists over a tweeting president, who in 140 characters
can unleash hostilities abroad to U.S. policies. This is not fantasy. Congress is planning
to hold hostage funds for security at diplomatic outposts (over moving the American
Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem), just at the time when those representing the U.S. are
most threatened by a man who campaigned on being "unpredictable." The chaos
candidate is now the chaos president.
I have faith that the country has survived bad presidents in the past, and will do so this
time. But Trump shows no grasp of the breathtaking harm he may inflict on the country
by treating the constitution like something in his way as he ignores ethical conflicts and
bulldozes over norms that American society has adopted in ensuring that every American
is treated equally with respect.
January 2, 2016
A Distorted Sense of Time
Watching a new year arrive prompts reflection about our sense of time.
My sister died in 2014. That doesn’t sound so long ago in the context of just beginning
2016. And yet, grieving her absence, remembering how tied we were to each other,
recalling so many smiles and fun times even as we were dealing with so many
hospitalizations—it seems like someone else’s life. The mind plays a little trick with you to
ease the pain of loss. The mind distorts the sense of time and identification with these
experiences and lulls you into thinking you are not so sad, you are not so traumatized by
your loss, because the You in those memories is disjointed from the You of today. It’s
like that death happened to someone else. A protection mechanism, meant to shield you
A friend recently posted a photo on Facebook of our days together in Chad in the Peace
Corps in the late 1970s. I look at my face in that photo and I know exactly how excited,
how scared, how living-on-the-edge that Michael was as a twenty-one year old arriving in
such a new world of sights and sounds and smells. I can look at that photo from thirty-
nine years ago and I identify immediately with all that young man was feeling. The mind
plays no tricks with the Chad photo because it was a time of joy, a time of thrilling
adventure. I am right there again. Young again, my blood racing as I tackle the Unknown.
But not a scary Unknown. Not an off-putting Unknown. But one that beckoned to a life of
adventure that all started with a decision to go to Africa.
Our sense of time is flexible. It adjusts for us. To weather the traumas that come with the
ups and down of just living, or to put us right back into the most thrilling moments of our
August 6, 2015
The Difference after the War Ends
Sri Lanka is an ancient civilization, dating back 30,000 years. The island off the coast of
India in the Indian Ocean is a mix of many cultures, Sinhalese and Tamil the predominant
ones. After a recent trip there, it seems amazing the transformation I witnessed. I first
visited the country back in 1998 when it was in the middle of a brutal civil war that began
in 1983. You could not travel freely because of the many military checkpoints and
threats of bombs and killings. People seemed always on edge, always looking over their
shoulders at any passing face. Was this someone with a bomb? Was this someone
hiding a weapon? It was a stressful way to live.
After years of conflict, the civil war ended in 2009. When you visit the island capital
today—Colombo—you can feel the lightness among the people. Smiles are more
evident. Children are playing sports in fields and parents are cheering them on, with no
apparent worries about security or threats. Colombo seems cleaner and more orderly
than in the war days. New highways have been completed—even with tolls—to channel
the masses from one side of the city to the other. There has been so much improvement.
Yet, like any nation, it’s a work in progress. Among gay Sri Lankans, there is little
freedom as homosexuality remains illegal. Men tell of police entrapment schemes that
make them reluctant to live their lives. There is a certain emptiness in their eyes when
they talk about what their lives can be until they are allowed more freedom. Many fear
they can never really live until they go someplace else, until they flee to a more
hospitable, tolerant culture. It’s a great thing that the military checkpoints are almost
invisible, but if fleeing is the only road to happiness, then there is still so much work to be
April 14, 2015
A Piece of Massachusetts in Georgia
After a series of deaths among my group of friends over the last few months, recently we
escaped to the mountains of northern Georgia for a few days to refresh ourselves, and to
remind that the earth has a way of renewing—it’s called Spring—that allows us to bury
the wintry chills and recall the wonders of all that surrounds us. We rented a cabin near
Hiawassee, Georgia, and delighted in being remote from our usual activities in stressed,
After finding a good branch to serve as my walking stick, each morning in the dark I hiked
the hills around the cabin. Although all of the cabins in that area had names with “bear” in
them (Two Bears Lodge; A Bear’s Abode; Big Bear Heights) I didn’t spy any bears, but I
did startle a pheasant one morning, who half-flew, half-hopped away from me to a nearby
One afternoon we explored the highest peak in Georgia, Brasstown Bald. A video
presentation at the attractive site explains how the peak changes during the seasons,
how the climate on the mountain resembles Massachusetts rather than Georgia, in the
way temperatures fluctuate and precipitation falls. It seems a strange fact, to find a piece
of Massachusetts lurking above Georgia in the clouds.
Another day we toured the campus of Young Harris College, proud to see another
generation engaged in higher studies in a beautiful environment where it can nurture
ideas and be creative.
Death colors each of our lives, but it remains for us, the living, to appreciate what nature
teaches us in its endless process of renewal and rebirth. Change is the nature of our
existence, and no one escapes. That seems right as we cycle through our lives to an
ascent where we lose ourselves in the clouds.
February 2, 2015
Lack of Coordination of U.S. Foreign Policy: Magnifying International Crises
Speaker of the House John Boehner has invited the Israeli Prime Minister to address
Congress. He’s entitled to invite anyone to speak, but when he does not coordinate these
invitations with the executive branch of the U.S. government, the world grows infinitely
Countries around the world often look to the United States for its leadership and counsel
on handling a variety of domestic and international crises. Through American
embassies—and the diplomatic staff from the U.S. State Department—these countries
rely on hearing what is the American point of view on solving these questions. When the
Speaker of the House decides he is not even going to inform the White House of his
activities, the world can only interpret this as a sign that it cannot trust whoever is staffing
the embassies as a mouthpiece for U.S. foreign policy.
This is a situation which magnifies danger around the world. Leaders of other nations are
left wondering who is speaking for U.S. foreign policy. And just as capital markets detest
uncertainty and fluctuate wildly in response, international crises are more likely to flare
into full conflagrations because of the doubt now growing among America’s friends and
foes as to what is U.S. policy and who represents it. Speaker Boehner thinks of this as a
“win” for him in showing up President Obama, but what it really demonstrates is that
Washington’s dysfunction is not only frustrating American voters, but also making political
instability and upheaval in the world more likely.
December 8, 2014
The President’s Disrespect for the Foreign Service
Diplomatic posts overseas have often been given to friends of the President and people
who helped in a political campaign. Ambassadorships were up for sale and everyone
knew it. Still, sensitive posts were considered too risky to give to someone without
adequate background. So, previous presidents understood that those posts needed to
be assigned to career Foreign Service Officers. But President Obama has now corrupted
the system to such a degree that former Foreign Service Officers like me must speak out.
Here’s what The Financial Times reported:
“At a time when Vladimir Putin’s autocratic style is winning admirers in parts of
central Europe, Mr. Obama nominated Colleen Bell, the [soap opera] producer of
The Bold and the Beautiful, as his next ambassador to Hungary. Ms. Bell made it
clear in her Senate hearing that she knew next to nothing about Hungary — a
country run by Viktor Orban, a strongman with Putinesque tendencies. Ms. Bell is
no authority on the tenuousness of democracy in parts of the former Soviet world.
Nor, presumably, is she steeped in Washington’s interest in shoring it up. But she
knows a thing or two about fundraising, having netted $2.1m for Mr. Obama’s 2012
We can swallow that cronies get sent to places with little at stake for ambassadorships
that don’t appear on anyone’s radar. But Hungary, land of my paternal grandparents,
where Putin’s encroachment into Ukraine is an ongoing threat to the stability of Europe, is
not a post without risk. The President must understand that this is a travesty to be
sending representatives abroad who know next to nothing about U.S. national interests.
Reserve the key posts for people with credentials. Imagine you’ve spent 30 years in the
Foreign Service and now the producer of the Bold and The Beautiful is telling you to re-
write a memo. How would you feel?
November 3, 2014
A People’s Revolt in West Africa
What happened in Burkina Faso (the country formerly known as Upper Volta until 1984)
at the end of October is a rarity in Africa. Not that a ruler tried to usurp more power. That’
s standard operating practice for much of the continent. But when Blaise Compaore tried
to change the constitution so that he could be elected president again (after 27 years in
power), the people would not have it. They had been counting down the days until he
would be compelled to leave office in November 2015. When he tried to move the
goalposts, this time Africans told him Hell No.
A million people took to the streets (in a country of 17 million). He fled to the Ivory Coast.
This is to be applauded but here’s where things get ticklish. We’ve seen this movie
When Africans find a way to rid themselves of one dictator, often there are not sufficient
structures in place to ensure that another one doesn’t just step in and assume the
position. There has been some confusion over which military leaders are actually running
things for the moment. But the world—the international community—needs to assist this
impoverished nation at this hour. Pressure must be applied to the military so that power is
restored to a civilian leadership rapidly. Leaving the men with guns at the top is a recipe
for more poverty, more inequality, and more corruption. Africa has enough of all of the
October 5, 2014
It’s Not the Disease, It’s the Stigma….
Some people are reacting with extreme opinions about what Ebola means for the United
States. Some are saying we should ban all travelers from Africa. Others are advocating
quarantine for anyone suspected of carrying the virus.
Our global village can no longer stop residents from moving from one corner to another.
The Great Wall of China is a remnant of old-world thinking. Travel happens, and little will
impede the flow of persons across borders, over time zones, into nations who believe
they can keep the metaphorical finger in the dike.
As with HIV and AIDS, it’s not the disease so much but the stigma that prevents people
from getting the kind of care that could limit the expansion of the infected area. When we
teach people that they will be deprived of freedoms, should they become infected, it
creates the disincentive for seeking care. When no one wants to reveal that they may be
infected, that secrecy inflames the potential for the infection to spread exponentially,
widely, beyond any borders, beyond any limits. What is locked in secrecy has the power
The best thing we can do is show empathy for those who may be infected, help them to
receive the care currently available, and keep encouraging scientists and researchers to
continue working on finding cures and treatments. The compassionate way is to fight the
growing stigma that arises when low-information individuals proclaim “it’s us versus them.”
September 15, 2014
Who Goes There? (The Power of the Unseen…)
Recently I replaced an outside light at my house with a motion detection one. When the
light stayed on much of the time, when nothing seemed to be moving within its range, at
first I concluded that something needed to be adjusted. I changed the range settings and
the time settings. Still, the light came on far more often and stayed on far longer than I
I became a stalker at my own house, leaving my blinds open so I could scamper to the
window to spy what might be the culprit. Something was moving outside my house.
Something was making the light go on. What squirrel or chipmunk or bird was triggering
the motion detection light? Sometimes I did find a guilty creature (I even discovered I
have a frog living in a marigold pot!) But often, I found nothing visible to my eye as the
trigger. Yet, the light—silently, steadfastly, unhurriedly—beamed away.
After a few weeks of this, I decided I am no longer going to concern myself with what the
light may be revealing about “motion” near my home. I have long believed in the ability of
essences invisible to the eye to inhabit our world. Maybe there are spirits protecting me?
Are they good spirits or evil spirits? Who knows? Or, as Chadians I knew during my time
in the Peace Corps believed, spirits of ancestors are hovering nearby. Whatever it is, I
am confident that the only down side to having the light on more often is a few more
dollars to pay for my electric bill. That’s a small price to pay for the constant reminder that
we live in a world where often what is unseen is as powerful as what we can see.
August 28, 2014
Saint Joseph, The Home seller
In the 1700s in Europe, communities of nuns appealed to Saint Joseph to help them find
land for a convent. They did this because in the New Testament, Joseph—the carpenter
father of Jesus and husband of Mary—had to move multiple times to protect his divine
son. Joseph knew something about moving, and especially moving under pressure.
Thus, the nuns felt Saint Joseph was a good saint to pray to in securing their next home.
They would bury a Saint Joseph medal in the ground and ask for God’s blessing. Over
time, the tradition changed to burying a statue instead of a medal. Thus sprang a belief—
common among some Catholics even today—that when you are selling a home, one way
to secure God’s blessing and make it happen quickly is to bury a Saint Joseph statue on
the property. (One of the oddities about this belief is that you’re supposed to bury the
Saint Joseph statue upside down!)
Of course, many people doubt that such actions have anything to do with reality. But faith
is built on belief. And belief often has little connection to what may be deemed rational. I
can attest that my sister—who recently put her house up for sale—was able to secure a
contract quickly after she buried Saint Joseph right under the “For Sale” sign. Cause and
effect? It’s all about what you believe is true. Next time you’re thinking about moving,
maybe you’ll want Saint Joseph’s help.
August 18, 2014
Following The Bourbon Trail in Kentucky
An old friend from high school had on his bucket list to do “The Bourbon Trail” in
Kentucky. Although I have enjoyed bourbon for much of my life, I had never heard of
“doing” The Bourbon Trail and was intrigued by what it might mean. Here’s what the
Kentucky Distillers’ Association says about it:
“In 1999, the Kentucky Distillers’ Association formed the Kentucky Bourbon
Trail® tour to give visitors a firsthand look at the art and science of crafting
Bourbon, and to educate them about the rich history and proud tradition of the
state’s signature spirit.
It began in the 1700s with the first settlers of Kentucky. Like most farmers and
frontiersmen, they found that getting crops to market over narrow trails and
steep mountains was a daunting task.
They soon learned that converting corn and other grains to whiskey made them
easily transportable, prevented the excess grain from simply rotting, and gave
them some welcome diversion from the rough life of the frontier.”
My friend and I were issued bourbon passports at the first distillery we visited, and then at
each distillery (of 7 in total) our passports were stamped, showing that we had “traveled”
to each location. After the final distillery, we presented our passports at an office and
were given t-shirts noting our accomplishment. The t-shirts proclaim “Kentucky’s Mash
It was fun touring Kentucky, a state I hadn’t known much about. And being able to sample
bourbon along the way made it that much more of a relaxed journey. If you have an
interest in bourbon, or enjoy drinking bourbon, I encourage you to think about doing The
Bourbon Trail. You’ll learn why bourbon is called bourbon, and other useless facts.
Which could prove important if you’re ever a contestant on Jeopardy….
August 12, 2014
Robin Williams Saw The Ordinary in Life and Made It Extraordinary
Although he starred in many movies, for me Robin Williams was never better than as the
teacher, Mr. John Keating, in Dead Poets Society. It was a role that allowed him to play
off all of those eccentricities that he brought to any performance, but which was striking in
matching the parallel message of a film that said, “Beware the pressures of conforming.
They’ll stifle the life right out of you.”
In every appearance, Robin Williams seemed to sense where an audience was expecting
him to go, and he would deliberately land in an entirely different location. And the
audience generally loved where he took them. In life he seemed very much like Mr.
Keating from that movie: just as he told the boys in Dead Poets Society to stand on the
teacher’s desk to get that enhanced perspective on the ordinary in life, he seemed to
coax all of us to see something else, to see what others may have missed.
There is always sadness at the passing of another. But when we lose someone like
Williams who seemed to have a keen ear for how language could be twisted to make us
hear something fresh, who could scrunch his face into an almost unrecognizable bowl of
Jello, we know that we have lost someone with that rare gift of helping us see life through
a different prism. He didn’t believe in conformity. He lived a life that was singular. Going
forward without him, if we recognize that each day that passes when we don’t step out of
what is ordinary and do something else—carpe diem—we have missed an opportunity to
August 3, 2014
The Convergence of the Twain: Africa and the rest of us
The sight of an American, stricken with the Ebola virus, transported back to the U.S. for
care has reminded many Americans that Africa is part of our world, much as many of us
might choose to ignore it. The decision by the Peace Corps to evacuate Peace Corps
Volunteers from some of the affected nations reminded even more American families that
their sons and daughters abroad are at some risk in venturing to Africa to help with
It is an odd confluence of events this week, when President Obama will host African
heads of state in a summit meeting to discuss improving trade ties and enhancing
development on the African continent. Of course, there are the lame brains like Donald
Trump who tweet out fear and hysteria over treating the Ebola victims in the United
States. If Trump spent any time at the village level in any African country, he would know
that those patients are best served by placing them in an environment where they can
receive the best care the latest technology can provide. That’s not the case in much of
The Centers for Disease Control has committed to sending an additional 50 experts to
the region to assist in trying to stem the spread of the Ebola virus. One of the saddest
results of the outbreak is that many doctors—in a region starved for doctors—have been
the first to succumb to the virus. When there is a shortage of trained medical personnel,
some Africans resort to medicine men and sorcerers (and other nontraditional means) to
challenge illness. Although I saw firsthand in Chad spells work miraculously, Ebola will
demand a more coordinated, integrated, science-based approach for Africa—and for
us—to win this battle.
July 29, 2014
When Young People Are Passionate, We Believe
A friend and I attended a production of Godspell* in Memphis recently. It’s a show about
how individuals from all walks of life, drawn together by the singular sayings of a modern
Jesus, coalesce into a new-born community united in ensuring that no one feels alone or
When performed with passion, when youthful actors clearly devote every ounce of their
being to a performance that leaves nothing in the tank, the audience cannot help but feel
optimistic. In this production, the actors were committed to making sure every note floated
into our ears on key, every dance step was in sync, every lighting cue spurred the
expected change in tone. They didn’t always hit their marks, and in that human-ness, in
that less-than-perfect-ness, the performance became all the more endearing, all the
more ennobling to witness.
This was an amateur production, but in the passions they exhibited, this cast showed true
love for what they were sharing on stage. They fulfilled what it means to be a true
amateur: to do something not for some financial gain, but purely for the love of it.
If you’re feeling a bit weary from too much bad news from the 24/7 talking heads on TV, I
encourage you to seek out a local theatre company and take in a performance. Be ready
to have your faith renewed that even when things may seem bleak, the spark in a young
person’s eye—who still believes that dreams do come true because in his or her life they
are still coming true—will transform you into someone who remembers that not every
story ends with a crucifixion.
*Stage Door Productions at the Kroc Center in Memphis (www.stagedoormemphis.org)
July 23, 2014
A Too-low Minimum Wage is Costing Us Too Much
In the United States the federal minimum wage has not been increased since 2007.
That's a problem. We live in a market economy. People “vote” with their dollars. When so
much of the population has fewer dollars to signal its wants and needs, the market can’t
get it right in providing the goods and services that are genuinely in demand.
So many Americans are in jobs that pay less than $10 per hour. These are jobs with no
benefits, for the most part. These workers continue to fall behind when prices rise and
they have fewer dollars to spend on the basket of goods and services they must have for
The government often has to step in to support these individuals through federal
assistance programs. That’s a cost to the taxpayer. This increases the federal deficit and
makes the debt burden we are passing on to younger Americans that much more difficult
There are conflicting reports about how raising the minimum wage will encourage some
employers to reduce payrolls by laying off workers, while others note that the increased
take-home pay of these workers will stimulate the economy in increasing consumer
demand and generating the need to hire more workers.
The key is that we have a moral obligation -- especially in a nation of such wealth and
blessings -- to help those who want to help themselves. People stuck in minimum wage
jobs are already making the effort to improve their lot in life. Raising the minimum wage
from the paltry $7.25 an hour to something more in sync with the cost of living is a move
that will help them, but also help the economy, and reduce the need for expensive
government programs that often wind up wasting more dollars in bureaucratic
July 16, 2014
Instead of drone strikes, send Peace Corps Volunteers
The Peace Corps is revamping its application procedures. So many potential volunteers
started the application but abandoned it after the bureaucracy took so long to finalize
assignments. In 2014, people can’t wait more than a year to learn if they will be accepted,
when they would travel to their assignment and where it would be. That was apparently
The Peace Corps remains an important tool for the United States in sending a message
to the world that our country makes commitments to assist other countries in meaningful
ways, not just in aid dollars committed to often corrupt governments. In this era when the
United States is getting more infamous notoriety for drone strikes on targets abroad, the
Peace Corps remains a shining beacon of ground-level hand-to-hand care for
developing peoples scattered around the world. Citizens of other nations who work with
Peace Corps volunteers never forget how an American made some kind of a difference in
Many people still think of the Peace Corps as some hazy, hippie kind of time-filler for
young people who can’t locate positions in a tight job market. But for some of us, Peace
Corps opened doors that we would have never walked through. For me, it led Notre
Dame to give me a fellowship to attend graduate school. For me, it paved the way to a
The Peace Corps isn’t perfect and my years in Chad were some of the hardest of my life.
Yet, even to this day I know I am a better human being for what I learned through service
in the Peace Corps.
July 11, 2014
With the launch of my new website, it’s time to christen my blog. I welcome exchanges
with my readers and encourage you to contact me through this website.
In our house, my parents wanted us kids to have opinions, and we did. There was a lot of
discussion around the dinner table, and both my parents seemed to love it when we
debated a topic on the news and reached a consensus. Of course, the real world didn’t
pay any mind to what we Varga children thought, but debating taught us to think, to
reason, and to argue the merits of a point of view.
Friends often told me I was full of “hot air,” since I was not shy about expressing my
opinions. But recently I learned something shocking. I went to my ENT doctor since I had
chronic congestion and always sounded like my nose needed to be vacuumed. What he
told me shocked me to my roots. The bone in my nose (read septum) was so deviated
that one of my nostrils was essentially blocked. The doctor said I have been functioning
on “half” my air for who knows how long. I never knew this. I had thought I was sucking in
as much air as everyone else breathing around me.
Last month, I agreed to have surgery on my deviated septum. I am happy to report that I
am no longer as congested as I used to be. I am now getting my full portion of air. The
outcome of this repair has been a stimulation of my brain’s frontal lobe. I am reasoning
more clearly than I have in a long time, and the obvious explanation is that I needed two
nostrils inhaling air, not just one.
So, my friends, if you thought I was full of hot air before, just wait!