Regarding others who serve…

My first tour of duty as a Foreign Service Officer is almost over, and I can confidently say that I know a lot now that I didn’t know when I got started. My Spanish is a bit sharper. I can talk your ear off about immigration law (which I promise not to do in this post). I know that chile de arbol is not something to be eaten on a whim. I’ve begun to appreciate the ins and outs of the complexities of this large organization for which I work. I’ve learned how to put together an itinerary for the Principal Officer, and how to get a dozen people in as many offices to “clear” on a cable that I want to send out. Some of these lessons will stick with me for a long time, and others will no doubt have to be relearned (chile de arbol always looks so good on the plate).

But among the most wonderful things that I have come to appreciate in the past two years is the critical role played by our locally employed colleagues in our work and communities overseas. I’ve written a fair amount about what it is like to be a part of the large, diverse, quirky family of American Foreign Service Officers, spouses, and kids that spans the globe, hops from country to country, always saying hello and goodbye to each other. The uninitiated might have the impression that everyone at my office is an American Foreign Service Officer. How untrue that is!

The vast majority of employees who work at the Consulate here in Ciudad Juarez (and at just about every post globally) are local folks. They are Mexicans, most born and raised right here in Juarez. We Americans are a minority at work, despite the fact that it is the U.S. Consulate. And our Mexican colleagues do a vast quantity of the work that keeps us running every day. They provide security to the Consulate compound, and in our residential communities. If something breaks at our house they come around to fix it. Our Mexican colleagues input the visa cases into the computer, wrangle the documents that I need to make a visa decision, and print up the final product. If I make a mistake, or get lost on how a certain part of the law works (a common occurrence), it is most likely one of our immensely qualified and experienced Mexican colleagues who helps me to find a solution. We have Mexican analysts who investigate our particularly challenging cases, and provide us with detailed information to bring the case to resolution. When I went on TV to talk about visas I had a locally employed friend and colleague sitting right there with me to help answer questions from the fast talking reporter.

In other parts of the building our Mexican colleagues are working to cultivate a strong relationship between our Consulate and local media, businesses, and other organizations. Our Mexican management team makes sure the rent is paid on our houses, and that the lights and water and computer network in the building keeps working. And to see that this massive team of people all get their paychecks every two weeks. There’s a fantastic team of Mexican cooks in the cafeteria who keep us very well fed. This Consulate is a massive operation, and it runs primarily on Mexican power, with English and Spanish being swapped out and traded for one another at a pace that I imagine is frustrating for the monolingual.

It’s easy to take this environment for granted after one has been here for a few months, but every so often something happens that reminds me how remarkable this all is. Just this week, for example, we had a retirement party. A gentleman by the name of Alex, who is one of just a few locally employed supervisors, finished up 29 years of work for our Consulate and will now get some well deserved rest. He began his career taking documents from applicants at a window and putting together files. He finishes up as the boss of more than 20 people, overseeing much of the work in one of the busiest visa sections in the world, reporting to and trusted by the unit chiefs (officers). If something is broken, he’s the guy who knows how to fix it. He has worked under six U.S. Presidents, at least a dozen Consuls General, and goodness knows how many American supervisors. He has had a direct impact on the smooth adjudication of millions of visas. This man is a giant of experience, and an example of service.

During his farewell ceremony he gave a very gracious speech. He talked about how as a young man he remembers walking past the old U.S. Consulate building in downtown Juarez, and dreaming of getting a job there. He shared how glad he was that it had come to pass. Other speeches were given. His colleagues praised his warmth and wisdom. A statement from the Ambassador was read, praising his service and accomplishments. He was honored with plaques, gifts, and applause. It was made known that his service was appreciated.

We talk often about those who serve their country, and rightly so. There are many who forego the comforts of a life at home, proximity to family, higher paychecks, and even safety in order to uphold the law, protect our national interest, and generally be of service. But we don’t often talk about those from other countries who serve OUR country, sometimes making the same sacrifices and face the same risks that we do. I have Mexican friends and colleagues who have done jobs at U.S. Embassies in Kabul and Baghdad.

The lesson that hit me full on in the face this week, and that I hope to carry with me throughout my career, is that there are many of us who serve, and many who deserve recognition. Yes, we the Officers do a service. But so do our partners and kids, who face the challenges of life abroad and open a window to American culture to our friends and neighbors. And so do our locally employed colleagues, who support us in our work, and provide expertise and muscle that we would be lost without. There are many who serve the United States in many different ways, and we aren’t all Americans. I hope that I am able to remember and honor this fact as I move forward in my career.

And perhaps the most beautiful thing that grows out of this is the friendships. I will be very sad to leave this Consulate, possibly for the last time, in three weeks. Not necessarily because I will miss the work (there’s always more), or my fellow officers (I’ll see most again), or the food (Mexico is a short plane ride away). I will mostly miss this big beautiful group of Mexicans who started off as just people at the office, but who have ended up as people who I joke around with, talk about life and kids with, banter with on facebook, share birthday cake with, enjoy parties with. They have ended up as friends, and that will make the leaving all the harder.


Regarding the last bottle of hot sauce…

Our time in Juarez is nearing an end. In 37 days we will close the book on this tour. That’s about 24 more days of work. Five more Saturdays. Maybe a thousand more visa interviews conducted. Fewer than 100 more tacos to eat. The countdown is on, and moving fast.

The mathematics of departure hit me in an unexpected way this week. I was cooking scrambled eggs, as I do every morning. I cut the veggies, heated the pan, scrambled the eggs, and whisked in a dash of Salsa Valentina, for a little flavor. I love this sauce. It is ubiquitous in this part of Mexico as Heinz Ketchup is back home. It’s in every grocery store, and on the table at lots of restaurants. Its uses are many. I’ve had it on tacos, in eggs, on potato chips at sporting events, and even in my beer at a fancy restaurant. Some of my Mexican colleagues keep bottles of Valentina at their desks to drizzle on their lunch. Valentina is just a part of life here, and it has occupied a place in our fridge ever since we arrived.

And it hit me, as I scrambled my eggs, that this is my last bottle of Valentina in Mexico. I won’t eat enough of it in the next 37 days to merit buying another one. This bottle might travel in the cooler in the car (if CBP lets it past), a nostalgic reminder of the borderland, until it ends its life in a recycling bin somewhere. It makes me feel a bit sad.

There are so many last things when you move away from a place. Last day at work or school. Last lunch with that special friend. Last time at a favorite park, or restaurant, or market. We sometimes notice when we are doing these last things, and mark the occasions with appropriate grief, or reflection, or maybe happiness if it is something we are glad to leave behind. But more often we don’t even know that we are doing something for the last time. I had no idea that I was buying my last bottle of Valentina when I took it off the shelf a few weeks ago. I just did it like it was a normal thing. It makes me wonder what other last things I have done without noticing. And what others will come to pass.

I am sad to leave Juarez. There are many places and people who I will miss deeply as we move onto the next adventure. We have made amazing friends here. We have eaten fantastic meals. We’ve worked hard, and found meaning in that work. We have added to our numbers as we welcomed little J into the world, and adopted Luci the chihuahua from Chihuahua. Our time in Juarez has been special, and watching it end is not easy.

We could say that every ending leads to a new beginning, which of course is true. But that doesn’t make the endings any easier.

So I intend to experience these next few weeks reflectively and deliberately, like the conclusion to a good book or movie. A pleasant denouement that allows me to treasure what has been good here. There is a lot of work to be done as I clean out my desk and as we pack up the house, but I will pause to enjoy the taste of that hot sauce, and those tacos. I will contemplate the oven-hot wind that blows on my face as I dodge pot holes on my bicycle. I will enjoy time with my Foreign Service friends, treasuring the fact that we share parallel journeys to different destinations, and eagerly anticipating the growth of these friendships, despite the oceans that will soon separate us. I will appreciate time with Mexican friends and colleagues, enjoying the warmth of the conversation, and the jokes in Spanish (that I understand a little bit better all the time). I will think about the visa applicants, and the lessons they teach me about the deep and wonderful connections between these two great countries. The next chapter will begin soon enough, but I plan to enjoy this one until the last letter in the last paragraph.


Regarding Memorial Day

My earliest memories of the holiday we observe this weekend are set in Winchendon, Massachusetts. My sisters and parents and I would get together with my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and second cousins. We went to Great Aunt Jean’s house for a big cookout. Hot dogs on the grill. Baked beans. Watermelon. It was a day for family, food, and fun.

There were reminders of other reasons that the day was important. Across the street from Aunt Jean’s house was a park, and in that park was a tall pillar with a statue on top of it. On the morning of Memorial Day a column of bent old men in uniforms covered with badges would march across the park, form up around the pillar, and fire rifles into the air after a long moment of silence. I didn’t understand what it all meant. At age six I knew it had something to do with a war, but there was watermelon to eat and cousins to play with. I didn’t spare much thought for the ceremony.

As I grew older I learned more about Memorial Day. I learned that it originated after the Civil War, when our country needed a way to collectively grieve the generation of young men who never returned home from the battlefield. I learned that those old men in the park were veterans of two world wars, and that they marched and fired their rifles in honor of friends who never came home from Europe, or North Africa, or the Pacific. I became friends with men and women who fought in wars, and lost friends. The more of the world I saw the less abstract the celebration became.

This year I have just finished reading a book that continues to break down the wall of abstraction surrounding what Memorial Day means. “The Dust of Kandahar: A Diplomat Among Warriors” is the journal that Ambassador Jonathan Addleton kept during his yearlong posting in Kandahar, Afghanistan. He was senior civilian representative for the U.S. Embassy in Southern Afghanistan, living on base, working closely with military commanders, and traveling around the region on helicopters to meet with contacts.

Ambassador Addleton writes vividly and engagingly, communicating the frustration of working in Afghanistan at that time, the loneliness of being thousands of miles from family, the camaraderie and community that is found in unexpected places, and the general ugliness of war. He reports standing for countless ramp ceremonies, watching as the remains of young service members are carried onto a plane to begin their long journey home. He shares their names, and what he learns of their lives cut short and families left behind. He brings a three dimensional reality to the headlines we all read, of soldiers, airmen, and marines killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. He poignantly reminds us that the lost are more than names printed on a page or carved on a wall. They are men and women with hopes and dreams, spouses and kids, likes and dislikes, and that their journeys have now come to a sudden and violent end.

This exploration of the tragedy of war takes a sharp turn to the personal when he describes the horrific events he experienced on April 6, 2013. He describes how his convoy is en route to deliver books to a school, and how they are hit by a car bomb. Ambassador Addleton survives, but his translator Nasemi, Foreign Service Officer Anne Smedinghoff, Staff Sergeant Christopher Ward, Sergeant Delfin Santos, and Corporal Wilbel Robles-Santa do not. The reader feels the terror of the moment. The confusion and shock that Addleton feels as he processes what has happened in the hours and days that follow. The deep grief that sets in and colors his remaining months in Afghanistan. His words are breathtakingly honest, and at times painful to read, as he wrestles with what has happened.

Our observations of Memorial Day are often filled with the images and stories of increasingly distant conflicts. The Civil War. The World Wars. Korea. Vietnam. This book reminds us that war, and the tragedy it brings, are far from distant memories. Men and women have paid the highest price that service can ask of anyone, and they have paid it recently and painfully. This book helps us to remember them.

This book also helps us to understand that war robs life from many kinds of people. Yes, there are the tragic losses of those in uniform. But there are also the losses of those who did not wear uniforms or carry guns, but who also paid the ultimate cost for their work. Indeed, there are two walls in the lobby of the State Department bearing the names of 248 of my colleagues, including Anne Smedinghoff, who never got to come home.

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There are also the survivors, who come home bearing the often invisible scars of their experiences. They have heard the explosions, smelt the smoke, and held the hands of the dying. They have been forced to ask questions that most of us will never have to, and paid a price that is difficult to understand.

So as we enjoy a long weekend soaked in the early summer sunshine, let us spare a moment or two for memory. For those killed, both those wearing uniform as well as civilians. For those who return home, but bear the at times unbearable weight of memory of the horrors they have witnessed and the colleagues they have lost. Let us not forget them. And let us enjoy our hot dogs and watermelon, as they would surely want us to.

P.S. I think “Dust of Kandahar” is an important read, both for my Foreign Service colleagues who have served in Afghanistan and those who are thinking about serving PSP, as well as for anyone who is interested in learning more about what America’s work in the world looks like on the ground. I can’t praise this book highly enough.

Regarding Road Trips…

I am on the road again. I look across the vast Chihuahuan desert plain that surrounds the highway. The view of the distant mountains is warped ever so slightly by the thickness of the bullet proof glass through which I look. Two days of travel. 460 miles from Juarez to the State Capital and back again. Me and a driver in an armored Chevy Suburban. Three work meetings. One public presentation on visa procedures. Three excellent meals. One very comfortable hotel. It’s a work trip, like so many others I have been on over the years, yet also very different.

In the Peace Corps I would truck across the Dominican Republic however I could (buses, hitchhiking, regular hiking, motorcycle taxis) to meet with other volunteers, give presentations, or work on projects. I would sleep wherever I could afford. Guest rooms. Foam mattresses on floors under mosquito netting. Public rooms in hostels, with six other guys, under a squeaky fan, taking Benadryl to sleep when the heat became unbearable. I would eat what I could find, be it roadside fried chicken or home cooked beans and rice. Schedules were flexible. Sometimes meetings would happen three days late. Sometimes the rain would postpone everything indefinitely. Everything was improvised and slow moving, against the backdrop of palm trees and Caribbean sunrises.

Flash forward to my time in Northern Wisconsin. I would still go on frequent trips for meetings. The means of transportation was a scratched up used Toyota SUV (that I still drive to this day). I would trek to every corner of Oneida County, and often across the State, through great pine forests and picturesque farm communities. I would meet with colleagues or groups of community members who were interested in what I had to say. We would talk about broadband Internet infrastructure. Attracting young people to rural communities. Job creation. Sometimes snow would get in the way, but it took a real humdinger of a blizzard before I would stay at home. Meetings needed to happen. Fried fish and diner food fueled these meetings, and I would sleep in budget motels, if I wasn’t driving through the night to get home.

It all feels quite different from how I now find myself traveling. I’m in a big private vehicle, with time to do work during the drive because I am not the one driving. I wear a suit and carry a BlackBerry. Meetings start on time. I stay at a big swanky hotel with a view of the whole city. The driver knows all the best restaurants in town. It all feels a bit strange. I’ve been on these trips several times now, and I’m still not quite used to or comfortable with it. I’d be happy and eager to ride a bus or stay at a hostel. That’s more my style. But the reason for most of these trappings has to do with security. I remind myself that a U.S. Diplomat can’t wander anonymously through the countryside or city in a region that is (sadly) still home to a fair amount of violence. I need to travel in a way that protects the security of myself and the mission, which means going in the vehicles and staying in the hotels that the rules dictate. I may not be totally comfortable with it, but it is part of the game.

But I’m also reminded that there is much about this travel that is consistent with the way I used to do things. I am still doing my best to bring answers to people who have questions. I am still listening to what they have to say, and going back to my office to figure out how to integrate it into future work. I’m still relating to people who are different from myself. Still telling silly jokes to make PowerPoint presentations more interesting. Still hoping to make the world better, one little road trip at a time. And I’m still buying food by the side of the road. The driver might know about the fancy places, but he’s also expert in where the best roadside quesadillas are too. I might be wearing a tie, but my love for street food, and the conversation that comes with it, hasn’t gone anywhere.

Regarding Baseball…

It’s a Sunday afternoon, and the West Texas sun shines bright on the ballpark. I sit behind the visitor’s dugout, next to my father-in-law, with my baby son on my lap. Balls thunk into gloves. The smell of sizzling hot dogs fills the air. The crowd hums, most watching the game, some just enjoying the feeling of being out at the ballpark. Men and women, old and young, caught up in they rhythm of the great American past time.

Some call this game boring, but I find comfort in the steady rhythms of the game. Three strikes. Three outs. Nine innings. It’s predictable, with the opportunity for surprise and thrill implicit in every pitch. And there’s always hope, as long as one out remains. And every sight, sound, and smell is for me deeply tied up with memory.
I close my eyes, and I’m a little kid, glove on hand, hoping to catch a foul ball in the stands at a Pawtucket Red Sox game. I don’t know the rules of the game. I’m in awe of the hugeness of the park. My sister says if I pay attention I might catch a ball.
I’m a bit older, playing on a little league team in Pakistan, with my sister and cousins. I have to wear the uniform of the hated Yankees, and I fear that my mother won’t come to see me play as I know the reputation that the Yankees have in our household. My fears are unfounded. I remember the roar of the crowd when I hit one past the shortstop and take two.

I’m in Middle School, back in the U.S., and the Red Sox are on TV almost every night. Mo Vaughn. Mike Greenwell. Jose Canseco. Tim Wakefield. We don’t talk about Roger Clemens anymore. I stay up  most nights watching the game until forced to bed by parents who understand the importance of rest. I dream of going to Fenway.

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I’m in high school, visiting colleges in the Boston area with my Dad and sisters. We walk by Fenway, and wander up to the ticket booth. The tickets are expensive, but there are some left for that afternoon’s game. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. We buy them, and the experience is magical. Beyond what I had dreamed.
I’m in college, troubled by politics and so much else that my young mind perceives as being broken in the world, and low on funds. A ticket to the Lansing Lug Nuts or Detroit Tigers is always cheap and available, and there are always friends to go with. The rhythm of the ballpark provides a sanctuary from the existential questions that torment young minds finding their way in the world. In 2004 the Red Sox reverse the curse and win the world series. My friends and I stay up late and blow off work to watch every playoff game.
I’m a Peace Corps volunteer, sitting in the stands watching a winter league game between the Estrellas Orientales and Leones del Escogido. Merengue music blasts. Cheerleaders dance. The crowd sings elaborate songs between every pitch. I don’t know the songs, but the game is the same. I sit next to a beautiful woman who has for some reason agreed to date me. We talk about baseball. We talk about life. The conversation continues.
We’re sitting in a bar in Milwaukee, watching the Brewers win their first playoff series in 29 years. When the final run is scored it feels like the roof is going to come off the place. We’re a graduate student and an AmeriCorps volunteer, newly married, on a budget. Miller Park is less than a mile from our apartment, and tickets are cheap. We go to a lot of Brewer games, and that wonderful sunlit building with its retractable roof becomes a favorite place.
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A bat cracks, a line drive that zips right past the shortstop. I’m back in El Paso. My son is on my lap, trying to pull the hat off my head. We’ve been to a lot of games at this park, with friends who we won’t forget. People who’ve shared the beginnings of this Foreign Service life with us.  I realize that baseball, it’s atmosphere and it’s rhythm, have been a thread that has stretched through my life from the beginning. It doesn’t bring meaning or satisfaction in and of itself, but it is a conduit that connects me to memories of people, places, and different times in life. I look forward to carrying that thread into the future, with this kid on my lap and that beautiful woman who I took on cheap dates to ballgames and who still enjoys them. The setting will change, as will the climate, and teams we cheer for. But the story will continue. Care to catch a game with me sometime?

Regarding Volcanoes and Easter

K and I spent a few hours this week walking (with J riding) across a field of black ash and twisted rocks in the shadow of a tree covered mountain in Northern Arizona. Sunset Crater National Monument is where a volcano erupted, and it’s fascinating to explore.

Geology and chemistry tell us a lot about what happened here. Sometime between 1040 and 1100 C.E. a fissure opened up in the ground, and began spewing molten balls of lava into the air. Toxic gases and ash were released as well. The ash covered some 800 square miles, and the heat of the massive lava flows started myriad forest fires. When the event ended (after possibly as much as a year) all life within miles of the crater had been completely wiped off the map. The ash and rocks (cooled remains of the lava bombs) remain, revealing no hint, not even a solitary fossil, of the plants, animals, or people who were caught up in the disaster. Everything burned.

There is much that science doesn’t tell us, but that we can reasonably guess, about what this must have been like. It must have been terrifying for anyone close by. It was life changing for those who had to flee, and watch the farms and houses they had worked to build, and the forest on which they depended,  be consumed by forces outside of their control. We can imagine the cries of mothers whose children were out playing when the eruption started, but who never came back. The loss. The confusion. The dread for the future. 

Yesterday was Good Friday. A day that in its first iteration did not feel very good at all. Jesus’ followers watched as the man in whom they had placed their allegiance as King and Messiah was arrested, flogged, and executed like a common criminal. Their friend was dead. Their hopes for their nation were dashed. Personal grief mixed with a hopelessness about the future into a strong cocktail of despair. All was lost. I bet those folks (barring the obvious obstacles of language and time) would have had a lot to talk about with the folks from the Sunset Crater valley. Grief and pain know not the limits of time and culture. We too face it in our own ways. Cancer robs the young of life. Bombs and hunger are all too common. Ignorance trumps understanding. Institutions founded to make the world better fail to live up to their promise. There are times when we all feel those figurative and literal lava bombs crashing down around us.

Thankfully, that’s not the end of the story at Sunset Crater. We also visited several archaeological sites within a few hundred miles of the volcano, and learned that the century following the eruption appears to have been an unprecedented time of growth and advancement in the society. The population grew, and some of the most remarkable architectural projects in North America were realized. Some say that this flourishing may have been due to the nutrients given to the soil from the volcanic ash, which improved agricultural productivity.

I imagine that there were people who in the aftermath of the disaster steeled themselves for the task ahead. It can’t have been easy. But they stuck it out. They salvaged what remained. They found seeds and plows, and sowed new fields. They built new houses. They sought to do right by those who never came home, and found hope in the midst of unimaginable grief.

And the crucifixion was not the end of the story for those first Christ followers either. That’s the part that we will celebrate tomorrow. After a night of death, horror, and fear came a day of life, redemption, and hope. We, as Christians, believe that the resurrection of Christ represents the beginning of a new era. It is a time when all that is broken will be mended, and even death will ultimately be defeated. It is an era of hope. We know how the story ends. We know that good triumphs. So now we, when the fire and ash rain down on the world, can be the ones who despite our tears, pick up our plows and bags of seeds, and get to work. To bring flowers and food forth from the ashes. The times are hard, but our hope is real, and the world needs it. I’ll see you in the cornfield.

Regarding Grandeur

We visited the Grand Canyon today. It was a first for me. I expected it to be impressive. I’ve seen the pictures. I know of the brilliant quotes from the Teddy Roosevelts and John Muirs of the world who were moved to poetry by the canyon vistas. I know of the writers, painters, and photographers whose work was informed and inspired by this place. 

I knew all this, and I was still blown away when I, with my wife and son, rounded a corner and found myself staring off the edge of the world at a scene of a thousand colors. The immensity and beauty of the place is overwhelming.

I know that in the grand scheme of things the Grand Canyon is not that big. It is a scratch on a rock hurtling through space. A stream of water flowing across North America began plowing a path through the sand, eventually waring into the rock below, and kept going for a few million years, creating this scene in front of me. 
How is it that something that came about so simply could evoke such deep emotion? People of different cultures have been coming here for centuries, and being moved by what they see. The Canyon figured prominently in the beliefs of Native people groups who lived (and still live) here. I heard at least a dozen languages being spoken by fellow tourists today. People come from all over the world to experience this place. 

These feelings of awe triggered by witnessing the beauty of nature play a large role in the structure of my beliefs. These feelings, among other things, tell me that I am more than a mere physical being. There is a spiritual dimension to reality that is inescapable. C.S. Lewis said it brilliantly:

“We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words-to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.

That is why we have peopled air and earth and water with gods and goddesses and nymphs and elves-that, though we cannot, yet these projections can, enjoy in themselves that beauty grace, and power of which Nature is the image. That is why the poets tell us such lovely falsehoods. They talk as if the west wind could really sweep into a human soul; but it can’t. They tell us that ‘beauty born of murmuring sound’ will pass into a human face; but it won’t. Or not yet.

For if we take the imagery of Scripture seriously, if we believe that God will one day give us the Morning Star and cause us to put on the splendour of the sun, then we may surmise that both the ancient myths and the modern poetry, so false as history, may be very near the truth as prophecy.

At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Someday, God willing, we shall get in.”

-C. S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” in The Weight of Glory: And Other Addresses (New York: HarperCollins, 1949/2001), 42-3.

So I liked the Grand Canyon. You should go!