Goteburg Nation

May 9, 2017

IMG_5159I could tell you about the Uppsala Peace Seminar, but I’d much rather tell you about the closing dinner.

It was held in Goteburg Nation which, it turns out, is the fraternity where students from the Goteburg region hang out.  Goteburg is the home of past RI president Karl-Wilhelm Stenhammar, a factoid he made clear we all understood. The building was modern, but the organization counts its time in centuries.  Think Romberg’s “The Student Prince.”

It gets better.  The tables were set up, trestle/church table style, but with white linen and chandeliers, and a remarkable number of glasses.  We were handed champagne as we came in, and with subsequent courses we were served schnapps and beer and wine and liqueurs. And oh, yes, coffee.  There was a songmeister, who led us in drinking songs, mostly in Swedish, of course. At the end of every song, we were instructed to drink a toast from the schnapps.  You get the idea.

About half-way through the evening we were interrupted by a quartet of students singing in close harmony.  Think Yale’s Whiffenpoofs.

And oh, yes, there were speeches.  But mercifully short, so as not to interfere with the singing.

Who said that Scandinavians are dour?

Uppsala, Sweden

May 5, 2017


From La Jolla we flew to Sweden — I know, not exactly on the way home, but that’s just the way it worked out.  Anyway, here we are in Uppsala, a university town since the middle ages, for the Rotary Peace Center annual seminar.  Frank and I are fighting jet lag but in between naps we spent some time last night and also this morning sightseeing.  Last night we wandered across the river to check out the  cathedral, and  this morning after breakfast we drove to in Sigtuna, which was once the capital of Sweden. Today it’s a small town with old wooden buildings and lots of atmosphere; we wandered the streets and had lunch and then returned to our hotel for a nap.

Few signs are in English, not that it matters.  All the nouns and verbs seem to have German roots, so it’s relatively easy to read the signs — think German vocabulary with a nasal condition.  And everyone speaks English, so that’s not a problem either.  Our hotel room looks out over the city and the train station is directly across the street; between here and there are thousands of bikes, parked and waiting for their owners to come home from the day.  Would be that Americans were so minded to travel light.

Festivities surrounding the seminar start tonight.  More later.

Eulogy for John Peak

May 5, 2017

These are the words I shared in La Jolla on Tuesday at my Uncle John’s service:

We all know John Peak for his intellectual capacity, his marvelous sense of humor, and his lifelong love and pride for Ernie, Brian and Alan, and the whole family.

But before I talk about John, the uncle I love and who, along with Ernie, served in loco parentis for me through a very critical period in my life, I want to introduce you to John, the boy, born just after the start of the Great Depression, the fourth and youngest son in a hard-working Denver family.  John’s father, Paul Senior, worked as an adjuster for Prudential, and since the number of insurance fires only increased during the ’30s, his job was relatively safe and even included use of a car.

But that doesn’t mean times weren’t tough.  All four boys grew up sleeping in a single bedroom, where each was allocated one drawer in the bureau.  Not that they had an abundance of clothes.  Mother Peak would sew a French knot int he back of eldest son Paul Jr’s shirts; when the shirt got passed down to next-in-line Ralph she sewed in a second French knot to denote the new owner, and by the time the shirt reached John it had its fourth French knot sewn in.  I doubt it John ever wore store-bought new clothes his entire growing up years.

Another story is that whenever they were traveling and stopped at a restaurant, John would always order pancakes.  It got to the point that his father knew — even without asking –w hat his youngest son’s dinner order would be.  One trip, inevitably, his father ordered pancakes for John without waiting for the little boy to express his preference  John interrupted his father.  “I don’t want pancakes today,” he said.  “I want a cheese sandwich.”  “Why are you asking for something different?” one of his older bothers asked.  “Because now I’m old enough to read the menu!”  young John responded.

I’m not sure about the veracity of this story since I doubt that the family ate out much.  But I hope it’s true — because it speaks to John’s problem-solving ability, as well as his intelligence.  And did I mention his independence?  A few years later, when asked where he was going to college, his answer was, someplace where none of his older brothers had gone.

In good time, John earned a scholarship to Princeton and headed east, a member of the class of 1952.  Then came Navy OCS, and it was when he was in Virginia as a young naval officer that he met Ernestine, who at the time was teaching at William and Mary.

Time has mercifully glossed over much of the culture shock that must have transpired between this young man from the untamed west, and Ernestine Cox, a proud daughter of the Old Dominion.  I am aware of just one event — which took place when John went to Warrenton to meet Ernie’s family for the first time and misidentified the photo of Robert E. Lee hanging in pride-of-place int he front parlor.  It seems that John complimented Ernie’s mother on the her photo of Ulysses S. Grant.

Nevertheless, the wedding took place.  Ernie and John would live and love for 62 years, and of couse Brian, Alan, Cheryl, Rebecca and Sarah, John, and the children Alex, Katie and baby Anna, prove the infinity of that love.

By this time, each of John[‘s brothers had similarly left Denver and they all married women from out of state.  Within a short period, the four brothers — all engineers — were living in disparate locations around the country.  They had come a long way from the days of four boys sharing two double beds.  But they made sure to schedule family reunions every few years back in Denver – when they and their growing families would all crowd into the small house.

The last such reunion took place at Mother Peak’s funeral in 1986, and afterward, the four brothers disappeared downstairs for a closed-door meeting.  When they returned, they announced that the reunions would continue on an annual basis, just not in Denver.  John and Ernie took the lead with a reunion-cum-sailing expedition the next year in San Diego, and John and Ernie also hosted what proved to be the last such reunion for all four brothers and offspring, in 2014.

Two of John’s older brothers survive — Ralph in Idaho and Roy in Washington State.  Unfortunately, neither is able to travel.  But the tradition of getting together despite geographic hurdles continues – including inlaws, there are nine of us nieces and nephews here from the next generation — and we traveled from Louisiana, Idaho, Utah, Washington, Maine as well as the Bay area and Central California.

This is all you need to know:  For Brian and Alan, and all of the extended Peak family, this love of family and disregard for geography is normal.

John stood out int he family, of course.  John stood out in any crowd, with his intellectual curiosity, his unfailing good spirits, his sense of humor.

John would light up the room with his thoughtful comments and marvelous sense of humor.  Just being around him was fun.  One year he decided that if there could be a gaggle of geese and a pod of whales, what other collective nouns should there be?  He created lists of possibilities — two favorites that have stuck with me were a bill of doctors and a hug of teddy bears.  And then, after the movie “Jaws” came out, he spent time working on alternative movie titles.  “Paws” was a movie about a herd of attacking felines, as I recall, and “Maws” was about little old ladies run amuck.

John was an expert on human nature.  He cared deeply about people, and he paid attention to what makes people tick.  This made him a very successful executive in the nuclear industry and later, when he was involved with the UCSD extension program, helped earn him Ernst and Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year award in the role of entrepreneurial support.

It was also an attribute that proved its worth to me.  I was a frequent guest in John and Ernie’s home during my college and young professional years, and during evenings and good conversation, John taught me to view my parents from an adult perspective.  In other words, he helped me grow up.

Whatever he got involved with, John put his whole being into it.  When Brian and Alan first discovered kites and later sailing, so did he.  That knowledge of kite-flying came in useful a generation later with Rebecca and Sarah.  And that was just the start of his passions.  Fishing.  Rocket-launching.  Tide-pooling.  Bee-keeping.  Anasazi pottery classifications.  When Ernie served on the board of the local opera, John was all in.  Cat training.  Well, that was one skill in which John never succeeded.  But when Alan took up drums, it reawakened John’s boyhood interest as well, and he ended up playing in a series of local bands, of which the one with the name Atomic Fifth Plus 2 stands out.

When John opened his grandfather’s trunk and discovered a treasure-trove of religious tracts and sermons dating from the 1890s, he made himself an expert on late-19th century Methodist circuit-riding ministry, and he and I collaborated on a book on the topic.

When John turned his attention to another family collection, this one of pre-Civil War stamps, he learned all there is to know on the esoteric topic of early stamp perforations.  Because of John’s scholarship, in the world of philately there is actually a Peak Collection of George Washington one-cent blues, one of which has ended up in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian.

Who knew that a nuclear engineer could be so well-rounded?

If you don’t know all these stories, I’m not surprised.  Because John was as modest as he was talented.  His accomplishments caught me by surprise as well.  For example, I knew of the work he had done though Rotary to install upgraded crossing walks here in La Jolla, but it was only when I spoke at the La Jolla Golden Triangle Rotary Club a few years ago that I learned of the volunteer work he had done across the border in Mexico as well.  John was just plain more interested in talking about ideas and other people than he was in talking about himself.

Obviously, I could go on forever about my Uncle John.  I could tell you that he suffered from Parkinson’s for 15 years.  But he would rather I tell you that his sense of humor remained intact until the end.  As long as he could speak, he spoke with wit.  John was smart; he was generous.  He was very precious, not only to me, but to all of us in this room.  We grieve with Ernie and the whole family.  John Peak is gone, but he will be in our hearts forever.



Significant Family Event #2

May 4, 2017

The only thing missing from the wedding in Richmond last weekend — besides the air conditioning, I mean — was the presence of several sets of family members.  The illness of a life partner kept one cousin of the groom’s family away.  An impending birth kept a cousin on the bride’s side at the hospital.  And the death of the groom’s great-uncle after 15 years of Parkinson’s kept another corner of the groom’s extended family from participating.

Frank and I flew from Dulles to San Diego to represent our side of the family at Uncle John’s service.  John was smart and warm and funny.  John and my Aunt Ernie were life partners and everyone’s favorite corner of the family to visit.  Memorial services are hard, but the silver lining in this one was the opportunity to catch up with cousins from that branch.  Because, you see, John was the youngest of my father’s three brothers, and it is understood — and enjoyed — that the family will come together at occasions like this.

So we enjoyed each other and got caught up in between the ceremony and the family gatherings.  We were cousins from Louisiana, Idaho, Washington State, Maine as well as throughout California.  The last time many of us had been together was at MY father’s service in 2014 or at a family gathering previous to that, and yet we all met and talked and enjoyed each other’s conversation very much.  That’s what family is all about.

The church had printed 150 copies of the program … and had to go back and print 30 more.  No one was surprised — John was active in the community and well-respected and well-liked.  We will all miss him – but know that his time on this earth was remarkably well spent, and that we are the better and more fulfilled for having known him.

Significant Family Event #1

May 4, 2017

Frank and I were in Richmond, VA on Saturday to attend and smile at nephew Stephen’s wedding.

The colors were pink and gold; the bride was radiant; everything was planned to a T and went off without a hitch — except the weather, which was 90 degrees for the outdoor wedding,, and the air conditioning in the 19th century mansion-cum-museum just couldn’t keep up.

But no matter.  Everything that possibly could have been thought of was thought of — there were single-stem red roses hanging from the trees, and the wedding cake was actually pink  macaroons; you get the idea. All the toasts were heartfelt, and so on.  But the most amazing things about the wedding had nothing to do with the planning and the color and the arrangements, and everything to do with the people in the room.

After the groom’s father had given a Toastmaster’s-enhanced toast at the Rehearsal Dinner, the rest of us around the (very long) table were asked to speak a few words if we so wished.  If 20 people spoke — conservative estimate — at least half — again, conservative estimate — said that Jess or Stephen or both were their “best friend.”  This young couple, it seems, is best friends to more people than some of us can count as good friends.  Moreover, each of the families is united in liking the other family, and recognizing that their offspring’s chosen partner makes their offspring a more complete person.

Marriage involves a lot of ifs and hopes.  But if the absolute support of family and friends are any indication, Jessica and Stephen are off to a marvelous start.

May it be so.

The Next Generation

February 21, 2017


It’s always fun to visit Safe Passage.  My first trip was back in 2005; back then I felt like a johney-come-lately because I didn’t know the program in its earliest days, but now I realize I am sort of looked at with awe by the staff because I knew Hanley Denning, Safe Passage’s founder who died in 2007. In fact, at one point yesterday I was sharing history with one of the staff who works with the volunteers and is often called upon to fill in the gaps.

It’s also fun — sometimes painful but always fun — to watch the progress of “our” sponsor students.

We started sponsoring Juan Carlos when he was about 12 and in first year basico (7th grade).  When we found out that his older brother Jose didn’t have a sponsor we began sponsoring him as well, and when an adult literacy class was opened and  their godmother Angela was one of the first to enroll, we decided to become sponsors of the whole family.

We first met Juan Carlos in 2007.  That was 10 years ago.  Angela died three years ago, but not before she could read and write a little, not before she saw Juan Carlos graduate from diversificado (high school) with Jose well on his way to that goal as well.  Jose graduated in November 2015, with his degree in accounting/interest in IT. The brothers live together with their older brother, girl friends, and three babies under the age of three.

Juan Carlos was selling insurance over the phone, which sounds just dreadful to me, but apparently he was enjoying it.  And, of course, it’s a job in the formal sector, which is a big deal. Unfortunately, he recently got fired — no, I don’t know the story — so he is currently looking for a job.  His lady, Brenda, is also a Safe Passage graduate, with a degree in secretarial work and a good command of English. The baby, Genesis, is now at two years old in Safe Passage’s preschool, so now Brenda can look for a job as well.

As for Jose, well, he has his accounting degree, but not his license, and he can’t get a license without a street address, and since the family are officially squatters, there’s no address.  It’s a real Catch 22 – he can’t afford a place to live until he has a job, and he can’t get a job until he has an address.  But actually, he does have a job — janatorial work in a public school.  It doesn’t pay much, and it’s below his educational level, but it is also in the formal job sector, and it’s something until something better comes along. Which I hope is soon.

And then there’s the next generation of sponsorship kids.

After Jose graduated, Safe Passage asked us if we would consider sponsorship of another student.  We asked for a “hard to place” student — it’s easy to find sponsors for cute little kids, after all, and that’s how we met Josua.  Yesterday was the first time I met him.  I met his older brother Jesus as well, and it was deja vu all over again when I learned that Jesus didn’t have a sponsor as well.  So once again, I spoke for Frank and said that we couldn’t well sponsor one boy and ignore his brother, and I signed the paperwork on the new sponsorship on the spot.

The father of Josua and Jesus is out of the picture, and their mother died several years ago.  They are living with an older brother or half brother or some such relationship, but they are really on their own.  They are approx. 12 and 14, just about the ages of Juan Carlos and Jose when we first met them, and they are both in Basico 2, or 8th grade. Jesus is retaking the grade; I asked him what course he had trouble with last year, and he said that it wasn’t academics that had been the problem, but his attitude.  And he said he had now conquered that.  I was impressed that a 14-year-old kid was able to take responsibility for his own failings so readily, and I am assuming that it was his family issues that led to his attitudinal problems.

Maybe a sponsor family is what the boys need.  I told them that Frank and I hoped to return in September.  By that time, it will be clear whether or not they will be passing their courses, and I said I looked forward to good news.

We shall see.

Many sponsor families want their sponsor children to be, you know, incredibly hardworking, intelligent, A students and the like. But they are not.  They are regular kids, with more problems than most courtesy of their environment, and prone to mistakes.  And they need caring and understanding, not a bar held to some impossible level.  So I look forward to getting to know Josua and Jesus, and maybe, to be able to help grow them into responsible adults, whatever their academic success.




Continental Crossing

February 21, 2017


“Doing” the Panama Canal has been on my bucket list for some years, and in theory it has always made sense to go to Panama in conjunction with one of our many trips to Guatemala, but in practice it hasn’t worked out .. until now! So off my sister and I went on an embarrassingly short (three night, two day) trip to Panama.

On a trip of this length, everything needs to be pre-packaged.  And indeed, we were picked up by our guide, Luis, and taken to the hotel.  The next day, we met the other five members of our tour and the plan was to see the old colonial city and the Miraflores locks.  All of which happened, but then …

It’s always disconcerting to be stopped at a police barricade in a foreign country, but usually, as soon as they see gringos/muzungos, the van is waved right on.  This time was different.  We were pulled over, Luis got out to speak to the policeman, and when he returned he did not look happy.  Several hours later, the story became clear:  It seems that the van was not licensed to carry paying passengers, and also, that this was not the first time Luis had been stopped for this infraction.

Both his license and the van were impounded.

Now, Luis gets points for carrying on, maintaining his smile (and the schedule) and calling on various friends/relations with both licenses and legal vans to continue the tour. And if you have to be stopped by the police in Latin America, Panama is a reasonably benign country for it to happen.  Even so …

The next day, the real excitement began. The morning started early — partly because Luis’ cousin had a small car and had to make two trips to pick up the seven of us — and also because we were, after all, crossing a continent.  I don’t know what I really expected, but once again, it turned out to be so much more!

I had no idea, for example, that the doors on the locks are the original, dating from 1914.  Riveted, not welded steel.  Or that the locks work 24/7, with somebody in charge of logistics and to make sure that as many ships as possible pass through the locks.  I had never thought about the fact that the Calubra Cut is the only place in the world where the continental divide can be crossed by boat. Or how much tonnage is actually shipped through Panama.

Three locks up, Lake Gatun, and three locks down.  All day on our boat, with almost constant meals and a really good guide.  And then we docked in Colon, on the Atlantic side.  We transferred to a bus and were back in Panama City in 90 minutes. Just like that.

Do it.  You won’t be disappointed.