- 1 Kirby's Autobiography
- 1.1 The Early Years
- 1.2 Moving to Italy
- 1.3 In Transition
- 1.4 The Philippines
- 1.5 Princeton
- 1.6 Jersey City
- 1.7 Into the Unknown
- 1.8 Back to Portland, Oregon
- 1.9 Family
- 1.10 Continuing Interests
The Early Years
I was born in Chicago (also known as the Windy City) where my mother and father had moved, having met at the University of Washington in Seattle. My parents had both joined the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), coming from different backgrounds. My father's family included some of the original Swedish settlers of Mercer Island, close to Seattle. My mother's family had moved to Seattle from the midwest, her father of Irish descent working as a Linotype operator for newspapers.
My father was planning on being an urban planner, a new specialty at the time, with doctoral programs at Harvard and the University of Chicago. He was attending the latter, writing his thesis for Dr. Dick Meier, around the time I was born. We then moved to Portland, Oregon, where he began his career in that profession.
Moving to Italy
However, his dream since his youth had been to live and work outside the United States in what we called the developing world. He did not abandon this dream even after we had become comfortably ensconced as a nuclear family of four, my sister three years my junior. He took a job with a planning firm contracted by the government of Libya to develop fifty year plans. Our family moved to Rome, Italy, which would be our base for the next six years or so.
Our first residence was in an area south of Rome especially developed at the height of fascist power in Italy, under Benito Mussolini, and known as the EUR. Of course this was much later, well after World War 2. The United Nations building was just a few blocks away overlooking an artificial lake. Il Fungo was one of those rotating restaurant towers, reminiscent of the Space Needle in Seattle, likewise built for an international world's fair, which I had attended at age four. One of the most impressive exhibits in the EUR was a scale model of Rome in its prime, during the time of emperor Constantine. The EUR sought to emulate some of the architecture of that era, as well as to showcase more modern styles.
Junior English School
My parents enrolled me in the Junior English School of Rome and I began to develop a British accent. One of my best friends, Kent, lived in the Cavaleri Hilton where his dad was the manager, which I thought was fantastic. I was not especially brilliant in school work, finding the English curriculum to be rather different, not especially affected by the New Math I'd started learning in Portland.
I think I tried too hard to fit in. When I pulled out all the stops for a given writing assignment, using fancier words than my age level would suggest, the teacher refused to believe this was my own work. The British money system was not yet decimalized and my parents had some difficulty helping me with my pounds, shillings and pence problems. I recall going to school dressed in a Native American outfit one Halloween and getting chased all over the campus, which made me feel even more like an "Indian" (they couldn't catch me). Another time my classmates and I got hauled into the principal's office for being disgusting at lunch time. A lot of emphasis was placed on learning table manners, plus we had a fair amount of religious education as a part of this British curriculum. I enjoyed hearing The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, read out loud by Ms. Cunningham.
Overseas School of Rome
My parents eventually decided to enroll me in the Overseas School of Rome, starting in fourth grade. This was a wonderful school for me. Mrs. Fabris, also British, regaled us with stories about the ancient Romans and Greeks. It was so easy to take field trips to the key places she talked about. Learning history in Rome is a great privilege. My mother was likewise engrossing herself in historical studies and would later complete her Masters in that subject at Ateneo de Manila in the Philippines. She had become interested in Jacopa di Settesoli, a little-known historical figure and friend of St. Francis of Assisi (he called her Brother Jacopa). She was writing a novel about her, a multi-volume work of historical fiction (unpublished).
By this time we had moved to Viale Parioli, into a fourth floor apartment reputedly previously occupied by the famous actor and actress Rod Steiger and Claire Bloom. They starred together in the science fiction movie The Illustrated Man. Some of my friends at school were connected to the movie business. John's mom had been in Il giardino dei Finzi Contini. Also the guy who directed Love Story had his kid in our school. We had an eclectic set of teachers and students at OSR. I began to shine as a writer and scholar, and was praised for my work. I learned a lot of sociology from Fred Craden and started reading Freud, although I didn't know how to pronounce his name, called him Frood. OSR was (still is?) hugely into Shakespeare.
My biology teacher, Dr. Gillespie, was an MD, but not certified to practice in Rome, so he taught us instead, as if we were first year medical students. This was a fantastic education. My mother became a den mother for the cub scouts. Mahlon, Geoff, Hayden, Kijoon and myself became Wolves, and then Bears. One of our favorite activities was to explore the ancient Etruscan site of Veii, out the Via Cassia. We also liked playing around in Galeria, an overgrown ruins near Lake Bracciano, abandoned since medieval times, maybe because of a plague. We didn't really know the history that well.
Finally, my dad's contract with the Libyan government came to a close. We were entering a time of transition. I was finished with junior high school at OSR. We lived in a tent for the rest of the summer, at a camp site (campground at Monte Antenna) in Rome. We later moved to the shores of Lake Bracciano. This was a big German tent, brand name Stronmeyer, and we'd used it all over Europe on our many lengthy car trips. Camping was a lifestyle for us. We were winding up our affairs in Italy.
My parents had agreed to lead an AFSC work camp that summer in the town of Ramallah in the Middle East, near Jerusalem. We worked with Palestinian natives on a swimming pool project, pounding on stones with sledge hammers to make them smaller, like prisoners do in those cartoons, but we had no balls and chains. Later in the program, we moved to a kibbutz near Bethlehem and heard more from Israeli politicians serving in the Knesset. This project was supposed to help bring peace to the Middle East and included a fair number of international students from the American University in Beirut. I was only about fourteen at the time. Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky were having their famous chess match, which I followed through the papers.
Our next stop would be Bradenton, Florida where my mother's parents were living in a mobile home. Golf Lakes Estates was the name of their retirement village. I would start going to high school at Southeast High. Coming from my previous life, I found this somewhat of a culture shock. Also, both my father and I had contracted hepatitus in the Middle East. Whereas my case was not officially diagnosed and cleared up on its own, his was pretty serious and he needed to stay quarantined with the family he was staying with up north. This made his job search more difficult and my grandparents were feeling stressed having two teenagers staying with them in a retirement community for an extended period. My mother returned to Florida and moved us into a motel. I found watching Star Trek helped connect me to a better world. The USA on the ground was proving not so fantastic and I was glad when we finally left for the Philippines, even though that country was now under martial law.
My father served in a number of positions in the Philippines, starting with the United Nations and eventually moving to USAID. He liked a grass roots bottom up approach to regional planning and was happiest flying all over the country, helping young planners develop their career skills in the various communities. My mother got involved with a project designed to protect indigenous peoples from having their lands taken over by the more urban elites, a kind of gentrification at gun point reminiscent of what had happened to Native Americans in North America.
Indeed, Colonel Elizalde and his henchmen used the same techniques the US Army had used, giving weapons to both sides in some long running feud, and having local peoples fight each other, which weakened their resistance to land grabbing by the oligarchs. My mother was relatively protected given she was a foreigner connected with the US Embassy, which quietly endorsed her activities by giving her an award. Some of the people she worked with were far more paranoid about this work, given they had no such privileges. She urged transparency and working within the system as a way to keep the martial law government from overreacting and treating her network as insurgents. She wrote about all this community organizing in a Pendle Hill Pamphlet, The Needle's Eye: A Philippine Experience (no. 275, 1987).
My career at the International School was somewhat a continuation of my experience at the Overseas School of Rome. I was back with an international cast, albeit more Asiatic than before. My first official girlfriend was from Korea, like my friend Kijoon in Rome (Ambassador Yu's son). Our little clique of studious types were under no pressure to not study. We were encouraged to apply to the best universities and colleges and the Class of 1976 proved rather stellar in that regard, placing students into Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Brown, Haverford, Bryn Mawr and other such prestigious (and expensive) institutions. I had originally targeted Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, my parents thinking a small school with Quaker heritage would be ideal. However, the allure of Princeton was too great to ignore and that's where I ended up going.
While I attended the university, eventually majoring in philosophy, a member of the Class of 1980, my parents continued their life as expats, leaving the Philippines for Cairo, Egypt. My father worked directly with the Egyptian Ministry of Planning. My mother got involved in micro-lending and working with the Zabaleen, the Coptic pig herders who collected and recycled much of Cairo's garbage to feed their animals. I studied some Arabic at Princeton, though never got any good at it, so I could better follow the action on my two extended visits to Egypt.
My small group of friends gravitated to this new kind of eating club at Princeton, called 2 Dickinson Street. The university refurbished an old house and let us run it as a food co-op. We would buy our own food in bulk and take turns cooking for each other, a different model from the other eating clubs, which are the center of Princeton's social life, as distinct from fraternities and sororities, which were not present. We represented the radical left in some ways, and several of our group were deeply involved in the anti-apartheid movement, wanting to get Princeton to divest of any stock in companies which did business with South Africa.
At Princeton, I became interested in philosophy, although this was not really a new thing with me. Back at the International School in Manila, I'd spent a lot of time in the Media Center browsing books on all topics, and was drawn to philosophy. I'd started reading Kant, some of the Greek stuff, several other authors. I'd become an avid fan of Isaac Asimov's writings, both fiction and non-fiction. I was exploring attitudes towards religion, wanting to make some sense of my world. At Princeton I discovered Ludwig Wittgenstein's writings and Dr. Victor Preller, formerly a priest and now teaching in the religion department. He thought I was pretty interesting and invited me to join his higher level classes.
I was also in classes taught by Walter Kaufmann, the famous Nietzsche translator and author of many popular philosophy books. I went to visit Dr. Kaufmann during office hours at least one time and had some good meandering conversations about what I was getting into. He considered me one of his best students at the time (he told me that). Dr. Richard Rorty was one of my thesis advisers. He was a great lecturer, handing out single-spaced notes ahead of time so we could just listen and absorb.
My peers were highly influential on my life in this period. I had a lot of catching up to do regarding USA culture and my roommates and house mates saw to it that I learned a lot. In freshman year, for example, I had no resistance to all the food and desserts available at every meal in unlimited quantities and was starting to put on weight at an alarming rate. My resident advisor, Roberto, saw what was happening and got me into long distance running, not on any track team, but just as a social activity. My friends and I would run a lot, our way of hanging out. The forest behind the Institute for Advanced Study provided an especially favorite course. Brian and Susan were somewhat off the deep end into religious studies, which I admired.
Other friends were into mathematics, physics, Japanese. Princeton had a Womens Studies Center and a Third World Center, to which our little 2D co-op had numerous ties (especially to the former). I studied anthropology, computer science, dabbled in esoterica. This was my time to broaden my mind, per the Liberal Arts agenda, and I was determined to make the most of it.
One evening, Dr. Kaufmann invited undergrads to his home, one of those "get to know the professor" events. He told us some stories from his travels, then mentioned how earlier that summer he had gone through this thing called the est Training, a kind a philosophical mini-course or lecture designed to hit home, to challenge people at a deep existential level. He spoke with some respect for this training and it went with his reputation as a maverick to be saying positive things about a "cult". When challenged about accepting an invitation to speak at some Unification Church event, supposedly lending his credibility as a big name philosopher to the so-called Moonies, he shot back that Moonie beliefs were no more unbelievable than those of many other religions. He wasn't one to take guff. His admiration for est stuck in the back of my mind and was influential in my later enrolling. I had always regarded the USA as this place where a smorgasbord of interesting psychological workshops were happening, given a lot of my father's books tended to focus on such things. Now that I was living full time in the USA, I was eager to sample some of these exotica.
Towards the conclusion of my Princeton career, I came to the conclusion that I'd like to teach high school. Some of my favorite teachers had been young dynamic types, sometimes in apprenticeship roles. Could I be one of those? I hadn't majored in education or sought teaching credentials. Several of us from 2D had decided to continue living together in a group home in Jersey City, right across the Hudson River from Manhattan. The idea was to use this address as a springboard to a more romantic life in the Big Apple itself, after jobs and careers had presumably been secured. Perhaps I could find teaching work in New York City? That summer was my first in Cairo, back with my parents. When I returned to New Jersey, I started interviewing for teaching jobs. This place in Hoboken had some serious discipline problems. Did I think I could handle them? I wasn't sure how to conduct myself in such interviews, came off as highly inexperienced, which I was in many ways.
Eventually, I found a position under tragic circumstances. Some much beloved faculty of a local Catholic school for girls had died in a car accident and there were immediate openings. My job search had come to the attention of Dr. Caulfield at St. Peter's College down the street, where I was trying to work on a teaching certificate. The principal interviewed me and hired me on the spot. For me, this was a great opportunity, and certainly a challenging one.
For the next two years, I grew into my role as a math teacher, with other subjects on the side, including a team-taught honors course called What Does It Mean to be Human? I was in my element. I would sometimes start my day at the hotel across the street, originally created by the amazing religious leader (by then deceased) Father Divine. Sister Grace would serve us meals (I was sometimes joined by other faculty). I would sometimes end my day riding the PATH train into Manhatten, where I served as a volunteer Logistics Supervisor for that Erhard cult I'd learned about through Walter Kaufmann and David Raymond (a Princeton local). My life was as eclectic as ever.
My parents moved from Egypt to Bangladesh. The latter position, with the UN, was one of the most difficult for my father, as the office politics were intense. Bangladesh was a very poor country. When the UN closed an office and started to remove the photocopier, a fist fight broke out as that machine was so important to so many people.
I only had a distant appreciation for what was going on, and when I showed up in Bangladesh much later, to help my parents pack their worldly goods, it was clear that this had been a somewhat difficult period.
My mother had become involved in micro-lending and self-help with the poorest of the poor, widowed Bangladeshi women with few skills.
My father was brokering funding to various NGOs, working with the US Embassy, no longer with the UN. He wasn't sure what they'd do next. As it turned out, they ended up in the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, while I ended up back in Portland, Oregon, having moved on from teaching to serve with Americans for Civic Participation during the Reagan-Mondale contest, thence to work at McGraw-Hill, thanks to my friend Ray Simon, whom I'd met in Jersey City.
Into the Unknown
Why did I quit my teaching job at St. Dominic Academy? In taking the position, I'd told myself that high school teaching was something I wanted to try, but not necessarily make my life's work. I wasn't ready to decide on some permanent career. Since Fred Craden's class at OSR, when I did an independent study on the Club of Rome and dynamic computer modeling, a new field pioneered by Jay Forrester et al, I'd been training myself to think in big picture terms. My courses at the Woodrow Wilson School under Dr. Kahler, such as Problems of World Hunger, had likewise fed my propensity to think in the large, about international relations. Perhaps I would live outside the USA again? In any case, I had taken this job teaching high school on the condition, a promise to myself more than anyone, that I'd move on when the time seemed right.
Werner Erhard had started collaborating with R. Buckminster Fuller in a publicly visible way, and I was tracking that action. Something called the Hunger Project was getting started (see FAQ), aimed at ending world hunger by the year 2000. We also had this Education Project. These looked like exciting and meaningful projects in which I could become involved.
I believed I could step out into my own self-invented business and start working on such projects. I was actually stepping off a cliff, abandoning job security for the unknown, and that third year in Jersey City, jobless, babysitting for Ray and Bonnie, was one of my most difficult. I was writing like crazy to Erhard, Bucky Fuller, other big names. I tried to broker this deal where the Stanley Theater would be repurposed to show "curriculum movies", required viewing for NYU students, other regional schools. The idea was you would need to see movies for credit and these old movie palaces would double as campus facilities. I wasn't thinking about VHS, and DVDs had yet to be invented. I also brainstormed about getting a giant Dymaxion Map (Fuller Projection) installed as a lit scoreboard on the back wall of Loew's Theater on Journal Square, right next to my house. These were ambitiously unrealistic plans, especially given I was a nobody with practically no funds. I was in something of a tailspin. I retreated to Princeton to live with my friend John for awhile, and work in the back office of his father's women's clothing store (Clayton's).
Landing that job at McGraw-Hill might have been the start of another promising career, but by this time I was too much of a maverick I suppose. I'd discovered Ted Nelson's Computer Lib / Dream Machines and was gaga for something called hypertext. I also was seized by this vision of a large and growing video clips database, inspired by Sesame Street, the successful kids' show from Childrens Television Workshop. I tried to interest CTW in something called The Videogrammatron, which would similarly consist of short clips on a number of subjects, but for older children, even adults. This was all long before YouTube, and even before the World Wide Web which made YouTube possible. And we still need to get that Fuller Projection to a larger audience.
Here I was in a textbook publishing company, presumably ideally positioned to help make that happen. I was being the visionary instead of hunkering down and just doing my job. I didn't last.
Back to Portland, Oregon
Moving back to Portland was the right thing to do. I discovered the Center for Urban Education, then being managed by my new friend David Lansky. I got to be a teacher again, this time for older workers getting government funding to master the new computer skills. CUE had a contract with the Portland Private Industry Council and I started teaching AppleWorks, then IBM PC topics such as WordPerfect and Lotus 1-2-3. Our graduates then would get government subsidized jobs, with the employer supposedly considering them for hire after a six week period. I'd say the program was moderately successful, while my skills as a trainer and computer programmer continued to improve. I used some of those skills on my first visit to Bhutan, and my second. I also met my future wife, Dawn Wicca, through CUE. She was the new bookkeeper, hired while I was away. She was in a relationship with another wonderful woman. If this had been Bhutan, I could have married them both (a window into my mind at the time).
My career with CUE ended in 1990 and I went into business full time with my wife to be. She had a 12 year old girl by her previous marriage and both of them joined me on my final trip to Bhutan in the late 1980s. Dawn continued doing contract bookkeeping, fund accounting of the type nonprofits need, to remain accountable to grant givers. I continued doing computer programming, likewise mostly for nonprofits and government agencies. CUE had dissolved when the government stopped funding refugee resettlement programs in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. That had been a major source of funds for our core budget and when that money dried up, the Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, our parent agency, didn't have a way to really support us anymore. We all dispersed to other careers. David Lansky went to work with Sisters of Providence and I would later join him, again as a self-employed contract applications developer, with Providence one of several clients.
My wife and I married in 1993 and we had a wise and beautiful daughter named Tara after the Buddhist princess of Himalayan lore. Alexia now had a younger sister. The three of us plus Jack had visited the temple to Tara at Tongsa, Bhutan on my wife's birthday. Dawn was rather deeply into meditation and a quest for liberation and enlightenment, commitments that would serve her well when she was later diagnosed with a severe and rare form of breast cancer, which she fought for three years. Her bookkeeping business survived her, thanks to her partner Phyllis. She made a final pilgrimage to Glastonbury and Tintagel before she died at home on March 17, 2007.
My parents had also suffered a terrible tragedy on October 13, 2000, when their Kia (light truck) had a head on collision with another on the road between Maseru, Lesotho and Bloemfontein, South Africa. They had enjoyed another seven productive years in this small, mountainous, land-locked kingdom in southern Africa, at one time a major diplomatic outpost for embassies not wanting too many direct ties with the apartheid government of South Africa. My sister Julie and I had both spent quite a bit of time there, as we had in Bhutan, usually visiting at separate intervals. The car crash brought this lifestyle to an end, their plans for retirement, an Alaska cruise. I flew out from Portland, leaving Dawn to mind the store. My father had died at the crash site and my mother was not expected to live, yet she did. The medical care she received in Bloemfontein was top notch and our family remains grateful.
At the time of this writing, Carol divides her time between my sister and I, living with each of us half the year. Throughout all of these life experiences, I continued to draw on my still-developing skills as an educator, computer programmer, world traveler, and futurist visionary. I became convinced that high school mathematics should include a larger programming component, making it more technologically relevant. My explorations of R. Buckminster Fuller's writings, which I regard as philosophical as well as literary (and a legitimate topic for university study) fed my interest in various aspects of geometry. Through these studies, I had encountered a whole network of new colleagues, some resulting in fruitful collaborations. I would bring these experiences to my talks at open source conferences in Portland, Washington DC, Gothenburg, Vilnius, also at festivals and user groups. I've also enjoyed more time in the classroom teaching high school aged kids.
Now that hypertext has become a reality, in the form of the World Wide Web, I have the medium I'd been wishing for back in my Jersey City days, when I'd read The Network Nation and gained a guest account on the fledgling IGC network, a precursor to the Internet as we know it today. Many of my dreams have already come true. Many more are still on the drawing board, but I see some promising signs. My track record as a visionary has been pretty strong.