odd time signatures

An Extraordinary Life: Lee O. Coldren 1943-2012

Lee Coldren 1973

Lee in Peru, 1973

Lee Orin Coldren. Born in California May 17, 1943, died in California July 29, 2012. Leaves sister and brother-in-law Kay and Claude Earls, niece Karoli, nephew Lee, son Daryl, stepchildren Malcolm, Clea and Wali Archard, beloved wife Mary Czechan Coldren and Gridley the Greyhound behind. Those are the facts, but not the story. Bare facts never tell the story. They’re just the frame surrounding the picture, but the picture always tells the story.

Some people should live forever. My uncle Lee was one of those people. Never, ever in a million years did I imagine that I would be writing this today, or any day. I always thought (irrationally, of course) he would live forever. There are some people who transcend ordinary things, like age and illness. They stay frozen in time in one’s mind. He was one. Yet. I am writing this post and he did not live forever and my mind knows that but my heart does not comprehend, cannot begin to comprehend, may never comprehend the words in the email from my mother I opened after landing in Detroit last week.

…they don’t think Lee will last the weekend…

He did not. We’re all a little poorer today, there is a little bit less light than there was on Saturday or Friday or the day before because he is gone. I still can’t wrap my head around that reality, so I write. About who he was, what he did, why it matters, not just to me, but to you.

Little memories

lee and I, 1963

Lee and I, 1963

My earliest memory: Lee as my mother’s mischievous little brother, leaving his tropical fish tank for her to fishsit. There was nowhere to put it but my little bedroom and the tank was a stinky thing. Vague recollections of formaldehyde-preserved octopi in jars in my grandmother’s garage. His collection of vintage 7-Up bottles stored away that I helped him find back in the days where recycling meant re-using. We’d pick through the bottles in the market and find the old ones.

He loved old things. Things with a history and a past. Things that weren’t disposable, or easily forgotten. Rugs, jewelry, silverware. Solid, material, lasting things.

There was Lee coming home from college at Cal and poking my mother in the side to make her squeal before laughing in his delightful deep baritone melodic voice.

Always: 7-Up and Rocky Road ice cream. We never had those things unless Lee came home. Then it was a feast of soda and ice cream and fun. Even now, Rocky Road evokes memories of Lee, returning home from school to picnics, celebrations, and lots of Rocky Road.

If you search the Internet, you’ll find him. He wasn’t your average uncle, which was what made him magical and extraordinary. Here’s the best bio I’ve found, probably one he wrote himself, from the Conference on World Affairs at UC Boulder in 2002. I’m putting it in this post in its entirety, but it only touches the very surface of what he did and who he was:

California native Lee Coldren was educated at Berkeley and at Oxford where he was a Rhodes Scholar. He returned to Berkeley in the late sixties to work toward a doctorate but abandoned academia and joined the Foreign Service in 1970.

Yes, he was a Rhodes scholar, an achievement I was simultaneously proud of and burdened by, because it was something to aspire to and yet seemed impossible to reach. Of course, he was at Oxford when I was still quite young (just before the Clinton years there), and what I remember most vividly about his stint in England was my mother baking a German chocolate cake for his birthday, wrapping it carefully and mailing it to him in England, but not via Air Mail. When it arrived weeks later, it was, of course, inedible. He came home with a slight British accent and a pipe, a pipe which rarely left his hand or his pocket in the years since. A pipe that held the tobacco which, when lit, created the lung acid that killed him. A pipe that always smelled delightful to me. I still love the smell of pipe smoke, even though I understand that it makes mortals of the immortal now.

Lee saw my early reading achievements and always made a point out of encouraging me by sending home books, classic books, books kids don’t read anymore. I still have my first edition Lord of the Rings trilogy he gave to me for my seventh birthday. Also Robinson Crusoe in the leather-bound edition, and The Jungle Book, similarly bound. Oh, and the Little Women series — all of them. Of all the books he gave me, those were the ones I read every single year just because I loved them so much. The first book was huge, bound as though it were meant to last forever. For a starving Rhodes scholar canning peaches for living money, he always managed to send home special things for me at what I now realize was considerable sacrifice. Never mind that I couldn’t get through the Lord of the Rings until I was about 12. I tried every year from the year he gave them to me, and ultimately succeeded. He always believed I could reach farther than I had up to then. It wasn’t a question. It was just how he saw me.

He was a storyteller, always. Every object had a story, every history was one worth repeating and remembering. His stories were always interesting and quirky. He could find the oddity in the most mundane things and bring them to life, and his gifts always came with the story of their origin. Whether it was a rug crafted by a child in Afghanistan or a silver bracelet, the story was as much a part of the gift as the gift itself.

This isn’t to say that there weren’t times where I’m certain my mother would have preferred that he didn’t tell his stories, or teach us some of his more irreverent, sardonic takes on things. Like, for example, when I was booted out of kindergarten for reciting the little childhood nursery rhyme.

“Here’s the church
Here’s the steeple
Open the door
And out come the…?”

Most children learn the end of that ditty differently than the way he taught me. The word at the end there is usually “people.” The one I learned was “hypocrite.” And then I learned exactly what hypocrites are. I learned so well, in fact, that when I showed off my newly-acquired knowledge for kindergarten show-and-tell at the veryveryvery strict and pious church school I attended, they promptly threw me out. This punishment came after I explained carefully what hypocrites were.

I was outraged at my punishment and the injustice of being tossed for knowing something. Wasn’t that the point? Children don’t necessarily grok at age five that doing something different than what you say is necessarily some kind of moral failure and so it felt terribly, horribly unfair. An affront not only to me, but to my uncle, who was perfect in my eyes.

Uncle Lee could not possibly be wrong. Clearly the school was mistaken in their judgment, and after my mother begged and cajoled me back into the school (but not their good graces), I learned to keep any new things I might learn to myself. I was relieved to go to public school the following year, and never looked back. (I’m sure my mother didn’t either.)

No matter where Lee was in the world, he always wrote letters and we wrote to him, though not often enough. In the dark times, I turned to him for advice and comfort and he never failed to give it even as he admonished me to watch over my own brother after our parents’ divorce just as my mother had watched over him. He made me promise that I would not let my father drive a wedge between us, to not ever believe that I was tainted in any way by the acts and betrayals of a father who lived a life of damaged values. I promised. I don’t know that I delivered on the promise as well as I might have, but I kept it because my brother was not then, nor has he ever been, my father or at all like him. Lee the uncle reminded me that Lee the brother was all the family I would have someday in the distant future, and my father’s influence was fleeting and irrelevant.

“…even roses grow in shit,” he wrote. That was one of the most profound and simple reassurances I ever received and I never forgot it. Never. I’ve made my share of mistakes and missteps in my life, but he never judged me. He would just be glad I figured it out before I made a bigger mess.

When he came home from wherever he was in the world, we’d break out the 7-Up and ice cream and celebrate. My grandmother would always let me go to the airport with her to pick him up from wherever he had been. We’d hear the stories, edited sometimes for Grandma’s sensibilities. And mine, of course. And it seemed as though as soon as he came home from England, he was off to the next adventure. For the next near-30 years, I came to understand the world through his eyes. I knew where and what Afghanistan was when everyone thought it was only the first word in a secret code line from a Robert Redford movie.

Foreign Service

In retrospect, Coldren appears to have specialized in mountainous, drug-producing ancient countries prone to instability and terrorism. Following two years in Peru, he worked at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul from 1974-77. After covering Sri Lanka at the Department of State and spending two years in India, he returned to Afghanistan in 1980 to run the embassy and cover the Russo-Afghan War. During that time Coldren wrote several articles for Asian Survey. Escaping South Asia in 1982, Coldren was deputy director of Korean Affairs prior to a three-year assignment to Indonesia. As consul general in Surabaya, Coldren focused on the politics of traditional and radical Islamic movements in eastern Indonesia. He then spent three years as deputy chief of mission in Dhaka, Bangladesh before returning to Washington in 1993.

During his last stint in Washington, Coldren was director of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh Affairs and traveled often to that region–especially Afghanistan–to meet with factions and warlords. Opposing the conventional wisdom of the intelligence community, he predicted the rise of the Taliban and the fall of Kabul. After years trying to get the administration to pay positive attention to Afghanistan and formulate a rational South Asian policy, Coldren retired to California in 1997.

He has remained involved in Afghan affairs since retirement. In 2000 and 2001 he participated in three UN-sponsored Afghan brainstorming meetings involving former officials of the U.S., USSR, Iran and Pakistan. Since 9/11, Coldren has appeared on local radio and television stations and spent weeks on the phone responding to journalists.

As you might imagine, Lee would have advised Mr. George W. Bush not to start anything in Afghanistan, particularly when he had spent so many years sending up flags for the United States to start paying attention to the vacuum forming during the Soviet occupation and abrupt withdrawal. Although he never went into any detail with me about the situation in Afghanistan over the years, I understood clearly that he fought hard to get some official attention — any attention — on his belief that leaving Afghanistan broken and bleeding after the Soviets destroyed the country was going to lead to disaster, as it ultimately did. He took no satisfaction in being correct. After all, being right didn’t mean they acted on his predictions. I’ve read every public thing he’s written on Afghanistan — most is still classified — and it was there over and over again for anyone who cared to pay attention.

There has been a lot written speculatively about his role in the brainstorming meetings which took place in 2000 and 2001. He never talked to me about them and I never asked. We all understood that there were topics that were simply off limits simply because we didn’t have the clearance to hear the answers. Still, I have always doubted the assumption that he delivered such a message, and have a great deal of difficulty believing he would ever have passed a message from Bush to the Taliban threatening them with war. He hated war. He hated what war had done to Afghanistan, a place with such a rich history and so full of diversity. He was independent by then, free of government constraints, and would have had absolutely no reason to pass on such a message. None.

Most importantly, he could not abide Republicans, and especially not George W. Bush. Everything that was amiss in the world for as long as I can remember (even in the days when I strayed and worked for Nixon in a brief episode of teenage rebellion) was directly attributable to Republicans. While that may be a bit of an exaggeration, and while he was a diplomat not only professionally but also personally, no one ever mistook him for a non-partisan type. He was a straight-up, dyed in the wool liberal Democrat. Period. No apologies.

Uncle Lee, and people like him, are the public servants that comprise “government.” They serve and do so honorably. He served and did so honorably. Every time I hear some Republican idiot go on about how they should “shrink government” I wonder if they consider the fact that if he had been listened to, if attention had been paid to what he was saying by Republican and Democrat alike, perhaps thousands of lives might have been saved. Shrinking “government” means cutting off good people who serve their country with words, not guns, who attend to poverty and need here and abroad, and who in times past did not live to serve their oligarchs. Yes, he was “government”, and he was damn good at it too. More “government” like him, please.


Lee and Mary, 2003

In the years since the Colorado bio was written, he and my aunt Mary retired to Sacramento with their son Daryl, where they lovingly restored their old Curtis Park Sacramento home. I can’t possibly do verbal justice to all the work they put in, but they opened their home for a city tour in 2010, and this post captures the essence of what they created together, with their hands and their skills. The author of that post is right: there are many, many stories to tell.

After he retired, I got to spend a bit more time with him and Mary in Sacramento. Trips to the Farmer’s Market, long talks, playing with their friend’s pug, admiring Mary’s amazing art, all woven into the fabric that brought us together more as friends than the avuncular relationship of the past. (Avuncular: a word he used in a letter when I was sixteen or so, and one I had to look up at the time.) Mary’s influence smoothed his rough edges, and their children took care of the ones Mary didn’t get to.

Mary…an amazing person, and definitely his equal and soul mate, which was not an easy thing. When you’re the kind of person that consumes a lot of the room’s oxygen, your mate had better be prepared to live on less of it and still stand out. That’s Mary. In the early 80s we descended upon her in her Washington DC brownstone while Lee was in Afghanistan and spent a week drinking wine and eating like royalty because Mary is a world-class mother, cook, artist, animal lover, and person. You don’t have to know her for very long to see why they fit together so well.

Lee’s sense of family as community affected us all. He knew our family history better than almost anyone except possibly my grandmother. Every cousin, aunt, uncle — far and near — he knew and had met. He drove back to South Dakota for family reunions and drove to Wisconsin every summer with Mary and Daryl to see Mary’s mother in Wisconsin. Along the way he collected more stories, more memories, more history. Whether he was in the almost-inaccessible Nuristan region in Afghanistan’s mountains, or in the Black Hills, he was at home among the people, their crafts, their society, and he listened to their stories and remembered them. As one who opposed convention, he eschewed Christmas letters in favor of Groundhog Day letters, where we would be treated to stories about their driving trips, home restoration, projects and adventures. Always stories told in sardonic tones with quirky sidelights. Always.

An extraordinary life. Public servant, diplomat, artist, artisan, craftsman, historian, husband, son, father, brother, uncle. These are all words that apply equally and with great weight to tell who he was and who he touched.

My taxi driver from the airport in Detroit on Friday morning was from Dhaka, Bangladesh. He had nine brothers and sisters. At 2am, with empty highways ahead, he spoke of his years in Bangladesh and how kind the people in the US embassy were. As it turns out, he was speaking of the same time that Lee was there — early 90s. I mentioned that my uncle was deputy chief of mission in Dhaka around that time. He asked his name, and I gave it. He said he couldn’t remember any specific person by that name, but his brothers and sisters were servants for embassy personnel, perhaps one of them had worked for him? Neither of us knew the answer to that, but in the middle of the night in Detroit, a total stranger and I had a common touchpoint because of his time there. Remarkable. Extraordinary.

Goodbye, too soon, too suddenly

Memories, gifts, photographs. They’re what I have — what we have — to hold as memories of a man who meant so much in life. It wasn’t that there was constant contact as much as that he was one of those people you could be out of touch with for awhile and when you saw him again, it was like you’d seen him yesterday. He was always there, even when he was thousands of miles away. You knew he was somewhere and you knew he was thinking about you from time to time and you knew you were as much a part of his fabric as he was yours. You were family. No one knew that better than my mother, who was his protector, his facilitator, his equal and his friend. She and Mary saw him through real eyes. I saw magic. I never came away from a visit with him without a visceral sense that I had roots, a belonging. Stories of faraway places I never saw but knew through his stories, photographs and letters taught me to see the world as larger than the small universe around me.

If a goal is to live a life without regret, I’ve failed. I regret not getting home in time to say goodbye to him face to face, I regret missing him when we passed through Sacramento last summer while he and Mary were in Wisconsin, I regret not calling him on his birthday, I regret not knowing he was here two weeks ago until my mother convinced him to go back home and see a doctor because he looked so unwell. Those are entirely my failings, but if I stop and listen, I can hear his voice saying yes, they are failings but do better next time. I’m sure he had regrets, too, but he never spoke of them.

All you have is your family. They’re there no matter what.

Yes, they are. Until they’re not, and yet there are still those connected, the sons, the daughters, the friends, the community of us who knew him.

Do better next time.

There is only this time. This short time. For Lee, 25,277 days. A life, extraordinary, occupying 25,277 days. They pass, and then they end, and we have memories, photographs, gifts, stories. They’re the part that remains.

I will miss you, Lee. You are as woven into the fabric of my being as if I were wearing a coat. I will miss you, as will we all.

Rest in peace, beloved uncle. Thank you for spending those 25,277 days making this a better, more beautiful, more interesting, peaceful world.