Bob, John and Jonathan at the first CBC in 2006
I’m pleased to report that everything went well at the Collective Biodiesel Conference. The formidable hurdles I’d predicted turned out to be mere speed bumps and I began wondering why. The short answer is: we all gave a little extra. From conception right through to the event itself, nearly everyone gave 110%.
It started in February when our local planning group began meeting in the kitchen at The Plant. It seemed a bit early to start planning for an August event but I’m glad we did. We met monthly for six months and then weekly in the month before the event. Ideas, problems and solutions came up at these meetings that made them well worth the effort.
We got to work right away. Lyle, Tami and Jenny aggressively pursued a fund raising plan. Bob drafted a solid working budget. Lyle solicited a great line up of speakers. Andy secured class rooms and a lunch chef at the college. I drafted a volunteer plan and started filling the slots.
During the opening remarks, Lyle joked that Bob was going to run this show like a Swiss Train. When Bob took the mic he noted wryly that the train was currently in Northern Italy. Soon enough though, he was pleased to announce that we had made it across the border into Switzerland. That extra step of communicating our intention of staying on schedule also led to success.
Our volunteers were great. They took their tasks seriously and thought of things we hadn’t, discovering needs and figuring out how to fill them. The vendors and performers also outdid themselves. The CBC founding board, who have been hosting this event since 2006 also went above and beyond.
Everything went according to plan giving us the freedom to wander around, keeping an eye out for surprises. When a speaker missed his cue, Lyle seamlessly stepped up and gave a presentation. When we ran out of coffee, realized we needed ice, couldn’t find an extension cord or needed help moving food from the College to The Plant, someone would magically appear and solve the problem.
About halfway through the conference it dawned on me that the participants themselves were contributing to our smooth ride. I’d be walking towards a door with a box and someone would reach over and open it. This was more than a host/guest relationship. Everyone was giving a little extra and the result was a seemingly effortless flow of events.
I shouldn’t have been surprised given the ‘can do’ nature of biodiesel folk. When people commented on how nicely everything was going, I shared my observation. “Imagine how nice it would be,” I said “if everyone always gave a little extra.” And we’d bask in that notion for a moment before turning our attention back to conference.
This morning I stopped at the grocery store, pulled a cart from the stack, filled it up and paid. On my way out, I noticed someone had shoved their cart in the general vicinity of the cart queue but hadn’t bothered to line it up with the others. “Boy,” I thought as I nested both carts, “Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone took an extra moment to leave things the way they found it.” And then I thought of the biodiesel conference and sighed.
2014 Collective Biodiesel Conference
For months Bob and I and a select team of close friends and allies have been planning this year’s Collective Biodiesel Conference. The planning committee raised funds, solicited sponsors, chose caterers, filled a website with useful information, installed a registration mechanism, rounded up volunteers, spiffed up gardens and created a campsite complete with fire ring.
Yesterday both Bob and I worked in the Carolina sun all day, him wrestling pvc pipe into frame for a band shell cover, me battling blackberry in the garden by the biodiesel pump. Lyle built a floor and railings for the viewing stand at the campground. Tami flits back and forth all day, every day. Malcolm and Jules mow and mow and mow.
No one hugs in greeting these days because we’re all too sweaty. Sunburnt and often bloody, Bob and I arrive home in time to rustle up dinner and relax into a movie.
This is work I enjoy – the planning and preparations, the grounds keeping, being outside all day, turning chaos into order, making things pretty.
I spent one of my hours at The Plant yesterday crouched under the maple tree gouging weeds from the life-sized chess set and cutting them away from the edges of the sidewalk, then sweeping everything clean. As I was leaving for the day I took a deep breath of wet air and turned to admire the crisp lines of the liberated sidewalk. I was filled with contentment, pleased with my work and even forgot about my lower back for a few moments.
But despite having oodles of hours behind us, the highest hurdles lie ahead. Next week will be the ultimate test of my sanity as the plan we have painstakingly constructed begins to play itself out.
We may think we’ve got all bases covered but when the space fills with participants, speakers and volunteers I’m pretty sure there will be some surprises. One of the caterers might show up late or not at all. A camper could stumble into a hidden nest of yellow jackets. An enthusiastic biodiesel admirer may partake too freely of the kegged beer and clog the rest room sink. Someone will need a bandaid and they all will have mysteriously vanished. Undoubtedly, there will arise a condition we had not even thought to plan for which will require quick thinking.
In a word, it will be chaos.
For some, unexpected problems may be exhilarating or at least funny and definitely par for the course. Most of the planners will be able to see past the unforeseeables to the free-flowing food and easy camaraderie between long-time biodiesel supporters.
But for me, the little potholes in our road to success will spike my stress levels high into the maple tree. I’ll scurry and worry and wish I weren’t responsible. All it will take is for someone to spill 12 ounces of beer on our napkin supply or bleed on the tablecloth and I’ll wonder how such a well thought out plan went so awry.
Before Bob and I were married one of his brothers predicted we would be the objects of “pity and disgust.” One of my brothers felt it wise to reserve his support until we had passed “the test of time.” How many years, we wondered – five, ten…. twenty?
Joe had good reason to hold back. As a Catholic priest he had seen more than his share of failed marriages and the odds were against us. We had both been married before, me for only five years and my relationship history was less than stellar. Bob had three young daughters, we had no savings and I was embroiled in a nasty law suit.
But we love birds decided to trust hope over experience and plunge ahead. The obstacles before us were as plentiful as trees in a forest and we often bumped into them painfully. We fantasized about the day when we would emerge from the woods into a sunny meadow. A place where we could gallop into our new life unobstructed.
On July 31, 1994, a day picked specifically because it fell halfway between our birthdays, we became one. Bob’s boss read Aristophanes’ speech in Plato’s Symposium, a reading that brother Joe had brought to our attention. A romantic reading about people feeling whole when they find their other half, having formerly been split apart by the gods for being too powerful.
We dressed the girls in custom made wedding dresses and earnestly recited our vows on the front porch of a rented farm house with thirty-some pairs of eyes upon us. Among them were my mother, two brothers and a sister-in-law and perhaps some goats, pigs and chickens from next door.
We had carefully crafted a manifesto of promise, pledging love, respect and faithfulness and to share our joy, abundance and burdens until the end of time. And here we are twenty years later, still sharing, caring, enjoying and helping each other with our burdens.
About three years ago Bob asked Joe if we had stood the test of time yet and Joe laughed, “Of course you have, I was only talking about a couple of years.”
Where were you on July 23rd, 2012? On that day, the sun burped (or farted) a massive belch of magnetized plazma right through our planet’s commute path. Wherever you were, you might still be there had the storm occurred a week earlier.
Here’s the technical low down from NASA’s Science News:
Near Miss: The Solar Superstorm of July 2012
July 23, 2014
Extreme solar storms pose a threat to all forms of high-technology. They begin with an explosion–a “solar flare”—in the magnetic canopy of a sunspot. X-rays and extreme UV radiation reach Earth at light speed, ionizing the upper layers of our atmosphere; side-effects of this “solar EMP” include radio blackouts and GPS navigation errors. Minutes to hours later, the energetic particles arrive. Moving only slightly slower than light itself, electrons and protons accelerated by the blast can electrify satellites and damage their electronics. Then come the CMEs, [coronal mass ejections] billion-ton clouds of magnetized plasma that take a day or more to cross the Sun-Earth divide. Analysts believe that a direct hit by an extreme CME such as the one that missed Earth in July 2012 could cause widespread power blackouts, disabling everything that plugs into a wall socket. Most people wouldn’t even be able to flush their toilet because urban water supplies largely rely on electric pumps.
When Bob told me this morning about the near miss two years ago I wanted to think it was a fluke. But actually an event like this is entirely in the realm of possibility. Later on in the NASA story they quoted a study in which the chance of an extreme CME hitting our beloved planet in the next ten years was calculated at 12%.
On July 23, 2012 Bob and I were in Kumasi and might be there still had the storm knocked out Earth’s electrical grid. “It’s not like they have millions of transformers in stock,” Bob pointed out. We stood on the back porch for a few moments, trying to imagine our life if the timing had been different. Wondering how we would have survived and how long it might take the world to recover from this level of destruction.
“Our civilization is a house of cards,” I said “Good thing we’re growing some of our food,” Bob replied. And we vowed to stay put, counting our lucky stars that we didn’t get stranded in Ghana.
July 20, 2012 – the day a taxi busted into the neighbor’s wall down the street from our house.
For years now I’ve been willfully ignorant of media news and so miss most of what’s happening outside my little life. Bob and I have not watched television in our home since 1997 and we’ve not had a newspaper subscription for nearly as many years.
Bob is pretty good about staying on top of the news via the Internets but me, not so much. Despite adding news feeds from the New York Times and the BBC to my browser home page and listening to NPR during my dashes around town in Christine, I’m woefully uninformed. When I ask him what’s new in the news, he usually says “The world situation is desperate as usual” and we shake our heads.
Yesterday Bob uncharacteristically asked if I’d seen the story about the commercial airline flight that was shot out of the sky over the Ukraine so I took notice. Within a few minutes of browsing I learned about the 298 dead passengers and how surely this was not an accident and probably not done with a shoulder gun at 33,000 feet.
There was speculation that Russia had supplied the surface-to-air missiles and that perhaps Malaysian flight 17 had been mistaken for a military plane. Regardless of whether it was a mistake or not, there was no mistaking the horror and the outrage.
World leaders immediately began issuing bold statements. Most notably, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk called for an international inquiry into the crash, saying “We ask all respective governments to support the Ukrainian government to bring to justice all these bastards who committed this international crime.”
This morning there was more. There is still limited access to the site, and there are rumors of plundering and suspicion of rebel tinkering with the evidence while civilian bodies lay bloating in the sun. Having been on several international flights just last month it was easy to imagine what it would be like to get shot out of the sky. And yet luckily, the worst that had happened to us was the disappearance of Bob’s suitcase and two hours spent sitting in a motionless plane in Milan waiting for clearance to fly over France because of an air traffic controller’s strike.
Add the Malaysia Airlines flight 17 story to the recent news about rockets raining down on Israeli cities and new violence and instability in Iraq and it would seem that all hell is breaking loose. I looked up from my computer and no matter how I tried I couldn’t think of something witty to say. There is no bright side to people killing each other over resources just as they have done since the dawn of time.
And so, what else is there to say? These global tragedies are so much bigger than me that I feel helpless. I feel terrible that history is determined to repeat itself and that there is so much suffering in the world. I can’t imagine why anyone manages to be optimistic about the future of the human species and I can only take small comfort in the knowledge that, for the moment, I am far from harm.
Just when you think everything is getting worse, you run into something that throws you for a glorious loop. A time hiccup back to more prosperous days. My hiccup happened the moment Bob and I boarded a B777 for our Emirates flight to Milan.
Emirates, the fourth largest carrier of international passengers is on the rise. Last year they shuttled 44.5 million pampered passengers from Dubai to Milan to JFK and another 137 destinations without ruffling their feathers or charging economy class for peanuts.
Here’s a recent article about this new star from Vanity Fair’s July, 2014 issue:
The New Jet Age
“For anyone who has endured the post-deregulation austerity of U.S. airlines over the past few decades—uncomfortable, overcrowded, bare-bones bus journeys in the sky—the experience of flying on Emirates, Etihad, or Qatar comes close to recapturing the joy of jet travel from Pan Am’s heyday. There is a sense of fun on board, and that has come down from the top. [Emirates president] Tim Clark says he wants to bring a bit of glamour back into flying.”
With over two hundred planes, the Emirates fleet is looking to grow to nearly 600. They fly air buses and the smaller B777′s which seats close to four hundred. Because of their central location, what began in 1985 as strategy to make use of Dubai’s oil reserves has become a way to link the west with emerging countries.
When Bob booked us passage to his High School Reunion in Switzerland he had comfort and quality in mind but discovered that Emirates was also offering the most reasonably priced flight. He’d read great things about Emirates and wanted to find out if classy and cheap weren’t mutually exclusive.
Right from the start, we were wowed, beginning with the flight attendants who were spruced up beyond belief. The women had perfect hair and were beautifully made up, all wearing the same shade of lipstick to match their red hats, each hat with a snow white scarf draping over their shoulder and around their neck. And there were GQ guys, too in a ratio of roughly one man to nine women.
After we were settled into our seats, the captain’s introduced himself and his staff in a rich voice. Today’s line up included fifteen flight attendants from Latvia, Poland, Rumania, Egypt and more. It seemed as if no two hailed from the same country. When he was finished in English, he repeated everything in Arabic.
We checked out our monitors, flipping back and forth from the camera mounted underneath the plane and the one mounted below the nose before perusing 600 channels of entertainment from Radio Lab to Modern Family. And then a stunning woman was offering us steaming white towels with a pair of tongs. A few minutes later I was handed a menu. It listed a Saffron couscous salad, Barbeque grilled chicken or Gulf style fish curry followed by an Apple and blackberry crisp. Our vegetarian and vegan options arrived hot and tasty on real plates with real silverware.
That evening when the cabin lights were dimmed I saw stars. I blinked. Turns out the ceiling panels had been engineered to mimic the night sky. They were back lit and stamped with a pattern of tiny holes in the shape of constellations. When I realized the implications of this I practically got giddy. How cool to put that much thought and trouble into such a sublime detail.
Nine hours of air travel is torture any way you slice it. But it’s discomfort made bearable by smiling attendants, back-to-back movies and free wine. Bob made sure to get us the first row in the back where the seats go from three to two so neither of us got squeezed in the middle, we had a little extra leg room and a nice place to stand out of the way with a clear shot to the bathroom.
It was nice to hear the sounds of laughter from between the passengers and those happy angels attending to the flow of food and comfort. During the day flight home one lovely woman went from family to family, borrowing their toddlers for walks around the cabin. There was peace in our metal tube full of people speeding towards Italy. We wondered if the attendants ever got stressed or depressed.
All I can say is, if you ever want to experience air travel like it used to be forty years ago, hop on an Emirates flight to anywhere. They will lighten up your sky.
Rome is a study in contrasts defined by monumental marble, miniature cars, horse carts, cripples, smokers and saints. A city of nearly three million represented by every race which draws about ten million tourists a year. A city where impeccably dressed men on motor scooters whizz past beggars and where gum spots collect on white marble steps.
From all appearances, nearly everyone smokes in Rome. It isn’t unusual to see a beautifully dressed woman in heels toss her cigarette butt down and crush it with her next step. We noticed that while the cobblestones in Lugano were perfectly chinked, the stones in Rome are sometimes chinked in cigarette butts.
And as is befitting of a tourist town, every fourth shop sells ice cream and sandwiches. Only in Italy, they call it gelato.
Bob and I took the metro to Vatican City this morning, squeezing ourselves into a packed subway car at rush hour, wondering if we would fit before we were followed by another half a dozen passengers. No one squirmed mostly because we were packed too tight to move. And no one complained, perhaps because the crowding was not out of the ordinary. It was at once a very public and quite intimate ride.
Six stops later, the crowd thinning each time the doors opened and closed, we arrived intact. Before entering the Vatican piazza I threw my purse onto the x-ray belt and stepped through the scanner. Bob was on the other side recovering his pocket change and phone.
The piazza was magnificent. Beautifully sculpted saints gazed down at hundreds of plastic chairs set in rows upon the cobblestones below the papal balcony. Every type of attire was represented from diapers to long, flowing habits. A paunchy gentleman wore a white tee shirt with the words “The Beatles” in large black print.
Before entering St. Peters Basillica, women were asked to cover their shoulders and knees. Scarf vendors hovered nearby to help them comply. We opted to climb the five hundred or so steps to the dome with the others, some wearing collars and others who held terrified youngsters by the hand.
The views out the narrow windows grew more and more magnificent as we ascended and we noticed that steel bars had been bolted in the middle of the openings, to prevent what we weren’t sure. As the walls grew closer and closer together and finally began to curve to the right, my chest grew tight and children began to cry and beg.
We peered through wire mesh at the main altar, my heart swelling with love for my mother who has been here and loves this world passionately. We thought of our brother, Father Joseph who is at this very moment climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. We admired the mosaics, buying a little time before stepping onto the spiral staircase to the balcony.
From up there we couldn’t hear the hiss of the street vendors, couldn’t see the dog walkers, baby strollers or prostrated beggars or smell the air, heavy with sweet sugar and cigarette smoke. Instead we listened to church bells while a fresh breeze vaporized the sweat of our effort. We heard the children murmur in wonder at the view, the parents chucking soft praise. The marble monuments looked like toys, the river like a stream. We drank it all in and then turned and began our descent to the streets of Rome.
Before we knew it we were sitting at a sidewalk cafe watching the street traffic pass us by sharing some gelato while Bob enjoyed a cappuccino and a smoke.
The view of Lake Lugano from our TASIS dorm room.
I can’t say I’ve been many places as beautifully engineered and tended as Lugano. Also known as the “Italian” part of Switzerland it is built along the shore of Lake Lugano and on up the hill. The streets here are tidy and clean with granite curbs and nearly everything is landscaped and coiffed. Even the vacant lots ablaze with wildflowers seem planned!
We’re staying at TASIS (The American School in Switzerland) the boarding school Bob attended in the seventies, here for the fortieth High School reunion of the class of 1974. Some of Bob’s class of 1976 alumni are here and about thirty others who lived here during that period. This is the first time he’s been back since graduating.
This has been an extraordinary opportunity for me to connect with Bob’s past. As we celebrate our fifth day of tours, festivities and food I am savoring two epiphanies. First off, I realize how much deeper the bonds between overseas boarding school students are than the relationships I had with my school mates in the States. The Tasis alumni welcomed me into the fold without hesitation, happily diving into deep conversation about every topic imaginable. It’s obvious that there is a special kind of camaraderie between these intelligent and worldly people.
Second, I have now experienced the standard of living Bob was exposed to as a youth. This is not a world I’ve ever lived in. All my life I’ve measured my surroundings with a yardstick that this week grew another couple of feet. Since his teens, Bob knew the world could be like this and now I realize it too. On the other end of the yardstick Bob lived in the incredibly dissimilar world of Ghana from the time he was nine. What a shock it must have been to travel back and forth from one world to the other and yet, at his age he would have taken it all in stride and fashioned his world view accordingly.
A flower box on a street sign.
Bob and I have done quite a bit of walking these past five days and are quite impressed. The public realm, those places a passer by might happen upon, have been tended lovingly by either the land owners or the town. It is a joy to stroll groomed paths flanked in lavender, hydrangeas and fragrant hedges, looking up at architecture designed to please the eye. A little ways out of town there are lovely vineyards, many of them producing Lugano’s signature merlot.
A lot of the stone walls and buildings in Lugano seem quite old but are in great shape. Art is built into everything, from patterned cobblestone streets to ornate doorways. And everywhere there are flowers, dripping from window boxes, planted in medians, in carports, along fences and outside restaurants. We’ve noticed that much of the landscaping was chosen with fragrance in mind. This is what heaven must feel like, a place where every view is meant to please, the air is sweet and where you feel welcomed. It’s an honor to be a human being in a place like this.
James Howard Kunstler bemoans the loss of consideration for the common good in the United States with his books “The Geography of Nowhere” and “Home from Nowhere.” Whereas Americans once built cities in the European style, modern architecture has devolved into boxy structures surrounded by asphalt. Classic old buildings are routinely replaced by inferior structures meant to last a short time so they too can be replaced. What’s good for the economy is not at all good for our culture.
In terms of pride, Lugano is definitely on the very far end of the continuum from Ghana. Everywhere else we’ve lived in the United States is somewhere in the middle. I’m not talking about ego-driven pride but rather civic pride – the respect for humanity and appreciation for beauty that compels people to make things nice. The kind of pride that inspires one to make their bed in the morning or recycle their trash; weed their flower gardens and wash their cars. Civic pride is about taking responsibility and caring enough to keep up appearances.
In our time here we have only seen one piece of trash, a piece of white paper towel that somehow got away from someone. No junk cars, No burning piles of plastic. As I sit here typing, the lovely sound of a church bell floats up the hill and I look to my left and see the still waters of Lake Lugano. In a few hours we will cruise across the lake to Morcote for dinner. I won’t be surprised to find flowers on the boat and I’ll probably notice a few pieces of art tucked in and around here and there. In keeping with my experiences here so far, I expect the staff to be warm and accommodating. This is indeed what heaven must be all about.
A typical vineyard on up the hill from the school.
I guess all families have their signature rituals and habits. Some families have a thing for lawn games. Others trend towards wine and esoteric conversation. Some like to camp together, shop together and/or beach together.
In my family, there are three main trends:
Food is never far from our minds.
We all like to eat and most of us are good cooks. An empty stomach is an unheard of concept. I’m afraid we can get a bit carried away with the whole cooking and eating thing. For example, my soon-to-be eighty two year old mother is preparing at least three dishes for tomorrow’s potluck. Sure, there will be thirty people to feed, but “Mom,” I keep saying, “They’re all bringing food, too!” But, there’s no fighting mother nature so I plan on arriving two hours early to shuttle food from Mom’s apartment to the party hall.
We like to pick up animals.
Pretty much to a person, if we see an animal we have to pick it up. Enough said.
Disregard for authority and a thirst for adventure.
This is really two trends but they tend to go hand in hand. On Monday, my Aunt Jeanette told us two stories about her mother, my grandmother that highlighted this perplexing trend. Grandma loved the outdoors all of her life. She was known for taking long walks on a daily basis up until she had a stroke at eighty five.
When she was a young girl she once hiked high up the mountain alone, took a nap and had to hike back in the dark. She also was known for taking the boat out despite being warned that a storm was rolling in. Keep in mind that this woman was born in 1900, back when girls were supposed to know their limits.
My brother Joe demonstrated this third trend handily yesterday by climbing over a barbed wire fence to get a better view of things from atop a tower. On at least one occasion he has followed in Grandma’s footsteps by hiking into unknown territory alone and having to find his way back in the dark.
Suffice it to say, Bob and I are having a great time running around with my brothers and their families, getting plenty to eat, lots of animal encounters and enough vicarious adventure to keep us thoroughly entertained.