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Camille, Kathryn, Grace and Deb – August, 2014
I’ve always thought of myself as the oldest child and only girl in a family of six, but if I reach back into my memory I recall that I had an older sister. By the time I was eleven, I had five younger brothers and so naturally I ran with it. We romped through the neighborhood, climbing trees, jumping off roofs, investigating construction sites, breaking into abandoned homes and playing Cowboys and Indians, Combat, Baseball, Football, Hide and Seek and Who Dies the Best.
Who Dies the Best was a uniquely East Coast version of Hide and Seek. The “Shooter” hid their eyes and counted while the rest of us scrambled for hiding places. One by one, the shooter would call out a name and that child would rush at him in ambush. Inevitably, the shooter would kill the ambusher and then rate their death based on believability and acrobatics. A back flip over a piece of lawn furniture, for example was sure to get you a high rating. After all of us lay strewn about the yard, the winner was named shooter for the next round.
The only time I got to be around a female family member in my age range was when Mom drove us from Jersey to Upstate New York to visit her older sister, Jeanette. Out of necessity, my cousin Barbara shared her bed with me. She was also an only daughter and my only female cousin and when we were together we generally put aside our boyish ways and behaved a bit more like little girls.
Darla and her youngest grandchild – May, 2014
When I was seventeen, my brother John fell in love with Darla and I did, too. She and John married a few years after that and has been my sister for more than forty years. Darla was followed by Deb, Bob’s wife and James’ wife Kathryn. Over the years the four of us have shared many conversations spanning a diverse range of topics, from recipe tips to the nebulous state of our family’s mental health.
I recently reconnected with Barbara who I had last seen in 1985. She goes by the name Grace now and our lively telephone conversations are as deeply nourishing as if we’d been talking every day for the past thirty years.
Grace and my other sisters fill a niche no one else can fill. They are as invested in my family as I am and we can talk for hours about matters which would probably bore anyone else
But back to my older sister. To this day, the phrase “Mind your sister,” conjures up a clear picture of Sister, my Nana’s dog, an amorphous black lab. With the help of a few photographs and stories, I learned that Sister, or Sissy as Nana sometimes called her was my babysitter when I was a wee baby.
The deal was Nana would set me down on a blanket under the big oak tree and put Sissy in charge. Her job was to make sure I didn’t crawl off of that blanket and from what I hear she did it well. This may explain why I was slow to talk, preferring instead to bark and scamper around on all fours.
So, despite being reared in a whorl of male energy, and for a time believing that I was a dog, I turned out pretty normal. It just goes to show you that nothing in life is set in stone and that eventually everything evens out. And that even if you think you’re the only girl/boy/dog/etc. – you’re not.
Tim Urban and Andrew Zinn, creators of Wait But Why
This week’s Wait But Why blog entry, How Religion Got in the Way is their latest triumph. It addresses every facet of my thoughts about faith, religion, spirituality and atheism.
I carry a secret with me every day. I don’t believe in god. In fact, I believe that the probability that god exists is extremely low. This makes me a bad person in the eyes of most despite the evidence to the contrary that I am socially concious, generous and good. While I respect the right of my family and friends to believe what they want, I fail to understand why their belief is so much more acceptable than mine.
Bob understands, thank god. He also doesn’t see how faith in a force beyond us would make us better people. We both know that our moral compass is socially ingrained, not divinely bestowed. Neither of us believes that there is a sacred force manifesting good or bad stuff for us any more than we believe in Santa Claus.
What we do believe is that we are a part of the earth and the universe in the same way as the stars, trees, dandelions and earthworms. We belong to nature as opposed to the other way around. We don’t subscribe to the notion that humans are the apex of evolution or god’s crowning glory. Neither do we imagine that after our bodies die, our soul will live on forever, flitting around on the clouds, burning in hell or perhaps haunting our enemies and loved ones.
Bob and I believe that when you die you are dead. To us, the afterlife looks like a composting project, wherein the nutrients in our bodies get broken down by microbes and used to fertilize plants. Yes, the quarks and leptons that once were Bob and Camille will live on beyond our deaths but we don’t refer to them as our souls.
As long as we keep all of this to ourselves, everything is fine. It’s when we share our secret that we risk offending others and ostracizing ourselves from polite society. To most people, atheists are evil. I’m not sure why my failure to believe is so alarming and have never thought to ask until now. So I ask our readers, “Why it is so important to believe in god?”
To be fair, many of our friends also shy away from the notion of a God. Their word for belief in the invisible powers that be is “spirituality.” If spirituality is another word to describe our connection with the earth and its beings, then I have it. If it means personal growth, then I’m also in. But more often than not the word spirituality goes beyond connection and growth to indicate belief in a guiding force. That’s where I draw the line.
My particular belief system, or perceived lack of it has put me in a lonely place. Imagine if nearly everyone in the world loved dogs, loved talking about their dogs and thought you were a bad person because you didn’t have a dog and weren’t that interested in having long conversations about them. Oh geez – bad example…
Which is why it was so refreshing to read How Religion Got in the Way.
The more I learned, the more I realized my whole country disagreed with me—I’d read that 96% of Americans believed in God, 90% believed in Heaven, 73% believed in Hell, almost half believed in the Bible literally—talking snake, Noah’s Ark, people living to like 200, etc.—and 61% believed that “a democracy cannot survive without a widespread belief in God or a Supreme Being.” I learned that the deeply religious even included a number of science-minded geniuses like Isaac Newton. Meanwhile, atheist was a bad thing to be, something derogatory, something to keep your mouth shut about, especially if you ever wanted to run for office.
There’s almost no word ickier than spirituality. It’s vague, amorphous, somehow very annoying, and it manages to turn off both the religious and the non-religious. And if you gather five people who all say they’re actually fond of spirituality, they’ll be defining the term in five different ways.
Tim Urban of Wait But Why is currently my favorite online writer. He is the first person to put into words what I am thinking since Joe Bageant passed away in 2011. Tim and Andrew Finn teamed up last year to create what I consider some of the most insightful articles on the Internets. Not only is Tim’s writing funny but his clear-headed observations and perspective align so completely with my values that I am tempted to seal Plastic Farm Animals with a link to Wait But Why and let them take it from here.
With spider season in full swing my new favorite place to walk is Jordan Lake Dam. The trails behind our house are off limits as far as I’m concerned. Even if I swing a stick in front of me, I end up with spiders in my hair and webbing on my arms and legs. So it was a nice surprise to discover this little gem of a park with its picnic tables, well groomed trails and expansive view of Jordan Lake.
I stumbled upon this spider free walk when I was looking for barbecue sauce. I had driven down to the Moncure Post Office and thought, heck, we’re out of thick and spicy Bone Suckin’ Sauce so I may as well head over to Ray’s Market. But I drove out towards the dam instead of driving the other way towards Ray’s.
Damn, I thought “No barbecue sauce today” and decided to make the best of my mistake, park the car and get a little fresh air. Across the dam I walked and was stopped in my tracks by the sight of open water fading off into inlets among the tree lined shores of the lake.
The breeze played with my hair and I breathed deeply of the negative ions. I was mesmerized by the sunlight glinting off the water and happy memories poured out of my head – of growing up on City Island and along the Atlantic coast and later, of living on Guam, Oahu, Maui and Little Corn Island.
On the other side of the dam I found that the road continued, on down through the trees, across the spillway and back around the base of the dam and then back over to my car. I had found a walkable loop without any spiders!
Bob joined me the next time and together we explored the overlook at the visitor center. We were delighted to find a viewing deck with free binoculars and big, comfy rocking chairs scattered around outside the visitor’s center. All is beautifully maintained by the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE).
What a great place to bring a snack and a flask! (Alcoholic beverages are prohibited). There are even sparkling clean restrooms – heck this could be our second home!
Since then, Haruka and I have driven the five miles to the lake several times. Buffy and I walked the loop last week, enjoying the bird life and tasting the ground cherries that grow in weedy bunches atop the dam. And yesterday six of us walked and talked and then sat at a picnic table and shared stories.
When you drive into the park, it is obvious where North Carolina State Park maintenance ends and the USACE begins. The grass is clipped shorter and the infrastructure is in top form.
Unlike many other parts of the Jordan Lake State Recreation Center, there is no entrance fee. How refreshing in an era where State Parks are quickly becoming playgrounds for the elite. Despite the free admission, the park is underused. While there are always at least a few people with fishing rods below the dam, the picnic tables, playground and rocking chairs are surprisingly empty most of the time.
I wanted to think that the corps of engineers was a benign branch of the military solely concerned with local projects but soon found this is not the case. In addition to owning and operating a myriad of domestic navigation channels and inland harbors, including more than 600 dams providing 24% of U.S. hydro-power, and being involved in environmental research; USACE supports Army and Air Force installations both locally and overseas, provides technical and construction support to more than 100 countries and manages an Army military construction program.
Oh well. At least some of our tax dollars are going towards USACE parks and infrastructure in the U.S. As you can see on this snippet from Table 5.4—Discretionary Budget Authority by Agency that I found on the White House website, FY15 includes $4.561 billion for the Civil Works program of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. A sum which unfortunately pales in comparison to the $575.050 billion set aside for the Department of Defense.
But I won’t let this spoil my fun. Anyone up for a walk?
Hoping to fit in – Tianjin 1998
“Duì bù qi! Duì bù qi!” Ann shouted imperiously, pointing to a row of taxis and staring at a group of drivers eating rice in the shade of a tree. It was a hot day and she had generously offered to take me shopping. I appreciated that she was showing me the ropes in my new home but found myself blushing with embarrassment as one of the men walked towards us.
Bob and I had just moved to Tianjin, a city of ten million in the People’s Republic of China where he would assume management for the manufacturing facility that Ann’s husband had set up. We had a few weeks of overlap to get the lay of the land before our contemporaries left China.
Ann and I soon found ourselves at the Friendship Store, surrounded by typical American type goods. I found something to buy and walked to the kiosk to pay the women behind the metal mesh. With Ann at my side, I negotiated my first purchase in Yuan. The clerk threw my change into the metal basin with such force I felt that I had been spat at.
On another occasion, Ann hired the company driver and we went to the famed Pearl Market in Beijing. When we were finished wandering the stalls laden with everything imaginable, we returned to our meeting point. Ann didn’t see our driver so she borrowed a cell phone from a pedestrian and rang him. “Mr. Wu! Mr. Wu! I’m waiting!” she said into the phone as I scanned the curb, catching his eye as he hurried up the sidewalk.
Again, I blushed. He was obviously embarrassed by the scene we white women had created, nodding apologetically towards the other pedestrians on our behalf. It occurred to me that had we simply stood there for a moment he would have appeared as he had obviously been watching for us.
I thought back to the taxi stand encounter. Had we waved and smiled at the men under the tree I’m sure a driver would have come forward just as quickly. But, I didn’t question her approach and thanked her for her time and kindness at showing me how to get around these two huge cities in my new host country.
After Ann and her husband left China I made another trip to the Friendship Store in search of a bread knife. I found what I was looking for and approached the kiosk with trepidation, smiling politely and respectfully handing over the Chinese currency with both hands as I had seen the locals do. To my amazement, the woman smiled and pushed my change gently into the steel basin.
I had learned a lesson in diplomacy. It is especially important to exhibit good manners when you are overseas. Bob and I were not just representing ourselves in Tianjin, we were representing all westerners. We were the laowài, or foreigner and everyone had their eyes on us.
We eagerly accepted the challenge of replacing the image of The Ugly American with something a little softer, a bit more mature and culturally sensitive. A kinder, gentler, not so ugly American as it were. Our wants and needs became secondary to our role as human beings on the global scene. We learned to take a moment and consider how our actions might affect our hosts.
The rewards were exponential! The more sensitive we were of others and the more we strove to fit in, the more comfortable everyone was with us, happily inviting us into their homes and welcoming us as friends.
These are the golden rules of travel. Treat everyone as you would like to be treated and goodwill will prevail. Represent your homeland and your race with pride. Remember, the true traveler acts as an ambassador, not as a self-serving tourist.
Aunt Jeanette during our May, 2014 visit.
Our Aunt Jeanette died last month at the age of 89. She would have celebrated her 90th birthday in December. Jeanette was my mother’s older sister by 7 ½ years and was mentally robust until a few weeks before her death when her health declined to the point she needed pain medication.
Aunt Jeanette was my mother’s guardian, mentor and protector growing up. There were just the two of them and after the Great Depression sent both parents scrambling for work she became the woman of the house. She was only thirteen.
Jeanette married when my mother was 16. My brothers and I would visit Aunt Jeanette and Uncle Bob in upstate New York and after my Uncle died she relocated to Maryland. Bob and I looked forward to visiting Jeanette each year when we drove north to visit family. She had a quick mind, plenty of insight and a good sense of humor.
When we heard of Jeanette’s death we made plans to drive up. Bob rented a car and arranged to stay with our friend Ned. My mother, Jeanette’s two children and three of my brothers were also on the way with their wives and some of their children.
The memorial service was so well done that I only needed one tissue to get through it. The Sermon by Pastor Amanda was witty, poignant and uplifting. Mom, brother Bob and cousin Grace read passages from the bible and we were all encouraged to sing a few hymns that Jeanette had chosen.
Jeanette was a bit of an enigma. I was hard pressed to find the words to describe her. She was opinionated but not judgmental, confident yet not overbearing, self-contained but not aloof, well informed and yet not too jaded. Listening to friends and family bear witness, I could see that others had noticed Jeanette’s paradoxes, too.
When it was my mother’s turn to speak she surprised all of us with a story about Grandma taking a job in Canada and leaving Jeanette in charge. None of us had ever heard of Grandma leaving her family to work for pay in Canada.
After the people on the program were finished they opened the podium to anyone who wished to speak. I hesitated, not sure I could be coherent and happily accepted Bob’s offer to speak on our behalf. He took my notes and spoke from his heart, ending with “I doubt she realized how much of an impact she had on all of us. Rest in peace Aunt Jeanette, we love you.”
Jeanette as a young girl
Later, sitting with brothers, sisters, cousins and nephews at Cousin Brian’s house I asked Mom to retell her story about Grandma’s Canadian job. She told us that when she was five and Jeanette was thirteen, the family lost everything and had to move to a smaller house outside of town. They lost their cars, too and Grandma needed to find a job but there simply wasn’t anything within walking distance. There wasn’t any public transportation either. But there was bus service to Canada and so she became a demonstrator. Not the kind of demonstrator that walks around carrying a sign but the kind that hands out samples in grocery stores. She worked in Canada all week and took the bus back to New York on Friday.
At home Jeanette was in charge of Janice. Janice accepted Jeanette’s authority so completely that once when her mother brought home some candy, my mother declined to take it saying, “Just a minute, I need to ask my sister if it’s alright.”
Jeanette was Mom’s protector, too. Mom told a story about walking home with Jeanette and being followed by malicious men in a car. Jeanette took her little sister’s hand and stopped at many of the houses on the way but no one was home. Finally, they stopped at the home of the Judge and even though no one was home there either, it spooked their pursuers and they drove away. Then Jeanette took Mom across the back yards to their own home and they hid in there with the lights off.
In another story, their parents had gone out and the girls were asleep upstairs when they heard someone enter the dark house. Jeanette told Janice to stay in bed and be as quiet as she could while she grabbed a kitchen knife and stood at the top of the stairs. Fate intervened with the arrival of their parents, home from their evening out which sent the burglar running back out onto the street.
As we listened to my mother’s stories, many of us were thinking, “And then your father died when you and Jeanette were 13 and 20…”
It was sobering to think about those two sisters and the realities of their childhood. We never had a clue that Aunt Jeanette was called upon to be so strong at such a young age and my mother never showed any emotional scars from losing her mother and then her father to the Great Depression.
Thank you, Aunt Jeanette for protecting my mother as a young girl. You allowed her to have a childhood and blossom into a sweet, fearless woman. My mother might have been an insecure basket case and I doubt I would be who I am if it hadn’t been for you.
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.”