Friday, December 30, 2016

Trades and the Real

The next young "conservative" Catholic man, say 19-25, who does not intend to become a priest, who tells me he's going to study philosophy and theology is going to get punched. "Oh yes, I intend to get married and have lots of kids too!" Whack!

My parents were engineers. When I was 13, my mother met and married a guy who had spent most of his life on ships, first in the North Sea fishing fleet, then in the Merchant Marine, and then in the Canadian Coast Guard. He'd been kicked out of school at 16 for punching a teacher (who sounded like he deserved it) and his father decided it was time for him to start in the world of working men. He turned out to be quite brilliant at maths (mostly self-taught), and through many years of directed self-learning and going on short courses, became qualified as a marine diesel engineer, 1st class, spending the most fruitful part of his adulthood overseeing the operation of arctic-going ships. He was known by his peers and superiors in the Coast Guard as one of the best engineers the fleet had ever had.

He was thirty-five when he met my mother, and fell madly in love with her. She had struggled to get her feet in the world, having gone to teachers' college and worked in elementary schools for a while, then gone on to do a double major science degree - mathematics and marine biology with minor competences in Japanese language - but still struggled to get motivated to find a real niche in the working world. She met her second husband (annulled from my father) and with his encouragement, ended up going to the Coast Guard college in Sydney, Nova Scotia to be the first woman ever to do their engineering programme.

(There were and are lots of women in the CCG but most of them train for navigation or other deck jobs. Engineering is extremely maths-heavy, and has a good deal less prestige than the tidy, dress-uniform-wearing deck careers. Engineers on Coast Guard ships come home from their three month stints smelling strongly of diesel fuel and machine oil.)

One of the ships my mother worked on, the Eastern Arctic icebreaker, the Louis St. Laurent.
Of course, being my mother, she graduated with high academic honours and started her work in the service with high expectations all round. She worked on a variety of vessels from Eastern Arctic ice breakers to West Coast ready-runners doing search and rescue off the coast of Vancouver Island. Later she worked in the Ottawa offices of Vessel Technical using her expertise to do cost estimates for vessel refits, and being responsible for the expenditure and tracking of millions in public funds. (When an ice breaker is damaged by hitting a hidden iceberg, the costs can easily run in the multiples of 7 digits.)

When I went to university, in my early 20s, I really had no idea at all what I wanted or ought to do with myself, and the costs were already becoming insane (this was about 1987). My mother finished her degree in 1975 and the whole thing, books included, had cost her $3000.00. By the next generation in the same university, I was looking at 25,000 - 30,000 per year for tuition. The warnings were already being seen in the media of students graduating with student loan debts that they would never - given their degree paths - be able to discharge. This was also the time of the so called "slacker generation" - that we later called Generation X - a demographic cohort who, having been raised by feel-good hippie hedonists, had no idea at all what they wanted out of life, or that anything they could bring themselves to dare to want could possibly be achievable.

In fact, it was worse than this. Our parents' generation had demolished the rules and standards and expectations of an entire civilization, leaving us "free" to do little more than drift aimlessly through life. They had succeeded in indoctrinating us into the New Paradigm in which none of the old expectations could be counted on, a nihilistic worldview in which nothing was really valuable or important. We had been raised every day of our lives through the late 60s and 70s to believe that nuclear war was inevitable, that we had no future that was not going to be full of pain and loss, that nothing was worth doing and the best we could hope for was a life of blessed distraction (which the internet was shortly to come along to helpfully provide.) Quite a lot of people my age went to university because it was just the expected thing to do. No one really had any notion at all of how to achieve anything in life, still less to pursue a career (which was mostly denigrated as the pursuit of "greed-is-good" capitalism). At the time it felt like failure but now seems just sensible that I dropped out. I still believe that the best educational money I ever spent was 80 bucks at the Y for a typing course.

But there were a lot of sensible things left at work from my mother's upbringing. Having been raised in post-War England where poverty and deprivation were universal and normal, she had instilled in me a deep fear of debt. (Thanks, Mum!) She was the one who taught me my two basic rules of getting on in life: only spend money you actually have; secure your home first - without a reliable roof over your head, nothing else can be achieved. I suppose in a sense, this was the foundation of my conservative nature.

But she also taught me the importance of knowing how to do things. How to make things, and mend things and make do with the things you had. The consumerist mentality - that was entirely a product of post-War North American boom economy, was something that simply did not enter our lives. I remember the conversation I had once with a co-worker when he said he wanted to go to a big sale at an electronics shop, to buy a new stereo. I said, "Oh, I thought you said you already had one. Is it broken?" He said, "No, but it's outdated." I said, "Well, does it work?" I told him he was mad, and he thought I was weird. This was when I realized that I lived in a significantly different world from most people.

I've always admired people who know how to make things, fix things, build things. I had a friend who was in a robotics engineering programme in university whose hobby for about three years was completely rebuilding a car. His ability to work through partial differential equasions was as nothing, I thought, to the fact of this car he drove that he built himself.

I know people now who have simply staggering student loan debt, and who know that they will never, ever be free of it as long as our civilization continues. Personally, if it were me, this would be a pretty good reason to hope for the coming of the Asteroid. I can't think of any more horrible situation to live in day to day.

Currently, I have very little money, but absolutely no debt. I've never had a credit card, my brief flirtation with student loans 30 years ago is a long-forgotten bad dream. I don't own much in the world - no car or house - but I'm free in a way that I think most people rarely experience. And lately, I'm learning that even the few little practical skills I have, mostly domestic, are so rare as to make me something of a curiosity. I am the person my friends turn to when they want to know how to cook something, grow something or sew something. I know people who don't know how to light a fire in a grate or make a pot of soup.

All those disaster movies about the various kinds of apocalypses have one thing in common: the great majority of modern, urban-dwelling people are going to do very badly when the cocoon-like supports of Modernia are taken away. In any situation that requires any sort of fortitude or practical knowledge for survival, most of us are going to be toast.

I have had a running argument with my friend Steve Skojec about the value of university. I keep posting articles about how university is mostly a scam and a snare for the lazy and unimaginative young to trap them into lifelong debt and detachment from reality. Of course, Steve is a guy who got a degree in communications and just about lives online and has admitted that he just doesn't have most of the practical skills we used to take for granted. I also "live in my head" a good deal and I write for a living, but I did do two trades courses, one in joinery (making things out of wood) and another in cheffing. And I hung around my engineer parents a good deal and learned things from them. We lived in the arctic where The Real is rather more in-your-face than it tends to be in an urban setting. When my motorcycle didn't work, my mother refused to pay to get it fixed. Instead, she lent me her tool box, handed me the owner's manual and told me to figure it out myself. It took me a couple of days, but I did it (had to take apart the carburetor and replace the float valve). I figured (and this was her reasoning too) that if I could follow a recipe in a cookbook, I could probably work this out too.

I think our friend Mike Rowe in the video above is right. I think some people really ought not to be encouraged to "follow their dreams" but to have dreams that are realistically achievable. I once had a class of young catechism students, and I asked them to give me a show of hands of who was planning to go to university. The kids, all about 14 years old, all stuck up their hands except one. I asked them, "Now, who has some serious interest in one particular subject they want to go to university to study, like biology or math or history?" No hands. Then I looked at the kid who hadn't put up his hand and asked him what he was going to do. He said he was going to apprentice with his dad as a plumber. He said he'd seen his father do useful skilled work and be his own boss, running a business that made a good living and supporting his whole family. He said that he could expect a starting salary of about $40,000 a year and would be his own man, without debt.


It's not so much that a person who has gone through university is necessarily going to be useless in the real world. It's not even that a tradesman will necessarily be more independent. It's that the culture does not value the independent mindset. We don't even bother to get things repaired by other people any more. Now we have chained ourselves to the consumer machine to the point where if something stops working we throw it out and buy a new one. We're slaves, and humans aren't meant to be slaves.


Thursday, December 08, 2016

Bad news and good news

I got an email from my realtor in Norcia who says my house has been declared "inagibile" by the civil engineers. There's structural damage that wasn't immediately evident when I was running about throwing the kitties in their carry-box.

This means it's going to be a lot longer to go home than I had first anticipated. The good news is that the municipality has suspended all taxes and utilities and is footing the bill for rents and compensation for people stuck without a home. I only rent, but it means I won't have to keep the rent up for the time I'm away (if I got the Italian right.) I have to go and fill out a form.

The realtor could have sent me the form by email, but we're going up tomorrow in a rented car anyway, so it'll be easier to do it in person, and then we can get additional information. I can go into the house no problem, but can't live in it. He says it will be fixed "before a year" but of course, there's no way to know exactly. So, new plans must be made.

(Something that's pretty awesome about Italy is the relationship you have with your realtor. The guy who finds your home - whether rented or bought - becomes like your manager for all matters pertaining to your domestic life after that. He helps you hook up to utilities, finds you the guy who sells firewood, gets you the right forms and things from the government and walks you through all bureaucracy (often just does it for you) and becomes your trouble-shooter for every conceivable thing, from noisy neighbours to permits.

He's also the guy who knows everyone in town, so if you need a plumber or vet or doctor or bike repair he'll be the guy to talk to. And in a situation like this, having an advocate who is a native speaker and knows all the ropes and all the local officials is indispensable. This is the way things are done in Italy; no one is a lone wolf. It's ALL about the community. Sandro and Luca Amici, father and son team, have been great from the first day, and I'd recommend them to anyone who wants a place in Norcia or the vicinity. They kept working and helping people sort things out, even after they were themselves living in tents in their front garden after the August quakes.)

At least this news and info clears up ambiguities. I was all muddled not knowing what I could expect or what was happening withe house, so not really knowing exactly what plans to make. I rented a nice little holiday flat for cheap (off season) in Santa Marinella, the town on the coast north of Rome where I lived for several years before moving up to Norcia. But it's not possible for it to be a long-term thing. Good for a few months, but not for six months or a year. So will have to start making some serious plans.

Also, because the lease will be suspended, and because the house isn't so damaged that my things are exposed, I can just leave all my furniture and things and come home to them when it's all taken care of. I can also make visits and even probably stay over night now and then when necessary. So, for the moment, though the kitties and I aren't really settled anywhere we're not homeless and at least I don't have to lug my furniture and 40 boxes of books into storage. And I won't lose the house.

But I'm finding that after the initial shock, I'm actually feeling more relieved than I expected. This means I am finally able to get out of the uncertainty zone and start making concrete and realistic plans for the longer term, which is a huge relief in itself.

At least I can hold my head up in Norcia. I was feeling pretty badly for all my friends whose homes are either destroyed or inagibile and who have been shipped off to live in hotels and resorts on the coast and Lake Trasimeno, or who have gone to camp with parents and friends. I had been thinking that I could just saunter back to my house whenever I wanted, and it was all up to me. Now we're really all in the same boat, all together. Now I'm a real terremotata, and I feel less bad about having left. I'm part of the Norcia Disaspora now, and feel all the more solidarity with my fellows.

We're going up tomorrow with a load of plug-in heaters I bought for donating to the people stuck in tents and little portable houses. Going to stop by the supermarket on the way and get some groceries as well to give to the volunteer distribution centre. I'll fill in the forms, and we'll take a drive around and see if we can find my friends whom I've been a bit worried about. Some of the older people are still there and I want to know they're OK. I'll take the camera up and dig my voice recorder out of the house and do some interviews and see if I can write it up so the world can also get a better idea of what things are really like up there.

And I'll be able to pack up the house and get it ready. The studio will come back down with me, since I think this should be taken as an opportunity to get painting. All the books should go in boxes and I've got a bunch of bubble -wrap for the pictures. The spare bedroom is more or less a storage room, so we'll just shove everything in there. Pack up Great Grandma's china, the glass wear and breakable bits and pieces, all in boxes and in the little room. At least this way when the workmen have to come and fix things, this stuff won't be in their way.

After that, I'll just pack up all the clothes and coats and boots and art supplies and things, do whatever I can to winterize the garden, and come back down.

Then what?

I've got a few ideas, but nothing confirmed.

More later.



Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Before the quake - Norcia the blessed

I've been meaning to post some pics of Norcia, the garden and our hike up Monte Patino just before the quakes.

Pumpkin ("zucca") flower and friend, in the garden.
I am particularly proud of my squash. I germinated six plants from seeds I saved from a bit of squash I bought at the market.

Mullein and morning glories
Variety of common verbascum. Not Verbascum thapsus, but similar and you can still make a good bronchial remedy out of the flowers and leaves.

Most of the garden is nearly vertical, so wildflowers are the way.
Vertical gardening with kitty.

White scabious and wild garlic, blossoming all over the vertical part of the garden in late summer.

The wildflowers go in a cycle, and one of the great joys is watching it run through its annual pattern.

With the wild garlic, you can just pull up the bulbs, but they're tiny and have only a few cloves. Pick the globe-shaped flowers instead when they are still a nice dark purple. Tie them up in bunches and dry them, then when you want a nice sweet and subtle garlicky flavour, pick off only a few of the florets at a time.

Wild morning glories on the upper slope.
They don't like the really hot weather, so die off in late August, but come back again with the rain a few weeks later.

Masses of these beauties all summer.

A welcome visitor on the broccoli.

I watched as he caught a hoverfly. Like lighting!

About a week or ten days before the August pre-quake, I took a hike with two friends up Monte Patino, that's the peak that overlooks Norcia with the cross on top. We started at six am. No fun hiking in the afternoon in August! Even this high in the mountains it gets REAlly hot!

Piano Santa Scolastica at dawn.

Little town in the cool morning.

The Cross above all.

I can see my house!

Not as close as it looks.

Alpine beechwood 

A wild variety of digitalis, foxglove. Pretty, but don't eat it!
These wild pinks can be found at the highest elevations. They are humble little fellows and can be hard to spot, but the fragrance is heavenly!

A nice place for a rest. Half way.

A ways to go yet.
Last stretch. Can you spot the sheep fountain? Good for humans too.

Good morning little town!


Look who's talking!

The way back down. 

Little town, we miss you so!

Santa Maria Addolorata, the Oratory Church of St. Philip Neri, the day before it fell to rubble.

October 29th, taking the cross down from the roof after the Wednesday pre-quake. 
Savino and Elisabetta, my friends, after the August quake closed their bakery.

Just before the quake that brought it all down.

Last day.

Consulting. The next day it fell. 


Rose window.

Tympanum and saints.

The novusordo tent from the diocese. Cheery, eh? 


Tuesday, December 06, 2016

We did it!

The other day I posted a note from a friend in Norcia who runs a business that gives internet and other kinds of computer-related services to most of the town. His shop was in the centro right next to the Basilica and he has been unable to get it going again since the whole town has been red-zoned.

He was raising funds to buy a portable and today announced that the shop, ABC-Online is back up and running, and soon will get started with the work of getting Norcia back online.

I know that many of my readers contributed very generously to this campaign, and I wanted to thank you all personally. Having internet and communications won't just make it possible for me to go home sooner than expected, it will help bring the whole town back to life.


Friday, December 02, 2016

Christmas cats

This is why I didn't do christmas decorations last year. The kitties were still only six months old by then. Imagine this, only times three.

Not that they've calmed down all that much even now. Cute little dickenses, but they can be pretty rambunctious.

But the year before last was Winnie's last christmas, and she was pretty quiet. Her christmas tree climbing days were over.

I figure at least I will buy some lights and a few bits and pieces. The Chinese stores have their decorations in and they're not expensive. And maybe we can even do a bird. But it's never quite the same having Christmas at the beach-o, when it can be as much as 18 degrees in December. It doesn't really start getting cold at all in S. Mar until February, and then its blink and you'll miss it. Winter is much more northern in Norcia.

I suppose this is why there are a lot more people who do christmas trees in Norcia. It's really not a thing in Lazio/Rome, so it's not only very difficult to find a live tree, but they are exceedingly expensive. I got a very nice one a few years ago for my last Christmas in the flat in Santa Marinella, but it was over a hundred Euros! This nice little one above, with the root ball attached so you could put it in a pot and it lasts for ages, was only about 30 I think.

I hope we can go up to Norcia next weekend, to bring up some supplies we've collected for distribution - including 20 plug-in heaters that are sitting in my front hall. We're going for a festa that the Nursini have been doing on December 9th since the 13th century and a group of people have decided to go ahead. It involves house-size bonfires, grilled meat, mulled wine and staying outside late and is huge fun. It's sort of the Christmas season kickoff in Norcia and the people really want to do it, and I hate to miss it. So we're going to rent or borrow a car and go up. It will give me a chance to get the house sorted and clean out the fridge and put my address on the list for the engineers to inspect, so I can start thinking about when to go home.

The earthquakes haven't stopped, so we're still sort of in limbo, but lots of people are still there and they're not waiting for the quakes to stop before doing a bunch of the work to get things up and running again. I don't feel quite right sitting down here on the coast not helping. Or at least, not being there.