Stories to Come: Reinventing Fire
At the beginning of Amory Lovins’ great book, Reinventing Fire, published in 2012 is a quote from Spanish poet Antonio Machado (1875 – 1939) that will inspire and motivate me for years to come.
Caminante, no hay camino. Se hace camino al andar.
“Traveller, there is no path. The path is made by walking.”
THE RENEWABLE ENERGY CONUNDRUM
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines conundrum as
a: a question or problem having only a conjectural answer, or
b: an intricate and difficult problem.
WHAT IS THE PROBLEM?
The 30 articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are intended to be… a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance…
UN, UDHR, 1948, http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml
Nowhere in the 30 articles does the word “energy” appear. However, access to adequate energy is a basic requirement needed to fulfill at least 9 of the 30 articles of the UDHR, if not all of them. 2012 was declared as the “International Year of Sustainable Energy for All,” one of the more forgettable of the International Years declared in the recent past, having generated less media coverage in 12 months than the average premier league soccer game does in one evening. Why?
Because the people who make the news don’t have an energy problem themselves. World leaders address gatherings of other world leaders to discuss the issue and then fly away to yet another global meeting, using as much energy in an hour as the poorest global citizens (and there are 2 billion of them) do in a year. So are world leaders the problem?
Not at all. Political rhetoric is only the tip of the iceberg in an ocean of words that have been spoken and written about the problem. And what about the rest of the iceberg? We don’t see it and we don’t know much about it because the iceberg is us. By us, I mean the 2 billion or so who own computers, read blogs and reside at the top of the human food chain, with relatively plentiful access to energy and all the comforts and services it brings. So should we all drown in guilt, change our errant ways, and cut down on energy use?
Of course not. Collective guilt has not solved a single problem for the world, any more than wearing hair shirts has done for the individual. In the 21st century, it’s possible to eat your cake and have it too. Follow this blog to find out more. In the coming weeks I will post information about the range of technologies in the pipeline that will help achieve this.
Stories to Go 6: Kolschitzky’s Qahveh House
There is a lot about Viennese cafes in the stories on this blog and this is the last one in the series, the legend about how the Viennese coffee house tradition began. This story was written as a sequel to the first in the series (Being with Beethoven), about an elderly pensioner who leads a solitary existence in Vienna. Years ago, I had the good fortune to come across a book called Das Theresianische Wien. It describes Vienna during the reign of this capable and conscientious monarch (Maria Theresia, 1717 – 1780), who laid the foundations for much that is worthy of emulation in this city today. For example, safe drinking water.Vienna’s drinking water today is brought from Alpine sources in the mountains around Semmering, approximately one hundred kilometers south-west of Vienna in the direction of Graz. This water is characteristically low in calcium hydrogen carbonates. Together with its low temperature and high oxygen content, it has a pleasant, sweet taste. In Maria Theresia’s time, Vienna’s water came from wells dug in the swampy countryside and was usually brackish, often foul tasting, and unhealthy. She introduced the sale of bottled water in the mid-1700s, a few decades before Evian was introduced to the world as a health drink for gallstones by the Marquis de Lessert in 1789.A certain Carl Burney from Hamburg writes in 1783 that shopping is no problem in Vienna as the tradespeople come to your home to sell their wares, and de Luca writes in his 1785 description of this royal city that: since the water in Vienna is not very good, there is a wide choice of bottled mineral waters, for example Selter, Rohitscher Sauerbrunn, Spaa, Pyromonter, Eger, Freudenthatler, Vorderbrunn and Pirkenfeld Sauerbrunn, among others. All these are tested for purity by the medical faculty and sold in sealed bottles or krugs.
If you’re interested in 18th century Vienna, and can deal with the sometimes old fashioned German of this book, I can highly recommend it. Das Theresianische Wien, Monika J. Knofler, Boehlaus Verlag, Graz, 1979
KOLSCHITZKY’S COFFEE HOUSE
He sometimes was unfaithful to his stamm cafe where a place was permanently reserved for him, and wandered elsewhere for a post-prandial cup of coffee. After all, he thought, one must have something to compare excellence with. As a wise man remarked long ago, we fully recognize moments of happiness only in retrospect for what they are, never during the events themselves. So like an errant husband who needs an occasional infidelity to remind himself of the virtues of his wife, he deserted his habitual coffee house for another.
On this Sunday, he entered the cafe on the perimeter of the inner city simply because it looked so venerable, age lending the building a patina reminiscent of sunlight on silver hair. The walls were decorated with pictures framed in varnished oak; solid, enduring, unaging; the pictures insignificant in themselves but lending atmosphere and character to the place. Time flew by here just as quickly and inexorably as it did elsewhere, but the decor lent the dark interior an air of unhurried timelessness; this timelesness paradoxically emphasised by the ticking of the pendulum clock mounted on the far wall, hesitantly chiming quarter, half and full hours like a polite old gentleman clearing his throat, too well-bred to raise his voice and interrupt the comfortable hum of conversation.
Nearly all the tables were taken, but he saw a small table-for-two by the window was free and sat on one of the round-seated armless Jugendstil chairs with gracefully curved backrests, waiting with elbows propped on the table to give his order. Sitting there at that window seat was like straddling two worlds. Outside, the bustling stream of cars and assorted city traffic attested that Vienna had joined an exclusive group of cities. In the inner city, carbon monoxide levels shot up to match those of metropolises like New York, Paris, London or other conurbations listed on the designer packages of prestigious products. Turning his head backwards through an arc of one hundred and eighty degrees, he travelled backwards in time and imagined that the cafe had not changed decor or character for centuries.
The interior was subdued, the light that came through the windows facing the street had a faint golden tinge from the name of the cafe painted in Gothic letters on the glass. The waiter, smooth and pale, seeming not to walk but flow, was polite, bringing the grosser brauner with swift, silent efficiency on a silver tray, a single spoon impeccably balanced on the glass of water that was invariably served with the coffee. Along with the coffee the waiter brought him a copy of the day’s newspaper, mounted as always on a cane frame. Apart from the muted noises of the busy traffic and the subdued murmur of voices, the only sound was the ticking of the clock. The scene was probably the same three hundred years ago, he thought. He blinked and yawned, assailed by a sudden weariness, feeling the years gather in his bones like tree rings in an ancient oak…
The interior was very smoky and smelled. Smoky because of the pipe smokers who were prohibited, by royal decree, to indulge their habit on the open streets. They popped in here whenever they felt the urge to smoke, sitting in foggy groups of two and three, drinking glasses or red or white wine. The room smelled of stale, unwashed bodies, sauerkraut and roasting meat. Above it all the strange aroma was sharp in his nostrils, not unpleasant in its novelty, overriding the miasma of the inn’s dark interior. A fat chicken pecked at scraps of uneaten food on the floor, squawking noisily when the uncouth oaf at the next table lurched to his feet, sweeping the remnants of his meal to the floor.
‘You haven’t paid for your food,’ the landlord said. He wore a close-fitting green cap on his head and a brown camisole. His stockinged feet were encased in thick-soled wooden clogs.
‘That will be five kreuzers for the pigs knuckle and,’ he peered into the earthen jar on the table, ‘two for the wine.’
‘At that price, you old highway robber, I’ll drink the rest of the wine.’ The peasant raised the jug and swilled the rest of the wine, a trickle escaping down each corner of his mouth and staining his blue smock. But the red wine stains were hardly visible among all the other stains already on it. The old gentleman held his nose and finished the last of his breaded veal cutlet. It was all the rage here, the latest culinary novelty, and he enjoyed the schnitzel down to the very last golden brown crumb. ‘Herr Wirt,’ he called to the owner as the latter tested the seven kreuzers on his teeth and pocketed them. ‘Some water, please.’
‘What’ll it be, sir? The usual?’
The gentleman nodded and the landlord disappeared into a back room, emerging with a stone bottle in his hand. He set the bottle on the table and broke open the leaden seal with a flourish.
‘Here you are, sir, bottled water, purity tested and certified by the city authorities. You’re right not to drink the normal water, gentlemen like you who can afford it. I’ve heard tell that there are diseases that one can get from drinking the normal water here.’
‘Indeed? In that case I’m doubly glad I can afford to buy bottled water. I don’t like the taste of the water here,’ said the gentleman, tucking his fine cambric kerchief into a pocket of his knee length coat of bottle green. The wide cut claret sleeves of the tight fitting coat whipped with a flourish as he extracted a metal snuff box inlaid with mother-of-pearl. ‘What is that enticing aroma?’
The thick-jawed yokel overheard the question, guffawed and nudged the owner heartily, pointing to the prim old gentleman.
‘Huh-huh, the gentleman wants to know what the smell is. Tell him, Gustl. That’s the smell of poverty, see. Sweat and dirt and smoke.’
‘Not that,’ said the old gentleman testily, holding the perfumed handkerchief delicately to his nose. ‘Unfortunately I’m all too familiar with that. It’s the other thing I’m asking about.’
The Wirt understood immediately. He frowned at the yokel.’Hush, hush,’ he admonished. ‘The gentleman’s sense of smell is better developed than yours. I know what he’s talking about.’
He scratched his ear as though that were his olfactory organ and inhaled the almost visible aroma.
‘That, sir,’ he said proudly, ‘is part of the spoils of war. Taken from the enemy. This being the year of our Lord 1684, last year when the Duke of Lorraine arrived with his troops and Marshal Sobielsky’s Polish army converged on the hills outside Vienna to help our beleaguered city, the enemy fled. They left behind bags of green beans which were about to be thrown away. I’m no admirer of the Turks, sir,
believe me. After all, they threatened and almost took our beloved city, you know that as well as I, having been trapped within these walls during the siege, those two terrible months when even water ran scarce and was so precious. The memory of thirst is still so frightening and immediate, I can’t believe it was a year ago already.’
‘What was it you took from the enemy?’ asked the gentleman sharply, his curiosity aroused.
‘Those bags of green beans I mentioned, sir. I have a friend who was a prisoner of the Turks for more than three months. He is a very clever fellow and a born trader. He has travelled to many distant places and even lived with the Musalman for a few years, learning their habits and adopting their ways. Anyway, he told me in confidence to salvage those beans and showed me how to prepare them. When roasted, powdered and added to boiling water, it makes a stimulating drink.’ He took a deep breath and smiled at the old man. ‘I’ve been wondering what to call it. The Turks call is Qahveh.’ He repeated the name aloud a couple of times, ‘Qahveh, Qahveh,’ rolling the syllables, testing them on his tongue like a gourmet his food.
‘Qah-veh, Qah-feh, Qah-feh, Qahfeh. That’s it! I think I’m going to call it Qahfeh. And I’m going to rename this place. Kolschitzky’s Qahfeh House. Doesn’t that sound good? Kolschitzky’s Qahfeh House, and all around it this wafting aroma, the smell of success brewing in the kitchen.’
The old gentleman was not deceived. He knew he was bearing witness to the birth of a legend. Myths and legends did not need to be factually true. All that they needed for authenticity was a grain of truth surrounded by a cultural cloud of veracity. What did it matter that the drink had first been brought to the city more than a century earlier by Armenian traders? Posterity would give Kolschitzky the credit for bringing coffee to Vienna. And in a way posterity’s judgement would confer rightness, as it always did.
The scent of the cold coffee tickled his nostrils with the light touch of a ghost from the grave, waking him with a start. The cafe was almost empty, but outside the bustle of traffic continued undiminished. The silent waiter appeared at his elbow with a faint smile. ‘I think the gentleman fell asleep,’ he said in the archaically formal third person. ‘Shall I bring him another cup of hot coffee?’
Appropriately enough, the Sanskrit word Maya is most commonly translated as “illusion.” Found this neat explanation of the deeper meaning of maya on a posting by someone named Sharon Janis, author of a book called “Spirituality for Dummies.” Check out the web page at
Stories to Go 5: Conversations with a Countess
“I am the last of the line,” she said dolefully, drawing heavily on her cigarette. “The family name will die out with me.”
She was very lonely and loved to talk. I was five decades younger and came from a culture that respected age and experience. We got on very well together. A pattern was established within weeks after our first meeting, I came to expect a gruff-voiced phone call every two months or so inviting me over for a glass of wine. I rarely refused an invitation and usually took along a carton of her favorite cigarettes or a bottle of red wine. In time a curious kind of friendship developed between us; a friendship sanctified by clouds of mutually exhaled cigarette smoke and sealed anew at each meeting with a bottle or two of red wine.She was flattered that I found her life story fascinating, but in the fragments of her family history, I saw reflected the chequered history of Europe and I always wanted to hear more. Someday perhaps, she smiled an enigmatic smile, I will tell you everything and then you can write the history of my family. But right now, I will simply talk to you as a friend. So we continued to meet, as friends, for three years, several times a year.
She died in 1982. I attended her funeral uninvited and was eyed with mistrust and suspicion by a handful of distant relatives who had appeared out of the woodwork to lay claim to an inheritance which might have been considerable. Perhaps they regarded me as an aspiring false claimant. Such was their suspicion and antipathy, I never got a chance to reassure them that my only claim was to her friendship. Now, three decades later, I have decided to bridge the gaps in her stories with my imagination. Although names have been changed to protect identities, it is a true story nevertheless; a story of one woman’s courage in the face of cataclysmic world events, and the restrictive mores of her time. The excerpt below is a fragment from a work in progress that will appear as a novel in 2014. As you read, keep in mind Mark Twain’s adage: Truth is stranger than Fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.
CONVERSATIONS WITH A COUNTESS
I was standing in the Museum of Art History and contemplating an uninspiring allegorical portrait by Hans Makart when the Countess asked me to sleep with her. I was too embarrassed to look her in the face but when I did after a moment’s silence, the inexplicable intensity of her gaze made me say yes. It was past six in the evening when we were in her tiny, cramped apartment. Removing only my overcoat and shoes, I slid under the crazy patchwork quilt and closed my eyes. I heard the rustle of clothing and felt the mattress subside as she got in beside me. I opened my eyes and it was pitch dark. She had drawn the heavy drapes and turned off the lights. I drew her towards me. She was fully clothed as I was.
Her body grew rigid and began to tremble when I touched her. Only in that instant did I realize the enormity of her loneliness and her need and I recognized it only because my own was as great. I traced the path of her tears with my fingertips and held her in my arms. I did not speak. She was a stranger, and I did not know what to say. I only knew that we had made some kind of a connection, platonically speaking, and not in the crude sense of the term. We had both reached a common node in two hitherto separate existences; she at the end of a long and eventful life; I in the prime of mine.
I know that speaking of going to bed with a Countess brings lubricious images to mind, overplayed scenes of sex and seduction, childish fantasies from immature romances. It was not like that at all, but rather as the book of Ecclesiastes says. To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to weep, and a time to laugh … a time to love, and a time to hate. A paean to life in all its infinite dimensions which refrains from explicitly saying that sex is wonderful; at the right time, in the right place, with the right person. All things in their proper place and time. That night in the Countess’ souvenir cluttered bedroom was neither the time nor the place for sex. I simply held her in my arms and said nothing. At intervals her shoulders heaved with powerful emotion and all the while a great Danube of tears flowed steadily, like a frontier between two adjacent countries, the past and the future.
A Napoleonic brass eagle soared from the Empire clock that quietly ticked away the minutes. It must have been after midnight when she finally went to sleep. I quietly slipped out of bed, put on shoes and coat and tiptoed out of the flat into the night air. It was early June and the cold was unseasonal. The air was heavy with a mist that made the street lamps gleam distantly. Stray beams of light straggled through the fog, touching the surface of the cobbled streets and making the stones glint like metal.
As I walked the silent streets, I felt light and unburdened, totally devoid of self, as though I too had bathed in the river of the Countess’ tears and been cleansed by it. On the Ringstrasse, the Marriott Hotel with its luminous facade of glazed arches looked like a curious mixture of art and artifice and I could not decide whether I liked or hated it. That facade might serve as an allegory of life, as well as some of the paintings I had seen earlier in the Museum. Our lives constantly hover between Kunst and Kitsch, between Art and Artifice. There is a relatedness, a constant dynamic tension between the two; and it is often only a question of timing that determines whether a work of art is considered to be “artistic” or not.
As in art, so too in human relationships. It is only the context that determines whether a certain act is wise or foolish. I had found out the hard way that there are no easy prescriptions, no set formulae for right action. Life was nothing but an eternal groping for those moments whose luminous beauty made all the waiting and the groping worthwhile. There is a time to weep and a time to laugh. Now was the time for me to sleep.
I went back to my hotel room and for the first time in years slept the deep sleep of childhood and of innocence; a sleep that was seamless and untroubled, natural and deep. And when I awoke in the morning I was quietly joyful, refreshed but langorous, as after a night of love.
I dressed and went down in time to gather the last few crumbs of the hotel breakfast and washed it down with two cups of wonderfully strong Viennese coffee. With the smoky flavor of the coffee still on my tongue, I returned to my room and dialed the old lady’s number.
“Yes,” said the Countess. “I was hoping you would call. If you have time, we might meet again today.
Stories to Go 4: Sweet Peppers
Some time in early 1993 I was sitting in a Viennese cafe on a Sunday morning, engaged in desultory conversation with a couple of friends on what had brought us from such disparate corners of the world to this lovely city. One of them told me her mother had been a flight attendant (they were called air hostesses in those days) and met her father on a plane, thirty years earlier. I wrote a short story that afternoon, totally fictitious, except for the location of the couple’s first encounter up in the air.
Sweet Peppers was published in an early online fiction Magazine called Inter-Text, in March 1993, and can be found at the link below.
History in 1000 words: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict
Watching the news on TV the other day, my daughter asked me to explain the origin of the Israeli Palestinian conflict. I tried to do it in 5 minutes, but got hopelessly bogged down by her questions. When I reflected on it later, I realized one has to go back to the Old Testament for the beginning…
The Biblical patriarch Abraham was born around four thousand years ago in Ur of the Chaldees, most likely near the town of Nasiriyah in present day Iraq, around 2000 BC. In the timeless grandeur of the King James version of the Bible, God says to Abraham in the book of Genesis: Get thee… from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee. Abraham is a God-fearing man and does as God tells him. God leads him to the land of the Canaanites and tells him to look north, south, east and west. This is all yours as far as the eye can see, and beyond, but never mind about the inhabitants, I’ll take care of them (text in italics mine).
Further, God promises to bless Abraham and all his progeny: I will bless them that bless thee and curse them that curseth thee…
So far so good. Abraham is revered as the patriarch by the followers of three religions; by Jews, Christians and Muslims. Abraham had two sons. Ishmael, by his concubine, Hagar; and Isaac, by his wife Sarah. Sarah, however, is jealous of Hagar’s son, Ishmael, and asks her husband to send mother and son away into the wilderness with only some food and water. Abraham is very distressed, but God tells him to obey his wife, that he will take care of them. This is where the trouble begins.
In Genesis, chapter 17, verse 19, God promises Abraham: Sarah, thy wife shall bear thee a son indeed; and thou shalt call his name Isaac: and I will establish my covenant with him
However, in the very next verse, verse 20, he says: And as for Ishmael, I have heard thee. Behold I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget and I will make him a great nation.
Both these promises are kept. The twelve sons of Ishmael and their progeny went on to control the vast territory between Egypt and Assyria in succeeding centuries. Their descendants grew into numerous tribes and were known as the sons of Obadiah, Eli and so on. Among other names, they came to be known collectively as the Arabs. In the meantime, Isaac’s younger son Jacob, changes his name to Israel, and the children of Israel are subsequently designated God’s chosen people. There are many reversals of fortune throughout the following millenium, but gradually the children of Israel, still identified by their tribes, Reuben, Gad, Manasseh and so on, subdued the local kingdoms and occupied the promised land.
In the 5th century BC the Babylonians under Nebuchednezzar II laid siege to Jerusalem and sacked it, taking all its inhabitants into captivity. The Jewish kingdom of Judah became a province of Babylon, and then later the Roman province of Judaea during the time of Jesus. Jerusalem was destroyed again in the year 70 CE by General (and future Roman Emperor) Titus in his attempt to put down the Zealots’ armed rebellion against Roman rule. The Roman Jewish historian Josephus Flavius describes the storming and destruction of the temple in Jerusalem thus…
There were the war cries of the Roman legions as they swept onwards en masse, the yells of the rebels encircled by fire and sword, the panic of the people who, cut off above, fled into the arms of the enemy, and their shrieks as they met their fate. The cries on the hill blended with those of the multitudes in the city below; and now many people who were exhausted and tongue-tied as a result of hunger, when they beheld the Temple on fire, found strength once more to lament and wail. Peraea and the surrounding hills added their echoes to the deafening din. But more horrifying than the din were the sufferings.
The Temple Mount, everywhere enveloped in flames, seemed to be boiling over from its base; yet the blood seemed more abundant than the flames and the numbers of the slain greater than those of the slayers. The soldiers climbed over heaps of bodies as they chased the fugitives.” From: Cornfield, Gaalya ed., Josephus, The Jewish War (1982); Duruy, Victor, History of Rome vol. V (1883).
After this destruction of the second temple in 70 CE, emphasis was placed upon study of the Torah (in its broadest sense) as the most important religious act, leading to an understanding of the proper way of life; upon the growing need for national restoration in the face of continued Exile from the Promised Land.
The centuries after the second destruction of the temple is generally classified by scholars as the Jewish Middle Ages, lasting until about the 18th century, during which occurred the mass expulsions and forced conversions in Spain in 1492 and periodic pogroms in many other parts of Europe. There was, however, a Jewish counterpart to the general European Renaissance of the 15th and 16th centuries. The current conflicts between the secular, liberal sections of Israeli society, and the ultra-orthodox Hassidim had their birth in this period. The traditional, inclusive philosophy of the great scholar and rabbi Elijah ben Solomon, on the one hand, was pitted against the unorthodox views of Baal-Shem-Tov, the founder of Hasidism in the 18th century. Ironically, the Hasidim today consider themselves the traditionalists in modern Israeli society.
The emancipation of European Jews in the 19th century brought its own set of problems: to retain a distinct identity within the larger population, or to blend in and adapt? Both options were chosen by individual families. In the late 19th century along came Theodor Herzl and his espousal of Zionism, which promised a return to the Holy Land, then part of the exhausted Ottoman Empire.
Hitler’s rise to power from 1933 and his manic scheme to exterminate the Jews of Europe is too well known to repeat here. The aftermath of World War II led to the establishment of the modern state of Israel. This time, in place of assurances from God, the state was established with the support of the victors of World War II, the fledgling United Nations, and force of arms. Again, as in the time of Abraham the partriarch, the population displaced was that of the Canaanites, today’s Palestinians.
Where will this story end, with religious conservatives on both sides, the sons of Israel and the sons of Ishmael all claiming that God is on their side and that their cause is just? They are all children of Abraham and the victims of history. As Clarence Darrow once remarked, history repeats itself, and that’s one of the things that’s wrong with history.