Fire on Deck

Chicken Camp was complete. Well almost. I just needed to get a water tank up on the hill above the tent so I could have running water.

It was better than Ralph Lauren's 'Out of Africa' photo shoot. The view was idyllic: from the deck all you could see were the hills and the horizon, no indication of civilization at all, no houses or roads, even though there were some very close by. It was a one hour drive door to door from my house in San Francisco, stopping at Trader Joe's on the way to pick up food for the night.

I furnished the 16' X 20' tent with an iron bed that I made, a wonderful old tavern bench that doubled as a bed for one of the kids. I got some leftover carpet from the Hilton Hotel install and then a few Persian rugs that gave the place a rich maroon theme. We had hanging lanterns and lots of battery camping lights. We had kitchen island from IKEA that we used for food prep. A Coleman stove heated the water for morning tea and we had a cooler to keep cold drinks and food. Storage baskets for each of us to keep our personal things. The idea being that at any given moment, we could say let's go to Chicken Camp and we wouldn't even have to go home and pack! On a cold summer Saturday in the city, we could jump into the car with our current reading material, maybe a day pack and within 60 minutes be sitting on the deck in the Vacaville sun. We had everything we needed at Chicken Camp already: toothbrushes; change of clothes; tea & teapot (and of course a stash of my favorite Lapsang Souchong); sleeping bags; sleeping pads; playing cards; boom box.

We set up an archery range in front of the tent and got pretty good with two compound hunting bows that we bought on a trip to Pennsylvania. The kids had built a tree house in one of the oaks over the edge of the clearing and they both spent lazy afternoons reading books up there and making improvements.

Until we could get a more formal arrangement, I had set up a Luggable Loo behind some hay bales for privacy. This was basically a five gallon bucket with a toilet seat. I had a bag of sawdust next to the Loo and we threw a couple handfuls in after every use. Apparently this method is in common use in Europe.

I was planning to get a solar array to recharge my phone and ipad and teach the kids the basics on solar power. The idea was to try to be off the grid with our electronics. At night we used lanterns and flash lights. I even got a bunch of $3 solar powered lawn stakes and placed them in a 50 foot diameter circle around the flat cleared land in front of the tent. At night it looked like a UFO landing pad! I had built the deck seating to accommodate sleeping pads and some warm nights I would sleep out there looking up at the huge sky and stars. On August 11, I stayed out there and watched the Perseids meteor shower overhead until I fell asleep.

In the mornings there was a family of wild turkeys that grazed across the clearing and deer families grazed through as well. If I sat very still they would not bolt and would continue grazing, keeping a wary eye on me.

There were a few problems.

On some nights, the wind would rocket up through the valley, blowing everywhere. I would be looking forward to a sound night of sleep in the country and the tent would shake and creak like a galleon in a hurricane. No sleep for me on those nights. I would lay awake and regret ever having gotten this stupid idea of my country get away. No wonder no one ever built on this "perfect" clearing up here. Earmuffs became a necessary piece of sleeping gear. One weekend, I ordered 60 bales of hay delivered so I could build a hay wall around the tent to break the wind somewhat. An opportunity to learn new old technology as I watched the guy throw the bales around with his hay hooks. I needed a pair of those all of a sudden!

Then there was the heat of the summer. Vacaville hit 106 degrees for a few weeks in July and August. I would sit in the tent-it was too hot to be outside-and spritz myself with a water mister every three minutes, wearing nothing but shorts. Trying to keep my eyes open, it was too hot to nap even and when I did, the flies would wake me, crawling on my face. So I got a mosquito net for over the bed and also because I think they're romantic. I went to the feed store and got a galvanized water trough, filled it with water from the hose and sat in it and read my book. A redneck hot tub!

My good friend Paul came to visit SF in August and when I asked him what he wanted to do while he was in Ca, his immediate answer was "Chicken Camp!" We jumped in the car on a cold, foggy, SF Thursday afternoon and in one hour we were relaxing in the warm breeze. I gave him some guidance on bow shooting and we shot several rounds before retreating to the deck for cheese and crackers.

"It doesn't get much better than this" I remarked as we gazed out over the horizon, watching the sun go down. It was… bucolic, I think is the best word for the early evening. Nothing to do but just "be" in the late sun slanting in from the horizon, more orange that yellow. Time was standing still and that's what this place was all about.

"What's that smoke down there?" Paul asked lazily. I looked where he was pointing and there was a wide, dark plume of smoke at the end of our ridge about a quarter mile away. The breeze was blowing in our direction from the bottom of the valley. Shaking myself out of my extreme relaxed mode, I tried to think what we should be doing.

My phone rang and it was Alexis calling from the farm house down below. "Get your asses out of there NOW!!!! That fire is coming this way!" she screamed. "I just called the Fire Department! Get out of there now!"

Wow. I tried to stay calm and told Paul to grab his gear and throw it into the back of the truck. Grabbed some sleeping pads too in case we couldn't come back to the tent tonight. I looked around and thought maybe it'll just go around the tent. Everything was too big or too well stored to grab anyway. Since the bows were out on the deck I grabbed them and threw them in the truck. In three minutes we were bouncing down the hill to the lower pasture. It had been turned earlier in the summer and had no grass to burn.

We parked and watched the smoke get closer. Soon we could see the fireline moving up the ridge toward the tent site. The breeze was turning into a fierce wind as it joined the flames and the fire looked like the surface of the sun. Jets of flame shot down the hill through small game tunnels in the grass and blasted out of gopher holes ahead of the wall of fire, starting new fires. Columns of flame spiraled up into the air, thirty to forty feet. Nothing to do but watch it burn. We couldn't see Chicken Camp from where we were but gradually the fire crested the hill and it was obvious that it was passing over the camp area.

There was a chance that I had kept a big enough clearing around the tent platform that the fire would pass around it. I had gotten the "fire retardant treated fabric" tent, after all. The fire would pass and we'd go back up and everything would be fine!

The fire engines came and drove into the pasture and up the hill cautiously letting the fire have its way. They picked spots where they could back burn towards the fire so it would not have any fuel to move further toward the houses below. At some point it became obvious that we were not going to be going back up tonight.The entire hill that we could see was black and the fire had run up to the top of the ridge and gone over.

We decided to drive back to the city and come up the next morning to assess the damage.

We were back at 10 am and drove up the still smoldering hill. When we crested the road onto the flat area, all we could see was the metal tube tent frame, a few melted lanterns still hanging from it. We got out and I walked into the tent area and there was nothing left except for metal items and even they had distorted from the heat. The redwood deck had incinerated, leaving nails and metal Simpson hangers behind. Futon, sleeping pads, sleeping bags, my antique tavern bench, a wood dining table, kitchen island, folding camping chairs, books, everything gone. The 3/4 inch glass table top on the deck had melted and drooled liquid glass around the metal base. My wrought iron chairs had sagged and distorted with the heat. That meant that it had gotten to at least 2800 degrees!

The bales of hay that I had put around the tent for wind and sound break looked OK but when I touched them they fell to ashes.

So, apart from the heat, the wind and the fire, it was a pretty good weekend get-away!

Knee Deep in Kayaks

I don't remember when I got my first kayak or my second. I just know they seem to breed like rabbits. I put one or two in my garage basement and before I knew it, there were lots of them down there. Truthfully, it has more to do with my compulsiveness rather than the reproductive capabilities of plastic boats. I found most of them on craigslist, from other guys who suddenly found themselves with 5 or six kayaks in their basement. Maybe their wives got tired of crawling over kayaks to get to the washing machine. Any long sea kayak for $600 or less and I was there with my truck and cash. I had no wife at home to object as I brought another one back to put in my garage. I had even found a double, two-person kayak for $500. They are referred to as "Divorce Boats" because many couples buy them and then have marital discord when they can't paddle in sync or agree on which direction to go or who gets to sit in the back etc.

I should be suspicious when whoever I am buying from at the time inexplicably throws in a valuable wooden paddle or a whole set up of skirt, life vest and other gear. He feels bad that I have offered to pay too much, I haven't bothered to haggle on his price and he recognizes and knows so well the feverish obsession that grips me.

There is a subtle freedom that occurs the moment you sit in a kayak, push off from the launching ramp and become weightless in the water. You're letting go of solid footing and entering the floating world. You have left the bounds of hard gravity and can skim across the water effortlessly. This is the moment when all the things that might be bothering me melt away like a blob of butter in a hot pan.

A large boat is not the same, it has a semblance of floor or ground that may move a bit but essentially is a floating version of terra firma. You 


 in a large boat but you 


 a kayak. It becomes an extension of your body at the hips. You have traded your legs in for a sleek hydrodynamic shell. Sitting in a kayak, you are as close to the surface and as free as one of those skating water bugs. There is very little between you and the water.

I think that our experience of speed is a function of how close we are to the surface we are traveling across. The closer we are to that surface, the more intense the feeling of how rapidly we are transversing it. Add to this the maneuverability of the kayak and you are really free in another dimension.

The draft of a kayak is very slight-maybe 3-4 inches-depending on how long your boat is. I favor the longer sea kayaks for paddling the bay, 16 to 17 feet. The longer the boat, the higher you sit on the water.

I skim across the surface of the water and if I am lucky and out very early, the water will be as smooth as glass. I look at the tankers anchored out in the bay and note the direct they are pointing. If they are pointing North I know the tide is flowing in to the bay, as the ship's anchor chain attaches at the bow and the ship will naturally swing around to nose into the water flow. If they are pointing South, the tide is flowing out under the Golden gate. If I were a little bit more responsible, I would have a tide chart and check it before I went out. When I am paddling regularly, I have a sense of where the tide is on a given day.

My strategy, learned the hard way, is to paddle into the tide flow, against the current for the first half of the trip while I am fresh and energetic. I have determined how long I want to be out-say an hour and a half-and I push the kayak against the tide for 45 minutes, North or South depending on the flow. I then turn around and ride the current like one of those moving sidewalks at the airport back to my starting point. At certain times and at particular points in the bay, the current will be quite strong and you can sit without paddling and watch the shore move by you at a brisk pace.

Like any potentially dangerous activity, ignorance is bliss. When I started, I knew nothing. I used to go out alone at the drop of a hat. A nice day, couple hours free, throw the boat on the truck and I'm off to the boat ramp, oblivious to the status of the tide. As I immersed myself in the kayak culture-of course I subscribed to the magazines and ordered videos-I became aware of the horror stories and they weren't too far fetched. As I learned about kayaking, I shuddered at the memory of things I had done that now seemed foolhardy. God truly does watch over fools, drunks and babies. One assumes that the danger is getting into some high waves and capsizing and getting separated from your boat etc, Even then, you say to yourself, I've got my life vest on, no prob, I can always wait around until another boat comes by. But the real danger in Northern California is the temperature of the water. At 50-60 degrees, you may go into hypothermic shock within 15 minutes and if there is no one to help you, you will be unable to help yourself and die.  The typical reported story is of finding a kayak and the owner is missing.

There is a rule that is similar to the rule used in spelunking: Never go alone, because there is no one to save you if you get in trouble. The basic Buddy System Rule. It's not as obvious for kayaking as for caving. In caving, you're underground and there will definitely be no regular passers by to notice you are in trouble and jump to help. Makes complete sense to have someone along in caving. But when you are kayaking, one of the nice things about it is that you are out there alone floating gloriously close to the elements with the sun on you and it's peaceful and quiet, no human voice to disturb the calm. And in the San Francisco Bay, there's a false sense of security as you assume you're surrounded by several million people to save you or at least dial 911 if something goes wrong.

Early in my kayak career I came across a small-sized youth kayak on craigslist and got it for my son Peter, who was 10 at the time. Both kids were excited to go out and we loaded the new kayak up with the double kayak. We put out at Mission Bay with Sofia and I in the double and Peter in the new youth kayak. We paddled out and turned North toward Pac Bell Ballpark. Once Peter got sight of the baseball stadium, he took off ahead of us like a little motorboat. We caught up to him at the Third Street bridge and poked around McCovey Cove for a bit and waved to the building where we knew their mom had her office. We even found a floating baseball that had been hit over the fence during warm up for the game later. We wondered how we could find whoever had hit the home run and get them to sign it for us.

The weather turned windy and cold as the sun moved behind the fog bank in the West and I directed us back toward the launching ramp. The wind was in our faces and the tide was against us now and it was hard going. Peter announced that he was too tired and cold to paddle any more and wanted to go home now. Sofia, though she was not paddling, agreed and I suddenly had two grumpy kids on my hands and we were a good 45 minutes of hard paddling from the boat ramp. I tried reasoning with Peter and encouraging him to stick with it. I remembered how he had raced ahead of us earlier and realized that his little motor was now out of gas.

One of those moments occurred for me where you realize you could become a statistic or part of a tragic news report. I was worse off than paddling alone, I had two children with me that could not help me if I got in trouble and if we did get in trouble, I would have to save myself in order to help them. Bad father...

I tried cajoling, I tried threatening, I tried reasoning: "Pull yourself together, we could die out here! And if we die out here, your mother's going to kill me!" It was no good, he was spent. I managed to pull the hood cord out of a sweatshirt we had with us and tie Peter's kayak to the back of mine. *Note to self on things I should have on board next time: Tow Line, Tide Chart, Waterproof Emergency Flares, Life Boat with provisions...

I plodded back against the tide and a pretty stiff breeze, making small headway with each stroke, a man humbled by nature once again. We made it back but the damage was done, what could have been an exciting, fun, sensational activity leading to a lifelong passion for kayaking for them had turned into a bad experience where "Dad got upset and yelled at us." From then on, they would say they had homework to do when I asked them to go kayaking.

My best friend Matthew was visiting from Belize and he loves kayaking and adventuring. We set out from Islais Creek and paddled under Levon Nishkian drawbridge on Thanksgiving Day, heading South along the decaying industrial waterfront. We passed old grain elevators with defunct vacuum pipes hanging down to the waterline. We slid past fallen-down wharves and slipped in between rotten timbers that spoke of another time of bustling activity and commerce. Steered wide of the drydock at the North end of de-commissioned Hunter's Point Navy base where legend has it that all the ships returning from the A-bomb tests at Bikini Atoll in the 40s and 50s were sandblasted to remove the radiation that had coated them. As we neared the extensive docking space of the old base, we heard a strange noise. The edge of the seawall had a row of holes along it which were used to secure bumper material so the ships wouldn't rub against the concrete piers. The bumper material was gone and the holes, made a bloop-bloop, bloop sound as the swell of the tide rose and fell trapping and releasing the air in the hole. Multiply the sound by a couple hundred holes and you had a cacophony of random bloops, sounding almost electronic. It was something you couldn't hear unless you were at water level.

As we made our way back, we were lost in our own thoughts and concentrating on the distance we had to cover to get back to the launch point. With no warning, a 6 foot, prehistoric apparition of a fish creature arched out of the water about 20 feet in front of us. Matthew recognized it as a sturgeon, a not uncommon Bay species. We were reveling in our good luck to have seen such a creature and wondering why he had jumped in front of us.

We had our answer a few minutes later when a large sea lion poked his head up about 4 feet from my boat, looked at me, snorted and disappeared. The sea lions hunt large fish like salmon and sturgeon, catching them by the tail in their teeth. They then drag the fish up to the surface and whip them back and forth on the surface, smacking them senseless so they can eat them.

I witnessed this one day out on the Bay when I saw a large group of sea birds circling a small spot in the water near the Bay Bridge. I had always assumed the birds were taking advantage of  a "bait rise", where some small fish were coming to the surface for some reason. As I neared the activity, I saw splashes made by a larger creature in the water and I saw the metallic flash of a large fish out of the water, moving in a definitely un-fishlike manner.  The sea lion was like a dog playing tug of war as he whipped the fish from side to side against the surface of the water. It was pretty much like smacking the fish against a brick wall. Pieces of the fish flew off and this is what the sea birds were after. As the fish stopped struggling, the sea lion disappeared with the corpse to eat in peace and the gulls fought over the scraps. Wow! I felt like I was right in the middle of a wild Kingdom episode, expecting to hear Marlin Perkins or David Attenborough narrate my reality.

A few days after our Thanksgiving Day trip, we hauled the kayaks down to North beach and put in just North of Fisherman's Wharf at the beach in front of the Maritime Museum. We paddled East along the historical front past all the old ships crawling with tourists. It was interesting to see these ships from a different angle. We passed marinas full of modern boats and rounded to the downtown side of Pier 39. It had a protective sea wall that kept the moored boats safe from any big waves that might toss them around. We paddled up the inside of the concrete barrier until we could go no further. To go back, we had to retrace our path back around the sea wall.

Matthew had a familiar look in his eyes as he peered into the darkness under Pier 39. "I wonder if we can paddle under this place to the other side and avoid going all the way back around the sea wall" and he nosed his kayak between the pilings into the dark. I hated when he did this. I had been on a few caving trips where Matt pushed on into the darkness when I was content to call it a day. This is the way Matt is, always looking into the unknown and pushing the envelope. His wife Marga and I had no choice but to follow him. "I hate it when he does this and drags me along" she said to me as we poked our way through the dark. It was like being in a cave without a light. Matt kept calling back, saying it was OK and as we got further toward the other side (and daylight, I hoped) we began to hear snorting and breathing of sea lions. They were swimming all around us in the dark, blowing air out when they came up for a breath. We soon saw light and emerged right near the spot where all the sea lions lay around on the docks and bark at each other.

My sister Rachel has the same kayak disease. They have four or five kayaks. She lives on the Hudson River just South of the Tappan Zee Bridge. She has the dream set-up for kayaking. Their property has a boat ramp. No loading of kayaks on vehicles, driving somewhere, straining to lift them off the car. She just walks down to the water and pushes off.  Her kayak-owning friends bring their kayaks to store in her yard and the place looks like a kayak rental place. Rachel has a dog named Hudson and he rides on the boat with her. Together they ply the waterway, fishing and collecting antique river detritus, some of it hundreds of years old. She makes wonderful art with it. See it here:


I decided to become a real kayaker and learn how to roll. I enrolled in the beginner  kayaking course at Otter Bar Lodge Kayak School. My good friends Peter & Kristy Sturges run this world class facility in Forks of Salmon, CA. You drive to Eureka, take a right and drive another 100 miles into the mountains. The last 18 miles to the lodge is mostly a single-wide road with no guardrails, carved around cliffs with 100 foot + drops to the river below. White-knuckle driving for sure. You are torn between taking in the incredible scenery and trying not to imagine your car tumbling down into the ravine and certain death. If you meet a vehicle coming the other way, the vehicle going downhill has to back uphill to the nearest point where you can pass. White-knuckle driving in reverse.

Peter & Kristy have a luxurious lodge on the Salmon River with a 4 acre pond for learning the basics of rolling. Peter bought the hardscrabble Otter Bar riverfront 30 years ago. It had been stripped of all vegetation and soil by the sluice-mining practices in the 1850s during the gold rush. He then bought an old dump truck, borrowed a backhoe and spent literally years bringing countless truck loads of dirt to Otter Bar, re-establishing a soil base and sculpting this little paradise in the mountains. They are off the grid yet you would never know it. 

Like snow boarding, wind surfing or any other activity that seem at first to be completely counter-intuitive, it takes 2-3 days to learn to roll a kayak. You must hang upside down underwater with no breathing apparatus, position your arms and paddle just so and make a sweeping movement with your paddle while at the same time leaning away from the direction you want to go. Right! And if you need some help, calmly slap the bottom of your kayak(which is above water) and keep holding your breath and someone will turn you back upright. It helps being in static water three feet deep but for most of 2 days, you are hysterically clawing at the surface, just trying to get your head above water for air and giving in to the urge to "wet-exit", which means basically that you've chickened out and bailed, pushing and kicking your way out of the kayak, you wuss. 

There is no frigging way I am going to get this, I'm thinking and I wonder how Peter & Kristy stay in business if they have to refund money to all the (in a hushed whisper) "People who fail to roll". I dreaded going back to the pond after lunch. Can I just sneak off to the hot tub instead and maybe no one will notice? Maybe I'm just not a kayaker. 

Sometime during the third day, it magically happens-I do something different and boing-I'm up! All of us are hooting and hollering with glee and excitement as we finally master it. Like corn kernels in hot oil, we all pop sooner or later and-like riding a two wheel bicycle-once you do it, you can't not do it anymore! It becomes effortless. The rest of the week we spent on the real river, testing our rolling abilities in moving water, a different experience from the still water of the pond. Lots of wet-exiting.

I think Otter Bar Lodge Kayak School is the best learning facility in the world. Most other schools take place on a wilderness river in a camping format, meaning that after you get your ass kicked on the river all day, you have to start a fire, cook your meal and try to get some sleep on the hard ground. Otter Bar Lodge has incredible gourmet meals served outside with mountain backdrops, hot tub, comfortable rooms and you can schedule a massage for your sore muscles every night if you want. Each morning after breakfast, we had a classroom with videos on technique and pointers on what each of use needed to work on for the day. Many of the instructors are world class kayakers. An unforgettable experience! Here is their website:


I still have 5 kayaks in the garage. 

Bio-Fool for the masses

The lease on my Mini Clubman came due and I remembered that the whole point of getting a new car three years ago was to get a diesel and run it on vegetable oil.  I wanted off the petroleum grid! I cringed every time I joined the line of traffic on 101. I was part of the problem, I was one of the reasons we were in the Middle East! The amount of stress incurred by just being in business for myself at a middle ages trade in a high tech society was enough with out adding a dose of guilt and denial by burning Saudi oil in California at the end of the Oil Age.

 I loved the Mini and they had a diesel but only in Europe. Could I buy one there and bring it back? Only if I could get it CA smog qualified. I called a company that specialized in doing just that. How much to do a new diesel Mini from Europe? The number was absurd-somewhere around $250,000. What was going on here? A small car that could burn clean, non-petrol-based fuel was essentially blocked from being used in the USA. It seemed like there was another agenda in play.  So I took a three year lease with the regular Mini Clubman, hoping that maybe the diesel would be available by now. No such luck but I was determined to get off the petroleum habit. The technology exists, it had to be possible to do. Unless I could get extremely lucky and find an old Mercedes diesel station wagon, I was going to have to buy a new car. I had a business where I already wore many hats, I did not need to add another position called car mechanic.

I googled "best new car for bio-diesel" and up popped the Volkswagen Jetta TDI. I searched further for info on what had to be done to the car to run on veggie oil. It seems that there are two ways to burn veggie oil in a diesel engine.

One method is to install a second fuel tank for the veggie oil, usually in the trunk, and a heater unit on the tank to heat the oil so it becomes thin enough to flow through the fuel and carburator lines. On a cold morning, you start up the engine using regular diesel fuel from the original tank and run it on that until your veggie oil has heated up enough to flow through the lines. Then you flick a switch on the dash board, activating a valve in the fuel line to switch to the hot veggie oil from tank number two. By now your engine is warmed up to normal operating heat of 190F and the veggie oil works fine. Everything is cool(hot, really) until you get to where you're going and want to turn the engine off. If you're only stopping for a half an hour, you can probably just start it up again with the veggie oil, no problem, but if you're going to be there long enough to let the engine cool down, you have to clear the veggie oil out of the lines and get back on petro-diesel from tank number one. I think the magic time frame is six minutes that you need to run the engine on tank number one to clear the veggie oil out of the lines. That means you have to remember to flick the switch on the dashboard six minutes before you get where you're going. If you forget and the engine cools down, then you probably will be calling a tow truck and this is not a problem that he can fix by the side of the road.

The second way to use veggie oil is to run it through a "de-esterfication" process which removes the sticky glycerine, turning it into Bio-diesel, a thin, easily flowing fuel that does not need any pre-heating. This means you do not need a second tank, fuel line valve or a switch on your dashboard. You just pump it like regular diesel. I read up on the process and it seemed pretty simple, just mix up 30 gallons of used veggie oil with a couple lbs of caustic lye and 4 gallons of extremely flammable methanol, heat it up to 130F(electrically-no gas flame or you might have a big fire…) and stir it vigorously for 15 minutes. Let it settle and separate for a few hours, drain off the slimy glycerine and you're left with bio-diesel that you can theoretically put into the fuel tank of your diesel vehicle.

You can also buy bio-diesel already made. There are a few stations around the Bay Area that sell bio-diesel for the same amount as regular petro-diesel fuel-about $4.50 per gallon. If you have the equipment and the used veggie oil and no overhead, you can make it for a little over a dollar per gallon.

I came up with a 5 phase plan to get off petroleum:

Get a car with a diesel engine

Run the car on Bio-diesel

Learn how to make bio-diesel

Install a bio-diesel tank at my house 

Set up a bio-diesel reactor at my house

Buying a new car is right up there with getting a divorce as far as enjoyable activities for me. My cousin, the divorce attorney, told me that the definition of a good, equitable divorce is that you both feel like you got screwed. Whenever I have bought a new car, even if I haggled like crazy and did all my due diligence, I have always been left with the feeling that I got screwed and paid more than I should have. 

This time, I went on the internet, looked at all the Edmund's and Consumer's Report and AAA car pricing and buying services. They tell you how much it's going to cost and a day later, the car salesmen that I had hoped to avoid are calling me on the phone to sell me the car. I felt like a pig in a poke. They told me the prices on the websites may not be entirely accurate or that model car may not be available and when did I want to come in and sit down with them and go over some numbers? I didn't ever want to go and sit in their office. It was practically the same as going to a casino and drunkenly waving hundred dollar bills. They had the home advantage when you were in their office and they were like the blackjack dealer that knew where every card was in the deck. You will be sheared like a sheep in their office.

I decided to tell

them what the price was going to be. The model I wanted was being quoted as somewhere between $27K and $29K. I also wanted to remove the financing option, which is where a lot of mischief happens even if you haggle a good price. I called all the dealers in the Bay area and told them I had $25,000 cash for the car. They all laughed at me. I drove to a dealership in the East Bay and met Gary, a quiet spoken salesman and told him what I wanted and for how much. I told him not to ask me into his office to go over numbers and I warned him never to say anything like "How 'bout them Giants?" Just sell me a blue Jetta TDI Sportwagen for $25K. He went to his sales manager and came back with a price of $26,900. I told him no thanks and walked out to my car. The sales manager ran after me saying we could work something out. If I would just come into his office, he was sure we could work something out…

"Gary has my number and you shouldn't run after customers like this." I told him "It's embarrassing."

The next day I got an email from a man who identified himself as the President of the dealership.

He wrote: Nobody walks out of my dealership without a deal!

I wrote back: Fine. Gary has my number and knows what I want.

4 days later Gary called and said we had a deal.  

I ran the first 500 miles on regular petro-diesel and then on to Phase Two:  Run the car on bi-diesel. 

I said to hell with the manufacturer's recommendations of no more than 5% bio-diesel and pumped a full tank of 100% bio-diesel. The Jetta seemed very happy humming down the freeway at 80 miles an hour. It was a great feeling to know that my fuel came from Northern California restaurants! The used grease took a  short trip to the biodiesel processing facility in Nevada and then back to a big tank at Dog Patch Bio Fuels on the back of Portrero Hill. My fuel traveled a mere 200 miles on Route 80 instead of the 10,000 miles and who knows how many bullets, military maneuvers or ocean spills it took to get the oil here from the Middle East.

I was not part of the problem any more! I was part of the solution!

Time for Phase Three: Learn how to make bio-diesel

I ordered some lab glassware equipment to mix up small batches of bio-diesel. On amazon.com, they have a wonderful array of chemical glassware available for not much money that takes one back to high school chem lab days. All I needed was a white lab jacket and I would be robot walking around the kitchen, slashing chemicals around and singing She Blinded Me With Science! I got a cheap blender from Walmart and the necessary chemicals from the hardware store.

One Saturday afternoon, I mixed a one liter batch of biodiesel in the kitchen, using a new bottle of Wesson oil from Safeway. As I heated the oil, I mixed the methanol and caustic lye to make methoxide, making sure to wear elbow-length rubber gloves and face shield. I poured the the hot oil into the blender, added the methoxide, set the blender on low and let it mix for 15 minutes. I turned the blender off and let the mixture sit for a few hours. It gradually separated into two distinct layers, the glycerine on the bottom and the fuel floating on top. I drained off the glycerine. Now to "wash" the fuel. I added 30% tap water to the fuel and ran an aquarium bubbler to the bottom of the mixture. The rising bubbles took small amounts of water through the fuel, removing the impurities. After a few hours, I tested the result and it was clean. I ordered more equipment.

Now to try the real thing-used restaurant oil from the deep fryer. I asked a Chinese restaurant for some oil out of their waste oil barrel and mixed up another batch.  Not so good this time. I had a white gloppy mess and no separation. I added in some rock salt and it finally separated. I ordered more equipment.

The next weekend I tried some of my leftover bacon grease. It separated nicely. I ordered more equipment.

Already my mind was spinning on how to corner the market on used kitchen oil. As I drove around town, I started spotting all the 50 gallon drums behind restaurants and plotting how I would get my hands on the liquid gold. Of course I would need a transfer system on my truck to remove the oil from the drums and take it back to my house to process. That would entail a large tank on my truck with a 12 volt pump and sucker hose. Not to mention the filtration tank I would need back at my house to clean all the food bits out of the restaurant oil. Wow, it was turning into a multi-phased plan.  I paced around my double garage and visualized where everything would be to get the most efficiency. I also ordered more equipment.

I found a 100 liter bio-diesel reactor for sale on craigslist and drove to Santa Cruz and bought it for $1500 and never wondered why the guy knocked off $100 easily and threw in all sorts of stuff. He seemed glad to get rid of all the sticky greasy collection and filtration barrels and boxes of chemicals in unlabeled jars. He threw in a quarter-full barrel of methanol and told me to turn it so a trooper wouldn't see the label if he stopped me.

Those of you who may know me will recognize I was now in my trademark manic phase of project fulfillment, which is where I skip over most of the logical, important, early phases and go for the BIG PLAN and collect a lot of equipment before I know what all is involved. I'm ignoring obvious signs that this is not a panacea. I'm transporting hazardous chemicals without a permit. I'm storing extremely flammable methanol in the garage.

About a week after I got the equipment back to my garage, the property management company sent me a notice saying they wanted to do an inspection of my house. I tried to imagine what they would think as I looked at the equipment in my kitchen and dining room: chemical glassware; distillation coil; titration flasks; apothecary-style beakers with glass caps-filled with different colored bio-diesel batches that I had made over the last few weeks; 2000ml Erlenmeyer flasks with raw, smelly used kitchen grease from chinese restaurants; beautiful glass funnels; 600ml beakers which were now my favorite tea mugs; three different digital scales; red rubber lab hose. Not to mention what they would make of the greasy barrels in the garage next to the large double chambered 40 gallon bio-diesel reactor tank with


stenciled across the front. One 55 gallon drum in particular would be very troubling as it was the aforementioned, highly flammable methanol.

The likely conclusion of the property manager, I realized with horror, would be that I was cooking methamphetamine in very large quantities and supplying most of San Francisco and San Jose with crystal meth.

This is when I momentarily saw a red flag waving in front of my current obsession. Not a good idea to cook at the house, I thought. I loaded up my truck and took all the equipment to the shop the day before the inspection.

My solution was to fabricate a Jules Verne-ish steampunk style steel bio-diesel reactor complete with brass tubing and old fashioned pressure gauges so it would look like it came out of a soviet submarine circa 1950 and cook the bio-diesel at the shop, incorporating my bio-diesel lifestyle into my new marketing plan for Jefferson Mack Metal! I could power my forges with bio-diesel and be the first "green" blacksmith! My car and my truck would be run on bio-diesel and I had plans to build a bio-diesel space heater to heat the shop in the winter. And all of it would be made on-site at the shop!

I would have to order more equipment...

Fish and Chicks in the backyard

When I first got my house as a divorced dad, I worried that my house would not be fun enough. I feverishly thought of ways to make it attractive to my kids. Mom's house had a swimming pool and hot tub. How was I going to compete? Pets! We went right out and got tropical fish to put in the big tank I had dragged around for years. Placed in the backyard with a pump that would push the water up a tube draped across a wrought iron stand and pour from 6 feet to create a restful sound for relaxing in the back yard. There was an aquarium supply store on the next block and the fish were fairly inexpensive so we bought about twenty.  We got them into the tank and were quite pleased with ourselves. We noticed that one was missing an eye and we took it back for another. The next day, two were floating and the rest were listless. I ran to the aquarium store, realizing that pets are a double edged sword. My happy house of pets which the kids would love was in danger of becoming a pet mortuary. I manically spent $200 on filters, air stones and other recommended items to keep the fish alive. The shrewd aquarium store owners were not buying into my logic about inferred warrantees on the dead fish either. In the next week, the water in the tank became murky and dirty. I ran to the store and bought clarifying treatments. I bought catfish to keep the tank clean. This hobby had become a full time job. I'd race home from work at the end of the day and spend 4 hours treating the tank and trying to keep the fish alive. They kept dying one by one. One day I came home and found a dead bird floating in the tank. Somehow, a couple weeks later, I got the chemicals just right and for my birthday, May 11, the water magically cleared to a crystal sharpness and the fish could all be seen and they looked happy for the first time. I pulled a chair up to the tank alone and watched the fish for two hours with the sun beaming in to the yard. The next day, the water turned murky again and two days later Sofia looked out her window and screamed that the tank was empty and the fish were flapping on their sides in two inches of water. I ran down and saw that the iron stand had fallen over and the pump had pumped all the water up the tube and on to the ground. The remaining fish were rescued into a five gallon bucket and brought inside to the workbench where I hooked up a small filter and air stone pump motor to the light socket above the bench before we ran off to school and work for the day. With my mother arriving for her annual visit at the end of the week, the prospect of restarting the tank was overwhelming and I kept the fish in the bucket on the workbench. A week later my mother proudly told me she had saved me lots of money in electricity by turning off all the lights that had been left on. I went to the basement and the dark workbench and saw the bucket, which was now quiet. Dad's house where all the animals died. But I was no longer a slave to the fish tank!

Then came chickens. 10 sweet little cuddly chicks that grew up in few months and even started laying fresh eggs. My yard was fenced so I let them run free until I realized that no green plant was left alive or unpecked. Chickens will bulldoze any backyard until it is barren, scratching the dirt looking for anything to eat. But there is nothing so relaxing as sitting watching chickens on a pile of dirt. They will dig a chicken sized hole, get in it and kick dirt up, trying to bury themselves. It's their version of a bath. Apparently it rids them of mites and fleas. After 20 minutes of dust bath, they stand up and shake their feathers and a cloud of dust erupts around them, then off to scratch and peck at more dirt. When you buy chicks, they are "sexed", which means you get to choose whether you want males or females. I was interested in eggs so I chose the female pullets. Most hatcheries give a 97% accuracy on the sex of chicks which means if you buy 100 female chicks,  3 of them might be males. I got lucky. One of my chickens grew twice as big as the rest and in the very early morning someone in the back yard was cock-a-doodle do-ing. I wondered how long I was going to be able to cope with being woken up at 4:30 every morning. I broached the subject with the kids:"That rooster has to go." Dad's house where he kills animals. I explained that all the chicken we ate for dinner had been alive and then killed by someone. Sofia tried several gambits: "If you kill the rooster, I'll become a vegetarian." "Fine by me", I said. "If you kill the rooster I won't love you anymore." "OK but I'll still love you." She even became teary-eyed several times, saying the she had named that chick specially. I couldn't quite bring myself to go through with the deed. The rooster was on Death Row but the execution date was not set. One Friday night we had a dinner in the garden with a couple of families over and we all talked until late, the kids enjoying the freedom to stay up way past their bedtime. The next morning, the rooster crowed at the usual time and when I got out of bed at 7:30 and stuck my head into Sofia's room, she said from under the pillow "That Rooster has to go!" The time had come. On the internet, I googled How to kill a chicken. Sharp thin knife through the back of the head, scramble the brain, essentially pithing the animal. Painless, non-traumatic to the creature. But what about me? Was I able to do this? Best not to think too much about it. I think if I eat meat, I should be able to perform any of the tasks involved. Thankfully I had a bit of a hangover and could proceed on automatic if needed. Knife nearby, I picked up the rooster and held him sideways, so he relaxed. I told him he was a good creature and it was time for him to fly on and that I was grateful for his contribution to my family. As I picked up the knife, there was the macro-zooming of reality just before doing something which cannot be undone. It was a beautiful bird. Suddenly:"I LOVE-A THAT CHICKEN!" Guiseppe, my 84 year old neighbor, a retired baker from Palermo, was leaning on the fence. "WHEN I HEAR DAT CHICKEN IN DA MORNING, IT REMINDS ME OF THE OLD COUNTRY! I LOVE DAT BIRD!" I told him that the rooster was about to leave us. "WHAT? YOU GONNA KILL HIM RIGHT NOW? WHY? NO! NO! NO! LET HIM GO! DON'T DO THAT! And Guiseppe did a few circuits around his back yard, well, like a chicken with his head cut off, is the closest thing that comes to mind. "DON'T DO IT! LET HIM GO!" and he ran into his house and slammed the door. So much for the peaceful death… The heat was on. I did the deed quickly, hung the bird up, plucked the feathers and removed the guts carefully so as not to contaminate the meat. You have a whole new appreciation for your food when you have to kill and clean it yourself. It is certainly not as easy as picking a package out of the meat bin at Safeway. The soup I made was like nothing I have had before. Sofia ate some but requested no meat in her soup bowl. Guiseppe never brought up the subject of the missing rooster.

Summer Camp

4/7/12 Spent the weekend in Vacaville at Soul Food Farm laying out the deck foundation for the BIG TENT.

Every city dweller has a the dream of a place in the country for weekend unwinding and I was no different. If you can scrape together $150K, you can buy land near Ukiah and get to spend 8-10 hours per weekend on the road to get there and back. Then you have to spend the other 40 hours of the weekend building and maintaining the place with some sleeping and relaxing squeezed in somewhere. Not to mention the Friday you arrive and find the entire place trashed by vandals or actually removed completely by thieves.

I had polled my friends with houses in the country and found they used them once every 2 months because it was such a schlep.

I thought here had to be a simpler way and then I saw the Montana canvas wall tents like they had in Out of Africa, like the ones in Ralph Lauren advertisements-Glamorous camping or "Glamping".

The concept was to find someone with some land within 60 miles of SF and convince them to let me set up a semi-permanent campsite. They could use it as a guest house when I wasn't there.

Eric & Alexis at Soul Food Farm were new friends and I helped them rebuild after their farm caught on fire a few years ago. They were excited to have me set up the tent and I finally got around to it last Sept 3, exactly two years to the day of the 2009 fire.

The 20 X 16 foot tent had been shipped from Idaho. I had all the right equipment to cut the metal conduit for the frame: Generator, chop saw, nail gun, compressor etc.

We drove up the hill and unloaded the equipment in the dry brown grass and started measuring and cutting. Down below at the house, Alexis was hosting a party for twenty of her girlfriends and Eric and I were instructed to stay away. Fine, we'll build a fort up on the hill.

Grown men turn into young boys when building a fort, drinking beer and blowing things up. All caution goes out the window. Women, too, revert to young girls sometimes, but it doesn't seem to be as dangerous. A chop saw makes sparks and the grass burns quickly in California in early Sept. The fire department comes with planes dropping orange powder and helicopters dumping bags full of water. Big off-road fire trucks arrive and drive all around, crushing the culvert at the creek crossing and adding to the festive party mood.

I managed to drag the tent onto my truck and drive it down the hill before the flames swept across our work site. At that moment, I seriously considered continuing to SFO, leaving the truck in the white zone and getting on a plane to Asia to start a new life as a monk.

It was a point of honor to get the tent up the next morning, albeit at a location other than the nice overlook above, which was now charred black.

We got six weekends of use out of the tent before the cold weather. We furnished the tent with a bed that I made, table, chairs and kitchen island. In November, I had a shipping container dropped in the pasture to store the tent and the furniture until spring.

Seven months later, the hill is a verdant green, fertilized and renewed by the fire. Soul Food friendship retained with gifts of steel I-beams for a new bridge over the creek and promises of home improvement and hand-forged chandeliers.

I sited the tent deck just below a sheltering rise in the hill to block the wind that comes through periodically. I laid out 18 pier blocks and leveled them with bags of cement. 4 X 6 sleepers across the blocks and 2 X 6 floor joists for the deck.

I slept in the container last night and didn't see the light of day until I opened the door at 9 am. It was a three dog night. Remember that old rock group? It was named after a really cold night where you needed three dogs sleeping with you to stay warm.

Next weekend back up with Peter to nail the joists, lay down the deck ply and hopefully set up the tent.