Thursday, November 25, 2010

A thousand years of gratitude

Thanksgiving day has got to be one of the quietest days of the year, at least here in New England.  The fall foliage has been shed and the trees are bare.  You can see through the woods now, which is something that I have always found attractive for some reason. I just went for a walk around Wilson farm, just up Castle lane.  It was most serene out there.  Quieter than after a snow storm.  And a bit lonely. Everyone was indoors enjoying their turkey with family and friends. Except me... and all of the rest of the world.
In Italy, as well as everywhere else on the globe, this was just another Thursday.  So, why was I so sad?
I like Thanksgiving... It's my favorite holiday.  It exudes a certain peace and tranquility, a hominess and coziness, unadulterated by mass consumerism. It's a purer holiday and a more introspective holiday, unattached to specific creeds and unassailed by mandatory gift-giving and guilt-induced behaviors.  It's about family and friends. And food.  Lots of food.  Soporiferous food.
We had a great thanksgiving dinner in Venice last Thursday.  As is now customary, the 27 WPI students pooled their resources and produced a veritable feast at the Settemari clubhouse.  It was succulent.  The best yet -- as we say every year...  We were blessed by the presence of three generations of the Cocola family, with Jim's father and son Milo there together, with mother and grandmother as well.  I think this will be a memorable Thanksgiving for the Cocola family for years to come, even though Milo may not be old enough to really remember it later in life.
The day after this early celebration, I flew back to the US from Venice as I do every year, while the VPC students take their Thanksgiving break by flying all over Europe, from Ireland to Greece, to Spain and Germany and everything in-between.  Meanwhile, I just got done interviewing the students who will join WPI music professor Fred Bianchi and myself in Venice next fall. I expect we will have some interesting interactive musical projects in Venice next year!  I look forward to it.  I accepted 32 students (out of 48), and had to reject 16. I also interviewed and accepted all of the Santa Fe applicants, and co-advisor (and friend) Prof. Guillermo Salazar will help select the remaining 12 WPI students going to Santa Fe in the spring of 2012.
Last year, I had avoided Thanksgiving altogether, by flying to the UK after the WPI interviews to spend time with Adrian and his family in Oxford.  This year I had been invited by Natalie and Dave to spend Thanksgiving at their house in Paxton, but I also had the option of accompanying Nick to Thanksgiving with his mother and grandparents in Connecticut.  After some discussion and introspection I had agreed to join Nick in Connecticut with Jackie, her mother Ellie, grandmother and granddaughter Irenes, as well as Jackie's siblings Ken, Jim and Leslie, with their respective spouses.  As seems customary in my family, Nick and I couldn't get our act together quickly enough to make it to CT in time for the family dinner.  So, I decided to abort the mission and sent Nick to show up late for the meal "by shelp".  I regretted it afterwards, but I guess this type of family reunion is just too much for me to handle, still.  Too many memories...  Jackie stopped by later and we made plans to spend Christmas together as a family to make up for this year's debacle.
I am grateful for this thanksgiving holiday this year.  It has shown me again -- as if I needed confirmation -- what truly matters to me most.  Family and friends are indeed our greatest treasures.  As I already had a chance to write before, and even though I have expressed my gratitude to my family, mentors and friends from time to time, giving thanks is a habit that one must practice continuously, relentlessly and authentically.  Indeed, as the cartoon above says, one day a year is hardly enough to cover the thousands of thanks we ought to be profusing on our fellow men and women on a daily basis.
So, thank you all, Nick and Jackie, friends and family, colleagues and students, partners and mentors for all you have done to make my world what it is... which is great indeed.

Grazie Mille!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Tempus Fugit

Time flies when you're having fun... Or when you just simply get busy, as I am prone to do from time to time.
I guess the start of the academic year at WPI has put a real damper on my blogging... Sorry about that.  Three months have passed since my last entry and -- of course -- lots has happened in the meantime.
Where to start?  There is no way I can summarize everything in this entry, so I will just hit the highlights and will fill in the details later.  First of all, let me say that I am writing this from Venice, where I have returned since the last blog entry which I wrote from here.  I am sitting in the NEW Venice Project Center office, which is far better than the legendary VPC of yesteryear.  We are now on the "other" side of the Grand Canal (de ultra as our ancestors would say), near the Rialto market, on the Fondamenta de le Tette, whose translation is unsuited for underaged readers of this blog. Suffices to say that it has to do with the "oldest profession in the world".
Since August, Nick and I have returned to the US where he started his studies at Quinsigamond College in Worcester.  I am very proud of him for getting himself on the college track, which, among other things, also involved getting his driver's license.  These are major milestones for Nicolo', veritable rights of passage that mark the relentless trajectory of our lives.
While Nick stayed back on Castle Lane to get ready for his new life as a full-time student, I managed to go sailing quite a bit: first with Jonathan a couple of times, then with my MIT advisor Joe Ferreira and finally with my WPI friends Dave and Natalie.  I also traveled to Santa Fe twice to set up the 6 projects for the first full contingent of 24 WPI students who will spend term D at the newly minted Santa Fe Project Center (SFPC) with me and former provost John Orr.  I enjoyed living in Steve Guerin's former home overlooking "the city different", with our Croatian guests from GIScloud (Marko and Dino), whose "google docs of GIS" was well received at MIT and deserves a separate blog entry of its own.  I had fun with my friends there while I got a lot work done and was invited back during term A to give a presentation to the statewide Metropolitan Planning Commissions meeting in September.  Steve and I have proposed a major project to the NM State Transportation Commissioner, which promises to transform mobility into a full-fledged utility -- like water or electricity -- with end-of-the-month billing for one's transportation usage...

I had to leave Nick in Massachusetts on his own, while I spend term B in Venice with 27 WPI students, who have been working on seven very challenging and important projects for my hometown since October 24:
  1. The redesign and release of Venipedia - the hyperlocal wikipedia for Venice we created in 2008
  2. The continuation of our DNA project on the origins of the Veneti (or Venets as some call us)
  3. The creation of PreserVenice - a non-profit for the preservation of Venice's material culture
  4. The assessment of the impacts of Cruise Ships on Venice and its inhabitants
  5. The re-measurement of canals, to see what changed in the 15 years since our initial UNESCO studies
  6. The creation of a pedestrian model for the city with a mobile app to catch the elusive vaporetti
  7. The study of the evolution of Venice's retail sector since WWII
Each of these projects warrants an entry of its own, which I will put together once some final results begin to emerge.  For now, click on the links above to take a look at each team's web page.
Since I've been here in Venice, a lot has happened as well.  I've driven to Ljubljana (Slovenia), which is a mere couple of hours from Venice, and I managed three important meetings there: (1) a lecture at the University of Ljubljana's Dept. of Electrical Engineering thanks to our old contact from the failed Divertimi EU project, Marko Tkalcic, (2) a dinner with Robi Petric who runs the web site and is eager to collaborate in our quest for the genetic origins of the Veneti, and (3) a pick up of 2 portable aethalometers from Grisa Mocnic of Aerosol thanks to the kindness of VPC alumn Jeff Blair and of Tony Hansen of Magee Scientific.  These instruments have been monitoring emissions from cruise ships since I returned from my overnight trip to Slovenia.
Shortly after that, we had a weekend visit from Evie Ansel, who is helping with our project to restore traditional Venetian watercrafts, and who also had the fortune to participate in a one-of-a-kind orienteering race by row boat on the canals of Venice, courtesy of the glorious Settemari aeno-ludo-gastronomic association.  Even though we placed 8th out of 10, we did well and had lots of fun finding the culinary check points in the meanders of Venice's waterways that I know so well.
Right now, I am hosting my freshman year roommate from WPI, Ruudje Arends and his son Jake who is studying in Amsterdam, the Venice of the North.  Even though we all support Pitura Freska's desire to turn Venice into the Amsterdam of the South, the connection with Holland is that Jacob Rudolph Arends III and the IV are from Aruba, which is part of the Netherland Antilles, so they are actually Dutch nationals.  Sadly, Jacob Rudolph Arends Jr., Rudy's dad, died just days before this long-planned trip, so we're doing our best to make it a merry occasion.  I hadn't seen Rudy for a quarter century and it's been great to catch up with him.  He just left today.  We are going to reconvene in Amsterdam with Joe Moreau on 11/11/11 for the 30-year reunion of the famed IAO - Italo Aruban/American Organization.  It's already in my calendar.
Thursday, the students will cook the traditional Venice Thanksgiving dinner, one week early, at the Settemari clubhouse.  It's a great way to mark the midpoint of the term, before the long holiday break next week.
At the end of this week (Friday), I fly back to the US for Thanksgiving week, so I can interview 48 WPI students who would like to come to Venice next year, plus 12 who want to go to Santa Fe in 2012.  Despite my best efforts to dissuade perspective students from applying en masse, Venice is still one of the most attractive of WPI's global project centers.  Santa Fe also is the most popular of WPI's domestic centers. I will pay the price of such popularity by interviewing 60 students in three days starting next Monday -- a non-stop marathon from 7am to 10pm, with a student every half hour...
But I will get to see Nick and that will more than make up for it.  I really miss the man. We spent so much time together for the past couple of years that it's hard to not see him for a whole month.

As usual, I have a lot of irons in the fire, but I am managing to keep things from getting too hectic.  And I am squeezing in some fun times in there as well, as I am apt to do.

Nevertheless, even when one tries to live in the now, "clock time" ticks away incessantly...

Until the next now...