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LIVE LOCAL, LIVE SMALL: In the pursuit of purpose and perfectly square foundation, Jock Brandis gets to work

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Jock Brandis is building a garage to continue his life’s passion of inventing and building now that he’s retired from Full Belly Project.

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“Jock was cursing Pythagoras’ name,” Anthony said with a grin. “I’ve never heard someone say ‘fuck’ and ‘Pythagoras’ so much in the same sentence.”

A NEW DAY, A NEW DAWN: Jock Brandis is building a garage to continue his life’s passion of inventing and building now that he’s retired from Full Belly Project. Photo by Gwenyfar Rohler

A NEW DAY, A NEW DAWN: Jock Brandis is building a garage to continue his life’s passion of inventing and building now that he’s retired from Full Belly Project. Photo by Gwenyfar Rohler

“Yeah, he realized he mislaid the form for the pad in the garage. I’m like, ‘Well, better to discover it now than in two months!’”

I shrugged and grinned.

In two months the concrete will (hopefully) be poured and we will be well on our way to framing the walls. In his enthusiasm for the project, when Jock started building the form for the concrete pad, he built a trapezoid instead of a perfect square. The human eye couldn’t see it, but the math caught it and now he was trying to correct his mistake.

Many people would hire a contractor to build a garage and, certainly, to build a form for and to pour a concrete pad. But folks who realize Jock has been making machinery out of concrete for over 20 years understand there is no way he would “staff this out.” Instead, he’s hammering stakes in the ground in the backyard and moving boards to create the negative of the future pad.

For several years we have idly discussed the possibility of building a garage behind our residence. Because, of course, we can’t seem to survive without some sort of big project in our lives, right?

In reality, Jock wanted to build a garage/workshop space for reasons that would seem monumentally self-evident to anyone who has ever met him.  I frequently describe Jock as a hybrid of the Energizer bunny and Indiana Jones: There is just no stopping him.  So even if he ever “retired” in the conventional sense (ha!), he would still need a garage to do work that is his purpose on this planet. Our plans began to take shape and move into the “active project” category a couple of months ago.

Partly, Hurricane Florence influenced this. We knew portions of the back fence would come down when we built the garage. In addition, trees would have to be removed, transplanted or trimmed to make way for the new structure. Florence took out the fence entirely and changed the tree canopy in the backyard. It seemed rather pointless (and a lot of exhausting effort) to rebuild the fence, only to take it down again in a couple years. The urban forest in our backyard (read: the second unit set for “Apocalypse Now”) was thinned considerably by Florence. It seemed Mother Nature was giving us a prime opportunity to work on the project.

Then other events surprised us.

“Mmmm … looks like I’m going to need a place to weld … and sharpen chainsaw blades … you know, work,” Jock lamented over dinner a few weeks ago.

Our lives had taken an abrupt shift with Jock’s departure from Full Belly Project, the nonprofit he cofounded and had dedicated most waking moments to in the last two decades. In the first few brushes of shock, we were trying to figure out next steps. Jock saw himself utilizing his gift from Santa a few years ago, sharpening chainsaw blades.

“After all, we do have hurricanes here.” He gestured with his hand. “Chainsaws are important.”
He paused and took a swig of beer.

I waited for the next logical leap to happen in that handsome head of his. “I guess I could do generator repair and maintenance, too. In the new garage, I mean.”

I nodded my head. “Yes dear, you could.”

Jock’s professional life centered around the movie business for years. That is how he wound up here, as part of the first film crew that came in with Dino De Laurentiis, founder of our local Screen Gems Studios, which operated as De Laurentiis Entertainment Group until the early ‘90s. After the mother of Jock’s children became ill, and he could no longer travel with the film business, he shifted his focus to generators—especially silent generators for film sets. When it comes to diesel engines, well, Jock is fluent.

Also, like many of us, he sees a lot of his identity in the thing he gets up to do every morning. But Jock’s work, his purpose on this planet—inventing and innovating collaboratively to make life better for the billion poorest people on the planet—is more than a job or an identity. It’s a life’s calling. In a lot of ways, the skills he developed in the first 50 years of life are what has made it possible to pursue those goals in the last 23 years. A number of our close friends have asked with legitimate curiosity and concern, what Jock is going to do if he leaves Full Belly.To which my answer from the beginning has been: “Jock is going to do the work he was put on this planet to do, whether he is carrying Full Belly’s flag or not, is immaterial.”

Now, I know that.

It might take him a few weeks to figure that out.

In the meantime, he is fascinated by hemp processing and the possibilities it holds for farmers in North Carolina. Lignin, or the “goo” that holds hemp fibers together, has become a major topic of conversation between us. He keeps turning over possibilities for finding a way to break lignin down and separate the fibers as close to the hemp field as possible, making the processing of hemp fibers more profitable for small farmers and potentially opening up a larger market for a new crop in North Carolina.

We are figuring out what this next phase of our lives looks like. So far we know the garage will be painted gray (I lost the vote for a psychedelic day-glo mural). There are a lot of changes to the weekly and annual rhythms of our lives; no more Saturday morning volunteer gatherings at the shop, which means no more frantic Friday afternoons getting ready for volunteers to arrive. Not having the Full Beally Feast to deal with this year was pretty disorienting.

We got together as a couple shortly after Jock invented the peanut sheller, the first technology invented for Full Belly. So for the entire time we have shared our lives, the nonprofit has been given Jock’s full attention in some form or fashion. The shift feels almost tectonic. It is accompanied by a certain amount of mourning because this, like many transitions, needs to be marked and grieved for. But I am celebrating the life that filled our nearly two-decade relationship with Full Belly. Though the ties are severed, we can appreciate the many amazing and wonderful people that came into our lives and supported this dream.

I choose to remember those first volunteer Saturdays when everything was still on the front porch of our house. Or the excitement of moving a workshop into Francine DeCoursey’s garage. I loved the early feasts in The Big Room at WHQR, and I remember the sense of “arrival” when the Feast grew to fill the Coastline Convention Center.  The day Alan Toll helped make the shop of Chestnut Street a reality feels like yesterday, but, really, it was over a decade ago. I will never forget the look on Wes Perry’s face when he arrived to loan Jock the Pratt and Whitney lathe that weighs more than my car, noting that Jock would need it to make shellers.  Those memories of people coming together and sharing something much bigger than any of us really imagined are memories I will treasure. Like any breakup, you go through a phase of anger, and it’s easy to choose to focus on the bad. But choosing to see the good is also worthwhile. For us, now is the time to look to the future.

“I have to finish this chain for Michael before I go to bed; I promised it for him tomorrow,”  Jock noted at about 10 p.m. He was holding up a chainsaw chain and shaking his head.

Ah, I thought. Welcome to life as a small business person.

The number of times I have been up at 1 a.m. finishing things for the bookstore by morning is beyond my ability to remember or count. People who say, “The work will be there tomorrow,” clearly are not small business owners. It is not an option to put it off. You deliver when you say you are going to.  But Jock has always delivered; it is more about focusing on things he can accomplish right now while he regroups … while we both figure out this new rhythm … while Jock’s brain solves the hemp lignin conundrum. Because, as Eleanor Roosevelt reminded,  “With the new day comes new strength and new thoughts.”

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