31 July 2008

Accelerate, pt. 3

The vista I see now is changing
Uncertainty is suffocating
A hope that's never felt so grating

It is July 31 and I fail to realize that I'm slipping into hypothermia.

The air temperature is a brisk 40-ish degrees at 10 am, and the wind is fierce and piercing. I never think about wind chill.

I go out to walk, with my usual winter Clima-lite gear on; I'm accustomed to running when it's in the forties, my only concession to the cold a pair of gloves. Having forgotten to pack gloves, I have a lightly padded jacket on because of the wind. After a mile or so--walking, not running--I remove the jacket to the astonishment of the bundled denizens out with me.

Fifteen minutes in and my mood has lightened considerably as I charge around in ovals. There is ice everywhere, and the air is clear with high, swirling clouds, a most impressive sundog above me.

I have fallen in love with icebergs. I know they've long been anathema to mariners, but I find them spectacular. Like clouds, their shapes are fantastic and ever-changing, looking now like a sailboat, now like a camel. The sound and fury of their calving is literally awesome, the deep rumble of imminent separation preceding the crack of the ice breaking, and finally the splash of the chunks crashing into the water. And their color is quite phenomenal: milky blue white, with deeper ice blue veining, the water surrounding them a clear cold green blue. It is fascinating to watch the smaller bergs rock in rhythm to the swell, but even larger ones have water lines that indicate movement, where I can only imagine they've been scoured by huge storm-driven waves. As they disintegrate into bird-sized chunks, the icebergs are trailed by debris, plant matter and soil torn from the rocks that spawned them.

In the distance now, I see what looks like a fantastic skyline, the rectilinear shapes of numerous icebergs, a frozen city on the sea.

I round the corner again, into the wind. I've traveled about three miles and should make a few more circuits.

I've traveled tens of thousands of miles, and will only travel about 10,000 more. From Puerto Rico in April to the southern coast of Greenland in July. I am nearing the end of this adventure, and the grief born of endings is setting in.

An Aussie lady on the kayaking trip turned to me on the bus as we left Onundorfjordur and said, "My pastor's wife always says, 'Every misadventure is an opportunity.'" The two of us then roared with laughter. Neither of us could readily identify the opportunity, but we both knew we had a story.

I'm still sorting what of all this has been misadventure. It's all been opportunity, if one appreciates absurdity, from drowning in my own sweat and exhaustion in St. Louis--so tired that I couldn't even remember where I was--to realizing this morning that my sleepiness wasn't exhaustion, it was bone-chilling cold--so cold that I wasn't shivering which meant I was far too cold. Coming to terms with my life on a Puerto Rican beach was enlightening, but difficult. Getting warm again today was excruciating.

I've seen and met a lot of people on my travels. Some, like me, are clearly on a mission, but others...I wonder why they bother. The experience seems to bounce off them. They are truly consumers, simply consuming this as they consume everything in their path, because it is there. They don't appear to gain anything from what they are seeing or who they are speaking with. A little city like Nuuk is an opportunity to complain, to compare it unfavorably to everything they know. They miss the shy smiles of people who take the opportunity to say "Hello" to perfect strangers because they are there. They miss the real wonder of the rocks they are standing on because they are so busy trying to shove everyone else out of the way to take a snapshot to prove they were there.

When I finish walking, I head up a couple of decks to the prow of the ship. I am still warm from walking, but I pull on my jacket again, knowing that my damp clothing will soon become icy. Since I'm alone--no one else is crazy enough to brave this cold--I spend a few minutes stretching, using the ship's railing like a ballet barre, before my muscles cramp up with the chill. I am watching the vista in front of me, the surreal skyline, drawing nearer. Some of these icebergs are truly enormous, larger than my house, whipped into incredibly shapes by sea and wind. Before long an hour has passed, as I just stand there, watching the evolving horizon, the sea so glassy that I can see the fulmers' reflections in it as they skim the water.

When I get back to my room, I am disturbed to see that my face is roughly the same color as an iceberg. My extremities resist attempts at warming them, and I head to the shower. The cold water hurts, and I don't dare turn it beyond lukewarm, which is agonizingly painful on my frozen skin. My hands look like white marble; there is no indication that blood has ever flowed through them. Ten minutes in progressively warmer water and I begin to shiver, finally, and my arms break into huge aching goosebumps. My hands and the ends of my toes hurt so much I could happily scream. I am frankly amazed that I could have gotten so cold without really noticing it. Misadventure, for sure, and an opportunity to never do it again.

Finally, out of the Clima-lite and into jeans and a cashmere sweater, I am warmer, though my hands still feel icy cold. We are passing Cape Farewell, and I head out to the top of the ship to say good-bye to the pointy rocks created by glaciers and volcanics, the stark beauty that I've been absorbing through my very cold skin. In more ways than one, this has been an opportunity of a lifetime--misadventures not withstanding--all of it, everything I've done, all that I have seen, everything I've shared with others in the last 4-1/2 months.

What is next? I wonder, staring out over the water, wind blessedly cold on my no-longer numb face, watching the birds flit alongside, settling on the waves for a moment, only to take off in awkward flight again, perfectly analogous to the last few months of my life. And watching them, I see that far below, the sun is casting my solitary shadow on the water. Once again, I find myself cheerfully hanging halfway over the railing, watching the play of light and shadow in the water.

The future may be looming, but for the moment, what's next will have to wait just a little longer.

Go listen to some good music: "Accelerate" from the album Accelerate by REM.

29 July 2008

Natural science

There are some experiences that words can't begin to describe. The photos won't do it justice either, but today, I'll let the pictures do most of the talking. This is Prince Christian Sound, on the southern tip of Greenland:

At the entrance to the sound.

For the purposes of scale, see if you can locate a very tiny black dot near the center of the ice floe. That's a harp seal.

Prince Christian Sound was profoundly quiet, so much so that I could hear the splash of the glacier-fed waterfalls.

This glacier calved as we passed. You can see the splash of the water as the ice hit it.

Go listen to some great music: "Natural Science" from the album Permanent Waves by Rush.

28 July 2008

Ice ice baby

This is the birthplace of icebergs. I watch the first ice floe I've ever seen grow larger.

It's not really an iceberg, more of an ice cube.

But the color is unreal.

Go listen to some music: "Ice Ice Baby" from the album The Extreme by Vanilla Ice. I've never even heard this song, but still know the title, which is a bit frightening.

For those of you at home playing along with "What's that bird?", my desperate and worried looking bird is a fulmer, a member of the albatross family.

27 July 2008

Life in technicolor, pt. 2

It's fitting that my maiden kayaking voyage should be in a fjord in Iceland.

We were a multi-national group: Germans, French, Australians, a few North Americans. The outfitters were Icelanders. Some of us had kayaked before; some of us (me!) hadn't. As I've always been pretty athletic, learning new sports doesn't worry me much. It also helped that before I booked the trip, I asked my children, both of whom have kayaked at Catalina Island, how difficult it would be.

The son took one look at my arms and said, "You will have no problem, Mom."

So, other than the fact that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, I was unfazed.

The bus picked up our group in Isafjordur, and transported us through a mountain (literally. I've never been in a tunnel quite like this one: very long and a single lane for two-way traffic. It was pretty...exciting) to our destination, Onundorfjordur. There we met with the outfitters, who more or less tossed us a variety of rain gear and lifejackets, none of which matched or was even the same sort of thing. To say that we were all somewhat colorful when garbed in our motley would be an understatement.

A young man helped the older couple to my right to get set up in their kayak, and I waited patiently for him to finish. He vanished. I waited. To the extent that I could, I suited up as I'd seen him instruct the others to do, but when he finally returned, he gesticulated wildly that I was all wrong, ALL WRONG! I was completely confused. Eventually, with a bit German, Icelandic and English we determined the little skirt that would cover the opening of the kayak was on inside out. Dear God! So much arm waving for so little.

But then the real fun began. Rudders. What rudder? Oh, I couldn't touch the pedals with my feet? What pedals? Detach skirt, get out of kayak, deal with pedals (obviously Gargantua had ridden in this kayak before me). Get back in, reattach skirt. Oh, they hadn't placed me close enough to the water; this was a fiberglass kayak and I needed to be closer. Detach skirt, get out of kayak, help little man move the kayak closer to the water. Get back in, reattach skirt. Paddle? Detach skirt, get out of kayak, locate a paddle. Get back in, reattach skirt.

I figured I was probably getting a better work out trying to get ready to kayak.


Oh and by the way, the bespectacled young man gestured, keep your knees pushed out to the sides of the kayak so you don't capsize.


Finally, whoosh! I was in the water, bobbing like a big fiberglass cork. After a couple of false starts, I got the hang of the paddle, and I was off, heading out of the protective cove and into the open water. The worried-looking birds--I still haven't figured out exactly what they are--joined by some gulls, swooped in to check us out. We were clearly quite unimpressive.

I paddled out, rather pleased with my success, trying to keep up with the rest of group and not hit anyone. I was not in the mood for bumper kayaks, especially not on very cold, open water.

I'm not wild about open water, and while a fjord isn't the ocean--though I can certainly vouch that it's salt water--it's not exactly a pond. When you're sitting in--in--a bobbing red cork, it seems a lot bigger than it looks when you're sitting on the bus. But there I was, highly focused, paddling away, steering with the rudder, bouncing over the waves--waves? Oh, yeah, waves!--moving at a pretty good pace. I stopped for a moment to get my bearings, regroup and enjoy the scenery.

Then I turned around.

Big mistake.

I really had come a long way from the cove. A long, long way. I was sitting in the middle of open water, the wind suddenly picked up, and I belatedly realized that the waves were now resembling the wake of a moderately fast boat.

I allowed myself about 2 seconds to fall into an absolute panic (I know, Jack on Lost says you get five seconds, but I decided I couldn't allow myself the luxury of an extra 3 seconds. The waves were starting to crest at near a meter and I was rapidly dropping behind the group). I took a deep breath, reminded myself that there was no shore so far away that I couldn't swim to it if things got really desperate, and that we had two guides kayaking with us and a third in a dinghy with an outboard motor.

I paddled.

I didn't learn until it was all over that two experienced kayakers dropped out about half an hour into the proceedings, finding the going to be too difficult. I didn't hear until later that another of the experienced kayakers likened the conditions to white-water rafting. I saw the guy who flipped over, but one of the guides got to him before anyone else. One of our party told me that the world reduced to a 10-ft. square, the space he could see in front of him. It's a pretty accurate description of how I felt. I kept an eye on the colorful dots of my fellow kayakers, and that and the water was my world for the next hour as I paddled steadily to catch up, doing battle with both wind and ever-increasing white caps. Not having ever kayaked, I had no idea what it was supposed to be like, but I felt ok, and I knew realistically that I wasn't in over my head. But I didn't turn around again.

And I paddled across that whole damned fjord and then some.

It's fitting that my maiden kayaking voyage should be in a fjord in Iceland.

As I approached the far beach, I saw one of the guides and one of my fellow kayakers. I wasn't sure what was going on--I hadn't been given an ultimate destination for the trip--so I paddled toward them, the waves working for me rather than against me, finally. As I neared the beach, I saw that the water had cleared to a deep tourmaline green, but I didn't have much time to enjoy the color because the guide grabbed the end of my kayak and pulled me ashore. I popped off my skirt, and hopped out of the kayak. I was tired, but pleasantly so, and didn't really hurt too much anywhere. Despite the communication breakdown at the outset and my own momentary panic, the experience had been pretty exhilarating.

When we were in Manchester, D. said to me, wide-eyed, "I couldn't live your life. Even the good parts are chaotic!"

At the time, I was a bit puzzled by her assertion. Yes, my life is busy, and carefully choreographed so that everything that needs to be accomplished is. I live to a pretty stringent schedule, but I don't feel like I do any more than anyone else.

But her comment came to mind as I stripped off my motley.

My life is Iceland by kayak.

I have to admit I saw her point.

Update 8/10/2008: A photo! In the far distance, you can see a line of buildings. That's where we started. The beach below where this photo was taken was where we ended. The water looks deceptively calm. I won't post the photo taken of me at this place, but the wind was blowing so hard my hair was standing straight up, which is a little more accurate representation of the weather conditions.

Go listen to some good music: "Life in Technicolor" from the album Viva la Vida by Coldplay.

25 July 2008

Perfect world

Sea change.

What I think of first, always, is the literary term.

But I've sailed and boated often enough, lived near enough the ocean to know that the sea does change.

And I've been watching it do so as I transit to Iceland.

Indigo in the distance, I've watched the nearer water change from pure turquoise to muddy green the same shade as my eyes to gem-quality aquamarine.

(There's been no repeat of the hanging-over-the-rails incident. Not only have we been enshrouded in fog, the 12-15 ft. waves have been rough enough to ensure that I'd have ended up in the Norwegian Sea. I may be silly, but I'm not stupid.)

There have been, unexpectedly, jellyfish. These have been small and almost flesh-colored, bobbing in and out of the waves.

Birds, too, unexpectedly showed up. Unexpected because we are so far from anywhere. I can't identify them; I haven't got a Sibley analog for this part of the world. They seem too small to be gulls, though their wings are gull -like, but they are large-eyed, slightly desperate looking, and don't have the same crafty, mean faces of the gulls to which I'm accustomed.

Last night, I caught my first glimpse of Iceland--a lighthouse at Langanes. I wasn't expecting palisades either.

Today, Akureyri, which has proven a mouthful for me, even with my foreign-language track record.

I've been so eager for this trip, so eager to see this land and I had to stop and ask myself why? Is it the remoteness and the fact that few people have visited it? Is it a name on a map, half-remembered from childhood--Surtsey--a volcano that rose from the ocean when I was probably younger than my own children? Simply that it is such a geologically young place?

Certainly the area surrounding the fjord on which Akureyri is located is stark, volcanic and glacial, covered in scrub and populated by long low-lying white houses with red roofs.

It is beautiful.

Grateful to be on land again, I don't spend much time in Akureyri, but head inland to the area around Myvatn (MEE-vahn, I hear it pronounced, just the softest trailing "n"), a volcanic wonderland. Sheep populate the hills (oddly, in groups of three), cropping peacefully at the grass on the moorland. The sheep are small bundles of white with the occasional black sheep interspersed among them. I wondered, briefly, if this accounted for the Icelandic sweaters I'd seen which were mainly white with a black pattern around the chest.

I'm told today is the best weather this area has seen in two months, largely clear and very warm (I'd guess a good 72F, with a pleasant cool breeze), and the visibility is so good that it's possible to see the enormous glacier (said to be the largest in Europe) that is 200 km away.

But it is Myvatn, alternately moorland and moonscape that captures my attention. Two continental plates meet here: the Eurasian and North American, and the rift that is tearing open the ground is clearly visible again and again. Hot springs, steam vents, boiling mud pots, sulfurous ponds, racing milky-blue glacier-fed rivers. On one side, low-growing plants cover old basalt, on the other there are hills covered only in black sand, running yellow with sulfur, denuded of all plant life.

I've been to Yellowstone numerous times, and Myvatn is similar and dissimilar. Smaller scale, certainly, but here there is a lake in a crater created by the conjunction of lava and ice, but not volcanic eruption. The colors are stellar, but it looks somehow beautifully toxic. I am reminded, for no good reason, of a lake at the site of a former copper mine. Perhaps it is only the smell, which is certainly sulfurous, but is different to Yellowstone or Kilauea. I can't define what I'm smelling in addition to the sulfur, but it's certainly pungent. It doesn't surprise me to learn that the Icelandic name for this area translates to "hell."

While some of the lava in this area dates back to eruptions in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, some has flowed as recently as 1984.

Black-headed gulls yell fiercely from a near-by rock, and I suspect they must be protecting a nest. There are numerous ducks swimming in Lake Myvatn, and I watch them float by as I have lunch at a hotel on the shore of the lake (asparagus soup, halibut, potatoes, and veg that seems to have come from a freezer bag). When I walk out along the shore, a pair of arctic terns swoop in low to investigate, their long swallow-like bodies graceful in flight. Happily, they decide I am unworthy of attack.

On to Godafoss, a most spectacular waterfall, a miniature Niagara.

Back on the road, passing small farms that all incorporate a nesting place for tree ducks in their barns, I think I might be persuaded to give up the apple orchard in Norway and possibly the cottage in Bornholm for a little house in Iceland.

Go listen to some good music: "Perfect World" from the album All That We Let In by Indigo Girls.

23 July 2008

Sea of no cares

I am standing on the deck of a ship in the North Sea and the howling gale has arrived.

Now, if you've read this blog for any length of time, you know there is something wrong with this picture. I'm standing on the deck of a ship in a howling gale?

For you glass-half-full types, we'll say that I'm mostly standing on the deck of a ship in a howling gale.

For those of you who know me, we'll cut to the chase: I'm hanging over the deck railing in a force 8 wind, taking pictures of the sea spray in the setting sun. The look on the face of the crewman who passes me pretty much says it all.

(It is worth noting that my mother doesn't know I have a blog and that the spouse has no clue what I'm up to. All to the good. You know I didn't end up in the North Sea unless I have a particularly talented ghost.)

Suffice to say this is making me quite happy.

I'll post some of the pictures later as my Internet connection is sketchy at best, slow at all times, and posting photos takes forever.

I've also spent some time wandering through the town of Alesund, Norway, which was destroyed by fire in the early 1900s. The town was rebuilt at the behest of Kaiser Wilhelm II, and much of the design was lead by a Norwegian architect who had studied in Germany. The Jugendstil influence is very strong. More photos. Later.

7/27: Things sped up, sort of, and I've posted a couple of pictures.

Go listen to some good music: "Sea of No Cares" from the album Sea of No Cares by Great Big Sea.

21 July 2008


The advertisement for the hike made it sound as though I needed to expect gale force winds, driving rain and freezing temperatures. In reality, today is a lovely sunny day, probably nearer 70F than the predicted 50-ish, rendering my jacket and sweater immediately superfluous.

What they didn't tell me was that I really needed my hiking boots, currently languishing in my closet several thousand miles away, rather than the suggested "sturdy walking shoes." Norwegians undoubtedly knew that. They were all wearing hiking boots.

Rain wouldn't have been unexpected. Bergen is Norway's rainiest city apparently, with only 100 clear days per year. Yay me for being here on one of them.

I walked through the Hanseatic section of the city early this morning en route to the funicular railway that would take me up to the hiking trails. Two years ago, traveling through the Baltic, nearly every city I visited was a Hansa city, and it's interesting to me the extent to which you can actually see that in the older parts of the cities.

(Dorothy Dunnett's House of Niccolo series is a great set of historical novels in which the Hanseatic League figures hugely. Definitely recommended to anyone who has traveled or might travel this area.)

I've been on funiculars before, but this one is enormously steep. In fact, later, heading back down, I decided it was alarmingly steep, but then, I'm not fond of heights, and this put most rollercoasters to shame. It's about 4 minutes from Bergen below to Floyen above.

Bergen is surrounded by seven...well, I don't want to offend the Norwegians, but perhaps we can say they are seven very short mountains. While they may be elevation-challenged, I'm not sure that I've hiked any that are so beautiful or so magical in misty early morning light.

And of course, the Norwegian cat in Floyen, and the sneering Norwegian sheep further up the track certainly didn't hurt. Lovely waterfalls. Trails that trolls might traverse through trees and over tussocks of grass, stepping lightly amongst the bluebells and other flowers.

People evidently hike all seven peaks in one day, about a 13-hour trek I was told, and it's an annual event. I hit the summit of two peaks in about two hours, and while I think I'd be capable of doing all seven, today was not going to be the day. I'd want my hiking boots to start!

But what I saw was stunning. The view of Bergen and the harbor from Floyen was itself worth the price of admission.

As the rising sun warmed the meadows, the heady smell of flowers filled the air. It was quiet enough to hear water dripping--by the single drop--down the lichen-covered rocks, and birds called in the trees.

Up two summits, there was only an elevation gain of about 850 ft., so by the time I reached the second summit, I was only about 1,850 ft. above sea level. Still, good exertion, healthy exercise, beautiful weather made me feel like I was on the top of the world. It was a perfect day to be out, with the sun beating down on my head, moving through the woods.

Go listen to some good music: "Elevation" from the album All That You Can't Leave Behind by U2.

19 July 2008

Immigrant song

I crossed the North Sea for the first time nearly two years ago to the day. It was as wild and woolly a sea crossing as one could hope for: grey and lowering sky, 15-ft. swells, what seemed a gale-force wind. I've never experienced anything quite like that since.

Fortunately, I don't get seasick, so it was memorable, rather than miserable.

I do, however, get colds, and I've got one again, second one in two months, and while I'm not exactly miserable, I'm a bit crabby about it.

That notwithstanding, today, in Norway again for the first time since that sea crossing. The sky was similarly threatening, and it was surprisingly chilly for July, even in Oslo. I am unaccustomed to wearing cashmere sweaters this time of year, but I was enormously grateful I thought to bring it.

An unlooked for pleasure in visiting the Viking Ship Museum for a second time. I try to make the most of every place I see because I know it is unlikely that I will pass this way again. And yet, I've been to Leningrad/St. Petersburg three times now, Helsinki twice and now, Oslo twice. I consider myself extremely fortunate in my travels, even when I visit a place as small as Manchester, New Hampshire (unexpectedly, twice, and can it only be a week ago?).

The first time I saw the Viking ships, I found the experience very moving. Not only is there such a huge sense of history in those wooden ships--to think that someone hundreds of years ago painstakingly carved the designs on the largest of them--the building itself, stark and simple, feels like a monument, a memorial to those who were buried with the ships. It is astonishing as well, to consider that those ships, small as they were, held up to 67 souls for days at a time.

But the true treat of the day was getting out to the Norwegian countryside. I'd never been outside of Oslo proper, though I'd seen some of the fjords, but this time, I headed out along the major road between Oslo and Bergen. Two years ago, the spouse and I dreamed of retiring to a little house on a Swedish island or along a Norwegian waterway or on the Danish island of Bornholm, but today, I saw the apple orchards. I think that someday I shall find myself a tiny orchard, a little cottage and a proper Norwegian cat.

(Yes, I know. There is the Norwegian winter to contend with. Isn't it grand that I like to ski?)

The rolling hills here--formed by glaciers--are lovely, the rock odd and igneous, the mixed forest so greenly beautiful. Wildflowers populate the highway verge (along with the proper Norwegian cat I saw jumping from the fence into the flowers, no doubt in pursuit of some hapless rodent). It rained torrentially for a short while, and then the sun returned, warm and glorious, bright as it was in London.

I can't explain why I feel so at home in Scandinavia; perhaps some remnant of Viking blood courtesy of my Scots-Irish ancestry, though I tend toward the less romantic notion that perhaps I simply like the cats and the flowers and the tiny apple trees.

Go listen to some good music: "Immigrant Song" from the album Led Zeppelin III by Led Zeppelin.

17 July 2008

Terminal eyes

...cut glass porcupine
sailing on the Serpentine

I walked the length of the Serpentine, beginning at the fountains and traversing the path all the way to the Serpentine Bridge. The sky was near cloudless, the sun surprisingly hot, hectically bright, light shattering on the water. Swans floated peacefully in the algae-laden fountains, ducks and their babies in the larger body of water. The surrounding grounds were meadow-y, in many ways far less manicured than the horrifying, Stepford-like symmetry of the areas in Orange County owned by the Irvine Company, which prescribes certain plant and color combinations, none of which would be found in nature.

Here, however, in Hyde Park, nature was left to her own course in some measure. Not all the grass was mown; much was left to grow wild, and flowers ran riot in no special plantings in the space between the iron fence and the Serpentine. Birds and squirrels moved quietly through the underbrush, traveling busily along cool, dim pathways better suited to the fairy folk than any human.

Perhaps it was my own state--lost in the limbo of the long-distance traveler--that made the park seem so otherworldly. Maybe it was simply that I was in London for the first time, a place about which I've read so much that it seemed almost surprising to see words made real.

I always worried that the London I first saw would be a disappointment. In many ways, the London that lived in my mind is a city in history, a place in a time warp. Henry VIII, War of the Roses, R.F. Delderfield, Virginia Woolf. But disappointment wasn't the case; as the van traveled the streets (Notting Hill, Bayswater), I found myself face to face with old bricks wrapped around horrible new construction, not so different from what one sees in older areas of the U.S., an uneasy congress of the ancient and the modern. It was easy to see history in the elderly golden walls, even those that sat by the almost Disneyesque facades of buildings that intended to blend in, but only looked plastic, fake. The Edgware Road had a vibrancy that was as expected (busy, colorful) as it was unexpected (hookah pipes being smoked on the sidewalk).

From my hotel room, I can see Hyde Park, I can see the Millennium Wheel. There are cranes in the distance everywhere. Planes pass on their way to Heathrow.

England seemed so romantic when I was 12, and spent the long, burning summer devouring Barbara Cartland books by the cartload, until I became so bored with her pasty heroines that I turned to Dickens for relief. Still, I had to smile as I passed Rotten Row, a dreamy ideal of childhood, the place of a bygone day to see and be seen.

But London is any big city, alive and humming with its own life. The dream is still there, not lost, only realized now in a different way.

Go listen to some good music: "Terminal Eyes" from the album Past, Present and Future by Al Stewart.

14 July 2008


6:45 am, Saturday, I am standing quietly in line at the Dunkin Donuts kiosk before I go through security at Manchester airport. I've gotten only an hour's sleep; D. and I stayed up late, in slumber party fashion, talking until 3 am.

It was a really good day.

I am looking at the donut offerings, and wondering if I really want one. There is something both delightfully nostalgic about Dunkin Donuts, the donuts of my childhood, and faintly nauseating in the idea of eating anything at this point.

Suddenly, the person who is being waited on at the counter turns to me. He is a youngish man, probably early 30s, tall and thin, with a shaved head, tiny rectangular glasses and fashionable facial hair.

"I don't do goodbyes well," he says to me, and ruefully wipes his eyes.

I smile a little, and murmur, "No, goodbye is never fun."

And I feel a certain empathy because the last two days have been for me a leave-taking, an ending, a goodbye.

Quickly, with small heaving breaths, he recounts the last week of his life to me. In under two minutes, I learn that he has just said goodbye to the woman he loves, who is flying home; that they spent the last week, "the most amazing week," riding his Harley about together; that TSA could not be persuaded to let either of them cross the security line for one last kiss, one last hug.

There is nothing I can say to this, and I sense that he doesn't need or want me to say anything. I am simply a sympathetic face, someone he'll never see again, someone with whom he can share his anguish for a brief few minutes.

The girl behind the counter drops a bag in front of him, and he takes a handful of napkins along with the bag.

"Take care," he tells me with a small, sad smile.

"You too," I reply, and mean it.

After getting through security, I walk to my gate. I wonder if the airport has been refurbished because it seems lighter and brighter than when I was here 5-1/2 years ago. I never suspected I'd be back.

Three months earlier, I'd picked up my tickets at the Coliseo in Puerto Rico. I sat on the steps to rearrange the contents of my tiny wallet on a string. While I was fiddling around, a man approached me, shaven head, fashionable facial hair. Inwardly, I sighed.

"Excuse me," he said, "I heard you speaking English. Are you here to see Rush?"

PK turned out to be a perfectly lovely individual, another traveler who'd been to all the European shows the previous autumn. We ended up talking for a couple of hours, trading road stories, tales of our travels.

"Why do
you do it?" he asked.

I was quiet for a moment. "Because I never get tired of watching them play," I finally said.

He nodded, satisfied. "You're the sort of fan that I am. It's not about anything except those three hours where you get to watch them play."

D. and I go down to the hotel bar shortly before doors, and no sooner do I sit down than my cell phone rings. It is the spouse and I excuse myself to take the call outside, away from the noise and bustle of the bar.

The spouse reads me an email, and it takes me a moment to absorb what he is saying. I repeat the salient phrase, once, twice, and burst into delighted laughter. The huge, ugly case that he is working on, had been out of town for the previous week, that I'd picked up work on, is done.



In the space of a 15-minute phone call, it goes from a good day to a really good day.

The spouse held out the receiver of his office phone to me.

"Hi," I heard my recorded voice say. "I'm in Dallas. My flight for San Juan leaves in a couple of hours..."

He pushed a button.

"It's me," I heard myself say, "I'm in Moline..."

He pushed the button again.

"I've made it to St. Paul. Horrible tiny plane..."

Grinning, he pushed the button again.

"Hi, I'm in Manchester. Give me a call..."

I looked at him and asked, "I didn't leave messages for Oklahoma, Los Angeles or St. Louis?"

The sun has risen in Manchester now, and the way it flashes through the glass reminds me of sitting in Toronto's airport last September. I think again of those people moving by on the elevated walkway, their purposefulness, the beauty of their sheer existence. By the end of the day, I will have covered more than 22,000 miles in the last three months. I'm not sure why it's important to me to keep track of how many miles I've logged in airplanes. I feel a sort of guilt (uneconomical, unenvironmental), as well as a certain elation (this is me, hating the planes, but loving the concerts).

In St. Louis, I waited for the shuttle back to the hotel. An older man, also alone, asked me which hotel I was going to, and it turned out that we were headed to the same place. After quite some time, and no shuttle, a cab pulled into the parking lot.

"Shall we split a cab?" he asked.

"Yup," I responded, and we called the taxi over.

He amused me with stories his drive up from Arkansas, and his trip to the show in Chicago with his daughter. I related taking my kids to a couple of shows in Irvine.

In the lobby, he handed me his business card.

"There are stories to be told," he said.

D. and I wander over to the arena and pass through security. We have been to numerous shows together, including one in this very arena, before we even knew each other. Through the years and over the miles, I've discovered that a number of other people were at that show all those years ago, and it amuses me that somehow we find each other and trade our stories. JG, with whom I chatted in Los Angeles, and who hung out with the spouse and I at Irvine, was here then. FS, with whom I split tickets for Moline and St. Paul, was as well. Our friend DT will be here again tonight, too, with his young daughter.

My arms and legs liquefy with a satisfying excitement as I make my way down to my seat. Porcupine Tree is playing on the house PA. Last night for me. Until, hopefully, someday, another album, another tour.

Stay here, I tell myself. This is it.

My mind doesn't wander during the show, but I tend to think a lot. I am watching how they play, and correlating each chord, each note, each fill with what I've heard a thousand times or more, on cassette, on vinyl, on CD, on mp3. I'm not a musician, I'm a dancer, and watching the dance of making music fascinates me. When I hear music, I see movement in my head. Through 15 rounds of "Hope," an entire pas-de-deux has constructed itself in my brain. "Digital Man" still has me bouncing through the house, down the street, whenever I hear it.

Despite my admonition to myself to stay in the moment, I think. "...a plague that resists all science," the song goes, and I turn to D. and whisper fiercely, "My work is a plague that resists all science." She grins widely because she's heard a lot that day about my work, and the pseudoscience that often plagues it.

But today is a really good day.

In the spirit of the evening, "One Little Victory" is my theme for the night, even though I don't want to hear it because it's the first song of the encore. But tonight, it sounds better than ever. I am happy. I know the letdown will come, but I'll leave it for later.

And it all ends, and D., DT, his daughter and I make our way back to the hotel. We spend an hour in the bar, happily dissecting what we've seen, and then say our goodbyes.

At the airport, the sun has shifted fractionally, cresting a support beam, and is now shining in my eyes. I blink hard; the sudden brightness in my face is making my eyes water, and as I look down, a trick of light and damp makes it appear that I am glowing. I find this funny, and I look up, smiling. The people sitting across from me smile back.

Go listen to some music: "Shine" from the album Hints, Allegations & Things Left Unsaid by Collective Soul.

11 July 2008

The electric version

New Hampshire:

I arrived last night after a long day of flying. FedEx pilots and others on the shuttle to the hotel (seems familiar).

The driver is a nice older man who welcomes me to New Hampshire 3 or 4 times.

I thank him each time.

Finally, he asks, "Have you been here before?"

I smile. "Oh, yes."

I get to the hotel room, and D. greets me, and we fall into giggles more suited to high schoolers. Catch up on what has transpired since we last saw each other (Oklahoma), and then go to dinner.

Over wine, we laugh and laugh and laugh.

Then laugh some more.

"I have a plan," she says. "When this is over, we start going to Angels games at all the major league parks in the country."

Now that's a plan.

Because New Hampshire is it for me. I've come full circle in more ways than one.

"Hey," said the spouse before I left. "At least I get my wife back."

Maybe. But if there are baseball games to be watched...

The genie got out of the bottle some time ago (in New Hampshire, fittingly enough), and there is just no putting her back.

Go listen to some music: "The Electric Version" from the album Electric Version by The New P*rnographers.

10 July 2008

Drive she said

The spouse looks up from the dishes and sees the bemused look on my face: "What's wrong?"

Me: "The taxi company knows me."

The spouse: "?"

Me: "The dispatcher said, 'Hi, A! Are you going to the airport in the morning?' Before I even said anything."

The spouse laughs.

Me: "What?"

The spouse: "They're probably writing a book about you."

Me: "Hey!"

The spouse laughs again.

I think for a moment. "Maybe it's just because I'm always nice and I tip well."

The spouse, in a teasing tone: "Maybe it's because you're very memorable..."

Me, wailing: "Stop saying that!"

Go listen to some music: "Drive She Said" from the album The Big Heat by Stan Ridgway.

09 July 2008

Her head's revolving

Between June 2007 and June 2008, I traveled 33,324 miles, roughly.

That's one hell of a lot of frequent flyer miles.


2008 (so far)

Go listen to some good music: "Her Head's Revolving" from the album Arrive Without Travelling by The Three O'Clock. Maps generated with the assistance of Gmaps Pedometer.

08 July 2008

Life in technicolor

A thought occurs to me.

"I'm going kayaking in a couple of weeks," I say to the spouse.

"Yes," he replies, gravely, "you are."

I chew reflectively on the end of my thumb.

"I probably need a bathing suit for kayaking," I muse, thinking that kayaking somewhere near the North Pole no doubt requires something a little warmer than a bathing suit. Like maybe a deep sea diving suit.

"Yes, that would be a good idea," he says, patiently.

"I don't have a bathing suit."

He sighs. "You live in Southern California. I think you can probably buy a bathing suit in the next couple of days."

I think I'd rather try on bras.

Go listen to some good music: "Life in Technicolor" from the album Viva la Vida by Coldplay.

07 July 2008

Calling all angels

Sunday was a perfect day to go to the ballpark. The temperatures were warm, but not overly hot, and the Angels were playing Toronto, their last home game before the All-Star break.

And I'd found some great seats, third base side just off home plate...in the shade.

The spouse and I have been going to Angels games for more than 20 years. When he discovered that I was a baseball fan--our first phone conversation, which lasted for 3 hours, 2 of which were devoted to the game--his next mission was to make me an Angels fan. Although I'd never had an allegiance to any one major league team, I'd always had a bit of a National League bias, so it took some persuasion on his part.

And it takes a certain sort of masochism to be an Angels fan.

Hard to say what won the day. Chuck Finley's rear end (I was never allowed to sit in that part of the park again after averring that I didn't mind the view) or later, Mark Langston, or just the hard-working, fun-to-watch players like Chili Davis, Devon White, Wally Joyner, Bob Boone.

Maybe it was that, in those days, the Angels were our little secret. There were never that many at the stadium unless Boston or the Yankees were visiting, and then most of the people there were cheering for the opposition.

Maybe I just like underdogs.

After mowing the lawn yesterday, we set off for the stadium.

The daughter spent the brief drive creating mayhem with a stuffed Rally Monkey.

"Weapon of Mass Irritation," the spouse muttered of the monkey.

We settled into our seats a little before game time. A good breeze was blowing, just enough humidity to whip my hair up into irritating little curls. The daughter bounced up and down in her seat, waving her monkey and clutching her glove (just in case!).

It's all very well and good to stay home and watch the games on our nice high def TV, and drink $1 import beers and eat homemade popcorn, but few things are more satisfying than the sound of the ball smacking leather or the crack of the bat.

Or leaping to your feet, yelling, when your team does something good. Or booing a bad call with 40,000 others.

It was a perfect day to go to the ballpark. The Angels won decisively, and Garland pitched a complete game. I evidently yelled a lot more than I thought I had because my throat was raw by the time we left.

Everyone was all smiles when we piled in the car to go home.

Go listen to some music: "Calling All Angels" from the album My Private Nation by Train. They always play this song before the game starts.

04 July 2008

Pictures at an exhibition

Fourth of July in our neighborhood is bigger than all other holidays rolled into one. It is a daylong affair, beginning with pancakes and culminating in fireworks (illegal, of course).

The children are awake at the crack of dawn, quivering over the idea of a breakfast that includes sausages and chocolate chips. I have only just begun to sleep again after weeks of insomnia, so the spouse waits until nearly 9 to wake me with coffee. He takes the children around the corner, and I promise to join them if I can get my eyes open.

Somehow a half-hour passes and they have returned before I've managed to down a second cup of coffee. I hear tales of magnificent pancake concoctions.

Babies cry, dogs bark, children run in packs, the doorbell rings. It is neighbor J., and she hands me a sheet of paper.

"I hurt my foot last night," she explains, and suddenly there is an opening in the beanbag toss tournament. The spouse eagerly grabs it. He and the daughter will be a team, defending the family name and honor. They return a few hours later, the daughter drenched and red faced.

"We won the first round," the spouse announces, "but then we lost to J and B." Two of the Soaring Rodents, of course. Most of the team camped out in the neighborhood overnight to join in the festivities.

"Why are you so wet?" I ask the daughter.

"I was filling water balloons!"

"Of course," I reply, resigned.

I'd made my contribution to the dinner--an enormous bowl of hummus--the night before, so I don't have to cook today, other than to make lunch. I boil hot dogs and heat beans in between half hours on the exercise bike. The son has to retrieve the daughter from J.'s house, where she is filling more water balloons with J.'s daughter. The spouse, son and daughter stuff down hot dogs and beans and any other food that isn't nailed down. They--and the rest of the neighborhood--are now preparing for the parade. Yup. We have cars, floats, children on bikes and scooters. About five people watch while the other 100 parade around the neighborhood. Mardi Gras crews in New Orleans have nothing on the 'hood crews.

As I pile the lunch dishes in the sink preparatory to returning to the bike, I peek out at my neighbors across the street. They are decorating a large cart with trees and huge balloon dragonflies. What looks like a chicken house graces one end.

I suspect their chickens will be going for a ride.

I hear the spouse's enormous red convertible fire up. He and the son are pulling out into the street, the daughter's boom box resting on the open rag top, blaring patriotic music. He seems to be leading the pack, and the small children on various wheeled vehicles zoom alongside. The float bearing our little grand marshal follows behind, the chicken float bringing up the rear, giant dragonflies bobbling in the air. Adults on a tandem bike wobble along and I see the daughter, who has eschewed the convertible, shoot by on her scooter, silver helmet gleaming in the hot sun. It is over 90F and quite humid. Next comes the skateboard brigade.

"Aw, God," exclaims a sweating spouse when it is over. "Time for a shower!"

"I'm hot, Mommy," says a purple-faced daughter. I hand her a wet paper towel.

"I found this in the street," the son waves a somewhat smashed Dum-Dum at me.

"Throw it away," I tell him.

"I can't eat it?" he grins.

I gesticulate firmly at the garbage can.

I arrive at the main event, dinner, a bit late. I'd sent the spouse, the son and daughter on with the hummus, but I still needed to dry my hair, and I'd promised the spouse I'd make a pitcher of margaritas.

I stop and exchange a few words with people I've not seen in awhile, say 'hi' to various neighbors. My next door neighbor comes up to where we are congregated, swaying a little on his feet.

"We just got back," he says apologetically, "36 hours of travel."

He looks slightly wild, eyes red-rimmed. I recognize the look, and I know the feeling. The exhaustion of long, long distance travel, the sense one cannot take in enough oxygen, the need to download what has occurred. The first time I returned from the Soviet Union, I was so captive to this landlocked variety of rapture of the deep that I had no idea which language I was speaking at any one given moment, and so was wandering with a perfect sort of clarity between English, Spanish and Russian, a travel pidgin that made no sense to anyone but me.

He and his wife have been in a Third World country. "It wasn't a good trip," he says, and it is very important to him that he is clear about this, "but it was necessary."

I have been to such places, and understand what he is saying. There are experiences that aren't exactly pleasurable, but remove us from ourselves and our comfort zones, show us different truths and other routes to happiness. We see.

"People are just people," he says, shaking his head. "They had nothing, but they were happy. They wanted to share what they had. All we had to do was smile at them."

He looks at us with sorrow and frustration. "Why do we feel like we have to fix everything?"

Neighbor M., she of the mobile poultry, comes over and puts her head on my shoulder. "I haven't seen you in so long!" she cries.

"I decided that you need your own HGTV show," I tell her. "How To Decorate Your Float. It was great!"

"Thanks!" she replies with glee.

"But I need to know," I whisper. "Were the chickens on it?"

"Just the pretty one," she replies sotto voce.

The children are putting on their annual talent show. The son has not deigned to participate this year, nor have most of the older children, but the daughter is still young enough to enjoy the experience. She dances well, and she looks not just happy, but content to be performing.

A neighbor turns to me. "Have you gotten her an agent yet?"

I laugh.

The spouse says, "She has the greatest smile."

"Of course she does," I reply smugly. "She has her mother's smile."

The sea breeze has picked up and the sun has dropped far below the horizon. The sparklers have been brought out, and young and old alike are dancing like dervishes in the street, brandishing the flaming sticks. One of the organizers is trying to encourage everyone to sing, but it's been too long a day, too hot, and everyone just wants to be entertained.

The fireworks brigade begins their show. They are serious about their whizz-bangs, serious about making a lot of noise and a lot of fuss, but serious, too, about safety.

And about finishing up before we're busted by the sheriff.

Several years ago, the fire brigade showed up, seemingly to remind us gently that fireworks are not allowed. Everyone smiled and nodded and offered the firefighters dinner. They didn't return for the show.

Two years ago, we were rousted by the sheriff, who apparently waited until the show was over to tell us all to go home.

Tonight, someone in another neighborhood is shooting off aerials.

"Yay!" says the spouse, "that'll distract the sheriff."

Everyone laughs. And this year, we are not visited.

It is too dark to do much clean up and everyone will reconvene in the morning to make sure the mess is cleared away. I see there is still a significant amount of hummus left, and I seek out C., who always throws a party the day after, to ask her if she'd like it for tomorrow.

C. and I trade books. Most recently I've given her my Ann-Marie MacDonald books.

As I try to ask her about hummus, she grabs my arms. "Fall on Your Knees! Oh my God!" she cries, "Tragic! Beautiful!"

I walk the hummus down to her house to the staccato boom of fireworks going off everywhere. I can see a large (probably legitimate show) to the south, and smaller spurts of color elsewhere. To the west, the new moon is setting, just a sliver of light, but huge in the sky. I am tired, and curiously full-hearted. My shoulders ache, and I lift my arms, port-de-bras, from first position to second to fifth overhead, stretching my shoulders. I see the moon once again through the circle made by my arms and for an instant feel that I'm embracing the universe.

Go listen to some good music: "Pictures at an Exhibition/Promenade. Allegro giusto, nel modo russico; senza allegrezza, ma poco sostenuto" from the album Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic.

03 July 2008

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

I received such sad news this morning of the death of a high school friend. We are far too young to be dying.

SV was one of the sweetest, most cheerful souls I've ever known. I cannot think of another person who was so unaffected, so kind-hearted, so happy. We went on one disastrous date when we were both 15, but remained friends despite the disaster. He taught me the extremely important lesson that you can never be too careful of another person's heart.

Sleep in peace, Steve.

Go listen to some music: "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" from the album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Soundtrack). Quite possibly one of the worst movies ever made. I can't remember which one of us picked it.

02 July 2008

The ace of swords / Is there something I should know?

Last month was awful. Awful. Miscommunication. Poor communication. Silence from people I'm working for. Resolution to one of the biggest conflicts came at the literal eleventh hour, late on June 30, but too late for me to follow up on something else I might have done.


Then there was the stupid stuff. Hideous statues. Silly people. Mean people. Ridiculous graduation.

But that's all done.

Except for one lingering issue, over which I'm completely confused.


When I get to Iceland, I'm going to find myself a nice comfortable rock, and maybe I'll just stay there. I'll sit there until I'm old and grey, become a part of the landscape.

Unless I get eaten by a polar bear first.

Go listen to some good music: "The Ace of Swords" from the album Turn of a Friendly Card by The Alan Parsons Project. Also: "Is There Something I Should Know?" from the album Duran Duran by Duran Duran. Yeah, quite a doubleheader, but it's been that kind of...uh...year?