Excepting one thing, the last decade will not be fondly remembered by many people. Some truths became more self-evident: selfish greed blew up in our faces, just like we knew it would. War and strife has become the norm, with little or no justification other than... selfish greed? Politics, always questionable at best, has just become ineffectual, any change is thwarted by... selfish greed?
But one trend of the "Awful Aughts" which actually was positive was the rise of personal, international blogging. If there is anything thing on the internet with potential to redeem us, it is this ability of people all around the world to directly communicate with each other. Thinking back to the 90's, the internet was a crude and sometimes even hostile place. "Bulletin Boards" and Forums existed, but were limited in scope. The existence of free, world-wide, communication hadn't really taken off then. Now, this humble blog gets regular visitors from around the world. Some of that attention is puzzling: who is it in Guayaquil, Ecuador, that keeps dropping in? (please leave a comment!) Or the person in Greece who searches for "The Flippism is the Key Blog" again and again? Lately, in what I take as a very good omen, several different people from China have have ended up here after googling lines from the Halldór Laxness novel Salka Valka!
The toughest thing for me has been the recent Iceland situation. Since the very beginning, FITK has had an Icelandic component, I've written about it more than any other subject, sharing my enthusiasms for the place and its culture, and finding many "kindred spirits" who have joined me along the way (Rose! Jon! Cellar! Mary! Annie! Auður! Wim! Heiða! Kristín! Alda!) sharing their experiences as well as living mine vicariously. Iceland was an escape for me as well, both figuratively and literally. Now, Iceland is suffering, and things look as if they are only going to get much worse. It's as if a loved one had contracted a horrible disease, and there is nothing one can do but watch. Here's hoping that things get better there in the next decade.
I've had a lot of fun here in the last six years, those of you who have put up with my occasional whimsy and poetry(?!), I thank you. Those of you bloggers who, through your own blogs, have widened my outlook, I cannot thank enough (Comica, Reshma, Munkay, Tykho, Mitsui, Caroline, Some Chilean Woman, and many, many more.) To those of you who have "retired", I understand completely. I have some other projects coming up, any one of which might mean I would take a little different approach to FITK in the coming year (decade?) I'll still be posting, but perhaps not on such a regular schedule.
Today I received an email from Karen Heathwood, the creator of Sharon Spotbottom, one of the most inspirational blogs I've ever seen. It is a Christmas card, expressing joy in a way I wish I could:
Play on! More music! Life is for the living, so we should act accordingly. Our lives are compromised in so many ways that we should be grateful for this outlet for expression, a good thing that came into its own in spite of the "Awful Aughts."
"... I was in my bed a'sleepin', oh-boy, what a dream I was in my bed sleepin', oh-boy, what a dream I was dreamin' 'bout my TV Mama, the one with the big, wide screen... "
Christmas came late, in the form of a new winter project- the construction of a cloned "TV Front" Fender Deluxe™ Amplifier- style 5E3. What you see above, under the Batty Xmas tree, are only the externals- all the wiring remains to be completed.
Coffee for two. It was a follow-up date: I owed her a café au lait in return for the one she bought me at our last meeting, three years ago. I've always liked Scandinavian women: cool, no-nonsense, with well-developed powers of appraisal. We'd "met" in the blogosphere, in the summer of '04, when it was the hottest thing going. Everything was new then, anything was possible, and the whole world was the playing-field. All of that was no longer new now, most blogs were running on inertia or had simply just given up. My friend had stopped hers; work and Facebook had replaced the often amusing and sometimes insightful daily reports about her life which she used to blog about.
I was in Reykjavík to experience the local music festival, although I had other motives as well. When a dream grabs you and refuses to let go it may mean that it needs some serious up-close and personal attention (or it may mean that you're more than a little unbalanced.) Either way, my previous Icelandic adventures had been very positive, and they certainly had expanded my cultural horizons (and this blog can always use some fresh inspiration!) Since our last meeting things here had changed dramatically; Iceland's economy was in free-fall, and portents for its future were grim. I had had a unsettled year, nothing earth-shaking, just some of those situations that have to be lived through: no escape, no shortcuts. I knew that my blog-pal had suffered personal set-backs as well, things which no amount of my sympathy or words of understanding could amend.
Before our meeting, I had just seen a young "girl-group" perform a charming set of original music at the Nordic House, a beautiful cultural center situated near the University. It was as intimate and as quiet a performance as could be imagined. Consequently, I was a little late, but when I finally made it into the coffee shop I found my friend waiting with her knitting. She looked great, a women who wore her "thirties" well. As we ordered I felt strangely at peace; after five years of reading each others' open and occasionally unfettered thoughts on-line, a tacit sense of understanding seemed to exist between us.
We sat back down, she asked about the music I'd seen. I told her about the girl group, and, as an afterword, I mentioned that one of the few regrets in my life was that I'd never had any daughters. That must have been a very powerful emotional current, brought to the surface by the act I had just seen, for I choked up and was unable speak. My companion gently touched my arm, asking if I was all right. I think she was quite alarmed. Although I wasn't really upset with my emotional outburst (this kind of thing happens to me all the time), I was sorry that she had to endure this, in what otherwise should have been a very joyous time. I finally managed to regain my composure, but after our coffee, as I walked her to her car, she looked at me very closely, and asked; "Are you really alright?" Although I assured her I was, she did email me later, just to confirm it.
Some friends are life-long, some friendships flare-up brightly- only to quickly burn out. Some friendships are simply a case of parallel lives, two stars floating in the heavens, each gaining a little from the radiance of the other, then drifting away to oblivion.
Svo lít ég upp og sé við erum saman þarna tvær stjörnur á blárri festinguni sem færast nær og nær. Ég man þig þegar augu mín eru opin, hverja stund. En þegar ég nú legg þau aftur, fer ég á þinn fund.
Let me tell you 'bout a place Somewhere up Minnesota way Where the people are so gay Twistin' the night away-ay Here they have a lot of fun Puttin' trouble on the run Man, you find the old and young Twistin' the night away They're twistin', twistin', everybody's feelin' great They're twistin', twistin', they're twistin' the night away Here's a man in evenin' clothes How he got here, I don't know, but Man, you oughta see him go Twistin' the night away-ay He's dancin' with the chick in slacks She's a-movin' up and back Oh man, there ain't nothin' like Twistin' the night away They're twistin', twistin', everybody's feelin' great They're twistin', twistin', they're twistin' the night away...
While out on a Christmas-gift mission (don't ask, don't tell) Saturday, I came across a book sale being held in what once was a car dealership showroom. Tables and tables of books- hard cover 50 cents, paperback 20 cents. A box for 5 dollars. They were mostly out-of-date titles, a little real literature, lots of bad cookbooks and craft books. Ten year-old bestsellers (Colin Powell biography) and many, many self-help books. I did find an encyclopedia of witchcraft (sort of a self-help book, I guess) and a really good anthology of New Yorker stories.
There was a couple who were talking to the proprietor, I overheard the story behind this unusual sale; he had bought them a few years ago from someone going out of business, a semi-truck full, and now he was leaving it as well. He had planned on selling here until the new year. The couple he was talking to made him an offer for the whole lot and he accepted, so he announced that he was closing in 45 minutes, and then the sale would be over. He looked very happy.
If the selection of books were just a little better, I might have felt sad (and I would have bought a lot more books!) Some books might be better used as mulch, or fuel, or even landfill.
Of all the methods developed to sonically amuse (torment?) the human organism, the Theremin exists in a class of its own. With its eerie oscillations and "magical" no-touch interface, this instrument, invented in 1918 by Léon Theremin, isn't completely obscure (it has been popular with kit-builders for decades) yet it never really became part of the musical mainstream. The above album, by Dr. Samuel J. Hoffman, was popular in the fifties, as mood-music for relaxation. The Beach Boys featured it on their pop music hit "Good Vibrations" and it also shows up from time to time on old mystery and suspense movie soundtracks.
Nevertheless, there are still practitioners of unique instrument. Every so often its distinctive tones appear, usually as a welcome surprise:
Hekla Magnúsdóttir, playing with Bárujárn, an Icelandic death-surf/psychobilly band, Reykjavík, 2009
From the Music for Peace of Mind liner notes:
This is music that has a message to give, if you will open your mind and heart to receive it. Turndown the lights, relax in an easy chair, and listen. Then for a few stolen hours, perhaps you will warm to happy memories and blissful hopes: Yours, for as long as you may wish to hold it, will be peace of mind.
Ya, we got hit hard in the winter of ought-nine. Froze hard in December and didn't thaw till spring. One of these years we're gonna move outta here, move when there's some warmth. Quit this farmin' and get a city job. Things will be better then, we'll have biscuits 'n gravy every meal. And the dog won't need me to haul her over the snow drifts.
For all of the Christmas cards I've helped make and/or design for others, my own holiday correspondence is usually too little, too late. People haven't given up on me (yet!) so I still get some, including a smattering of Christmas letters. With all the writing I've done lately, I should be able easily to crank out a multi-page spellbinding tale of our family's interesting exploits. But no, I end up thinking that the world would probably be a better place without a lengthy Xmas manifesto/confessional from me. That is the nice thing about a blog- it's out there to read for anyone who would care to, or anyone who stumbles upon it by chance. It doesn't force its attention on anyone. (Insert your own Facebook horror story here.) Lately, I've started getting email Christmas letters (with graphics), so I've got to print it myself if I'm going to put it on an equal footing with the other cards. And the Christmas letter is, by its nature, greater than a card, for it is A DOCUMENT OF IMPORTANCE WHICH MUST BE COMPLETELY READ AND ASSIMILATED. These letters are sort of like a familial summons. Or, perhaps, a trial reckoning for judgment day. And they are always full of names, most of which I can't place. Despite regular drills, I can't remember all the names of my niece's and nephew's children. Cousins? Just barely, and forget about naming their kids! The names of my Aunts and Uncles I was good at, but there are only a few of them left now.
And so it goes.
I did have a weird case of "instant holiday karma" last Saturday. I had gotten an email from a blog-pal thanking me for an Icelandic-themed Christmas present. I then stepped out for a short errand, and when I returned a small package from an old sweetheart had come in the mail, containing a surprise gift:
It also had a letter, with an explanation. I found out later her family has a tradition of having a little story attached to their gifts.
It isn't often that I link to a blog post about American business practices, but the latest "Fake Steve Jobs" rant is a doozy. Satire isn't everyone's cup of tea, and sarcasm even less so, but FSJ's (tech writer Day Lyons) imagined phone call between Steve and the president of AT&T to discuss AT&T's recent plea to iPhone users to "use less" data-intensive applications on their devices. Fake Steve has never been more on-the-mark, especially when he expands the topic to cover U.S. business philosophy in general. NSFW language.
I brought home more than happy memories from my recent Iceland trip, and of all the things I did bring home, this slim volume was perhaps the most delightful and certainly the most unexpected discovery. It was first published in 1932 in a collection of stories (Fótatak manna) and was published in English by Helgafell in 1959. This a story of two sisters in a fishing town in Iceland, taking place over a span of years in the early part of the twentieth century.
This is a book whose form is shaped by a third-person omniscient narrative. As supplied by Laxness it is full of gossip and observations of small town life, sometimes quite funny, sometimes a bit misleading, but very effective in conveying a story of ordinary people whose lives seemed shaped by forces beyond their control. It is also a very sad story, a story of almost unbelievable familial cruelty, yet each turn of the plot somehow rings true. This isn't a morality play, for the very unusual ending ties it to ancient Icelandic beliefs rather than Christian principles. I read somewhere (sorry about losing the link) that Halldór was inspired by several true stories he had heard of- events which had occurred in his community's past, and indeed; this story has the feel of an oral history. While I read, I could almost hear my Swedish grandmother's voice as she used to gossip at the kitchen table- gossip is similar everywhere, and I suspect that the stylistic manner in which these stories are told is similar throughout the Nordic countries.
There was a movie made from the story by Guðný Halldórsdóttir in 1999 which was submitted for Academy Award consideration. The synopsis of that film seems to give the story a different dynamic in that the sisters' mother becomes the narrator.
While not a grand work of literature, it is a very well constructed story; those who have had issues in the past with Halldór's politics may find this kind of writing more palatable. Those interested in the dynamics of small town life should find it irresistible.
This is the third consecutive year that my Laxness blog-pal Rose and I have commemorated the date in 1955 when Halldór gave his memorable speech at the Nobel Prize banquet. Her review is here.
Up until the early '70s my maternal grandparents lived in a small farm house in central Minnesota. It was always a treat for us kids to visit, maybe not so much of a treat for my grandfather. The house's main floor had a kitchen and a "cold parlor", a room used only during the summer, but kept unheated the rest of the year. There were two small bedrooms upstairs, these were only used when the grandchildren would spend the night, they also were not heated in the colder months.
There was one other room, a room which adjoined the kitchen, a room which was a combined living/bed room. A oil heater, a bed, a few dressers, a chest and a couple of chairs were its furnishings. My grandparents lived a simple life, in a spartan aesthetic which comes with near-poverty. Grandfather read his paper and his Zane Grey novels in his rocking chair in this room. If the weather was bad and the kids couldn't be outside, they would play cards on the bed, while the grown-ups and our grandparent's neighbors would gossip in the kitchen. Sometimes, if the gossip was something the children shouldn't hear, they spoke in Swedish.
When I was very young, cans of beer were made of steel, with a flat top that needed a "church key" to cut a triangular opening, or with a conical top and a regular crimped cap- also needing an opener. They were sold primarily to fishermen and hunters who needed an unbreakable container for their "wildlife adventures." Most beer was sold in 12 ounce bottles, in cases of 24. There were even 7 ounce bottles- "ponies" as they were called- my mother would drink one every night before going to bed.
In the mid-sixties the "pop-top" tab can openers began to show up. They had a little aluminum ring which, when lifted, would detach from the can and in so doing create a die-cut opening in the top, no tools needed. Can beer sales exploded, especially among under-age drinkers. It was said by some teen-aged quaffers that if you dropped the tab back into the can, you would never get caught by the cops.
Beer manufacturers soon realized that packaging sold more beer than the actual product itself, and began making all sorts of innovations to attract the young drinker, with none more successful than the "Tall Boy." 16 ounces of the most god-awful swill imaginable, and as long as it was strong, it sold. Malt liquor was even stronger. This size race effectively ended when Foster's, in a 25.4 ounce can, became widely available. Beer marketing then turned toward inane slogans and concepts ("tastes great, less filling") and other hoopla.
In recent years, the trend in brewing has returned to making quality beers, beers made with good ingredients from traditional and innovative modern recipes; although in terms of quantity, the swill still wins.
And what materials things does a zen minimalist need to accompany him on his international journeys? Those things which he cannot do without?
Well even the most esoteric traveler needs clothes, preferably clothes to suit the climate. One word: Layers.
Of course some form of readily negotiable medium of exchange: i.e., money or plastic.
And then there are what I consider my personal "five essentials":
A passport. Gotta have it. (Unless you are a spy?)
A plane ticket (Unless going to a bordering country. As a spy?)
A map. (Unless you've done it before.) (Maybe a CIA map?)
A recording device. Modern cameras take pictures, record sound and movies, some even read text! (A Spy camera.)
And good, dark, chocolate. It is nature's most perfect food, you know. When stuck in an unpleasant airport (*cough, cough, Boston Logan, cough*), trying to sleep at 2 a.m., it helps to have something else besides a Dunkin' Donut to nibble on. Why not have the best?
That's all I need (well maybe a toothbrush and deodorant could be considered a necessity for some people.)
Today is the "official" U.S. release day (or at least Amazon's release date) of the Ólöf Arnalds Album Við og Við. I first became aware of Ólöf as a solo artist at the Iceland Airwaves in 2006. I literally walked in off the street knowing nothing at all about her and was, along with about twenty other people, stunned by that glorious voice, wonderful songs, and excellent playing. This is quiet and personal music. When I saw her she had just finished recording and her show was basically this album. This CD was a hit in Iceland, and has done very well in Europe. It has appeared on many "top 100" CD lists, both in 2007 and 2008, even in several countries where it hadn't even been released. Of course, with downloads nowadays the actual disc becomes more of an artifact, but this is a real old-style album, with a proper flow from start to finish. All of the songs are sung in Icelandic, which may put some people off- only for the first listen or two- then the music begins to work its spell.
I purchased my copy in Iceland where it included a very nice booklet (it was in Icelandic, of course) in a slip-case. The U.S. version may not have it, not that it matters much. There are numerous links on the internet to her performing in concert, this disc and the Pascal Pinon EP have supplied most of my music needs since my return from Iceland.