Sunday, May 31, 2009

Mondays In Iceland - #4

The Atom Station

U.S. Military base, Keflavík

"But the people did nothing. The people are children. They are taught that criminals live in Skólavörðustígur and not Austurvöllur. Their faith in this wavers a bit, perhaps, from time to time, but when politicians have sworn often enough and hurrahed for long enough, they begin to believe it again. People don't have the imagination to understand politicians. People are too innocent."

Halldór Laxness' post-WWII satire The Atom Station has many parallels to the current Kreppa (crisis) in Iceland. As the story begins the country is in turmoil, there are demonstrations in the streets, and foreign powers threaten Iceland's recently won independence. Ugla (the name translates as "owl") is a young woman from the rural north, who finds employment as a housekeeper at the home of Búi Árland: Businessman, Doctor of Philosophy and Member of Parliament. In Ugla's eyes Búi's wife and children are spoiled rotten, symptomatic of the degenerate modern life in the city. When asked as to why she is in Reykjavík, Ugla says that she has come "south" to learn how to play the harmonium for church services back home. As the story progresses, however, she reveals that her real longing is to "...become a person, to know something, to be able to do something for myself..."

She takes "lessons" from a strange "organist" and his suspect circle of "friends." These lessons are as much about the way the world works as they are about music. Ugla also encounters a "cell" of Communists, further raising her awareness. Meanwhile, Búi hosts U.S. military men and members of parliament during negotiations to "sell the country" for an "atom station"- an event which did, in reality, lead to the existence of a U.S. military base in Keflavík for nearly sixty years.

All this inter-twined plot gives plenty of room for Laxness to explore the social issues of the day. Many of them, such as fraudulent deals by sham Icelandic businesses, read as if they were torn from today's headlines. Ugla's faith in the values of her rural upbringing is challenged, but she is ultimately true to it in her refusal to become Búi's mistress. Her decision to start a family with the somewhat shady man who fathered her child, while possibly not the best choice (although he is a Northerner), is a life of her choosing.

This book isn't on the epic scale of some of Laxness' other works, but I found it to be an enjoyable read- and much better the second time after I had gotten a little more background on its setting and themes. It has a much faster pace than most of his others, the whole novel unfolds in less than a year. Laxness again shows sensitivity and insight in handling a female character, and while Ugla is hardly the heroic figure portrayed in Salka Valka, her character has real depth. I've found myself quoting this book on more than one occasion. It might be a bit bewildering at times for the beginning Laxness reader, but it is a solid effort by a truly great novelist.

I'll leave you with these thoughts from the "simple" farm girl Ugla as she prepares to leave home:
"When the peace of Autumn has become poetic instead of being taken for granted...the last day of the plover become a matter of personal regret...the horse become associated with the history of art and mythology...the evening ice-film on the farm stream become reminiscent of crystal...and the smoke from the chimney become a message to us from those who discovered fire - then the time has come to say goodbye. The world-bacterium has overcome you, the countryside has turned into literature, poetry and art; and you no longer belong there."

My Laxness blog-pal Rose has also read and reviewed this book.

By Professor Batty

Comments: 16 

Friday, May 29, 2009

My Other Other Camera

I thought that I'd give my spy camera a rest today, and my big camera is just too much bother to use, so I snapped our lovely lilacs (in FITK purple, natch) with the built-in web cam in my MacBook. Or was it that I was surfing on the porch and just too lazy to get up? Either way, you can judge the results for yourself. Even CS4 can't help it much.

And the picture is, like its owner, backwards flipped.

By Professor Batty

Comments: 3 

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Ensculptic House

It was sometime in February, 1970. Our art teacher had arranged for us to take a field trip to "The Ensculptic House", one of those concepts that seemed like a good idea at the time. The idea was that you got some poles and Dacron fiber (like sail-cloth), set it up like big tent, then spray it with foam. You then cut out windows and doorways, and finally sprayed it again with concrete. Violá! Instant house.

It did possess an organic vibe, sort of like being in a fungus. There were twisting passages in it which led to odd little rooms, much like cells in a dungeon. People actually lived there; one of the rooms belonged to a teenage girl. She must have been mortified having strangers regularly parading through it. There was a little animated lamp by the bed stand which kept flashing the words "I Love You" over a sparkling, color-changing backdrop.

I went with my girlfriend and, consciously or not, the tour became our own little charade- we were the house-hunting couple- "Oh this would be nice for a reading room, I like the view from the other bedroom better, You could have your piano over there..."

The house is still there, recent pictures of the exterior find it looking kind of shabby now. Maybe someday, someday when I grow tired of living in a house, I'll buy the Ensculptic House, and raise mushrooms.

Update: The house is for sale, I've done another post about it.

By Professor Batty

Comments: 25 

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


The entry to our kitchen has always been an under-utilized area in our house. It gets a lot of traffic, to be sure, but only people passing into the kitchen or leaving out the back door. Despite having two couches, it doesn't invite dallying. When we first moved in the entry was three times the size and filled with junk. We've managed to keep the clutter under control, but those items which reside therein are invariably cast-offs from other, more livable rooms. What is the "problem area" in your domicile?

I may get inspired this summer and turn it into a mini-gallery, does anyone need a sofa or two?

By Professor Batty

Comments: 5 

Tuesday, May 26, 2009


For the second Sunday in a row I've found myself attending a musical production.

This time it was Caroline, or Change, book and lyrics by Tony Kushner, music by Jeanine Tesori. The venue was the big blue Guthrie theater in downtown Minneapolis. This is a different type of musical, with "through-composed" music: continuous and non-repeating, but with leitmotifs for different characters. Caroline is a maid working in the Gellman household in late 1963. The story concerns itself with social injustices set against a background of the changes happening during those momentous times.

Heavy theatrical fare, to be sure, and when smothered in dysfunction and guilt, it became excruciating. Every once in a while I come up against some form of performing art that catches me by surprise, but in a bad way. Usually, when presented with a new production, whether it is a book or film or piece of music, I try to wrap my head around it to try to see where it's coming from or going to. Sometimes I’ll just surrender to the whole experience, letting it wash over me. For a musical, it was surprisingly stodgy, with little real choreography. The instrumental music was performed well, however, and there was always a perfect sound balance between the orchestra and the singers.

This musical, and this production in particular, has been so highly praised that afterward I did some research on the internet, trying to make some sense of my reaction. There were clues, here and there, “wordy” was the pejorative most used by Kushner's detractors. Another criticism which came up more than once was the role of the 8-year-old Noah, who is, in effect, the male lead opposite Caroline. Making him a central character unbalanced the whole affair. Even cute kids have their limits and having to listen to one sing several tuneless art-songs tested mine. None of the characters had any redemptive qualities and I'm sure that that was the author's intent They were filled with bitterness, hatred and self-loathing (another of Kushner's recurring themes), so I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised when I left the theater infected with the sourness of the whole concept, a change in me that lingered the whole day.

My "feel-bad" musical experience of the year.

By Professor Batty

Comments: 3 

Monday, May 25, 2009

Mondays In Iceland - #3

Windows of Reykjavík

One of the first things I noticed in walking around the residential areas of Reykjavík was the idea of a window as a display. Perhaps it is due to the close proximity of many windows to the street, an innate Icelandic artistic sensibility, or just for the joy of it. Many of these windows are little works of art. From the traditional (above) to the avant-garde (below) there exists a "gallery of the street" that makes even a trip to the corner video store an adventure...

By Professor Batty

Comments: 1 

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Dawn Chorus

     The Dawn Chorus


Every morning now, each day it starts a little bit earlier.

With the first lightening of the northeastern sky comes the dawn chorus.

All the birds in the trees which surround my bedroom begin to sing.

Chirping, talking, declaring territory; all explanations for this behavior.

But I know better.

The birds are talking to me, giving me lessons.

As I dream, then waken, then dream again,

They know that I am listening, that I hear their every noise.

They are teaching me how live.

Their lesson is: life is joy.

I am no longer asleep.

By Professor Batty

Comments: 0 

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Friday on Saturday on Thursday

This Thursday's post is brought to you by Friday, our local bookstore's resident cat, pictured here last Saturday. Friday's intended role, I presume, is to keep the vermin population from nibbling on the leather bindings of priceless tomes.

Friday might believe otherwise. She assumes that all the customers have come to see her, offer her obeisance, and indulge in unfettered petting, kneading and massage. When she spies a chump (me) she makes her not-so-inconsiderable presence known. After several orgiastic minutes, I let her be. Later, when I was leaving, she gave my arm a vigorous swat from her elevated perch, as if to say; "Not so fast, there is still some unfinished business between us.

Some lovers are never satisfied.

By Professor Batty

Comments: 0 

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Old Switcheroo

Minnesota weather tends to change like a switch, in discrete increments, rather than turning slowly in the fashion of a potentiometer (volume knob.) On Sunday, it was warmer in Iceland than it was here. Come Tuesday, the furnaces of summer had been stoked; they quickly dispelled any lingering chill.

This means that I must change my wardrobe, while the woolens have been banished to the back closet, my floral summer print shirts are now front and center:

Middle of May. It could be worse? I suppose so.

By Professor Batty

Comments: 5 

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Venus, a Musical

Sunday afternoon found the Weaver and me in Northeast Minneapolis enjoying live musical theater in the historic Ritz. Chan Poling, the noted Minnesota musician, has been developing this project over several years. The story is a twist on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, except that in this case the doctor is named Maggie, who is dowdy and middle aged, employed in a cosmetics research lab. She discovers a youth serum which transforms her into "Venus": a ravishing young beauty. Her would-be beau and her power hungry boss both have conflicting interests in Maggie/Venus, but Maggie finally comes to a realization about her sense of self-worth, quits the lab, rejects the false "Venus" and accepts herself, and finds true love.

Although the book is thin, as is true with most musicals, it is really just a way to tie the songs together. I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the songwriting and the performances of the singers. There were, however, some major stylistic problems with the music's presentation. Besides Chan's songwriting contributions there were two music directors(!) and an arranger on board. It was no surprise then that the score sounded as if it had been hashed out by committee- funk tunes were played with a rock beat, the cast ensemble pieces seemed cluttered, there were no real grooves. The overall sound was shrill, lacking low bass and resonance in the singers' lower registers. The ballads fared much better, indeed, it would have been a welcome relief to hear the singers sing just one song a cappella; the constant tension between the instruments and the singing wasn't dramatic; it was just annoying.

It was capably directed and choreographed by Myron Johnson, who is also the Artistic Director of the Ritz. The scenic design (by Little & Co.) was done using video projections of computer animation on scrims, very effective for a production on this scale. For a brand-new work (we saw the tenth performance) it was impressive; it could certainly use some additional tinkering. Composer Poling (fourth from left, below) said as much when he joined a panel after the performance, discussing the production and its themes:

Perhaps the biggest problem of the whole concept was the idea that youth offers only superficial attractiveness. While this is certainly true of media and in advertising, having an older woman transform into a much younger one illustrates that youth has attributes which cannot be denied. It would take a rare actor to pull that trick off successfully. The Maggie/Venus transformation is crucial to making the whole concept "work"; a drama which contains a magical element must have magic in its execution. Leading lady Jennifer Leigh Warren (far right, above) is an accomplished actor and singer, but she is probably about a decade beyond the requirements of the role.

Despite these reservations, I appreciate the efforts of the entire cast and staff. Most theater we have been offered here of late has been relatively "safe." With the current downturn of the economy and dwindling support for the performing arts it is most encouraging to see local talent still producing ambitious new work.

By Professor Batty

Comments: 0 

Monday, May 18, 2009

Mondays In Iceland - #2

Tjarnargata, 2006

The morning sun causes these houses to glow.

On a hill next to the pond,

These fine structures stand as mute sentinels,

Overlooking the city's center.

By Professor Batty

Comments: 5 

Friday, May 15, 2009

Sweater Eggs

By Professor Batty

Comments: 5 

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Golden Boy

Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand.

~ F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Rich Boy, 1925

It was a routine scan job. Bigger than most, but not the biggest I'd ever done. When you got down to the nitty-gritty of it, I was a glorified xerox operator, converting old photos into 1's and 0's, then putting them on shiny discs of aluminized plastic.

I had settled into a pleasant, if not exactly stellar, career peering into other peoples' lives. The best part of the job was that every day there was something different: new wrinkles on family dynamics, history as told by a folding Kodak, a moldering pile of images and clippings, frozen moments in time, glaciers of images.

That particular morning I had worked most of the way into a large photo album. There were over one hundred pages of nearly a thousand snapshots pasted on rough black paper, dating from the turn of the 20th century until the early nineteen- fifties. One of the girls I had been watching grow up in the album was having her debutante ball in the old Lafayette Club. One photo in particular caught my eye. In it a group of young men in tuxes were standing around a microphone; in the center of the group was The Golden Boy.

The Golden Boy was as close to a sure thing as could be found on the prairies of Minnesota. With a family history in banking, The Golden Boy would grow up to create his own fame and wealth: in investments, in pro sports, in politics. His blood was a bit too blue for farmers and laborers to actually rally around him, but his real power in the political sphere was nonetheless as strong as if he had actually been elected. Buildings with his name would grace many colleges in the state; he was not stingy with his success.

But all that would come later. This night, the night of the photo, he was letting loose and singing with the abandon of youth. A leader even then, his well-oiled blond hair glowed as if afire, The Golden Boy in his greatest glory.

By Professor Batty

Comments: 1 

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Mr. Green Genes

Batty the gardener is hard at work again this year.

Back to the soil, Mother Nature and all that.

My crops are all in, and you're lookin' at 'em, bub.

Multicolor petunias in the old corner stump.

Keep 'em watered and they'll bloom all summer.

What? Were you expecting Versailles?

By Professor Batty

Comments: 2 

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Last Party/Wild Night

March 30th, 1979


Why not- a new one every weekend, maybe even two or three. A mix of people: friends, stoners, even a neighbor or two. Hi-Fi phono in the corner, when they played Junior Walker and the All Stars everybody danced. It didn't take much to prime the pump, a case of beer was plenty enough to get things rolling. And when they got out the papers and the baggies things started really "rolling." It could take a turn to the bizarre.

The last party got too weird. Crazy Mike got a furlough from the hospital, he was allowed out as sort of a test. When he saw the beer, he started pounding it down as if there was no tomorrow. A friend took him straight back to treatment. He never came out again. Peter, the dealer, showed up. What was once novel and exciting years ago- all his stories, potions and paraphernalia- was just creepy now, too many people had overdosed on his junk. Gene, Gene, the smokin' machine, would lose everything a few months later, lost in his pursuit of oblivion.

But one was always had a chance to get lucky; there were usually couples in the kitchen, exchanging words and glances, and only with each other. More than one hook-up turned permanent in that party house. And the troubles of the world were gone, if only for a few hours.

There were parties after that, of course, but they were dinner parties, or kids' parties. The Belfast cowboy's Wild Nights were over:
As you brush your shoes
And stand before the mirror
And you comb your hair
Grab your coat and hat
And you walk, wet streets
Tryin' to remember
All the wild nights breezes
In your mem'ry ever.

And ev'rything looks so complete
When you're walkin' out on the street
And the wind catches your feet
Sends you flyin', cryin'
The wild night is calling, alright
Wild night is calling.

All the girls walk by
Dressed up for each other
And the boys do the boogie-woogie
On the corner of the street
And the people passin' by
Stare in wild wonder
And the inside jukebox
Roars out just like thunder.

And everything looks so complete
When you're walking out on the street
And the wind catches your feet
Sends you flying, crying
Oooh, oo-ooh wee
The wild night is calling, alright
Oooh, oo-ooh wee
The wild night is calling

The wild night is calling
The wild night is calling
Come on out and dance Woah!
Come on out and make romance
Come on out and dance
Come on out; make romance

~Van Morrison

By Professor Batty

Comments: 3 

Monday, May 11, 2009

Mondays In Iceland - #1

Room With A View

Each morning would find me rising to this view over Reykjavík, with the silvery tones of the cathedral bell filling the air over the awakening city and moody Hallgrímskirkja towering in the distance.

By Professor Batty

Comments: 1 

Friday, May 08, 2009


Terrible news here on the literary front. Our library, due to budget cuts, has been forced to drastically trim its hours. We've lost 10 evening hours during the week and all of Sunday. Maybe we'll get some of that time restored after summer, but I doubt it. What's worse is that the three large community rooms will also be unavailable. Many diverse civic groups used these rooms for meetings.

And my after dinner bike-rides to the library are effectively finished. Personally, that's the worst blow of all.

By Professor Batty

Comments: 3 

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Dog's Cock...

...or, pernicious punctuation practices! It has come to my attention that my usage of punctuation may be on shaky ground! Stuart Jefferies, writing in the Guardian brings us up to speed on the use of those funny little specks which reside on the periphery of our keyboards! I had to laugh when he focused on the exclamation point, and its apparent resurgence, especially in email! Guilty as charged! (I will usually refrain from using multiples, except for comic effect!!!)

But seriously!

They're fun!

And easy to use!

And everybody knows exactly what they mean!

Unlike those troublesome semicolons; no; not those!

Whenever I ! in an email, it is because I'm really excited to be addressing the recipient! Really! I also like to use them in parentheses when words would fail to express my astonishment at a particularly absurd situation like this article(!) about punctuation.

Stuart's article did have this especially charming story:
The origin of the exclamation mark is uncertain. The first one appeared in print around 1400. The exclamation mark, it has been argued, derives from the Latin Io (which means joy). One day (we hypothesise) somebody wrote a joyful upbeat sentence and to clinch that sense, they concluded it by putting the second letter of Io under the first.

How lovely it would be if we could recapture that original, pre-ironic wonder that made writers slip the o under the I!

As far as my use of that punctuation is concerned: My a¡m is true!

Now about those ellipses...

By Professor Batty

Comments: 4 

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

By Request...

Rose wanted some more Suðurgata graveyard photos. Until I get back to take some new ones, here are a couple- just for the Hekla of it...

That was so much fun, I may just keep on doing this until October!

By Professor Batty

Comments: 3 

Tuesday, May 05, 2009


You've seen those travel sites which have that tempting button that simply says:


After a heart to heart with the Weaver (and a quick check of our finances), I did it. Garðastræti 40,  Apartment 90,  for five days in mid-October. Reykjavík, here we come!

By Professor Batty

Comments: 12 

Friday, May 01, 2009

Civil Defense

When I was young the letters CD denoted Civil Defense. Left over from World War II, the threat of nuclear annihilation gave the Civil Defense program a new life. We had the now infamous "duck and cover" drills in school, where we would cower under our desks, or stick our heads in our lockers. This was a nationwide system, with CD shelters in big cities and schools stocked with food, water and medical supplies stored in steel barrels. There was also a Geiger counter and other equipment for measuring radiation (as pictured.) I guess the idea was that survivors of the blast would congregate in these shelters until the radiation dropped down to a reasonable level.

When I was about seven, the CD system administrators thought that there should be a drill where all students would be let out of school early, to then make their way home as quickly as possible, (we all walked to school- there were no buses then) we would fill out a form with our time and return it the next day. The results would presumably give them information concerning our "readiness" in the face of an attack. Or something.

The day of the big drill happened to be on the day that I usually had choir practice at our church. To my young, somewhat unformed mind, this presented a dilemma. I knew from the past that I should never, ever, miss choir practice. Jesus wanted me for a sunbeam. If there was an attack, I thought that Jesus' house would be able to protect me far better than my house or school could. Also, the church was neared to school, I'd have less chance to be hit when I was in the open on the way home. I found an unlocked door in the church and went to my usual place in the choir stall. Just to be safe, I ducked down and covered my head.

The church secretary must have heard me come in, she came in and found me and scolded me, then told me to go home. When I got home, my mother was mad: "You were supposed to come straight home! Now you've ruined the test."

But I didn't die that day. Jesus saved me.

By Professor Batty

Comments: 4 

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