August 20, 2015

August 20, 2015

Parks and Recreation

When I was your age, parks were different from what they are now. I was reminded of this when I read about an enterprising DC-area family who created a guide to Arlington’s 70 parks. The guide includes ratings “on the different features, like how challenging the playground was, how much shade each has and if it had bathrooms.” The kids “liked playgrounds that had more challenging features, like rock climbing walls or climbing nets.”

Hang on. What? Rock climbing walls? Bathrooms? SHADE?

As a kid on Milwaukee’s south side, my main haunts (Maitland, Copernicus, and Tippecanoe parks) featured some swings, that spinning platform thing, and maybe a wooden structure you could climb on. Think this:

(By the way, I had to Google “old playground” to get that image because simply Googling “playground” brings up the colorful monstrosities delighting kids these days. BAH.)

Among the things you DON’T see in this picture are rock climbing walls, bathrooms, or shade. The slide was made of metal and 100% exposed to sun. The wooden frame would result in your getting at least a splinter a week. The ground—if you were lucky—was littered with just a few cigarette butts.

It was glorious.

Because when I was a kid, you spent the day having adventures, often at the playground. That wooden structure was actually a castle, or an airplane, or a skyscraper, or a laboratory. You tried to swing the swing ALL THE WAY AROUND, because someone knew someone who knew someone who had done that once. You dug in thesand looking for arrowheads because we all knew Wisconsin was chock full of Native American artifacts. (Years I looked for arrowheads: 25. Arrowheads I found: 0.)

It was dirty and dangerous. If you fell off the monkey bars, you landed hard onto unforgiving sand. (From what I can tell, playgrounds today are covered in recycled water bottles mixed with condescension.) If you did scrape a knee or get a splinter, you knew exactly what was required to procure Bactine, tweezers, and a bandage without being detected. Do kids today even understand the nightmarish sting of Bactine? Is Bactine just an app now?

I don’t begrudge kids their newfangled play technology; time marches on. Particularly in big cities, where everyone lives piled atop each other and no one has yards or driveways. But I’m afraid that for every climbing wall and bathroom gained, some imagination is lost.

Safety first, I guess.

August 12, 2015

August 12, 2015

Things I’ve Read: Unnecessary Canon Additions Edition

It’s been a summer of teaching old dogs new tricks, hasn’t it? I’ll leave reviews of the newest Dr. Seuss book to people with kids and/or souls, and stick to two books that were a little more in my wheelhouse.

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

As you probably know, Watchman was a rough draft of the universally-loved* classic To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee’s editor read Watchman, realized the childhood flashbacks were the best part, and counseled Lee to write a book set wholly at that time rather than one that moves between Scout’s past and present.

And here’s the thing about editors: sometimes, they’re RIGHT. Because the childhood flashbacks are just about the only thing in this book that aren’t a mess. Without the background of Mockingbird, the reader has no reason to care about these characters since there’s almost no driving action or suspense. Though the book opens with adult Scout on a train ride to Alabama (promising!), her arrival in Maycomb puts an end to the travelogue and cues up the casual racism.

Which, look: I get it. This book was written and set in the 1950s and it was a different time. I repeat: IT WAS A DIFFERENT TIME. The attitudes and language in the book must be considered in that context. It’s not that I was offended. I was bored…bored by Scout’s inner struggles regarding her father, her fiancé, Maycomb’s racist community leaders, et al.

Harsh as it seems, this appears to be an instance of an interesting kid growing into a boring adult. It happens all the time. Harry Potter is probably an accountant now or some such.

Read this if you seek completeness (as I did). There’s not much other reason.

Grey by E.L. James

I was a little mislead about what I was getting into with Grey. I thought it was the entire 50 Shades trilogy from Christian’s POV. Turns out it covers just the events of the first book. So much for completeness.

It’s been quite some time since I read the trilogy, so I didn’t remember what was coming as I read (no pun intended, ew). I had hoped for a little more insight into Christian’s background, since I find him the far more interesting character. Call me a misogynist (I certainly do), but Ana seems to be there mostly to be there.

Alas, other than a few childhood flashbacks (indicated by italics, which is apparently some kind of typography commandment), most of Christian’s time is spent using his ostentatious wealth and/or genitalia. I guess that’s the life of a playboy.

Read this if you seek titillation (I didn’t). There’s not much other reason.

*I came to Mockingbird late in life, since the tiny religious schools I attended didn’t discuss race relations and certainly didn’t acknowledge the existence of rape outside the Old Testament. The Scarlet Letter made everybody PRETTY CLAMMY and everybody in that was white. So I had to pick up Mockingbird—and a host of other classic works—once I graduated, was allowed to think on my own, etc.

August 4, 2015

August 4, 2015

Iceland, Day 5: The Silver Circle

The last full day of my Iceland trip, the day of the Silver Circle tour, dawned sunny and clear (TWO DAYS IN A ROW, WHAT WHAT HEY-O). There was some initial confusion, because between the time I booked the tour and the time I went on the tour, it changed names. “The Silver Circle” became “Vikings, Waterfalls & Hot Springs.” IMO, the new, more-explicit name is at least 30% less sexy. But whatever, man.

We were a group of five: me, TheBoy, a couple from Norway (!), and the guide. We got a fancy van (technical term) and drove from Reykjavik to our first stop: Hvalfjörður, the whaling fjord.

Not our actual fancy van, but very similar. We each got, like, a whole row of seats. SWANK.

What with the worldwide popularity of the “Save the Whales” movement, Hvalfjörður is home to one of the last remaining active whaling plants. We drove past but couldn’t stop, because the place was locked-up, Fort Knox style.

I assume Auric Whalefinger sits inside, stroking a white cat.

According to our guide, his childhood involved field trips to this place. Now? You’re not getting in for love or money. THANKS, PETA.

Anyway, the fjord had much more to offer in the way of scenic beauty. I mean, mirror lakes, big skies, hills-are-alive kind of beauty.

Taken from the middle of a road. The guide said it was fine. You know what? It was.

Next, Borgarnes, home to the Settlement Museum. Two lengthy exhibits, one about the founding of Iceland and another about one of its mythic figures, Egil. You were forced to use the audio tour, which worked out okay because the exhibits were basically stories told via folk art. I wasn’t allowed to take any pictures (and for once, I didn’t), but here’s someone else’s to give you some idea of what I was dealing with.

Credit where credit’s due: The exhibits were creative and varied. I’m just spoiled by the Smithsonians.

Since all that audio touring was hungry work, lunch in Fossatún was next. Fossatún, as far as I can tell, consists of one motel/restaurant/camping ground. Luckily for me, the view from the patio was GORG.

Added bonus: My lamb stew came with an egg on it for no obvious reason.

That side salad is the very definition of "anemic."

The first afternoon stop was Deildartunguhver, the highest-flow hot spring in Europe. Imagine 200-degree water gushing out of the ground at 48 gallons per second and you’ve pretty much got the gist.

Our next stop was Reykholt, where we learned all about Snorri Sturluson, one of Iceland’s most significant historic figures. He’s sort of their Homer; he wrote down a lot of the myths and history back in the early 13th century. His original homestead now has a church, school, and other stuff on it, but there’s a little museum and the Norwegian couple traveling with us LOVED it. Apparently Snorri’s huge in Norway. Who knew? (Answer: The Norwegians.)

The man, the myth, the Snorri.

Now here’s where things get hairy, and the one regret I have about the trip. The next stop was supposed to be a drive through the second-highest pass in Iceland to a glacier walk, which was something I knew TheBoy really wanted to do. This tour is only offered in June, July, and August because the pass is snowed-over and impassable (ha) the rest of the year. Alas, IT WAS STILL SNOWED OVER. BOO. Obviously global warming is a myth.

Our consolation prize was Hraunfossar and Barnafoss, two waterfalls. Hraunfossar was more visually impressive…

…but Barnafoss legend is cooler. Quoth Wikipedia:

Many Icelandic folk tales have been associated with Barnafoss, the most famous being about two boys from a nearby farm, Hraunsás. One day, the boys' parents went with their ploughmen to a church. The boys were supposed to stay at home, but as they grew bored they decided to follow their parents. They made a shortcut and crossed a natural stone-bridge that was above the waterfall. But on their way, they felt dizzy and fell into the water and drowned. When their mother found out what had happened, she put a spell on the bridge saying that nobody would ever cross it without drowning himself. A little while later, the bridge was demolished in an earthquake.


Fittingly, our last stop was a return to Þingvellir. Our visit during the Golden Circle tour of Day 2 was an overcast bust that we'd tried to make the best of. I didn't mention that we got separated from the group and I almost threw my first Unesco World Heritage Site tantrum. This time around, it was partially cloudy and our guide stuck with us, so we got to better understand the significance of the site as well as partly-sunny views of it and the local wild horses.

Since the sixth and final day or our trip involved going from hotel to airport, this is where I’ll leave it. Iceland’s a strong recommend: the perfect mix of unique nature and ancient history.

July 24, 2015

July 24, 2015

Iceland, Day 4: Whale Watching and the Blue Lagoon

Because we had full daylong tours scheduled for days 3 and 5 of this Iceland trip, we took it a little easier on day 4. In the morning, we went whale watching (not to be confused with "whale eating," which I did on day 2).

As we walked to the dock, we were happy to see that the weather was finally—FINALLY—going to cooperate. Blue skies, sun, and temps in the 50s. Downright BALMY.

Iceland doesn't have an Army, but it does have a 3-ship Coast Guard. Ooh-rah.

We boarded the whale watching ship (one of several, hashtag capitalism), put on ridiculous coverall outfits for warmth, and headed onto the bay.

I will never look more outdoorsy than I do here.

Reykjavik, lookin' good.

We tooled around for a bit, looking for puffins, dolphins, and minke whales. We ended up seeing all three, though the fact that they were moving quickly and in the water make picture-taking very tricky.

Pretty much my best shot. You had to be there.

After a quick lunch at 10-11, the Icelandic version of 7-11, we hopped on another bus and rode to the Blue Lagoon, Iceland's most-visited attraction.

Not to be confused with the Blue Lagoons of other countries.

The Blue Lagoon is a geothermal spa. Its pools are made of mineral-rich wastewater from the nearby geothermal power plant (not as gross as it sounds). People can pay to swim, get covered in mud, and all the other sorts of spa-ish (spa-y?) things people do at spas. We saved ourselves hundreds of dollars and just walked around. The unnaturally opaque blue water combined with the rocky landscape were surreal.

Once we got back to Reykjavik (the Blue Lagoon's near the airport, so it's a 50-minute ride to town), we went back to Hallgrímskirkja to get pictures with blue sky rather than the grey sky of day 1.

Not too shabby.

In Day 5: A fjord, Snorri, and a return to Þingvellir.

July 13, 2015

July 13, 2015

Iceland, Day 3: The South Coast and Jökulsárlón

The third day of our trip was (alas) cloudy and damp. On the itinerary: an all-day tour of Iceland’s south coast, highlighted by a visit to the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon. An overview of the route we took:
See that big white blob? That’s the Vatnajokull glacier. It’s GIANT. More on that in a bit.

As you can see from the map, it takes a bit of driving to get to Jökulsárlón. We passed a lot of farmland on the way, which honestly started out pretty comparable to the farmland you’d see in America, plus or minus a volcanic hill or two.

Fields, sheep, trees? Could be Minnesota.

We got to visit the Skógafoss waterfall, which is probably delightful in good weather. In rainy weather, it’s pretty much “I get it, universe.”

Umbrellas pulled double-duty.

After lunch in the town of Vik—I was unable to confirm whether residents refer to themselves as “Vikings” but DEAR LORD I hope they do—the landscape started to take a distinct turn and feel more like something out of a Ridley Scott film.

What happened to the grass? Have we gone Interstellar?

Then the grass would come back along with snowcapped mountains and you’d be fine:


Then you’d be all “O HAI GLACIER.”


That was my introduction to Vatnajökull, Iceland’s largest glacier and Europe’s largest by volume and second-largest by area. It covers 8% of Iceland and averages 1300 feet thick. It’s a lot of ice, and famous ice at that—it was the set of the opening of Bond film A View to a Kill and some Game of Thrones action. My next steps were obviously to figure out if I could touch and/or lick the glacier.

Turns out, I could, thanks to Jökulsárlón. It’s Iceland’s deepest lake, and was formed when the glacier receded from the Atlantic Ocean. It’s also filled with icebergs of all shapes and sizes.

Many of these icebergs auditioned for Titanic.

I got on the nearest amphibious boat, pulled on a life vest, and (figuratively) dove in. Pressure, temperature, and volcanic ash make the icebergs a weird combination of blue, black, and white. Even on a grey day, it was transfixing.

Midway through the ride, our guide whipped out a small glacier, chiseled off bite-sized pieces, and handed them out. It was like free samples at Costco and I was ON BOARD.

We also saw a lot of birds and one saucy seal.

“Come hither.”

The drive back to Reykjavik offered one more surprise: Seljalandsfoss, a 200-foot waterfall that you can walk behind. Let me tell you: it was treacherous. Wet, steep, and not at all ADA-compliant.

Once I got back there, though, the noise and motion were the absolute definition of “majestic.”

It was a big day, made even bigger by my discovery at the Vik service center where we had lunch of an I  Iceland Hello Kitty. WHO KNEW?

The beginning of a beautiful friendship. I call her "Hâllo Kitty."

In Day 4: Whales, dolphins, geothermal runoff. Y’know, the usual.

June 30, 2015

June 30, 2015

Iceland, Day 2: Gullfoss, Geysir, and Geothermal Shenanigans

The second day of our trip dawned bright and early, in that Iceland gets about 21 hours of sun a day in June. Geographical phenomenon aside, we were about to embark on a daylong tour of the so-called Golden Circle, a troika of Iceland’s most famous sights.

We started, for some reason, by stopping at Nesjavellir Geothermal field to take pictures of the steaming ground. Since this was my first encounter with geothermal activity, I was down with it. As the week progressed, I became less so. “The ground is steaming?” *snaps picture* “Let’s keep moving.”

First official stop: Þingvellir, site of the world’s first Parliament in 930. (Icelandic note: That letter that looks like a capital P is pronounced “th.” So Þingvellir is “Thingvellir.”) That Parliament was called the Alþingi (Althing), and is the source of the word “thing.” BOOM. KNOWLEDGE BOMB.

As if that weren’t enough, Þingvellir is also where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet. The area’s quite seismically active as a result, and those ponds in the picture above have all formed in the millennium since 930.

“In this corner…North America…and in this corner…Eurasia…ARE YOU READY TO RUMBLE?!

In the parking lot at Þingvellir, we were reminded that 54% of Icelanders believe in elves:

During one tour, our guide told us all about how elves are in the Bible. Not the KJV, obviously.

Second stop: Gullfoss, one of Iceland’s many notable waterfalls.

On a sunny day, there are delightful rainbows. Google it.

For quite some time, the Powers That Be wanted to turn Gullfoss into a power plant. They were prevented from doing so largely by the efforts of Sigríður Tómasdóttir, known as Iceland’s first environmentalist. She’s memorialized at Gullfoss.

Don’t mess with Siggy. Also, probably don’t call her Siggy.

Third stop: Geysir, a geyser whose name is in fact the derivation of the English word “geyser.” BOOM. SECOND KNOWLEDGE BOMB.

Before we were let off the bus, our guide made sure to tell us not to touch the water, stand downwind of the geysers, etc. The whole site was covered in caution signs, too.

Too bad I only speak Fahrenheit, baby.

The geyser erupted every 5 minutes or so, so I was able to see it both close up and from afar. You really needed both perspectives, since the thing’s so huge. (That’s what she said.)

Note TheBoy at far left.

After a quick visit to Skálholt Church, one of Iceland's sees from 1056 until 1785, we made our final stop: Hellisheiði Geothermal Power Station, third largest in the world. Our tour guide was from Florida, so insert gripes about foreigners coming into our country and taking our jobs.

That Florida-to-Iceland move has to entail some climate whiplash.

The plant’s interior and exterior were filled with heavy machinery, all of which is probably interesting to people who like heavy machinery.

I myself at this point was ready for dinner, because it was to be the spotlight meal of the trip: the seven course Icelandic Feast at Sushi Samba.

Course 1: Brennivín Shot. According to Wikipedia, brennevin is schnapps made from fermented grain or potato mash and flavored with caraway. Tasted like licorice.

Course 2: Smoked Puffin and Minke Whale

Course 3: Arctic Charr. Very similar to salmon.

Course 4: Lobster Cigar. Think spring roll.

Course 5: Reindeer Slider.

Course 6: Lamb Chop. At this point, I was in such a food zone that I almost forgot to take a picture.

Course 7: Skyr Panna Cotta and Raspberry Sorbet. Ditto on forgetting to take a decent picture.

Stick a fork in me; I was done.

In Day 3: I eat a glacier, go behind a waterfall, and find my Icelandic soulmate.