“Secret Movements of a Puppet Show”

Charles Churchill (1732-1764)

Charles Churchill (1732-1764)

Peace to such triflers; be our happier plan
To pass through life as easy as we can.
Who’s in or out, who moves this grand machine,
Nor stirs my curiosity nor spleen.
Secrets of state no more I wish to know
Than secret movements of a puppet-show:
Let but the puppets move, I’ve my desire,
Unseen the hand which guides the master-wire.—Charles Churchill, “Night: An Epistle to Robert Lloyd”

Iceland 2001: Rainbows and Waterfalls

Rainbow in the North of Iceland

Rainbow in the North of Iceland

We were in the north of Iceland, somewhere between Ásbyrgi and Húsavík. By we, I mean our guide Illugi from Lake Mÿvatn, a group of European twenty-somethings, and me, hobbling around with a cane due to severe osteoarthritis. It was a gorgeous day: Bright sunlight interspersed with rain-bearing clouds. A perfect day for rainbows. It was one of those days when one is likely to behold almost more beauty than a human being can stand.

Iceland does that to me. That’s one of the reasons I am bringing up these photographs from twelve years ago. The image of a place that is at once wild and beautiful keeps coming back to me. On a long bus ride along the famous Ring Road, one sees endless waterfalls cascading down from mountains and glaciers; and the changeableness of the weather makes rainbows frequent and spectacular. Sitting here in Westwood during the endless repetition of foggy mornings and hazy sunshine in the afternoon that is typical of L.A. spring weather, I yearn for the crystalline wide open spaces.

Soon. Soon.

The Falls at Dettifoss

The Falls at Dettifoss

Earlier on the same day that I shot the rainbow above, we visited Europe’s most powerful falls at Dettifoss along the Jökulsá á Fjöllum River, one of Iceland’s largest and longest.


Two Jerks from Oklahoma

Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK)

Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK)

At the same time that I am appalled at the tornado devastation in Oklahoma, I am also appalled at the weasels that Oklahomans chose to represent them in the U.S. Senate. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) and Tom Coburn (R-OK) both voted against aid to Hurricane Sandy victims in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut … while at the same time making darned sure that Oklahoma would get all the help it needed. Everyone knows that New Yorkers are all liberals, and they should be made to pay for it!

Hey, bozos, these aren’t the Confederate States of America! We’re all in the same boat—whether it’s an earthquake in California or Alaska, a hurricane in Louisiana, a volcanic eruption in Oregon, a drought in Texas, or a tsunami in Hawaii. We are all Americans and all need help when Mother Nature throws the book at us.

Irrespective of whether global warming is affected by what human beings do, we all suffer more or less equally from the vagaries of nature.

Tom Coburn (R-OK)

Tom Coburn (R-OK)

Either Inhofe or Coburn suggested that Oklahoma should be helped, but that help should be financed by cuts to Federal spending. That could work—under certain circumstances. Let me see: How much does a U.S. Senator earn? I am sure that both gentlemen, out of an excess of patriotism, would be willing to serve without compensation.

Favorite Films: Pickpocket (1959)

A Still from Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket

A Still from Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket with Martin LaSalle

One film I will never tire of watching is Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959). At a time when the French New Wave was in full flower, it was a resolutely old-fashioned film that was—in my opinion—better than any of the New Wave films. It starred two unknowns, the Uruguayan Martin LaSalle and Marika Green, and shows how a young man (who looks startlingly like a young Henry Fonda) falls in with a pickpocketing gang, and with a young woman who loves him.

Bresson only made a handful of films, but fully half of them are among the greatest films ever made. As I say this, I have to interject that you may or may not think as highly of him as I do: His films may seem preternaturally slow, but there is an unmistakeable development of character that seems missing altogether in the films of today. Pickpocket’s Michel and Jeanne are deeply, even tragically, in love with each other, in a world where crime seems to be the only way to get ahead.

If you are interested in seeing some of Bresson’s films, I highly recommend the following titles:

  • Diary of a Country Priest (1951)
  • A Man Escaped (1956)
  • The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962), based on the original trial records
  • Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)
  • Mouchette (1967)
  • Lancelot of the Lake (1974)

Bresson died in 1999, but his films will never die.

Iceland 2001: The Huldufólk

Those Strange Basalt Formations Could Be a Troll ... or the Home of an Elf

Those Strange Basalt Formations Could Be a Troll … or the Home of an Elf

Many Icelanders, particularly those who grew up before the island became cool, believe in the hidden folk. As a matter of fact, despite all that ice, it was once a very hot place—so hot that the residents bake rye bread by burying it in a hole only a couple of feet deep. Many places, like the original Geysir (yes, that’s how it is spelled) are so hot that a single misstep could plunge you into boiling mud.

There are numerous stories about the island’s hidden folk, or huldufólk, namely trolls, ogres, elves, mermen, and others. If you think I’m being tongue-in-cheek while writing this, allow me to refer you to a story that recently hit the news in Reykjavík.

An interest group called Hraunavinir (‘Lava Friends’) is planning to sue over the making of a new road to Álftanes from Engidalur in Garðabær, across the lava field Gálgahraun, and to a roundabout opposite Bessastaðir, the presidential residence.

Seer and piano instructor Erla Stefánsdóttir maintains that the elf boulder Ófeigskirkja will be destroyed in the process and fears that wrath of dwarves in the hidden world will cause accidents on the road, Fréttablaðið reports.

Now this is not the type of story one would encounter in the New York Times. What I found particularly interesting was that there were some serious follow-up stories, including one just a few days ago in which one resident suggested the whole problem could be eliminated by a couple of strategically-placed roundabouts.

In Reykjavík, there is even an Elfschool, which has been open for over twenty years. It is run by Magnus Skarpheðinsson, who is an expert on Iceland’s huldufólk.

When I look at that basaltic plug in the photo above, at Dimmuborgir on the shores of Lake Mývatn in Northeast Iceland, I think that it may well be a petrified troll who hung around after sunset, or the residence of elves, who venture forth from their stony fastness to confound the ways of men.

Southern California in Bloom

Star Jasmine on a Chain Link Fence

Star Jasmine on a Chain Link Fence

The nicest thing about Southern California in the springtime is the proliferation of blossoms. Most prevalent is the Star Jasmine as shown above, scientific name Trachelospermum jasminoides. When I walked into Santa Monica yesterday morning, I saw jasmine bushes everywhere. The flowers emit a delightful scent that hits one in waves as one walks past a plant.

Even more spectacular is the flowering jacaranda tree, Family Bignoniaceae. Beginning in May and lasting through most of the summer, the trees, which seem to be everywhere, are full of purple blossoms. While they have no particular scent, the dropped blossoms do play havoc with the paint jobs of parked cars.

Both plants are “invaders” (albeit welcome ones) from other parts of the globe. (Of course, most of the human inhabitants are invaders, too, in their own right.) The star jasmine hails from Malaya, and the jacaranda from South America. Shown below are jacarandas in the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires:


Jacarandas in Buenos Aires

Other than the fact that it marks the end of tax season, these two plants make Southern California a beauty spot every May and June. Now if only the marine layer would go away!

Bulgarian for a Day

Bagpipe (Gaida) Player and Singer/Keyboard Player

Bagpipe (Gaida) Player and Singer/Keyboard Player

When my neighbor told me about a Bulgarian Festival in Culver City today, I thought it would be fun to attend with Martine and be Bulgarians for a Day.

Well, not quite. Neither of us could speak the language, but we liked the music and dancing. The latter is similar to Greek dancing, but much faster and more energetic. And the Gaida, or Balkan bagpipe, produced an exotic sound that was infectious.

There was a limited menu of Bulgarian foods, including kebapche and doner kebabs with a cold bean salad, cole slaw, and two types of cakes, including a baklava and a kind of cheese cake made with feta.

All told, we spent two hours at the festival. Then the rock music came on, and we left. Neither of us particularly care for ear-splitting music, especially since it made it difficult to talk with anyone.