Left Whingers

Between the Devil and the Deep Blues

Between the Devil and the Deep Blues

If you’ve been reading this column for a while, you know that I am hostile to the ideals, such as they are, of the American Right. Does that mean that I am comfortable with the Brie and Chablis crowd of whining, whingeing Progressives?

By no means! Every day I cringe at the political e-mails I receive from various Democratic operatives soliciting funds and great gobs of my time as a volunteer. (To what—snarl at voters?) And if I don’t give generously, it’ll all be my fault what happens were the Right Whingers to take control and turn this into a Totalitarian Taliban Theocracy.

On one hand, there is outrage and whingeing; and, on the other, outrage and whingeing. I guess it all depends whether one feels more at home with Pentecostals or Agnostics, whether one prefers NASCAR or Grand Opera, whether one listens to the likes of Rush Limbaugh or Stephanie Miller.

Well, I’ll take neither, thank you. Life is difficult enough without all those pre-packaged ideologies to which one has to subscribe. And if you think that makes me wishy-washy, I’ll be happy to disabuse youse!

Sheer Funk

“Fighting Joe” Hooker

“Fighting Joe” Hooker

It is no secret that, until he decided on Ulysses S. Grant, President Lincoln had nothing but trouble with his generals in charge of the Army of the Potomac. They were specialists in losing battles, such as Ambrose Burnside at Fredericksburg, who would have attacked again into the teeth of Robert E. Lee’s guns had Lincoln not removed him. When he did, he replaced him with “Fighting Joe” Hooker, one of the more promising of his subordinates.

At the outset, Hooker looked good. Not only was he dashing and debonair, but he seemed to have put together a good plan for attacking—and encircling—Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

But then, something happened. Lee and Stonewall Jackson worked out a highly successful attack on Hooker’s right flank at Chancellorsville. That flank folded, spectacularly. And then, surprisingly, Hooker folded. It was a case of sheer funk. He started issuing contradictory orders while Lee picked him apart. Even when one of Hooker’s generals (Sedgewick)  re-took Fredericksburg, it still made Chancellorsville one of the North’s most spectacular losses.

It reminds me of the time I was backing up my car in a parking lot, not thinking someone was right behind me. It was a woman driver who just panicked as she saw my car coming at her at the frightening speed of 5 mph.

There had been no sign in previous battles that Hooker would lose his marbles once he was put in charge. But he did nonetheless.

Incidentally, the term hooker to refer to a prostitute comes from Joe Hooker’s surname. Before he took charge, he was quite a drinker and parter. Perhaps he should have had a few drinks at Chancellorsville, together with some loose women. The result couldn’t have been worse.

Unfortunately for Lee, he lost his favorite subordinate, Stonewall Jackson, to a case of friendly fire. What was at first a wounded arm wound up being an amputated arm followed by a fatal case of pneumonia.

Iceland Is for the Young

The Gamla Youth Hostel in Ísafjörður

The Gamla Youth Hostel in Ísafjörður

For some reason, I usually wind up staying at a youth hostel at least once on each vacation. In Iceland, it was because I delayed too long waiting for Martine’s health to improve before making my reservations. The impression I had was that not too many people traveled up north to the remote Westfjords. It turned out that I was wrong. Although I got two nights at the business-class Hotel Ísafjörður, my last two nights in the Westfjords were to be spent in a dorm room at the Gamla Guesthouse.

Now this brings up an interesting contradiction. Although I prefer to stay in a room myself with a made-up bed (a shared bathroom presents no particular difficulties for me), I always fear that my goods would be stolen by my fellow roommates. And, not only do I avoid talking to other tourists staying at the same hotel or guesthouse, I tend to make more friends with the young who stay in the hostels.

My roommates were a German couple and a French student named Jamie, all three of whom I grew to like—to the extent that I didn’t mind sharing information with them. (With American tourists dressed in their usual country-club resort togs, I usually answered all questions in Hungarian with a confused look on my face.)

The Westfjords were full of European backpackers looking for the weather to break so that they could catch a launch to the even more remote Hornstrandir area across the fjord. A hike there usually involved several days and could be ruined by the typically bad weather of the Westfjords.

So why did I like these young people so much? For one thing I admired their courage. I would never venture to carry a tend, sleeping bag, and several days of food on my bag with the threat of uncertain weather looming. For another, for the most part my fellow tourists at the Gamla Youth Hostel (shown above) were a congenial set of people. What I shared in common with them is that I had booked my trip myself and did a lot of preparation reading about the history and the culture. I even knew a fair bit about the Hornstrandir Peninsula, though I had to admit I was too old for its rigors.

In Iceland, there are two classes of accommodation, which can be roughly described as made-up bed accommodations and sleeping-bag accommodations. For the latter, a bed is provided—but without a pillow or cover. (I paid extra, because I knew what it was like to sleep in a stinky sleeping bag from past experience.) So I had what was, in essence, a made-up bed in a sleeping bag accommodation youth hostel. I got a few snarky looks from the management, but I succeeded in pointing out to them that Booking.Com, through which I made the reservation, said nothing about sleeping bags. And I was willing to pay the extra 1,700 kronurs for breakfast at the neighboring guesthouse under the same management, which was pretty good. (I especially liked the lumpfish caviar.)

Needless to say, I felt accepted even though I was by far the oldest person staying at the hostel.

Politics and Food

Sesame Green Onion Bread

Sesame Green Onion Bread

This last week, Martine watched a replay of an old Huell Howser visit to the China Islamic Restaurant in Rosemead. Now I used to go there some twenty years ago, but for some reason I thought the restaurant had gone out of business. A quick Internet check showed me that, no, it was still there.

Today, we drove out to Rosemead and I was able to indulge in what I used to eat there: sesame green onion bread (pictured above) and dough slice chow mein with lamb. I was in seventh heaven. I suspect, however, that my glucose reading this evening will be a tad on the high side, so I’ll have to compensate. Then again, I was waiting for twenty years to relive those flavors. So it goes.

Although I am not Muslim and do not find myself drawn to Islamic beliefs, I think that politics and religion have zero effect on my tastes in food. Even Martine, who is considerably to the right of me, loves hummus and chicken kebabs.

Afterwards, we drove to the 99 Ranch Market in San Gabriel for supplies to cook my own chow mein during the week. I was low on Kimlan Soy Sauce (my favorite), corn starch, bean sprouts, and Nanka Seimen chow mein noodles. The 99 Ranch Market is a huge Chinese supermarket with great prices for fruit and vegetables. The pork I bought there for the chow mein was also a good deal.

Martine was a bit put out by the crowds at the market, but I knew why the crowds were there.



Downtown Ísafjörður in the Westfjords

Downtown Ísafjörður in the Westfjords

It took a while, but now I have all 1,017 photographs I took in Iceland (minus a few obvious nixies) available on Yahoo! Flickr. You can see them by clicking here.

Eventually, I will take the hundred or so best pictures, create title pictures and maps, and add a soundtrack. Then I’ll try to get some cloud space and store it there. At that point, I will let you know how to access it..

Every once in a while, you will see a dark vertical line at the right edge of the picture. That started happening when I accidentally dropped my camera on Austurstræti in Reykjavík. Now when I take a picture, the camera makes a funny noise and some, but not all, of the pictures have the dark line. Otherwise, they seem to be all right.


From Point A to Point B—Without Crowflies

Beautiful But Deadly

The Westfjords of Iceland have only some 7,000 residents. Although many formerly cinder-only roads are now paved, there are several very good reasons why visiting motorists outrageously underestimate the driving time between two points. For instance, let’s take the land route between Reykjavík and Isafjördur. As the crow flies, the distance only amounts to 222 kilometers; but, alas, there are no crowflies in Iceland.

If you insist on paved roads all the way, it takes between 6-7 hours to take the Ring Road and branch off north of Bogarnes to Route 61 via Holmavík. That part’s fairly straightforward, but then you have follow the fjords as they zig and zag along Isafjördurup for some three hours. That’s about 30 km (18 miles) of the air distance per hour. Check out this circuitous route:

Check Out the Road South East of Isafjördur

Check Out the Road South East of Isafjördur to Holmavík

For over three hours from Isafjördur south, one must follow the contours of the fjords and of the giant basaltic hogbacks that stretch out like fingers and define them. Only at one point is there a bridge that cuts the distance—slightly.

A slightly faster option is to drive to Stykkisholmur and take the Baldur car ferry to Brianslækur, driving the 90% cinder Route 60 due north to Isafjördur. (The only benefit on this route is that one gets to see the falls at Dynjandi, which is one of the most lovely in all of Iceland.) It takes an hour less, but driving this road will take its toll on you in other ways. At the end is a spectacular tunnel between Þingeyri and Isafjördur. (Without that tunnel, I don’t know whether it is even possible to visit the southern part of the Westfjords without air transport.)

I suspect that many tourists just fly to the Westfjords and rent a car there.

Many long-distance buses in the Westfjords only run three days a week. The Sterna bus between Isafjördur and Holmavík on a Sunday was so full of backpackers and their impedimenta that there was barely room to get in or out.

But was it worth it? Yes, indeed. And I’d to it again!

Dental Brinkmanship

I Was Taking a Big Chance

I Was Taking a Big Chance

Just before I was about to leave for Iceland, I noticed that I not only had a cavity, but that it felt big enough to park a Chevy Suburban with room to spare. Moreover, when I ran my tongue over the spot, it felt sharp. I knew there wasn’t time to get the problem fixed before liftoff on June 19, so I took a big chance. After all, the worst that could happen was that I would have to see an Icelandic dentist.

On Saturday and today, I saw my own dentist; and he confirmed what happened. My crown on the second last top molar was breached both from the top and from the side. What I was feeling with my tongue was the sharp edge of what remained of the crown. There was a 50/50 chance that I would have to see a consulting dentist on an emergency basis for a quick root canal. Fortunately, Dr. Sun informed me that there were a few molecules of tooth tissue separating the cavity from the molar’s nerves. I lucked out.

This morning, he built up what was for all intents and purposes a new tooth on top of the foundation rubble that remained of my molar. First, he put in some insulating material called dycal to prevent the nerve from being irritated by the reinforced concrete with rebar that formed my repaired tooth. Later, he will replace the broken crown with a new one made with industrial diamonds.

All in all, I think I got off rather cheaply.

The Touch Screen Fugitive

This Interface Is Not for Me!

This Interface Is Not for Me!

When I lost my cell phone at the Ringling Brothers circus about ten days ago, all my friends assumed that I would replace it with a smart phone. Surprise! I bought one of the rare dumb phones, an LG model that does not have a touch screen interface.

What do I have against touch screen interfaces? I guess I associate smart phones with people who don’t know what to do with their hands, so they spend their lives tweezling around with a microscreen to play games, devise phantom to-do lists, send and read e-mails, and in general replace life with a digital simulacrum .

So today during lunch hour, I took my turn waiting in line at the local AT&T store, while some bonzoid in shorts apparently tried to stage a hostile takeover of the phone company using Lithuanian zinc futures. He took so long that the rep who was helping him went off to lunch, leaving him on hold on the phone.

My cell phone, on the other hand, is used almost exclusively for making calls. I don’t even like to receive calls on my cell. But then, whenever I removed my old Samsung cell phone from its holster, it would automatically shut down the incoming call.

I’m not saying I’ll never get a cell phone, it’s just that I’m not interesting at this time in expanding my cell phone usage, or dirtying up a tiny screen, making it even harder for my bad eyes to read it.

Running Around in the Land of the Midnight Sun

My Guesthouse in Reykjavik at 11 pm

My Guesthouse in Reykjavik at 11 pm

My first day in Iceland began with my arrival at Keflavík Airport around 6:30 am Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). (I should add that it is not Daylight Savings Time, which is not needed when it’s light 24 hours a day.) In Los Angeles time, it was only 11:30 pm on the previous day. I knew that my sleep pattern would be massively disrupted if I tried to hit the sack at that point.

What I did was to go all over the place so I wouldn’t sleep until around 11 pm GMT. To that end, here is a partial listing of what I did on the first day:

  1. The first stop was the excellent information center of The Icelandic Travel Market at Bankastræti 2, where I picked up a 3-day Reykjavík Welcome Card and some local bus schedules.
  2. In 2001, I never got a chance to visit the original saga manuscripts; so I took care of that right away by stopping in at The Culture House.
  3. Then I walked over to the city’s famous hot dog stand: Bæjarins Beztu and got eina pylsur með öllu (what they call a hot dog with everything). Very tasty!
  4. Then it was off to the old port to book a Sea Adventures puffin tour by boat to the Isle of Lundey (“Puffin Island”) in Faxafloi Bay.
  5. I had some time to kill, so it was off to the Settlement Museum, also known as Reykjavík 871±2, where I saw the ruins of one of the original farmhouses from the 9th century A.D.
  6. I hung around the Old Harbor waiting for the puffin tour, which I loved.
  7. Next: Get a great fish dinner, using my Reykjavík Welcome card 10% discount at The Fish Company, where I dined on arctic char and other Icelandic fish delicacies. It was what my British friends would call “splashing out,” but it was worth every penny!
  8. That put me in the mood for GoEcco’s Haunted Walk of Reykjavik at 8:00 pm local time.

By the time the Haunted Walk ended around 10:30 pm, I was feeling a bit haunted myself; so I trudged back to the Guesthouse Odínn, ready to hit the sack.

The Sack

The Sack

I expected to have trouble dealing with the sun being up 24 hours on the longest day of the year, so I had purchased a sleep mask. All that did was make my head sweat, so I decided I would just deal with it. I laid it aside, never to pick it back up, and sank into a deep, dreamless sleep. I woke briefly around 3:00 am and saw the sun still up. Having warn myself out with all my running around, I had no trouble sinking back into sleep.


The Word for World Is Hraun

Hraun Is the Icelandic Word for Volcanic Waste

Hraun Is the Icelandic Word for “Volcanic Waste”

Few countries lay out such an uninviting welcome mat as Iceland. The International Airport at Keflavik (KEF) is on the barren Reykjanes Peninsula, most of which is described as Hraun, or volcanic waste. The photo above shows the Þáinsskjaldarhraun around Vogar, which is succeeded by the Kapelluhraun as you approach the gigantic aluminum smelter just south of Hafnarfjörður. It doesn’t look very inviting, does it?

As a form of visual punctuation, from the road one can see volcanic steam rising from the ground south around Krysuvik.

And yet just about everyone I meet repeats the old chestnut that Iceland is Green and Greenland is, well, ice. Not exactly. Large stretches of Iceland—approximately 10%—are ice, in the form of glaciers. Another 50-60% are volcanic wastelands, especially in the interior of the country. Look at a map of the island, and you will notice that there are no towns in the interior—nada, zero, zip. Just about everyone lives either on the coast or in one of the scattered fertile valleys near the coast in which the lava has been around long enough to form topsoil. (Where it hasn’t, the enterprising Icelanders have planted lupines,which help the process along.)

Below is a field of lupines at the edge of a volcanic ridge:



As you get closer to Reykjavik (the airport is 30 km southwest), you begin to see grasses and trees; and you get to feel somewhat better about your vacation choice.

I remember my first encounter with the hraun landscapes in 2001, which made me ask myself, “What are you letting yourself in for, Jim? This looks like the Mojave Desert on ice.”