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.