Not Exactly a Chess Master

The Young Would-Be Chess Master at Age 9 or 10

The Young Would-Be Chess Master at Age 11

Ever since I first learned the moves at the age of eight, I loved chess; but I had to love it from afar. The fact of the matter is that I was never very good at it.

My high point was about thirty years ago when I was a correspondence chess Class B International player. In the day before e-mail, I played chess—move by move—using special postcards that I purchased from the U.S. Chess Federation. I had up to three days to formulate a response and send a card to my opponent. To avoid making mistakes, it took a lot of time, up to three or four hours per move once we had reached the middle game. Because of computers, I don’t think that correspondence chess exists any more in the snail mail world.

Now, when I have a lot of time on my hands (which is almost never), I like to go over the moves of famous historical chess games. There are some excellent compilations of these games available from Dover Publications at a reasonable price.

The photo above was taken in our kitchen at 3989 East 176th Street in the Lee-Harvard area of Cleveland. You may notice that there is a parakeet perched on my right shoulder, making me feel very much like a pirate. (It bothers me that I cannot remember, after all these years, the name of our parakeet.)

Notice the string tie.It must have been a school day, because we were required to wear ties to our classes at St. Henry School. For convenience, I usually opted for a string tie. You can also seen the bottom of the cord for our rotary wall-mounted telephone.

I could tell that I was eleven when the above picture was taken because that’s when I started to wear glasses. It made me look very intellectual, I thought.


New Land

Islands Seen from Storhofdi Peninsula on Heimaey

Islands Seen from Storhofdi Peninsula on Heimaey

Geologically speaking, the Westmann Islands south of Iceland are brand spanking new. The most recent island in the group, Surtsey, suddenly rose up from the sea during a volcanic eruption in November 1963. Even fifty years later, access to the island is restricted to scientists and naturalists. Even Heimaey, the “Home Island” of the group, was enlarged by the world’s youngest volcano, Eldfell, which came into existence in January 1973, forcing the evacuation of the island.

As the result of a miraculous save by the Icelanders, who pumped cold seawater on the advancing lava forcing it to form an ever-higher berm that prevented the town from being more than one-third inundated. (The story is ably told by John McPhee in his book The Control of Nature.) On the other hand, two square kilometers of new land were created on the east side of the island.

The only fatality from Eldfell was a druggie who broke into an apothecary and was overcome by the fumes.

I will be spending three days and two nights on Heimaey in June. I plan to visit the Storhofdi Peninsula and photograph the puffins that congregate on the cliffs there.


Leaves and Concrete

My Preferred Walking Surface

My Preferred Walking Surface

One of my meditations at Descanso Gardens related to the type of surface we walk on. For us city-dwellers, most of our lives are spent walking on artificial surfaces such as concrete, asphalt, wood, or padded carpets. Yesterday, I cut through the 150-acre wood consisting mostly of oak trees and camellias, roughly from a point just south of the lilac garden to the cactus garden on the other side of the park.

During most of that time, I was treading on a lush carpet of dead leaves and fallen camellia blossoms as pictured above. It was the most resilient surface on which I have ever walked. So much death all around me! But was it really? How much of our skin and hair do we slough off every day of our lives? Yet they are renewed (well, except maybe the hair), as are the leaves and camellia blossoms. It is a little death among so much life. And it made me think that, perhaps, we ourselves are like leaves or blossoms of a much larger living entity.

We hardly ever see ourselves that way, what with our gimme gimme now now lives and somewhat tawdry needs. Going to Descanso always makes me think about our role in the larger life of the planet. We have destroyed so many of the green spaces that make us realize our part in the universe; and, as a result, we have become unhappier and more disconnected.

Eschscholzia californica

Macro Image of a California Poppy

Macro Image of a California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica)

We got an extra day off from work today, so Martine and I drove to Descanso Gardens in La Cañada-Flintridge, perched in the hills above Glendale. We have always associated the gardens with peace of mind, and today was no exception. Martine and I usually split off for a couple of hours and meet at the front gate just before closing time. While she wanders to her favorite sites, I look to get lost on the lesser known trails and perhaps do a bit of meditation.

The plethora of California poppies—the official state flower—kept distracting me. I took a number of close-ups, including the picture above, There is something so simple and yet so splendid about these blossoms that they kept interrupting my meditations. One never knows when one will run into a clump of these.

If it weren’t for tax season, I would have made a point of visiting the Antelope Valley California Poppy Preserve about fifteen miles west of Lancaster. Some 1,745 acres are full of California poppies and other native wildflowers, and there is a small visitor center maintained by the California Department of Parks and Recreation. (Of course, with the state’s current budgetary problems, I don’t even know if the park is still being funded.)


Sumardagarinn Fyrsti

In Iceland, This Is the First Day of Summer

In Iceland, This Is the First Day of Summer

If you can find a place in Iceland that looks like this, let me tell you, my friend, you are not in Iceland. In today’s Iceland Review, there was a brief article about today’s being the first day of summer, or, in Icelandic, Sumardagarinn fyrsti. This holiday falls annually on the first Thursday following April 18 and is a bank holiday throughout the island. The article continues:

According to the science website of the University of Iceland, the first day of summer was also considered the first day of the year, which is why people used to count their ages, and their animals’ ages, in winters rather than years.

It was common to distribute summer gifts on Sumardagurinn fyrsti, four centuries before Christmas presents became a tradition, and the summer gift tradition is still practiced in some households. People celebrated with a feast, often finer than on Christmas Eve.

Farmers took a break from their hard work and children were allowed to play with their friends from the neighboring farms. The day was dedicated to young women and to children (it’s also known as Children’s Day). On this day young men would often reveal whom they fancied.

Another tradition on the First Day of Summer, called húslestur, involved people getting together and listening to readings from the Icelandic sagas, poems or other literature.

If the weather was summery, farmers would let their cattle and rams out, to allow the animals to greet summer, and to also entertain themselves by watching the animals play.

People used to go to mass on Sumardagurinn fyrsti until the mid-18th century when the inspectors of the Danish church authority discovered that mass was being held on this heathen day and banned the practice.

According to legend, people considered it a good sign if summer and winter ‘froze together’ (if there was frost on the last night before summer).

People would put a bowl filled with water outside to check whether it had frozen in the early hours of the next morning, before the morning sun could melt it. If the water had frozen, the summer would be a good one.

As I prepare for my vacation in Iceland, little stories like this help motivate me to learn even more about where I’m going. The idea of spending New Years Day reading sagas, poetry, and other great literature out loud is a welcome change from watching bowl games and merging with one’s inner couch.

Two Wild & Crazy Guys from Dagestan

Not Understanding American Culture Can Be Dangerous

Not Understanding American Culture Can Be Deadly

You may recall those two Wild & Crazy guys from Czechoslovakia, the brothers Yortuk and Georg Festrunk, on Saturday Night Live. As they shimmied across the stage in search of “foxes, ” they displayed an exquisite misunderstanding what the United States was all about. In the case of Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd, the result was comedy. In the case of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, two Chechen brothers from Dagestan, the result was death and disorder.

In the years to come, one of the greatest dangers to America will be the failure of immigrants from cultures vastly different from our own to adapt to the prevailing culture of the U.S. Even the mother returned to Russia, leaving several arrest warrants for shoplifting in her wake. The streets of America are not paved with gold. They are fraught with dangers not understood by people who have been influenced by our popular culture without understanding the particular demons that we in the States have to contend with in our daily lives.

After the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, my parents took in two sets of refugees. The first was a mother and son who thought that, now they were in America, everything would be golden. That ended badly when Feddike, the son, was sent to a juvenile correctional facility. Next was Lászlo, a young man in his twenties, who also quickly fell afoul of the law—whereupon my mother and father resolved not to take in any more refugees from the Mother Country.

I do not mean to imply that immigration is bad, but that American culture sends misleading vibes to the rest of the world. People who are not thoughtful and who think that just being on American soil is the solution to all their problems are more likely to go astray. No, they must be ready to roll up their sleeves and start working long and hard toward their goals.

The Tsarnaev brothers should be an object lesson to American officials that they have to probe more deeply than mere external circumstances when opening the doors of the henhouse to potential predators.

Islands of Peace

The Church at Mission Santa Barbara

The Church at Mission Santa Barbara with Martine in the Foreground

The California Missions are probably the state’s best claim to a rich history going back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I find it nothing less than amazing that most if not all of Franciscan Father Junipero Serra’s missions are still in existence, after all the earthquakes, fires, and other disasters to which California is prone.

Mission Santa Barbara is one of four missions dedicated to converting and regimenting the Chumash Indians of the area (the others are La Purisima in Lompoc, Santa Ynez in Solvang, and San Buenaventura in Ventura). Although Father Serra was declared beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1988, there are still unresolved issues regarding mistreatment of the Indians. Each of the missions also contained Spanish military barracks for troops enforcing the political dictates of the Spanish Viceroys. So it is not uncommon to find stories where the Indians were both helped and repressed by the Missions and their dual religious and political functions.

Chumash Painting of St. Francis

Chumash Painting of St. Francis

Whatever really happened at these missions, today they are, collectively, a cultural treasure—islands of peace dotted along the California coast from San Diego to San Francisco Solano in Sonoma. I have visited perhaps ten of them so far and hope to see the rest of them eventually.

Martine and I visited Mission Santa Barbara (for the third or fourth time) on Saturday during our recent trip to the area.