Midnight in Reykjavík

The Guesthouse Óðinn in Reykjavík—At Midnight Around the Summer Solstice

The first time I visited Iceland, in 2001, I went in June. In 2013, I went again—this time in June so that I could see “The Land of the Midnight Sun” for myself. My first day back in Reykjavík, I deliberately stayed up late. I believe it turned out to be a 32-hour day, as the whole country is on Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). It turned out to be a day and evening crowded with sights:

  • I took a harbor tour to see the puffins
  • Twice, I stopped in at Bæjarins Bestu for their famous pylsur (that’s hot dogs in Icelandic)
  • I discovered pear-flavored skyr (like yogurt) at a market on Austurvöllur
  • I had a delicious and leisurely fish dinner at the Fish Company on Vesturgata
  • As a lover of Icelandic Sagas, I visited the Culture House on Hverfisgata to see the original manuscripts
  • I toured the Settlement Exhibition, which is an archeological dig of one of the first settlements in the city dated around AD 871
  • Finally, I took a ghost walking tour of Reykjavík, including the cemetery on Suðurgata

After the walking tour, I was good and tired, but I knew that I didn’t want to hit the sack until after midnight local time to minimize the jet lag. (That actually worked.) Secondly, I wanted to see when it started to get dark. I wasn’t about to stay up until 3 am local time, but I did snap a picture of my bed & breakfast right around midnight. Fortunately, the guesthouse had good blackout curtains, so I was able to drift off within minutes of hitting the pillow.

 

Green at the Heart

Atop Mount Hollywood with Clear Views in Three Directions

Cleveland, Ohio, used to be called “The Forest City” because of its semicircular diadem of parks. It was one of the few good things about the city of my birth. It is interesting that from Cleveland, I moved to Los Angeles, which not only has parks but giant mountain ranges within the county limits. In fact, at least one peak—Mount Baldy, a.k.a. Mount San Antonio—is almost two miles above sea level.

There is one rather large park right near the heart of Los Angeles: Griffith Park, with over 4,000 acres. Mount Hollywood  overlooks downtown L.A., the San Fernando Valley, and southward to Palos Verdes and Long Beach. With over 10 million visitors a year, it’s not exactly uncrowded. Within its boundaries lie the Los Angeles Zoo, the Autry Museum of the American West, and the Travel Town Museum, to name just a few. There is also an equestrian center, a golf course, a famous observatory, a merry-go-round, and numerous picnic areas.

The Hollywood Sign from the Back

Over its history, many famous films were shot in the park, beginning with D. W. Griffiths’ The Birth of a Nation in 1915. My favorite, however, was Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955) with James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo. The scene at the observatory is one of the most classic in the whole history of the American cinema. The nearby Bronson Caves were used in Don Siegel’s The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). It was there than Dana Wynter drifted off to sleep and was irrevocably lost to the human race.

Then, too, there is the famous Hollywood sign. It was originally erected as a real estate promotion for a development called Hollywoodland. The “-land” was eventually dropped. See if you can find Dory Previn’s album Mary C. Brown and the Hollywood Sign.

A Signpost to Little-Known Great Books

A Wonderful Book by a Dartmouth English Professor

Although I was an English major at Dartmouth College, I never had a class taught by Professor Noel Perrin (1927-2004). Nevertheless, he has had an outsize influence on my reading with his book A Reader’s Delight, consisting of collected essays on interesting byways in literature which he originally wrote for the Washington Post. I always like to acknowledge my sources. For instance, there were the essays of Jorge Luis Borges, which, since around 1970, have been my principal guide to the world’s literature.

Second, however, has been Noel Perrin’s A Reader’s Delight. Following is an alphabetical list by author of the books that Professor Perrin has pointed me toward:

  • Peter S. Beagle, A Fine and Private Place
  • Ernest Bramah, Kai-Lung’s Golden Hours *
  • Bryher, Roman Wall *
  • Lord Dunsany, The Blessings of Pan *
  • William Dean Howells, Indian Summer *
  • Rose Macaulay, A Casual Commentary *
  • Joseph Mitchell, The Bottom of the Harbor *
  • Marcel Pagnol, My Father’s Glory and My Mother’s House
  • Freya Stark, The Valleys of the Assassins *
  • Stendhal, On Love *
  • Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Far Rainbow *

What do the asterisks signify? Only that since reading the recommended book, I have read other works by the recommended author. That’s quite a record.

 

A Stroll Down Noir Alley

TCM’s Eddie Muller, Doctor of Noir

Of late, I have become addicted to TCM’s Noir Alley, which screens Saturday at midnight and Sunday at 9 am (both times Eastern). It was my friends Alain Silver and James Ursini who introduced me (and most Americans) to the genre with their books on the subject. Now that I am retired, I have pursued the subject on my own, both in films and literature. Eddie Muller, host of Noir Alley, shows an interesting array of noir films and provides excellent introductions and background info—when he is not plugging wines for the TCM Wine Club.

Last night, for example, he screened Too Late for Tears, a 1949 United Artists film on how the prospect of money can warp one’s thinking and emotions. Directed by Byron Haskin, the film stars Lizbeth Scott, Dan Duryea, Arthur Kennedy, and Don DeFore. Although the film tanked when it was first released, it is worth a second look; and now that a restored print has been created by the wizards at the UCLA Film Archive, such a second look is now possible.

Pressbook for Too Late for Tears (1949)

Aside from Too Late for Tears, the noir films I have seen on Noir Alley in the last few months have included, in the order I’ve seen them:

  • Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) directed by Robert Wise, starring Robert Ryan and Harry Belafonte
  • The Hunted (1948) directed by Jack Bernhard, startring the strangely beautiful Belita
  • The Sniper (1962) directed by Edward Dmytryk, about a misogynist serial killer
  • The Threat (1949), directed by Felix Feist, with Charles McGraw as an escaped murderer bent on revenge
  • The Big Heat (1953), directed by Fritz Lang, perhaps one of the very best noir films ever made

Many of the films shown are pictures you’ve probably never seen or heard of, yet all are interesting explorations of the underside of the American psyche. I look forward to seeing what Muller selects from week to week.

 

The Death of P-64

Mountain Lion P-64 Survives Woolsey Fire, Dies Weeks Later

Yes, there are actually mountain lions in the Los Angeles Metropolitan Area. Unfortunately, the recent Woolsey Fire in Malibu led to the death of mountain lion P-64. All the mountain lions have been tagged with GPS collars; and their whereabouts are tracked by rangers with the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. P-64 was nicknamed “Culvert Cat” because he was known to use culverts to cross the two freeways (U.S. 101 and California 118) that crossed his territory between and Santa Monica and Santa Susanna Mountains.

Although P-64 was still in action when the Woolsey Fire was contained, his body was found with burnt paws subsequent to that announcement.

When Martine and I visited Banff National Park in Saskatchewan, we noticed that at several points along the main access road, there were bridges for wildlife to cross in safety. Trip wires connected to video cameras have enabled wildlife authorities to determine how just how successful these bridges have been. I can imagine it will be snowing in hell before American politicians commit any funds to do the same here. Perhaps they could be induced to cross the freeway during rush hour to show how it could be done.

The Brown Area in the NASA Photo Above Shows the Massive Extent of the Woolsey Fire in Northwest LA County

Although dwellers in Malibu would not agree with me, I get a thrill when I see a coyote or a mountain lion near where I live—but then I don’t have any dogs or cats that could be eaten by natural predators.

 

Old School

Side View of Chanel High School in Bedford, Ohio

I started Chanel High School as a freshman in September 1958. It was a Catholic school run by the Marist Fathers (Society of Mary), whose quarters were on the third floor of the school. Its unusual name was owing to the existence of a Marist missionary to Oceania from the same family as Coco Chanel who was canonized by Pope Pius XII in 1954. It is possible—though I have not been able to prove this—that when he was martyred by the natives of Futuna Island (north of Fiji) in 1841, he was eaten by his tormentors.

The Marist priests who taught me were, almost to a man, dedicated and knowledgeable teachers and all-around good human beings. I was in the school’s second graduating class (1962), when I was not only the valedictorian but the recipient of the Mr. Chanel award as the best all-around student in my class. The good fathers wanted me to become a priest and were disappointed when I said I did not see that in my path. Considering that I was suffering from excruciating pain the whole time I was there due to a brain tumor that was destroying my pituitary gland. It would have been an expensive move on the part of the religious order to pay for my operation and continuing care.

What, Girls at My Old High School? (Yay!)

From the time I graduated to the closing of the school a couple years ago, there were a lot of changes. Although the school still remained Catholic, it was under the control of the Diocese of Cleveland. The Marists were no longer in charge. And not only were there black and Asian students, there were also girls!!! (When I was there, the student body consisted mostly of assorted Central and Eastern Europeans and a handful of Irish and Italians.) Also, the name had been changed to St. Peter Chanel High School.

Except for my brain tumor, my years at Chanel were happy ones. I do not have the frequently encountered anger at the Catholic Church for having screwed up my life. Physically, I was a mess; but I still managed to look forward to my life with hope.

 

 

Future Pastoral

Poet and Fantasy Writer Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961)

He was a strange sort of writer. One of the triumvirate of writers for which Weird Tales was known, along with H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E Howard, he is best known for his dark tales of fantasy. Of him, L. Sprague de Camp wrote, “nobody since Poe had so loved a well-rotted corpse.” Though his short stories may be a bit murky, they are great fun. If you should find copies of Zothique (1970), Hyperborea (1971), Xiccarph (1972), or Poseidonis (1973) in the old Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series, I recommend you pick up a copy and read it. At his best, Smith is as least as good as Lovecraft at his best.

Smith was also an interesting poet in the same vein. Here is a sample:

Future Pastoral

Dearest, today I found
A lonely spot, such as we two have loved,
Where two might lie upon Favonian ground
Peering to faint horizons far-removed:

A green and gentle fell
That steepens to a rugged canyon’s rim,
Where voices of vague waters fall and swell
And pines far down in sky-blue dimness swim.

Toward the sunset lands,
A leafless tree, from tender slopes of spring,
Holds out its empty boughs like empty hands
That vainly seek some distance-hidden thing.

Strange, that my wandering feet,
In all the years, had never known this place,
Where beauty, with a glamor wild and sweet,
Awaits the final witchcraft of your face.

Upon this secret hill
I gave my dark bereavement to the sun,
My sorrow to the flowing air . . . until
Your tresses and the grass were somehow one,

And in my prescient dream I seemed to find
An unborn joy, a future memory
Of you, and love, and sunlight and the wind
On the same grass, beneath the selfsame tree.

Of his writing style, Smith has said, “My own conscious ideal has been to delude the reader into accepting an impossibility, or series of impossibilities, by means of a sort of verbal black magic, in the achievement of which I make use of prose-rhythm, metaphor, simile, tone-color, counter-point, and other stylistic resources, like a sort of incantation.” I think the above poem certainly qualifies.

Not a Connoisseur (Accent on the 2nd Syllable)

It Was Just a Phase I Was Going Through

I have fallen out of love with wine. Oh, when I was younger, I thought that it would be very cool if I were knowledgeable about wine and showed everyone what good taste I had. Right next to the company where I worked, there was a Vendome Wine & Liquors, and I tried mightily to read up on vintages and varietals, and to be the guy who showed up at the party with the most interesting wine.

My biggest coup was to find several 18th century Madeiras. It was a bit of a rip-off, because only a small portion of each bottle dated back two centuries, but the bottle stated that it was a 1756 (or whatever) vintage. It was all right, I suppose, but now Madeira is a bit too sweet for my taste.

Now my brother is a genuine wine connoisseur (with the accent on the last syllable). He actually has a wine cooler at home set to the ideal temperature, rarely varying more than a degree or two of optimal.

Perhaps the reason I no longer drink wine is that the medications I take—anyway, most of them—may not be taken with alcohol. And, as a diabetic, I know that alcohol turns into sugar in the body. So I rarely drink anything alcoholic with my meals. Yesterday’s lunch was an exception: I had some British hard cider, which was quite good. And when it is blisteringly hot, I will occasionally drink a beer.

As for wine, that is, for me, so 1970s that I generally avoid it. It was all well and good when I had people to share it with, but Martine doesn’t drink wine either, and if I open a bottle, what do I do with what I don’t finish? Put in in the refrigerator? That kind of wrecks the taste.

The last time I enjoined wine was three years ago when I was in Valparaiso, Chile. The Bed & Breakfast where I was staying had a wine tasting of reds and whites from the nearby Casablanca Valley. They were all pretty good. So maybe, it’s not so much that I don’t like wine as that the circumstances of my life as it is lived have irrevocably changed.

 

Wild December

What With Rain and Santa Ana Winds …

I like to think of the month of December as The Passing Parade. Now you have the Santa Ana Winds blowing from East to West, sending the humidity down to near zero and fomenting the horrible brush fires we have seen around Malibu and Paradise. Also I have a wicket hangnail on my right forefinger. Then you have the winds suddenly reversing direction and bringing rainstorms from the Northwest, making the humidity rise precipitately. Not to mention the massive floods and mudslides.

Imagine what all that does to the human body. Yesterday my blepharitis flared up again; my left eye dissolved in a flood of tears unrelated to emotions; and upper left eyelid look swollen and angry. As an accompaniment, I burst out in truly frightening sneezing fits that were so loud that I received long-distance calls from St. Louis, Missouri saying “Gesundheit! And please keep it down!” Sometimes these allergic bodily responses are so intense that they segue into a miserable cold. So far that has not happened to me yet this month.

As I am leaving for Guatemala next month, I’m hoping that when I board the plane, I will be well. Unfortunately, I have no control over the crazy weather systems that swing back and forth across the state during this wild month.

 

“An Appalling Record of Death and Destruction”

The Disastrous Flood Caused by the Saint Francis Dam Break in 1928

The worst disaster in recent California history is the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. Over three thousand people lost their lives in the quake and the ensuing fires. Today, while Martine and I were visiting the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society in Newhall, we were forcibly reminded of the second worst disaster in recent California history: the collapse of the St. Francis Dam in March 1928 and the resulting wall of water that swept some fifty-four miles until it found its way to the Pacific Ocean at Ventura. Almost five hundred people lost their lives, decimating much of the then sparsely populated northern communities of Los Angeles, as well as many in nearby Ventura County.

If you have seen the movie Chinatown (1974), you know something about William Mulholland, the engineer behind the Los Angeles Aqueduct that brought water to L.A. from the distant Owens Valley along the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevadas. Almost singlehandedly, he made Los Angeles a viable city that could sustain its amazing record of growth. It was the same man who took responsibility for the dam failure that was to end his brilliant career, referring in a speech to the disaster’s “appalling record of death and destruction.”

The St. Francis Dam Site in San Francisquito Canyon in 2012 (The Dam Itself No Longer Exists)

According to the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society:

To this day, the exact number of victims remains unknown. The official death toll in August 1928 was 385, but the remains of victims continued to be discovered every few years until the mid-1950s. Many victims were swept out to sea when the flood reached the Pacific Ocean and were never recovered, while others were washed ashore, some as far south as the Mexican border. The remains of a victim were found deep underground near Newhall in 1992, and other bodies, believed to be victims of the disaster, were found in the late 1970s and 1994. The current death toll is estimated to be at least 431.