Saturday, October 19, 2013

On Being A Little Bit Broken

Last month, I went for a ride on a beautiful Indian summer afternoon.  The horse was a tall chestnut mare, new to me but a true pleasure to work with—until she decided the ride was over and bucked me off.  One ground rush, one somersault, and one rather sickening snap later, and I was lying on my back in the red dirt with the end of my collar bone almost jutting through the skin of my shoulder.

This was not, in fact, my first ride in an ambulance.  In my first semester of graduate school, I had been hit by a minivan while crossing the street (well, jay-walking across the street, if I am being perfectly honest—and I have the ticket to prove it).  That incident resulted in a much more serious injury, as one might imagine: concussion, nerve damage, and a pelvis broken in three places.  Oddly enough, upon waking up on the road, my biggest concern was that my sneaker had been knocked off by the force of the impact.  Someone was kind enough to find it for me and put it in the ambulance when it arrived.

As a generally healthy young person, I had previously had very little cause to reflect on what it means to be helpless or in pain.  In the wake of each of these incidents, I had plenty of time to ponder both.

First, I came to the conclusion that our souls are really not glued very firmly to our bodies.  I had the distinct impression after my first accident (having passed out a second time in the ambulance) that I could just as easily remain in the cool, comfortable sea of unconsciousness as come back to the waking world.  I floated for a few moments just under the waters, but finally I bobbed to the surface and opened my eyes to the fluorescent institutional lighting flicking rhythmically above me as they wheeled the stretcher into the hospital.

I never lost consciousness in the fall from the mare, but as I lay in urgent care (which everybody called the E.R. until, I suppose, the television show spoiled the respectability of the name), I had the same sensation as I did when I woke up after being hit by the car: my soul was still the same, still familiar and my own, but my body was a completely foreign thing.  I felt, unaccountably, as though what I consider “myself” had been put into the wrong container.  Could I move my legs?  Yes.  I suppose they are still mine, then.  Can I move my arms?  Yes—well, one of them.  Only they had put an I.V. in my good arm, which meant I couldn’t move it much for fear of disturbing the tubes that were coiled all around it.  Could I lift my head?  I wasn’t supposed to; they had me in a neck brace.  But in both of my accidents, the brace was far too big for me, and so I did a good deal of swiveling about anyway, just to make sure I still could.  Limb by limb, muscle by muscle, I slowly reclaimed my body, stretching my soul back out into my extremities and telling myself that this was still home; we had just knocked over all the furniture.

Injuries do not end when they release you from the hospital, of course.  In many ways, the hardest part is still to come, because recovery takes much longer than anybody is willing to wait for you to get “back to normal” (whatever “normal” will be for you thereafter), and unlike in hospitals, you don’t have anybody in charge but yourself—you’re back in the “real world,” only you’re about half as capable of handling it as you were the day before you were hurt.  I was fortunate enough in both instances to have supportive and extremely patient loved ones to take care of me until I could take care of myself again, but the experiences left me wondering, as my aunt put it, “How does one convalesce without a family?” 

It also made me appreciate how incredibly easy everyday activities are when one is not injured.  The simplest tasks became mammoth endeavors for me—oddly enough, more when I was in a sling than when I was on crutches.  Who’d have guessed it would be more inconvenient to be without one arm than it would be to be without two legs?  If I were an amputee or if I had been born without an arm, no doubt I would have developed work-arounds—would have figured out ways to “Frankenstein” a solution to the problems of the one-handed.  I have, after these incidents, not just a theoretical and emotional respect for such individuals, but a profoundly palpable sense of awe in their ability to overcome the biases of a world designed for two hands and two feet, all of which work as directed.

Here is just a short list of things I (being a neophyte in the one-handed world) could not do at all, or found incredibly difficult to do, with a broken collar bone and its attendant arm immobilized in a sling:

·         Shrug
·         Do dishes
·         Floss (whoever designed those little disposable handles with floss on the end deserves a medal, possibly sainthood)
·         Tie shoes
·         Cut my toenails (I had never before realized that this was a two-handed operation)
·         Open a door and turn on the light at the same time
·         Hold a cell phone and do anything else
·         Drive (it is, the orthopedist told me, illegal to do so with a sling)
·         Put on a coat I intend to be able to take off again
·         Sleep on my side (For me, who have never been able to sleep comfortably on my back, this translates into not sleeping at all.  The daily act of going to bed became a desperate ritual in which I courted Morpheus with a mountainous offering of pillows, and nightly I became a Jacob wrestling with the angel.  Morpheus proved implacable, and the angel always beat me.)
·         Blow-dry my hair
·         Sneeze (this is not a problem with a sling; it is, however, very painful with a broken collar bone)
·         Crack an egg
·         Open pill bottles (How cruel is that, separating an invalid from her pain medication by the barrier of a childproof cap?)
·         Type at more than about 20 words per minute
·         Adjust the volume on my laptop, as this requires one hand to press the Function key an another to press F12
·         Move two-handled things (When my mother made a pot of stew, she left it on the stove to cool.  As bedtime approached, I went to put it into the refrigerator—only to discover that I couldn’t move the thing.  It was astounding to me how entirely insuperable this barrier was: I could put the lid on it, I could spin the thing uselessly around on the burner, but I could no more move that pot than a dog can open a combination lock.)

When it comes down to it, I suppose I didn’t really have much to complain about.  My soul, after all, was at least stuck enough to my body to stay there; my crutches are gathering dust in my parents’ garage, and eventually I’ll fold up my sling and put it in the bottom of that Tupperware bin in my closet where I keep my spare pillowcases, ratty towels, and other things I don’t have any use for.  Other people are not so lucky as to be only a little bit broken.

I hope I’ll never forget that.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Boston Bound

This week I played hookie from summer vacation to go on holiday in Boston for a visit with my wonderful sister.  It was a short stay—far too short!—but we made it count.
In the course of two days, we visited the Franklin Park Zoo, where we saw a most entertaining giraffe who made faces at us and then shared a genial how-de-do with the neighborhood zebra…

 …the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (where they don’t let you take pictures), and Harvard, otherwise known as Haaavaaad…

…and we saw Cavalia (where they also don’t let you take pictures, but they can’t stop you from snapping a photo of their billboard)!

Cavalia is not only beyond pictures, it’s beyond words.  The stunt riding is absolutely terrific, but what I found really stunning was the silent communication between horse and rider in the unmounted scenes.  Watch the trailer for the 2013 Odysseo show on Youtube—it’s breathtaking.

And Boston, as always, is lovely.  We had terrific, cool weather (something I understand is not a rule in Beantown for late July), and the only time it rained was for the ten minutes I was dragging my bags back to the T—which happened to be out of commission for the moment, with shuttle buses subbing in the rush-hour traffic—for the trip back to the airport.

But the real fun of the trip was spending time with my sister.  The worst part of being a grownup is moving off to live in a place that is NOT where your sister lives.  But we’ll have another reunion soon.  That’s why they invented vacation.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013


Ever since I lived in Iceland three years ago I have dreamed of driving Route 1 (the Ring Road, or “Hringvegurinn”), the highway that runs all the way around the island.  This month, as I was in Reykjavik for research, I had the perfect excuse to tack on a vacation before I came home, and my friend and I finally took the trip we’ve both been plotting and planning for several years.

Day One: Reykjavik to Akureyri

This was my first experience renting a car.  We arranged to pick up an old Volvo from a local company (if you can call two friends, one of whom is named “Honest Helgi” a company) in town at 9 a.m.  I walked over from the guesthouse where I’d been staying during my research—in the quiet of an Icelandic Sunday morning—and nobody was there.  I petted a local cat until my friend arrived, but nobody else showed up.  We were beginning to worry when finally a fellow pops out from behind the house (yes, it was a house, not a business) and tells us to come around to sign the papers.  Behind the house is a little one-bedroom structure, where we were seated around a kitchen table to observe the formalities.  There were unwashed dishes in the sink and an unmade bed behind a bookcase crammed with jazz and reggae CDs.  Once we’d signed the papers, the fellow (who was not Honest Helgi but his partner) had to find the car, which was parked at random on a corner somewhere in the vicinity.  When he found it…it was not just an old Volvo: it was a station wagon from the early 90s with a huge dent in the body and Cheerios in the door pockets!  We were instructed not to turn off the engine before it warmed up because it wouldn’t turn on again.  With this piece of wisdom in mind and my friend bravely behind the wheel, we set out on the Ring Road.

It was a long drive that day, but we had the pleasure of going from a cloudy, cool Reykjavik to a sunny, much warmer North, stopping at practically every N1 gas station on the way to fill up the tank and to stock up on Icelandic road food like skýr, coffee, and smoked salmon.  Our first real stop was Grettislaug, the natural hot spring (turned outdoor bathing spot by the current owner) where Grettir the Strong is said to have bathed after he swam from his refuge on Drangey, the dramatic island just off the coast. 

To reach Grettislaug you have to drive some 10 miles along a dirt road populated by sheep who only lazily deign to move out of the way when you approach them.  

We didn’t swim in the baths when we got there, but we did have Hjónabandssæla (wedding bliss cake—go figure) in the café next door and made pipedreams about taking the expensive but fantastic-sounding boat tour to Drangey some other time.

Having driven back down that 10-mile dirt road to meet Route 1 again, we continued on our way to Akureyri, where we checked in at the hostel (which is actually more a one-stop-shop restaurant/tourist agency than a hostel and right in the middle of the downtown area).  We had dinner the café next door (great panini, even though they didn’t give me utensils with my salad when I ordered it to go so we could sit outside); then we walked all around the town and harbor in the extended sunset hoping to see the “midnight sun.”  At that point, the sun was setting after 12 and coming up again at 3 a.m., but there was a blanket of cloud close to the horizon that night and the sun disappeared a little before midnight.

Day Two: Mývatn

It turns out that June 17 is one of Iceland’s several national holidays (Þjóðhátíðardagurinn), so we slept little due to the parties going on below us in the street and in the other rooms.  However, we spent the day itself far from town, in the Mývatn district.  We began with Goðafoss, the powerful horseshoe-shaped waterfall I’d seen once before.  (See my my old post for more representative photos; I just like the rainbow in this one.)

We then progressed to Mývatn itself with its bizarre pseudo-craters (skútustaðagígar)…and its midges.  “Mývatn” means “midge lake,” and when I’d been there before, it was pre-season and perfectly peaceful.  Now, in June, the midges swarmed everywhere, making it difficult to see or to breathe without having one or more enter an orifice.  Most people who came with tour buses had been given green mesh hoods like beekeeper hats; we pulled our jacket hoods up and tried to keep our eyelashes between us and the bugs.  They don’t bite, but they’re maddeningly annoying, and in summer, apparently, they plague the entire inland area of the north.

 Curtailing our tour of Mývatn, we went on to the Dimmuborgir, the “dark castles” where the Jólasveinarnir (the Yule Lads) live when they’re not stealing skýr and sausages from careless children in town.  We had the most splendid lunch in the Borgir café—fresh, locally caught trout with “geysirbrauð” (rye bread steamed in a geyser).

After walking through the Dimmuborgir and being surprised to find a group of tourists actually praying in a lava formation that is called (we thought jokingly) the “Kirkja,” we stopped by Grjótagjá, a hot spring inside a cave.  It’s too hot for swimming and the rocks are unstable and unsuitable for exploring, but it’s a nifty sight nonetheless, and oddly enough there are no midges inside the cave.  From there, we stopped at Hverir, a geothermal area so colorful it looks like some mad painter spilled his oil paints all over the plain.

Then we visited the Leirhnjúkur, a geothermal mountain skirted by a lava field created by an eruption in the 1980s.  The sign said it was closed, but there were lots of people walking back and forth across the older lava field that leads to it, so we stepped around the back of the public restrooms and went on, figuring they just hadn’t bothered to take the sign down since the winter.  Once we got further out, though, we realized that in fact there was a reason for the sign after all: the snow that still lay on the fields was melted and hollowed out underneath by the geothermal activity of the ground, leaving unexpected holes, gaps, and thin places where one might easily fall through to hazardously hot ground.    

We didn’t go far—only as far as we could see and walk confidently on the trail.  Others went much farther and probably got a better view, but once we were scolded by a park ranger, we figured discretion is the better part of valor and turned back.

At the end of the road that runs past those lava fields is Stóra-Viti, a volcanic caldera filled with bright blue water.

We took pictures there, tried to guess which of the peaks behind it might be the volcano Krafla, and headed back down the mountain toward Akureyri again.  We stopped on the way, though, and on a whim decided to climb Hverfell, a giant pseudo-crater often compared to a dog bowl (or, as my friend more appropriately labeled it, Fenris Ulf’s bowl).  The climb is only 20 minutes each way, and the view at the top is unbelievable simply because it is so incredibly barren.  Not a single thing lives or moves on the gray lava inside the crater.  It looks like the moon, or like a black version of Sarlacc’s sand pit in Star Wars.  It’s eerie at the same time as it can only hold one’s interest for so long.  There’s just nothing to look at.

We found the festivities still going on in Akureyri when we returned for dinner.  Lots of people in traditional Icelandic garb, and lots more people eating cotton candy, but once again there were purple clouds covering the famous midnight sun.

Day Three: Akureyri to Borgarfjörður Eystri

This was the strangest drive I could imagine, not because it was eventful (everything went smoothly and we had good enough weather, thank goodness) but because it was so bleak.  I think the area between Mývatn and the Eastfjords is where the geography of the Interior comes closest to the coast and the road.  We drove to Dettifoss, Europe’s most powerful waterfall (though I don’t really know what that means) and braved the midges to hike all the way along the trail to see it from all angles (one of which included a splendid rainbow at the end of a short rain shower).  

Then we walked back upriver to Selfoss (the waterfall, not the town in the south of the country), which is elegant without being powerful or stunning.

From there all the way to the fjords, it was nothing but a Martian landscape of red, gray, and brown rocks, sand, and pebbles.  There wasn’t even really anything to take photos of; to be honest, all I wanted to do was get through it as quickly as possible.  The idea of getting stuck there or running out of gas was horrifying.  We wondered how anyone even found Dettifoss, since it’s right in the middle of that wasteland.

But once through the north, the fjords suddenly open up into lovely green farmland interspersed with fields of purple flowers.  

We were very happy to find a little farmstead with a guesthouse and restaurant late in the afternoon.  It was all decorated with reindeer (some victims of taxidermy, some just posing in photographs), but it had excellent bread and soup (cauliflower, they told me, though I’m pretty sure it was just salted cream with pepper).  We watched sheep in a playground outside the window as we ate.

We drove for several hours on a dirt road, even over a mountain pass which must be terrifying if not impassable in bad weather, to reach an isolated little town of 120 people called Borgarfjörður Eystri (to distinguish it from the Borgarfjörður in the West of Iceland).  This immediately became our favorite spot in the whole country.  A charming, colorful little village, with the lovely Blábjörg Guesthouse (in a renovated fish factory!) situated right on the water, and scores upon scores of seabirds crying in the pink light.  

We immediately drove out to the harbor on the other side of the fjord, where the landlady told us we would find puffins.  And we did!  Hundreds of them, all rather calmly observing us from a few yards away.  

We stayed there, watching them from the top of an observatory above the harbor, until we finally saw the midnight sun sink into the ocean at 12:10 a.m.  

Then we headed back to the guesthouse and had the privilege of seeing that same sun start to rise up again (in practically the same spot) less than two hours later!

Day Four: The Eastfjords

We could barely tear ourselves away from Borgarfjörður Eystri today; we didn’t manage it before walking again through the town, taking pictures of the cod heads drying on an open-air frame behind the new fish factory, and having breakfast at a café called Álfasteinn—Elf Stone—whose décor was entirely rock-related, and whose food was even served on slabs of granite.

After that, we had two objectives: drive the scenic route around the Eastfjords (the only time we really departed from Route 1), and stop at the Steinasafn Petru, the rock collection of an old lady name Petra, in Stöðvarfjörður on the way.  I drastically underestimated how long it would take to wend in and out of the fjords and as a result was in a tizzy all afternoon in fear that we wouldn’t reach our hostel in time to check in, but fortunately those fears were groundless—we made it with 5 minutes to spare.

The fjords can be quite barren at times, being too steep, too exposed, or too marshy (depending) for farming, but the landscape is breathtaking nevertheless.

And we saw an actual herd of reindeer on the slopes among the sheep pastures! 

The Steinasafn was my friend’s suggestion, as she is a rock collector herself.  I don’t know jasper from zeolite, but the museum itself is quite a sight.  It’s housed in Petra’s own house (she passed away a few years ago), and the collection represents an entire lifetime of collecting rocks from all around the area.  I was astounded at how many kinds of beautiful stones are produced by volcanic eruptions, and every last inch of the place—garden, hall, and living room—was crammed with sparkling and glinting geodes, some of them as large as watermelons.  And I think my friend and Petra would have been great friends.

We finally arrived in Höfn at nearly 9 p.m.  This was the most hostel-like of the hostels we stayed in: camp-style beds with no linens unless you wanted to pay an extra $12 for them.  We slept under our jackets.  But it had a view of the great Vatnajökull glacier, so I suppose we didn’t exactly lose out in the bargain.

Day Five: The South

My friend and I were awakened from under our jackets at 6:15 a.m. by the fire alarm.  An early riser had burned her toast and set off the smoke detector, which continued to jangle ear-piercingly for probably 10 minutes.  That is a long time when everybody in the hostel is stumbling about sleepily trying to figure out what’s going on and why they aren’t still in bed.  Fortunately, we did all go back to sleep when someone finally shut the alarm off.

Back on the road, we drove another stretch I was a little nervous about—the southeast in the vicinity of the Ring Road is very flat and exposed, meaning that any wind will pick up a large amount of debris and become a gale rather quickly.  A friend of mine said he had a rental car essentially sand-blasted on one side when he drove this stretch during a windstorm once.  Fortunately (again), that stretch of road was very calm today, and although we did get a good bit of rain here and there, I would rather have had that than the wind.

Our first stop was one I’d been anticipating ever since I lived in Reykajvik: Jökulsárlón, the glacial lake where runoff from Vatnajökull meets the sea.  It was brilliantly sunny while we were there, and from our first glimpse of it from the road to our last look as we drove away, the place felt like a winter wonderland constructed for some kind of fantasy theme park.  The lake is full of icebergs, some as small as a car, some as large as a building (and that’s just what’s on the surface, only 10% of the whole structure)—ranging from opaque and streaked with black ash to translucent blue to crystal clear.  From the shore, you can hear them creaking and groaning, and quite often a piece will calve off and fall into the water with a splash.

We indulged in a boat tour of this amazing lake (our tour guide was clearly Icelandic, as she did the whole thing in a tank top despite the icy wind coming off the glacier), and we were shocked to be told that the lake itself is only about 60 to 70 years old, having formed only when the glacial melt began to increase in the 1950s.  Our guide hefted a cat-sized piece of ice for us to see—perfectly, beautifully clear—and then broke off pieces for us to eat.  A thousand-year-old piece of ice, as pure as anything Dasani could dream of bottling.  When we left, we were amazed to see that even in that short hour we were on the boat, the icebergs had changed, and it was like a whole new dreamscape.

We drove from there (still over that alarmingly exposed plain of sand, gravel, and grassland) to Vík, which I had tried twice before to visit, only to be prevented by the eruption of a certain Eyjafjallajökull.  This time nothing stood in our way, and we saw the black sand and pebble beach and the Reynisdrangur (“sea stacks” of volcanic rock that look like, as my guidebook put it, the back of a giant stegosaurus half-submerged offshore).  

Then we drove around the back of Reynisfjall—time was too short for the 3-hour hike up it—to Reynisfjara beach on the other side.  We had hoped to see Hálsanefshellir, a cave at the base of the mountain, but the tide was in by then and it was inaccessible.  However, we could see Dýrhólaey in the distance.

And we climbed the terrific basalt columns at the base of Reynisfjall.  They look so architectural, it’s astounding that they’re not man-made.

After our excursion, we doubled back to Vík itself, which is a charming town, with a little red-roofed church poised over it and a little main street with cafés and houses intermingled.  

We had dinner in Vík and finally headed the short distance to our hotel at Skógar.

Skógar is a funny place, clearly having evolved simply to serve the needs of tourists who stop when they see Skógafoss waterfall from Route 1.  It was a bit rainy when we arrived, but we still took the long walk to see the waterfall, and I climbed the metal staircase to the top, just as I did when the family was here with me.  

We were tired by then, so on the way back we climbed a stile and walked through a beautifully green field populated by scattered sheep.  They didn’t seem to mind us much, even though they regarded us warily as we stopped to take pictures.  It was a greater pleasure walking through that field than it was seeing the waterfall!

Day Six: Skógar to Reykjavik

I had to take the 2 o’clock bus from Reykjavik to Keflavik for my afternoon flight, so we didn’t have a lot of time to spare today.  We did, however, stop by the Skógar Folk Museum before leaving the area.  I had been there before, so I wandered around the grounds and the gift shop while my friend toured the exhibits (including the turf houses, which are always a favorite).  But even my browsing was rewarded by a short conversation with the proprietor of the museum, an elderly gentleman who tips his hat to visitors and asks them where they’re from.  We exchanged a few words in Icelandic, but by the end of the second sentence I had exhausted my vocabulary and he was kind enough to switch into English for me.  He’s sort of a local fixture, and I was glad to have a personal encounter with him.

Our travels coming to their close, we drove back to Reykjavik, my friend dropped me off at the bus station, and before I knew it, Iceland was dropping away behind us as the plane took off.  One more adventure checked off my bucket list.  I’d do the trip again, though, in a heartbeat.  There’s so much we had to pass by without stopping, and even the places we did see will look different in another light or another season.  Iceland gets in your blood, and once it’s there, it will always be calling you back to the land of fire and ice.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Of Books and Boston

This is a belated post, and I’m not usually the “better late than never” type, but in this case I’ll make an exception.  Last month my family and I went to Boston for my sister’s graduation—in the Old North Church, no less—from bookbinding school, and we’re too proud not to want to boast just a little bit!

The work professionally trained book binders do is incredible.  Those of us who have never known anything but a world of machine-made paperbacks perhaps don’t immediately appreciate how much time, effort, art, and care go into binding a book by hand.  I wish I had pictures of my own to post of my sister’s beautiful work, but check out her website for photos and descriptions of what she’s done!

The cliff notes version of bookbinding is that a book binder can take a beaten-up, abused, dirt-encrusted volume and turn it back into something that can be enjoyed again; and she can also take a humble bunch of printed pages and render it into a piece of (functional) art.  And in a world where everything is cheap and disposable, it’s good to know that some people still value beauty and craftsmanship, and dedicate their careers to preserving the long-developed skills that we forget at our own peril. In other words, this is cool stuff.

And of course, you can’t go to Boston without taking a Duck Boat tour (or, if we are to spell it properly as our tour guide informed us, “DUKW Boat tour”).  Plucky Ruffles told us a great deal about the city (supplemented by my sister’s local knowledge), but what most struck me was how varied the scenery was, and how lovely in a patchwork, old-city sort of way.

From the broken pier under the Longfellow Bridge…

…to the touching memorial at the Boston Marathon finish line…

…to the John Hancock tower reflecting stone-and-brick edifice of Trinity Church…

…Boston constantly reminds you of both its history and its enthusiasm for the new and the now.

I hope to get back to the city soon.  But for the moment, other projects beckon (rather loudly, in fact), so I’ll simply congratulate my sister again—in the hearing of anyone who might care to listen—on her graduation and her growing portfolio of beautiful work!