Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Clock

My parents came from Texas to stay with Martha and David while Wally and I went to Iceland and Denmark with a group of old men, members of the Scandinavian Stamp Collectors Club of Chicago.

David surprised me when we told him we were going to Copenhagen. First, I was pleased that our eleven-year-old knew where Copenhagen was. I’d tried to teach geography to seventh graders who couldn’t find Africa on a world map.

Second, he surprised me by his enthusiasm. With a big smile, he said, “You’ll get to see the clock!.” Then he ran across the street to get his pal, Sandy Wu.

“Sandy! Sandy!” he called out. “My Mom and Dad are going to see the clock!”

I was as ignorant as those seventh graders when it came to knowing about the clock. My son and his friends learned about it in science class in their fifth grade in Woodridge, Illinois. The Danes built a clock which not only told kept accurate time of every second of every hour of every day, it also showed the precise time of phases of the moon, predicted the time of solar and lunar eclipses, and other marvels.

The children told us to be sure to see the clock in the Town Hall in Copenhagen.

Wally and I arrived in Copenhagen on a warm, sunny day, so pleasant and relaxing after chilly Iceland that most of us, stamp collectors and me, dosed off in the warmth of the bus taking us to our hotel. We woke up to carry our bags to the elevator.

As soon as we entered the room, while Wally set down the suitcases, I went to the window and looked out. Just to the right below me was a large, paved square with buses pulling in and out. Facing me across the square, like a postcard, was the Town Hall, an imposing red brick building, looking much like a large Victorian railroad station. The clock on the central tower was not THE CLOCK, but it was big and impressive, the clock that Danes use to time their daily lives, like the Brits do Big Ben in London.

“Wally,” I said. “Let’s not unpack now. Let’s go see the clock.”

In five minutes we walked across the square and up the steps to the front entrance of Town Hall. In a special side room we found the clock behind a glass partition. The size of a football scoreboard, we watched the slowly turning of numerous dials and the silent swinging of the pendulum.

A wonder indeed! We would not have known to go see it, except for a couple of young children.

I bought postcards to send home to David and Sandy.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Goodbye, Iceland

I would have rather gone to Paris. But when Wally offered to take me to Iceland and Denmark with him and his stamp collector friends, I grabbed my first chance to travel outside the U.S.

In dreaming of trips abroad, I never thought of Iceland. I’m glad I went. Iceland is fascinating.

I enjoyed meeting friendly people in Reykjavik. Almost all of them speak English. Who outside their island (besides my daughter) understands their language? At St. Olaf College in Minnesota, Martha studied Old Norse. The language of the Vikings is still spoken in Iceland. She read the Icelandic sagas in the original language. That was in college. She still has the books but doubts she could read them today.

I’ve told about our day trip to the Icelandic countryside. The road across the plains between the mountains was barely paved. The bus slowed to ease across a narrow bridge. One of our stamp collectors called out, “Now I know why there are rubber bumpers on the side of the bus.” Sure enough, there was only an inch on each side between the bus and the wooden railings on the side of the bridge.

Watching outside the window as our driver navigated across that long, narrow bridge was one of my most memorable events in Iceland, although we also saw waterfalls, glaciers, and geysers. Most geysers are unpredictable, not like Yellowstone’s Old Faithful. In Iceland a big one may go days or months between eruptions. When important visitors come, they pour laundry detergent into it, and it shoots up as tall as the Empire State Building. We weren’t important enough to see that. We got to see one that spouts up every 10 or 15 minutes. Its fountain of steaming water only went as high as a 20-story building.

From the shore, we looked across the sea to see the volcano which, a few years before, erupted from the depths of the ocean to create a new little island. In 1790, the year the U.S. adopted its Constitution, a huge volcanic eruption covered all of Iceland in three-feet of ash. All of the livestock suffocated, and a third of the people starved to death. In those days before radio or television, no one outside of Iceland knew about it until long afterwords. Last year we heard instantly about the volcano in Iceland which interrupted air travel over the Atlantic for days.

Although, as I said, Iceland was fascinating, I felt a little uneasy while I was there. It’s the volcanoes. My son lives in California with those earthquakes. If I could afford to move there, I would go. It seems unlikely that a volcano will rise up in the middle of Orange County.

After a week in Iceland's dramatic but barren landscape, we flew to Denmark. As we approached land, I looked out the plane window. There was the Jutland peninsula, laid out like a mitten pointing north. Just like on a map. Surrounded by ocean, this first glimpse of Denmark was green. A low land covered in green, green grass, green trees!

What a thrilling sight!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Immigrants

Iceland is a cold, remote, volcanic land, rising in the middle of the North Atlantic near the Arctic Circle. Our group of stamp collectors rode a bus out of Reykjavik on a day trip to see glaciers, geysers, and waterfalls. All were spectacular. Yellowstone Park magnified. But as we rode across that barren, Arctic landscape, seeing fields of sparse grass devoid of trees, and passing cinder cones of volcanoes where trolls were said to hide, I wondered, “Why would anyone want to live in a place like this?”

Men first came out of Africa, before they learned to speak, searching for better hunting grounds. A tribe would find a new place and settle down, until drought killed game and hunting became difficult, or another tribe came and tried to push them out. Some fought to remain. Men have always been at war with other men. Archeologists found spear points in the sculls of some of the earliest human bones.

Most tribes moved on in search of better places to live. Some places were not much better than the place they left behind, but they stayed anyway. By 20,000 B.C. men occupied the Earth across Asia to Australia and down to Patagonia, on the tip of South America.

The Vikings struck out from Norway in the 9th and 10th Centuries. (John and I spent a summer in Ipswich, England, which was sacked by the Vikings in 830 A.D.) When the Norsemen arrived in Iceland, they discovered the land totally unoccupied by other humans. They ventured further westward and tried settlements in Greenland and on Newfoundland in North America. Those settlers starved, and the survivors (if any) returned to Iceland.

Today’s Icelanders think their island is the best place to live in all the World. But that is typical of every place I’ve visited or lived. Within a generation the people become rooted as if they were in the garden of Eden. My first husband’s family came from Denmark; he couldn’t speak a word of Danish and in college majored in American History. My second husband’s father fled Poland to avoid being conscripted into the Czar’s army in World War I; he was proud of his four sons who served in the U.S. Army in World War II.

As a bride in my first Northern winter, depressed by endless snow and cold and homesick for Texas, my Chicago friends said, “Don’t you just love Chicago? I would not want to live any place else.”

Now I live in Texas and wish I could return to New Mexico. My Texan friends don’t understand. New Mexico has a better climate and beautiful mountains. I had a spectacular view from the patio of my little house on Albuquerque’s West Mesa. More important of all, New Mexico has great, diverse people. Anglos and Hispanics in equal numbers, plus a large group of Indians (mostly “Native American” but some Eastern. Small minorities of Chinese and blacks. Everyone is accepted there, including homosexuals and nuts like me (hetero but crazy).

Texans say, “I am a Texan and proud of it. Texans are the best people in the World!”

Texas is not as bad as Arizona in wanting to deport illegal immigrants. Keep out the criminals, but let us keep those hard workers who clean our houses and mow our lawns. People forget that the ancestors of everyone in the U.S. (except Indians) were immigrants.

My mother’s people were among the first to build log cabins and plant cotton in North Texas. In the 1840's Comanches still hunted buffalo here. We tell stories about atrocities committed by Indian raiders in the 1870's, before they were driven back to reservations in Oklahoma.

History is written by the victors. They always say, “Our people are the Greatest.” Those hardy people, who live on that small island in the cold Atlantic Ocean, think Iceland is the greatest place on Earth. Maybe they are right. Iceland has no guns. No army except the Salvation Army. They won two “wars” with England without firing a shot from their fishing boats.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Checking the Facts

I quoted Patrick Moynihan: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not to his own facts.” That made me wonder about the accuracy of my stories about Iceland. .

My opinion is that the people of Iceland are generous and welcoming. That is based on the fact that each person I encountered there was friendly and helpful. When Wally and I went to a cafeteria in Reykjavik, the counterman asked where we were from. We said, “Chicago.” He grinned, said, “I know Chicago,” and heaped half a dozen lamb chops on our plates. But perhaps not ALL Icelanders are so generous.

As for the facts about Iceland, who cares whether Vikings came to the island in 900 or 1100? Icelanders care, but my guess is that you don’t. It is important to me. If I write about something or someone, I want you to trust that I am telling the truth.

Last week I finally checked the facts about Iceland’s history. Here’s what I learned.

My dates were wrong. Traditionally the first settler was Ingofer Arnerson who around 900 A.D. had a farm where the capital, Reykjavik now stands. There were enough settlements by 930 for the tribal leaders to gather for the first “Althing”, which Islanders claim as the oldest parliament in Europe..

Icelanders are proud of the pagan past, as depicted in the sagas. The symbol of Iceland is the Norse god, Thor. On posters and brochures, he looks enormous. While Wally was meeting with the stamp collectors, I went to the National Museum in Reykjavik. In a glass case I saw the original bronze. The great god Thor was all of two inches tall! (That’s another example of the importance of travel: I often found things different from the way I imagined from books and movies.)

In 1000 the Althing adopted Christianity as the “official” religion. Like most Scandinavians, they aren’t ardent church-goers.

On our trip to Iceland I was surprised when our tour guide told us the Icelanders were 80% Nordic and 20% Scots. I wondered, “Why did the Scots go to Iceland?” Now I find out they weren’t really Scots. They came from Nordic settlements in Britain, mostly from Scotland and the Western Isles. Perhaps they had intermarried with local women, as they brought along influences from Celtic culture.

End of today’s history lesson.

My mistakes were minor, and nothing that is important in the history of the World. However, please remember: False information can lead to disaster. George W. Bush’s sincere belief that Saddam Hussain had weapons of mass destruction lead to that disastrous war in Iraq.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Super Bowl

Dallas is snowbound. All of North Texas, including Garland, has been paralyzed for a week. I blame the Packers, who brought Green Bay weather with them when they flew in Monday to get ready for the Super Bowl.

In the 1960's my family lived in Irving, Texas. We watched Super Bowl II on television when the Cowboys played the Packers outdoors in Green Bay when the temperature was close to zero. The “Ice Bowl”. After that the football moguls arranged for the Super Bowl to be played where the weather would be warm in January. They came to Texas this year, and – well, best laid plans.

Some people around here think it is all an act of God. Maybe the sins of the fans caused the Cowboys to lose in the playoffs. Dallas and Fort Worth buried their disappointment and went into a frenzy of preparations to make as much money as possible from visitors coming to the Super Bowl.

God punished them by burying both cities in ice and snow. Fort Worth got set for outdoor events in Sun Dance Square. Instead of crowds, the few foolish fans I saw on television were wrapped up like mummies in the 8 degree weather. In Dallas a big tent was set up in the middle of the Cotton Bowl for a giant pre-game party. Then came the snow. The tent collapsed.

Schools are closed. The television warns, “Lots of accidents on the icy roads. Don’t go out unless you have to.” When Linda, our waitress, drove to work, her car spun completely around on a bridge over the freeway.

At the retirement home where I live, all activities are canceled. I ventured out for breakfast and found half the dining room closed off. Most people stayed in and prepared breakfast in their apartments. One reason I moved here was to have someone else poach two eggs for me every morning. (My kidneys need the protein.) To me it is worth the bother of buttoning up in heavy coat and gloves if I don’t have to wash the pan and dishes.

I have not missed a single dialysis session. Dan, our maintenance man, took me. I came out, bundled up, my coat collar pulled up to my eyes. As I climbed into his jeep, Dan said, “Nice weather!” He’s from the Iron Range in Northern Minnesota.

This year’s Super Bowl will be played indoors in Jerry Jones’s monstrous big new Texas Stadium in Arlington. When I young the few “bowl” games – Rose Bowl, Orange Bowl, Cotton Bowl – were played by college teams on New Year’s. Now the Cotton Bowl is a relic used for special events, rock concerts and parties, like that big tent set up on the former playing field. Now there are dozens of college “bowls”. It is the professional football players who meet for the biggest “bowl” of all, the Super Bowl.

We were in Irving in the 1960's when Cowboy Stadium was built, the latest thing in stadium design. This year I watched on television as Cowboy Stadium exploded and smashed into rubble.

In Rome I rode an elevator up to the second level in the Coliseum and walked around the wide stone corridor beneath stone arches supporting the upper bleachers. Mostly a ruin after almost 2,000 years, the Coliseum is still magnificent.

I wonder how long Texas Stadium will last. Will it ever be paid for? Super Bowl tickets are only for the rich. Box seats are $11,000 each. For $200 a person, you can sit in a tent outside the stadium and see the game on a giant television.

This year, as always, I will see the Super Bowl on television.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Do You Remember Moynihan?

On Thursdays during dialysis, I sit back in the recliner and read the latest New Yorker. Besides cartoons, the magazine always has several long, long articles. Before I started dialysis, I complained that it took me a month to read each issue – and one came every week. Now I read The New Yorker for three and a half hours every Thursday.

This week’s copy had articles on Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma; a doctor’s solution to health care costs, AOL’s future, and California Congressman Darrell Issa’s shady past. Whew!

One New Yorker article which stuck in my mind for months was about Daniel Patrick Moynihan. I’ve been thinking about it since last fall. I’ll be writing about Iceland and Denmark for the next month, but today I’ll give you a break from my travels and write about Moynihan.

The article was prompted by replacement of New York’s Penn Station with a newly remodeled building to be called Moynihan Station. Also, the publication of a book of his letters. (“Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary” by Steven R. Weissman, published by Public Affairs, $35).

I’d forgotten Moynihan. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, senator from New York, ambassador to the United Nations, adviser to Presidents. . . . and writer. His comments are quotable. “Guns don’t kill people, bullets do.” But one, repeated in other publications since Weissman’s book came out, impressed me especially:


I was reminded of this on Sunday when a young man on CBS reported on a study showing how people get false information stuck in their brains and won’t believe the truth even when presented with scientific evidence. Parents refuse to have babies vaccinated even though the doctor who said vaccination causes autism has been totally discredited.

I am surrounded by people who insist God created the World and all its creatures in one week in 6000 B.C. “Believing in The Bible” gives them comfort. Who would deny an old person a belief which enables them to face death with hope for a better life in Heaven?

Still, I can’t help but feel annoyed when evolution is mentioned and a nice old lady says gently, “That is just your opinion.”

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not to his own facts.”