Snaefellsjökull

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Went to Iceland at the end of September for a five day visit (which is not enough time to see any country for the first time, but it’s a good first taste). Reykjavik has the feel of a small, modern city in transition: cranes on the skyline; buildings rising along the waterfront; an interesting arts and music scene; and, naturally, the dreaded puffin triangle downtown for tourists seeking tokens of their stay. There are gems, downtown, too; notably the Fischer House, a small, dark, sensory exploration of olfactory delights with provocative video art displays and witty explanations of its various products. Lift a series of small bell jars to experience the smells of various places. We had great tacos at the Kex Hostel, excellent snacks and wine at the Vinstúkan Tíu Sopar wine bar, and an extraordinary dinner at the Fishmarkadurinn, with an erupting volcanic dessert.

Our group went for the obligatory tourist shakedown at the Blue Lagoon, a spa not far from Kerflavik airport, for an eerie, somewhat soothing soak in the sulfurous waters. We visited Thingvellir National Park, Vithey Island, Gunnuhver Hot Springs, lost our way inside the Snaefellsness Peninsula (oops, wrong turn across the mountains!), but eventually found Vatnshellir Cave, the Londrangar basalt cliffs and Snaefellsjökull glacier.

We made a pledge to drive up the road to the glacier—just to touch it—but the sun sank over the twin horns of the volcano, and the glacier seemed unwilling to meet us. After a bumpy four-wheel slog up a road riddled with holes, we stopped at a vista point, agreeing to let the glacier maintain its delicate solitude while we took in the cool air, the silence, and the amazing view before us.

The stark reality of a warming atmosphere in a place as beautiful as Iceland (where the weather for late September was unseasonably warm and sunny) wasn’t lost on us. What a mess we’ve made of the world (that’s a collective “we”). I’d like to go back there, but will try to earn it by letting the car gather dust on the street for a few months, resisting the use of plastic bags, and halving my meat consumption.

Massive Puppets

I’m always on the lookout for a good idea for a puppet. Here in Park Slope, Brooklyn, we have a children’s Halloween Parade, and over the years there have been some fantastic puppets, from mermaids, pirate ships, exotic birds and glow-in-the-dark jellyfish umbrellas.

My contribution a few years ago was a ten-foot Don Quixote puppet with shield and lance. The shield is barely visible from this angle (but it was great!). I think I got rid of the lance after about eight blocks of walking. After doing this parade I developed great respect for anybody who has carried a giant puppet; you need muscles (and painkillers), to do a long walk with something like this balanced on your shoulders!

Don Quixote

Ant Fiction

A few weeks ago, I was inspired to write (well . . . to start writing) an epic fiction tale about ants.ant by g I dove into the subject, roamed the internet, watched videos, went to the library and read books on ant behavior, including Ants At Work, by Deborah Gordon, a fascinating study of insect society. I was interested in the fact that ants have limited roles in the colony, that they have few choices, and live, fundamentally, for the benefit of the whole nest.

I went as far as to compose a heroine in a vast, old, ant society who is designated to be a queen by the reigning queen and sent off to establish a new nest. The more I learned, however, the harder it became to write my story.

Ant colonies begin with one queen who lays thousands of eggs, most of them female. These ants assume tasks, either as nurturers of the larvae, foragers, patrollers or fertile future queens. Ants have no leaders, no managers, and yet they act through their sense of smell, identifying each other by task and adopting tasks according to the frequency of their encounters with other working ants.

Many ants do nothing in the nest but wander around until provoked by encounters and pheromones to perform a function. The event that drives them to act might be a famine, or a potential flood that compels thousands to start shoring up the tunnels, or an invading creature like a spider or a lizard that stimulates them to attack in vast numbers.

I thought this was an interesting way of looking at human life. We believe we direct our own actions; much of what we do feels like waiting around; but occasionally a tragedy, or a political occurrence, or some other unifying event compels us to rally, to act, either by helping each other or scattering in panic.

As I tried to construct a dramatic tale around this idea, I became stumped by the fact that ants function with the simplicity of algorithms. They have no personal interactions. There are no ant families or relationships. The larvae are attended to by their nurturing ants deep underground and the queen does nothing but lay eggs. There are no principal figures in ant life. No executives, no advisers to the queen, no mothers or fathers. The more I tried to anthropomorphize my ant characters (giving them qualities that made them more interesting to a reader), the more I realized how sad and grim their lives were.

In the end, I realized that the qualities I find interesting in any story—relationships with surprising alliances and conflicting motives—are antithetical (pun intended) to ant life. Ants are more like lines of code. They are fascinating, and capable of building enormous societies, but they have more in common with a virus than with people.

I abandoned the idea. It didn’t make sense to write a story about ants if I had to turn them into people in order to make them dramatically engaging. Conversely, if I took people and turned them into ants in my story, I doubted that they would live long enough to finish the tale.

Be glad you’re not an ant!

 

Text & illustration copyright (c) 2018 by George Hagen

 

Shakespeare Loved Riddles

Here’s one of my favorite riddles by Shakespeare:

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“Who builds stronger things than a stonemason, a shipbuilder, or a carpenter?”

The answer is a gravedigger. “… The houses that he makes last till doomsday.

The riddle comes from Act V of Hamlet, and it’s told, of course, by a gravedigger.

 

Text & illustration copyright (c) 2018 by George Hagen

 

 

Riddles

Riddles are an important feature of my Gabriel Finley novels.

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Each book has over thirty of them. My hero bonds with a raven by answering a riddle, riddles get him out of danger, and riddles enable him to defeat the villain.

The reason that children are so fond of riddles is obvious: they’re fun, silly, clever, and sometimes devilishly simple. They’re also a pleasant diversion from linear thinking. The puns and metaphors in riddles give young minds a break from conventional classroom work. I must stress, however, that that nothing in a classroom should be conventional. Children aren’t conventional; they all think differently and most teachers realize this.

I think of riddles as treats, as candy for the brain. Riddles empower children. Confounding a sibling, friend, and—most importantly—an adult, is a great power.

Teachers and librarians at my author visits know that riddles are a prominent focus of my presentations, which always end with riddles. Nothing can reduce this author to a gape-mouthed idiot faster than thirty children asking him riddles. Nothing pleases students more. Riddles rule!

Images and text copyright © by George Hagen 2018

 

So Many Words . . .

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My ten lb dictionary serves as a door stop, an extra step on the ladder, a weight for gluing things, and a handy tool for flattening out wet crumpled mail. These days, I search for most definitions online. I still keep the real item handy, however, to remind me of the extraordinary variety of the English language. The Oxford English Dictionary boasts more than 171,000 words.

This is an astounding number. It is estimated that most Americans use less than 20,000. I feel an occasional pang of remorse about my lack of range, and I go looking through its pages for words that might come in handy. What surprises me is how many words we have for the same things, or words with subtle differences.

This is why I begin my author visits by talking about the English language. It is a rich hodge-podge of words drawn from the many languages of visitors (and invaders) to England’s shores. Germanic tribes—the Angles, Saxons & Jutes—Vikings, Romans, Normans; they have all left words in our language that are commonly used today. Then, add on words gathered by the English during the colonial period.

Several days of the week, for example, come from the Vikings. Wednesday  (Wodensday), Thursday (Thor’s day) and Friday (Freya’s day). The Norman invasion introduced French words for many things, most commonly for food (mutton, veal, beef, salad, and soup, to name a few). The Roman invasion brought Latin words like exit, senator, alias, antique, villa, and picture. And it’s not as though we ever have enough.

The OED added idiocracy, nothingburger, butterbeer, Kubrickian, Spielbergian and Tarantinoesque to its September 2018 list. Each month brings hundreds of new words and meanings for old ones.

I’m very fond of workhorse words, those with multiple meanings. The word run, one of my favorites, has dozens of meanings both as a verb and a noun. Applied to an engine, a nose, an athlete, a candidate, a chicken, or a ski location, it means something entirely different. Shakespeare made ample use of workhorse words, too. Consider Mercutio’s mordant joke after being wounded in Romeo & Juliet. “Ask me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man,” he says.

Do we have too many words? Let me turn that around to you. Would a painter say we have too many colors or too many mediums? A composer protest that we have too many notes or instruments? The rich variety of our language gives spice, beauty, and countless possibilities to discourse. Anyone who uses words in fresh and inventive ways wants a rich palette.

So, go out and use them!

 

Images and text copyright (c) 2018 by George Hagen

How To Begin.

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I’m talking about writing. How does one begin without an idea?

I hear this question from students all the time and I understand. Although I’ve been writing for forty years, I begin many days without an idea. A bare page is formidable. It taunts. It teases. It can send you running from a keyboard. Here’s how I begin: I commit to writing three pages. No matter what.

Other writers have told me that they write in order to find out what they’re thinking. The process of expressing oneself brings out dormant thoughts. I’ve written several books, and in the early stage, I start each day not knowing exactly what was going to happen when I sat down to write, but by the end of those three pages (sometimes it’s four or five if I’ve had a good day) I’ve found something. You will too.

How does it happen?

It’s like running. You start off slow (perhaps even awkwardly) but as you gain speed, your limbs start working together. The brain seems to do the same thing; it rallies your thoughts. Ideas start to appear; maybe you don’t like the first few, but then something useful comes—something you can work with.

On rare occasions I have a great idea from the start. Most often, however, I write the best version of a half-baked idea, knowing tomorrow will bring improvements.

This is the other thing about the brain. It works overnight. The next day, it provides fresh perspective, new ideas, and I’m off and running.

So, begin. Write anything. Three pages. Just three.

 

Images and text copyright (c) 2018 by George Hagen

Our Special Gift

What makes us different from all other species?

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When I was a boy, I recall being told that humans had the biggest brains, which made them the most intelligent creatures. Another sign of our exceptionalism was sentience, being able to perceive or feel, to have consciousness.

Scientists cite plenty of evidence that mammals, birds, and even octopuses exhibit a conscious state, so we’re not alone as sentient beings. Intellect is manifested in countless ways among other species. Communities of elephants, whales, and dolphins reveal complicated exchanges and a remarkable grasp of complex ideas and emotions. Ravens, rodents, macaques, gorillas, chimpanzees, elephants and sea otters have been observed fashioning and using tools.

I hear your retort. Human beings have an advanced technical facility, an ability to make things, transform their environment, and study themselves. It’s clear they’re a prominent (and dominant) life form.

Yes, we’ve certainly made our mark on the earth. We’ve also made a mess of it. Some would argue that the very way we’ve engineered the destruction of a sustainable environment proves that we’re a foolish and careless species; which gives us no right to pat ourselves on the back for intelligence or sentience, for that matter.

However, I’d like to raise a special gift we have.

I’m talking about telling stories. We employ them to explain ourselves; to entertain, get a laugh, draw tears; to show empathy; find common ground; make excuses; sow peace and turn enemies to friends. The question, “How was your day?” is an invitation to tell a story. When a friend says, “You’ll never believe what just happened to me,” it’s the beginning of a tale that promises to put you in her shoes, or evoke his envy, invite congratulations, or provoke a smile. The phrase that begins, “something like that happened to me, once . . .” offers shared experience, community and comfort. Stories are our currency as social beings. The stories we tell each day not only teach, they cure loneliness, end solitude, forgive and absolve guilt, and make a cold, unfriendly world warmer.

This is not to say that stories are all good. Wars have been started with stories, but peace has also been maintained with them. I cannot think of anything else that changes people as easily and simply. Stories provide that most valuable of qualities: hope. We can right wrongs with them, solve big mistakes, change minds and stir people to action. Perhaps we can even engineer our own salvation on this planet.

That’s an extraordinary thing for mere words to do.

 

Images and text copyright (c) 2018 by George Hagen

 

Ancient Super-Heroes

During my school visits I encourage students to imagine living thousands of years ago, and I ask the question, “Do you think children long ago had super heroes?”

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This usually draws a blank from the assembly. So I mention the myths. Every ancient culture had myths and heroes to go with them. Indian, Chinese, Tibetan, Mayan and Greek, just to name a few. The Greek heroes are perhaps most familiar to American children: Hercules, Perseus, and Jason. Now comes the glimmer of recognition, the eureka! moment, because these timeless stories have been made popular again by authors like Rick Riordan. They are every bit as exciting, and probably more interesting than the parade of Marvel characters kids see in movie theaters and on their home screens.

To be frank, I find most of these movies dull and repetitive. More attention is paid to the special effects than to the characters and one comes away feeling hammered by their bombast and fuzzy about the hero.

Oh yeah, you say? What’s so special about the Greek myths? First, these tales have lasted the test of time, passed down at the fireside for thousands of years. Second, their characters are vivid and their adventures compel them to change—a fundamental law of a good story.

Hot-headed Hercules, the strongest man in Thebes, takes on the twelve labors to do penance for murdering his own family; shrewd Odysseus takes his sweet time returning home from war, then has to win over his wife; and Perseus, naively sets off to slay Medusa and bring her head to his step-father as a wedding gift, but discovers that the man is his mother’s captor. These are stories of sly cunning, wordplay, stealth and daring. Often these heroes are in crises of their own making and they have extraordinary psychological depth.

I think there’s a third, critical benefit for kids reading the Greek myths. They convey a sense of story; that is, an awareness of what constitutes a satisfying ending. This is a very hard thing to explain—especially to young minds in abstract terms. You know it when you read it. And you can only know it by reading good stories. An effective tale is not merely a series of events, but a series of conflicts that progress to a moment of resolution, which might be ironic, empowering, or a simple affirmation.

I will probably tinker with that definition for years, but the point is obvious if you read the story of how Theseus navigated the labyrinth and conquered the Minotaur. Edith Hamilton’s version in Mythology is a short, ironic tale of a cunning hero who is changed tragically by his quest.

 

Text copyright (c) 2018 by George Hagen