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

 

 

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