Showing posts from April, 2011

Off on the wrong foot

It is just amazing what a difference first interactions make to the entire ease and comfort of a relationship. This morning Gunnar skyped me, without warning. For any other co-worker, or former co-worker, this might have surprised me.

I had emailed and called Gunnar a few times while we were trying to secure photo rights to use an image of Íslendingur on the cover of the exhibition catalogue I edited. He was hard to get ahold of and it was hard to get a straight answer from him also. I probably could have been a bit annoyed with him. But instead, I made a special effort, when I was in New York with my sister, to take a series of subway trains from Queens over to where his Viking ship was docked, getting lost several times on the way. My sister and I arrived just as they were starting to escort people off the ship for the night. But I guess Gunnar appreciated my effort in coming, because he immediately handed me a free t-shirt after I introduced myself. Just like that, we became friend…

Visiting my sister

I spent last Thursday and Friday night at my sister's house in Seattle. Even though she was a bit frazzled, and the house was a bit unorganized, I could tell she was happy to see me. We had good conversations, as we always do, and she was so sweet helping me get together an outfit for my meeting Friday, an all day meeting which began at 11am.  She lives in the country, pretty far away from the freeway, so she offered to  have me follow her to the freeway onramp (I had a rental car). During the 10 or 15 minute drive over to the freeway, I was not thinking about my upcoming meeting. I was thinking about how incredibly sweet my sister had been to me that morning, helping me with everything she could think to help me with, bringing me tea and oatmeal in bed and everything. And then I realized that I had not even gotten a chance to really thank her. We just rushed out of the house, her in her car and me in my rental. When this realization really hit me, we were nearing the onramp. And …

Los Angeles

My friend Ragga is doing a lot of flying back and forth between LA and San Fran. I remember doing that a few years ago, taking flights every other weekend between the Bay area and San Diego. One guy I know actually lives in Berkeley, but works in Los Angeles. That is of course an extreme commute, but since the flight is only an hour, it really is not that out of the ordinary for Angelinos. My sister and I were talking about this last week, since she has to keep explaining to people that as a Southern Californian, driving an hour to work, and then an hour home, every day does not bother her.

But honestly, unless you go to LA, it is completely unbelievable that this could be real. Everything else about Los Angeles is so artificial, but a long commute, that is genuine. It is what gives it a sense of reality.

St. Mark's and General Hospital

On Easter Sunday, Palmer and I went to St. Mark's Episcopal Church. I have no idea what the difference is between Episcopalian and Catholic, really. But I make a point every Easter Sunday of going to a denomination I have never been to before, and I like to think that whatever one I settle on is the one with the right message for me to hear that year. The woman who gave the sermon yesterday spoke about those who see Easter as a 40 day ritual of cleansing and prayer and renewal, and those who see it as a celebration for one day, or even one morning. I have never given up anything for Lent, but it always occurs to me at least a few times during Lent that I should try to do that one year, give up something specific. Anyhow, her sermon was good because it was all about feeling welcome, and that the point is to open ourselves up to the possibility of wonder. To take time out of thinking about all the little daily concerns, and contemplate for a moment something existential, something m…

Makes a lot more sense that way

The theme of the class I am teaching is "Waves of Words" and the works are all chosen because ships and ocean voyaging are major parts of the stories. I have been wondering what inspired my students to sign up for my class instead of some other reading and composition course. I asked them this on the first day of class and got only a vague reply about their friends recommending it or something. But then today I asked how many of them had been on a ship before. More than half the class raised their hands. They had almost all been on cruise-ships with their parents on vacation. This surprised me a little bit, but on the other hand, I think it bodes very well for their final papers, which is indeed all about ships in literature. I have high expectations now.


It is a rather cold and foggy morning here in the San Francisco Bay area, and all is quiet. The house down the hill from me, which I can see through my kitchen window, appear to have a fire roaring in their fireplace this morning. There is a waft of white/blue smoke seeping out of their chimney.

And I am reminded that houses in Iceland do not have chimneys, none of them.

Maria Santos

This morning my friend Oskar contacted me on Skype, and asked me if I was going to Cal Day events. Why yes, I said. This is the one day of the year that the public is invited into all the building on campus, and portions of the collections of the natural history museum are put on display. Many of the departments have special presentations and events, to try to show the public what it is we do here. Palmer was excited to go, especially when I told him about the band playing. Oskar said he figured a Cal gal like me would be going, and that he had a favor to ask: to give his friend Maria Santos a big hug. He said, "It is OK in California to give a random stranger a hug. It is not OK in Iceland."

I let Palmer do the honors, when we finally found Ms. Santos, standing around a bunch of stuffed birds and lizards in jars.

Not by carrier pigeon

I got the question yesterday: How long until you are done with your dissertation. I gave a detailed answer about the number of chapters drafted (2) versus the number of chapters planned (6) and a time slot during which 1 or 2 more chapters might get done. At this point the person gave up asking more.  What is funny to me is that this is just the part of the process I can control; I can control how long it takes me to draft my dissertation. The part I cannot control is how long it takes my dissertation committee to approve my dissertation.

Every university has a "doctoral defense" system, where a PhD candidate has to answer questions posed directly to them by a panel of experts in their field. In most schools, this is done in an oral setting (sometimes public) and usually lasts a couple of hours.

At UC Berkeley, I submit a written copy of my dissertation to my three or four dissertation committee members. They they proceed to make notes and comments and suggestions and questi…

Trails around campus

Because Berkeley is built on a hillside, with two creeks running through it, and because it has grown up slowly over 150 years, it does not have the same feel as a lot of the more formally-designed campuses in the US and England. Instead there are buildings kind of randomly placed in and amongst groves of trees, with paths and stairs and bridges winding in various directions. It takes a while to figure out the best way to get from point A to point B.

I am pleased I have figured out which ones are dead-ends or take me in the wrong direction, even if I am not always sure which ones take me in the right direction. Hmm, sounds like a metaphor for my dissertation, or for learning in general.

Anyhow, I was thinking about that just now, looking out my window, and realizing that if I had wings, I could literally paraglide down from the roof of the house I live in and swoop right down to the building where I teach, whose roof I can see from here.

I have the same sort of view from my apartment …

Pollen count

Spring has officially sprung here in California: the news confirmed last night that basically every single flower and tree in all of California is now in bloom. So the pollen index is in the red zone. Even people without allergies per se, like me, are suffering from stuffy noses.

This is of course owing to the torrential downpours we suffered through, three or four periods where it rained non-stop for a week or more. The heavens opened up their floodgates and let it all come plunking down.

Interestingly enough, this did not make all the plants and trees and flowers fear for their lives and retreat back into the soil. Nope, they seem to have sprouted up with a fervor that humbles us mere humans, and makes us sneeze.

Muir woods

One of the nice things about living in Iceland was how easy it was to take a car ride to somewhere truly beautiful. In California, the distances are a little more substantial; it takes longer to get to somewhere truly beautiful. But on the other hand, the drive always proves to be really well worth it.

Today I am going to take Palmer to Muir Woods. They are named after John Muir, an important conservationist, and are some of the last old growth forests in California. I think Palmer will like seeing the big Sequoias and Red Woods. Me and my Saab will enjoy going over the Golden Gate Bridge, I think.

Skiing across Greenland

Today I was talking to my students about Greenland (we are reading Smilla's Sense of Snow), and we were discussing traveling across snow. I was reminded of a presentation I helped arrange once at the Smithsonian of two Norwegian explorers who had skied unassisted across Greenland. I remember in particular one little detail of their journey. As they were running a bit behind schedule, they had to stretch out their food supplies. And they were hungry, really hungry. So they used to have long discussions about food, even arguing with one another if it would be better to have a steak dinner or a thick slice of chocolate cake. It struck me as so strange to have long conversations about such things, when the prospect of getting even enough food to survive was not so good.

Anyhow, I think I depressed my students this morning.

Washington Huskies

Palmer joined a T-ball league a few weeks ago; I was pleased he could still wear the cleats I bought for him in Iceland when he was doing soccer there last spring.

I think his favorite part about t-ball so far is actually the uniform, much as it was for him with soccer. But of course instead of being Keflavík and sponsored by Sparisjoðurinn, now he is on a T-ball league that features the logo and colors of the University of Washington. I thought this was kind of funny, that my little guy is a Huskie, but also appropriate, since my sister lives up there now, and both my dad and my brother used to work in the Seattle area.

Of course, I am not yelling "Go Huskies!" quiet as loud as I used to yell "Áfram Keflavík!" but that is mostly because the playing field is a lot smaller in t-ball. One does not have to be as loud to be heard.

Cold fusion

In the 1960s, my father worked at a laboratory at Princeton University that was trying to produce energy through the use of fusion, the mechanism that the sun uses to maintain its endless supply of energy. In order to harness that power here on earth, a reaction referred to as cold fusion, which is theoretically possible, needs to be done. (This was the discovery of Elizabeth Shue's character in the Val Kilmer film "The Saint").

My dad quit his job at that lab, because he had the feeling it would be a while before they had a breakthrough. We laughed when a news item a few months ago announced that the lab he worked at 40 years ago has just now managed a sustained cold fusion reaction for a fraction of a second.

Today as I was pumping gas, it occurred to me that that lab, and others like it, are funded by the government not because there is any real hope of them ever delivering on their promises, but rather as a way to placate the populace. Everytime I fill up my gas tank…

Tornado warnings

Dave and Palmer are in Georgia this week, visiting Dave's mom and family. He had the week off of school, and as much as I would have liked to have spent the week with him, I knew I would not get any writing done. So, as per my usual pragmatic and hard-working ways, I suggested that Dave take him away for the week.

It has been strange though realizing how very much I have gotten used to seeing him all the time, now that I am back in the Bay Area. I went weeks on end in Iceland without seeing him, but now a few days seems like a really long time.

Anyhow, I am sure not very many of my readers have been through anything like this themselves, and for that I can only be glad. No one should have to.

On being a good teacher

Today I have to review the evaluations that the students gave me from the last time I taught. I have never considered myself a great teacher or anything, but this semester, I must say, I feel a lot more on top of the whole teaching thing. 
The main difference for me this time around is I seem to have a better appreciation of the fact that different students have different skills they need to master. Some may be very good in some areas, but lacking a bit in on specific, and crucial, area. Other students may be generally speaking OK, but not excellent at any one skill, neither reading comprehension nor writing. I am becoming a lot more aware of these distinctions, and at learning how to motivate and challenge the students in the area where there is room for improvement. 
The last time I taught, it was almost as if I thought all the students knew how to read and write better than me, and that I had little or nothing to teach them. I have no rid myself of this idea/delusion, and am ready to…

untapped reserves

The discussions of energy policy in Iceland, especially in regard to geothermal energy, were surprising to me. I had thought when I first moved to Iceland that there was a huge amount of untapped geothermal energy pockets, but now it seems most of the more productive vents have already been tapped, and may start to become less productive over time. I suppose in Iceland, hydroelectric is underutilized, but then one would hate to see more waterfalls dammed up for that purpose.

In the US, I have heard conflicting reports about the amount of oil and natural gas deposits, and have heard some (republican) friends of mine say that there is actually a lot of untapped oil in the United States. I do not know if this is true, but I think that in some cases, a decision has been made to buy oil from abroad instead of paying for all the infrastructure to extract oil domestically simply because it is cheaper for the oil companies that way. So I do lean towards the idea that there is a lot of untappe…

Not an organ donor

This morning I dropped Palmer and Dave off at the airport - they are going to see Dave's mother in Georgia. On the way there, a motorcycle driver came zooming past us, reminding me of why and how they got the epitaph Organ Donors. The idea is that everyone expects them to die in a motorcycle accident soon, and then their organs can be transplanted into someone else. 
California driver's licenses have a little pink dot on them for just this purpose: if you die in a car accident, the pink dot indicates you have already agreed to have your organs harvested so that doctor's can put them into someone else. 
I am not a fan of the whole organ donation/harvesting/transplant idea. I do not have a pink dot on my driver's license, but of course what happens to my organs after I die is not really such a big issue. What is more important to me is that I never accept getting an organ transplant, except perhaps a kidney from a relative. 
Because to me it seems to me that anyone who want…


When I was in Iceland, I was immensely pleased when the good people at the Mac store showed me how to get my American Mac to use an Icelandic keyboard. There are a few unfortunate things missing from the Icelandic keyboard that necessitates me sometimes switching back over to the English keyboard, namely the brackets. Although my brain has mostly accustomed to knowing where the punctuation marks are on each keyboard, it is still strange switching back and forth.

I was telling my dissertation advisor about switching between keyboards, so he showed me how to get English Extended set up, and how to use it. That keyboard has the advantage of keeping all punctuation keys in the place I am used to them, and the commands for the special characters are really easy to remember - alt+t for þ for instance. As the name suggests, it takes what I already know, and adds in the additional characters I need, without me having to conceive of two entirely different keyboards.

I also have a Spanish keybo…