The Current State of Things

First of all, today is an important day on one of my other blogs.  My 365 Project blog has its final picture day today!  It's been both fun and tedious but I'm glad it's over.  The whole idea was to take a picture every day for a solid year and I succeeded.  They didn't always get posted the day they were shot due to lack of internet or running out of time during the day, but they all got actually taken on their proper days.

Our next-door neighbor (the one with the nice, quiet dogs) moved out.  He didn't sell his house, but instead his brother is going to live there.  We used the opportunity to modify the fence that ran next to our garage.  At some time in the past when the fence was built, instead of going right alongside the garage (or shop as Sue calls it) they turned the fence toward the corners of it and used the wall of our garage for a section of the fence.  Thankfully, that's over and done with.  Now we have outside wall access like we should.  Now we need to get gutters up there.

Mark and his family moved the other day.  They haven't been there a year yet, but they found it necessary to move already--most of it due to the fact that the landlord is going to have the units under construction in attempt to separate the duplex and made two separate dwellings out of it.  Apparently, Bekah's bunny rabbit isn't going to be making the move with them and we're watching it for a while while a new owner can be found.  Hopefully it's a short while.  (It makes too much noise at night.)

Things at work have slowed down considerably.  I don't remember if this is the exact time of year that it usually happens, but it does happen every year if memory serves me.  I am doing lots of things to keep myself busy when I don't have my usual amount of activity going on though.

It's been interesting playing show & tell with Iceland pictures at work.  I currently have 110 pictures that cycle randomly when my computer goes into screen saver mode.  My monitor faces the office door so everyone that goes from the office to the shop has it staring right at them as they come through the door.  The pictures have gotten a lot of comments, and rightly so--there are some beautiful shots we took that weekend!

When we came back from Iceland we bought a couple pints of schnapps at the Iceland airport duty-free shop.  One of them, Brennivin, is a cheap, notoriously nasty (they call it the Black Death) stuff of legend.  The other, called Icelandic Schnapps, it much better and tastes completely different.  Believe it or not, it's flavored with lichen moss!  The moss is practically Iceland's national plant... It's so prevalent there.  We tasted both the schnapps last week.  I'm sure they won't be treated as much more than a curiosity.  I've never been much of a schnapps person, so they're not exactly my cup of tea.

Oh, one quick note I forgot to include (or did I?) in my Iceland blog posts:  The price of gas.  Let me preface this by saying that the American people don't have anything to bitch about.  When we gassed up our little sippy cup of a rental car it cost a little over $60 for 3/4 of a tank.  We had to convert Iceland Krona to dollars, and then convert liters to gallons to get the numbers.  The bottom line is this:  We paid just about $7.50 per gallon for gas, and it hardly varied a bit from place to place.  

Spring is underway finally.  Everywhere we look there are signs of blooming and budding.  I say it's about time.  We've still got to endure the rainy part of spring though.  I'm ready for some nice, warm weather.  Especially after Iceland!

It's Friday!

I feel it's time
to make a rhyme;
I think it's overdue.

I feel the need,
and I must heed;
so here's from me to you.

Friday's here!
A day for beer
that's not my daily kind.

A treat for me;
I like to see
what new taste I can find.

We both employ
our hot tub's joy
almost every night.

But Friday's best
to soak the stress;
No bedtime is in sight.

We can stay in our beds,
leave the dreams in our heads,
and sleep just as long as we choose.

No alarm clock to ring
to our sleep we can cling
or get up with our coffee and news.

Yes, the Friday "feel"
has great appeal;
It's the end of our week-long woes.

A time to drink
but not to think
of where the weekend goes.

Rick Williams

The American Way of Life: Thin, Watery, and Diluted

I suppose it's inevitable that we do it when we get to a certain age.  You know--that "Why, back in MY day..." thing that the old folks did when we were young.  We just rolled our eyes when we heard it because of how often it happened.  Well, now it's my turn.  It's time for me to start noticing all the things that have gone downhill.  It's my job to make sure that I can get young people to roll their eyes.

It seems to me that the American way of life has become diluted.  We've spread ourselves too thin.

Just a few decades ago, we had tight clusters of family, tight clusters of cities and towns, tight clusters of just about everything.  Everything has changed.  People are spread out too thinly.  There seem to be very few clusters of anything that galvanize people in a positive way.

In the not-too-distant past we used to gather around the fireplace or the woodstove.  People used to have places, events, and gatherings that caused us to cluster in social groups.  When church day came, people couldn't wait to gather around and trade stories with all their fellow churchgoers--Relating all the news of the week and catching each other up.  When the county fair came along that was really big because you might get a chance to see all the out-of-town cousins or friends that were just a little farther away. When it was dinnertime we all gathered around the table, talking about the day's events and sharing what was on our mind.  When there was only radio and it became the source of news and entertainment, we gathered around that.  When television became the driving force that fed us, we gathered around that. 

A century or two ago, people were very aware and prideful in their family tree.  Because people were living in smaller clusters almost everyone knew each other.  If they didn't actually know each other, they knew OF each other.  When a wedding happened it was big news for the whole community because it was another gathering and a combining of families.  Now even marriage has become diluted.  In many cases they don't even last a decade.

There used to be photo albums too.  Back when photography was in its infancy cameras were a luxury item, and the pictures they took were complex to get developed.  Having pictures taken was something that not everyone could justify or even afford, and  that were taken were reserved for special occasions and events. The pictures that people had taken were lovingly mounted and preserved--usually in frames.  When cameras became more mainstream and affordable to the masses, photo albums became popular.  They were revered.  The family photos were carefully placed into the albums, held onto the pages with stick-on corners.  Each picture was captioned with the details of the picture written below it.  Like everything else, photography has become diluted.  We can take so many pictures with ease that we can't even keep track of them.  Nobody ever writes down any of the details of the picture.  A generation down the road nobody will remember who that person is in the picture, where it was taken, or even who took it.

It used to be that people traveled at a much slower pace.  When two people passed each other on a road or trail they could greet each other and actually answer back.  They might even stop to talk for a while.  Now we are all locked into our tight little air-conditioned cocoons of metal and glass, speeding from point A to point B.  Not only are we going too fast to interact, but we are actually afraid to.  We don't want anything to do with anyone on a personal level--Especially if we don't know them.  Our interaction with people has become diluted.

Our country was made up of one basic group of inhabitants when we "new owners" moved in and took over--The ones we now refer to as Native Americans.  Unlike us, they had a culture--One rich with traditions, music, celebrations, and ceremonies.  In one fell swoop the influx of people that fled so many other countries to seek refuge in this one and diluted it. The new inhabitants originally probably kept themselves together in groups, but as the country grew, people became more spread out.  Little by little, cultural celebrations from people's countries or origin because less and less frequent.  Now little seems to remain.  We have become e a country with little or no particular culture worthy of celebration.  We have become diluted.

A century ago we relied on local fruit and produce that was grown in our own fields or gardens.  It was really our only source of those items, so to get ourselves through the year with our harvest we had to can them, freeze them, or some other method of preservation.  Mason jars were something almost everyone was familiar with.  Now fruits and vegetables come from everywhere in the world.  There are no fruits or veggies than we can't get all year round. If there are such things as "seasons" they exist basically as part of the pricing structure, meaning if they're hard to get they'll cost you more.  They may come from California, Chile, Ecuador--Who knows--But they're still available.  We've gotten so used to it that we take it for granted.  Again--Diluted.

Our government has gotten so big and spread out that it, too has become diluted.  It seems that nobody knows who or what the other is doing within government because it has become so top-heavy.  The U.S. has evolved into what could really only be described as "world police" over the years.  Our military is in so many places at any given time that our own border security has become diluted.  Spread WAY too thin.

We've already witnessed (and still are witnessing) the results of a home lending debacle finally came tumbling down like a house of cards a few years.  It was a result of it diluting itself so much that it was basically worthless.

I compare our lifestyle now to that of a giant department store where nobody in one section knows where the other section is or even what it contains.  Part of me wants the mom & pop store back.

Iceland: The Rest of the Story

Initially I was going to blog our adventure chronologically, explaining each day's exploits as they happened--one day per blog post.  After publishing Day 1, I started working on Day 2 when I realized: BORING.  I decided I didn't want to methodically list each little thing we did in order of the way we did it. Instead, I'm going to switch gears.  I'm going to blog my perceptions of our trip to Iceland.  Here we go.

When you go to a foreign country for the first time you don't really know what to expect.  While I have been in several foreign countries during my 6 years in the Air Force, Suzie has never been anywhere international except for the two countries we share borders with: Mexico and Canada.  To we local folks, British Columbia, Canada is almost part of Washington so it doesn't really count.  While I have traveled a lot internationally, I have always done it solo.  I never had a partner during any of my travels back in those days, and let me say that Suzie is the best travel partner one could hope for.  She does her homework beforehand--researching, studying, planning, and organizing.  By the time we finally found ourselves in Iceland, we had our 4-day whirlwind of a trip pretty much all mapped out.  Looking back on it, there is no possible way we could have "stumbled" across even half of the interesting sights we found during the day we had our rental car.

The people of Iceland seemed very nice.  Every time we interacted with them they were smiling, helpful, and friendly.  When we were on our tour bus on Saturday they dropped us off right at the door of our hotel. We ended up getting off and forgetting a zip-up nylon lunch bag that we carried around with us.  On Monday we were in the area of their office and I stopped in.  They made a phone call, located the bag and I picked it up a couple hours later.  The night we took a city bus back to the hotel, he didn't drop us at the bus stop nearby, he took us to the hotel door.  The hotel people were nice as well, and were eager to remedy any little problem I brought up.  During our visit to the Blue Lagoon, we somehow ended up with only one ticket when we tried to check in.  No problem, the gal at the desk just grabbed the phone, talked to the ticket person that we bought them from and let us in.  If memory serves me, everybody we interacted with during our whole trip was nice and went out of their way to be helpful.

The weather during our stay was pretty varied.  I'm not going to lie and say it wasn't cold--It most definitely was.  After all, we were in the country of Iceland, and it's right on the arctic circle.  Add to that the fact that it's only mid-March and you realize there is no chance of it ever being warm, whether the sun comes out or not.  It also depended a lot on where we were.  For instance, the city of Keflavik and the airport are both in a very, very windy area.  We were there twice--once upon our arrival, and once during our last day in Iceland.  As I blogged earlier, the first day in that wind we had no rental car, which meant we were captive in the airport.  The final day we were there we spent some time driving around the city of Keflavik itself.  As we left Reykjavik and headed toward Keflavik (about a 20-mile drive) it got more and more windy.  It was wreaking havoc with our little rental car.  We found ourselves buffeted around quite a bit.  Our objective in Keflavik was to go to the end of the road where a lighthouse was, and by the time we got there the strong wind also had heavy rain mixed with it, creating a huge problem for photography.

Wandering around downtown Reykjavik was very interesting.  It had the same "feel" to it as most European cities I had been in.  The streets were small, the cars were small, and there was a lot of activity.  The buildings were painted in many colors, and because the majority of the rooftops were either tile or metal, they were also in many colors.  Viewed from above, the city took on a kind of kaleidoscope of colors and shades.

We found one aspect of shopping kind of frustrating.  Many times we tried to shop at a store called Bonus, known for its lower prices.  Every time without fail they were closed when we drove up to one.  No matter what time it was, or which location it was:  Closed.  One store we stopped at (at about 10 or so) said they opened at 11.  No problem, we just continued on our way.  We were driving in a different location a little later on--Maybe 11:30--We drove up to that one and it said it opened at 12:00.  What?  No consistency.  Several other times when we were walking downtown we found doors locked.  It's hard to figure things out when they don't have info on the door either.  It's a different country and on a weekend, so who knows what kind of schedules they had.

We didn't try any of the food items that Iceland is known for.  No whale steaks, pickled shark, or Puffin.  I would have loved to try a whale steak, but we didn't make any effort to even try.  Why?  Well, I'm against anything that is romanticized from a tourist standpoint to give them an excuse to jack the prices of those particular "delicacies" through the roof.  Those are the kind of items that would cost us (the tourist) far more than they were worth just based on things like demand, exclusivity, and the allure of trying something native.  Sue wasn't keen on trying any of them no matter what they cost--Especially the rotten shark or the cute Puffins. Our best meal was a great cheeseburger and fries platter we had downtown with a good-sized glass of Viking beer alongside.

Saturday was the day of the prearranged tour I mentioned in my previous post.  Neither of us really care for tours.  Sure, we were both looking forward to the "sit and do nothing" aspect of the tour, but that was about it.  Why don't I like tours?  Well, I don't like: (1) being herded like sheep, (2) only being able to take pictures out of the one side of the bus that we are sitting on, (3) only stopping where they want to stop, (4) staying too long at places with nothing to offer, and too short in places that we need more time at, (5) cramped seating.  The good: (1) Informative banter from the tour guide, (2) relaxing enough you could snooze if you wanted.  The weather for our tour day was phenomenal.  Totally sunny and beautiful.  I think most of the people on the bus were Americans, and several of them were from our area here.  There was a large group of Asians that apparently all knew each other, and were continually yakking among themselves in their native language.  One couple from their group was sitting directly in front of us.  I don't remember how it came out, but he said that he was from Newcastle. "We're from Auburn," I said.  The lady next to me across the aisle piped up, "Renton here."  Kinda funny how that happens.  I was continually amused at the stereotypical picture-taking by many of the Asian group.  All had beautiful digital SLR cameras and were taking crappy, snapshot-quality pictures.  One guy obviously had his camera on full automatic because it the flash was popped up and he was shooting from the inside of the bus.  I'll bet he got some beautiful pictures of flash reflections to show his friends!  The tour taught us a lot about Iceland, and neither of us have any regrets about going on it.  In addition to other things, we saw half-frozen waterfalls & regularly-erupting geysers, all of which would have been very easy to find on our own.  We also ended up in a few places we really could have cared less about, like a coffee shop, an old church and a power plant.  I guess places like the coffee shop are one of those things where the tour company had an "arrangement" to stop at a particular place that's out in the middle of nowhere.  On the plus side, I got an interesting picture of the phone booth that was out there for whatever reason.  One of our stops is where Suzie got a little miffed when I bought some overpriced soup (it sounded good and I was cold), and rightly so.  It was good soup, sure, but still-it was just soup.  "How dare they charge that much for soup!" she exclaimed.  One of the good things about that day was the hand-warmers that Suzie packed for us.  It was nice being able to put our hands in our pockets and fondle those warm pillows in between pictures. 

As I said before, we didn't get a rental car on our first day.  In retrospect we both agree we would have gotten off on a much better first step than hanging around an airport, waiting for a shuttle bus.  We picked up our rental car in the early evening of our second day--right after our tour bus day wound to a close.  It's a good thing too, because that awesome weather we had during our tour on Saturday translated into an awesome celestial light show that evening.  We were eager and hoping to see the Northern Lights--especially after I overheard the gal at the hotel tourism kiosk tell a customer that that night was probably the best conditions ever for the Northern Lights.  In addition to other tours, she also sold people tours to see the Northern Lights.  They usually went out in small 4wd vehicles with gigantic tires (which were everywhere).  As a matter of fact, she had just sold a couple two tickets on one of those deluxe tour jeeps for that evening for about $250.  Yow!  A guy from the rental car company actually came to the hotel, picked us up, and took us downtown to pick up our car.  Because we were already downtown we got to drive around a little and familiarize ourselves with it and the town.  Mid evening was when we decided to head out and see if we could find a spot to view the Northern Lights.

It was dark of course, and the roads were somewhat snowy.  It wasn't actually snowing, but it was cold.  We headed out one highway, and after going for a ways we argued about direction (haha) and Suzie persuaded (she is very persuasive) me to turn around.  We got into what we both felt was a good area (meaning dark, and away from any lights) and turned off on a smaller side road.  We both started seeing small wisps in the sky here and there.  We were getting eager.  Suddenly, Suz hollers, "Stop somewhere!  It's happening NOW!"  Our timing and placement was perfect.  Just ahead was a farm driveway I could back into and be both jumped out with our gear.  We were treated to a full 15 minutes of the most awesome light show in the sky I have (and probably ever will have) seen.  The colors were predominantly green, but there were some pinkish, orangeish, and whitish too.  What you don't really expect is how the lights behave.  When you see them all the way across the sky, your mind expects them to move like the wind might move them.  Instead, they move so much more differently and fluidly because they are light.  It was awesome.  Both of us got less-than-great pictures, but we did get them at least.  I had the lens capability to pull off some great, great low-light shots like the Northern Lights, but had one measly setting wrong.  Oh well.  We only got a few pictures, but we got a lot of indelible memories from that short visit to the heavens.  It was truly an amazing experience.  It's hard to fathom, although we all know it's true, that people that live somewhere where they can experience something on a regular basis can grow jaded about something like that.  I'll bet nobody that lives there goes out of their way to go outside to see the Northern Lights when it happens.

Sunday was our favorite day.  It was a full day of driving and sightseeing.  That was when Suzie's research really helped us.  We drove from Reykjavik to Vik and took lots of side roads (that's our style) whenever the mood hit us.  We saw and interacted with the most mellow and pretty horses I've ever seen.  The Icelandic horses are much smaller than what we're used to, and they have wild manes of hair.  I kept saying it looked like they had mullets.  Suzie remarked about how clean they were--undoubtedly due to the cold weather and the lack of parasites.  We saw waterfalls that were majestic in scope, which the added attraction of the spray freezing the areas surrounding them.  Quite the sight to see all that ice formation.  Everywhere there were versions of sod houses.  We don't know what they were used for but many of them included the use of concrete so they weren't all that old, but they still had a very interesting look and feel to them.  The lighthouse we drove to was in one of the windiest places on earth apparently.  When we got out of the car we seriously had to think about each step--it was that windy.  The basalt columns we saw were tucked in where you would never find them without knowing they were there--at the end of a road, and around the corner on a beach.  Speaking of beaches, that same area had the most beautiful black beaches I have ever seen.  So clean and stark!  Our day took us through the cleanest overall countryside I have ever driven in.  There was no trace of any litter or even signs.  It was really nice scenery.  The tail end of our day of driving culminated in some of the worst driving I have ever been in.  Couple nighttime with intense wind, and throw in some snow and what do you get?  You get snow blowing sideways across the road so fast and furious that it was hard to see and was accumulating in dangerous drifts here and there as well.  Add the fact that we were in a very lightweight car and what do you get?  White-knuckle driving, that's what!  Regardless of that snowy, end to the drive, we both agreed that it was our favorite day.  Even the snowy drive was part of the adventure, right?

The one "touristy" thing we wanted to check out was downtown Reykjavik:  The Hallgr√≠mskirkja Lutheran Church.  I don't care diddly about churches, and Suzie avoids them if they're not Kingdom Halls, so why would we want to go to this one?  Simply put, it's the highest building in downtown.  For a small fee, you can ride the elevator up to the top and look out on the city spread beneath you.  The main viewing room was above the giant clock faces that were on each of the four sides of the tower, but you could also see out the four lower panels of the clock faces themselves.  It was well worth it.  Even the inside of the church was worth seeing.

We would both love to go back to Iceland.  We decided it should be a week-long and it should be in the summer months so we can experience the color green instead of just black & white.  It's a country that really has a lot to offer--especially if you love exploring and love photography.

Iceland: Day One

Let me start out by saying I was not impressed when we got to Iceland. I felt stranded.

Our first order of business upon arrival was a bus ride that would take us to The Blue Lagoon.  That meant sitting in the airport for a couple hours. There was nothing to do but wait.  I was very tired because it was past my normal bedtime (and it was just morning in Iceland), and that didn't help me feel any better.  Little by little the shops in the airport were closing.  Cafe, money-exchange--all apparently only stay open to suit the time frame of the arriving flights. It was still dark outside and the wind was howling.  Peeking out, all we could see were parked cars and snow blowing through the lights. At one point I went outside for a short walk to see if I could see anything.  Anything.  After all, we were here for a mini vacation--to take pictures--and here we were with this imaginary, slow-moving dollar-sign meter running like in the cartoons.  Anyway, in the short walk that I took the cold numbed my face and made my forehead throb.  It was kind of a claustrophobic feeling I was having I think.  In all honesty, it reminded me of one of those sci-fi movies where they have a lonely outpost on a cold, foreboding planet.

When we finally got onto our bus and headed to the Blue Lagoon it was finally daylight.  That meant we could study the terrain as it passed by.  What we mostly saw though was snow and desolation.  Iceland is a fairly barren place when you get out from the cities, and the airport was way out.  As we drove, I snapped pictures through the bus windshield.  I wanted to capture it all.  As we neared the Blue Lagoon my bad feelings were forgotten.  In the distance was a huge steam cloud rising from around a structure.  As we got closer to the entrance, pools of robin-egg blue water appeared along the road, contrasting with the white snow.  The excitement was stronger as I snapped away.  We were still hauling our suitcases at this point and had still not been to a hotel.  The bus/transport outfit that delivered us maintains a small, locked cabin near the bus parking area that was lined with shelving for luggage.  They have an airport-style baggage claim setup that they use (they check as you leave) so everything is secure.  Apparently they get a lot of visitors that go there directly from the airport.  Actually, they weren't all that far from the airport--maybe that's why.  We stowed our stuff and grabbed our suits and towels and headed up the icy, windy pathway toward the entrance.

In all honesty, the Blue Lagoon was one of the strangest and most beautiful places I have ever witnessed.  The color, the temperature of the water, the quiet remoteness, the beautiful surroundings--it was surreal. The sun was shining weakly and did nothing to warm the air, but did add a lot beauty to the mountains and surrounding scenery, as well as lighting up the steam that was rising off the blue water.  The contrast of the hot water and the frigid air was apparent when I found myself literally with ice in my hair.  It was that cold out!  We took a few forays in and out of the water taking pictures and setting up the tripod to take pictures of us, each time numbing the soles of our feet as we did so.  The place was equipped with a hot sauna, waterfall, multiple pathways around the lagoon, restaurant, second floor viewing area full of chairs to relax in, and bracelet-activated locker locks so we didn't have to fumble with keys. It was truly a memorable place.  It was nearing noon by the time we were finished there.  The shuttle bus that was to take us to our hotel departed hourly, and we had just missed one, so we wandered around and took pictures.  I'm glad we missed that bus because in our wandering we found we could get to a viewing deck on the rooftop of the adjoining restaurant, and we had a fantastic view of the whole lagoon and its surroundings from up there.

It was a fairly long ride to our hotel.  The airport area and the city of Reykjavik are not very close to each other.  In that drive we saw more snow and more desolation.  It didn't matter much though because we were feeling better about things.  The day was looking brighter, both figuratively and literally.  Our hotel was in a sort of odd location--just far enough from the city to not be walking within convenient walking distance.  It was a nice hotel--not too upscale but definitely not a "dive" either.  I give it good marks.  The people were very friendly, and the room was very comfortable.  There were plenty of electrical outlets for our laptops and camera battery chargers, and we had plenty of adapter plugs along with us to convert our strange, American plugs to the wall sockets that the rest of the world uses.  The included (at least it was in our package deal) buffet breakfast was, without exception, the biggest and most varied I have ever seen.  There was food from every food group in multiple varieties.

Our package included air fare, hotel (with breakfast as I said), and one tour out of a few they had to select from.  Neither of us are "tour people" but because it was included how could we refuse?  There's just that "herded" feeling you get with a tour that turns us both off.  We're explorers.  We like to turn down roads to see where they go and what treasures they might hold.  Anyway, I've digressed.  We opted for the Golden Circle tour even before we left home, so that was all set up, but the hotel had a kiosk in it and we were able to get a lot of information about other attractions, times, transportation, and all sorts of other things.  In short, the hotel had everything we needed.  Because our tour was scheduled for the next day, we were going to try to work some way of viewing the Northern Lights into our schedule for our first evening there.  Alas, the weather didn't cooperate.  The sky was not open for any viewing of celestial phenomenon of any kind.  Instead we caught a shuttle to downtown.  We wanted to take pictures!  We wanted to see stuff!

When we got to the downtown area we really had no idea where to go so we wandered up and down streets--looking at shops, people, architecture, and anything else that caught our attention.  After a while we starting getting tired, and the wind was also a little annoying.  Oh wait--did I say annoying?  I meant COLD.  Our hunger was kicking in badly, and after a lot more wandering, looking for a place to eat, we settled on a cool spot that fit our needs to a tee.  We had ourselves a pint of Viking beer and a great burger meal.  By the time we came out of the eatery it was getting dark.

It took us a while to find the right place to catch the bus back to our hotel, but by the time we got there we were more than ready to crash.