Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Terra Australis

Long before anyone ever went to Antarctica, scholars and yahoos already believed it existed. The thinking was, there’s all this land up in the Northern Hemisphere, but not a lot going on down South—there must be a giant hidden continent down there to balance everything out. In fact, even after Antarctica was located, map makers kept drawing it far larger that it truly is to get the right balance. These people were pretty into balance, I guess.

As we in the States were busy dumping tea into idyllic East Coast harbors and refusing to pay taxes to stuffy old monarchies, Captain James Cook was busy becoming the first explorer to cross the Antarctic Circle. His ships, the HMS Resolution and Adventure, came within 75 miles of the coast before being turned back by field ice. In 1820, Antarctica was spotted for the first time by an Estonian-born Russian Naval captain named Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshousen. It would be a year before someone set foot there--American sealer John Davis briefly landed on mainland Antarctica on February 7th, 1821.

In 1839, the United States Exploring Expedition (affectionately called the “Ex Ex”, which I love), sailed from Sydney Australia to do a bit of exploring on the new continent. A few years later, James Clark Ross sailed along a huge wall of ice that was later named the Ross Ice Shelf—Mount Erebus and Mount Terror are named after two ships from his expedition. Another explorer with a great name, Mercator Cooper, landed in and explored East Antarctica in 1853.

These were all minor expeditions compared to the Nimrod Expedition, led by the great Ernest Shackleton in 1907. Shackleton’s crew became the first to climb Mount Erebus and to reach the South Magnetic Pole. They were also the first humans to traverse the Ross Ice Shelf, the first to traverse the Transantarctic Mountain Range, and the first to set foot on the South Polar Plateau. For more on Shackleton (and on why it was called the Nimrod Expedition), talk to my husband.

A few words about the continent itself. It is the fifth-largest continent on the planet (larger than Europe and twice as large as Australia). About 98% of the continent is covered by ice that averages one mile in thickness. West Antarctica resembles the Andes mountain range in South America. East Antarctica is geologically varied. Antarctica is the coldest place on Earth. The coldest temperature ever recorded on this planet was -128.6*F at the Vostok Station in July 1983. The entire continent is a desert, although some of the coastal areas are known to get snowfalls of up to 48 inches in 48 hours. Heavy winds (storm-force) are also common.

Antarctica has no permanent residents, but maintains a temporary population of around 1000 in winter and 5000 in summer at a variety of research stations. As of 2009, eleven children had been born in Antarctica. Several bases are now home to families with children attending school on the base.

With no permanent residents, Antarctica also has no government although several countries claim sovereignty over certain regions. New claims on the continent have been suspended since the Antarctic Treating of 1959 which classified the continent as politically neutral. It also set aside Antarctic as a scientific preserve, established freedom of scientific investigation and environmental protection, and banned military activity (including weapons testing) on the continent. The Madrid Protocol of 1998 bans all mining an Antarctica and designates the continent as a “natural reserve devoted to peace and science.”

If you want to go, ships sail from Ushuaia Argentina (mostly to the Antarctic Peninsula, not the mainland). There are also a few commercial flights from Sydney and Melbourne that serve the major research stations. On these flights, passengers in most seating classes rotate their position in the row halfway into the flight to give everyone a window or one-over-from-window seat for half the time. Major landing fields include Williams Field, Pegasus Blue-Ice Runway (really), and Annual Sea-Ice Runway. November-March is the best time to go. If you go, take me with you!

Monday, September 12, 2011

London Update

Okay, so it’s been over four months since my trip to London, but I promised an update and I’ve finally found time and energy to post something. First, the basics: I traveled with my husband, sister, and mom for ten days in April. The reasons for the trip were as follows: a) Travel is Awesome; b) It had been a couple years since my last big international adventure, c) my mom wanted to give traveling a try, but wanted to start with an English-speaking place. London is so huge and there is so much to do, there was no way we could do it all. But we sure did try! Here are some highlights:

*The food! England isn’t known for its cuisine, but we didn’t have a bad meal there. For the duration of the trip, I’d given up my vegivore ways (what’s the point of traveling half-way around the world and not trying the local cuisine?). We tried bangers and mash, fish and chips, shepherd’s pie, and several varieties of meat pasties (they have become a favorite), as well as a variety of more unusual dishes—always delicious. Some nights we bought food at the local Greenwich market and cooked in our flat. And no meal in London seemed complete without an accompanying traditional beverage! We bought a British cookbook and I try not to drool too much on the pictures when I look through it. Back home, Gordon and I even created an excellent vegetarian version of pot pie that we just can’t get enough of.

*ART! I love original art and London has so much to offer! We spent hours wandering the halls of the National Gallery (da Vinci, Michelangelo, Titian, Velazquez, Van Gogh, Renoir, Monet). We also took in the Tate Modern (Matisse, Warhol, Lichtenstein, Pollock, Rodin), the Wallace Collection (Rembrandt, Hals, Titian, Rubens, Van Dyck, Gainsborough), the Victoria & Albert Museum (collections of furniture, glass, jewelry, metalwork, paintings, photography, sculpture, textiles, and architecture), the Courtauld Gallery (Rubens, Botticelli, Cezanne, Degas, Manet, Monet, Matisse, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec), the Queen’s House (Turner, Hogarth, Gainsborough), and probably a few others I’m forgetting. And that doesn’t even scratch the surface of what is available in London!

*Westminster Abbey. This is a classic part of any London tourist itinerary, so I didn’t expect too much. I thought it would be crowded and a bit underwhelming like some of the other major tourist sites (read: Tower of London). But I LOVED the Abbey. We were there in the off-season and at odd hours, too, so it really felt like we had the place to ourselves and could wander around at will. I’ve never seen a church quite like Westminster Abbey—so many famous historical figures are buried there, it takes your breath away. Poet’s corner--where Chaucer, Tennyson, Browning, and Dickens are buried--was a highlight. And of course, given that we were visiting in mid-April, preparations were well underway for the Royal Wedding just a few days away. Having just been there, it was very cool to watch footage of Catherine walking down the aisle and thinking, “I was just there, I walked right where she is walking!”.

*Our flat in Greenwich. We had struggled to find an affordable flat to rent in London, so we ended up staying a bit out of the city center in Greenwich. It the end, it was a great decision! After a long day in Central London, it was so wonderful to leave the noise and head out to Greenwich. Our flat was right on the Thames, so we were able to take the Thames Clippers to and from the sites most days rather than trying to squeeze into the Tube with the masses. The views from the boat (parliament and big ben, the Eye, Tower Bridge, Tower of London, the Gherkin….) were fabulous. Watching the sun rise and set from our balcony each day was wonderful. The flat itself was cozy and comfortable and perfectly aged—I don’t think I’ve ever slept better away from home.

*One of my favorite places was the Church of St. Bartholomew the Great (“Great St. Bart’s”). There are thousands of awesome churches and cathedrals scattered around Europe, but this one stole my heart in a new way. The church is truly a hidden treasure—you wouldn’t know from the entrance to the courtyard that such an amazing place lies just inside the walls. Inside the church was filled with burning incense and light coming in from high windows shined through the smoke in atmospheric rays. The stone walls were dark and cool and discolored with age. The cloisters were the best part. They had been turned into a small café, lined with amazing windows of thick colored glass. We sat in the cloisters for about an hour drinking monastic beer while we chatted with the waitress. It just so happened that she had some extra tickets to a burlesque show in Soho that evening and wondered if we would like to go. Can’t say no to that, right?! Gordon and I went to the show while Mom and Jaima went to see Stomp! in the West End. Walking through Soho after sunset was a cultural experience in and of itself, and the burlesque show was so wonderful and funny and surprising we kept dissolving into fits of giggles all the way home on the long Underground ride back to our flat. Unforgettable.

*The British Library. Inside there is an exhibit of incredibly old and significant manuscripts including original pages from Leonardo DaVinci’s journals, handwritten musical scores from George Frideric Handel, the sole surviving manuscript copy of the poem Beowulf, two 1215 copies of the Magna Carta, two Gutenberg Bibles, and the Diamond Sutra (the world’s earliest dated printed book, printed in 868 during the Tang Dynasty). It was absolutely amazing to see these with my own eyes! Added bonus: John Lennon’s original scrawled lyrics to Yesterday.

I could go on and on, but you’ll just have to go there yourself to experience the rest!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Fictional Fiction

Like every other American student, in my senior year of high school I had to take a course called “Current World Problems.” One assignment in the class was to read a book of historical fiction that related to issues still being resolved today, then write an 8-page review. Plagued with senioritis and not a small dose of defiant attitude, I decided not to read a book, and instead make one up completely. In the end, writing a review of a fake book was almost certainly more work that writing a review of a real book would have been, but it turns out challenges are fun! The book I invented was about the city of Berlin and how it was recovering a decade after the fall of the Wall. I think my mother still has a copy of paper I wrote tucked away in a box somewhere. As I recall I got a 95/100 on the assignment. The only comment from my teacher, Mr. Mitchell, was that I had used a few too many direct quotes from the book.

I tell that story as an introduction to an author I’m just discovering, Jorge Luis Borges. Borges lived from 1899 to 1986 and was incredibly well-known and well-received. He wrote essays, novels, short stories, and poetry. I became interested in Borges’ work because I am traveling to Argentina soon and Borges is a much-beloved native son. I’m working my way through his entire collection of poetry at the moment (and loving it!), and will soon delve into his short stories. He is especially known for his reflections on Porteño culture, for fostering the beginnings of magical realism in Latin American novels, and for the spiritual and existential dilemmas explored in his work.

What I like best about him, though, are his hoaxes and forgeries. Along with publishing numerous legitimate translations, he also published original works and claimed them to be translations of works he had chanced upon. In one case, he added three falsely-attributed pieces into an otherwise legitimate anthology. He also wrote reviews of non-existent works. The best-known example is his “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” which tells the tale of a modern Frenchman attempting to write Cervantes’s Don Quixote verbatim, but without looking at the original text. Borges’ review of the imaginary Menard’s imaginary work, is glowing—he discusses how much richer Menard’s work is than that of Cervantes, even though the text is exactly the same. Of this unusual hobby of his, Borges wrote, “It is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books, setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes. The better way to go about it is to pretend that those books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them…A more reasonable, more inept, and more lazy man, I have chosen to write notes on imaginary books.”

Also, incidentally, today would have been Borges' 112th birthday.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Last Will and Testament

I grew up in a sweet little farming and orcharding community where were death was accepted as a regular part of life and no one seemed to get too worked up about it. Attending the local Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod), death was never presented as something to fear, so I developed what I believe to be a healthy outlook on life and death. As much as I love life, I’m not overly worried about ceasing to exist someday. My parents, too, are at peace with the eventuality of death. They keep a file containing ideas for their own funeral services, including favorite hymns and scriptures. The file is fairly regularly updated and is discussed openly by the family.

Yesterday I made a will; a first for me. I’ve always meant to make one, as it’s fairly well accepted that even if you have very little wealth to leave behind, it’s good to have a written document outlining any special bequests and your preferences regarding your remains. Of course, it’s mostly moot if my husband survives me. But on the off chance we die together (not a terribly unlikely scenario, given our propensity for adventure), this should make things pretty clear.

Wills are an interesting subject. It’s the only way, save ghosting and spooking, that the dead can affect the living, change behavior, make demands, or get a last word in. As you can imagine, there have been some pretty unusual bequests throughout history:

*Mark Gruenwald, executive editor of Captain American and Iron Man comics (Marvel), requested that his ashes be mixed with ink and then used to print coming books. He got his wish.

*Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek, successfully requested that his ashes be rocketed into space to orbit the earth (the capsule has since burned in the atmosphere).

*Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island, had a friend who always felt cheated that her birthday coincided with Christmas. In his will, he willed her his own birthday to use for the remainder of her life.

*Painter JMW Turner left his paintings to the nation of England and his fortune ‘for the support of the poor and decayed artists born in England.’ His relatives fought this will in court and were able to keep the money for themselves.

*Jeremy Bentham, philosopher of utilitarianism, offered his body for use and study. It remains on display at the University College London.

As for my own will, it’s boring legalese for the most part. Although I did have a little fun with the disposal of my remains:

“In addition to the items granted above, I would like to specify disposition instructions for my remains. I would like my physical remains to be cremated. I would like my ashes to be scattered by my natural-born sisters, Jaima and Caitlin. The ashes are to be scattered as follows: 50% in Riga Latvia, 50% on the island of La Digue in the Seychelles. Feel free to skimp on the Memorial Service so there are more funds for ash-scattering. Feel free to skip having a service at all and just drink whiskey and tell stories and talk about how awesome it was to know me. Possibly around a campfire.”

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

I (heart) Words

I've recently become addicted to a language/grammar/style blog over at The Economist , called "Johnson" (after Samuel, beloved dictionary-maker). The blog has multiple writers and is a wonderful haven for wordnerds such as myself. Saw this there and had to share:

Some other favorite posts are linked below, but I suggest just starting at the current post and reading on indefinitely. : )


Changes in Meaning

Presidential Pronouns

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Summer Update!

Hello Blogosphere! What a crazy-amazing-surprising summer I am having! Some updates....

*Work: I work for an educational travel organization and our students travel on six continents during June, July, and August. It's always a crazy-busy time at the office, but this year I applied for and got a temporary summer promotion to the position of Duty Officer. This means that I handle our most escalated incidents and am on hand during non-business hours in case any emergencies come up. Going into it, I was excited but also very nervous. In practice, however, it has been a blast! It's stressful, emotional work and there is lots of it, but there is a new challenge every day and never a dull moment. Also, my work schedule has been 4:30pm to 1:00am Tuesday through Saturday--totally awesome.

*Play: The summer work schedule has allowed me tons of free time for going to coffee with friends; playing badminton, ladder golf, bean bag toss, and bocce ball in the park; riding my bike; going to matinee movies (half-price!); brewing beer; reading my way through our local library; sewing aprons & quilts; and playing in weekly kickball games (my new favorite activity).

*Adventure: Through my work, I got some nearly-free airline tickets from Continental Airlines. It took weeks of staring at their flight map looking at all the possible destinations before deciding on Buenos Aires, Argentina for my next adventure! Buenos Aires, the Paris of the Southern Hemisphere, Tango capital of the world, and home to the best steakhouses on the planet! Looks like we are heading there in the Spring. Side trips to Uruguay and Iguazu Falls should round-out the itinerary nicely. Yay!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

What Fun a Decade Can Hold

Ten years ago to the day, Captain Awesome and I met for the first time. The story is here, if you are interested. I just can't get over what an amazing, adventurous, decade it has been! Here are some of the highlights:

*Camping trip through Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. Being in Yellowstone is like visiting another planet--too cool for words. But I especially remember waking early one morning in the Tetons to a scary-sounding rustling outside the tent. Gordon thought it was a bear. It was a bunny. On the 13-hour drive home, we played a marathon cribbage tournament, which I totally won. : )

*Kayaking the Alberton Gorge (class III/IV) on my first weekend on the river. Easily one of the highlights of my life thus far, partly because it was so beautiful, partly because it was so scary, but mostly because I have never done anything so awesome in my entire life. Full story here.

*Our first morning in Osaka, Japan. Gordon woke up well-rested and ready to go explore so before breakfast he and I went out for a walk around the neighborhood where our hotel was located, not knowing what to expect. Two blocks away we found ourselves standing in front of one of the most beautiful castles I have ever seen! It was one of those moments when we were both like--"wow, is this really my life?!"

*A million memories around our parents' kitchen tables. When we go home, whether to Havillah or Eatonville, it is always a treat. Family is so important and what better way to celebrate it than by getting together every now and then to tell the same hilarious tall tales and laugh yourselves silly?! We have both been blessed with the best in-laws you could imagine.

*Sleeping in the bed of the old Ford pick-up in the middle of the desert in Escalante National Monument in Southern Utah. We were there with friends and had spent the day hiking up a slot canyon to a wonderful little waterfall. At night, we camped in the middle of nowhere. Laying in the truck and looking up at the bright, bright stars I felt gratitude to the universe like I had never felt before.

*Gordon talks in his sleep which would be annoying except that his dreams are--without fail--Hollywood blockbusters in which he is the star and has to save the day. Sometimes he is a ninja, sometimes he's fighting off the zombie horde, sometimes he's diffusing the nuke at just the last minute, or is a spy behind enemy lines or a rock star. So imagine my delight when he woke me very early one morning by shouting (out of a deep sleep): "I am NOT burying any more corpses for you!"

*In London last month, while drinking monastic beer in the cloisters of the Church of St. Bartholomew the Great, our waitress offered us free tickets to a burlesque show that her friends were dancing in that night. How could you say no to that? We were nervous about what to expect, especially as we walked the wild streets of Soho looking for the venue, but ended up loving the whole thing. Yes, there were nearly-naked women dancing and singing, but it was also so cheeky and hilarious and just completely unexpected that we about fell out of our chairs laughing and--in fact--giggled the whole way home on the London Underground.

*Hot-air ballooning at the Winthrop Balloon Round-up. We've been twice to see the festival and to float through the sky in a wicker basket attached to a balloon full of fire. This is something that is on so many folks' life lists, I'm always amazed that I've done it. Riding in the balloon is certainly great fun, but the beauty of the snow-capped mountains and quiet Methow valley are what really strike me.

*College and career. These two don't really make the list of most memorable moments, but it is true that in the last decade Gordon and I both graduated with Bachelor's degrees and have steady, lucrative, meaningful employment.

*Swimming on the backside of Raspberry Island at Isle Royale National Park. Isle Royale is one of the least-visited National Parks in America. It's an archipelago waaaay out in the middle of Lake Superior. The park contains over 200 islands and takes 6 hours by boat from the mainland of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. We lived and worked at Rock Harbor Lodge for the summer and had the most amazing adventures. Since there are no roads or wheeled vehicles at Isle Royal, we spent the entire time in about an 8 mile radius from our dorm-style room. Nevertheless, amazing hidden getaways were not in short supply. One of the nearest islands from Rock Harbor was Raspberry Island. The backside of the island faced the wide open wilderness of Lake Superior. In the summer sunlight with the sunshine glinting off black rocks and green waves, it was paradise.