Wednesday, June 1, 2011

New Blog

Ok, come follow me! I don't have a post up yet, but I will soon. The new blog is here: http://immovingtoiceland.blogspot.com. See you there!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Moving to Iceland, and a new blog.

I am moving to Iceland in less than two weeks. To document this risky maneuver, I will start a new blog. I will provide a link to that blog here as soon as I do. I promise to do that soon. I also promise to start packing my suitcase soon.

Friday, March 11, 2011

I Joined A Gym.

So, I joined a gym. I was getting really claustrophobic being all cooped up during the winter so I found one that was a good deal and that you don't have to commit to a long-term contract or anything, so I'll be able to cancel my membership once I leave for the Motherland. The good thing about it is that I'm forced to go work out just to get my money's worth. Well, I use the phrase "work out" loosely. "Working out" the way I do it could just as easily be called "Avoiding Eye Contact for the Advanced Practitioner."

I am not a gym person. I told this to the "Fitness Counselor" who showed me around and got me signed up when I first joined. I was so clearly uncomfortable that he actually asked me at one point if I had ever even been inside a gym before.

"So, why do you want to join a gym?"
"Well, I'm 28 and I can't really run, like at all, and I don't really have any upper body strength. So I'd like to be able to be strong and fast enough to fight off and out-run a predator, like a rapist or murderer or something. I mean, maybe my adrenaline would get me to a certain point if I were actually attacked, but what if I'm out in the woods, ya know? I need the endurance."
"Um, okay... Do you ever work out?"
"[Laughter] I sometimes do yoga, which I enjoy, but honestly, I happen to be one of those annoying people who are naturally skinny and as long as I watch what I eat I can stay around the same weight until I'm probably about 40. I get it from my dad. He's hyperactive."
"Uh huh. What's kept you from joining a gym in the past?"
"I'm really self-conscious about working out in front of people, I don't know what I'm doing, it's really awkward and I hate spending money. Also, I'm intimidated by being in the same room as a bunch of huge men who are pumping iron."

That last point cannot be emphasized enough. The gym location closest to my house is filled with fit, healthy people in their 20s and 30s who are serious about working out. Going there is like walking backwards in time into a primordial jungle. I can, literally, smell the testosterone. Like entering the wild, all the animal instincts kick into high gear, and I suddenly become very aware of the fact that I am female. There is no doubt that the male creatures, whether they mean to or not, are tuned in to the presence of us female creatures in the gym. I'm kind of tall for a woman, but when I'm there I feel tiny. It doesn't help that there are lots of treadmills, elliptical machines, stair steppers, and other equipment that people are using which causes them to tower over me, so I really do appear much smaller when I'm walking around. But more than that, this is where men are in their element. Biologically, this is what they are meant to be doing. Lifting weights, running, doing pull-ups, increasing their strength because they have evolved to compete with each other to win the favor of a female, and therefore get the opportunity to mate and breed and pass on their genetic code. They're sweating, breathing, grunting, strutting, looking around, sizing each other up like a bunch of shiny, tight-shirted stags. And then in walks a little doe (like me, for instance): wide-eyed, vulnerable, obviously out of her element, estrogen-laden scent curling through the air in a long, invisible ribbon of femininity. They raise their heads, sniff the air, look around to locate the source, and then switch arms to do another set of bicep curls. I instinctively locate the nearest shelter and then keep my eyes lowered as I rush toward the women's locker room, where I am greeted by others of my kind, and find safety in seclusion and in numbers.

Of course right after I joined I caught a cold and couldn't go back for a week, so by the time I returned I had forgotten where everything was, and I'm too intimidated to figure out how to do the butt-crunching machine by myself, so until I can bring a girlfriend with me to laugh at each other as we try to discern what goes where, I either have to stick to the elliptical, the bikes, or... groan... the exercise class.

I took a class called "Muscle Max" the other day. Now, the room where the classes take place has one wall that is just glass, so the entire gym can watch you make a fool of yourself. To be fair, most of the treadmills and things are facing away from the window, but there is still plenty of visibility. I am not a fitness model, I don't have a trainer, I'm not one of those people who gets all the moves right and is really focused and does that well-timed breathing with each movement. No.

So I'm waiting outside the room and chatting with a few of the ladies who, like me, want to Max their Muscles, trying to figure out where I fall on the spectrum of ability here. Fairly low, I realize. So when we go in and start gathering our weights that we'll be using for the next hour, I get all the smallest and lightest ones, because I'd rather get a crappy workout than collapse in a sweaty, quivering pile on the floor after the first ten minutes because I got too ambitious.

I look around and find the Perfect Spot in the room where no one out in the main part of the gym will be able to see me: between two mirrored columns. Perfect. I'm nestled safely in the exact middle of the room, where I can blend in and do a less-than-awesome job of lifting weights for 45 minutes. The music starts (a mix of techno and hip hop with a lot of moaning and, I'm not even kidding, lyrics that include phrases like, "You nasty girl," and "Oh yeah, give it to me.") and I realize the first flaw in my plan to go unnoticed. The class instructor stands directly in front of me to start the warm-up phase. I am, for all intents and purposes, somehow in the front and center of the room, and the instructor (a cute, petite red-haired girl) makes eye contact with me as she's calling out the moves.

Why are the warm-up moves always so stupid? Why? Do aerobics instructors go through a special class where they learn the most ridiculous dance moves possible to inflict upon their students? "Leap from side to side while swinging your arms in the air! [eye contact with me] Higher! Come on, higher! That's it!" Then there's the marching in place. Then they always have some kind of weird shimmy of their own that they really enjoy. Then you've got to reach up and grab some imaginary object (a rope? a gun with one bullet in it? nachos?) over and over again. It's horrible. Can't we just skip straight to push-ups, or do jumping jacks, or go back out into the gym and run on the treadmill for five minutes and come back? Do we have to do the butt kicks again?

The good thing about the muscle class is that it's basically just lifting weights. However, I was amazed at how many positions from the Kama Sutra you can incorporate into weight lifting. The first thing we did once we had warmed up was stand with our legs wider than hip distance apart, and bend all the way over. This is where I realized my second mistake in choosing my spot in the room. There, bent over, I came face-to-face with... Myself, staring back at me through my own legs, my head dangling below my ass in front of the mirrored columns. Which is worse: The whole gym seeing me like this, or me seeing myself like this? I'm still not sure. Then we had to do a whole series of moves where we just bend over at the waist and stand up again while holding our weights in various positions. At another point I was lying on my side, with one leg bent and in front of my body, the other leg stretched out underneath it, and then the instructor says, "OK now try to touch your nose with your straight leg while simultaneously lifting it as high as you can off of the floor." What? I don't know what I did, but apparently I did it right (or just less wrong) because she smiled and said, "There ya go!" As my fellow exercisers and I twisted our legs into unnatural and pseudo-erotic positions, the music still pulsing with a voice moaning something about being naughty, I found myself glancing around and wondering if there were any hidden cameras in the room, and if the gym was charging people on the internet to watch girls strengthen their inner thigh muscles. I'm not even going to get into what went on when we had to lie on our backs, but let's just say that the guy who was sitting on the weight bench that faces the classroom is probably still having sweet dreams after seeing it.

But I think I will take it again because I was sore the next day, so obviously I got some kind of a work out from it. Next time I will stand somewhere else, though.

Mostly I just do an hour on the elliptical (all the machines have TV screens attached so you can watch your favorite shows and the time flies right on by), during which time I also get a fair amount of thinking done. Plus, if I'm on a machine then I'm not walking through the Forest of Man Scents. Anyway, I've decided that I would like to produce a series of exercise videos called "The Sweaty Tomato Work Out". I do not look good when I work out. As soon as my heart rate goes up to anything much higher than nap-level, I instantly turn red and start sweating. I'm told that this may decrease once I actually get in shape. But nevertheless, I want a work out video where people don't have on cute exercise clothes, where they're all red and sweaty, grunting and groaning, and every once in a while from somewhere in the back you hear someone shout, "Ow! Goddammit! I just tore my groin! That's just great, that's just what I need. Get my ice pack! Ya happy now, Gladys?! I went to your damn exercise class and look what happens! Oh god, is it bad? Is it bad?" and they're carried out on a stretcher while the rest of the class continues doing doggy-style butt crunches.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Chicago: What Now?

I'm back in Chicago! We just had a blizzard that made the news all over the place, and I'm settled into the first of my temporary lodgings before I move across the Big Water. My first week I slept a lot, and then after that I was really tense for a few days. All of the stress that I had pushed aside during the last couple of months in Idaho, and during the packing up, selling, and moving of my belongings across the country tapped me on the shoulder and demanded to be processed. Then all that inner tension broke with the weather and I'm feeling much better. So that was not fun but good to get out of the way.

Work is starting to fall into place, or at least it will as soon as the snow gets cleaned up and the city re-opens for business. "Major Department Store" is going to finally finish transferring me, and an employment agency I worked with when I lived here last year already has things coming my way, so that's all well and good.

Now that the time for the move across The Big Water is closer, questions come into my mind as always, an inner review where I check in with myself and make sure I'm all right with where I am on the good ol' life path. I think I am, at this moment. When I ask myself, "No but really, what am I going to do?" I think about careers that seem fulfilling to me. I find myself trying to figure out if it's good enough, viewing it through this lens of measuring up, living up to my potential, status, popularity, etc. And then I start to get a tight feeling in my chest, and my breathing comes in faster and shallower, and I feel a little panicked. But then I zoom out on that picture and change the lens. When I look at my greater purpose as bringing more love into the world, I feel better. Then I see that it's fine to be happy supporting myself and doing things that I enjoy, always learning more, and always trying to remember that big picture. I want to live filling up and surpassing my potential, and certainly doing something that makes me happier than working in a store, of course. But I don't have to think of it as a competition or worry that if I don't reach a certain step on some imaginary ladder that I'll be a failure. In the same breath I admit that I want to earn enough money to be free to travel and to help others and not have to worry all the time, so I don't underestimate the value of finding some material "success" and income.

I guess it's just a matter of maintaining a certain balance of focus and joy. Focus on staying conscious and making sure that I'm doing the things I want and need to do, and joy in the knowledge that there is a bigger purpose than measuring up. So, in conclusion, I'm pretty sure that I'm fine, just in transition.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Of Plans and Other Words

Yes, I changed the way the blog looks. If I were cool, I would say I did this to have a fresh start for 2011. But what really happened is that one night while visiting my parents for Christmas and New Year, I was lying around on the couch in my sweats and thought about writing something, but instead played with the different designs and colors until I realized I couldn't figure out how to change the blog back to the way I had it originally. Then I ate a snack and fell asleep in front of the TV.

Anyway, I was told that my posts are too long, so from now on I'm either going to write multiple short posts, or start out each one with a list of the topics covered so that you can easily skip to the part you're interested in and don't have to waste any more of your valuable time reading this. Unless, of course, you're reading this at work and wasting your boss's "valuable" time (and money), in which case, don't worry, I'm not really going to shorten the posts. I care about the working man. And I love to talk about myself. Oh, like you don't.

"Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it." - J.W. Goethe


So, the holidays happened and are over now. I am moving back to Chicago in less than two weeks. I am selling my car and flying back. The plane ticket is booked. The thought of selling my car makes me emotional, so I will write a separate Tribute Post when that happens. I have to get rid of many of my belongings and pack next week.

Word on the street says that I'll be going back to Iceland some time in April. This sounds good to me, so I'll go ahead and say that's what I'm doing, provided I have funds and such, which, according to my hippy healer's Vedic astrology charts, I will.

Funny things have been happening since I started telling people that I'm leaving in April. First of all, on New Year's Eve I was temporarily paralyzed by the realization that my time in Chicago is going to fly by at the speed of light, and that by the time I finish typing this sentence it will probably be time to go through my belongings yet again and pack my suitcases yet again for the Motherland. I'm getting tired of moving. I've moved 21 times since the year 2000. Even if it was just from one apartment to another in the same city, it's getting exhausting. I'm ready for a break, and ready to try staying in one place for, oh I don't know, maybe 364.5 days.

When friends casually ask me when I'll be flying across the big water, and I tell them I'm thinking of April, they are also shocked by how soon that is. And then I explain that I had been thinking May, but if I want to get a job then April might be better because it's before tourist season starts, so even though nothing's definite that's what I'm saying for now, etc. Then they're still shocked, but less vocally so, and we quietly talk about how quick four months really is. But what can I do? Time marches on, as they say. And speaking of time, I'm starting to doubt its existence. It's slow, it's fast, it crawls, it flies, it stands still. I don't think it's real at all, and I hereby reject it. They don't accept that as an excuse when I'm late for work yet, but that doesn't stop me from trying to convince them.

The other night I was talking to my "best friend in San Francisco" (I group my friends by location). I told her about Iceland, and she told me that she didn't want me to be that far away, and that I should move into her apartment with her in SF instead, her rent is shockingly cheap and we could split it and have lots of fun.

I honestly thought about it for a couple of hours. Living in San Francisco was a blast. It's gorgeous, there are a million things to do, and I really loved the west coast: the beaches, going to L.A. for the weekend every once in a while, all the delicious food, and the wonderful people I met there were great. There's beautiful sunshine most days, and then the fog rolls in from the sea in the evening and everything feels and looks magical. I shared a gorgeous little old Victorian style apartment with a girl I knew from college, and I used to sit on our fire escape and write when the sun was out, or we'd go up on the roof at night to drink a glass of wine and listen to the music playing in a nearby club.

I was a volunteer for AmeriCorps in nearby Redwood City, and at the school where I worked I met a woman named Lois, who is an artist and was working as a substitute teacher at the time, and we became friends. Her mother was a retired school teacher and her father was a sculptor. One day we were hanging out in a town called Half Moon Bay, and her father, an elderly Asian man who looked frail except for his strong hands, walked into the cafe where we had stopped to get a bite to eat. The three of us talked for a while about art and writing and things like that, and then we all drove over to his sculpture garden (which was in a small field on the side of the road) and looked at his work, beautiful abstract figures big enough to climb on, carved from large chunks of dark, reddish, gnarled wood. They were smooth to the touch. When we were getting ready to leave, he said to Lois, "I think I'll do one for her," and she told me to wait. He went to his car, which was full of all kinds of tools and musical instruments of chunks of wood, and pulled a bongo-style drum out of the trunk. I asked Lois what he was doing, and she said, "Oh, he's going to drum you a blessing." Then he perched on the rear bumper of his car and played me a song on his drum for several minutes as the sun was beginning to set. When he finished he smiled, gave me some precious life advice, and then leaned against his car, surrounded by his sculptures, and watched us drive away.

Going back to San Francisco with a cheap place to live (impossible to find in that city) and one of my closest friends is a very tempting offer. All that sunshine, flowers everywhere you look, the ocean, the redwoods, the Stanford Powwow every year, Glide Memorial Church with their incredible full gospel choir, my favorite acting teacher of all time, farmers' markets... But there are downfalls. It smells like urine in most places. It's incredibly expensive. I remembered that the reason why we sat on our roof listening to distant music on the breeze was because we couldn't afford to actually go inside the club and see the band up close. But it is a lovely city, and you can make it really fun, there are lots of free things to do. I'll say it again, it's a very tempting offer...

Then I remembered Thanksgiving of this past year. I was invited to eat with the family I babysat for this summer. Since there was snow everywhere and they live on top of a mountain, I got a ride with their friends, a couple whose car has four wheel drive. On the way up the mountain we passed a car that had gone off the road and was lying in a ditch waiting to be towed out. We got to the house, which is way up high, up some winding roads, and sits at the bottom of their steep driveway, which turned out to be mostly frozen. The husband was driving the car, and his wife said he should leave it at the top of the driveway and we could just walk down. He didn't listen, of course, and the car started to slide. To avoid hitting the garage door, he turned the wheel and the car almost went over the side of the hill that the house sits on. The wife jumped out of the car, and I struggled with my seat belt for a moment before I jumped out too. It stopped at the last second when it hit a little pile of snow, we were all scared shitless (the husband pretended he had been in control the whole time).

That whole evening I was filled with dread for the ride back down the mountain. It was snowing more and more, and I was truly afraid that I would be involved in a terrible car accident before the night was over, that there was a chance we would slide off the road and over the edge of a cliff and be seriously injured, god forbid. When it came time to leave, I was almost panicked, but the couple assured me that they would drive very slowly and we would make it all right. As we rolled cautiously down the street, my eyes glued to the road ahead of us, my cell phone in my pocket, one hand on the seat belt release button and the other on the door handle, all I could think about was seeing my parents and siblings again, and that I wanted to make it back to Iceland, I wanted to go home.

San Francisco didn't even cross my mind.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas: I Can Do This

Before I begin, let me just provide the following disclaimer: I like presents too.

That being said, working in retail has me swallowing down my own vomit with disgust at the commercialization of Christmas. I'm not super religious, and I know that kids love ripping open a ton of presents under the tree on Christmas Eve (or Christmas morning if you're weird) and that it's all part of the magic for them. I know this. But working in a major department store during the holiday season has me ready to spend Christmas in a monastery to get away from all this craziness.

Mostly it's the Christmas music that gets to me. I like a little Christmas music here and there, but when you're listening to it for 6-8 hours a day every day at work, it begins to feel like torture. Especially when they go beyond the traditional Christmas songs, a little Bing Crosby, a little Burl Ives, a little Mitch Miller and the Gang, and move into the weird stuff. Some country singer asking some girl why she left him right before Christmas, SO MANY versions of "Santa Baby" where that slut sings about wanting a yacht, and worst of all, a bizarre, trippy techno remix of Bing Crosby's "White Christmas," which is just plain sick and wrong. Bing! On behalf of the 21st century, I apologize. Forgive them, for they know not what they do.

I'm so sick of it that the other day when I worked in the Hip and Groovy Young People department, I was actually relieved to hear the horrible crap "music" they play in there. Actually, I think the people up in corporate must have hired a new person to choose the playlist, because some of it really isn't that bad. There's some more folksy rock stuff, and only a few aggressive hip hop artists screaming about sex and money. Although there are still far too many songs featuring spoiled teens bitching about their girlfriends or their dads or something, but oh well. And then of course there's like thirteen Taylor Swift songs and that other girl, the blond one from American Idol with the curly hair who sings country. I dunno. But the point is, it's not Christmas music, which is great.

The funny thing is that because it's almost Christmas, people who don't usually shop at all are now "forced" to because they have to buy gifts for their loved ones. You can always tell who they are. Every single man in the women's underwear department. Every single man in the shoe department. Every single man. I'm only kidding, we do have some regular customers who are male. But there are people who look so lost and confused by the entire purchasing-an-item process. It's funny except on days when it's annoying.

They wander around looking lost and confused. Sometimes they accept help when we offer it, sometimes they don't. Many people around here seem suspicious of us, as though we get to personally keep the money they hand over and are trying to take them for everything they have. One lady found a set of bowls that said "Popcorn" on them and asked me how much they were, if they were on sale, etc. I told her the price and then tried to hand the bowl back to her because I saw that there were people waiting for me at the cash register. She stood there staring at me and said, "But I don't know if they eat popcorn! Will they like this?" Now how in the hell am I supposed to know if some strangers I have never met before eat popcorn? I think I said something like, "Who on earth doesn't eat popcorn?" and she ended up buying them.

Then there are the people who act like they have never even seen a cash register before. They're confused by the entire process of buying something. I practically have to hold their hand through it. This is the part where you hand me the item. Now I ring it up. You have a million coupons? Perfect. Here is the one you should use. No, you can't use three coupons at once. No, this item was not on sale. No, you don't get an additional discount for using your store card if you also use a coupon. I don't know why, you just can't. Of course I would let you if you could. Sir, I realize that when you were a kid ice cream cost a nickel and that you've never paid more than three dollars for a sweater. But when I was a kid I wore neon pink leg warmers, times have changed. Yes, this is definitely the price. No, you do not get to name your own price. You're paying with cash? Easy. Oh, you're paying with a credit card? Super. No, give me the card. Now sign on that little electronic box. You have to hit "Enter" after you sign it. You have to approve the amount. Ma'am? You have to approve the amount. You missed the right box, click it again. Now you accidentally canceled it and we have to start over. No, no, it's fine, I have all day to stand here and teach you how to use your credit card.

I swear the way these people bitch about cost and try to haggle, sometimes I glance around just to make sure that the store didn't turn into a middle eastern spice market when I wasn't looking. America! Hear me when I say this! YOU DO NOT GET TO CHOOSE HOW MUCH SOMETHING COSTS. THERE IS A NUMBER ON THE TAG AND THAT IS THE PRICE. GET OVER IT. IF YOU THINK IT IS TOO EXPENSIVE, GO SOMEWHERE ELSE AND LEAVE ME ALONE.

*deep breath* Thanks for letting me get that out, I feel better.

So as a result of all this, I am so over Christmas presents. If you have not received a present from me yet and you are not my brother or my sister, I'm sorry but you're not getting one this year. It's ok, you don't have to get me anything either. I think I asked for a battery for my laptop and my parents have that covered. And I'm not sending out Christmas cards. I might do an e-card to save paper, but I haven't decided yet so probably not. I just want to finish this last couple of days of work, have a safe flight back to Maryland, hang out with my people, and eat hangikjöt. That is all.

Friday, December 10, 2010

*Insert Jumping Up and Down and Squealing Here*

It just occurred to me a few days ago that come January I really will be going back to Chicago. It took a moment to wrap my mind around this. Chicago really does still exist, my friends are still there, and in less than a month I will be too! Then I thought, how depressing is it that the thought of going back to a place where I once lived boggles my mind to that level? Clearly, it is time.

Idaho has not come without its benefits, however. It is beautiful here; I made some great new friends, and figured out what I want to do with my life. The time I spent here on my own provided space for quite a bit of introspection without distractions, and that is a good thing.

That being said, I can’t wait to get back to Chi-town! (pronounced “Shy-town,” I don’t know who came up with it.) I’m so looking forward to it that I’ve decided to make a list of things I will do as soon as I get back. Yay, lists! So much fun, and the reason why my pockets are always filled with annoying little scraps of paper.

1. I’ll arrive at my friend Elizabeth’s house, where after I throw open the door and say something to the effect of, “What up, dorks?” there will be much jumping up and down and screaming. As undignified as this behavior is, it is programmed into our ovaries and completely involuntary.

2. I will attempt to make conversation, but as I will be suffering from an intense case of “Road Crazies” from having driven for 8 hours a day for the past four days, I will first need to process the bits of BBC Radio podcasts and all of my cross-country driving music out of my brain. Also, an immediate shower will be crucial. The rest of the night will be a blur of squealing, excited chatting, and getting used to not being in a moving vehicle.

3. Riding the El, which is the city transit system, was always a nice little time-out in my day. Sometimes when you can’t get a seat or when a crazy person sits next to you it sucks, but my adorable old neighborhood was close to the end of the Brown Line, which is my favorite one because it has the best scenery, in my opinion. It was so nice to get to sit down and listen to music while staring out the window on the way to work. So I’ll definitely be charging my ipod and enjoying zoning out for a while.

4. Julius Meinl. This will be my first destination on the train. I will sip delicious Austrian coffee, eat delicious Austrian food and generally feel warm and cozy and happy. I’ll probably be meeting up with a friend or two, before buying several bags of their imported coffee, worth its weight in gold.

5. The Chicago Girls will be assembled once again, more screaming and jumping up and down will ensue, a bottle of Jameson Irish Whiskey will be sacrificed to the gods, and more groovy tunes will be enjoyed. Maybe we’ll bundle up and go somewhere, maybe we’ll stay in. Whatever we do is always fun because The Chicago Girls are down-to-earth and smart and funny and trustworthy and generally amazing in every way. You can always count on them to have your back. Once we were walking around somewhere downtown at night, and a man came up to us and started singing “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.” We joined him, I think by the end of the song I was the only one left singing it with him, one of the girls videotaped it on her phone or camera or something, and then when the song was done the man demanded money. When I refused to pay him for what I had naively assumed was a shared experience of delightful randomness with a stranger, he called us mean names and then fled the scene amid the echoes of the girls cussing him out like a small group of adorable, well-dressed truckers. Ah, those were the days…

6. Nancy. Catch-up time with one of my two Chicago Moms. The other one is the mother of my friend Sara. Sara’s sister, Annie, lives about three hours from me in Missoula, Montana and is moving back to Chicago at the same time I am. Apparently when their mom heard I was coming back too, she said she was happy that “at least two of my daughters are moving back!” How cute is that. I’m excited to see both of my Chicago-based surrogate mothers who set me straight in person when my own mother can’t reach through the phone and knock some sense into me herself.

7. The Icelanders! My Icelandic Chicago friends are extremely fun. They also graciously allowed me to stay with them for my last two weeks in Chicago when I lived there before. We used to have what I came to call “rock’n’roll dinners” because we would eat while listening to various rock bands. It’s nice having people around who can pronounce my full name, and they are part of an extended circle of Icelanders in the Chicagoland area. I’ll also be back in time for Þorrablót in February, woohoo! Anyway, they party like it’s 1999 all over again, and we always have a blast and a half.

8. Ordering in exotic foods from many lands. Omg I’ll get to eat my favorite Vietnamese and Thai dishes and have them delivered right to my door! Then there’s the Chicago Brauhaus, famed Bavarian restaurant and bar, complete with a live polka band on the weekends. It’s like entering a time warp when you walk through the doors. A time warp filled with German and Austrian beer, dumplings and various pork products served with sides of foods whose names end in “-kraut”.  Then there’s the tiny Polish restaurant Podhalanka, an amazingly well-kept secret that serves inexpensive, filling, delicious foods from the Old Country. Also that sort of Belgian place in Andersonville, the Swedish neighborhood, with all of those beers and mussels and amazing food whose name I forget, I think it’s the Hop Leaf. And Ed Debevic’s, the touristy re-created 50s diner where the waiters get to be rude to you and they play oldies and dance on the counters while you eat your extremely greasy junk food. And the Peruvian place with the really good chicken! And dim sum in Chinatown! Holy crap, I have so much eating to do. Mmmm...food.

9. Lake Shore Drive. Sometimes when I was really bored and it was between rush hours, I would get in my car and drive down the length of Lake Shore Drive, affectionately referred to by the locals as LSD. “I took LSD the whole way there and it was really fun!” “Get off LSD now, you’ve gone too far!” “LSD again? Lose the habit!” It’s got a sick view of both Lake Michigan and downtown Chicago, complete with truly impressive architecture.

10. Trader Joe’s! Yes, in the spring of next year there will finally be a Trader Joe’s in Spokane, Washington, a mere 30 minutes away from Coeur D’Alene. But that’s not my Trader Joe’s. The one I drive to when I’m sick of walking to the ethnic market and I need to stock up on affordable yet tasty foods. Chocolate-covered pomegranite seeds! Four-flavors-in-one-package hummus! Lavender soap with the built-in scrubbing things! Garlic naan! Cheap wine! The list goes on and on...

Omg I’ll be in my favorite American city again! Swing dance night at that one tiny club downtown! Indian food! Poisonous air polluting my lungs! The Chicago Art Institute! Holding onto my purse tightly at all times and never walking down dark streets alone at night! Chorizo tacos after 2 am in the little Mexican place under that one train station! Taking an extra 45 minutes to get home because I got on the wrong train! Standing under the heat lamps with the pigeons in the freezing cold winter while waiting for the same wrong train! Forgetting where I parked my car! Bundling up in three layers of clothing and my snow boots before leaving the house! Having to moisturize my face with olive oil every night because the ice-cold wind is trying to burn off the top layer of my skin! Artsy movie theaters that show foreign films and weird documentaries and replay “Saturday Night Fever” every once in a while! Being only one day’s drive from my folks in Maryland!

Not that I’m excited or anything...   

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Christmas Means Hangikjöt



I wish that when I went to a restaurant and was asked how I'd like my meat cooked, "smoked" was an option. Every meat tastes better smoked. In fact, vegetables would probably taste better smoked too.

Soon I'm going back to my parents' house for Christmas, and that means smoked lamb time. Yes, there are presents, and family togetherness, and a tree with lights on it, and seeing my friends. But mainly there's smoked lamb. Oooh, there go my salivary glands. My mouth literally waters at the thought of wonderful, smokey hangikjöt.

My mom has it shipped from The Land at some point earlier in the year. When it arrives several months before Christmas, she carefully takes it out of the package and holds it up so we can all gather around and bask in the glow of its magnificence. We "ooh" and "aah" and discuss how wonderful it's going to taste at Christmas, before it is nestled in the freezer to sit, safely preserved, until the blessed event.

Normally people in the Motherland eat their hangikjöt on Christmas day, but in our family we eat it on Christmas Eve. This is primarily because we don't want to share it with anyone, and on Christmas Day there is the danger that guests could arrive, or we may be invited somewhere else. But Christmas Eve is present-opening night for us as well, so there is no danger of unwanted pickers of our meat at our table, and our ravaging can go undisturbed.

The Day of Christmas Eve I wake up and hang around the kitchen annoying my mom until she throws me out. I hover over the stove where the smoked deliciousness sits in its pot of water on the stove, just beginning the sacred alchemical process that must first take place before it is safe for consumption. I lick my lips and gaze at it hungrily, I ask again what time it will be ready for dinner, and hover and hover and hover until she has to push me out of the room and send me to watch a Christmas movie or something. But it's no use. I physically cannot be away from the hangikjöt for too long. It calls me back, and I must stare at it in the pot and think how in just a few short hours I'll be sinking my teeth into its tender, salty, smoky flesh.

At some point in the early afternoon, my dad and us kids find an excuse to leave the house for a while, usually on some lame errand that my mom makes up to get us out of her way. We don't actually need anything, since my mom is one of those people who is so prepared for every event that even if nuclear fallout were to occur we probably wouldn't notice for several days afterward.

But the point isn't the errand. No, no, no. The point is that by the time we get home, the meat has been cooking for a while. And when we pull into the garage, there is a faint whiff of smoked lamb in the air. We rush into the house, I pause for just a moment with my hand on the doorknob, trying to savor the anticipation before getting shoved inside by one sibling or the other. And when we walk in.... BAM! The scent of sweet, savory, smoky, salty, amazing, everything that is pure and good and wonderful in this world, the scent of still believing in Santa Claus (all thirteen of them) and miracles and most of all, the scent of almost-ready hangikjöt has taken over the entire house.

This is the point where I usually make a big show of falling to my knees in front of the stove before I'm swatted away by my mother, who guards her treasure trove of meat like it's the Ark of the Covenant, which, as far as meats are concerned, it basically is.

A little while later, dressed in Christmas finery, salivary glands on overdrive, seated, quivering, at the table, we eat at last. The juxtaposition of flavors, the cream-based sauce, the peas, the red cabbage, the Coca-Cola classic (I stick with my childhood preference instead of wine or beer), the also imported Egill's Appelsín, the holy of holies shining like a reddish masterpiece on my otherwise unremarkable plate... That's what Christmas means to me.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

What Are You Looking At?

There's a show on public television that's showing Tori Amos playing in front of some tiny audience somewhere in New York. I wasn't going to watch it because I haven't much cared for her last few albums, but then she played an older song from back when I was almost-obsessed with her, and I tried to change the channel but my inner adolescent wouldn't let me. I will say the first show of hers that I ever saw when I was in college in Oklahoma damn near changed my life. I had just come home from visiting my parents, I forget where they were living at the time. It was either Hungary or Maryland. It must have been Maryland, because I think it was spring break and I hadn't been gone that long. I flew into the airport in Tulsa, drove all the way to Stillwater, dropped off my suitcases, took a shower and changed clothes, then got back in my car and drove back to Tulsa (an hour and a half each way, this was when gas only cost about $1.50 a gallon) and watched her show. My seat was as far as it could possibly be from the stage, and she was just a little multi-colored blob with an orange head. Sometimes my eyes felt like they were about to cross from trying so hard to focus on her. But that show was really great. She was so much herself, and kind of quirky and odd, and it made me believe in my own creative voice. It was an exhilarating drive home that night, I sang along with her albums at the top of my lungs the whole way, and had a hard time falling asleep once I got home even though it had been a long day of travel.

Anyway, these days whenever I hear her songs, flashes of both Oklahoma and Maryland flicker across my mind's eye. Sometimes it's the rolling brown landscape of Oklahoma, tinted with the weird sadness that seemed to follow me around those four years that I lived there. Other times I smell the humidity of Maryland in the summer and see the lush trees above me where I would ride my bike around the neighborhood at night, softly singing her songs to myself while trying to outrun the mosquitoes (who feast upon my flesh like I'm their last meal-- which, if I'm quick enough to slay them by my own hand, is often the case). So she's been left on in the background while I write this.

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What a strange week! It was mostly good with a few stinging slaps mixed in, but none that will leave permanent scars. In fact, I can't believe it was only a week that went by, it was so up and down. Correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't time seem to be doing this fast-slow-fast-slow thing lately? In some ways it's flying by (Christmas is in three weeks????) but in other ways it's slooooooooow (that was only one day????). I guess it's only my perception.

So I think I'm going to wait until after Christmas to move so I can get more money together. I've worked a couple of days back at "Department Store," and everybody had missed me! They all thought I had quit and/or left the country without saying goodbye, but they were happy to see me and wanted to know what I've been up to and where I was and where I'm going. It's fun being back in a social setting at work! It's still kind of annoying at times, but working the phones at a call center has made me grateful that at least in retail people have to get up the guts to look you in the eye while being rude to you. Plus, they might be able to transfer me to Chicago! So, unless that goes through before Christmas, which I doubt, I'll come back here the first week of January and move then.

Oh, and listen to this! It's my last week at the call center, and by some strange twist of fate I got put into a training class because they're changing what my department does. So now instead of having to take calls and talk to people who don't want to talk to me (except for the old people who like chatting, which I of course let them do because I'd rather laugh for twenty minutes than talk about credit cards for six) I get to just sit back and be trained for something I will probably never have to do in the actual work place! What a gift!

Oh my gosh and speaking of the training class.....

Tonight was the first night. I'm back with my original trainer, but since she doesn't really know anything about this new thing we'll be doing either, we've got two guys from a different company location who are teaching us. One of them does just fine. But the other one was really getting on my nerves all night. First of all, when he stands up in front of the class and talks to us, he chews gum with his mouth open. It drives... me... crazy! How rude and gross! It's one thing when you're just sitting around but when you're giving a presentation? Come on. Then he does this thing where when he's talking he always squints one of his eyes (like Popeye), and instead of turning his head normally, he kind of leans it back and turns it from side to side like he's looking down his nose at us, or can't be bothered to hold his head up properly when he talks. I complained to one of my work friends about this, and how they should teach these trainers some public speaking skills before forcing us to look at and listen to them all day every day for a week!

So I sat there, alternately glaring and avoiding looking at him for about the first five hours of the day. Then, after dinner, my work friend leans over to me and whispers, "I figured out why that guy always squints one eye. His right eye is kind of lazy, and it doesn't always move at the same time as the left one when he turns his head." I stared at the guy's right eye for a few minutes and realized that my friend was right.

Great.

So I've just spend five hours thinking mean thoughts about how arrogant that guy must be to think he's too amazing to even look at us normally and is constantly half-winking at us, and can't even pick his head up all the way because it's too heavy under the weight of his own coolness... When really the poor bastard has a lazy stinkin' eye, and has to turn his head weird and squint to try to hide it! Uuuugggghhhh!!! Of course!

But the gum chewing thing is still uncalled for.

                                                     *   *    *    *    *

The other day at "Department Store" I was working in the men's department with a girl who is from Russia. She married an American, she's nice and has a weird laugh (like me) and doesn't take work too seriously most of the time. She, too, thought I had disappeared to parts unknown, and so we had a lot of fun chatting and catching up all day.

Then, something kind of shitty happened.

She had been helping a customer who looked like he was in his sixties or so. I guess he bought whatever he was going to buy and left for a few minutes. Then, as I was standing next to her at the cash registers, he came back and handed her a cd that is called "The Bible In 30 Minutes" and told her that since she had never read the Bible, he wanted to give her that. I told him that they must be reading awfully fast to get the whole Bible condensed to just thirty minutes, and he said that it just included the "important parts" and "the facts just to get you interested... And have you heard about the end of the world and 666 and Revelation? Well all that cool stuff is in there, too." My poor little Russian friend just stood there staring at the cd with this sad look on her face.

I said something about how if students can't use Cliffs Notes on book reports in school, he sure shouldn't be able to pass out a cd with just thirty minutes of the Bible on it. Then he turned on me and asked me what church I go to. I told him that I don't discuss that at work, and he said, "Oh, she must be Mormon." I said I wasn't Mormon, and he didn't seem to believe me. Then he started back in on my Russian friend, and tells her that she should listen to it and blah, blah, blah.

By this time I had backed away from him and was standing holding onto the sock and underwear shelf with one hand. (Maybe I thought that by looking at the male models on the packages, I would relax and not jump over the counter and physically attack him.) Then he looked at my name tag and tried to pronounce my name.

"Igna..? Igna? How do you say that name?"
"Inga." (It's called reading. You should try it sometime.)
"Inga, huh? What kind of a name is that?"
"It's Scandinavian."
"Scandinavian, huh?"
"Yes."
"Foreign atheist."
(If looks could kill, the one that I gave him would have at least lopped off one of his shoulders like an axe blade.)
"I am not an atheist!"
(His eyes widened, he held both hands up with his palms facing me and started to walk backwards. I stalked toward the counter again, emboldened by his obvious display of fear.)
"All right, Inga. I was just joking!"

Then my friend said, "So you believe in the end of the world?"
And he said yes and that it's important to know where you're going to go after you die because one day the world will end.
And she smiled and said, "I know what happens after we die. But I can't tell you," and laughed her great weird laugh. He said a couple more things to her and then walked away.

I looked at her, still holding the cd in her delicate little hands, staring at it with a hurt look on her face. This poor girl hears it all. She has a noticeable Russian accent and the people around here always make "jokes" about the Cold War and World War II and call her a Russian spy and ask her all of these stupid questions. (Like this guy had assumed that just because she was Russian she must be communist and atheist and had never read the Bible.) Sometimes they're really rude to her and say horribly mean things just because of the place where she was born. They ask her if she likes America or Russia better, and if she says something about liking both, or that America is great but Russia will always be her home they call her a traitor and tell her she should go back to Russia if she likes it so much. It. Is. Ridiculous! I mean with me the most they do is start talking to me in some ridiculous fake Swedish accent and start asking me where I'm from and saying "Ja" and stuff. I never play along and always do my best to make them feel stupid without directly calling them names.

Anyway, so I started telling her not to listen to that idiot, that he was so rude and that she should move to a big city where they're used to having other cultures around, and all the time she was still staring at the cd in her hands. So I took it out of her hands and threw it in the trash and kept trying to make her feel better. Then she said, "I just feel so sorry for him, that he really believes in hell and that foreigners are atheists. I am Russian Orthodox but I don't go to church, I believe a lot of different things." And I told her how I'm technically Lutheran but I also believe in other paths too, and in reincarnation and things like that. She said she believes in reincarnation too, and that's what she meant when she told that man that she knows what happens after we die but she couldn't tell him, which made me laugh because I had been thinking the same thing.

Anyway, eventually one of our managers came around, and my friend picked the cd out of the trash can where I had thrown it and showed it to her and explained what had happened. Our manager was nice about it and talked to us about how to handle small-minded people at work. We're not allowed to get into an argument or discussion about religion or politics with customers, so she told us how to try to change the subject when people start talking to us about it, etc.

Not everyone who lives around here is like that, but many of the uneducated people are. I don't know which preachers are going around telling people that foreigners are all atheist. I am also sad that the public education system of this area has failed its residents to the point that nobody around here seems to know that the Cold War is over, that the Soviet Union fell a long time ago, and that I-N-G-A is not pronounced "Igna". But unfortunately, this is the sad truth of life for some people. I mentioned this on facebook the other day and said something about having mandatory foreign exchange programs for students. At first I was joking, but I'm starting to think it would be a good idea.

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Speaking of the difficulties of being multi-cultural in America, combined with my idea of the Viking preschool from my last post, I'm reminded of a conversation I had with one of my Top Fifteen Favorite First Cousins the other day about when I was a tiny Icelander in American preschool... [insert flashback sequence here]

When I was little, my dad traveled quite a bit for work as a Super Amazing Secret Weapon of the Government, so my mom just continued with business as usual, raising her two large-cheeked Icelandic-Austrian babies now living in America to be, basically, large-cheeked Icelandic babies living in a mostly Icelandic house (meaning my little brother and I, my sister had not yet been born).

Due to my extremely high intelligence during early childhood (what happened to me since then, I am not sure), I have very vivid memories of those formative years, including the one spent at Our Shepherd Nursery School. We had two teachers, snack time, various play areas, story time, lots of crayons, etc. For the most part, I think I fit in fine with the other kids, except I was not affectionate with strangers and my normal facial expression was very serious. In fact, my dad used to call me "The Professor" when I was around four because of that.

Since I was raised by an Icelandic mother, I did not eat things like macaroni and cheese or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. It wasn't until college that I even gave these foods a chance, and even then it was only because my roommate told me that I would like them if she made them and if I got hungry enough, which proved to be true.

One day at snack time, I sat down at the little table with my fellow tots, and saw to my dismay that there on the tiny paper plate before me was.... A peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Now, even at the age of four, I already knew that I did not like peanut butter at all. I think I might have seen it on Sesame Street and asked my mom to buy some, and then when I tried it I found it disgusting and spat it out. I thought it would taste like the Icelandic spread Mysingur, but it didn't.

Anyway, I pushed my plate away and told my teacher, "I don't want peanut butter, I just want regular butter."
She replied, "Well we don't have regular butter, so you'll just have to eat this."
What?! No regular butter? What kind of a hellish nightmare of a school was this?? What kind of a pathetic excuse for a civilized human being doesn't have a ready supply of BUTTER on hand? How could my parents have left me in the care of this horrible, butter-less woman?! Clearly, I must try to reason with her.
"But... I don't eat peanut butter. I don't like it. I just want regular butter on my bread."
"Well we don't have any regular butter, this is all we have. You'll just have to eat it."
Hadn't my mother explained to her that I liked my bread covered in smjör with the crusts cut off? What was happening?
"But, Miss Sharon. I don't like peanut butter."
"Just taste it, Inga. Take one bite of the sandwich, and if you don't like it, you can have something else."
Ok, there may not be a manual for raising children, but every single adult on planet Earth knows that attempting to force a child to "take one bite" of something they know they don't like will only end in disaster. To my four year old self, this was like asking me to stick my hand into a blazing hot fire just to make sure it wouldn't burn me. I felt my chin start to wobble...
"I don't like peanut butter! I don't want to try it! I just want...[here come the tears] regular... buuuttteerrrrr!"
The other kids stared, fascinated, and tried to console me. "Don't cry, Inga. Peanut butter is good! See? We like it! Try it! It's good!"
I was horrified by their sticky, peanut-butter-smeared fingers and faces. They ate like barbarians, while I was already on my way to mastering eating my food with knife and fork. The tears kept flowing.

The teacher let me cry for a few minutes. When the other kids had finished their snacks and I was still sitting in front of my peanut butter and jelly sandwich, my chubby cheeks drenched with tears, she finally gave me a few cookies and told me to stop crying. What a bitch.

Another time when my mom came to pick me up from school, the teacher pulled her aside and said, "We're having a little trouble getting Inga to use the magic words."
My mom looked at her blankly, "Uh... What are the magic words?"
"The magic words are 'please' and 'thank you'."
"OK. I'll talk to her."

I remember this "What's the magic word?" bullcrap very clearly. Every time you asked the teacher for anything, whether it was a crayon, a piece of paper, a book, whatever, they would hold it just out of reach and say in this annoying sing-song voice, "What's the magic woorrrddd???" I refused to be taunted in this manner. I would just repeat, "Can I have the crayons?" Then they would hold them higher and say again, "What's the magic wooorrrdddd?" This would go on until finally I decided that I would rather not get the basket of crayons than be forced to perform like a trained circus animal for their sick, sadistic pleasure.

In Iceland we don't really use a word like "please" much. We have polite ways of asking for things, but you usually only resort to our equivalent of the word "please" if you're almost begging for something. We do say "thank you," on that one I was just being stubborn. But little kids don't go through this whole humiliation of being forced to use the word "please" before they get the thing they're asking for. It's just a linguistic thing, but it proved to be yet another barrier between Preschool Inga and her teachers.

Those teachers were weird, anyway. They always accused me of coloring too slowly. Like the picture of a cow that I colored turquoise. I was having so much fun and thought they would be impressed by my unconventional color choice. But my teacher just stood there yelling at me to hurry up and color faster because of some other crap we had to do. I'm pretty sure I ignored her until the entire cow was turquoise. I think that I didn't realize that their rules applied to me. I'm pretty sure that has followed me throughout my life. It'll be a rude awakening when one day I'm arrested for dangling a burning Justin Bieber poster over the side of a Las Vegas hotel room balcony with Jon Bon Jovi holding the lighter and screaming, "Come back when your balls have dropped!!!!"

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Future Is Now

Well, I finally snapped a little bit. It was a slow snapping, one that took several months to arrive (or, depending on how you look at it, several years) and then once it was here it took a few weeks to complete. But the good news is that... In short, I'm no longer going to not do what I want to be doing in order to one day do what I want. I believe it has taken me anywhere from 5-10 years to learn that lesson, and hopefully I'll really learn it this time so I don't have to re-learn it yet again. At least I have it written down here as evidence. I put in my two weeks notice today at the call center, and will drive back east the second week of December.

I'm going to go to Chicago and if no work appears there I'll go to Maryland and work until I can start graduate school in The Motherland (provided that I'm accepted). That's my plan if I don't get the fellowship. *knock on wood 7-9-13* If I do get the fellowship all bets are off and so am I to start that process. I'll find out about that in December.

In the meantime, as many things as there are to like about Idaho (and I do), if I'm going to be leaving the country and going to school, it could be a couple of years before I'm living in the States again. And I don't want to spend the time after I leave wishing I had gone back to Chi-town to take care of unfinished business (seeing friends, taking those sketch-writing and improv classes, etc). So that's what I'm doing.

Now that I've gotten that decided, I feel better. I've had a major creative block for quite a while, and I think that I've managed to move that out now, my energy is up. My hands want to make things and my brain is hungry for learning. I'm so excited to go back to school, and to write more and have more new things to write about.

The things I'm thinking about for graduate school are a Masters in Old Nordic Religion and maybe even a postgraduate diploma in Preschool Teacher Education. Perhaps I can teach the babies about the All-Father and the Mighty Thor and Wise Frigga and Wonderful Freyja...

Wait, how amazing would a Viking Preschool be????? They could wear wool and fur tunics and say things like, "Fetch me my mutton and a flagon of ale!" The whole classroom could be designed to look like a longboat, and they could light bonfires on the playground and sing songs and tell tales! Oooohh...

No but truthfully, my favorite ages to work with in education are the little kids. (Probably because I can relate to them better?) I love watching those formative years and seeing how quickly they learn, and how excited they still are about learning! Plus it doesn't hurt that little kids are generally adorable, "say the darnedest things" (like the kindergarten boy who told me "Nice hair!" once when I was substitute teaching in his class), and they also get to do fun things in school like finger paints and dance time. (Rather, when I taught Spanish at a preschool in Oklahoma City that one semester in college, my students got dance time. What? It was fun!) So that's a thought that's turning around in my head.

So yes, I'm excited, and it's nice to feel excited and happy instead of impatient and frustrated. Also today at work when I went on break I had a voice mail from one of the staffing agencies in Chicago, so maybe that's a sign that this time around the City of Broad Shoulders will allow me a little work and prosperity, since I'm no longer denying my dharma. Or something..... Who knows. At least I no longer feel trapped and lonely, and by my own doing, no less!

I can't wait to traipse through the streets of Chicago with my pals again, and to sit around tables and laugh and talk into the night and then write it all down. (Well, not all of it.)

Vikings

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Finger paint