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Trip to Northampton

At the beginning of the month, I visited Northampton, MA for the second time in my life to attend the wedding of my college friend Leland. It was a quick trip at the tail end of my spring break: I flew into Boston early Friday evening and flew out again early Sunday afternoon. When I arrived in Boston, I met up with another college classmate, Ben, and his fiancée. Ben and I both played cello in the college orchestra (at least until I dropped orchestra for folk dance), and he and Leland played in a Swarthmore-famous string quartet. Ben and his fiancée kindly gave me a ride to Northampton.

On Saturday morning, I walked from my hotel up the road to Tart, a bakery in downtown Northampton, and bought a spinach and feta pastry for breakfast. Actually, outside the wedding festivities, nearly all the food I consumed during my trip came from Tart. I’d been there once on my last trip to the area, and I guess it’s now my modus operandi to glom onto a bakery for all my sustenance needs when I travel for a wedding.

Later in the morning, I walked back up the hill for the wedding ceremony. There was a protest going on outside a bank downtown, and a woman handed me a leaflet, telling me it explained why they were protesting, to wit, to draw attention to banks’ contribution to the climate crisis. The leaflet encouraged me to move my money out of banks and into credit unions and tell my bank why I was doing so. By this time, the woman had moved on, so I couldn’t tell her all my money was already in credit unions and she could give my leaflet to someone else.

First Churches of Northampton, the day after the wedding

The wedding was at First Churches of Northampton. It was a sunny day, if a bit brisk still at the time of the ceremony, and there were a few guests milling about in the yard in front of the church. I recognized some people. I went inside and signed the guestbook. I ran into Leland and gave them a hug. I ventured into the sanctuary, which was high-ceilinged and wide, with two aisles. As I was admiring the space and contemplating where and with whom to sit, I noticed someone I knew standing near me: it was Kristine, a fellow phonologist. As with a number of the other guests, I hadn’t anticipated seeing her, but as soon as I did, it made sense that she was there. We went and found seats in a pew together and listened to the prelude. The organ was at the front of the sanctuary, and the big pipes were painted in dusky Scandinavian colors (that description might only make sense to me).

The processional began, and various family members advanced in sets down the two aisles. While we were looking around, Kristine and I noticed Ivy, another linguist, sitting in the left section of pews, and we all waved. Then it was time to rise for Leland and Bryn’s entrance; the person sitting in front of me shot up and clasped his fist over his heart. Leland and Bryn also processed in parallel down the two aisles.

I heard someone joke afterwards that the ceremony was essentially a concert with some wedding rituals thrown in; there was indeed a lot of music, which was fitting for the couple. First, a crowd of Sacred Harp singers, many of whom I knew or recognized, sang Harmony from The Shenandoah Harmony; Ivy led. The officiant spoke some words about Leland and Bryn and the things they had in common, including the fact that they both really like ringing bells. This provoked laughter from the assembly.

A trio of friends sang the Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei (split across two occasions in the service) from Byrd’s Mass for Three Voices. The second occasion was communion. Later, an octet including Leland’s mother and sister and a couple other people I knew sang a hymn, and toward the end of the service the congregation got to sing Love Divine, All Loves Excelling (the Hyfrydol setting). And the recessional was the Hornpipe from Handel’s Water Music. The bulletin invited us to listen for English change ringing on our way out of the church, and indeed, there were four ringers on handbells outside. I heard more than one person confirm that they were ringing a whole quarter peal (no promises about the accuracy of my change ringing terminology).

I had sort of skipped over the receiving line on my way out of the sanctuary, so later on I went back to greet the newlyweds and their close family. I also said hi to other people I knew, like Ivy (and I met her partner in person for the first time, as opposed to on Zoom). Among the guests were other Swarthmore alumni, folkies, people I met on my first trip to Northampton, and various combinations thereof. There was also Gretchen McCulloch, internet linguist!

Eventually, we migrated around the corner to the Hotel Northampton and into the brick-walled, low-ceilinged Wiggins Tavern for a cocktail reception. I talked to Sophia, the string quartet’s first violinist, and Becky, Lorelei, and Daria, who were Leland’s roommates at the time of my last visit (Becky also went to Swarthmore). A bell ringer and I mutually recognized each other in a hazy sort of way and ultimately concluded we must have met the day I hung out with the band in Boston. While we were talking, Myles, another Swarthmore alum/linguist/singer/bell ringer, etc., came over. Apparently I have this thing where I introduce myself as a linguist and academic to strangers at weddings, and then someone who knows me brings up my novels. Myles and I alluded to my still fledgling attempts to become the next Donna Jo Napoli. He also mentioned that he and I had once met up in Istanbul (we literally found each other in the Hagia Sophia, in fact, though that was after we each knew the other was in the city). A little later, I brought some fruit back to the table where my acquaintances were sitting, and Lorelei laid out the Hamp/Noho divide for us.

Next, we transitioned to the bright and festive ballroom, where Leland and Bryn’s friend Maia served as master of ceremonies. I was seated at a table with Becky and Lorelei, among others. There was also Nicole, yet another Swarthmore alum/singer, etc., who I had run into by accident the last time I was in Northampton and who, on that occasion, had given me a mushroom in a paper bag to deliver to Leland. Then there was Mel, another folkie I’ve known since my Swarthmore days. Plus additional guests with Swarthmore, singing, linguistics, and other connections (sometimes all three). I sometimes (creepily? I hope not) knew more about them than they probably knew about me.

There were multiple brunch buffets with things like eggs Benedict and waffles with strawberries and cream. There was also a very nice playlist on in the background, and every now and then someone at our table would say, Hey, I have this album (that was me), or make a remark about Crowfoot’s flutist, or complain about a singer’s ungrammatical distortion of a line from Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life.” Mel also told me from across the table that they’d read one of my books after finding it in a little free library, and I felt like I’d unlocked an achievement! It was somewhat unclear which book they’d read, but I think we concluded it was Sparkers?

After people had mostly eaten, Maia orchestrated the succession of toasts. We had flutes of champagne to raise in honor of the couple. The parents and grandparents told some amusing stories from Leland and Bryn’s distant and not-so-distant pasts. I think it was also one of them who asked guests to raise their hands if they were Sacred Harp singers, bell ringers, etc. There was a considerable contingent of change ringers in the back of the ballroom, and someone (Maia?) warned everyone else not to approach them unless we wanted a lecture about ringing. The whole string quartet came up to give a toast. At our table, we speculated about whether there would be dancing or not–there was, after all, a small dance floor–but there was none that I witnessed.

I wandered a bit to talk more with Ivy, her partner Gabe, and Kristine, and then after arranging to ride with Nicole to the evening event, I headed back to my hotel. I stopped by Tart to buy a lox and goat cheese sandwich to eat for dinner later (it was excellent).

Early that night, Nicole picked me up, and we drove to the Artifact Cider taproom in nearby Florence for the Shenandoah Harmony singing. Yes, I brought my wicker book all the way from Grinnell for the wedding. It was my first shape note singing since the Before Times. At the cidery, Leland and Bryn were still in their wedding finery while a lot of other people, including me, had dressed down. I drifted over to a table where Ivy, Gabe, Gretchen, and a few others were drinking ciders and eating a sheet pan of nachos.

The singing soon began, and I shared my book with Gabe. Becky gave a very quick lesson on how to deal with the shapes for the non-Sacred Harp singers in attendance (they were definitely in the minority). Despite having owned the book for years, I haven’t sung much out of The Shenandoah Harmony (it’s the newest shape note book), so most of the tunes are unfamiliar to me. A lot of the ones we sang were good! And there were some incredible texts. Like these words from Isaac Watts, in Converse: “I’m tired of visits, modes, and forms / And flatt’ries paid to fellow worms. / Their conversation cloys, / Their vain amours and empty stuff” and “Fly from my thoughts, all human things / And sporting swains, and fighting kings, / And tales of wanton love; / My soul disdains that little snare, / The tangles of Amira’s hair”–I mean, who’s Amira?! Or how about this text by Charles Wesley: “Ah! lovely appearance of death! / What sight upon earth is so fair? / Not all the gay pageants that breathe / Can with a dead body compare. / With solemn delight I survey / The corpse when the spirit is fled, / In love with the beautiful clay, / And longing to lie in its stead.” That’s not one the mainline Protestant hymnals have kept around.

Leland and Bryn circulated a bit during the singing, and when there was a break, I managed to hand-deliver my wedding card to Leland, since I’d failed to find the appropriate place to leave it at the reception. I also talked to Ivy and Gabe about my research and the job market and learned that Gabe went to the same tiny college as the president of Grinnell.

I made plans with Ben & Co. for our journey back to Boston, and then Nicole dropped me back off at my hotel. The next morning, I went back to Tart (third visit!) for breakfast and provisions: I bought a pain au chocolat and a savory biscuit. According to its website, my hotel was not currenty serving breakfast, but I’d discovered on Saturday morning that this was false; there was quite a comprehensive buffet. So I decided to keep my pastries for later and brought some breakfast back to my room. But then, Leland invited me to an originally family-only brunch at their and Bryn’s house. The quartet was going too, so I could just leave for Boston from there. And unexpectedly, I’d have the chance to see Leland one more time.

The former St. John Cantius Church, near Leland and Bryn’s house

I checked out and walked over to Leland and Bryn’s new house. They had, in Leland’s words, a million quiches and a million leftover desserts from the wedding reception, plus oatmeal and fruit. Later, a giant order of amazing-looking pastries arrived. I was kind of sad I’d already eaten breakfast because everything looked really good, but I wasn’t hungry. I sat in the living room with the quartet and partners, as well as Leland and Bryn when they weren’t greeting various relatives. Their extremely cute cats, Lentil and Miso, both brown (or gray?) tabbies, made several appearances.

Soon, it was time to leave for Boston. We did a sort of Minnesota goodbye (you know, first you get up saying it’s time to leave, then you spend at least ten minutes talking in the hall, then you have hugs in the entryway, then you have hugs in the driveway…), and then Ben, his fiancée, Amy (the second violinist), and I hit the road. I had the earliest flight, so they dropped me off at the airport before embarking on their sightseeing and cannoli-acquiring adventure. I ate my pain au chocolat on the sidewalk before heading inside for the airport rigmarole.

So, it was a swift trip, but it was a lovely wedding, and I hope I’ll get to visit again someday, hopefully in even better times.

Iceland, Part II

Read Part I first!

Sunday was the midpoint of our Icelandic vacation, and we kicked off the day by heading into Reykjavík for the COVID tests we needed in order to fly back to the U.S. The Primary Health Care of the Capital Area proved to be very efficient, and after our swabs, we went into the city center to shop and poke around. It was cool and gray, but there was only an occasional slight drizzle. Parking was free on Sundays, and there may have been fewer tourists on Laugavegur, Reykjavík’s main shopping street, because many of the stores were closed.

Street art on Laugavegur in Reykjavík

I didn’t buy any souvenirs (Icelandic sweaters and wool blankets feature prominently in the gift shops), but I did buy several postcards, as well as Icelandic stamps. The stamp for Europe was Christmas-themed, for some reason, but the stamp for outside of Europe featured an Icelandic gyrfalcon. I later dropped my postcards in fire engine red Pósturinn boxes, one in a Krónan grocery store in Selfoss and one at the Skaftafell visitor center.

A house in Reykjavík

I liked the Reykjavík city center. There was street art painted on the asphalt of Laugavegur (a big maroon bird, a yellow eel), there were murals, there were corrugated metal houses in bright colors with wooden window frames and trim. There were a couple of excellent-looking bakeries with lines out the door, at times; we bought sandwiches and pastries from Sandholt, on Laugavegur, which had fantastic French-style viennoiseries, among other goodies. Also on Laugavegur, we saw a Bengal cat that might belong to one of the shops.

Hallgrímskirkja

Before leaving Reykjavík, we went up to Hallgrímskirkja, a Lutheran church and the largest church in Iceland. Its architecture was inspired by the basalt lava columns we later saw in several places. In the square in front of the church is a statue of Leifr Eiricsson (as spelled on the pedestal) given to Iceland by the U.S. in 1930 on the 1,000th anniversary of the Alþingi (which according to Wikipedia is the oldest surviving parliament in the world!). After the service let out, we could venture inside the church. The soaring nave is unadorned but full of light, and there’s a huge pipe organ at the back.

In the afternoon, we drove southeast on the Ring Road (Route 1, which follows the country’s perimeter) to Seljalandsfoss, another of Iceland’s big waterfalls. The water falls from a cliff in sheets and thunders into the pool below. There’s a path that climbs up to a hollow behind the waterfall, allowing you to walk all the way around the falls. Behind the water the rock face is mossy. There’s a somewhat rocky climb out again.

Seljalandsfoss

Walking beyond Seljalandsfoss, there are a couple of other small waterfalls coming down the cliffside, and then there’s Gljúfrabúi, the hidden waterfall, which is tucked away inside a rock chamber a bit like the Baðstofa sea cave in Hellnar (see Part I). We walked alongside the stream that came out of the cleft in the rock, against the current, and into the chamber, where the waterfall came pouring down. Again, there was an opening onto the sky above.

Gljúfrabúi

On Monday, we left the Minna-Mosfell Guesthouse for the last time and drove toward Seljalandsfoss again, but we turned off at the town of Hvolsvöllur to join up with our Midgard Adventure tour at Midgard Base Camp, the company’s headquarters. Our group consisted of fifteen people led by two guides. We were with a father and son from Scarsdale in a 10-person van driven by our guide Vala. The rest of the group, including a couple of French families, was in a super jeep. Both vehicles were suited for the unpaved mountain roads in Iceland’s interior, as well as fording streams.

Brief digression about Icelandic: when I visit a new country, I often make some effort to learn something of the language (e.g. Spanish, Turkish, Portuguese) before I go, even if that effort isn’t terribly successful. This time around, I did way less advance study than in the past. I tried to learn how to pronounce Icelandic words and was a bit daunted (apparently these days <ð> is mostly lenited…?). The only time during our vacation when I actually felt like I made some progress was during our tour with Vala because I could listen to her pronounce Icelandic words, like Landmannalaugur, our destination, or hraun, which means lava field (and is also the name of a rough-exteriored Icelandic chocolate bar). I realized that <au> is not pronounced [au] (but <á>, which means river, really is) and that <hv> is indeed [kv]. I could also hear pre-aspiration in Vala’s English! And later that evening, someone else at Midgard Base Camp said Eyjafjallajökull slowly for my mother, and I noted that <ll> really is [tl]. So, my Icelandic sounding out is a little better now!

Sigöldugljúfur

Vala drove us back northwest on Route 1 and then turned inland. On the way, she told us a bit about the ongoing Fagradalsfjall eruptions near the airport, immigration in Iceland, and the catastrophic eruptions of Lakagígar in 1783, which caused huge loss of human and animal life, wreaked havoc globally, and may have helped spark the French Revolution. We made a pit stop at the Hrauneyjar lodge and then drove on to Sigöldugljúfur, an out-of-the-way canyon mostly drained by a hydroelectric dam project. Vala said it was known as the Canyon of Tears or the Crying Canyon, and it was one of the most striking and beautiful sights of our trip. Turquoise water ran through the canyon bottom while numerous waterfalls dotted its rock walls. It was a highlight for me, and we couldn’t have seen it on our own.

Hiking around Landmannalaugar

From Sigöldugljúfur, we headed through the mountains to our ultimate destination, Landmannalaugur, in the Highlands. There’s a camp there with huts and a tent area, near the hot spring pool (laugar = pools) and below the colorful rhyolite mountains. We first set off on a loop hike which took us along a mountain stream, past some greenish rock faces, and through a lava field (with shiny obsidian!) formed in 1477.  We reached the windy scree slope of a mountain (which people were climbing), where there was a big and extremely sulfurous fumarole belching steam. The smell was almost corrosive. On some greener, craggier adjacent slopes there were more plumes of steam, as well as some intrepid sheep.

The mountains at Landmannalaugar

The hike led downwards after that point, towards a meadow in a valley surrounded by the painted mountains. We circled back to the camp, where we ate the bagged lunches provided by Midgard Adventure. Then we had a short window in which to bathe in the hot spring pool. A boardwalk led through the marshy grasses to a platform where you could stash your stuff. A wooden staircase descended into the water, which was quite shallow and, of course, warm. There was some algae floating around. As I walked on the sharp stony bottom towards these little steaming falls, the heat of the water intensified. It was a fun experience; I hadn’t been in any hot springs since a trip to Switzerland years ago. There was a trio of cute black sheep (a ewe and two lambs, judging by their relative sizes) grazing near the hot spring pool.

Black sheep near the hot spring pool

We drove back a different way, through a lot of fairly barren landscapes. Apparently a lot of the Highlands are considered volcanic desert, and it does look like a desert, or maybe the surface of Mars or the moon. Practically everyone in our van started dozing off, but we did make one more stop at Fossbrekkur, a pretty waterfall in a sort of canyon below the snow-capped volcano Hekla, which is overdue for an eruption. Vala told us that legend has it that witches meet on Hekla on Easter.

Fossbrekkur

After our tour, we decided to eat dinner in the Midgard Base Camp restaurant, which had excellent food. I had more Arctic char, served with rich mashed potatoes, and we shared the rhubarb dessert with basil ice cream. Then we had to drive around the southern belly of Iceland to our new lodgings at the Hörgsland Guesthouse, just beyond Kirkjubæjarklaustur. Luckily, since the sun still sets quite late in Iceland in August and it’s still light out at 10:00pm, we arrived before dark.

My Arctic char at the Midgard Base Camp restaurant

On Tuesday, our last full day in Iceland, we kept driving east on the Ring Road. Our plan was to go all the way to the glacial lagoon called Jökulsárlón and then stop at some other sights on the way back. Most of our route was in the metaphorical shadow of the massive glacier Vatnajökull, the largest ice cap in Iceland, which has many offshoot glaciers whose tendrils we glimpsed from the highway. It was quite a spectacular drive, both the way there and the way back. We drove through the glacial outwash plain called Skeiðarársandur (which looks kind of like a dark gravel wasteland shot through with brown rivers) and around the tip of a glacier to reach Jökulsárlón.

Jökulsárlón

This glacial lagoon was formed by the receding of the glacier Breiðamerkurjökull. A short river leads from the lagoon under a suspension bridge to the ocean. Jökulsárlón has glacial blue water and is dotted with miniature icebergs with blue undertones, some streaked with black. Close to the parking lot, there were a lot of gulls flying around or perched on the ice chunks, and there were big seals (probably harbor seals?) swimming in the lagoon! During our visit, it was overcast, and the clouds were very low, obscuring the mountains and glacier that were presumably at the back of the lagoon. But we walked along the water as Zodiacs, amphibious tour boats, and a group of kayaks moved among the icebergs. 

Seabirds and seals!

At Jökulsárlón, we bought one Icelandic hotdog to share (Icelanders are apparently into hotdogs). The sausage is supposed to be made from lamb, beef, and pork, but it tasted like any other hotdog to me. It came with mustard, mayonnaise, and raw and crispy fried onions. It wasn’t bad! 

The Icelandic hotdog

After more seal watching (I saw as many as six at a time), we crossed over to the other side of the Ring Road to see the black sand beach studded with chunks of ice. I think the ice washes ashore after exiting Jökulsárlón via the river. We could see small icebergs floating out of the lagoon, down river, and out to sea. The wet black sand makes a striking contrast with the white or transparent ice chunks as well as the foam of the crashing waves. We spotted a seal swimming a little ways offshore. As we were leaving, some larger icebergs were floating out of the mouth of the river.

The black sand beach adjacent to Jökulsárlón

From Jökulsárlón, we backtracked on Route 1. First we went back 10km to another glacial lagoon (or lake, since it doesn’t connect to the sea) called Fjallsárlón. It was less crowded than Jökulsárlón, and though it was just a few kilometers to the west, the clouds had lifted somewhat and there was a bit of sunlight. This meant that we could see the cliff face and ridged surface of the glacier behind the water, and in fact it and the snowy peaks beyond were partially illuminated by the sun. Occasionally we heard the glacier cracking, but we never glimpsed any movement. I loved seeing the blue cast of some of the glaciers. Fjallsárlón was in some ways more picturesque than Jökulsárlón because there was a collection of sculpted mini icebergs quite close to shore, but I agree with the Lonely Planet guidebook that it’s worth visiting both.

Fjallsárlón

We could have taken a 5km (one-way) hike from Fjallsárlón to a third glacial lake called Breiðárlón, even less frequented by tourists, but we opted not to. Instead, we backtracked further along the Ring Road to Skaftafell, a popular area that’s part of the larger Vatnajökull National Park. We took the 1.8km path toward Svartifoss (Black Waterfall), which was almost entirely uphill and in full sun. At Jökulsárlón, I’d had four layers on; during this hike, I shed all but one. We trekked up through scrub and grassy meadows dotted with angelica, with views of mountains and glaciers in the distance.

Hiking in Skaftafell

There was a last descent to approach Svartifoss from the bottom. The waterfall is narrow and fork-tongued but with a fairly high drop. The big attraction is the hexagonal basalt lava columns that frame it. It creates a sort of solid, layered stone honeycomb effect.

Svartifoss

After the hike back, we ate the salmon or lamb sandwiches we’d bought at the Skaftafell cafeteria, as well as the creamy lobster soup from the Glacier Goodies food truck next to the campground. We’d also gotten some passionfruit skyr cake and berry tart from the cafeteria, which we shared back at the Hörgsland Guesthouse.

Wednesday was the day of our departure, and we had a fairly long drive back to Reykjavík. We did make one stop, just past the town of Vík, driving around the mountain Reynisfjall to the black sand beach called Reynisfjara. There were many warning signs, as the beach is considered the most dangerous in Iceland due to the sneaker waves. The tip of the mountain had more basalt columns, shallow caves, and flocks of seabirds, including many puffins perched on grassy clifftops! Puffins look kind of comical when they fly. It was the flying puffins that first caught my notice, actually, since they move very differently than seagulls, and then I realized there were puffins lining the cliff far above us.

The cliffs at Reynisfjara

From Reynisfjara, we could see some of the sea stacks of Reynisdrangar, and looking east, we could see the promontory of Dyrhólaey, with its rock arch.

Sea stacks at Reynisfjara

We drove the rest of the way to Reykjavík, where we had a delicious lunch at the home of Valur and Guðrún, the former proprietors of the Minna-Mosfell Guesthouse and the current proprietors of the car we’d been driving. We learned a bit about the September sheep roundup (Valur showed us some videos on YouTube, complete with sheep roundup singing–one of the songs had the same tune as “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”). Apparently there are now opportunities for tourists to take part in rounding up the sheep. Then we headed to the airport.

On the flight back to Minneapolis, we flew over the fjords of southeastern Greenland while there were broad openings in the clouds. Sitting by the window, I had spectacular views of the snow-capped mountains, the deep blue water dotted with icebergs, and the sweeping glaciers.

Mountains and glaciers of Greenland

Conservation of Shadows

I’m still reading collections of short fiction, and the latest one I finished was Yoon Ha Lee’s Conservation of Shadows. I bought Lee’s first novel, Ninefox Gambit, from Small World Books in Venice a few years ago and really liked it. I’ve also read the next book in the Machineries of Empire trilogy, Raven Stratagem, and I regret that I’ve yet to read the third book, Revenant Gun. But the first two installments were enough to make me a Yoon Ha Lee fan, so when I saw Conservation of Shadows on Isabelle’s bookshelf, I knew I wanted to read it.

The short story collection is introduced by Aliette de Bodard, another SFF author I’m a fan of despite having only read a short story or two of hers. (I keep meaning to read some of her longer work. Also, fun fact: I have a trunked novel from before I’d heard of de Bodard in which the main character’s young cousin is named Aliette. I found the name in a French baby names book.)

Conservation of Shadows begins with “Ghostweight,” whose worldbuilding reminded me a bit of the Machineries of Empire trilogy. I read this story slowly. Recently I described Theodora Goss’s In the Forest of Forgetting as not being cerebral or demanding (which was not in any way intended as a slight). Well, I find at least some of Yoon Ha Lee’s stories if not cerebral then certainly demanding. “Ghostweight” was one of those. But the payoff. The ending blew me away. Was every story in the collection going to be this breathtakingly good?!

Then I read the second story, “The Shadow Postulates,” and loved it. I decided after that one that I needed to buy my own copy of the book.

I enjoyed the desert wasteland setting motif in “The Bones of Giants” (is this a motif? I’m trying and failing to put my finger on something I feel this story has in common with some other settings, such as the one in Moira Young’s Dust Lands trilogy). I liked that the protagonists of “Swanwatch” and “The Unstrung Zither” were musician-composers, since I often can’t help writing about music myself. Lee seems to have a thing for guns, and also math (of course), but also language! There were so many references to structural properties of language that were done so well that I kept wondering if Lee had a degree in linguistics as well as in mathematics. Or at the very least some kind of background. In reading interviews, I discovered he has a past as a conlanger, so that explains a lot. I have this urge to say more about the linguistics in Conservation of Shadows; we’ll see if that happen.

I appreciated all the Asian-inspired worldbulding, from the obvious, foregrounded, and central to the more subtle and understated. While I could recognize fictional cognates of Korea, China, and Japan, I learned more about Lee’s inspiration (one naval battle in particular) by reading the story notes, which I also found delightful. In another interview, Lee said he always enjoyed learning more about the author and the story from such notes, so he decided to include his own. This reader liked flipping to the end of the book to read the notes after each story!

Finally, I savored Lee’s excellent writing, which inspired me as I read since I’m currently novel drafting harder than I have in a long time (yay, confinement?) and everything I’m spewing onto the digital page feels like it’s horrible written. So it’s good to read some actual quality writing to remind myself what it looks like, take note of how it’s done, and reassure myself that I will fix the terrible writing in revisions.

2019 in Review

2019 was also a big year, though I did not travel as far as in 2018. On Twitter (which I have now joined), I’ve seen people reflecting on the whole decade since we’re about to enter the new 20s (how weird–I think “the 20s” still evokes flappers and Prohibition to me, though the pull of the 20th century feels weaker than for “the 60s,” say). It hadn’t occurred to me to look back on the decade till I started seeing those tweets. I don’t think I much noticed the dawn of the last decade; I was just trundling along in college. But if I look back on this past decade, most of the major accomplishments of my life were achieved in it: I got an agent, I graduated from college, I published two novels, I got a Ph.D…. One can, of course, debate the merits of cataloging one’s life in terms of material accomplishments. Anyway, let me zoom back in on 2019 and recall the highlights, non-chronologically:

2020, here I come!

Hello, Grinnell!

Last week, I announced I was leaving Los Angeles. Where am I now? Grinnell, Iowa! I’m a post-doctoral fellow at Grinnell College. I’ll be teaching linguistics, reacquainting myself with the Midwest, and discovering small town life in rural Iowa. Funnily enough, I visited Grinnell in high school, applied for college, and was admitted, but I chose to go somewhere else. Now here I am as a teacher!

All of my musical instruments made it with me!

Fare Thee Well, Los Angeles

After spending six years working toward my Ph.D. in linguistics, I have left Los Angeles a doctor, and I’m currently en route to my next home. We’ll be driving through the Southwest and the Rockies to…you’ll find out soon!

I tried to take advantage of my last weeks in Los Angeles. I lived there longer than I had in any other place other than the places where I grew up, and UCLA is the school where I was a student the longest. When I arrived for grad school, I had no particular opinion of Los Angeles. I neither dreaded nor looked forward to living there. But now that I’ve spent so much time there, there are many things I like about it (the diversity, the neighborhoods, the bookstores, the food), and I’ll definitely miss it.

In my last month or so in LA, and particularly in my last days, I:

  • Rode the Ferris Wheel at the Santa Monica Pier with Isabelle
  • Attended my fourth (I think) Obon at the West LA Buddhist Temple with Isabelle, her friend Alice, and Alice’s partner Quentin (I recognize all the taiko drummers now!)
  • Went to both free Shakespeare plays in Griffith Park, Pericles with Isabelle, Alice, and Quentin, and Twelfth Night with Isabelle and her partner Olivier
  • Ate at some of the most beloved restaurants in Sawtelle, many of which I will miss, including Killer Noodle, Marugame Udon, Seoul Tofu, and Tsujita Annex
  • Ate a last pupusa at the West LA Farmers Market

  • Finally achieved my goal of swimming in the Pacific when I went to the beach with Isabelle and Olivier (in the end, it wasn’t freezing!)

It’s funny how you can intend to check something off your list for months or even years and then not get around to doing it before everything is suddenly a whirlwind of moving preparation and you run out of time. Museum of Jurassic Technology, I’ll have to visit you someday! I also never did dare dance at Obon. Until we meet again, Los Angeles!

Kittens and Commencement

Earlier in June, Adam, Iara, Isabelle, and I visited the Tiny Beans Kitten Lounge, a summer pop-up offshoot of our local cat café, in downtown Los Angeles. The kitten lounge, just a few blocks from the Last Bookstore (which Isabelle and I stopped by beforehand), was very small and decorated like the bedroom of a small child who loves pastel colors, rainbows, unicorns, and cotton candy. It was also full of two- to three-month-old cats of every stripe and color. Some were playful while others just wanted to snooze next to our bags. Though I tend to prefer adult cats, I had to admit they were pretty cute. And since it was a Monday afternoon, the four of us had the lounge to ourselves.

Kitten

A few days later, I walked in the UCLA Doctoral Hooding Ceremony and graduated with my Ph.D. After 10 years of postsecondary education, I am no longer a student! It’s funny to think that, of all the schools I’ve attended, UCLA is the one I spent the most time at. My parents, brother, aunt, and cousin came to Los Angeles for the ceremony and met my committee.

Me, a newly-minted doctor, and my brother (photo by my aunt)

After commencement, we explored LA, visiting many of our now favorite haunts (the Getty Center and the Getty Villa, Topanga State Park, the Huntington). My parents and I went to the Griffith Observatory and saw Foucault’s pendulum and took in the panoramic views. With my family and a couple of friends, I also visited Mission San Juan Capistrano and Laguna Beach again.

A water lily at Mission San Juan Capistrano

My time in Los Angeles will be coming to an end this summer, and amidst all the busyness I hope to fit in some last firsts and bucket list items. The most interesting should find their way to this space!

Dissertation Defended

You know how I sometimes mention I’m in grad school? Well, yesterday I successfully defended my doctoral dissertation! It’s been a long, sometimes quite difficult, but also very rewarding six years. Here’s me and my lovely committee at the post-defense celebration. Happy May Day!

Borrego Palm Canyon and the Rest of Spring Break

On our second day in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, we hiked the Borrego Palm Canyon Trail. There were plenty of people, and the trail was awash in desert flowers. The clouds of blooms were mainly shades of yellow and purple (desert dandelion, Parrish’s poppies, phacelia), with greenery and smatterings of other colors thrown in. The trail was pretty easy for a long stretch. Mountainsides jutted up sharply on either side of us, but far away on one side. There were streams (or maybe just one stream) flowing with cold water, and we had to cross all of these, usually on stepping stones or a log bridge. Closer to the palm oasis that was the endpoint of the trail, the path grew steeper and rockier in places.

Two kinds of phacelia?

A pretty blue flower

The oasis itself was a circle of California fan palms, the only native California palm tree. It was deliciously cool in the shade. Nearby, a shallow stream was flowing, and it seemed you could wade up it to find a waterfall. This sounded lovely, but a bunch of people had just arrived, so we opted to start the hike back. We stumbled upon some more ghost flowers along the trail, but alas, we didn’t meet any bighorn sheep.

Apricot mallow, I think

Stream from the trail, with ocotillos on the far hillside

On the drive back from the state park, we saw along the freeway near Lake Elsinore (lately overwhelmed by superbloom seekers) the hillsides coated in orange California poppies that are the signature of this year’s superbloom. The flowers do make impressive patches of color.

Back in Los Angeles, we visited the Getty Museum, where the illuminated manuscripts exhibit was Artful Words: Calligraphy in Illuminated Manuscripts. As usual, I tried to read the French texts. There was an amusing legend to an illustration in The Visions of the Knight Tondal: “The Good But Not Very Good Are Nourished by a Fountain”. Sounds like Not Very Good is good enough, then? This particular exhibit featured a lot of pages from books of music, which I’m a big fan of.

We also made our usual pilgrimage to The Huntington. In the Chinese garden, there was a performance underway in my eponymous pavilion: Gao Hejia was playing the guzheng.

The Chinese garden (notice the egret among the water lilies behind the rock)

Bird!

On the final day of our vacation, we visited the Getty Villa.

The Getty Villa, modeled on the Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum

Inscription in what the exhibit called Palmyran Aramaic and what I think might be the Palmyrene alphabet–in any case, it’s beautiful!

2018 in Review

2018 has been quite a year. Do I say that every year? (I actually don’t, but I probably could.) Between the am-I-finishing-grad-school-this-year-or-not uncertainty (answer: no), the politics, the traveling, and the wonderful times with friends, it’s been a full year. Here are some highlights, not in chronological order:

In 2019, I will be dissertating and, I hope, writing and perhaps beginning a brand new adventure!