Category Archives: Uncategorized

“Who was that masked man? I wanted to thank him.”

Years ago, for some reason (perhaps a college assignment I’ve forgotten), I picked up a copy of Boccaccio’s Decameron.

This is not a review of that book.

I started reading the Decameron, for some reason, years later in Florida, when I was sick in bed and looking for reading material. Back before I could summon books magically through the ether with my Amazon Fire.

I didn’t finish it. It’s one of those books I just couldn’t get into.

Anyway, it’s a collection of 100 stories, supposedly told by a group of ladies and gentlemen who’ve fled Florence during the Black Death in the 14th Century.

I tell you all of that just to ease into my real subject – I have a very brief Plague Story of my own today.

Buoyed by the prospect of money coming in from my recent translation job, I decided to throw some patronage at a restaurant I like, but haven’t been to for a while. I called in an order for pick-up.

When I got there, rocking my stylish Black Bart Stagecoach Robber bandana mask, the cashier told me it would be just a minute. I said sure.

There was another guy there, sitting on a bench. A middle-aged guy (which makes him younger than me, I shudder to think) who seemed to be waiting for a large order.

“Sure never thought I’d see times like this in America,” he said to me, keeping his distance as the law prescribes.

I agreed, pretty much echoing the same sentiment back to him. “I feel bad for the small business owners,” I added. “A lot of those people don’t have a lot of margin to fall back on.”

He told me he was a small businessman himself. He owned two neighborhood bars. “I’m doing OK,” he said. “But I feel bad for my employees. Some of them are in real bad shape.”

We went on to talk about various theories about the Coronavirus thing. He’d heard that people get immunity from sunlight exposure in summer. I said I’d heard it was temperatures over 80 degrees and humidity.

“If it’s heat and humidity,” he asked, “how come it doesn’t die on your body? What’s warmer and humider than your body?”

I admitted he had a point.

Then the cashier came out with my food. As I stepped toward the counter, the guy said, “Hey, Mister, forget it. It’s on me. It was a pleasure to talk to somebody new after all these days at home.”

I’ll share a little-known personal secret with you – I almost never turn down free stuff. I thanked him and gave the cashier a big tip. We were all happy for a moment.

As I left he asked my name, and gave me his. Which, of course, I’ve forgotten already.

I should have asked the names of his bars, so I could recommend them to any locals who may read this – after they re-open on VC day. But I didn’t think of that. And I don’t drink myself.

Well, fortunately he’ll never be able reproach me for my ingratitude. He never saw my face without a mask.

A weekend of extreme translation

By Hesse1309 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The picture above isn’t one of mine. It’s in Norway, though. I think I may have seen this sign on one of my journeys; I know I saw one like it. We take our trolls seriously, we Norwegians. If they kidnap a princess or two, well, that’s the price of living in the most beautiful place in the world.

It was quite a weekend, friends. I was intensely engaged with the Norwegian language. I will not tell you what translation project I was working on, and I’ll not tell you whom it was for. It was a script. You can guess the medium for yourself.

But I had a lot of work to do, and a deadline to meet. I was a little insecure about meeting it, but it turned out I’d underestimated myself. The work went faster than I’d looked for.  The thing didn’t get delivered as soon as I hoped, due to a glitch that appeared and wiped away a whole lot of work that had to be done all over again. But I got up early and worked late, and delivered everything well before I’d estimated.

It’s a little disconcerting that I haven’t heard anything back from the client (checking again to see that my email with the files actually went out; yes, it did). But if my product had been awful, I suspect somebody would have said something. I take comfort in that thought.

After all these months, it was sweet to open up the First Draft app and do that voodoo that I do so adequately. It was fun, in the same sense that being a rodeo rider or a cage fighter is fun. It takes its toll, but you come out stimulated. While all around me people were going batty with cabin fever, I was in my element, growing as a craftsman. It was, frankly, the best weekend I’ve had in quite a long time.

Dispatch from the translation front

I’ve become a little cautious about discussing translation work. So suffice it to say that I snagged a nice one, and there’s a deadline coming on, and I can’t really spend much time on a blog post.

But rejoice with me that I’ve found work, when better men are filing for unemployment. Whatever my project is, it’s interesting. Have a good weekend. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do (that ought to keep you pretty safe).

“Aerial America” on YouTube

Smithsonian Channel has also begun to roll out entire episodes on YouTube, and weekly online “watch parties” are planned to make the “Aerial America” viewing experience interactive despite social distancing. Every Tuesday and Thursday from 4 to 5 p.m. EST, Smithsonian Channel’s Facebook page will host state-specific trivia while showing an episode. Each episode will simultaneously drop on YouTube.”

It may not be Epcot’s Soarin’ ride, but it’s close and much longer. There are currently four episodes: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, and Arkansas.

What You’re Feeling is Real, But maybe not What You Think it Is

People started talking about cabin fever the day after their mayor or governor directed them to shelter in place. Maybe they are the folks who rarely stay at home for anything, those who dash off to the store, the crab shack, the boardwalk, the open road–anywhere at the drop of a hat. (For the kids at home, “the drop of a hat” is an expression from the days when adults wore hats daily and dropped them on the sidewalk, taxi seat, or chaise lounge several times a day. At those times certain people would do that thing they would do and, you know.)

Now that most of us are working from home or at least staying at home more than we would have been, we may find ourselves more irritable than normal. We may act and react with emotions we didn’t expect, and because of that, we may not feel okay (insert tangentially related song).

Some of us don’t know what to do with our emotions, dismissing them as temporal fancies that should be reined in at every moment. Or wishing they could be. We take our emotions as improper bursts of energy or simply the way we express ourselves. We see no meaning behind our feelings.

Continue reading What You’re Feeling is Real, But maybe not What You Think it Is

Empty Streets

The last time Vegas shut down was Nov. 23, 1963 out of respect for the death of a president. Yesterday Nevada’s governor said they needed to shut down for thirty days. People had been staying home for a while anyway.

“You see all these massive buildings that are meant to have 10,000 people in them and no one is there,” one interactive gaming exec said.

That means gamblers will have to find other ways to, uh, invest, like, say, the weather. Bookies are taking bets on high temperatures in select cities, rainfall, and events on American Idol. Of course, other countries have sports too, so maybe we’ll see a spike in soccer interest.

Two major movie theater chains have closed until better health prevails. I just learned my local library will be closed until April 1; they are encouraging us to use their digital borrowing service, Hoopla. Perhaps the librarians won’t have to go on unpaid leave, like those of retailer Tattered Cover of Denver, one of the largest independent bookstores in the country.

We’re living in troubling times. I’ve seen more people walking through our neighborhood, but the warm weather could have inspired that. Three of us took that walk after sunset tonight. Dark, empty streets can be nice.

The Paradox of Authenticity

Who are you, when you boil it all down? How do you act when you are most like you?

Although most people would define authenticity as acting in accordance with your idiosyncratic set of values and qualities, research has shown that people feel most authentic when they conform to a particular set of socially approved qualities, such as being extroverted, emotionally stable, conscientious, intellectual and agreeable.

This is the paradox of authenticity: In order to reap the many of the benefits of feeling authentic, you may have to betray your true nature.

Jennifer Beer in Scientific American

While seeking to be authentic is admirable, what may work against most of us is the suspicion that we don’t like who we are, and worse, that we shouldn’t.

Subject via Prufrock / Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Rite of Spring

Today was one of those deceptive, insidious March days in Minneapolis, when the sun shines bright, the temperature soars into the upper 30s, the snow tries to melt, and all nature smiles. It’s false, that smile, hiding ample devious malignancy for a dozen bad dames in hard-boiled mysteries. She’s a beautiful dame, with classic lines that never go out of style, but she has a gun in her garter, a stiletto up her sleeve, and her ring holds a secret compartment containing a rare Middle Eastern poison, undetectable by modern science.

In other words, it’s March in Minnesota, and we’re gonna have at least one more blizzard. But the dame was lookin’ good today, and you might as well enjoy her beauty before she shivs you in the ribs.

I left the cocoon of Blithering Heights to journey out to the mean streets of Minneapolis. There’s a big church near Franklin Avenue known as Mindekirken (Memorial Church). It’s your one option if you want to attend a Lutheran church service in Norwegian in this city. It also serves as a sort of Norwegian cultural center.

Every Tuesday Mindekirken hosts an open house, with a nice Norwegian-style lunch and an invited speaker. Today that speaker was Your Ob’t. Servant. I spoke about the Icelandic Sagas, and they let me sell books afterwards. (Yes, I know today was Monday, not Tuesday. Just for this week, they had to move the event because of the primary elections tomorrow. The church, I assume, is a polling place.)

It went well. Turnout was good. Some audiences are better than others. This audience, though mostly made up of people (even) older than me, was sharp and appreciative. They laughed loudly at the story of “Thorarin’s Toe” from Heimskringla, which is my gauge of the mental acuity of an audience.

Good (and profitable) days have been rare for me of late. Thanks to the Mindekirken folks for making one possible. I was so buoyed that I actually took myself out for dinner at Perkins tonight, something I don’t do often anymore.

Kirk Douglas (1916-2020)

As you doubtless know already, screen legend Kirk Douglas died on Wednesday, 103 years old.

Born Issur Danielovitch in Amsterdam, New York to Jewish immigrant parents, he turned a difficult, impoverished childhood into fuel for a red-hot film career. Whether he played good guys or bad guys, his characters always burned with an inner rage. It was impossible to be bored with a Douglas portrayal.

He played two Norwegian roles in his career (that I’m aware of) The Heroes of Telemark, and The Vikings, and I’m grateful for them. We sometimes make jokes about the Jewish Vikings in 1958’s The Vikings, but in one sense I’d say he was the best movie Viking ever. The film itself, in spite of some minimal efforts at authenticity within the limits of the scholarship of the day, is fairly cartoonish, though undeniably rousing. But Douglas himself (even beardless) caught the spirit of the Viking perfectly. It would be very hard for any actor today to match the swagger, the sheer, strutting male display that Douglas brought to the role.

In the clip above, he and some extras do a trick that’s recorded in the Saga of Olaf Trygvesson — running along the ship’s sides on the oars. Douglas insisted on doing the stunt himself, and was a good enough sport to leave his falls in.

RIP, Kirk Douglas, one of a kind.

‘Ragnarok’ on Netflix

At long last, and now that I am well and truly out of the script translation business, you’ll have the opportunity to view a Norwegian production I had a hand in translating. (I can’t watch it myself, having divested myself of Netflix in the recent austerity initiative.)

Ragnarok can perhaps be described, in what scriptwriters call an “elevator pitch” (a description short enough to be given during an elevator ride) as “American Gods,” crossed with “Stranger Things,” set in a Norwegian high school.

The theme is environmental, and the visuals are, by all accounts, spectacular. I worked on two or three episodes, and some of my work will probably have survived in the subtitles. Not for younger kids.


Photo credit: Kimia Zarifi@kimzifi

This was a good day. I did not expect to be able to say that. More on that later.

Yesterday I gave up on a book I was reading. I used to do that more than I do now, but I’m trying to save money on book buying, so I cut books more slack now. But I’d gotten this one free through an Amazon promotion, so no loss.

It’s sad. You read a book that’s clearly well meant, by an author with something to say. All indications are that the story might well turn out interesting.

But it’s written so badly. The author, aside from the (now expected) misspellings and grammar errors, just doesn’t know how to manipulate the tool he possesses in the English language. The writing is flaccid. Sentences and paragraphs could easily have been cut. Lines that might have been dramatic lose all their punch through redundancies and poor word choices. I had to give up on it.

But today I had a good experience, expecting little.

Some members of my high school graduation class who live in this general area have adopted a custom of late. Every time there are 5 weeks in a month (about 3 times a year) they gather on the fifth Wednesday at a bar & grill in a town near our home town. This time, no doubt made desperate by the attrition in our ranks, they invited me. And I agreed to go.

My inclination was to give it a miss. I’ve become convinced over the years that my appearance at any social event is about as welcome as the Grim Reaper’s. I am miserable, and the cause of misery in others.

But I missed our 50-year reunion, in a recent year I will not specify. So I felt I owed it to them make an appearance now.

It turned into a long drive, because Google Maps sent me around the north side of the Twin Cities to get to a destination southeast-ward. One assumes traffic was backed up on the rational routes, as is generally the case nowadays. But I was an hour early anyway. Because the guy who invited me told me noon when it was actually 1:00. If I’d gotten there alone, I’d have probably waited a while and then slunk home, feeling persecuted. But another fellow had been similarly misinformed, and we able to enjoy a mini-reunion of our own before the main contingent arrived.

And it went pretty well. I sat at one end of the long table, so I didn’t have to divide my attention left and right (that’s helpful when you’re on the autistic spectrum, as I suspect I am). I conversed pleasantly with my neighbors, none of whom had been particular friends when I was young. The woman next to me told me (to my surprise) that she belongs to a congregation of my church body. The guy across from me spoke quietly about being born again.

What do you know.

Two people in my immediate vicinity told how they’d lost adult children. That’s an experience – a world, really – of which I have no conception. The courage of ordinary folks is a wonder to me, something I can only admire.

We were young once. Now we are old. Once we were cool kids and dorks. Jocks and eggheads. Popular and pariahs. Bullies and bullied. Now, like Civil War veterans, blue and gray, we find comfort in one another, in having seen what we’ve all seen and been what we’ve all been, in a world that no longer exists.

Wow. I enjoyed a social event. I must find a way to suppress this memory, so it won’t upset my working world-view.

How Many Filaments Did Edison Test for His Lightbulb?

People know America’s great inventor Thomas Edison went through multitudes of material to find a good filament for his little light bulb hobby. He tested everything he could get his hands on and thought could work. Some even claim he made a large bulb in order to test the illumination of a charged cat.*

The Edison Museum states his team tested over 6,000 plant materials, many of them carbonized. The Franklin Institute makes the same claim, possibly taking it from the same source though that source isn’t clearly cited.

Rutgers Edison Papers says no one, not even the inventor himself, kept count of how many times they tried this or that. They quote an 1890 interview in which Edison says they tried 3,000 different theories in working out a functional and affordable light bulb, and many more experiments were conducted after they had a patent and a production factory. Edison was awarded that patent on January 27, 1880.

The number of filament experiment may be lost to history, as well as whether he actually said one of his famous quotations:

Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.

– Thomas Edison or Harper’s Monthly?

Ralph Keyes, in his book The Quote Verifier, notes this quote and its variations can be attributed to Edison, but the earliest version of this can be found in an 1898 Ladies Home Journal. (Check to see if you still have this edition on your TBR pile.) The magazine claims Edison offered two percent inspiration and ninety-eight percent perspiration as a formula for genius. In the years that followed, it seemed magazine writers, not the inventor, were repeating this line in different ways, but by 1932 Edison claimed it as his own.

Update: The 1932 Harper’s Monthly interview referred to above may have been a contemporary interview, an obituary, or a tribute, because the inventor died in 1931. Harper’s doesn’t make it’s archives available online for free, but I have found a citation it, saying it was the September issue of Harper’s and that Edison was thought to have said this in 1903.

Photo by Rahul from Pexels

* no one claims this.

The deadly dream airport

Photo credit: Digby Cheung@dbyche1016

I remember a dream I had last night, which is a rarity for me. I remember it because it disturbed me enough to wake me up.

I was in an airport. A ticket agent (or somebody) had just directed me toward the gate I needed, and I had to hurry. So I rushed along the walkway, toward a descending stairway ahead of me.

But as I approached the stairway, I had the sudden conviction that this wasn’t a stairway. It was an edge. Beyond that edge there was just open space.

I suddenly dropped on my face, and peered over the edge. Sure enough, I was at the end of a sort of mezzanine floor without a guard rail – a dangerous arrangement no real-life airport would contemplate.

But as I looked down, I suddenly heard someone (a young person, male or female, I’m not sure) running up behind me. They were going very fast, and I had no time to warn them before they shot over the edge and plunged to the floor below. Not necessarily a fatal fall, but surely injurious.

Then I woke up.

I have theories about what that dream meant, but I’ll let you speculate.

I applied for a job today. I won’t tell you what it is, except that it involves editing. But it seemed (in some ways) ideal for my skills and personality, so I took a chance.

I was half way through the application when I saw that they wanted me to link to a Google Doc of some of my editing work. And I thought, “Forget this. I don’t have Google Docs.”

And my brain replied, “Wait, haven’t you used Google Docs before? You have an account. Check it out.

I checked, and behold, I do have a Google Docs account. I created the link.

I’m rather proud of myself for not chickening out (for once). But boy, I make this hard for myself.

Language comparison: The Lord’s Prayer

Today I am distracted, or at least I’m pretending to be. Did two high-stress things — saw the dentist to repair the wisdom tooth I broke on Sunday evening (popcorn, if you must know), and then I paid my Minnesota sales tax online.

That, I figure, ought to give me an excuse to be lazy. (In fact, both worked out better than I feared.) Back when I was a school kid, there were days when the teacher would roll a projector into the room and show us some educational film, usually a generation old. Innocent that I was, I figured this was part of some highly strategized educational plan. Nowadays, I’m given to understand that it often meant the teacher wasn’t feeling up to it, and just needed to coast.

In the same way, when I post a YouTube video, it’s not unlikely that I’m loafing.

Last night, in my book review, I referred to Old Norse (Viking) words that have made their way into English. I thought there must be a video or two on that subject.

The selections weren’t as good as I hoped. There were a few, but they were either very short, or hosted by annoying young hipsters whom I hated on sight (or both). Jackson Crawford, who can usually be counted on for interesting stuff on Old Norse, had nothing.

But there is this, posted above. The Lord’s Prayer in Modern English, Old English, Old Norse, and modern Icelandic.

Pay attention. This will be on the test.

Friday Night Fight: Macbeth vs. Macduff

We used to have a tradition of posting “Friday Night Fights” here, showing videos of Viking reenactors going at it with blunt blades. Some of them were friends of mine; occasionally I was involved. We haven’t done that for a while, but I’ve decided to share this clip I found. It involves two fighters doing Macbeth’s death scene from Shakespeare’s play, while fighting with period swords and armor.

It’s not as good as I’d like it to be, and not only because the acting sucks. Macbeth wears a mixture of mail and lamellar (small plates) armor, and lamellar is not generally approved by serious reenactment groups nowadays. Macduff wears some kind of pelt, which is pretty much a Hollywood costuming thing, and they both wear greaves, which are also a faux pas among reenactors.

The fight isn’t bad – it’s quite good in places, certainly better than what you’ll see in movies. Though I’m not sure what it’s about when they both lose their shields and then reclaim them. Still, it’s interesting from a combat point of view.

Why this video? Well, I’ve had Macbeth on my mind lately. I’m strongly inclined to include him in my next Erling book. He was about 17 at the time the story starts, and there’s no reason he couldn’t have been in Norway then. His Scottish Highland home was definitely part of Erling’s world. I have an idea that throwing him into the story might enhance some of the themes I’m developing.

But I haven’t decided yet how to portray him – as a budding villain, as Shakespeare paints him, or as a virtuous and pious young man, which the actual historical record would indicate.

We’ll see. The story will tell me how it wants me to treat him.