25 September, 2010

Trip planning: Reykjavik and vicinity

It's a raw and rainy day in Maine, and i'm listening to Sigur Ros' "Starálfur", dreaming of an Icelandic landscape. Sending couchsurf requests (see my profile) and thinking about what i can accomplish in three or four days. Of course, ideal if i could stay with Raggi, a self-proclaimed "hard core fisherman" who lives on Red Bull and works as a bouncer on weekends - something about that suggests to me the true Iceland experience. Fingers crossed about the 37% response rate.

Take a one-hour layover, and stretch it to four days. What do you see? I take the library-use-only Lonely Planet into the Oakes Room cafe, marking my place with a torn-off teabag tab and reshelving it afterwards like a true library rebel. A short list accumulates: the blue lagoon is popular, and i've seen the "Golden Circle tour" mentioned more than once.

What i really want is this: to see something spectacular, within a day's reach of Reykjavik, but just off the beaten path. To find some greenhouse operation and learn how Icelanders grow their veggies. To hitch a day's ride on a fishing boat. What locals live, and tourists miss entirely. If you can help with that, i'd love to hear from you!

Oh, and then we can top it off with a thermal pool swim and a night at the disco.

Cider pressing

A couple of weeks ago we hauled a borrowed cider press up to the cabin two friends rent, deep in the woods of Greenbush. As dusk fell, people arrived with guitars and a sedan backseat-full of apples: it was the first informal gathering of the semester for UMaine's sustainable agriculture students and others interested in back-to-the-land lifestyles. The evening unfolded with music by the fire and plenty of home-brewed beer - including an exquisite herbal beer made with fennel, yarrow, white clover, and ground-ivy, thanks to Josh Melanson. 


Though we were missing part of the press, we managed to improvise with an adjustable wrench and produce around twelve gallons of cider. It circulated in a communal mason jar; we took turns cranking the press and hauling apples to the compost heap out back by the outhouse. Then the rain began, driving all but a hardy few home.

Inside the cozy cabin we settled in for the night - Josh reviewing notes for Weed Identification while Tracy, Bhuki, and i sat beneath a wool throw. Bhuki read aloud from "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn", and with his voice, the smells of old, burnished wood and apple-splattered clothes i drifted away.

Funny, it's only as an alum i find myself waking hung over at a wedding reception in a cabin full of honors students, or curling up underneath a big Maine "M" on a throw blanket, or eating pineapple straight from the can because there's little else in the apartment - bits of the college experience it took a little over four years to get around to. Bits i wouldn't miss for the world.

19 September, 2010

Contradance as cell biology (and other surprises)


Noon, after a packed Friday-night dance in Bangor. Under a perfect blue sky, three young musicians and i crossed the campus. We'd been hired for a private party gig in Littlefield Garden - the sort of thing callers refer to as a "one night stand", as opposed to a regular dance series. They are the most challenging kind of performance i do: you go into the gig with no idea how many dancers you'll have, their level of experience or openness to dance in general, the demands on your repertoire of dance calls (in an area where mine happens to be weak), and if equipment is provided, what its limitations will be. 

As such things go, it shouldn't have been surprising to find that the PA gear our celebrants rented did not include mic stands. Luckily, the Half Pieces - fiddler Minna, cellist Molly, and guitarist Calvin - were audible without amplification, which left the amplifier, and the drone and carbon emissions of an ultra-quiet generator hidden among the ornamental shrubs, to me. 

A rich ellipse of grass spread, mostly empty, beside the gazebo full of potluck food. The hosts and i were struggling to motivate attendees to dance - most reticent due to some self-presumed lack of grace, or perhaps the social awkwardness of an unfamiliar, gendered, partner-oriented activity - and i dredged for clever metaphors, ways to make this communal dance seem accessible and enjoyable. Around so many members of the biology faculty, the organizational similarities between contradance and cell biology came to mind. 

For starters, we have cytoplasm - the dance space, whether it's a polished swath of hardwood or the rough green grass that slows your swings and tickles your bare feet if you're lucky enough to be dancing barefoot. Along the cytoplasm's edge is a shifting, budding structure - the endoplasmic reticulum, the gazebo, the seats along the wall. Dancers bud from it like ribosomes, floating into the floor singly or in pairs. Band and caller are the nucleus, source of a rhythmic stream of mRNA - which organizes those human ribosomes into delightful patterns of motion. 

I was rather tickled to find that metaphor (and the fact that, with Molly's aid, i actually remembered freshman-year cell structure). Then, halfway through the circle dance "La Bastringue", the generator ran out of gas, and amplification failed. Solution: call from the center of the circle. Whatever distance lay between caller and dancers, whether psychic or spatial, had been obliterated. As they danced into the center and back it became a game of sorts; graduate students, researchers - even the Turkish engineers i play futbol with once a week - circled by with laughter and lost looks, one with a baby in his arm. 

One-night stand gigs are challenging, most of all when you have to pester folks into dancing in order to reach that critical mass, but - and especially in the case when threads of life converge in new and unexpected ways - profoundly rewarding. When the contradancing had drawn to a close, black sea tulum music wailed out of Haki's iPhone; Şefik and Alper led us in a traditional Turkish dance, a convergence i never would have anticipated. 

It was a lovely afternoon. Aside from the generator issue, par for the course of such events - and the çiğ köfte was çok lezzetli.