Valar morghulis

Translated: “All men must die,” in High Valyrian from the fantastic book and HBO series, Game of Thrones. The customary response to this greeting is “Valar dohaeris (all men must serve.)” They are two sides of the same coin.

I only think of this because I received my amazon pre-order I placed yonks ago of Game of Thrones Season 5 recently. I’m watching the season that portrays the book I was reading exactly 2 years ago while I was on holiday in Singapore and the Philippines. I still remember not being able to leave my hotel room in Quezon City in Manila because I was trying to finish A Dance with Dragons, despite being in a new city with so much to explore.

On March 13, my cousin Larry was admitted to the hospital for symtpoms that eventually led to a diabetes diagnosis. Just to be safe, as any doctor would have done, they ordered cat scans to rule out what they could. Those brain scans showed multiple tumors on my cousin’s brain, growing at an aggressive rate. On March 22, he had surgery to remove the two largest tumors on his brain forming one large one, basically.

Today, as he has the past couple days, he’s sleeping most of the time. There is a large amount of water in his brain. He’s supposed to be healing and rehabbing to get strong for a course of chemotherapy and radiation 4 weeks after his surgery. We wanted him to be strong to continue the fight, so he could have begun treatment as early as 2 weeks, but the doctors recommended 4 weeks.

Tonight, the outlook that he’ll make it another 2 weeks is bleak. I’ve been prepared by two separate family members that he’s on his way out. My cousin is dying.

Since I came back from Australia, I’ve flown back to Rome, NY, where most of my mom’s side of the family lives twice: once in June of 2014, when I first came back, and again in December 2015, for the holidays. Both times, I hung out with my cousin Larry the most out of anyone, besides my mother with whom I was staying. He made an effort to spend quality time with me, after all, he told me I’m the only cousin he really hung out with. My generation in my mom’s family has 6 kids, so I have 5 cousins. To some that’s a lot; to others, that is so very few. I was only close to Larry and his younger brother in that group of us. They were older than me, but I always hung out with them when I’d go back to New York for family trips. I went back once at 8, and again at 16, then perhaps not again til I was 32. Exponential family time, here…

I remember being 8, in a shed in back of the house where my cousins lived. They were probably 13 and 17. They were playing Dungeons and Dragons with other teenage boys, and my mom had sent me out to go hang out with them in the un-air-conditioned hothouse that was that shed. They were smoking cigarettes, but I didn’t tell. I channel that moment in Donnie Darko where Donnie asks his sister what’ll happen if she tells mom he’s smoking. “You’ll put Ariel in the garbage disposal,” she replies. “Goddamn right, I will…”

Both times I was back in Rome recently, I shared laughs and memories with my cousin. This was one of the best photos I showed him while we were shooting the shit at the dining room table, and he laughed so hard, and still said it nearly everytime I talked to him.

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Here he is, clowning around at the dining room table in a wig I found lying around the house he lived in with his mom and dad, my aunt and uncle.

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The last two times I’ve been back to visit family in 2014 and 2015, we’ve gone to the Outback Steakhouse. Everyone orders prime rib but his daughter (2nd row from the front, to the right of him) and me. He ordered prime rib and crab or lobster. Surf and turf.

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And this is a great photo of my cousin probably making a crass comment, his younger brother Steven laughing, and his father and namesake (my uncle Larry) folding his arms in pretend discontent but real happiness being surrounded by his sons sharing a moment.

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This has all progressed so quickly. The cancer is aggressive, and he may not make it to the 4-week mark for the all-clear post surgery to begin chemo and radiation treatment. He’s fighting for his life right now. I don’t know if he stands a chance or not.

My heart is heavy with the weight of many more memories I haven’t shared here. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: my family is small, but it is mine. It’s not perfect. And when something happens to someone I’m related to and with whom I’m also close, it penetrates all walls and invades, no matter the armor I wear.

I sit here, hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst. I feel like so many others, he too will become lost in the chasm of all the other statistics, with words like “Fuck cancer,” and “It’s not fair,” swirling in my head.

I don’t know that he ever boarded a plane and left his hometown. He had a day job, and it was hard work. The pay was crap, but he found meaningful ways to contribute. He lived with his mom and dad, and contributed to this world via a daughter he loved with all his heart. He never asked for much, and he was someone content to be part of the garden, but never the star.

A friend of mine unexpectedly lost her mother on March 25. She’d had some seizures, then the doctors told her it was an infection and it’d gotten too far, and the next thing she knew, her mother was gone. True, that moved a lot quicker than my cousin’s demise, but it still seems so fast. My family is made of people built like brick shithouses. They rarely get sick. Nothing ever happens. We’re as boring and normal as can be. This has thrown everyone for a loop, and we’re all coping the best we can. For some, that’s not very well. Up until today, for me, I was utilizing the pure art of distraction. There is no distracting myself anymore.

Valar morghulis. Valar dohaeris.


Iceland’s geology: a love story (part two)

I somehow managed to amass 586 photos in total of Iceland in my very brief time here. The 2nd place vacation destination on this trip was not a close second – some 379 in Rome, Italy. By far, my love of Iceland is present in the number of photos I kept after a first round of edits and sorting.

My last post, Iceland’s geology: a love story really should have included biology too, since I mentioned arctic lupin and wild horses. But if you can’t tell, I’m really more about the geology and rocks and formative events that pave the way for the biology of new life, including the moss on the volcanic rocks which grows first and essentially starts the process for lichens, then arctic lupin, then small trees and shrubs and the rest of life to catch up with the newly formed lithosphere.

I covered the waterfalls, the recent volcanic eruption in 2010, and hinted at my upcoming adventure when I wrote it of descending into the magma chamber of dormant Thrihnukagigur volcano. After a grueling 3-kilometer (2-mile) hike over uneven terrain and new lava flow, and some gravel laid just that day to help with the hike, it was clear how subjected to the elements one really is in Iceland.

The wind was howling quite strong, and the rain blew horizontally into only my right ear as we hiked. I didn’t bring proper hiking boots with me on this trip, as it was never really intended as a backpacking/camping/hiking trip. So I will say the hike was probably made more difficult by my inappropriate footwear. But I only brought 3 pairs of shoes with me on this trip, and one of them was a pair of flip flops. I didn’t have many options. But I wore my sturdiest pair.

I also forget in physical challenges like that, that I have had 5 knee surgeries. I’ve tendons from cadavers in the place of my own torn ligaments, and way less meniscus and cartilage than a normal person. I feel the hike through my ankles, hips, and back more than the normal hiker, as I overcompensate for structurally weak knees.

Once we got to the mouth of the volcano, I was surprised by how quiet my typically boisterous fear of heights was. I walked the plank to the German pulley lift with no hesitancy, and even the slow descent into the chamber wasn’t scary. I was proud of myself that I had worked to conquer my fear of heights so fervently over the years that this previously terrifying feat passed without concern this time around.

What I saw, once I got in there, is beyond words. I could throw scientific terms at you about what type of rocks they were, the geologic processes and the unique case of this particular volcano that makes it the only one of its kind which allows us to view it from the inside instead of collapsing on itself like all other volcanoes do when they die. But I won’t.

Instead, I’ll share with you the colors and just what I saw. I’ve applied no filters to these, only touched them up because the lighting was quite dark in there, as you can imagine. It started with the bright reds of the actual magma at the mouth of the volcano, which is where it would have oxidized with the air upon erupting, giving it the bright red color from iron.

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Then as you got down into the bottom, everywhere you looked around you were beautiful colors that indicate just how much pressure and heat the environment contained thousands of years ago. There are purply blacks, greens, ambers, all totally natural and not modified by man in any way. Beautiful.

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Then, I went to the Blue Lagoon the day after being inside the volcano. The Blue Lagoon was formed originally as a mistake – some men were drilling to create a geothermal power plant on the site, a type of energy which powers more than 85% of Icelandic homes. The drill hit a pocket of pressurized underground heated seawater, and it came bubbling up to the surface. No doubt, someone was fired for that. But at the time, they didn’t realize the beautiful pool they accidentally created. The water is rich in silica, and helps alleviate psoriasis and many other skin conditions.

It’s probably the most visited tourist attraction in Iceland, about a 45 minute drive outside of Reykjavik, and in my opinion, well worth the visit if you’ve never been. If I lived nearby, I’d probably be a regular. The water isn’t too hot, and one of the great natural by-products is the silica buildup from the water. If you scrape the silica mud off of anything (they have an area where it collects in buckets), it can actually be used as a mud mask that does wonders for the skin. Then, their R&D team developed an algae mask that replenishes the nutrients stripped from the silica mask. I soaked in the pool for about 5 hours yesterday and applied two rounds of silica and algae masks. Today, my skin has never felt so much like a baby’s butt. You can believe that sold me on the products, and I purchased two sets of the silica and algae mask for use at home. Now if only I could take the pool with me too, and fit it into my tiny little San Francisco apartment.

Here are some of my favorite pictures from the Blue Lagoon yesterday:

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Now, also in yesterday’s post, I also mentioned a couple of other things that I thought were worth sharing with you. Firstly, some scenes from Game of Thrones season 4 were filmed in Iceland, as Thingvellir Valley, a national park, is the land north of the wall. This is the stomping ground of whitewalkers, and also the Bloody Gates, and the actresses who played Arya and Brienne of Tarth were spotted wandering Iceland by locals as well. Arya and the Hound wander through the countryside, and Brienne searches for Sansa and runs into other characters. I can see why they chose to film here – it’s simply stunning.

The other great piece of geology about Thingvellir national park is that it’s the above ground portion of the mid-Atlantic ridge, where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates are spreading, creating a rift valley which has filled with water in between. I had the pleasure of standing directly above the rift and where the land is separating at a rate of approximately 2 centimeters (less than 1 inch) per year.

There is a walking bridge over the rift, and here are photos taken from each side of the bridge:

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I also wanted you to remind me to tell you of the geysers here in Iceland. There was one, named Geysir, which is Icelandic for “erupt”. An earthquake some years ago actually made this one no longer shoot up into the air, but Geysir has a little brother named Strokkur (“to churn”) a few meters away, which erupts every 4-8 minutes or so. A new friend I met at the hostel got a great picture of the eruption just as a bubble, before it because the pressurized spectacle shooting 20 meters into the air we usually know as a geyser. However, I was no so lucky to snap a photo of that in time, and didn’t stay for enough eruptions to try hard enough to capture it. But here is what I caught of Strokkur (pre-eruption and during eruption):

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And finally dear reader, I leave you with this gem of a story. My tour guide Albert, on the South Coast/Glacier Walk tour through GeoIceland, imparted it to me in such a way that left it entirely up to me if I wanted to believe it, but many Icelanders do believe in this. Icelandic folklore has stories of interactions with “hidden people.” Apparently, in the Bible, after Adam and Eve had the apple, and had many children, God sent them a message that He wanted to come by and pay their family a visit. Eve set to bathing all of her children so they could be presentable to God when He arrived. However, God was a little early, and Eve sent the children who had not yet bathed and cleaned into hide so God could not see them in such an unruly state. God knew there were more children than what He was seeing, and he asked Eve about it. She indicated that she had hidden them. As such, God decided that all the children she had hidden would remain hidden. So there are stories even up through today of children speaking to “the hidden people” in the hills, much like imaginary friends.

I would choose to believe just because I typically believe in phenomena like that, but what put the nail in the coffin for me was an unruly and unkempt, very forward Icelandic woman who identified herself as 51. She tried to pick me up in a Danish bar, Den Danske Kro, elbowing my travel companion Hank Moody completely out of the way, only to tell me that she thought I was beautiful, and we are the same (shhhh, lesbians.) I believe she was a hidden people, and probably by the end of the night, was removed from the bar for being a nuisance. She came from nowhere, she spoke to me, and my trusty travel companion saw her, so I know I wasn’t talking to myself… but she disappeared shortly after I disappeared from that bar, completely weirded out. I didn’t take her bait, and I don’t think she knew what to do with that.

So there you have it, dear reader, the second part in my own Icelandic saga spanning 6 days in June 2015 here. I want to come back. I love it here, and could really see myself living here… in summer. I may totally regret that decision by October, if I chose to move here next summer… but only time will tell.

I love the scenery, the people, the things to do, the things to see, the geology, the folklore, the vibe, the live music scene, the thick language, the wild horses, the new earth being formed, the everything. Maybe one day if you come here too, you will as well.

Now, I must see to having some lunch before my shuttle to the airport. I still can’t believe my two month sabbatical from work across 10 countries is coming to an end. I would be in mourning, but I’m already pondering my next adventure.

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Or pizza.