A Theory of Disease

After a triple bypass, two visits to Emergency with arterial fibrillation, I’ve developed a theory. Heart attacks (and other diseases) attack disorganized, messy people more often that organized, tidy ones.

Now that I’m one day away from four weeks after my operation, I’m sitting in my office a few hours a day. I noticed the piles of paper, one the floor, on the desk, the books, the binders, the chaos that goes with my creativity.

I’m positive that diseases lurk. I think they lurk under messy piles of paper, piled up books, dirty clothes in the closet in a corner, clean clothes on the drier waiting to be hung up. I can hear them snickering, rubbing their hands as it were, in glee.
A pile of dirty dishes on the cupboard probably has bubonic plague under it. A bunch of opened and unfilled letters is likely hiding something more benign, like the common cold.

I have a friend who is super organized, is a model house keeper. Nothing is ever messy. No piles of this and that here and there. She’s never sick. “Sick?” she asks, “what is that?”

I do my best. I remember, now and again, that the car needs vacuuming, that when I get gas, I should run it through the car wash. However, that sort of thing is always somewhere just on the edge of my peripheral vision. The need to clean the car, wash it, usually catches me by surprise. It’s the chocolate bar wrappers or the empty ice cream sundae in a drift under the seat that does it.
When I hear voices from the closet, I know that it is time to hang up everything, haul clothes to the washing machine. Either that or there are no more shirts on the hangers.

I get a lot of work done, writing that is, research, but daily life frequently comes as a surprise. When I notice the flowers on the deck have started to droop, I apologize. “Sorry, sorry,” I say, as I bring a pot of water out to drench the shrinking soil. I was going to put a micro watering system onto the deck so the begonia, the Astilbe, the geraniums could depend on being watered instead of suffering drought and floods. Didn’t make it before the operation. When I’m able to haul stuff around, puncture holes in pipes, I’ll do it.

I’m a good cook but hunger sneaks up on me. I’m deep into writing a piece of fiction and lunch time comes and goes and sometime in the early afternoon, if I smell the neighbour’s BBQ, I go onto high alert. Food. Hungry. Eat. Now. My hunger instinct isn’t into grammar. It’s pretty basic. The problem is that by that time of day, something quick is needed. This is no time to be cooking anything complicated. If the dishes in the dishwasher are clean, no problem. There’s always something to put into a pot and heat up or into the microwave. Well, nearly always.

If the dishes in the dishwasher aren’t washed and the dishes on the counter are hiding some terrible possible germ war aspirant, then it’s time to plunge into the reality of life. I fantasize servants who, at a call, appear with plates of exotic food but I probably settle for a toasted sandwich and soup.

I’m convinced all this lack of control, lack of being in charge, lack of a schedule that sees floors washed, carpets vacuumed, dishes washed and put away, meals planned a week in advance, clothes washed and hung up on schedule, is responsible for my triple bypass. No one who is properly organized, in charge of their life, keeping track of what they eat, getting exercise on a schedule that maximizes their physical health, would allow this to happen.

I vow to change. I’m going to file, sort, organize, leave no pile where Beri Beri or Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease can hide. I’m going to clean out my car before the floor in the back seat looks like the debris caught in a Saskatchewan barbed wire fence. Hopefully, like rats, the lurking vermin of disease will look and leave, knowing there’s no place for them here.

The Winnipeg Icelander


Over my lifetime, I’ve read thousands of poems, as a student, as a teacher and as a reader who loves the well-wrought word.

Keats and Shelley and Donne and Yeats and Plath and Wakoski and Bly and Eliott and Frost and Berryman and Shakespeare and….the list seems endless.  I call it the anthology of my mind.

There is in that anthology a poem that I often think about it, and that is “The Winnipeg Icelander” by Guttormur Guttormsson from Riverton.

It’s a fun poem. Some might call it verse. I call it the mark of a society in transition. Here is the first verse.

Eg fór on’ í Main street með fimm dala cheque
Og forty eight riffil mér kaupti
Og ride út á Country með farmara fékk,
Svo fresh út í brushin eg hlaupti.
En þá sá eg moose, út í marshi það lá,
O my- eina sticku eg brjótti!
Þá fór það á gallop, not good anyhow,
Var gone þegar loksins eg skjótti.

It is a satirical look at how the Icelanders in Winnipeg spoke Icelandic.

It encapsulates, perhaps better than anything else, the internal conflict among the immigrants over whether they should assimilate as quickly as possible or whether they should isolate themselves from Canadian society in their New Iceland and remain as Icelandic as possible.

This conflict existed from the very beginning of the emigration. There were those who believed that the emigrants should go to various locations, hire out to established Norwegian and Swedish farmers and learn how to live and farm in North America. Photographs from the time show well-established farms, buildings, equipment and cultivated land. On the other side were those who wanted to create a New Iceland where everything would remain Icelandic, where it would be just like Iceland except in location.

The language, that secret code, that privileged communication, that way of identifying us from them, was the marker of identity.

It was also the evidence of how impossible was the dream of isolation. As Guttormur’s poem makes clear, this was a new land, it contained within it things that did not exist in Iceland. E.g. moose

The immigrants, during the first years, in Nova Scotia, in Kinmount, in New Iceland, struggled to stay alive. Many didn’t make it. They died on board ship, as they travelled across the continent, in various locations across North America. Graveyards tell their story.

Not to adapt was to die. Only a fool, and a short-lived one, at that, would have insisted against all evidence, on keeping fishing with the nets brought from Iceland. Only a fool would not have learned how to cut down large trees safely and how to build with them. Only a fool would have insisted that he, or she, would only do things just as they were done in Iceland, never mind the -40 below, the summer heat, the mosquitoes, the forests, the vast distances.

Why would language be any different? Only a fool would insist that no object be talked about if it didn’t exist in Iceland.

When people are going hunting in a Manitoba winter, trying to learn how to hunt animals that they had never before heard of, and returning empty handed, when they were trying to figure out how to get through four to six feet of ice to set nets and had to invent the tools to do it, when they had to plant crops they’d never planted (in Iceland, they’d planted no crops) in land that first had to be cleared, they didn’t have time for effete intellectual exercises in creating a new Icelandic word for the  thousands of things with which they were confronted on a daily basis.

When they had a chance to buy bif (something they weren’t able to buy in Iceland), or bins or kabits and karats to cure scurvy, there wasn’t time to have a discussion about how these new items should be properly described in Icelandic. The people they were buying from didn’t have time, either. They, too, were living on the edge of survival.

In Winnipeg the situation was less dire. There was work, at least for the women, sometimes for the men. However, Winnipeg was a city of immigrants. Survival required communication. Getting work from bosses from other ethnic groups required that Icelanders learn, as quickly as possible, to communicate, to learn a new vocabulary, one that described the world they woke up to every day. There was no time to write to Iceland to ask if the academic authorities would please tell them what to call a bonkhús. If these authorities had any idea of what a bunkhouse was. And then wait for a reply.

A lot is made of the fact that Icelanders today can still read the sagas. Some would claim that means that Icelandic doesn´t change. Hogwash! In my reading about Iceland in the 19th C. I come across words that even Icelandic historians do not recognize or they disagree about the meaning. Language exists to communicate not to ex-communicate, although some would have it that way. Purity of language, enforced by official purifiers, is an exercise conducted in a society with resources to spend, where hunger doesn’t greet you every morning and go to bed with you every night.

My grandfather built a bunkhús, he told his Icelandic relatives that he´d built a bunkhús, and since he went to Winnipeg buying supplies, he learned to go to the hólsíl. When the Icelandic emigrants were leaving Iceland, there were few fences, there were, however, lots of stone walls because there was little wood and lots of stone. Stone walls are walls, not fences and, in Canada there was lots of wood and it was necessary to fence land, and the Icelandic immigrant learned to build a fens. They learned to build a fens on a hómsteð. There were no hómsteðs in Iceland. The very idea was foreign, beyond imagining for most people in Iceland. It required a new way of thinking.

None of this change, physical, mental, spiritual, was done without sacrifice, without pain, without suffering, without conflict.

Guttormur’s poem, “The Winnipeg Icelander,” nicely encapsulates a society in transition, moving from the past into the present. He was able to do it in a clever, amusing way. GG left us a poem to enjoy but more than that, he left us a picture, through language, of the transition our Icelandic ancestors underwent as they struggled to survive and prosper.



Margrjet’s Goose part 3


Here are the last two frames of the cartoon that your lang afi and amma were reading in 1892. Who were these people, these ancestors of ours? What did they read, what did they enjoy? Did they grin and say over kaffi, “Did you see the latest cartoon in the Almanak?” Too often when we talk about the people in our past, we quit thinking and feeling and understanding them as people, as people with daily lives, with thoughts, feelings, beliefs. When I see pomp and ceremony “honoring” them, I wonder how  much it has to do with them and how  much with us? Are we “honoring” them because we think they were important or because it makes us feel important?

I remember my lang amma on my amma’s side of the family; she didn’t die until I was fifteen. She loved to play cards, she liked romance stories, she knew how to laugh in spite of numerous tragedies in her life including the drowning of two of her sons when their sailboat got caught in a storm. With them, three other young people drowned.

I remember my lang afi on my afi’s side of the family.

Neither of them were pretentious, self-important. They both had to work  hard all their lives. They made the best lives possible for their children. Are these the people we honor, are these the people we have parades and speeches and ceremonies for or is the flag waving and the speeches and the celebrating for some mythical pioneers, pioneers who never existed, pioneers who were never human, never enjoyed a joke or a romance story or a popular novel?

Here is my rather sad translation of the cut lines below the pictures. I'[m using Zoega’s dictionary published in Reykjavík in 1904. Do you know about Zoega? He was the most famous guide in Iceland in the 1800s. He was a shrewd businessman. But more about him another time. Once again, I’d appreciate anyone helping out by doing a proper translation of the text.

When Old Margrjet finished plucking the goose, she put it in a bowl of warm water to clean it. While Margrjet went off to get something else to cook with the goose, the goose woke up and ran off.

Old Margret and Hans saw the goose and ran after to catch it but they ran out of breath and the goose was so light on her legs that she ran out of sight. They immediately thought of the leaking brennivin and stormed about the village telling people to control their geese and were more aggressive than the people who went about preaching abstinence from liquor.

The humour in this cartoon would be easier to appreciate if I could translate better. As I looked at the pictures and translated, I laughed to myself and thought the goose was a bit like some people I’ve known. They never missed a chance of a drink, never knew when to stop, fell down as if dead and, sometimes, got plucked and, when they sobered up, ran off. As for Old Margrjet and Hans, I’ll leave them to your imagination.

Here are Vidar Hreinsson’s translations. According to this, I didn’t do too badly. Vidar, as most readers will know, is the author of Wakeful Nights, the biography of Stephan G. Stephansson, the poet of the Rocky Mountains. It’s a brilliant book and, I hope was under the Xmas tree of the members of the INL and the readers of this blog.

1. The joy comes to an end. The goose rolls over, dead-drunk and lies as if she was dead. (stjörnu þreifandi is a colloquialism, literally star-fumbling-drunk)


2. Old Margrét has found the goose, thinks she is dead, and tells her husband about the accident. In order to have at least some use from the goose, she intends to have her for dinner, and sits down and plucks her, crying.


3. When old Margrét has plucked the goose, she puts her into a tub with lukewarm water, in order to clean her; after that she walks away to find something for the cooking, but in the meantime, the goose recovers and wakes up in the lukewarm water, and runs away as fast as she can.


4. Old Margrét and Hans see what has happened, and run puffing as fast as they can to get the goose, but she was now so light on foot, that she soon disappeared. Then they returned back home, emptied the keg of brennivín right away, and started a lifelong abstinence; but the goose waddled around in the neighbourhood, and made more progress than many a preacher of abstinence.





Icelandic Humour 1893


Did your lang afi and amma laugh? Did they smile? Did they have a sense of humour? Have you heard the rumour that Icelanders have no sense of humour? If you have seen Nelson’s pictures of the first settlers, they look dour, serious, like serious, serious but I know that my lang amma had a sense of humour, knew how to laugh. She needed to. She had thirteen kids.

Here’s a series of pictures and texts from the Almanak of 1892. I’ll post two pictures today, then two more each day until the entire series is complete. Here’s what those lang lang ammas and afis were reading in 1892.

I’ll put my pathetic translation below. If some readers would help by translating the captions properly, it would be appreciated by everyone who reads my blog. What is great about blogs is that it is easy to make corrections.

Picture 1 The goose saw that the brennivin barrel had a leak. She had a good taste of it.

Picture 2 After she’d been drinking for awhile, she began to stagger and sing and became unusually cheerful.

Here is Viðar Hreinsson´s translation.

1) Old Hans’ barrel of brennivín has leaked. His goose comes and wants to quench her thirst; she likes the taste. 2) When she has had enough to drink, she waddles away singing, and is unusually cheerful.

Viðar also says that he thinks this is copied from a European magazine, translated into Icelandic in a somewhat artificial manner.