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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

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The Dark Side of Passion

Eating one's cake and having it has been the Holy Grail of all cake enthusiasts ever since the denizens of the Neandertal Valley dropped a few grains of wheat between a rock and a hard place, sat on it accidentally and discovered flour. However, humanity soon learned that on this planet even the seemingly freest of all the free lunches had to be paid for eventually. No bones about it. So our ancestors coughed up some hard earned cash and while fumbling in their purses for a change, it was revealed to them that every coin has a flip side.

One modern day place where the wishful thinking still runs rampant is the steaming jungle of online dating. The other day I was browsing some member profiles when a particular request caught my attention. The lady in question and heat was seeking someone "with the true passion in heart but without all the (*mild expletive*) drama". That was such a strange thing to say - thought I - considering that passion and drama are really two manifestations of the same internal fire, two sides of the same coin, albeit a coin rarely seen in broad daylight - a very private quarter.

The same person can turn into Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hide in a blink of an eye. The capacity for passion goes hand in hand with the capacity for drama and vice versa. You can't have passion without drama any more than you can have a bonfire without smoke, a genius without a bit of craziness, or a tasty bratwurst without grease. Sure you can eschew drama if you bite carefully, but then you don't get any passion either. At least not any genuine passion. True feelings always contain certain element of reckless abandon.

You can create an illusion of a smoke-free fire if you buy one of those fancy gas or electric fireplaces that look and glow like a real thing. But at the end it is just that - an illusion, a fake. It doesn't crackle the way spruce logs do.

In a similar fashion, you may experience something that looks and feels just like passion. You can find men who will recite painstakingly memorized sonnets over a candlelit oak table and who will put on smooth moves borrowed from the latest Argentinian soap opera. But all those suave gentlemen will be as far away from passion as a trained parrot uttering a well practiced sentence is from a philosophical thought. What you will be getting may be sweet, but it won't be sugar. An artificial sweetener? Maybe.

Sentiment is a double edged sword. The same blade that cuts the sugar cane of pleasure is also the blade that inflicts the pain when you miss. And if you blunt it, you won't be able to cut a stick of butter with it. Such is life. But hey, if you still insist on having that cuddly drama free companion, I know a perfect place where you can get one - the nearest supermarket, aisle 5, the section of emotional vegetables.

Roller Coaster of Life

When I was a kid, one of the most popular evergreens played on the radio was a song written in the 1930s by a talented jazz musician Jaroslav Jezek. Its lyrics came from the intellectual workshop of a famous duo of comedians, Jan Werich and Jiri Voskovec (Voskovec later emigrated to the US and played one of the jurors in Twelve Angry Men). The song's refrain reveals an important truth about waging life in this part of the Universe - the truth which would take years of concerted experimentation were you to discover it empirically: "Life is but a chance, sometimes you are up and sometimes you are down". It is just a simple line, but those few words speak of the thin border between success and failure, of random maelstroms and undertows that our personal boats are exposed to and of the appalling lack of control that we seem to have over their directions. When we were wending our way through the Rockies this summer, we were reminded of its message several times.

Exhibit 1: Dulles International Airport, Washington, DC

The United Airlines overbooked our flight. Although we arrived 3 hours early, our names were just appended to a waiting list and we were made to hold our breath on a little death row in front of the gate counter. Time was slowly dragging on, but the governor wasn't calling. While the other travelers slurped spiritual fast food from glossy magazines, we were tapping the drab terminal carpet with our shoes wondering if Santa Claus had the power of attorney over the United Airlines. It didn't seem so - an hour before the take-off we were still stranded and crestfallen. As our hope was gradually decomposing, we compensated for it by composing a plan B. We had booked our first night rather ambitiously at Thermopolis, WY, so arriving in Denver with a five hour delay would throw a monkey wrench into our tightly packed timetable. Boarding started and our names were still floundering at the bottom of the passenger list. I could feel the stomach floating inside me as the roller coaster of life kept plunging with no bottom in sight. With 15 minutes to spare, the Sun finally peeked through the clouds. Fortuna's magic wand danced in the air and the the next thing we felt was the rush of freedom that only driving in the West can give you. We were coasting on I-25, well on our way to Wyoming. All bad memories forgotten, all questionable booking practices forgiven, all the baleful curses we saddled the United with generously revoked.

Exhibit 2. The road from Canyon Village to Fisher Bridge, Yellowstone

On our first day in Yellowstone, two things got between us and our happiness: a lost bridge and a herd of finicky ungulates. We were scheduled to stay in a motel in West Yellowstone, but when we arrived at the park, we learned that the road from Norris to Madison was closed because of a collapsed bridge. That added about 80 miles to our itinerary - eighty miles to be traversed at a strictly enforced 35/45 miles per hour. To make matters worse, as we were coming back from the Yellowstone River waterfalls, we discovered that the road was blocked by a large group of buffalos. The bovine beasts apparently thought that ruminating in the middle of the road was the coolest thing since the "buffalo nickel". The dreary weather turned our spirits into a damp heap of sausage casings. There was no cell phone reception so we could call hotel, confirm reservation and let them know that we would be coming very late. But this loop of the roller coaster of life did not take us back to the dizzying heights in one fell swoop. Instead, we got a personal tour of one of Yellowstone's infamous traffic jams. The caravan trickled on through the herd one car at a time and the drizzling rain was not helping either. But the congestion eventually thinned out a bit and when we arrived at the hotel late that night, it was still open and our room available.

Exhibit 3. Los Alamos, New Mexico

We planned to spend our last night somewhere near Los Alamos. Since the extension of our trip to New Mexico was a bit improvised, we didn't bring any guides or accommodation listings. When we left Chama, about 120 miles to the north, the daylight was fading fast. On our way south we stopped at a motel near Espanola for dinner. They had one last available room, but the asking price was a bit overinflated. Not wanting to be strong-armed, we took our chances and drove on hoping we'd fare better closer to Los Alamos - a rather foolish premise considering how expensive Los Alamos is. We pushed forth through the yawning darkness and looked for vacancy signs from the road not knowing where we'd end up. It was a wild goose chase. The motels were few and far between and those that existed were either pricey or situated in dangerous looking neighborhoods. But when we climbed to the Los Alamos mesa our luck changed. The very first motel (Best Western) was very affordable, and to boot, the kindly receptionist informed us there was an open air concert in progress at a public park just a few blocks away. We filled the form in a hurry and darted out into the warm summer night. Soon we were camping out near the Town Square fountain and listening to a buoyant rock band from somewhere in Oklahoma. The roller coaster of life was lifting us to the stars - which at 7000 feet - seemed awfully within easy reach.

And as we were sitting there, after the long day and uncertain drive, I reflected on life in general - how inscrutable and unforgivingly colorful it can be. And I wished the band would play that old song that I remembered from Czechoslovakia: "Life is but a chance. Sometimes you are up and sometimes you are down."


Of Bears and Czechs

There is an ancient lawyer joke that involves Czechs and bears. I forgot most of its plot, but the bottom line is that some Czech gets eaten by a male bear and when the joke's protagonist inquires about his whereabouts, a lawyer glibly answers: "The Czech's in the male."

Jokes aside, in real life you don't get to see Czechs and bears in the same environment very often. When we were planning the trip to the Rockies, however, we expected to find both. The bears - because the West is their natural habitat, and Czechs ...well ...because Czechs are really everywhere.

When I moved to New Mexico in 1996, my first local sightseeing expedition lead to an overlook over the Rio Grande river. It is not the busiest tourist destination in the world and from a distance I could see that there were only two people standing on its platform. When I approached to within an earshot, I immediately recognized where they were from. You never mistake the intonation of your mother tongue. There was no one else within sight. Only a sprawling desert, the two Czechs and some cactuses on nondescript nationality.

A few years later, I was waiting for my parents at the Auckland International Airport in New Zealand. I didn't expect many Czechs there, what with New Zealand being almost directly on the other side of the globe from Prague. But before my own mother showed up, I heard the snippets of the tongue she once taught me twice from two different sources. Czechs are ubiquitous. No matter where you go, there they are. Consequently, our expectations of running into a band of camera toting Bohemians in an area fraught with fetching destinations were quite high.

They deflated fast. We spent three days combing through Yellowstone, we ran into all sorts of weathered globe-trotters and all sorts of wild things, but at the end came out empty handed on both ends - no Czechs and no bears were readily available for sightings. So we packed up and headed south to the Grand Tetons. Within the span of 60 minutes, both landed on our plate.

We left Yellowstone through the Southern Gate and had to drive on a dirt road for about 5 miles because of a construction. Every now and then a flagman stopped us to let the cars from the opposite direction pass. During one of the stops a mama bear and a cub suddenly emerged from behind a mound of soil on the side and were clearly thinking about crossing the dirt road. I instinctively grabbed for my camera and also strived to roll down the window.

At times like these I usually turn into a spasmodic baboon. I managed to lock and unlock the rental car, side view mirror perplexedly whirred and various windows came down - except for the one through which we ogled the brown furry critters. For the bears themselves, however, my clumsiness must have been too much to bear. They must have sensed that my vividly animated antics had constituted an unfriendly behavior and decided to split before I would inadvertently squirt them with a hearty doze of windshield washer liquid.

A few consolation snapshots later, we are walking down the concrete dike of the Lake Jackson Damn and who do we bump into? A clearly audible group of Czechs. Two guys and two girls in their late twenties strutting jauntily alongside the lake's edge. This time I left my camera alone. I have enough photos of this species and I didn't want to fall into the dam's turbine while attempting to take a picture. We merely engaged in a short conversation and continued our journey south.

After this there were no further encounters of either kind. Nor were there any encounters of the third kind. But here is the strange part: all in all, we spent some 170 hours in the West. That's plenty of time for things to happen. Yet both encounters that we thought would be plentiful and randomly spread out over the whole trip happened within the same hour.

My favorite writer Karel Capek once wrote : "Happenings have a mysterious tendency to clump together". Encounters of Czechs and bears surely do.


Wyoming is a state of mind.

Imagine yourself driving through a seemingly endless stretch of land on a warm summer evening. You can see the extent of absolute freedom in the inviting palm of its high desert. You can hear echos of volatile centuries in deep wrinkles of its numerous canyons. Suddenly, warm air rushes in through an open window and injects smells of sagebrush and bunchgrass. On the outside, lazy shadows start grazing the prairie while the blushing Sun flirts with the horizon. KZWB 97.9 is blasting through the car stereo so vehemently that the stark mountains looming in the distance seem like a string of bass guitar amplifiers. If your senses can absorb all of this, then your mind has melted into the state of Wyoming.

Curiously, it is here - amidst massively robust features - that you develop affection and appreciation for how fragile our seemingly indestructible world is in the greater scheme of things. Wyoming is the place where you understand on a visceral level that this Earth actually moves through the outer space. It is here where you realize that we all stand on this chunk of clay and with it we are zipping across vast expanses of the Solar System. If our little planet were a cruise liner, Wyoming would be its bow. You stand there at night and if you raise your hand, you can feel the breeze of the entire Universe squeezing through your fingers.

One day we were returning to West Yellowstone deep at night. The sky was perfectly clear and so we stopped at a small rest area not far from the Old Faithful. There were no electric lights for miles and miles around. It was the pitchest black I have ever seen. And when we stepped out of the car and looked up, we nearly fainted. We saw a swimming pool full of sparkling diamonds. Myriads and myriads of shining stars. More than you could shake a telescope at. Fireworks frozen both in time and space.

There is a reason God put Yellowstone in Wyoming. It belongs there.


Augean Kitchen

According to the Greek legends, the sixth labor of Heracles involved cleaning up neglected stables of King Augeas, whose herds were as messy as they were numerous. Faced with a daunting, and seemingly impossible task, Hercules demonstrated both brains and brawn by diverting two nearby rivers, the Alpheus and the Peneus, into the stables and turned the scrubbing job into an exercise in Fluid Dynamics. The sheer volume and power of the merged rivers washed the filth away in a way no human effort ever could.

In general, I try to keep my kitchen reasonably clean. You probably should not eat straight from the floor, but anything lying on the counter can be immediately digested without harsh consequences. However, in less accessible corners you can still find niche markets for various hardy germs; you know the kind bred and trained in Germany. If you were a policeman, you could think of them as Organized Grime - the henchmen of Grease Mafia dumping their unwanted bodies. For a while I have been thinking about a large scale attack on this slowly slumping underworld - but you know how it goes, something always gets in the way.

One Sunday evening I noticed that plumbing in the kitchen was showing telltale signs of a well haunted house. The sink would not drain, water would start mysteriously appearing for no apparent reason, and from deep within the plumbing strange noises came, as if a small weasel got stuck in its guts and tried to gargle its way to freedom. Something was seriously amiss.

In the morning I called the office and told them of the problem. A young, mildly awake receptionist answered the phone. I stressed the fact that water appeared in the sink based on my neighbors activity and could overflow at any given moment, which clearly constituted an emergency. The receptionist promised to dispatch a maintenance man shortly. Little did I know that somewhere in the voluminous operational manual of my complex, a clause must have existed stipulating that no situation reported without yelling at 120 decibels per second be considered an emergency. Foolishly, I announced my predicament in a calm voice.

Consequently, when I came back from work, there was no maintenance sign on the door and upon entering the kitchen I found it mostly underwater. A lake of average depth of half an inch was glistening on the floor. The sink was full of water whose origin I did not dare to surmise. There was a minor puddle on the counter, too, leading to a place on the edge where, at some point during the day, a lovely waterfall must have cascaded down. I called again and this time it was personal.

Half an hour later a maintenance specialist showed up at my door armed with a long metallic spiral and a curious drilling device whose apparent purpose was to cram the rusty spiral down the clogged throat of the building's digestive system. And cram he did. He must have reached at least 15 feet into the piping. Deposits of viscous filth started appearing soon. I thought that kind of stuff accrued only at the bottom of Louisiana bayous. They could easily have contained a layer of crude oil. But at the end of the show, the handyman threw them all away. I guess those deposits were not FDIC insured.

But everything bad is good for something. After the guy left, I realized that the standing water did to my kitchen what the two rivers once did to Augean Stables. After roughly 45 minutes of truly herculean effort that culminated in a Hollywood style Lysol Finale, my kitchen was shining like a new penny.

It was still an early evening, so I went about my business and soon forgot about the ordeal. The apartment was dry and clean, the life seemed perfectly trouble free again. I went to bed around 2am and as I was making the final preparations for the tuck-in, I needed to get something from a kitchen drawer. So I went to the kitchen, and when I opened it, I could not believe my eyes - it was filled to the rim with water, which must have hid there in the afternoon on its way from the overflowing sink to the floor. Nothing stimulates your sense of bizarre like opening an innocent wooden drawer and finding two gallons of water merrily splashing between its walls.

It was like in one of those cheap horror flicks about a lake monster. When the miscreation gets finally slain, life goes back to normal, villagers breathe a sigh of relief and farmers return to their fields. In the closing scene, a camera pans over the lake's tranquil waters. Wolves howl in the distance. And then, in the last moment an ominous ripple appears on the surface. Curtain drops. The credits start rolling. And you go home, wondering if a sequel is in the works.

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