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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

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Rustworthy Words

Words are kind of like metals. They are susceptible to corrosion. Not the one caused by partying oxygen molecules, but the one caused by the chronic lack of substance. Every time a word is bruised by material emptiness, a bit of its essence goes to word heaven. Slowly but surely, they lose their color and over time even their structural integrity like untreated steel beams exposed to elements. If we let this process get out of hand, we may wake up one day and realize that our bridge to meaning has collapsed.

An example of a word that falls victim to mindless repetition a little bit too often is the word "community" - in particular when used in a self-reflecting mode. Sure, great communities do exist, but they have other things to do than paint themselves as such. They rebuild their infrastructure, plant trees, sing in a choir or play theater, organize soccer leagues, help their neighbors in need or just enjoy the sunshine. Self-praise has never really sounded very genuine and if you have to state your qualities explicitly, the chances are that something to be desired is left behind.

Standing next in the line of mouth fillers is the word "respect" - which in its purest form is very simple: it is an acknowledgment of people's right to pursue happiness as they see fit. Nothing more and nothing less. If you can, you may help them in this endeavor and if you can't, you should stand out of the way. That's what respect is. Sadly, more often than not, this word becomes a caricature of itself, an expensive perfume masking the lack of kindness and modesty. Respect is becoming a feather with which we stroke our swollen sense of importance, a sweet incense in a liturgical act of self-worship. People who toss the word respect around a lot are also the ones who will throw obstacles in your path, the ones who don't give a rat's tiny behind about your pursuit of happiness, and who will even stab you in the back with a salad fork when you are reaching for a dessert. But they surely will enunciate "I am so sorry!" afterwards.

In an ideal world, respect would be an unnecessary construct. People would be to mankind what individual cells are to human body. They would strive towards the collective good just as tissue cells in your body try to make it function as a whole, without pandering to their own petty needs. They get the job done in a completely selfless manner. And if they bump into each other along the way they just settle it as they go. Tickling one's ego can complicate things. Imagine how clogged our arteries would be if one respected bloodcell would say to another: "Excuse me, but I am not carrying this oxygen to the heart until you offer an apology for cutting me off".

But standalone words have company on the corrosion's hit list - phrases can be full of hot air too. If you browse through Internet personals long enough, sooner or later you are bound to traipse into the ground zero of spiritual vacuity, an area marked by the yellow police tape with the signature line of cookie cutter profiles on it in large black block letters: "I LIVE LIFE TO THE FULLEST". Alright, alright. Great. More power to you if you do. I can't argue with the pursuit of fullestness. What puzzles me a bit, though, is this: I know several people who live life to the fullest, and they never say so, they just do so.

Better Sachs

Back in the good old days when mountain streams were teaming with salmon and sewing machines were propelled by pedaling, the money was usually made in a Bull Market. These days it is the species' excrement that would make a better epithet for the nature of financial markets, whose advances seem to have been increasingly propelled by peddling of piddly derivatives. But not to worry, taxpayers are always on a standby when it comes to changing Wall Street's investing diapers. The future is brightening already.

Let's start spreading the good news: Financial behemoth Goldman Sachs earned $2.72 billion in the second quarter. The quarter before it was $1.8 billion. That is all peachy, until you realize that just a quarter ago Goldman received a hefty check from us, taxpayers, whose size easily dwindles their combined quarterly profits. And I am not talking about the $10 billion of TARP money, which they rightfully returned. I mean the $13 billion which was discreetly channeled to them through the well greased conduits of AIG. With that in mind, their numbers don't look like profits any more, they look more like a High Way Robbery. Or a High School Musical - depending on whether you use hearing aids or Twitter for your communication needs.

It gets even more interesting if you dig deeper into the Yahoo!Finance article which announced their heroic feat: "Much of Goldman's Q2 strength came from its trading business." There! Mystery solved! Did you foolishly think that they would be making loans to people or produce anything of actual value? Nah, it is just spoils of gambling, silly, or - considering the fact that they own large part of the market - spoils of rigged gambling.

So Goldman Sachs turned up some profits. Woohoo! Now, after that check we cut them back in October, you might further hope they would perhaps like to give something back to the community. Nothing big you know - just build a school here, fund a health care research program there or cook a megavat of chicken soup for the victims of their relentless mortgage pushing. But you'd be moderately mistaken. Never mind that without the 13 billion bailout, they'd still be deep in the hole. These were their own profits, right? Why would they share them with gullible taxpayers?

If Wall Street was in Tehran, the Goldman Sachs's office windows would undoubtedly be pummeled with rotten tomatoes and cobble stones neatly gift wrapped in sheets of shrinking 401k statements. But fortunately for Goldman, Wall Street is in New York - so it is back to golf courses and jackpotluck dinners where the bankers can resume rubbing elbows with political elites and swapping recipes for financial disasters.

Smart? Nope. Slick? You bet.

So let's do a quick recap. Goldman's infallible ubertraders invest en-masse in opaque and poorly understood securities. When their bets go terribly wrong, uncle Ben rushes in with a huge AIG pacifier lest Hank's old buddies suffer any financial boo-boos. Is that how we want to run our economy?

If the answer is yes, then I would like to propose the greatest entrepreneurial idea of all time. I am going to call it Better Sachs. Not that I would have doubts about the absolute perfection of the current Sachs, but there will be lots of heavy betting involved.

Here is my business plan. Go to a casino. Bet constantly on red, preferably with borrowed money. If you win, you keep your money. If you lose, Mr. Bernanke will gladly repay your principal from the Treasury's bottomless coffers. This scheme simply cannot fail and if we start say 10-15 companies operating on this principle, I bet you a Goldman Sachs Executive Bonus that we will be out of the recession in no time. One idea can single handedly save our economy!

Any daring venture capitalists on the Wall Street want to bankroll this revolutionary proposal?




Silly of the Valley

Kids have an unusual propensity for silliness. They also have a very fluid mind. I think there is a causal relationship here.

Last weekend I visited a friend of mine, whose two pre-school daughters never cease to amaze me with their willingness to adopt and magnify the silliest ideas I could possibly imagine. On Saturday, we went for an easy stroll to a public park in the Raritan Valley. I used the gravel road tracing a quiet stretch of the river as a runway for demonstrating my newest rendition of Monty Python's Ministry of Silly Walks. The girls caught on with vigor and resourcefulness that no adult could ever muster, virtually negating their dad's previous efforts to highlight the virtues of proper ladylike demeanor.

Kids' mind is as malleable as it is hungry for absorbing new stimuli. It has no prejudices, no ruts and its components can reconfigure themselves with such ease that you'd think that their mental engine has been submerged in a potent lubricant. And I think that this lubricant is silliness - that mysterious state of mind that has all the attributes necessary for liberating it from the shackles of friction: it is random, imaginative, irreverent and provocative. Thoughts can freely swivel around arbitrary axes, glibly slide into new positions or even leapfrog over the trench of conventions and run wild into the infinite prairie of possibilities.

Where kids' neural networks resemble jungles of axons, constantly reassembling their synaptic connections as they grow, older people's mind is more reminiscent of a petrified forest. When they ponder problems, you can almost hear the creaking of the levers and gears, the huffing and puffing of the whole structure. Splinters and dust fly all over the place, clouds of steam are leaking through the joints. But there is no lubricant. Their sailboats are stranded in the shoals of routine, far from the refreshing winds of silliness. So far away in fact that when silliness actually comes to them, they will most likely knock on their foreheads, inadvertently revealing the advancing hollowness of their skulls.

Some people just take themselves way too seriously. They never run in the rain, they do not throw coins into fountains, they do not collect dolphin shaped pebbles. They forget to take proper care of their most precious engine, and after years of neglect, their thoughts move in awkward starts and fits. They'd rather blow their head gaskets than pour little oil into the crankcase. Eventually, they become prisoners of their own lives. They move routinely from one predictable party to another and there they sip the same English tea that they have been sipping for the past 20 years and discuss their near life experiences with other inmates while looking out of the window at those who drink life straight from the bottle.

I am not suggesting that we should all become clowns. Everything in moderation my grandma used to say. I have seen minds that were so fluid that they were unable to hold any coherent thought - think hunting a bar of soap on the shower floor. Some grip is necessary. But if you have to use WD-40 anytime you encounter a new idea, it maybe time to relax a little bit and kick back. Take a look around. If you see a statue of a stately lion in front of your municipal office building, do not hesitate and hop on it. Your mind will be glad you did.

Midnight Trains

A subway car after midnight is like a Hogwarts Express. Strange things can happen.

Once I was returning home from the city on the last train of Washington's Orange Line, which is around 3am on weekends. I sat next to a man from Midwest, who was trying to sell me a soy bean field behind his barn in exchange for an immediate cash infusion directed conveniently into his wallet. It was once in a lifetime opportunity to invest in agriculture, but I foolishly declined. On another occasion, I had the whole history of New York Mets explained to me in great factual detail and illustrated with animated gestures that faithfully depicted some of the greatest swings seen at Shea Stadium. All that without a single hint of encouragement on my side and meticulously spread over the 25 minutes which it took to chug from Metro Center to the West Falls Church station.

The crowning moment of my past-midnight rider career occurred a few months ago when I took a seat opposite to a pair of lovely young ladies, probably interns, one blond and one brunette, whose cheek colors were pink and light green respectively. At Rosslyn, the brunette half of the duo figured out that the unhealthy color of her cheeks must have been a result of some vile power struggle between alcoholic beverages and mayonnaise products taking place in her stomach. Without interrupting her sentence, she motioned her friend to step out of the car. Once outside, she promptly approached the short divider lining the wall of the station and nonchalantly regurgitated the feuding food factions into the crevasse between the divider and the wall. Acting with the routine swiftness of Nascar mechanics, she completed the cleansing procedure before the train doors closed, so they both had enough time to return to their seats, the brunette in a visibly pinker state. They regained their composure and picked up the learned gabfest wherever they left off as if besoiling a public place was an integral part of every young lady's early morning hygiene.

See, late trains are not populated by your usual standard edition people. By the time midnight strikes, normal people are already safely in their normal homes, tucked in their normal beds and dreaming their normal dreams. Midnight trains are prowled by special species, by beasts that have tasted the flesh of night, now sprawling across the rows of double seats and slowly digesting their pray, with blood still dripping from their newfangled vampire teeth.

You may see wildly disheveled characters with oily beards, whose mere presence at the Thanksgiving table would cause massive loss of appetite, you may see corpulent ladies with make up turned into highly abstract paintings that would leave Kandinsky gasping for air, you may see comparative alcoholics scanning the horizon with their foggy periscopes, fully convinced that they are on their way to the North Pole in a sleigh train pulled by Rudolf the Red Nosed Reinbeer.

And then there are the casualties of war. Wretched souls whose ill timed slumber carries them well past their intended destination. They are the angels of midnight trains - for theirs is the Kingdom of Terminal Stations.


In Defense of Negativity

Negativity gets a lot of negative reviews these days. But despite its tarnished rap sheet, negativity has so much to offer to our mental well-being that it would be foolish and counterproductive to toss it into the dumpster of history, alongside with chastity belts, leeches and shaman sticks.

1. Negativity provides contrast. Without it, positivity would lose the backdrop against which it can so brightly shine. Without it, we'd amble through our lives in a twilight daze of never ending days, whose jarring monotony would soon burn a gaping hole in our sanity. Even the most outgoing of us need a spell of negativity, just like Summer needs its Winter break and white dress needs its black accessories.

2. Negativity is conducive to honesty. Let's face it, this is not a perfect world, and even if it was, it has been subsequently populated by pretty sketchy life forms. Embracing negativity gives us an incentive to reflect things as they really are - which means sometimes good and sometimes bad. The moment we start censoring negative thoughts, we are not voicing the true state of our mind and that is but a step away from an outright lie. Sure, it may be a convenient one, but it is still a lie.

3. Negativity is a safety valve. It lets steam off in small manageable doses, preventing unwanted explosions in the engine room. I know - it would be nice if there was no steam to let off in the first place, but sadly that is not how human psychology works. We get both positive and negative thoughts and venting the latter before they get out of control is in our best interest. And if it involves occasionally raising our voice or banging the fist on the table, so be it.

4. Negativity is the main ingredient of healthy skepticism. If we lost our internal doubt generator, we'd turn into malleable yes men that could fall easy pray to assorted scam artists, whether they be chicken entrails readers, overlords of obscure cults and ideologies, or your friendly pushers of toxic mortgages. I sometimes wonder how Stalin and Hitler would fare if human race was more skeptical in general. I bet they'd have much less arable land for sowage.

5. Periodic exposure to negativity makes us more immune to life's little adversities. If we live in a glass house of perpetual sunshine, the moment we get exposed to inclement weather, our pampered life support systems suffer an inevitable seizure. Not so long ago I saw a bevvy of teenagers walking away from a movie theater genuinely upset that someone on the screen dared to give Brad Pitt a little push. I dare not surmise how they would react should life dare to give a little push to them.

6. Negativity is an integral part of a conflict. On the surface, disposing of conflicts would seem like a great idea, but it is negotiations that conflicts engender that lead to optimal solutions. In a world devoid of negativity, there are no conflicts - we simply sweep the problems under the rug, etch a permasmile onto our faces and then, when no one is looking, keep happily pulling in the opposite directions.

7. Negativity gives life its depth. It is sadness and sorrow that makes us profoundly human. It is at the bottom of a dark abyss where we find who we truly are. Without an occasional journey through the valley of tears, we'd become laughing monkeys. Bubbly, but shallow.

8. Negativity is instrumental in recalibrating our internal compass. It gives us a sense of perspective and scale. In a permanently positive world our decision making processes would become biased.

9. Negativity makes arithmetics possible. Otherwise subtracting larger number from a smaller one would get you in a heap of trouble.

Of course, the real problem with negativity is excess: people who constantly frown and who say preemptive NO to every suggestion that comes within their yelling distance. Instinctively, we seek a nurturing environment in which most of our activities are supported. How much of that support is healthy and how much should be replaced by boundaries and discipline is a somewhat subjective matter. For me the optimal balance between the positive and negative follows the ratio of our waking hours and sleep, which is roughly 16 hours to 8, or 2 to 1. So my recipe for a hearty realism would read like this: Take 1 cup of negativity, 2 cups of positivity and empty them into a mixing bowl. Add a grain of salt, stir well and live happily ever after.

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