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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

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When retreating from Moscow in 1812, Napoleon allegedly remarked: "There is only one step from the sublime to the ridiculous".

If you are mistrustful of French Generals and want an independent, empirical test of the adage, there is no better place to go than Washington's Artomatic - a month long festival that features the Capital's young artists and takes place downtown DC in a gutted nine story office building, whose empty floors have been turned into an endless maze of panels.

Each segment of the exhibition is occupied by one artists, so you can encounter an amazing hodgepodge of styles in a relatively compact space. Since in arts, the beauty is also in the eye of the beholder, all the pieces coexist together in a sort of Utopian non-judgmental harmony. One man's kitsch is another man's sacrosanct and it is up to you to decide which is which. One simple step, and you locomote from dazzling to subdued, from exuberant to melancholic, from fragmented to focused, or from sophisticated to trivial. And there were plenty of steps to make: there was a tawdrily tiled bathroom (or as the British would say a water loo), a collage made out of plastic kid toys, a mesmerizing portrait of a black lady in front of a red drape surrounded by mean looking hounds, a plethora of Andy Warhol wannabees, a hand protruding from a mound of empty cigarettes packs, naive pastel paintings camera ready for Hallmark, daring visual altercations and somewhere in the midst of all that framery was my favorite: a series of tongue-in-cheek photographs depicting plush animals as victims of assorted murder plots.

In real life, you can spot the trace of Napoleon's maxim too. Those who ever stepped from a dirty alley into a luxurious restaurant, or those who issued from a crowded theater onto an empty street know what I am talking about. It's like entering an airplane. One step, and you go from here to there, from one continent to another, from a comedy to a tragedy, from mundane to majestic and sometimes back.

From this vantage point, Artomatic imitated life to a tee. One swing and your eyeballs could end up on the putting green of a masterpiece or - just as easily - in the sand bunker of a disguised scrap. If the colors, materials, tones, and textures had turned into smells and spices, you would have thought you were walking through the Food Court at New Delhi Airport. One step, and you would have stirred from Garam Masala to black mustard seeds. But then they would have to rename it to Aromatic, wouldn't they?

Just a subtle reminder that Art is really food for our Soul.


Velvet Revolution, the Tehran Edition

Persia was a jewel of civilization already when most modern states were still running their public affairs with training wheels on. But the quirky actions of its most recent president have been steadily eroding that standing. Two weeks ago Iranian people put on their democratic waders and attempted to cross the political Rubicon. Unfortunately, it turned out to be more Con than Ruby, and so they poured into streets in droves not seen since the Islamic Revolution, some 30 years ago.

I could not help noticing that some commentators dubbed this uprising the Velvet Revolution. I was in Prague in the Fall of 1989 when the original Velvet Revolution took place, so having spotted that term in the press again made me feel like a cat leafing through the Annual Report of the Federal Catnip Reserve. On November 20th, I stood in Prague's Wenceslaus Square under the Melantrich balcony where Vaclav Havel, having been silenced for 20 years, finally spoke to the intellectually starved nation. Together with hundreds of thousands of my compatriots, I kept jingling my keys in the air above my head until the Communist Frankenstein crumbled under the crushing weight of its own incompetence (and the word that Moscow was not going to interfere this time, in accordance with its redesigned foreign policy of "Thanks, but no tanks"). I have never been to Tehran, but excellent coverage in Guardian and NY Times allows me to draw some tentative parallels between the regime Iranians suffered up to this point, and the one which I suffered up to a completely different point.

First, both ideologies were based on irrefutable dogma. In Czechoslovakia, it was the Marxist philosophy, while in Iran that role was played by the Shi'a variety of the Islam religion. In either case the departures from the dogma were considered a high treason and the economic impotence caused by it was being eloquently masked by leaders' vague promises of future bliss. In my home country, that promise was implemented by a resourceful overuse of a term - "joyful tomorrows" - which was gainlessly employed every time the grumbling population started to look wistfully in the Westerly direction. When precisely would those Joyful Tomorrows materialize was left unspecified, but from the rate at which our GDP was waning, we all understood that they won't be due for at least a couple of centuries.

Second, not only had both ruling bodies sprout their own paramilitary arm that was serving to intimidate the populace, Bassij in Iran and People's Militias in Czechoslovakia, but they both relied heavily on the silent collaboration of lethargic masses. I saw an image from a pro-Ahmadinejad rally on the web and immediately recognized the old familiar setting of communist "manifestations". The same generic flags and banners manufactured in state-owned sweatshops flapping impotently above forcefully amassed throngs. Those were the people who were carrying the torch of the Bolshevik Revolution when I was growing up. I could spot them even in a dark tunnel at midnight. The same tired and largely ambivalent faces with absolutely no sparkle in their eyes. They ranged from informants who ratted on their neighbors to people who put up Soviet flags just so they could get a promotion and maybe a vacation in Yugoslavia. They were not vampires, they were their toothless butlers. Passive millions whose allegiance could turn on a dime.

Third, abstract and originally well meant ideals often deteriorate at the hands of real people, and I think that over time the purity of both Revolutions, Communist and Islamic, suffered a severe corruption. I am fairly certain that Ayatollah Khomeini never intended for his armed forces to prowl the streets of Tehran and shoot at their own people. He'd probably be appalled if he attended the Revolutionary Guards junkets, just as Marx would, had he seen the agenda of the Central Committee meetings. Many of the opposition leaders in Iran were once accomplished revolutionaries, but as time progressed and the fruits of revolution fell into more cynical and greedy laps, they had been slowly marginalized. All revolutions and upheavals seem to follow this pattern. The progress of the red plague in Czechoslovakia was a textbook example.

The communist period that started with a coup d'etat in 1948 and ended 41 years later in the Velvet Revolution was separated by the Soviet invasion in 1968/69 into two halves of nearly identical lengths. While the early communists from the 1950s were often confused zealots and would-be visionaries who believed that Socialism will cure all of mankind's social injustices, the ones from the 1970s were cold-hearted calculating opportunists, who relied more on foreign armed forces than populist doctrines.

One needs to realize that having people in the streets is not enough for a successful revolution, whether velvet, corduroy or burlap. In fact, the Prague street protests in 1968 and 1969 were easily dispersed by the combined military might of the Warsaw Pact, in an act cunningly referred to as the "Brotherly Help". It is equally important that the governing structures become sufficiently rotten and hollowed from the inside. Only then can the Vox Populi prevail. In 1968, the global communist squid was still very much alive and nimble, and its Czechoslovakian limb had merely developed a callous external shell, slowly morphing into a giant political crustacean known as the Normalization - which in reality was just its exact semantic opposite: the Abnormalization. It took twenty more years to kill the Beast.

So let's calculated some odds here. In 1968, 20 years after the communist coup d'etat, the people in the streets had wasted their time, and in some cases lives, and were clearly defeated. In 1989, some 40 years after the putsch, the system collapsed almost effortlessly. Iranians are now 30 years past their Revolution, smack midway between 20 and 40. Whether their uprising succeeds or fails should thus be a perfect coin toss with fifty fifty odds.

I sincerely hope that this time their coin falls butter side up.


In 1991, I left Central Europe, crossed the Atlantic Ocean and landed on the Upper East Side of the North American continent together with a hullfull of mildly claustrophobic sardines. But that was only the beginning. After I squeezed through the rabbit hole of a Boeing 747 doorway, I found myself in a land that would have plunked even Alice into the state of Deep Wonderment: the Czech language was no longer widely spoken, although checks were readily accepted; movie tickets did not come with pre-assigned seats but rather with detachable coupons exchangeable for elephant sized pop corn vats that would have fed a family of four for several days. It became even curiouser when I learned that denizens of this Brave New World could apparently coast through High School without ever sitting in a physics class. Now I am all for individual plans and self-guided tours through the gardens of destiny, especially in college when you already have a pretty good idea of what flowers and shrubs you want to see, but I think that in High School the choice of subjects could be a wee bit more mandatory.

There will always be enough near sighted parents who smother their kids with double loveburgers with an extra cheese every day and they will gladly enroll their off-springs in an endless sequence of Earth Science, Pottery and History of Peoples of Tanzania in the name of Paris Hilonesque adolescence. Imagine the horrors if some ruler-toting schoolmarm had the nerve to confuse their precious darlings with thermodynamics or trigonometry. I am not saying that teenagers should suffer through four years of physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, history and geography like many of my classmates did, but at least a few tidbits of quantitative reasoning should regularly appear on their educational plates. Sure the mortgage industry might become temporarily disconsolate that it couldn't push overpriced and exotic financial products onto algebraically clueless population, but in the long run the nation would be much more competitive. After all, basic knowledge is not an urban myth. It may taste bitter, but avoiding it or watering it down is eventually self destructive.

The rigid and mostly uniform curriculum of High Schools in Czechoslovakia enabled very different Modus Operandi. Each year's worth of freshmen was divided into group of students called "classes" - usually about 30 kids - and this group then navigated the waterways of secondary education together. They had one fixed classroom and it was the professors who commuted from one to another. Such stability of environment promoted camaraderie and created strong bonds between the classmates. The social ties were further strengthened by paired desks, so that you had not only a group of familiar classmates each year, but also a carefully chosen deskmate with whom you could play tic-tac-toe during particularly boring classes or make bets on the results of oral examinations that were often conducted in front of the blackboard, in a PG-13 tribute to public hangings. But no matter what you did, it was always clear that you were part of a larger group, a larva surrounded by a tightly knit social cocoon. It felt like being raised by the proverbial village.

The four years long canoeing trip on the choppy river of knowledge culminated in the rapids of the so called "maturity exam", usually administered in late May by a daunting panel of pedagogues, both internal and external. All graduates spent about half an hour on the preparatory "sweat chair", only to be plunged into two hours / four subjects interrogation whose purpose was to decisively end the innocent period of childhood and also to determine their ability to survive in the real world without unduly embarrassing the institution. But before they were released to wilderness, they had an honorable duty to announce their coming of age to their fellow townmates, which was effected by a plywood board with photographs commonly known as a "tableau". The most visually oriented minds of the class would prepare a design for it and as soon as the tableau was bedecked with the portraits of the whole pack, it was displayed in an agreed upon shop window.

If you take a walk through the streets of Czech towns in late Spring, you will see them on almost every corner. Some in a plain rectangular arrangement, some in more sophisticated geometric formations, some stylized into humorous motives - such as a train of cars or a flock of birds - and some peppered with cartoons or caricatures. The tradition is clearly a win-win situation for all the parties. Students get to showcase their creativity, the shop owners rake in extra business from passing acquaintances that are lured to the tableau, proud parents have an opportunity to exercise their index fingers and youngsters from near and far can catch a preview of dazzling members of opposite sex that are about to hit the dating market.

This year I visited my hometown around that time and when I took a stroll through its streets I ran into a tableau of the class 4D of the local Grammar School. The exact same class I once attended myself in a long gone geological era. Interestingly, it was placed in a small contact lens shop. I guess that's one way how to think of all that imparted knowledge.


Sunday Soccer: A Study in Sociology

While the most structurally complex objects are carefully engineered by external designers, living things have an amazing ability to self assemble into highly non-trivial formations without any external premeditation. The driving force of such architecture is willingness of each member to constrain their behavior by the perceived well-being of the whole ensemble. For example, let us look at schools of fish or political grass roots: each constituent acts locally, letting the global chips fall where they may, and yet the whole group shows distinctive marks of macro-behavior: the common purpose and the division of labor. How exactly does order and hierarchy arise from a chaotic soup of individuals without any blueprint is an intriguing question and a subject of intense research in sociology.

Every Sunday morning, unless it rains or my muscles are out of commission, I play a pick up soccer game in Fairfax. That means that a grab bag of some 20-30 heads and twice as many legs gathers on the field, forms two teams based on the color of their t-shirt and starts kicking the ball. But it's not like when we were kids and swarming the ball was our only tactics. Adult games are more intricate. It is no longer "where ball, there everybody".

At first, people take random positions, some in the midfield, some in offense and some in defense. But as soon as the game starts, everyone learns quickly who the solid players are and who are the weak links, who to pass the ball to in a clutch and who needs more time to control the round beast, who can dribble past their opponent and who just kicks the ball as far away from own goal as possible. If there is a weaker defense, some people draw back, if the defense is solid, more people venture on the attack. There are no powwows. It's all self-adjustment. Everyone tries to maximize their value for the team and after about 30 minutes of playing you have two smoothly operating machines. Without a captain, without a coach. And often, without a word.

Scientists interested in how communities form should participate in the pick-up games. They have very fluid dynamics and provide an instructive crash course in the Evolutionary Sociology 101. I think they would be well worth a Federal Grant. No textbook or lecture in the world can really substitute for hands-on experience. Or legs-on for that matter.

French Funk at Kalorama

French don't live their lives. They smoke them. Slowly and prepensely. French were the first nation that mapped out the complete genome of wine and cheese, and in doing so they nosed out that life is a fine cigar and it should be treated as such. Coddling it in a hand carved humidor. Savoring every waft of its subtle aroma.

Kalorama Park is a little leafy oasis in the middle of Adams Morgan, Washington's premiere clubbing district. Today it belonged to a French Funk group "Tarace Boulba", which threw a late matinee in its grassy center. Camped under a stately tree, the improvised ensemble featured one bare-footed young lady in a plain red dress, and about twenty undershaved vagabonds, some in stereotypical berets, whose casual elegance must have been copied straight from the illustrations to Francois Villon's ballads. Yet there was nothing balladic about their music. Note by note, stalk by stalk, the band turned the green turf into a giant dancing parquet. The brass extravaganza was sharp, perky and severely contagious. An open bar for musical viruses.

But they brought with them more than just their music. Hidden underneath the nonchalantly coiffured sound was a conspiring smile of enjoyment. They brought their love of life - and myriad of its attendant hues, some smooth like melted chocolate, some robust like hearty tartiflette, each of them eventually finding its way out of the inner tubular maze of trumpets and trombones. Once issued into the open space by the unrelenting chimneys of the brass instruments, they turned into intoxicating wisps of smoke from Graycliff Chateau Grand Cru cigars. And if you narrowed your eyes just a little bit, you could have recognized a row of glistening question marks where the battery of saxophones used to be. They had all been punctuating the same question: Parlez vous danse?


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