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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

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Lights out

Our voyage through life doesn't pass through completely uncharted territory. We are gently guided by numerous sets of traffic signs, whether they come from social conventions, friendly tips or civil laws. Every now and then, however, Life the Prankster flips the switch and for a moment lets us grope in a complete darkness, leaving only starry skies of our instincts to guide us on. These moments are sort of like the bubbles in a freshly opened bottle of champagne. Not the same substance as the wine itself, but giving it its fizzy feel.

My friend Helen threw a post-Christmas party today and as I have never visited her spacious home in the country I decided to plunge into the slowsands of rush hour Beltway and after traversing half a circle on it at a dazzling speed of a continental drift, I was disgorged into Maryland back roads. The traffic drastically abated and the bright city lights were replaced by country shadows from which a reasonably skilled mathematician could deduce wilderness. After some trial and error exploring brought about by poor house numbering, I entered a dark and wooded driveway leading to a spacious house surrounded by cars.

I parked my little Honda by a mighty oak whose robustness was heralding the good old days when banks actually screened their mortgage applicants and house builders had a solid understanding of right angles. However majestic the house was, there was still no number on it nor any other indication that this was my rightful destination. The runway lights have a way of disappearing when you need them most. Doubts started to nibble on my mind. What if I am at a neighbors' house, I wondered. What would I say if I barged in on a big family reunion and had to explain my rose bouquet to a consortium of aunts and uncles in the middle of a home-made Cupcake Fest? Or worse, what if I entered a secret operative meeting of the Russian Mafia? I walked around the house for a bit, but haven't seen any signs of armed bodyguards, vicious dogs, brawny adherents of jujitsu or piercing laser beams. Concluding that the house is occupied by reasonably peaceful people, I entered.

There was no one in the hallway, but I heard muffled noises coming from the guts of the house and I pushed onward. The next room was half taken by a lavishly lit Christmas tree jammed with trinkets in a silent celebration of rush hour beltway and standing next to it was a Steinway piano which I ended up playing about three hours later. Encouraged by the fact that no one has shot me yet, I plodded on. The adrenaline rush injected into my blood stream made me briefly consider a career of a jewelry thief. This is how pilots must feel when they land in poor visibility conditions and just hope that the runway is actually there.

But two rooms later I ran into a well dressed elderly couple who confirmed that this was indeed my friend's residence and beckoned deeper into the maze of the house. The lights on the runway blinked on and all was normal again.

Tea Party

Ron Paul's supporters are a creative bunch.

While most campaigns spread their fund-raisers evenly over time, the Paulinators (or Paulites) chose to dump most of their hard earned dough on days associated with events they felt had a great symbolic value. Exploding in one day, these Money Bombs became their fund-raising trademark. Other candidates tried to emulate them, but their grassroots could not provide the same level of self-organization. Equivalent to ideological Theme Parks, they forever changed the landscape of the American electoral politics.

The first Money Bomb commemorated the movie "V for Vendetta" which itself was loosely based on exploits of Britain's rebel Guy Fawkes. In the movie an anonymous hero fights against a deeply inept government and at the end succeeds in blowing up the symbol of the corrupt ruling class - the Houses of Parliament. The surprisingly successful November 5th drive brought 4.2M to Ron Paul's coffers.

Out of the many suggestions for the second money bomb, the Boston Tea Party emerged victorious, because it highlighted the insidiousness of taxing people through inflation. War with Iraq is a good example. Rather than transparently increasing the taxes to pay for the military expenses, the administration chose to nominally decrease the taxes, yet the massive debt which it incurred crippled the dollar so much that it lost half of its value against Euro. The lost value of the weakened currency is a form of a tax which we all pay, whether we wanted it or not. That was the central theme of the Tea Party, which at the end raised 6M dollars - the world record for a one day fund-raising effort among all the candidates.

The DC branch of Ron Paul MeetUps chose Garrett's Restaurant and Railroad Tavern in Georgetown for its Tea Party festivities. The geographical location prevented the participants from dumping tea in the Boston Harbor so they dumped at least symbolic pork packages from benches onto the floor to symbolize the displeasure with the increasingly inefficient and overgrown government.

People appreciate when they are treated like adults. They don't like to be told which drugs are good (tobacco, alcohol) and which are bad (marijuana, crack), or which military regimes to support (Pakistan) and which to overthrow (Iraq). And as more and more tax money are disappearing in the giant maw of this administration - whether by greed or by incompetence, more and more tax payers are getting tired of bankrolling the foreign policy extravaganzas. And that's pretty much what was on people's minds as they sat on the pub's floor and wrapped their little mock packages of disposable pork.


Walking the walk

Men are genetically equipped with exactly one kind of walk - one standard way of lugging their body mass from the point A to the point B. And whether they carry a six pack of Samuel Adams or freshly inked draft of the Declaration of Independence in their hands, they strut down the street with the very same swagger. Women, on the other hand, are a completely different ball game - they have as many walks as snowflakes have shapes. Similar on the outside, but astonishingly different under close scrutiny.

A friend of mine graduated from Georgetown University's Nursing Program, so together with her boyfriend we went along to celebrate her educational victory dance. The ceremony was held in the Gaston Hall - a massively paneled auditorium, resplendent with warm wooden tones and ornamented in detail that would make King Arthur's most discerning knights quite comfortable.

We had an excellent view of the stage which the nurses in the making had to negotiate for their badge of accomplishment - a little pin which they got in lieu of a diploma. From our vantage point we saw their whole voyage: climbing short stairs on the right, then carrying themselves across the stage and having the pin pierced into their lapels. One after another, the new blood of the medical industry displayed an amazingly varied spectrum of ways to cross the stage. Here is how they did it:

assuredly - like a mighty battleship on its first mission
aggressively - as if they had an unfinished business with the dean
deliberately - as if they were measuring the distance
gingerly - as if the stage turned into a mine field
eagerly - as if the pin was made out of marzipan
gracefully - like dandelion spores wafting in a draft
hurriedly - as if catching a bus that was just about to leave
mechanically - like a well controlled robot
menacingly - as if the pin was to be bullied into obedience
flailingly - as if their future depended on their wingspan
solemnly - like princesses on their way to the altar
choppily - as if the stage was a heaving sea
tentatively - as if not sure if any of the faculty was to bite them

Pages and pages from the Ode to Locomotion were streaming in front of our eyes, until there were no more ways to cross the stage.

In one of the numerous talks, the class valedictorian praised the varied student body which "recruited from all walks of life". She could not have been more right about that.

Virginia Straw Poll

Straw Poll is a little pre-election get together where the participating campaigns toss their world-shattering ideas around, prune their argumentative trees, sharpen their ideological claws, size up the opponents' crowds and get the rare chance to sport the new ties with party' emblems. Straw polls are like a rehearsal dinner before a big wedding. The actors are all there, the speeches are almost fine tuned and there is plenty of artificial sweetener on the table.

As the Republican Party of Virginia held their straw poll in the spacious conference hall of Hyatt hotel not far from where I live, I took this opportunity to see what democracy looks like before it is put in the oven. I have to admit that locating the oven took me a little extra time, because a concierge, confused by too many concurrent conventions, sent to me to the 3rd floor, where I found only an empty room bedecked for a large banquet. I loitered around until I glanced at the door - of course! - what Republican in his ultra-right mind would hold a straw poll in a room bearing a golden plaque that proudly announces "Kennedy Suite".

After a quick elevator ride I found the correct auditorium already packed with anxious supporters - from venerable veterans who were still nursing their tender memories of the Nixon fiasco to young and perky Romney supporters with carefully greased hair, who were feverishly discussing how it felt to shake Mitt's hand. All this zest and ostentation was neatly tucked into sober brown drapes emblazoned with an obligatory elephant and a "Republican for a Reason" sign. The candidates were not present themselves, but their representatives were whipping up their oratory skills in order to outreagan each other. The connoisseurs of the English grammar would have been flummoxed at how many times you can mention Ronald Reagan and a given candidate in the same sentence.

As I stood there in the back, it felt like perching on a steep cliff overlooking a long valley of electoral politics and I marveled at its strange landscape: the dense thicket of caucuses and primaries, some open to all, some only to party members, some proportional, some winner-takes-all; the strange critters roaming its floor - the base delegates, the super delegates, the district delegates, the bonus delegates; the media tribes worshiping their pre-approved darlings; the opaque foliage of endorsements flitting high above the ground - whether they came from the New York Times or the Montana Union of Self-supported Nutcracker Manufacturers.

This fine system was designed in times when states wielded much more clout than they do today so little customization was in order, But today, what with most power being gradually transferred to the centralized federal government, it might make more sense to dispose of this political jungle and implement a simpler and more direct system: list all the candidates on one ballot and let people in a perfectly transparent process decide who they like.


Czech it out (at your own risk)

Yesterday, I was having a dinner at a friend's house and one of the guests there asked me how difficult it would be to learn Czech.

Well, if this question ever makes it to your consideration plate, let me give you a friendly warning. Czech not only conjugates verbs, but it also declines nouns and many other lexical denizens that stumble into its path - adjectives, pronouns and even numerals. For nouns there are seven cases, which are used in different contexts with different verbs. Here is an example of the whole shebang (English version is in parenthesis).

1. Toto jsou DVE MLADE ZENY (These are TWO YOUNG WOMEN)
5. this case is reserved for addressing

You might think: no big deal - I will learn seven endings for singular and seven for plural. But there are in fact several categories of endings. How many exactly? Well, 6 for masculine nouns, 4 for feminine and 4 for neutral. Are you still interested?

Let's move to verbs then. They have their little suffixes too.

2 sg. MLUVIS (You SPEAK)
3 sg. MLUVI (He/She/It SPEAKS)

How many different patterns for conjugation there are? Well, nobody really knows because it is kind of difficult to draw a line between patterns and irregular cases. But count on more than 10 for sure. So, as you see, learning Czech might turn out to be trickier than snacking on a pomegranate.

But if none of this discourages you, go ahead - learn this language. It may be difficult, it may have the largest number of grammatical exceptions per capita, but it is also beautiful, playful and dizzyingly expressive.

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