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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

Archives for: 2006


Six billion people open their minds for business every day, and psychologists are working around the clock to categorize these multitudes into neatly labeled categories: introverts, extroverts, leaders, followers, melancholics, ISFJ Myers-Briggs types, fatalists, chicken noodle soup haters, optimists, neurotics,... you name it. But in my humble opinion, there are really only two kinds of people: lunatics and robots. On the next level of resolution, lunatics are either divers or tamers, while robots are either puppets or checkers. The first three categories are kind of self-explanatory, so I will devote this post to checkers. To the kind of people, whose mind set completely perplexes me.

For checkers, life is just a formal check list of things to do, some daily, some monthly, some once in a lifetime; a series of checkboxes which they go through with due diligence, but without any passion or commitment. Checkers check things out because they feel obligated to do so. But they hardly ever enjoy them. I suspect that people who use the phrase "I live life to its fullest" are the card carrying members of this category.

Checkers are kind of like modern day pharisees, always putting form over substance, blindly adhering to the rules without any regard for content, not seeing the forest for the trees. They believe that merely going to church will make them spiritual. But it won't, just like traveling to France won't make anyone automatically worldly.

I'll give an example: not so long ago I went to a gallery and saw there a young couple, early twenties, breezing rather speedily through the halls laden with black-and-white imprints of someone's mind. As they sauntered on, most of their mental capacity was visibly spent on synchronizing their jaws, so they could process the mango flavored chewing gum as effectively as possible. Perhaps they thought that being aloof makes them look classy. Their facial expressions betrayed utter disinterest and boredom and I wondered why they came there in the first place. Oh, somebody must have told them that "cultured people" go to galleries, so one Sunday afternoon they must have said to themselves - "Hey, let's be refined" - and off to the nearest gallery they went.

This month's cultural event: visit to the gallery - check. Yay!

But that someone should also have told them that visit to the gallery is not enough to be cultured. You become cultured by cultivating your soul. By engaging your curiosity and imagination. Just like you don't become fit by merely visiting your local recreation center and walking nonchalantly among treadmills, steppers and exercise bikes. You actually have to engage your muscles and tendons.

Well, cultivating your soul is just as hard work as cultivating your body. You have to make an attempt to see the world through the artist's eyes. You have to wonder why the ferns look like little green waterfalls and why the artist felt compelled to paint the sky red. If you don't, my friend, then you are an obvious checker and you may have just as well stayed home and played checkers.

Finally, in case all this is too confusing, here is a terse review of human ilk:

TAMERS - they are alive and they rightfully appear to be
DIVERS - they are alive, although they do not appear to be
CHECKERS - they are not alive, although they appear to be
PUPPETS - they are not alive, and they don't appear to be


James 4:6

Few days before Christmas, I needed to make a quick trip to the Tysons Mall. So I put my Kevlar Body Vest on and merged into the lava stream of mall bound vehicles. By the time I got to within a shooting distance, the traffic had thickened to the point where only one of those large scrap metal compactors could make it any denser. After twenty more minutes of vulture-like circling I found a parking spot that was just about to be vacated. I put my turn signal on and waited patiently for a young Mom to pull out. It was only when an unscrupulous jerk in a dark Toyota made a slick dive into that spot that I knew the holiday spirit was truly upon us. And I gladly dedicated 15 more minutes to finding another parking cubicle. Hallelujah!

It is a common knowledge that moles can consume more than half of their weight daily. As I was walking from my car to Macy's, I noticed a nice specimen of a Mall Mole, a critter of male gender carrying more than half of his weight in expensively packaged gifts. As he blithely unloaded them into the trunk of his Porsche, I pondered why it is that the birthday of arguably the biggest idealist of all time is turning into a poorly written Money Fest of Pompous Materialism. How about giving each other gifts on the New Year's Eve and celebrating Christmas by making personal resolutions. Wouldn't combing our inner selves be more in the spirit of the New Testament than outspending the Joneses?


The Mall itself was a pandemonium. I saw a spiffily dressed televangelist on a big flat TV screen yelling the message of love from a packed super mega-church somewhere in Ohio. I saw an obliging elderly lady elbowing her way through a crowd in a way that would make the World Wrestling Federation scouting veterans gasp in envy. I saw a young, very professional looking guy talk to a shop assistant with a condescension of a terminally blase British aristocrat. The little dork looked impeccable, but his icy cold manners could have single handedly reversed the global warming.

On my way home, I wondered if something got lost in translation. After all, Aramaic is not the easiest language to translate from.

God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble.

First Things First

For this year's Christmas charity, I chose the Nature Conservancy ( or 800-628-6860). Not that I think that cancer research labs should be wrapped in the Mission Accomplished banner or that children of Ethiopia have way too many proteins in their little coconut half-shells. But I think that the problems of hunger and cancer are self-inflicted and secondary in a way: we have pushed our life expectancy into the range for which our bodies were not designed and we multiply excessively in regions where food supply simply doesn't sustain such high rates of procreation. However, if we fail to give Mother Nature a little breathing room, we may wreak a serious havoc on the whole ecosystem. Think way beyond an extinction of porcupines. Think what happens when you mistakenly erase your whole hard drive, except this time there won't be any scuzzy drive to backup from.

Like a smoker who pollutes his lungs, we are so hooked on our drug of comfort and consumption that we do not see the Grim Reaper vigorously whetting his power tool scythe. With each acre of rainforest gone, we not only lose our oxygen factory but we also lose precious organic compounds that took nature millions of years to synthesize and deposit in flora and fauna. A startling piece of trivia: over the past 50 years, the bee population was reduced to half. So when the last bee draws its last buzz, are we going to rush into the fields with little brushes and do the pollination ourselves?

I am not sure whether we fully realize it, but this planet is all we've got. If we let it die from heat stroke or second hand smoke, there will be no second chances. And there will be no one left to worry about cancer and the children of Ethiopia.

The fellow species clearly need a dose of our financial wherewithal: beavers' dental appointments are long overdue, grizzly bears are grumbling about their dingy fur coats, kangaroos are eyeing new jump suits, carnivorous plants could use some mascara, ants have long been planning to redecorate their anthills, orchids are dreaming about Victoria's Secret and did you know that there are at least 150,000 penguins who haven't seen Happy Feet yet?

So there!


Tis the season

In the life of an average garden-variety guy, only one event is more terrifying than clothes shopping and that is clothes shopping with a woman seven days before Christmas.

For the record: I love women. I think they are higher creatures and I fully endorse Goethe's "Das Ewig-Weibliche zieht uns hinan". But zipping through a fashionable boutique with a female friend feels like being strapped to Superman's belt in the middle of a major inter-galactic battle. The moment a lady crosses the threshold of an outlet carrying textile products, she turns into a four star general with supercomputer memory that can simultaneously direct the battle for elegance, asses the quality of sewing, spot grammatical errors in the ironing instructions, point out that the proportions on the list of raw materials don't add up to 100%, and all that while informing you what exact color of shoes her neighbor just bought at the store next door.

When I buy clothes by myself, I gingerly enter the store area, snatch the first non-abhorrent article of clothing that vaguely fits my needs and my body (preferably in triplicate so I don't have to visit the cursed place again for at least a year), quickly pay up and get the hell out of there. When I am accompanied by a woman, she redresses this simple procedure into an intricate ritual that involves looking at several differently colored options, dancing in front of the mirror a lot, exchanging insider banter with a store clerk and periodically extracting my opinion, which I expeditiously verbalize as a drawn out "hmmmmmm" with a fake French accent.

When I buy clothes by myself, I love them in the store, but the moment I bring them home, they turn into pieces of disfigured rags that car mechanics would hesitate to use. When a woman chooses the clothes, they look so-so in the store, but once I put them on they magically come to life. I don't get it. I must be completely missing a whole gene. Maybe two if shoe shopping skills are encoded separately.

So you might imagine how I felt yesterday, when I was lured into an inconspicuously looking door on the M Street that was overarched by the inscription "Georgetown Park". A street shop on the surface, but a huge built-in mall on the inside. Kind of like that underground forge in the Lord of the Rings where Orcs hammered out their evil swords. A four story maze filled with super chic vogue shrines, featuring monikers reminiscent of South Pacific Islands and price-tags expressed in Italian liras. Or so it seemed, although I came to realize that not all that is overpriced is actually elegant. Perhaps some of the garments were meant for Middle Earth.

I am not sure how, but I survived, and I think, in two or three days, I will be fine.

The Passion According to St Matthew

Acoustic instruments possess an inalienable charm. The charm of Old Times. Kind of like mechanical typewriters or wooden furniture. Unlike their electronic brethren, they produce their sound from scratch by resonating wood, or strings, or air-columns. Kind of like your grandma would if she were a musical instrument.

Playing them is like walking on grass, as opposed to AstroTurf. And listening to them is like sipping coffee from little porcelain cups as opposed to disposable paper containers. They may not have dazzling distortion characteristics or complicated low pass filters, but they do channel certain passion for life. For things that grow and breathe.

That is what I was thinking as I sat in a pew of St Matthew's Cathedral and watched sound waves caper in its spacious aisle like ribbons of red wine. The church was nicely bedecked for the Advent season, but nearly empty, except for a handful of people underneath an old organ, and a sinner who joined the audience after he spoke with his God at some length. Obviously, some concerts get advertised better than others. Hadn't I know one of the performers personally, I wouldn't know about this one either.

When I stepped onto the street, I saw many people walking by with their iPods and quietly munching on their musical hamburgers. Little did they know that just a few stair steps above them a gourmet food was served for free - 100% organic.

Prune With Caution

People are like trees. They have roots, a trunk and a number of branches.

Branches are what distinguishes us from one another. Their tortuous shapes carry our personality. But they are both a curse and a blessing. They often stand in the way when we try to get closer to someone, but when we succeed and do become closer to someone else, it is the intertwined boughs that hold us together.

Sometimes when living in a society, we have to do some pruning. If we let our tree-top grow wild, nobody will really be able to get to us. The more boughs we cut, the easier it is for others to approach us. But also the more uniform and shapeless we become. And if you prune yourself to a mere extension of your trunk, you will be completely approachable to all, but you will also have lost most of your personality. You will have nothing to hold the attention of those that came so close to you.

The folklore wisdom summarized this phenomenon in one succinct conditional: if everybody is your friend, then nobody is your friend.


Slippery When Dry

Last time I wobbled on skates was when my age still sported only one humble digit. That would be several geological eras ago. So I was duly excited when my friend Leona came up with an idea that her little protege, a four year old Austrian girl, needs an exposure to just this kind of buffoonery.

I volunteered my car as a transportation medium, but Leona insisted on taking the original vintage Volswagen Beetle (year 1979), which her host family had shipped here all the way from Austria. It turned out that the ride in this archaic vehicle was quite appropriate for the Journey to the Temple of Ice: its rickety demeanor, the ubiquitous smell of gasoline and awe inspiring acoustic output made us feel like sitting in a Russian truck in which hardy Siberians haul loads of polar fox skins from Novosibirsk to Omsk.

None of us had our skates, so when we arrived at an ice-skating rink in Bethesda, we surrendered our comfortable shoes and rented a pair of metal stilted shoe-like contraptions that would raise many an eyebrow at the security check at the Dulles International Airport. Eagerly I tied my shoelaces, for I remembered that tight grip is half of the success, and on to the ice!

The moment I stepped onto the glistening surface of the frozen oval, the friction had completely disappeared. A hot knife cutting through a chunk of butter would experience more resistance than my skates did. It took me 30 minutes to figure out the laws of rectilinear motion on that thing. At one point, my legs went so far ahead of the rest of my body that I landed flat on my rear end. If there is a medical term for a "butt concussion" it's gonna be on my medical record now. Throughout my life, I was lulled into believing that butt is just an inordinately lazy muscle, but after today I am painfully aware that it does contain a bone.

I think that two hours of ice-skating should be administered as part of the driver's license exam in all states. Only on ice can you hone your reflexes to perfection and at the same time get hands-on experience with handling complex traffic situations in full speed. Sometimes I felt like a hydrogen atom in the core of an overheated star, what with all the kids coming at me backwards and all the teenagers trying to impress their significant other teenagers with cool if foolhardy moves.

But my butt notwithstanding, it was a fun filled afternoon.

Flowers on the Edge

Best flowers are always found on the edge.

Imagine a pasture leading to a steep cliff overlooking the sea. If you want to find some interesting flora, you better get closer to the edge, because all the flowers wallowing in the middle of the meadow were plucked by hordes of romantics, herb witches, gardeners, poets and other flower hunters. But if you approach the brim of the pasture and face the cliffs, you can find all sorts of colorful blooming jewels that nobody dared to pick.

You can find them in arts too. ABBA once wrote a song named "Me and I", which almost all my friends branded as cheesy and disco-trashy. But I think it was just a flower on the edge, in this case on the edge of good taste. Perched on its breezy balcony, it danced alongside the ridge like a mischievous prima ballerina, teasing, feigning, but never slipping into the abyss of gaudy. And never even thinking about it. A precious flower which, strangely, never made it into any of the "Best Of Abba" collections. On the other hand, when I saw the movie Borat recently, I laughed pretty hard in places, for the movie was edgy indeed. But it faltered several times and instead of coming back with a handful of flowers, it ended up lying underneath the cliff with a broken leg.

As life likes to imitate art, we face the same dilemma every day: safety or beauty? In life you better be a bit more careful when you get closer to the edge though, for if you misstep, you may end up in a hospital, prison or a lunatic asylum. But when you do get to the edge, slow down and take a good look around you. You won't see flowers like that anywhere else.


The Kink and the Queen

Some time ago a friend of mine was trying to find a summer roommate for her house. After a long and fruitless search I suggested that she write a short ad filled with far-fetched claims and impossible demands. She did and the offers started flying in almost immediately.

Few days later I was telling this to a colleague of mine and we agreed that it would be fun to try the same approach in personals and see how many people would respond. But it was summer and there were too many butterflies to catch.

But now that it is December, and the great outdoors are curled up in deep hibernation, I decided to give the old idea a little field trial. So I wrote two short paragraphs and posted them on the Craig's List (post #243589924: how crazy is this planet?) in a dating category, which is notorious for being stuffed with empty phrases and rampant self-aggrandizement. Here they are:

A lonely middle aged bachelor, currently residing in his parents' spacious basement is looking for a dazzlingly beautiful princess of verifiable royal descent, well versed in music, poetry, crocheting and Microsoft Office. She should be height, weight, girth, length and width proportional and accustomed to having freshly harvested dew for breakfast. The Standardized Pea Test Score of at least 9 mattresses is strongly desired.

I am currently between jobs, although several branches of the McDonalds Corporation have been notified of my interest in building a career in supersonic food industry. I am a law abiding citizen, except for Saturday afternoons, when I regularly engage in off-shore betting on mountain goat fights. I still have more than half of my original teeth and some hair too, although not as many as teeth. I always see a beer bottle as half full, which I usually promptly rectify. After that I often make plans for a leveraged buyout of Goldman Sachs. I have a slight drooling problem, however, but am currently attending a voluntary healing seminar organized by a local branch of the Salivation Army. In my leisure time, I like to smoke and play a steel drum. On the athletic front, I have a blackened belt in chain smoking. I also enjoy short walks on the beach (yeah, I do mean short - you see I have been a bit out of shape lately), watching reruns of "Married with Children" and romantic evenings by a Bunsen Burner. I am looking backward to hear from you.

I posted it on Sunday evening and by midnight there were four responses. And that was pretty much it. The volume in the M4W department is so large that in a few hours the ad went over the first page horizon and was never seen again.

Of the four replies, one was heavily tainted with carnal innuendos and I suspect that it came from a commercial side of love, although it didn't contain the obligatory link to a naughty web site. The remaining three seemed genuine. One started with: "My my, you sound like a catch..." and another one with "You know just what to say to reel the ladies in". My favorite answer came from a young lady in Maryland:

Wow you sound perfect. My birth parents who of course were royalty I'm sure are still looking for me and when they find me I'll be able to secure my crown. I don't crochet but I do knit quite well. I've never witnessed a goat fight but do enjoy the occasional running of the pigs. I prefer my men to have no teeth (it saves on groceries since gumming meat is tough). And the drooling is fine as long as you don't mind wearing a bib.

Well, Internet is a strange creature: no matter what you post on it, there will always be some response to it. Even if it is a complete non-sense. But it is refreshing that human curiosity is still alive and kicking and that most people are relaxed enough to take the dating game easy and just have fun with it. For better or for worse.

Addendum (Jan 2009): After two years I decided to repeat the experiment, and this time the number of responses doubled to 8. They all seemed to have come from real people and some were quite entertaining. Like this one from a self-styled Princess of a Far Away Kingdom:

Well, I have to tell you, I score a 9.5 on the Pea Test. If there's the slightest crease in the sheets, I'm black and blue for weeks. I'm at my best floating in a warm pool filled with water lilies. I do have a personal dew harvester-who doesn't? My subjects tell me I'm stunning, but I'm Royalty, what else would they say.

And I just can't believe you enjoy mountain goat betting!! It is our favorite past time in my country. I suppose I could relieve your parents of you-but I would prefer you finish the drooling seminar first. I can have a hair weave performed for you and tooth implants last forever. You would not be allowed to smoke in my presence, but on your time off, you may join the other servants in their baser pursuits. The rest of the time, you would be by my side, serving my every whim and command and entertaining me with your quick mind and musical talent. Please let me know when the drooling is remedied and I will send the coach/jet for you. Until then, I will be waiting expectantly.

Yours, Princess Lucinda Louisa Lauraina Ladonna Lanetta Lavinia Leanna Lessandra, etc., etc., etc. (You may call me Your Highness)

So there. As long as people have tongues to put in their cheeks, there is a good chance that the human race will not choke on a dollop of political correctness. With sour cream on top of it.

Surgeon General's Warning

Bullshitting may be hazardous to your health.

There used to be times when people said what they meant and they meant what they said. Times when words didn't have expiration date. But those times went with John Wayne and Katherine Hepburn. Nowadays, in the era of rampant political correctness, irrelevant chit-chat and mindless head games, straight talk is as common on this planet as flip-flops in an Eskimo shoe store.

Bullshitting may be the survival skill in the swamp of high politics, but on a personal level it comes with a hefty price tag. Any time your words are less than sincere, any time your smile doesn't come from the heart, a small toxic cloud is released into your psyche. A cloud that slowly poisons whatever is alive inside you. That seems to be one of those little safety valves of evolution that equally punishes all the critters frequenting the Temple of Bogus, from small time bullshitters, who will butter you up preemptively, just in case they'd need something later on, all the way up to the major league players, who can perjure themselves in front of the Grand Jury without so much as a blush. The second you say something phoney, especially when pushing your own agenda, noxious fumes spew forth like an ash cloud from an angry volcano.

When people let me peek into their inner world, I see two different kinds of landscapes. Sometimes a wasteland, a scorched and suffocated semi-desert strewn with rusty cans and shards of unwashed windows, with dirt roads pushing lazily through yellowing grass and skeletons of starved cliches. And other times a moist and breathing jungle, voraciously laced with boozing colors and crisscrossed with mossy branches, a maze teeming with exotic life-forms and fruits and the Lizards of Oz sticking their forked tongues out to slowly dripping juices.

And I am always amazed how strongly correlated the vibrancy of one's inner world is with one's ability to bullshit. A textbook example of inverse proportion. Almost as if gardening of the Soul had but one simple rule: A spade is a spade and a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.


Calling All Suckers

Yesterday I received a letter from my AutoInsurer inviting me "to be among the first in Virginia to take advantage of a whole new car insurance". Whoa! No more worrying about future collisions with fellow motorists? Where is my pen? I can't sign up for this plan fast enough.

Feeling more protected than an armadillo in a condom factory I read on and realized that the sweet carrot of "Accident Forgiveness" dangles alluringly on the other side of a little abyss known as "the fine print". As I thought about it, the deal boiled down to this.

I am fairly defensive driver, so my rates are humble and low. Should I run into trouble though, the rates would increase significantly. So my dear AutoInsurer proposes to increase my rates immediately through the plan, rather at some later time through natural causes. Well, I am on the verge of bursting into tears of gratefulness. Should an accident happen in the future, I will be forgiven and my rates will stay put.

I know - I am being a bit unfair. The Accident Forgiveness plan will cost a bit less than the actual increase, but I am sure the overall balance is in the AutoInsurer's favor. Being a nice guy, I would like to offer all AutoInsurers a helping hand and propose a new plan, even more devilish, whereby all the milk guzzling infants would be sent the following letter:

Dear Sucker:

you have just been born, but roughly eighteen years from now your automobile insurance costs will skyrocket from comfortable 0 to some value determined by your neighborhood and by the wheels your parents could afford for you. In order to absorb part of this financial shock, we would like to offer you our "Common Sense Forgiveness" plan, which will cost you a measly $1.60/day. For this laughable amount, you'll get the priceless peace of mind (mind not included) plus a warm feeling that when you actually reach the driving age, and all your classmates will be scrambling to cover the unexpected insurance costs, YOUR wallet will NOT experience any sudden increases in expenditures.

If you have questions or payments, preferably the latter, please, feel free to contact me.

signed: Joseph Leech, a certified car insurance specialist

Bubbles of ProtoCola

There are two ways to navigate through life: protocol or compass.

Either you know a fixed set of rules that tell you what to do in model situations or you have a sense of what is good and what is bad and in every situation you try to follow the direction of good. I prefer the latter for I see at least two problems with the protocol.

First, life in its amazing variety often throws you a curve ball, a situation which is not covered by any of the rules of your playbook. So you may easily get stranded in an uncharted territory with no sense of direction. Second, when people with different protocols clash, they may find it difficult to cope with the situation at hand. Many people would rather abort communication than talk if they perceive that their protocol is not being followed. Compass is much more flexible, because the concept of good and bad is more universal. And whether you get that concept from God, from your Grandma or from reading Kant is really of no consequence.

Plus, if you go by the compass, you often find rich and deeply human situations that are way out of reach of any protocol. The back alleys of compassion. Hidden places that only Moon knows about.


Grandma's Cake

A Norwegian journalist, Terje Englund, once wrote a book about the Czech culture as seen through a foreigner's eye. He praises some aspects of it and criticizes others. At the extremes, he sees the Czech language and the Czech cuisine. He extols the former with these words: "Czech is the Rolls-Royce of the Slavonic languages, and a star player in the Indo-European linguistic league. Czech is so rich, precise and, unfortunately, also complicated that a foreigner trying to learn the language may be driven to suicide. Either because he or she never manages to learn it, or because of the utter depression that follows when the foreigner realizes how primitive his or her own mother tongue is".

On the other hand, the section about the culinary arts begins on a sour note - "Czech culture has produced astonishing achievements in a wide range of disciplines, but in one field the result is more than depressing: the country's cuisine". He does acknowledge that many Czech are skillful cooks, mostly tinkering with creations of foreign provenance, but when he comes back to the local foodage, his verdict is uncompromising: "dull and fatty".

Being of Czech descent, I can feel the tidal pull of these two extremes. I'd much rather write a two page essay than cook anything that involves stirring. I am the anticook if there ever was one. I misplaced my cooking genes when I was about 4 and haven't found them yet. I am to cooking what Michael Richards is to fine manners.

So you can imagine my unmitigated panic, when the hostess of the Thanksgiving dinner to which I was invited asked me to contribute a Czech dish. Gulp! Not only could I think of no decent Czech dish that might be capable of holding a candle to the Mighty Turkey, but even if I could, I wouldn't be able to prepare it without an industry strength magic wand and some pre-prepared packet that I could discreetly slip in the microwave.

For several days I'd wake up with a cold sweat on my forehead and an unresolved dilemma in my head. Should I go for potato pancakes, the traditional meal of poor farmers, or the Grandma's Cake, a dessert usually prepared for the Sunday afternoon tea time? Finally, at the last moment, while driving to pick up a friend of mine that was to help me, I decided to go for the cake.

We borrowed a hand-held mixer and a baking form from my friend's house, we bought ingredients at the grocery store on the corner and before we knew it, we were prestidigitating in the Land of Flour and Eggs. We made the dough from scratch, which involved lots of esoteric sorcery - like separating yolks from the egg whites or beating the separated substances with an electric contraption that resembled a moose's head turned upside down and felt like a jackhammer when it was churning in my hands. Since I was unwilling to sacrifice the spatula-free status of my apartment, not all the utensils we had were proper. We stirred the dough with a pancake flipping thingamajig and when it came to measuring 300 grams of powdered sugar, the bag label and my mathematical skills had to substitute for the lack of the scale.

The production of the dough was the high point of the whole operation. The stuff we conjured up in the bowl tasted delightfully. In retrospect, I think we should have terminated the kitchen maneuvers right there, put the dough in a container and present it at the dinner as an exotic Czech Spread that is to be scooped up with crackers like a peanut butter of sorts. That would have been a dazzling success.

Sadly, we decided to evict the dough from the bowl, put it in the form and stick it in the oven. Bad move. We timed it right, mind you, but it turned out that my oven was a different type than the one for which the timing was right. Long story short: when we opened it, the cake looked as if it spent the whole afternoon in a sun-tanning saloon. The feeling of devastation was overwhelming.

My grandfather taught me not to throw food away recklessly, so when I returned home from Thanksgiving, I surgically removed the blackest layer and actually ate part of the cake. But I sure am glad that I am not a blast furnace, for having charcoal for breakfast every morning would drive me nuts.

Kidnapping of the Bride

We Czechs are mostly peaceful folks. We do have a lion on our insignia, but our demographics consists mostly of doves and lambs. We never really invaded anyone, with the rule confirming exception of a group of religiously strayed sheep known as Hussites who mildly pillaged few Polish villages in the 15th century. But when it comes to folklore customs and traditions, we can be pretty raw.

For instance, one of the lesser known Czech wedding traditions is the kidnapping of the bride. To the best of my recollection, it goes like this: during the reception or dinner, one of the groom's men marshals a little gang that lures the bride away from the festivities. Once away from the crowd, the bride is gently hustled into a car and kidnapped to a local restaurant. There they all engage in heavy drinking and having a merry time. The groom (or in some instances the father of the bride) then has to drive around town and upon finding his betrothed has to foot whatever bill the kidnapping party managed to perpetrate. Needless to say that a clever choice of the watering hole can befuddle even grooms with innate detective abilities and run the bill up into amounts representing significant percentage of the wedding costs.

So when I was invited to my niece's wedding few weeks ago, I was very curious whether this venerable tradition is still alive. Apparently, it is, although the proliferation of cell phones makes it easier on the groom these days. After a while, the bride just calls and provides enough positional hints for the search and rescue mission to be successful even if the groom's DNA doesn't contain any of Sherlock Holmes' genes.

And despite the strong waft of feminism, being kidnapped is still considered a matter of prestige. When I spoke with my nephew, who was a member of the kidnapping party, he told me that the bride was obviously concerned about her unkidnapped status, for as he jostled her into the car, she yelped: "Whew! I started to think nobody would kidnap me!"

So maybe even our traditions are not that atrocious after all. And when all is said and done, the bride has many colorful stories to tell her maidens.


A True Minimalist

Like every Saturday, I did my grocery shopping in the morning. As I was waiting in the check-out line at Giant, I noticed that a guy standing in front of me pulled out exactly two items from his basket: a toothbrush and a pack of condoms.

Simplicity baring its teeth in a mischievous smile.

Eye Cue

When you are in college, and the time is around 3am, you get to discuss all sorts of weird things. Especially if you've had too much of cheap Moravian wine that costs about a buck a bottle and should really be packaged with its own blindness liability waiver. But thanks to its power to lower the threshold for critical skepticism, I learned many completely useless pieces of trivia. I vaguely recollect, for instance, that according to some archaic Indian philosophy, life has four aspects: love, art, thinking and doing. If you think about it, it actually makes some sense: no matter what school of thought you subscribe to, objects on this planet are always either known (aka concrete, material, real, earthly), OR they are unknown (aka abstract, spiritual, imaginary, heavenly). With this division in mind, there are obviously four possible channels corresponding nicely to the said aspects of life: known-to-known (doing), known-to-unknown (art), unknown-to-known (thinking) and unknown-to-unknown (love).

Yesterday I had a dinner with a friend who happens to be an amateur psychologist and no sooner was an appetizer off the plate that I was confronted with the question of how many intelligencies there are. "About 5 billion", I fired back naively, for I do believe we all have our own. In return, I was instantaneously chastised by a condescending look that labeled me as a simpleton incapable of abstracting and categorizing. So on this subtle eye cue I gave the matter a slightly deeper thought. Finally putting my arcane college knowledge to some good use, I came up with these four types of intelligence.

1. LOVE intelligence - the part that enables us to connect with people, interact with them effectively, share their emotions; the manager of our social life and above all, the ultimate Indiana Jones of the neural jungle.

2. ART intelligence - the ability to create works of art, irrespective of the medium used; the knack for putting strange colors, words and tones where they shouldn't be and yet ending up with something that looks, reads or sounds familiar enough for people to like it

3. THINKING intelligence - this one is officially called "the analytic reasoning ability" and that's what kids are being force-fed at school; scientists then use it to study frogs, galaxies, ancient Greek's junk, soil, handwriting etc. in order to produce cats that won't make you sneeze

4. DOING intelligence - the subcontractor of our ability to change light bulbs; but seriously: mechanics, handymen, artisans and tinkerers of all sorts have this ability; I know that many "intellectuals" don't see mechanically inclined people as their peers, but I do; the ability to take things apart, figure out how they operate and at the end put them together is just as important and demanding as the ability to infer star masses from photos of the night sky.

I believe that all of these are distinct and independent to some extent. It also seems that everyone has three of these four, at least most of the people that I know have them, so in a sense we are defined not by the intelligence component that we have, but rather by the one that we are missing. And if your favorite psychologist is Carl Jung you may recognize a remarkable similarity to his four modes of perception: sensation (doing), intuition (art), thinking (thinking) and feeling (love).

I think my friend was reasonably satisfied with my categorization, so I suggested that next time we might perhaps tap into another fascinating if controversial vein of psychological research: the multifaceted enigma of human foolishness. She gleefully agreed, so I have about half a year of intense self-scrutiny to whip up The General Theory of Stupidity.


Judging judging

Karel Capek, the writer who invented the word "robot" (derived from the Czech word "robota" - a forced labor, drudgery), once wrote an essay in which he makes the following observation: "There are two kinds of minds, one which judges and one which merely observes". The quote is kind of difficult to translate, but to me it says that life can also be enjoyed by immersing yourself in its resplendent glory rather than by making derisive comments about it from a lofty sky box. I interpret it as a steer towards leniency, as a shift from the parental point of view towards the grand-parental one. For it is the grand-parents that usually have the wider perspective on life, and thus are more accommodating and tolerant of weaknesses of human flesh.

It seems that recently more and more people are getting pretty serious kicks from passing judgment on others, although such acts should clearly be reserved for God. Indeed, how could a person even encompass the complexity of someone else's life, let alone understand it, which should be a pre-requisite for any judgment. As another Czech, an actor Jiri Voskovec (Twelve Angry Men), noted: "Only he who was in the same shoes and succeeded has the right to judge others". And that condition, in practice, is almost never satisfied.

What I find peculiar about this business is that in almost all cases it is less intelligent people who judge more intelligent people. Hardly ever it is the other way round. But if you think about it, it makes sense. First, intelligent people have other things to do than delving into imperfections of their fellow lifeholders, and second, dull people always seem to have a little chip on their shoulder. As if passing judgment was some sort of way for them to cope with reality that is intricate beyond their reasoning abilities. By the act of judgment they replace an infinite-dimensional, richly textured and often paradoxical human individual by a simple cartoon caricature, which they can fit snugly in their finite-dimensional inner world. Needless to say that most of their judgments come off as laughably inaccurate.

If I was writing a technical paper, I'd just say that judging is a projection device, which replaces elaborate structures by their simpler approximations, by their silhouettes, so to speak. But, life is not mathematics, so I wasted three paragraphs to say the same.

Nabucco: the Submarine View

A friend of mine plays piano for the Baltimore Opera and she invited me for the last piano rehearsal of Verdi's Nabucco. I never really saw an opera rehearsal, so I gladly accepted, even though the timing of the event implied a prolonged swim in the cesspool of Washington-Baltimore rush hour traffic. But seeing what is normally hidden underneath the glistening surface of an operatic performance was worth every minute of it. We were about to float through a teeming ocean of little components that fed into each other like a highly complex food chain: the singing, the acting, the props, the stage directions, the lighting...

Rather appropriately for this submarine experience, our little group entered the auditorium from below, through the orchestra pit, directly underneath the stage and past the piano that was to single handedly sustain the musical needs of hundred voices. I thought that this was a public rehearsal, so I was a bit shocked when I realized that we were pretty much the only audience for the show, except for the lighting crew behind us and a few theater pros in front of us. Still we felt a bit ambushed when, in the last act, the chorus members poured into the aisles and completely surrounded and outnumbered us.

But it was intriguing to see the Stage Director steering the ship with his thick Argentinian accent from just a few rows ahead of us. And he didn't let a single detail slip by, fine-tuning the positions and the entrances of players, making sure the spears would be raised simultaneously, rebuking supers for forgetting their false beards and constantly ironing out wrinkles on the opera's soon to be perfect face.

It was like watching a sculptor making the last fine hews on his monument, or like watching a obstetrician assisting the birth. So much action to watch for that I really have no idea what the actual opera is all about, except that there is a nasty storm in the second act and a huge boulder dragged onto the stage in the third. But I do remember divas and maestros making funny faces while waiting for the resolution of minor snags.

And I also recall the piano tirelessly churning its acoustic pearls.

Photographer's Portfoolio

Some of my friends are a source of knowledge, some are a source of entertainment and some are a source of adventure. And that is the case with a friend of mine, whom I will call Xena, although she is not really a warrior princess. In fact, Xena is an au-pair for an Austrian family in Bethesda and her inamoratos always provide plenty of opportunity for some spine-tingling swashbucklery.

Not so long ago one of her boyfriends of roughly Turkish heritage was kind of very non-committal in returning her passport to her. So much so that one Monday night at 11:30pm I had to drive to a rather shady part of Arlington to personally retrieve it from him. When I arrived to the rendezvous place, a poorly lit and poorly populated shopping plaza off of Wilson Boulevard, I found three swarthy looking characters sprawling silently on the hood of their car in a manner vaguely resembling West Side Story. It all turned out well, but when I drove there I did some second-guessing on my resolution to cope with life's adversities without the use of firearms.

This time around her boyfriend of two years left the country under rather suspicious circumstances. His story - LIVE from Prague - was that he was deported for trying to bribe an official while taking the driving license exam. But we found too many leaks in that story: the Embassy had no record of his arrest, his home computer showed signs of looking for Prague accommodations well ahead of time and his friends were incommunicado. It seemed that the only link to his rather mysterious private life was his ex-girlfriend Mila from Baltimore, who contacted Xena shortly after he left.

So one September Sunday we braced ourselves and drove to the given address in Baltimore on a little investigative mission. We arrived at a simple 4-unit apartment building located in a neighborhood where I'd dare to live only if I had a platoon of Saddam Hussein caliber bodyguards around me. A three hour discussion was very helpful and included a short, but interesting, virtual tour through the boyfriend's photo album and through his bank account, which he shared with Mila. As we were uncovering the missing pieces of the puzzle, we realized that the life of the guy we both knew for more than a year was immersed in an elaborate cobweb of lies. Somewhere along the way, the career of an aspiring photographer took a nose dive and landed on the floor of Target's graveyard shift. At the end, the web became so suffocating that he himself could not keep up with it, so he pinched some money from both Mila and Xena and skedaddled quietly to his hometown in Czechoslovakia, leaving the hornswoggled girls to their own devices.

No wonder he always came up with an excuse when Xena wanted to see his place. He shared an apartment with his ex! Apparently he had two completely separate lives. One that we knew, and one that we learned about from Mila. In the latter one, I turned out to be a "guy from a photo club" and Xena was just a nanny of his "buddy" Andreas. But that little detail was what did him in. Mila did some good detective work and found Andreas' phone number, leading inevitably to Xena and to the uncovering of both hemispheres of his fraudulent existence.

How exactly he kept track of all his fibs is beyond me. My brain circuitry would overheat from all that smoke and mirrors. I had my doubts about the guy before, but I never really voiced them. I usually try to be supportive of my friends' decisions. But this taught me an important lesson: niceness has its limit - a little dose of sober reality is sometimes worth more than blind support.


Obvious Observation

There is no "trust at first sight". Trust is doled out in small coins by placing yourself in a vulnerable position and yet not being taken advantage of. Every time a trustee does not capitalize on an opportunity to hurt you, a little grain is added to the heap of trust. But that vulnerability has to be carefully phased in. You don't expose your Achilles Heel to a perfect stranger.

Imagine living with a roommate. First day, you place a penny on a table and go to work. If it isn't there when you come back - you better give your roommate a hard look. But hey - you lost only one cent. If it's there, good. Next day you put a nickel on the table and you repeat the procedure. Then a dime, a quarter, a dollar and so on.

The day you can put thousand dollars on the table and know it will be there when you come back is the day your roommate earned your trust. Quite simple.

The Perfect Storm

The third time is the charm, they say. Indeed, on their third bid at the World Series in three years, the Cardinals got it right. Against all odds. Good things always happen when you least expect it. There must be some sort of physical law which says that the less you expect something, the more likely it is to happen. And vice versa. We all saw it firsthand two years ago.

On October 16, 2004 Red Sox were routed by Yankees 8:19, they were down 0:3 and when the next game came, they were trailing the Yanks yet again at bottom of ninth. It was exactly at this moment, when no person in his right mind would bet a penny on Boston, that their ultimate victory was born.

That is why they also say it is the darkest before the dawn. So this year, when the Cards nearly squandered their hefty lead in the regular season and entered the playoffs with a measly 83-78 record, all experts - and sadly some fans too - were expecting an early exit at the bats of the Padres, and if not Padres then certainly the Mets. But I was fairly certain that this rocky September had been a blessing in disguise and that it had indeed marked that darkest moment that comes before the dawn.

It was as if the stars have magically aligned to produce the least likely outcome of these playoffs. It was New Busch's inaugural season. Through completely random channels, I met two more Cardinals' fans this year - which in the greater DC area is not as trivial as you might think. On the team itself, several players came of the disabled list, closer Jason Isringhausen was injured relinquishing his seat to Adam Wainwright, bullpen got a considerable face lift with lots of young blood pumped into its veins and many key players finally started showing some teeth. This October was clearly the biggest coincidentist I have ever seen.

At the end, it all came together in one perfect storm and this blog, which started documenting the adventures of the Czech national soccer team in the World Cup, ended up celebrating the Cardinals' triumph in the World Series, which, by the way, happened on 10/27 - the jersey numbers of manager Tony LaRussa (10) and his best World Series hitter, Scott Rolen (27).

When LaRussa came to St Louis in 1996, he actually demanded this specific uniform number to show his determination to win the 10th World Series title for the Cards. Well, 10 years later he did. Congratulations!


World Series: Game 5

Wow!!! Not only it happened, but it happened in St. Louis.

Who would have thought a month ago that this group of misfits can go all the way? With stars Pujols, Edmonds, Rolen and Carpenter being more than matched by Eckstein, Spiezio, Belliard, Miles, Wilson, Taguchi and Molina on one side and Suppan, Weaver, Reyes, Wainwright, Kinney, Looper and Flores on the other. If there ever was a team effort, this was it. Molina and Rolen hitting over 0.400, unsung heros stepping up to the plate in crucial moments (still remember Spiezio and Taguchi against Mets?), LaRussa pulling one ace after another from his play book of tricks and several pitchers throwing their career performances.

Jeff Weaver was saving his gem for the moment when his team needed it most. For the last game of the World Series. He will always be remembered for this game. How he was striking out one Tiger after another for the total of NINE strike-outs. How he threw to 3rd in the 4th to oust the runner in the scoring position. How he caught a comeback ball in the 6th. Jeff the Magic Weaver.

And Adam Wainwright, 25, must have had nerves of steel. I wouldn't be able to pour myself a cup of tea in the roar of the fans. He showed his mortal side too by allowing a hit and a walk, giving the Tigers hope for a game turning hit. You could feel how the wind of psychological pressure blew his pitches slightly off-course. It is nice to have a closer who is actually human. If I was in his shoes, I would have a heart attack. Fortunately, he composed himself just in time to give Brandon Inge little chance for any mischief. Boiling Busch was ready to explode.

So the Cards will no longer have nine titles under their belt, but I will love them anyway. Confetti time! Fireworks over Mississippi!

Tonight the World Series dreams will be sleeping on a king size bed. And Kenny Rogers who could have pitched but was saved for the hypothetical Game 6 against Carpenter can now play chess instead with Jim Leyland.

Favorite comic moment: After Pujols fell on his back in the 7th to make a play in the field, Weaver filled in at first base, caught his flipped ball and got an important out by vigorously stomping on the bag as if demonstrating a move of some arcane Norwegian dance.

Favorite play: Unfazed Weaver getting his 3rd out in the 6th after a misplayed flyout threatened an unexpected snarl and must surely have thrown off his concentration

Score: Cards 4, Tigers 2

World Series: Game 4

Holy Sabertooth Tiger! This was a thriller.

After two back to back eight-inning chokers, Jeff Suppan offered the Tigers' offense a little breather and was given an honorable discharge in the 6th. By that time the Tigers have bitten three times and for a while that seemed to be enough, except for the fact that Lady Luck was galloping around the stadium in a bright red cape tonight. Scott Rolen must have known that when he attempted that risky double in the 4th to beat the glove of Placido Polanco by a margin ordinarily reserved for downhill skiing.

My friend Courtney says that David Eckstein is the least talented Card and that's why she loves him. Well, tonight she has a reason to open a bottle of the best Chateau de la Gardine she can find. Eckstein was 4 for 5 and hitting like a hammer on amphetamine. When Curtis Granderson slipped en route to Eckstein's seemingly easy flyout, he had no idea that this is just the beginning of a big nightmare for the Tigers' fans. Nor did Eckstein know that this was the lesser of the two kisses Lady Luck chose to impart on his cheeky plays tonight.

At the bottom of the eight, the game tied at four a piece, he hit another ball hard. Craig Monroe sprinted, dove for it, stretched out his hand and... just missed it. The ball kissed to the top of his glove and glanced off onto the green turf, whose vast expanse it apparently desired more than the tight living quarters of the glove's inside. When FOX paused that play, it looked like the ball had gently alighted on the mitt's webbing and balanced there for a moment, pondering whether it should yield to the Coriolis force or not. It seemed suspended in the air, like a prima ballerina frozen in a taut pose, impatiently waiting for the conductor's cue to continue her dance.

Well, the ball skipped off, Miles skittered in and Wainwright brought the ship safely to the harbor. But it was a wild saber dance on high seas tonight.

Favorite comic moment: The Tigers' reliever Fernando Rodney picking up Taguchi's easy bunt and in the heat of the moment throwing it just high over the shocked first baseman Sean Casey as if challenging him for a catching jump

Favorite play: when Preston Wilson singled in the 7th, Pujols ran over second base and out towards third, attracting the attention of Tigers' cut off man (who tagged him out) and buying So Taguchi enough time to score the go-ahead run

Score: Cards 5, Tigers 4

World Series: Game 3

Kenny Rogers is so October 22.

After two low profile appearances against the Mets, Cardinals' turbo-pitcher Chris Carpenter took the center stage with the ferocity of a Maori warrior and hurled one uncompromising spear after another at suddenly toothless Tigers. It was his first World Series appearance and he relished the occasion with a sparkling 3-hitter that caused a steep temperature drop in the greater Detroit area.

Unlike in their series with Boston, when the Cards shot most of their balls into the waiting gloves of Red Sox players, this time around they\ir whole line-up was finding cracks in the Tigers' defense. When Jim Edmonds chipped in with a projectile that sneaked past the first base into the no man's territory, giving Pujols and Rolen plenty of time to score, the Cardinals' odds at baseball betting shops soared to new heights.

Favorite comic moment: at the bottom of 7th, the Tigers' reliever Joel Zumaya threw a comebacker at the phantom Third Baseman, who let the ball pass right through his phantom body into the foul territory, allowing the Cards to chalk up two more runs. The actual third baseman, Brandon Inge, was standing few yards to the left of the base at the time of the incident, apparently inspecting the state of the Busch Stadium's new turf. Knowing the poor catching abilities of phantom Basemen, he made an attempt to return to the third base, but by the time he got there, the whimsical ball was rolling towards the stands to the tune of "Catch Me If You Can"

Favorite play: with the precision of a sniper, David Eckstein hit a ground ball which not only zipped right past the pitcher, but also sauntered between the second baseman and the shortstop with such elegance that you could almost hear the ball saying "excuse me" as it squeezed into the innfield

Score: Cards 5, Tigers 0

World Series: Game 2

Kenny Rogers is blazing.

And he exudes confidence through all of his pores. Apparently, sometimes that confidence condensates on his palm in the form of a pitchy substance. But whatever it was that everyone saw on his hand, tonight it would have been easier to penetrate through the concrete walls at Fort Knox than through his vicious flamethrowing.

Weaver didn't pitch badly, but next to Rogers he looked like an apprentice watching the master. Although the way he got himself out of bases loaded no out in the 2nd was quite entertaining. He put up a fight where he could, but Rogers imposed his commanding presence on every single moment of the game. And you could feel that this was no fluke. He must have been born that way.

After Rogers left, the Cards had exactly one inning to make things happen. That was not much time, especially after Pujols and Spiezio struck out. But Rolen - one strike away from game's end - showed some cloudy bones and hit one into the right field. Encarnacion then reached on an error and Edmonds doubled for the first run. All of a sudden - still with two out - Cards were churning up hits like there was no tomorrow. Wilson loaded the bases and Molina could make the Tigers caterwaul in horror with one well aimed shot.

But that deep hole into which the Tigers were being lured remained a dream. Molina grounded out and the Tigers leaped right over it. A pity Tony didn't pull a power-hitting rabbit out of his baseball hat. There were a couple of those sitting on the bench.

Favorite comic moment: Tiger's closer Todd Jones didn't quite handle Encarnacion's comeback hit, desperately sliding Polanco tried to throw the ball to first, but was able to merely push it towards it, allowing Encarnacion to reach the base before the slowly rolling ball

Favorite play: Aaron Miles controlling the ball with his chest the way soccer players do and starting a double play at the bottom of 2nd

Score: Cards 1, Tigers 3

World Series: Game 1

The Number Nine holds its protective hand over the fate of the St Louis Cardinals.

After all, they bagged exactly nine World Series titles to date and their name spells exactly nine characters. Twice this season, the Cards went into an eight-game skid (something that hasn't happened since 1988) and in both cases managed to win the ninth game. On the second occasion, the victory came at the hands of a rookie pitcher Anthony Reyes, the same pitcher who cool-headedly sewed up their nearly-lethal seven-game tear in September.

So when I looked at the World Series stats and realized that the Cards were having an eight-game losing streak on the road, and the National League had suffered eight consecutive losses and Tony La Russa had a personal losing streak of eight as well, I started hoping against hope that a miracle was in the works. And when the long NLCS with Mets forced Tony LaRussa to start this year's Fall Classic with the most inexperienced of his pitchers, I became almost certain that Anthony Reyes and the Number Nine would combine their powers to conjure up a memorable game.

And they did indeed. Reyes, with fashion-defying knee-high red socks, took the game into the ninth inning with the poise and assuredness of a weathered veteran. There he gave the reins of the game to the reliever Brad Looper, who had obviously fun finishing it off.

Reyes, who is known to iron the bill of his cap, thus also ironed the Cardinals' bill of health and skillfully exorcised all the ghosts lurking in the team's psyche after the Boston massacre two years ago. Once he got past the nervous first inning, he mailed his good bye card to seventeen consecutive batters, mostly using the reliable 95mph express service.

Favorite comic moment: Scott Rolen steam-rolling into the loitering third baseman Brandon Idge in what looked like a perfectly executed ice-hockey body check; I could almost hear him scream: "Dibs on Ribs!"

Favorite play: Pujols testing his hamstring injury on two base steal following Verlander's botched pick-off attempt

Score: Cards 7, Tigers 1

The Power of Randomness

Now that the Cardinals are to make their second World Series appearance in three years, I really get to appreciate my baseball serendipity.

Three Easters ago, at the time when I finally started to begin understanding the rules of baseball, I made my first trip to St. Louis. Shortly after that a colleague of mine suggested that my appreciation of baseball would increase if I chose a team to root for and as one of the candidates she mentioned the Cardinals. Well, with 30 teams to choose from and no obvious candidate at hand, I decided to follow her enthusiasm and go with St Louis.

Considering the fact that I do not have any natural affiliation to any US city, and that my path could have been crossed by any team's fan, I really lucked out. Prior to 2004, the Cards last World Series appearance was in 1987. Yet since then, they have been all over the postseason.

Just consider the following statistic: in the past three years, how many playoff series did the MLB teams offer to their fans? Well, here are the numbers:

8 - St Louis Cardinals
5 - Houston Astros
4 - Boston Red Sox
4 - New York Yankees
3 - Anaheim Angels
3 - Chicago White Sox
3 - Detroit Tigers
2 - Atlanta Braves
2 - Los Angeles Dodgers
2 - Minnesota Twins
2 - New York Mets
2 - Oakland Athletics
2 - San Diego Padres

So thanks to the forces of randomness I got to enjoy eight exciting postseason series. And any baseball fan can tell you that watching the playoffs without your favorite team in them is like driving someone else's Ferrari.


Optimized for Drama

I imagine that on the day of the last game of the NLCS series, the highest of the Gods of Baseball summoned one of his divine interns and told him: "I have an errand for you to run, Wingy Boy. Go to New York and make the Game 7 between the Cards and the Mets as dramatic as possible." And the Wingy Boy flew to New York and turned the Game 7 into such a hair-raising thriller that he soon landed a permanent position on the baseball Olymp as a Lesser God responsible for transforming the hardy fans into heaps of purple jelly.

As I was hoping, Jeff Weaver stared the Mets offence down for the all important 3:2 lead. In the next Game the Cards hesitated and New York baseball kettle reached the boiling point with the Game 7 coming up at the Shea Stadium.

Mets' blogs were abuzz with hopeful expectations that day, but Cards' pitcher Jeff Suppan decided to remake his memorable Game 7 from 2004 (against Astro's Roger Clemens) into a perfect blogbuster. He took no prisoners and even Endy Chavez miraculous over-the-wall catch of Scott Rolen's homer-to-be didn't do much to throw off his throwing. The Game 7 went into the 9th inning tied at 1.

To set up the nerve-wrecking bottom, offensively inconspicuous Yadier Molina shook the living daylights out of an unsuspecting ball for a two run homer, the most valuable hit of his career so far. If anyone in St. Louis was sleeping at the time, they surely were awoken to the screams of his name.

The rest of the show was directed by Cardinals rookie closer Adam Wainwright. And he made sure that the plot thickened considerably. He was finding his rhythm in fits and starts and by the time he got two outs, the bases were loaded with anxious runners. So it all came to this: game 7, bottom of the ninth, two run lead, bases loaded and two out. And standing opposite to Wainwright is a man with whom the Cards have a giant dinosaur bone to pick. Carlos Beltran, who not only homered against them in this series, but also in the 2004 NLCS, then for the archrival Houston.

I am not sure how much nail mass was collectively bitten off in St. Louis during that at bat. I'd guess several pounds. But Wainwright, completely oblivious to this tissue loss was already warmed up enough. 1-2-3. Bye Bye Carlos and Hello Tigers!

Dulles International Airsport

I am not very fond of jogging at airports. The fashion industry doesn't really design jackets with aerodynamics on their mind, baggage can be a drag on your style and the fellow travellers are not usually cheering as heartily as they would at the track-and-field stadium. But after I had the opportunity to run twice on my business trip to Boston I started thinking that track-and-field repertoire should include disciplines such as orienteering from terminal A to terminal B or sprinting through the concourse with a 25lbs carry-on.

First, just as I approached the check-in counter I realized that a couple of important papers got stranded in my car. After a brief consultation with my colleague, I decided to return to the level 1L of the daily parking garage with about 70 minutes left till departure. Gently trotting all the way back, the walkway regurgitated me onto level 3 from which I descended to level 1 only to find that this level is divided and I was clearly in the wrong section. After some creative backtracking I found the appropriate section, my car in it, and the papers in the car. As I started to hurry back, I hoped that God would send a bus. Or at least pause the time. Kind of like chess players do when they hit the clock and the opponent's time start running. And I distinctly felt that this was God's turn to make a move. But I was wrong and when I made it back to the terminal I was wishing that the metal detectors came equipped with a built in shower. Fortunately our flight was late, so my athletic interlude was easily absorbed in the greater scheme of things.

The second opportunity for exercise came about an hour later, when me and my colleague were filling our tanks with Heineken at a small pub just a few yards from the gate - which we carefully checked before we took our seats. However, we had grossly underestimated the bending effect beer has on the perception of time passage. The infamous Heineken Warp! When we realized that our departure time is just minutes away, we dashed on to the nearby gate only to learn that in the meantime our flight was moved to a different terminal and we had about 2 minutes to get there. Yahoo! Back onto the treadmill, this time at twice the speed and accompanied by my colleague. Yet again the day was saved by the United Airlines laxness. The flight was delayed 20 more minutes.

But next time I am flying from Dulles, I am definitely bringing my running shoes.


Midterm report

The Cardinals' duel with Mets is not as lopsided as commentators had you believe before it started. Tied 2:2 after 4 games, it leaves everything as open as the jaws of a bored hippo.

Game 1 - the Pitching Duel: in the opener Jeff Weaver pitched well, sadly Tom Glavine pitched even better and that was that for that game. Beltran's homer gave Mets a 2:0 win.

Game 2 - the Resurrection: unlikely heroes came out of woodworks in this game. Game seemed lost at the top of the 7th before Scott Spiezio's triple erased whatever little lead Mets head. And then the abominable Mets closer, Billy Wagner, allowed a cast of Cardinals lead by not-so-abominable So Taguchi stage a dazzling production of resurrection in the 9th. Cards won 9:6.

Game 3 - Suppan's Gem: Cardinals pitcher Jeff Suppan will probably have this game framed. Not only he delivered 8 shutout innings, but he also homered - for the second time in his career. Josh Kinney made the closing statement brief and painless. The runs collected at the beginning of the game carried through - the Cards 5:0.

Game 4 - the Nightmare: the moment the Cards ceased to be perceived as underdogs, their performance plummeted. They are clearly not comfortable as favorites. What could go wrong today, went wrong indeed. A pity that those solo-homers didn't have more meat on them. Let's forget this game. Mets won 12:5

My designated luck-carrier Jeff Weaver is pitching tomorrow. That may be the key game.

Rocking the cradle

The highest mountain in Vermont is rocky and bouldery. You don't really need any mountaineering gear to make it to the top, but you do have to watch the rough-hewn trail and pay attention to your balance. Yeah, the one in the checkbook of the gravitational force.

On our last day in Vermont, we took a ride to Mount Mansfield and after a short hike conquered its peak. My friend Jindrich even took his 18 months old baby girl Anna-Lucia, so she could experience the pleasures of drooling in thin mountain air. She rested comfortably on his back in a sophisticated harness and, judging by her contented humming, she was quite captivated by the scenery.

Since Jindrich got tired during the descent, I was entrusted with carrying the baby for most of the way down. Hopping from a rock to a rock on my own was quite enjoyable, because my legs knew what the rest of the body was doing. But having a whimsical baby on my back gave it an unexpected twist.

Every now and then Anna-Lucia decided to lean one way or another in the middle of a climbing maneuver and that, of course, changed the center of gravity of the two-body physical system Backpacker - Backpackee in a completely arbitrarily way. Or at least they seemed arbitrary. Although at times I had the impression that Anna-Lucia was deliberately trying to push our shared center of gravity into locations that were well out of the reach of my feet.

It felt like driving Indy 500 with the proviso that every so often the steering wheel makes a small random turn. Quite fun. I think that mountaineering with a live cargo would make a nice addition to the family of extreme sports. With a baby replaced by a pair of dithering penguins.


Weaving some magic

Two years ago I wrote a little text about the Cardinals in which I used the word "wainwrighting". I learned that word from my Scottish friend Arthur and since it is rather obscure I thought I would never see it again. Wrong. The Cardinals' regular closer Jason Isringhausen got injured and his place was taken by a guy named Adam Wainwright. That's magic.

But when it comes to pitching, I hope that this postseason's magic bearer will be Jeff Weaver. He has improved greatly from the hapless start in July and his Game 2 against Padres was as solid as the oak table in Walt Jocketty's office. So it is kind of befitting that it is he who is going to open the NLCS series against Mets.

In the meantime the Cards themselves seemed touched by a magic wand. After an unmemorable September, they quickly regrouped and by the time they were showing Padres the postseason door, they looked as sharp as in 2004. And getting better by the game.

And I have to admit that this season I actually weaved some magic myself. I put the Cards logo on my iChat icon in the office, I got a license plate with a cardinal (which by the stroke of luck is the state bird of Virginia) and on my TV set I placed a special good luck charm which I brought all the way from Prague. An item whose charming powers can be blocked off only by a concrete wall 16-inches thick and laced with Brad Lidge's cuff-links.

So I better see some magic brewing on the field as well, otherwise I am going to lose all my trust in the supernatural character of this Universe.

The Orange Vermont Werewolf

If you ever hike in Vermont and if you are prone to luck, you may catch a glimpse of a fleeting patch of orange peeking here and there between the trees. You rub your eyes and refocus. Your nostrils bestir. Is this some sort of mirage, a visual delusion incurred by excessive peering into the woods. Well, not really, the chances are that you have just crossed the path of one of the most elusive creatures on the surface of this Earth - the Orange Vermont Werewolf.

The beast looks like a normal garden variety wolf, except for a large orange spot on its back. It is known to eat grubs, gophers, wild boars, beavers, humans and occasionally smoked oysters wrapped in bacon and lamb chops with tzatziki sauce. According to legends, it attacks its victims by howling "Frere Jacques" in a pitch so high that no human ear can withstand it. When provoked, it is also capable of precision spitting fiery razor blades up to the distance of 300 yards.

The Werewolf's DNA has never been decoded although 200 grams of prime werewolf ground meat are located on the top shelf in the Spam Pavilion of the Museum of Unopened Cans. The treasured trophy was donated by a local butcher from Montpellier whose giant meat grinder was unsuccessfully attacked by a werewolf in 1950s. The autopsy showed that the wretched animal was short-sighted and probably mistook the shaking appliance for a female werewolf in heat.

But enough of background information.

I have a friend who lives in Boston, but his in-laws have a family cottage in Stowe, VT, so when he invited me for a visit this weekend I immediately smelled the possibility of an encounter with the mythical beast. My hopes were greatly reinforced when I realized that the moon was full. In fact, it was so full I wished I had brought an illustrated copy of "Howling for Dummies" with me.

On Saturday, we went to see a place about 5 miles behind the Trapp Family Lodge where we could supposedly see live beavers. We bought a pack of lemon laced crackers and armed with two cameras set out into the woods. Well, long story short: we didn't see any beavers, they must have all been holed up in their little burrows, watching the AL Division Series. It almost looked that our hectic trek from the Lake Mansfield Trout Club all the way up to the Taylors Lodge will leave us empty handed. A trek, which didn't result in broken bones only owing to the fact that the 9th Infantry Division of Guardian Angels had a field training exercise in the northern Vermont that day.

At the end of the day though, the Gods took mercy on us. About half way between the lake and the beaver's dam, we espied a flashing orange blotch on the sloping hill above the trail. A thrilling waft of suspenseful expectation percolated down our spine. The critter noticed us. Like a sailboat criss-crossing against the wind, it slowly approached us. Its nozzle sniffed around for a bit and, realizing that we do not carry any oysters, snorted contemptuously. The rest of the body then trotted off to catch some beavers and the nozzle went with it.


Social Engineering Proposal

According to MapQuest, the driving time between McLean, VA and Stowe, CT is 9 hours and 38 minutes. So when it took us 12 hours and 50 minutes to get to my friend's house in Vermont I knew that the transportation arteries of the Eastern Seaboard are asking for a major heart attack. When you see a sign "Three Lanes Closed Ahead" on a four-lane highway, you know that the comatose traffic crawls to hell. But having a constructive mind, I'd like to propose a slightly non-traditional, mildly objectionable, but 100% functional solution to this problem.

The diagnose is clear - the DC and NYC metros grew way too fat, so let's give the oldest part of this country a little liposuction! I hereby propose that we move both cities deep inland and put a restraining order on their proximity to the Atlantic Ocean.

New York first. Since apples like colder climates, I would suggest to relocate the Big Apple from the Hudson River to the Hudson Bay, somewhere just north of Povungnituk. The New York skyline will look elegant against the cool waters of the Bay and the bears on Wall Street will finally find a habitat they could relate to. The Central Park will segue nicely into arctic tundra and the nearby Fifth Avenue will look much more authentic as a dirt road. Even more so when the New York cabbies are discreetly replaced by moose-drawn caravans with Inuit wagoners. That move itself will simultaneously decrease pollution and increase the New Yorkers' chances of making themselves understood.

With the DC, the situation is more problematic because the country's capital cannot be easily moved into northern Canada. I know, its capacity to absorb major metropolitan areas is virtually limitless, but you can't really run a country with a remote control. So I'd say Kansas.

Capitals should be sitting pretty in the middle of their country (exhibit 1: Brazil). The politicos will probably get a bit cornier, but the stench of their shady deals won't reach the bucolic air of either coast. On the other hand, pigs happily roaming the Capitol Hill will bring a long needed injection of wholesomeness to the scene. And I bet the Corn Beltway will never be jammed. We are not in Washington DC any more, Toto.

With Boston, Philadelphia and Baltimore remaining the only major hubs alongside I-95, a trip from Chesapeake Bay to Canada should become a joyful breezy fiesta.

Skipper's Gamble

For the Cardinals' fans, the finale of this years' regular season was a surreal cliff-hanger, involving lots of swearing, nail-biting, praying and head-shaking. Two weeks ago the Cards were cruising on an auto-pilot with a comfortable 7 game cushion (and 13 to play), yet they nearly squandered it away.

In a week which almost made the MLB history, the Astros won 7 straight, while the Birds frittered away just as many, narrowing the gap between the two leading teams to half a game. Since baseball is a game of rigorous statistics, you can actually calculate the odds of that happening by chance. They are daunting: 1 in 16,000.

So like in a good suspense thriller it all came down to the last day, when the Cards hosted Milwaukee and the Astros were camping in Atlanta. With the whole season at stake, the Cardinals' manager Tony LaRussa made a risky gamble, letting the ace pitcher Chris Carpenter rest for the postseason-to-be and leaving the fate of the whole team in the hands of inexperienced Anthony Reyes.

Well, the Cards lost, but so did the spent Astros. Neither team was able to withstand the crushing weight of responsibility. All's well that ends well, however, and thanks to LaRussa's ruse, we will be able to start the division series with our best man on the mound and with songs of gratitude for pinch-hitter Scott Spiezio, whose unlikely triple yesterday made it all possible.

I think that this excruciating snag was actually a blessing in disguise. Unlike the previous two seasons, when the Cards played under the psychological umbrage of 100+ wins, this year they are joining the fray as underdogs. Everyone is raving about the Twins and the Tigers and the Subway Series and that gives the Cards a room to breathe and the coveted "nothing to lose" attitude.

Baseball is all about psychology. No expectations to fulfill can really liberate your wings - so dear Cardinals: here is to your chance to fly far and away!

Emperor's New Jeans

I often wonder what happens when you put new clothes on an old body. What if "North by Northwest" was remade by Quentin Tarantino? What if medieval castles were furnished with a little help from IKEA? What if Anne Boleyn with modern coiffure slipped into a pair of knee-high boots and a leather jacket? What if Starbucks started dispensing its Braino Draino in tiny porcelain cups?

Yesterday, I went to a concert of a band named "Cechomor" that tries to put a fitting rock costume on a centuries old body of Czech Folklore Music. Judging by their efforts in the park surrounding the Czech Embassy, their experiment became a resounding success, spearheaded by the sonorous voices singing in harmony with the rustic Moravian grit and by the violin playing ferociously two strings at a time, here and there teased with the sound of bagpipes. They all combined well with the raw lyrics celebrating raw beauty life and the drummer's unrelenting rhythm, which made you feel like you are on an express train from Prague to Olomouc.

And so I sat there and let myself drown in a music that had the electric jive of modern rock, yet originated in times when the Czech lands where ruled by Austro-Hungarian emperors from Vienna. In times when deep woods were roamed by knights and peasants, and local creeks were fringed with women scrubbing their clothes on primitive washboards.

And when I closed my eyes, I could see a dirt road winding among pastures and fields, circling around rolling hills covered with trees. And I could hear a violoncello making furrows in the air like a ploughman walking slowly behind his till. And I could smell freshly turned Earth breathing out the fertile Moravian harmonies.



Every Sunday, unless I am out of town, busy, crippled or possessed, I play soccer with a bunch of mostly foreign guys at the Spring Hill Recreational Park. After the game, the Czech contingent usually makes a beerline for McKeever's to replenish lost liquids with a few glasses of cold gold. Especially on a sultry summer Sunday. And you know it is a sultry summer Sunday when everybody wants to play a goalie.

McKeevers is a little Irish pub, not far from where I work, nestled in the middle a short passage on Old Dominion, right behind the French restaurant Tatti. It is a classical pub with its bar besieged by numerous bottles of exotic liquors, the curvaceous glassy harlots trying to pry into the fancy of the pub's patrons. Dark wooden panels divide the room into cozy compartments, each equipped with matching wooden furniture. The hem of the surrounding walls is adorned by antique pencil drawings of feeble looking men in belligerent postures of boxing. And the beer foam is circulated by a Material Girl, who cascades down the narrow aisle and wears her youth like a beacon.

Our table always turns into a miniature Czech bubble in which we drink Czech beer and tell each other dirty Czech jokes which, if translated, would cause a hefty lawsuit or, in countries of more oriental inclination, even a severed limb. But as the tally of cool Pilseners increases, I start noticing different things: there is Shere Khan purring under the table on a heap of beer coasters and chewing on threads of string cheese; there is the rusty book of life with a red rose on every page; there is the trio of miniature stunt bears dancing on a silver spoon, and there is the wickery of old times gently weeping into daffodil bags (no, I don't know what "wickery" is either, but it is there).

And then, of course, come the brilliant ideas!

You know how sometimes they infect you with a mild form of a disease so you body develops an antidote. I think it is called an inoculation. Why can't we use the same principle for say mugging. Everybody will get lightly mugged by a professional pediatric mugger at the age of 10 and then for the rest of their natural life they'll be perfectly immune to all forms of violent behavior, whether they stroll the sidewalks of Bronx or East St Louis.

Hmmmm, I better get it patented before I sober up.

The Polar Sun

I don't think I could live in arctic regions where a day lasts for half a year. Continuous daylight is uncanny. I need night too. Darkness. A reprieve from visual bombardment. Plus there is something sinister about the Polar Sun. The way it skims the land in the distance, never really able to soar and thaw the icebergs. The way it circles the outskirts of the heavens like a wheezing zombie. Eternal chill is too much to pay for an everlasting day. But the three-dimensional geometry of our solar system is implacable. If you want the Sun to speak up, you also have to let it sink deep beneath the horizon. And that's not gonna happen near the Pole.

When I was growing up in communism, everything was forcefully peachy. The bright outlook for the economy's five year plan, the joyful looks on the faces of the working classes celebrating May the 1st, the jubilant voices of the country's poets. But all that optimism was like the Polar Sun. Incessantly shining, yet thermally impotent. Even as a kid I knew that some things in life were good and some were bad and I never really understood what was the purpose of all the whitewashing. Ironically, those empty cheers became communism's demise, for the rendering of reality and the reality itself grew so far apart, that the whole system became completely hollow and one day simply imploded. It died from the lack of negative feedback.

And it works on an individual level too. I once had a colleague who would never ever say anything negative about our projects. Yet after some time all his words of support and encouragement became as irrelevant as the polar sunshine, for they were never contrasted by anything negative. On the other hand, when one of my professors of physics who hardly ever complimented students said that my solution was "pretty good", it really meant something. So I often wonder: when did we become such wussies that we cannot take a bit of criticism when things don't turn out well? The criticism that would give praise some substance.

I mean we all have some talents and we all have some shortcomings. So why do we have to put a massive positive spin on every single aspect of our lives? Are we trying to dig into a parallel universe, where everyone extols Mein Kampf for its interesting grammar and atomic bomb is widely admired for its cute shape, second only to the Coca-Cola bottle? How about a little dose of sincerity instead? For instance I cannot sing. I mean technically I can, but to the outside world my vocals are enjoyable only with a pitcher of morphine. Yet if it wasn't for some good friends who told me so, I might have been making a fool of myself on the American Idol. For I thought I sang pretty well. Now thanks to their help, I can devote my time to activities in which I am actually good, or at least non-atrocious.

One more thing: sometimes I meet people who claim they are happy all the time. I don't buy that. Not even with a stolen credit card. If you are happy all the time, then your mood is like the Polar Sun. Creeping along the horizon, keeping its head just barely above water. By a mere inch. And that is a bit too shallow for my taste. I don't think you can experience that exalting joy which rips through your soul like a fuming tornado if you are unwilling, from time to time, to wade through the quagmire of crushing sorrow.

Don't get me wrong. I believe that upbeat mentality should have the upper hand. But "everything with moderation" my grandma used to say. I think we should just be realistic with a positive bias. No reason to push it to the extremes, because people who are constantly positive and constantly happy are the Polar Suns. They do shine all the time, but their rays do not carry any warmth.


The Cardinals in Town

In general I try to avoid wearing red articles of clothing. This town is full of hungry wolves and when I come home at night, I do not want to be mistaken for a Red Riding Hoodlum. But every year I get one chance to wear a T-shirt whose redness would make comrades in Kremlin swell with pride. That chance comes when the Cards cross their bats with the Nats, which this year happened to be on the Labor Day.

Watching baseball on TV and in a stadium are two very different experiences. Kind of like looking at photos of the Grand Canyon and actually being there. If real estate agents handled the MLB, their motto would undoubtedly be: "Perspective, perspective, perspective".

With each fly ball, you can make a quick mini wager with yourself whether it would become a homer. With each at bat, you get to see tiny little tactical corrections in the configuration of players. And best of all, you get to be one of the co-recipients of those lovely audio-visual cues for a crowd to be spontaneous, which most spectators heed with unfettered enthusiasm, except those that are too busy converting various food groups into a mess around their seats.

This time I got to sit just a few yards behind the Cardinals' bullpen, so it almost felt like I was stationed on the field itself. I could study facial expressions of players as they were making their plays, I could hear the noises generated by the game and, rather sadly, I could also see the devastating pitches of the Nats' starting pitcher Ramon Ortiz in high-definition rendering. Ortiz came within three outs from throwing a no-hitter, which put a crowd into the state of frenzied exuberance, for such heroic feat had been unseen on the MLB turf since Randy Johnson's tour-de-force in May of 2004.

But history is notoriously hard to make. In the ninth the Cardinals did score a hit and even a run to make the score a little bit more swallowable (1:4).

This time last year the Cards were already pondering the postseason strategy. This season's fate still hangs in the balance.

Another Secret Garden

Every major tourist destination has its centerpiece. Paris has its Eiffel Tower, New York has its Times Square, Sidney has its opera. But when you actually live in these places, sooner or later you will start discovering hidden gems. Places not highlighted in glossy tourism brochures. Places that resonate with the bass strings of your soul. I call them "secret gardens".

In Prague, my favorite secret garden is Novotneho Lavka. It is a small platform overlooking a weir on the Vltava River. If you get there at night, you will see two very distinct water surfaces. The one underneath the weir, where lights flicker restlessly on feuding ripples like colors on Claude Monet's "La Cathedrale de Rouen", and the one above the weir, where the water surface glistens smoothly like an art nouveau poster of Alfons Mucha. If you ever get to Prague, ask for the Museum of Bedrich Smetana. The place is right there.

This weekend I finally discovered my "secret garden" in the greater Washington, DC area. But you won't find it on the National Mall, nor is it in the neighborhood of Dupont Circle or Adams Morgan. You have to hop on I-270, take exit 9B and head for the Washingtonian Center in Gaithersburg, to a locale known to locals as Rio.

You will find a little lake with a simple fountain ensconced in one of its inlets and separated from the main body by an elegantly arching wooden bridge. The lake's shores are encircled by cemented paths and boardwalks that provide easy access to plentiful shops, cozy restaurants and a movie theater. If you go for a leisurely walk, you will also find benches populated by bronze life-size animals. But not to worry, the creatures are bashfully wall-flowering on the side so two people can easily fit in. If you are looking to spend a relaxed Friday night at a trendy place, yet away from the trendy crowds, check it out. You may like it.

And if you have the same infatuation with neon lights reflecting off the water surface as I do, you may even love it.


Your Conversation Mode: Baseball or Soccer?

In my lifetime I have seen talk fests galore and at some point I noticed that most conversations fall into one of the following two categories: either they are highly formal and structured, typically rendered by distinguished British ladies over a cup of tea at 5 o'clock; or they are spontaneous and unrestrained, bound only by the laws of the jungle and vigorously practiced by savages unversed in the arts of higher etiquette.

The first mode reminds me of baseball - plays have their scripted roles, the game is quite predictable, but also more prone to showcase its subtleties because nuances are always easier to spot in an ordered and regimented environment. The possession of the ball is predetermined by the rules of the game, which means that if one side is pitching the other side has no chance of taking the ball away from them. Much like when Lady Macbeth speaks, no one else will dare jump into her oratory.

The second mode is more like soccer - a freely flowing action, configurations of players continuously changing with no telling what's going to happen next. The ball possession is up for grabs and can switch at any given moment. People engaged in this mode of conversation can interrupt each other at will, and they often do, wrestling the floor from each other like a bunch of tiger cubs playing with one spool of wool.

Which mode of conversation is preferable is a matter of taste. The baseball-mode is more polite and suitable for strangers, but I almost always prefer the soccer-mode for it better conveys the passion for the subject. It is also very adaptive and when you want the discussion to reach a point, no idle talk can withstand its brutal evolutionary razor. When someone starts rambling, the rest of the pack will butt in and rescue the original direction.

But then again, such mode can easily slip into a brawl, and there are definitely times in life when a little structure goes a long way to keeping things in check. Times when you want a dance instead of a melee.

Pluto is a planet, Goofy isn't

Pluto is definitely one of my favorite planets. An outlier wending its way so far out that the Sun must seem like a mere bright dot from its frozen surface and the whole intergalactic space is just a stone's throw away. The ninth planet discovered when I was merely -31 years of age. The mysterious orb. If I was a planet, I'd love to be a Pluto, the guardian dog circling the outskirts of our world on a very flimsy leash.

Yet today, at the astronomical congress in Prague, Pluto was stripped of its planetary status and with it of all the attendant perks. No more frolicking in youngster's memory, no more luring NASA space crafts into its lonely kingdom, no more guest appearances on TV trivia shows. In a few years, it will regress from a household name to an obscure item in almanacs of cranky astronomers.

I know it is just a small rock and the eccentricity of its orbit is a tad higher than is customary for the Newton law abiding denizens of the Solar System, but it has been inciting our imagination for nearly 80 years and it has earned a firm place in our culture.

A friend of mine has a pair of rabbits and when I once asked him whether he would ever eat them, he said with a lick of indignation: "I don't eat anything that has a name". And I think we should follow the suit here and not demote any celestial body to which we have given a moniker.


And the vultures fly low

Today we went to a Greek restaurant for a lunch and as we were sitting at our table, I thought how cool it would be, if there were vultures flying above us, hovering alertly just beneath the ceiling, their wide wings silently slicing the air, their talons ready to pounce on an unsuspecting carcass of souvlaki. I told my colleagues about this, but they didn't think it would be cool at all.

August 9, 1991 (Newark, NJ)

On August 9, exactly 15 years ago, I landed at the Newark International Airport, weaved my way through the immigration maze and prolapsed into a go-go hood where people where uttering words that in no way resembled those from my English textbooks. The cultural impact was overwhelming. The buzzing hub of an airport, the New Jersey turnpike, the continuous flow of people and honking cars made me feel like a baby that was just born into a completely unwomblike environment.

What a shock! Having taken a bus to Prague, then a train to Frankfurt and finally a Continental flight to Newark - I underwent a gradating sequence of traveling crescendos which snatched me from my sleepy hometown in Eastern Bohemia and hurled me into the vortex of a metropolitan area whose population was larger than that of the whole Czechoslovakia. Gingerly, I made my first steps in the New World.

Today, the ratio between my Czech and American years became 29 to 15, so mathematically speaking I should be one third American and two thirds Czech. But life is not governed by the rules of arithmetics. I actually consider myself both Czech and American and I am grateful for that because, having friends on both sides of the Atlantic, it feels like living two lives at the same time.

The Czech Republic is like a mother to me. I have indisputable blood ties to that country. I was raised in its warm embrace and educated in its brick schools. I ate Czech bread and I drank Czech beer. The United States on the other hand is like a wife. I chose to live in this country. I found it special enough to spend the rest of my days in it.

I love both countries dearly. One of them is the world's sole superpower, the other one is just a picturesque valley in the middle of Europe. One of them will haul you into seemingly infinite stretches of land, the other one will haunt you in centuries old castles. And driving across the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco is just as memorable as walking across the Charles Bridge in Prague. The streamlined performance versus attentive contemplation. Both worlds have their pros and cons.

Sometimes, however, one has to make a choice. Like at this year's World Cup, where the Team USA played their first match against the Czech Republic. Without a moment's hesitation I chose to root for the Czechs. After all, it was the Czechs who gave me my first soccer bruises and that's what counts in this department. If you were born in say St Louis you also wouldn't root for the Red Sox just because you moved to Boston. There! You can divorce your wife, but you can't divorce your Mom.


Leave it to Weaver

Baseball is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get. Tonight, the Cardinals started their four game series against the Cincinnati Reds. Considering their recent performance (2-8), the Reds must have smelled the blood in the air and with it the chance of becoming the top dog of the NL Central. When I started watching the webcast I expected a drawn out battle with an uncertain ending. But today's dose of chocolate was sweet rather than bitter. The Cards pulverized the second team in their division 13-1.

Yesterday I bought the piano sheet for the Feather Theme from the movie "Forest Gump". It looked deceptively simple. Written in A major, it has a simple flitting melody and a baseline rhythmically breathing its As and Es. But when I started practicing it, I realized that its simplicity is just a delusion and that my right hand not only doesn't know what my left hand is doing, but somehow it doesn't want to know. As if the two parts were rhythmically incompatible.

On the surface of things, the Cardinals' lopsided victory looked simple too. But I am sure Jeff Weaver, the starting pitcher, spent endless hours to get his rhythm right. Having struggled through three games in fits and starts, he delivered six unwavering innings. Thanks to him, the victory seemed as effortless as if it was the falling feather from the movie.

The good news is that the next three pitchers in line are Anthony Reyes, who halted the recent eight game skid, Jason Marquis, who leads the NL in victories (12) and finally Chris Carpenter, who happens to be Chris Carpenter. The bad news is that the Reds know what is at stake here. This is probably their last train to Banbury Cross and they will run their bases hard to catch it. Run, Forrest, run!

To drum up some acoustic support, the club has even been selling the seats for half-price and offering $1 hotdogs to boot. Yet neither cheap seats nor cheap hotdogs could lure the lukewarm Cincinnatians into the ballpark. It belonged to St Louis.

In the movie, Little Jenny says: "Dear God, make me a bird."

Jeff Weaver became one tonight.

McLean, 101F

Today I woke up as a fish. I swam to the bathroom, took a cold bubble bath, had some corn snowflakes for breakfast and went to work. My Honda submarine successfully avoided several icebergs floating over the Old Chain Bridge Road. The waters were freezing and I had to keep an eye on my engine so it wouldn't overcool. At 10am I arrived in the office, where I was snowed under with work for the entire day. The AC had been raging on the whole previous night, so it really felt more like an on-ice than off-ice. I took a short lunch-break with my officemates, the Penguin, Snowhite, the Cross Country Skier, the Eskimo, the Abominable Snowman, and Eric. I made some favorable comments about Snowwhite's permafrost garden and she smiled at me coldly. While we munched on shredded icicles, we discussed the principles of igloo architecture, the threats of global cooling and why the Cardinals' victorious spirit was suddenly put on ice.

After work I swam to the movies to see the Ice Age 3 and then I went to the gym to exercise on a snow blower. Yeah, for a fish a snow blower is a blast. On my way home I heard this story on a radio about another fish who won a lottery and in a fit of joy leaped out of the water briefly and was instantaneously fried to death. When I returned home, my bedroom was turned into a hollow glacier in the middle of which I recognized the gloomy ghost of Franz Kafka tying the shoelaces on his ice-skates. But I didn't have to worry about insurance or anything. My Allstate agent put "-icy" in my policy long time ago.

Requiem for a Fallen Feather

Sadly, our actions do not live in vacuum. They are always seen against the backdrop of other people's actions, of moods, of situations we are in, of circumstances unseen and unforeseen. And that is part of the reason why what we do and what we say sometimes comes out right and sometimes it doesn't. So life sometimes gives us what we want for free, and sometimes it won't give it to us at all, no matter how much we are willing to pay for it.

Yesterday I lost a friend. A person so unique that I never really learned how to talk to her. Whenever someone disappears from my life, a slow moving caravan of recollections passes over the desert of my mind. Memories of misunderstandings that were never clarified, of conversations that never started, of invitations that were turned down, they all plough silently through the indifferent sand. And in the night when the caravan slips into its oasis, all those wasted opportunities solidify into tiny sharp daggers. My cuddly little tentmates.

Libera me, Domine,
de morte aeterna,
in die illa tremenda.


Yours is no disgrace

Every now and then it is a good idea to undust your old CDs, open the case and stick the binary packed minifrisbee into the CD player. Today I gave this treatment to a song titled "Yours is no disgrace".

Yes recorded it in the early 70s and I haven't heard it for quite some time. Many of my all-time favorites slowly wane with time, but this one was as raw, succulent, breathtaking, perplexing and uncompromising as when I heard it the first time. Almost as if it existed in some sort of a stable quantum state in which it can forever revolve in my mind without losing any energy.

One thing I always admired about Yes is the respect for their own music. The intensity of this piece sometimes reminds me of the first 122 measures of Beethoven's Grosse Fuge. Such intensity, of course, demands an extra fuel, so the band starts you off with an Intro, which is really nothing else than building up a pressure or pumping gas into the tank, if you will, so that the whole piece will not die somewhere along its tortuous, fourteen minutes long path. And Yes would rather take up a bit of your time than let their music lose its potency.

I never understood the song's ethereal lyrics, but somehow I think it is about searching. How frustrating it can be. And how deeply embedded in us it is. There is a perky little tune presented after the Intro, but when it is supposed to reappear, according to the standard rules of musical repetition, it fails. It has always seemed to me that the rest of the composition is just one desperate search for that tune. A search that drags you through the jungles of jumpy guitar riffs. Through thorny shrieks of harmony that draw blood from your ear-drums. Through dark alleys of human existence. And only when you lose all your faith, just as you reconcile with your defeat, the theme comes back in full glory. Unexpected any more. Puzzling as life itself.

A friend of mine once half-jokingly remarked that she would entrust her two daughters to anyone with a heartbeat. I remember how I balked at the frivolousness of that statement, but on a second thought, I realized that heartbeat is actually a rather scarce commodity, both in music and in people.

The warm feeling of a pulse is exactly what gives this Yes song its longevity. It's like with toys: even the bravest tin soldiers and the blondest Barbies will lose their allure after some time. But kittens and puppies hold their own for a long, long time; often for years. And the difference is simple: the heartbeat. The things that live are unique, and that goes for music too. I am not sure what it is about the living things, but they are pretty close to being inimitable. Case in point: according to bio-researchers, even the cloned pets are not quite the same as the originals.

The collective wisdom of humanity always recognizes and rewards this uniqueness. I am sure 100 years from now you will still be able to get Yes at your music store. What I am less sure of is what kind of medium will their songs be recorded on. Probably a digitized pollen speck that you will smoothly sniff up your nose. Yours is no disgrace.

Watch This Space

Of all the library buildings that I have seen so far, my favorite is the one adorning the campus of the University of California at San Diego, which I visited this weekend with a friend of mine. Not only is it surrounded by a grove with a couple of fake metal trees inconspicuously and mischievously interwoven among the living ones, but it also assumes a daring mushroomy form indicating an imminent architectonic shift. It is an edifice truly worthy of dispensing knowledge and penmanship in the 21st century.

Being confronted with such an audacious statement, I had no choice but enter. It looked fairly normal on the inside except for one large glass display case. A show case that was clearly on the verge of being filled with a major scientific discovery, for its temporary emptiness was mitigated by a suspenseful notice: "Watch This Space".

Being a law-abiding citizen, I always heed public notices. At first I thought that I was supposed to watch this space, because something extraordinary would happen. So I kept staring at the glass cabinet, hoping that Rolling Stones would materialize out of the thin air or that a wormhole into a parallel Universe would issue or that its transparent air mass would suddenly inspissate into a chicken soup and leak on the floor, but none of that happened.

So I figured the notice was trying to imply something else. Maybe it meant something like "please, watch this dog". I thought some guard might have been watching this dangerous space, but needed to go to the bathroom and asked the general public for little assistance while he was tending to his bodily functions. So I continued watching that space, making sure it wouldn't make any false moves. But the space was pretty quiet and didn't seem to be very keen on running away. An average space is usually pretty sedentary. But it is capable of running, mind you, and when it does, it is called a wind. But this one didn't, so I had it easy. Frankly, this was one of the best behaved spaces I ever watched.

I didn't really want to interrupt my civic duty, but my friend and his sister started showing signs of impatience. So I left the glass cabinet to its own devices without ever finding out what happened to those ten cubic feet of mysterious space.


A Pat on the Back

When I was a kid, I wanted to swim in the Pacific Ocean. In the ocean that was farthest away from my homeland and that harbored the three true masterpieces of tropical islandry: Hawaii, Tahiti and Easter Island. But whenever I visit the West Coast, I realize that unlike its Atlantic counterpart this ocean is surprisingly immune to the epidemic of global warming. And since I am deeply distrustful of any body of water under 75F that poses an obvious problem.

Still, any time I visit California, I give it a try. This time around I visited a beach on the Coronado Island. There were some surfers in the water plus a bunch of crazy kids who apparently haven't been taught yet that cold water is cool only in the bottled form. I entered the chilly blue wetness with fairly good resolve, but when the water reached my knees it was as clear as the sky that today's mission would be heavily underaccomplished.

More by inertia than determination I went few more yards away from the land and turned around. But just as I did so, a huge and rather churlish wave sneaked up on me and slapped my back so hard that I lost my balance and darted into the ocean. Being utterly afloat, I started plying my strokes.

Thus I finally learned how it feels to swim in the Pacific ocean. And had I been a better apprentice, I could have made it to Hawaii, Tahiti or Easter Island. Life is such a kind teacher though. All you have to do is show up for classes. And if you lose your heart in the last moment - it always finds a way to give you a hearty pat on the back. Frankly, every now and then we need one. But we have to be at the right spot for that pat to work.

A Bulgarian Castle

This planet has myriads of strange laws that make understanding of the meaning of life more difficult than bribing an army of hostile silicon-based aliens with scratch lottery tickets. One of those pesky laws is that you often find things in places where, according to the Principles of Physics, they shouldn't really be.

Take Bulgarian Castles, for instance. Under normal atmospheric conditions, they should be crowning some quiet Balkan mountains, crumbling slowly in the salty wind, and proudly remembering the trepidation they sowed among the Turkish warriors of yore. I visited Bulgaria twice, but I hadn't found any - although, admittedly, in both cases I had made a beeline for the seashore, so I probably wouldn't have noticed them even if they had been operated by the Consortium of Las Vegas Triple Twinkle Super Duper Realtors.

This weekend, however, I unexpectedly bumped into one in Southern California. A friend of mine invited me to stay with his family, and the moment we crossed a retractable drawgate and started climbing a steep inclined driveway I knew we were headed for a Bulgarian Castle, which notion was summarily fortified with a swimmable moat, arched pillars and enormously high ceiling in the main hall.

The spacious interior obviously had amazing acoustics, which made me eventually lose all the remaining confidence in my singing abilities, because - as it turned out - Bulgarian Castles come equipped not only with a king, a queen and a princess, but also with karaoke. On the other hand I regained my belief that grandeur and simplicity do not have to be mutually exclusive.

It was impressive without trying to impress, it had a style without lapsing into pompousness and it was perfectly functional without being technologically overwhelming. It was a house that seemed to have been built in long forgotten times when people had time enough to think things through.


Vexation Of Jeff

Another intriguing thing about baseball is its luscious statistical thicket that can ensnare many an unsuspecting wonderer in its spinney maze. To a person unfamiliar with fast data prestidigitation, an erudite dialog of two coffee beans announcing the game on TV may resemble a page from Encyclopaedia Britannica. It might go like this:

A. And Pujols chalked up another hit today.
B. You don't say, he has been batting 0.344 this season.
A. Oh yeah, but with players on base he is 0.345
B. True, and if it rains, he is actually 0.346.
A. Also, he's batting 0.347 when the pitcher doesn't smoke.
B. Sure he does, and 0.348 when the game falls on the full moon.
A. By the way, did you know that the MLB record in this department is held by one Lance Werewolf from the Houston Whatchamacallits?
B. Of course I do, in 1933 he batted 0.371 with players on base on rainy days under full moon against non-smoking pitchers.

Meanwhile elsewhere in this Universe, the Cardinals acquired Jeff Weaver from the Angels to bolster their crumbling pitching staff. I am not sure what the MLB archives have to say about a situation like this, but to suffer 15 runs from subpar Braves on the debut night of the pitching savior must be some sort of a record. Although to Jeff's defense it needs to be said that only 6 runs were scored on his watch. The whole bullpen took the day off tonight. I don't wanna potch at patchy pitching, but if this is a start of a new trend, I'm gonna turn this keyboard into a Bullpoint Pen.

...and AL won again (sigh)

To all my friends that hate baseball: it is NOT a sport. Get over it. Nor is it an application of psychology to ballistics, a more athletic version of chess, a staring contest, a retirement home for statisticians, a figurespitting championship or just bunch of guys diving in circles. It is simply a baseball. A universe of its own.

Nine innings of one set of special skills pitted against another one in a sequence of man-to-man battles. Or if you are a soccer fan - you can think of it as an infinite series of penalty kicks. Mano a mano. A series where you can be one out away from victory and yet have it snatched away from you by a lucky shot, just like the NL did yesterday. But what I love most about it - it is a game riddled with superstitions and magic.

Now that the season is at its midpoint, I have to share one peculiar piece of coincidence that relates to my favorite baseball team, the St Louis Cardinals. I went to visit the Czech Republic between June 20th and July 5th. As I left, the Red Birds where comfortably perched at the top of their division, with the winning percentage just over 0.6, which means that they won roughly 60% of their games and lost the remaining 40%. But the moment I abandoned this continent, they went into a jumbo slump and by the time I came back, they were 3-12 for the duration of my absence. That is 20% of victories and 80% of losses.

Since I got back they are 3-1, almost as if some kind of curse has just been lifted. And to make it even sweeter, that balance was earned against Astros on their own Astroturf. Splendid.

So to all my friends that hate baseball: choose a team and start bewitching.

Penalty kick in the teeth

I have to admit, I am not very fond of Italian soccer. I am also not very fond of Italian cuisine, music and cinema. That is not to say that the Italian culture is bad, it is just not my world cup of tea. It must have something to do with the fact that Italians talk too much, as Zinedine Zidane found out the hard way (and I wish it was that little provocateur Materazzi who'd be dragged through the mud by the media).

Having said all that: Congratulations Italy! No opponent found a way into their goal. Americans scored thanks to Italy's own goal and French needed a penalty kick, which I do not regard as a proper goal. And speaking of those: what bothered me most about this year's cup was the plethora of tie breakers in the form of the penalty shootout. For instance, should Trezeguet direct his kick in the last game just one centimeter lower, it would have bounced in. Think about it. It is a lottery.

So let me propose to FIFA three alternative tie-breakers, which would be fairer and more fun to watch.

1. DISAPPEARING ACT: an extra time would have two halves, played 20 minutes each. In the first there would be eight players on each side, in the second only five. With so few players on the field individual skills would gain importance and many goals would obviously be scored.

2. OCTOBER FEST: the players would drink a glass of beer every 5 minutes of extra time. After few rounds the game would become highly entertaining and plenty of scoring would certainly follow. Many of the goals being own.

3. INTERACTIVE GAME: extra time would be played by 11 volunteers from among each team's fans. They would be drawn randomly, paid some money and outfitted during the intermission. The effort of 11 middle aged men with beer bellies, poor kicking techniques and balding heads, running chaotically on the field and deciding the outcome of the most watched game on this planet would make a surefire tie-breaker and a great comedy to boot.

Via Ferrata

"Via Ferrata" translates to "iron way". In plain English it means "Rock Climbing for Dummies". You get to climb steep vertical walls, but your progress is made easier by iron support structures that look like giant staples hammered into the rock. In addition to that, you are connected to a steel cable at all times by a Y-shaped lanyard which would limit the potential fall.

But don't get me wrong - it is still a fairly dangerous undertaking and the managers state it very clearly in their FAQ.

Q: Is Via Ferrata safe?
A: No.

The closest Via Ferrata to Washington is at Nelson Rock Preserve near Franklin, WV. So this Saturday I took a friend of mine and we set out towards West Virginia. After 3 hours we reached the Preserve, but all the gear was rented out and since we didn't make reservations, we had to wait about an hour for some to be returned by earlier visitors. We took this as an opportunity for lunch and went to a nearby Gateway Diner, whose prices would drive McDonalds bankrupt and whose restrooms were labeled "Bulls" and "Heifers".

After returning to the Park Lodge, we obtained the gear - a harness, a lanyard and a helmet - and set off for the mountain. The climbing was just the right difficulty for beginners and mostly enjoyable. Except for one spot where you had to traverse above a deep gorge on a slightly overhanging sheer wall, clinging desperately to the iron staples, and trying not to look down. The idea of dangling helplessly on the lanyard about 100 feet above the ground was a little bit disconcerting.

But whatever little vexation this stretch presented was paid off by an access to a precariously hung suspended bridge, 200 feet wide and 150 feet high. Its wooden rungs led to a second ridge of the rocky massive which offered some spectacular views of the whole park and crossing it was the highlight of the whole trail.

The second part was a bit easier and before long we enjoyed the views from the summit. "Via Ferrata" was definitely a memorable experience, albeit not for everyone. After all, there is a reason why their liability release form ends with a phrase: "I won't sue the Nelson Rock Preserve no matter what happens and I really, truly mean this".

But hey, if you have issues with your boss, if your boyfriend/girlfriend seems to be pursuing other venues of interest or if you are frustrated at George Bush's pearls of wisdom, go for it. Hanging on for dear life to a steel cable on a sheer wall of rock 200 feet high will give you a very different perspective on life's little problems. And it will make you appreciate the simple pleasures of standing on the firm ground.


Deathrow at Heathrow

If your flight has two legs, make sure the airlines in question form an alliance or you may end up in a transportational twilight zone.

When I flew from Washington to London to Prague, I missed my London-Prague connection with the Czech Airlines, and had to use a different carrier. The Czech Airlines system, seeing my seat unfilled, promptly placed a "no show" label on my record and canceled my return reservation. All that by itself and without me having the faintest idea about it. When I arrived at the Prague airport for my return trip, not suspecting anything wrong, I learned that I was to their reservations database what a vampire was to a mirror. Just a column of thin air.

A young lady in the Czech Airlines office told me that the flight to London was overbooked by 14 people and that they would have to rebook me for the evening or the next day. When I asked her whether she could change my United reservation from London to Washington, she said she couldn't and she also couldn't call them, send them fax, email, telegram or telex. It was obvious that the only way of communicating with the United Airlines office in London was through smoke signals best effected by setting her office on fire. She recommended that I go and talk to Lufthansa people, but they couldn't get into the United system either and I was starting to become reconciled with the possibility that I would return to Washington with a significant delay.

When I returned to the Czech Airlines office, however, it transpired that the plane that was supposed to fly to Heathrow got stuck somehow (it must have taxied onto a tossed blob of a chewing gum) and they had to replace it with one that was actually slightly bigger. Through inexplicable machinations of fate, I was allotted one of the extra seats. The flight was an hour late, but when I made it to London (without a boarding pass for my next leg), I still had 80 minutes to spare. Eighty minutes, all forty eight hundred seconds of them, soon to be squandered on an unexpected hurdle - the Deathrow at Heathrow.

I understand that airport security has to be tight and that it is important for the screening personnel to ascertain whether I ironed the socks myself and whether my grandma approved of my grandpa's job at a dynamite factory. But at most airports, once you are a transfer passenger (i.e. already checked), the additional examination is light and swift. Not so at Heathrow. All the incoming travelers have to endure a 40-50 minutes line at the end of which a sleepy orderly instructs you how to empty your pockets and how to rearrange the contents of your baggage so they would be in full compliance with the FAA regulations (judging by the speed of the line, some advice on rearranging one's emotional baggage must have been gratuitously dispensed, too).

Many of my fellow travelers had just a few minutes to spare and for them the sultry and poorly ventilated serpentine dock became the true Death Row. It was pretty clear that the chances of them catching their next flight had just received the capital punishment. So they listlessly waited in their cell and prayed for a miracle that didn't happen. Tens of human minitragedies squished between the ropes like a pack of sardines.

Thanks to my 80 minutes cushion, I got out of the death row with 25 minutes to spare, but still without the boarding pass (the unallied airlines problem). The United transfer desk behind the security area was adorned with a sizable looking queue, so I decided to play a little Russian roulette and proceeded directly to the terminal to see if I can get the pass there.

The Sun of Luck had just peeked through the clouds - I could see from a distance that there was no one at the United Airlines counter there. Now back into the clouds: the agent whose job description must have involved serving customers once upon a time looked like he'd rather be unconscious and at first merely yawned that the gate was closed. Only when he noticed that I had 2 carry-ons and no checked baggage, he took mercy and moved to initiate the procedures that were supposed to lead to the issuance of the coveted Boarding Pass. So far so good.

Well, not quite... Plenty of Murphy's Laws still waiting to happen. At first it turned out that the boarding pass machine needed to be reloaded and that blank boarding passes were in some other and - as it turned out - completely non-adjacent office. Then the agent noticed that he had lost his stapler and ambled away to borrow one, completely oblivious to the concept of quick pacing. It was at this point that I understood that all deathrows in the world have only one exit: into the hands of an executioner.

When he returned, I was seething with impatience. That, however, did not prevent him from attempting the most meticulous and premeditated act of stapling ever, although it must have been apparent to him that I would have happily taken the travel documents into my possession in an unstapled form. I was looking at the sacred scrolls like a cat whose line of sight fell upon a freshly gutted salmon. Finally the agent started to open all sorts of drawers, vigorously searching for something. I figured that he was looking for a Royal Seal which, when properly attached to my ticket, would allow my to fly over Her Majesty's territory. But I was wrong. He was merely looking for a United Airlines wrapper into which he deftly inserted my ticket and my waterboarding pass, both neatly stapled together. He remarked that I should really run now and released me into wilderness.

When I glimpsed at the departure board and noticed the ominous "last call" sign next to my flight, I realized that the Grand Finale was near and that I was about to enjoy my very favorite Olympic event: running through an airport with two carry-ons and not a second to spare. I probably didn't make the Olympic record, but I did catch my flight, and, at some point over the North Atlantic, even my breath.

Wild Strawberries

At the end of June I like to be at my parents summerhouse because the surrounding meadows and forest fringes are invaded by wild strawberries. In an hour, you can easily pick half a gallon of delicate crimson diamonds, whose collective smell is one of the most profound olfactory sensations I can think of.

Wild strawberries are quite different from their garden bred brethren. Sure, they may not be as big and as red, but their taste is much subtler and uniquely sweet. They do not lend themselves easily to transporting and preserving, which means you won't find them - fresh or canned - at a supermarket near you. Indeed, in order to experience them you have to enter the wilderness and endure an occasional sting of a nettle, a scratch of a thorn or a visit from a thirsty mosquito. But at the end, when you mash them with powdered sugar, you get a taste of what gods have for dessert.

Recently I noticed that when I strike up a conversation with my friends and acquaintances, instead of hearing their life stories, I get to listen to those they saw in movies and TV shows. Sure, well packaged Hollywood fables are much funnier and more adventurous than anything that can possibly happen to an average earthling. And yes, to acquire your own stories, you can get scratched, stung, even hurt. But when you tell them to your friends, you get to smell the fine aroma of wild strawberries.


Not Shooting Shooting

My digital camera went low on batteries today and not having a charger with me, I knew that something worth taking pictures would take place. And few hours later it did. With the astounding inevitability of a physical law.

In the summer of 1866, a battle between the Austrian and Prussian armies took place near my hometown in eastern Bohemia. To commemorate the event, the city and several historical societies organized a reenactment in contemporary costumes and, as a prelude, an audio visual show on the town's old square.

Festivities began after the sunset with the Torch Parade in which legions of soldiers carrying flaming rifles marched to the old town square. Their uniforms were meticulously sown with an eye for detail and their demeanor showed plenty of eagerness for tomorrow's battle. Unlike my camera, their well polished muskets were ready for shooting (I am sure Austria-Hungary would have been proud of their readiness). When the troops were mustered, all the electric lights on the square went out and we could see but the contours of the White Tower and the adjacent gothic cathedral.

A picture is worth a thousand words, and tonight a battery would be worth a thousand pictures. The square packed with people, images from last year's battle projected onto a big screen, blooming fireworks imitating the sounds of shooting, the sparks suffusing the cathedral with a surreal flickering light, ribbons of smoke surrounding the stern towers, a staged skirmish fuelled by the gradating music, girls of a choir clad in white, an onstage cannon going off...

I didn't shoot many pictures today, but I acquired an important piece of experience: whenever I want to watch something magnificent, all I have to do is run the batteries in my camera down.

If I were a kangaroo...

If I were a kangaroo, I'd be ticked off.

I wouldn't be mad, angry, irritated, annoyed, bitter, incensed, vexed, furious or displeased. No decent word can adequately carry the frustration and the emotional pungency the way an expletive can. Vulgar words are the spice of human communication. I do not advocate their overuse, we all know that too much curry can kill the best Indian dish, but without them our language would be bland and sterile like a boiled tofu pie.

Today, in the first round of the World Cup playoffs Australia was clinging to a draw with highly favored Italy till the 90th minute. Italy was down one man and loosing strength fast. Australians started looking forward to the extra time in which the weakened opponent was likely to make an error. But just when everyone thought the regulation time was over, a lonely Italian dribbled into the penalty box, where he wasn't fouled, he merely stumbled there upon lying Lucas Neill. The referee pointed to the penalty spot without hesitation. In the 93rd minute, with no time for amends, Italy was handed a penalty kick. Australians, on the other hand, had their high hopes stabbed from behind.

If I were a kangaroo, I'd be pissed off.

Airshow on the River

Vltava is neither the longest, nor the widest Czech river. But it is certainly the most beloved one. Springing to life in the gently rolling Sumava Mountains, gathering its strength in idyllic countryside of Southern Bohemia, it passes through Prague as an elegant young lady. It is not a coincidence that one of the major Czech radio stations is named after her.

This Friday I went to Prague and with a friend of mine rented a rowing boat on a quiet stretch of Vltava between the Bridge of Legions and Charles' Bridge. From the river we could still see the ever-hustling world of taxi cabs, of crammed street cars, of people hurrying to their destinations. But that was part of the Dry Universe. We were now floating in the Wet Universe. Rowing at a safe distance from the weir at Novotneho Lavka, we could see mysterious and legend-ridden Kampa on our left, the National Theater on the right and straight ahead - the majestic Prague Castle presiding over a lava stream of tourists on the Charles Bridge. And we also saw an unusual construction protruding into the river from the Slavic Island. Some mischief was afoot.

Vltava loves to have boats launched on it. Much like any young lady that knows in which dress she looks best, it knows it looks best from a close up distance of water surface. Today, however, Vltava had different kinds of vessels launched on it. An elevated pier jutting from the Slavic Island turned out to be a venue for the Annual Airshow in which teams of amateur engineers, pranksters and jokers drove their preposterous winged contraptions off the pier's edge in the mock hope that they would fly the farthest for the prize of about $10,000.

Their creations, mostly made of carton and papiermache, were muscled up an inclined ramp and onto the launching pad. There each team had a short one minute show thematically tied to their vehicle. We saw soccer balls being kicked into the river, we saw a mock medieval melee, an army drill, scenes from famous movies etc. The captain then embarked, climbed onto, crawled into or was inserted into the flying monstrosity and the remaining members pushed him off the edge and into the river. The flight was brisk, downward directed and 10-15 meters long at best. After the flight, judges assigned points for artistic merit and divers retrieved the sunk debris. Vltava is fairly shallow here. The creativity of people, on the other hand, was unfathomable.

On regular days the most eccentric vessel Vltava sees is a steamboat called Klondike. Today Vltava saw a UFO, a chopper-apple, a flying steam engine locomotive, a Fantomas car, an Eiffel Tower, a soccer field, Jurassic Airlines featuring a pterodactyl, a Trabant (an infamous East German car) with wings, an F-16 Jetsam, a flying alarm clock, a model of shark, a Viking ship, numerous gliders and a head of Michael Jackson falling in less than graceful manner into its puzzled waters.

Rivers don't usually witness too many crash-landings. Vltava saw plenty today, and being the most beloved Czech river, it softened their impact the way no concrete runway would.


History repeats itself

After losing to Ghana 0:2, we lost to Italy with the same score. And much like against Ghana, one of our players was sent off. At the World Cup level, where nations present their best talent, playing ten men against eleven is murderous. Twice in three games, we became handicapped. Ten men can sometimes hold the draw, like Trinidad and Tobago did against Sweden. But to turn the score around against Italy is a Herculean effort and our only Hercules (the 6'7" striker Jan Koller) got injured in the first game.

Few seconds before the Ghana's first goal, Tomas Ujfalusi didn't quite reach the ball with his head and that little mistake was immediately punished. And it was Ujfalusi who was later sent off, leaving the team in a very precarious position.

In today's game history repeated itself. After Italy's corner Jan Polak didn't quite reach the ball with his head and Materazzi scored. And Jan Polak was also the player who was expelled and effectively sent his team packing.

But this parallel is also misleading. In the game against Ghana we were simply outclassed. Today we played well and with eleven people we could have won. Nedved played an excellent game, he was everywhere, shooting hard and fighting fiercely for every ball. Even inexperienced Kovac, who played instead of Ujfalusi, was confident and guarded his half of the penalty box with a poise of an old veteran.

But with most of our offense injured and Lady Luck indolent we have no more place at the soccer fiesta. We have to thank an exceptional generation of players (Nedved, Koller, Poborsky and Galasek) and start thinking about EURO 2008.

Ruthlessly Inconvenient

One of the most difficult things in life is to tell who is crying wolf and who comes with a well meant warning. In the recently released movie "An Inconvenient Truth", Al Gore tries to drum up support for the battle against global warming. I think his message is genuine and it comes in the nick of time.

I had a German friend who once asked her grandparents how could they let the holocaust happen. She got only an evasive answer: "we didn't fully realize what was happening". Yes, perspective always shows up late. But when our grandchildren ask us 50 years from now how come we let the thermal holocaust happen, we better have a good answer.

Al Gore is civil and convincing. He doesn't yell. He chooses his arguments carefully. And seeing him elevated to 20 feet above the floor so he can show where on the 650,000 years graph of CO2 levels we currently are is worth more than thousand words.

Life is about a pursuit of happiness. Maybe we should realize that happiness can be as simple as sipping hot chocolate with a friend or watching a cascading creek from an overhanging boulder. We don't really need to wrap our lives in tons of shiny plastic.


No offense

By a quirk of fate, just as the Cardinals lost its offensive ace, Albert Pujols, the Czech soccer team lost its best two strikers, Milan Baros and Jan Koller. So these days I feel a little bit like rooting for two toothless tigers. But while on the Cardinals' side, Scott Rolen literally stepped up to the plate and, seconded by Juan Encarnacion and Hector Luna, helped to darn the batting hole Albert left behind, the corresponding patch in the Czech offense is not sticking very well.

The name is Vratislav Lokvenc (whom I remember playing for my hometown soccer team SK Hradec Kralove) and if you could read Czech news and blogs, you'd notice how quickly he managed to become a popular lightning rod for fans' frustration. According to many eyewitnesses, his performance during the Ghana debacle was lukewarm at best, his technical skills nonexistent and worst of all, he seemed to be under the impression that the German Civil Law Code contained some obscure ordinance that forbade running on German soil, especially in soccer stadiums. Clearly the only person not aware of his slowly efforts was coach Karel Bruckner.

So after Saturday's futile catch up with Ghana's agile athletes, you could actually hear a distinct sigh of relief all over the Czech lands. Lokvenc got his second yellow card, meaning he won't be available for the clash with Italy. Who exactly will be playing the offense is a question for a mildly accomplished soothsayer. There isn't much left.

But hey, if the Cardinals could sweep the Colorado Rockies without Albert Pujols, the Czechs should be able to smoke Italy with an imaginary offense.

Reality Czech

If Robert Louis Stevenson watched today's game (CZE 0, GHA 2), he'd feel compelled to upgrade one of his famous novels to "Ten Dr. Jekylls and Ten Mr. Hides". The Czech Team morphed from a hungry goal machine into a lackluster pack of amateurs with a proficiency that would have drawn appreciative whistles at a werewolf convention.

One of the idiosyncrasies of our national character is certain possessiveness of fortune's goodwill. The moment something nice happens, we tend to huddle around it so that no one (particularly Germans or Russians) would take it away. Hence, after the amazing win over the USA, the game-plan for today's rendez-vous with African soccer was based on reinforcing defenses for that "coveted" 0:0 draw. At least according to our coach. Well, that brilliant strategy worked for about 70 seconds. After that nobody knew what to play.

There were three causes of today's letdown: atrocious passing, atrocious passing and atrocious passing. While the Ghanians made their plays look easy and almost ballet-like, the Czechs were kicking the ball randomly, hoping that "someone" would be there. Even Rosicky would rather run across half the field than pass the ball. After conceding a quick goal, they all tried too hard to dribble into the opponent's goal itself or kept shooting from distances that one normally reserves for astronomy.

Ghana played soccer the way it should be: light footed, resourceful, risk-taking, witty and it must have been as enjoyable to play as it was to watch. The Czech team was obvious, imprecise, static, stereotypical and clinging to their previous fame, rather than trying to win a new one. It was good that in the other game today the nine valiant American men withstood the one man advantage of the Squadra Azzurra and washed away at least some of the foul taste of that awful game.

But in soccer, every day brings a new sunrise. Now that we have no reputation to uphold, we can go back to our original selves and beat the living daylights out of Italy.

How The Inch Stole Christmas

OK, the big wait is finally over. Today at noon I took my Czech flag and accompanied by three colleagues I went to the McKeever's Irish Pub for some Lunch & Soccer. The patrons frowned at my flag profusely, but I was glad I brought it with me, for three times in that game I had an opportunity to jump on the bench and wave it vigorously.

About the game: I think most of the commentators got fooled by the crushing score. The US team didn't play that badly. And when the Americans take on Italians this weekend, my vocal cords will be on their side. After all, soccer in this country needs some serious victories if it wants to get ahead of the Spelling Bee in the sports popularity rankings.

And despite the solid defense and efficient midfield of the Czech side, the pivotal moment of the match came at the feet of the US captain Claudio Reyna. His shot from 25 yards beat the Czech goalie, but bounced off the goalpost back into the field. From the way it got deflected it was apparent that should the ball hit the post one inch to the right, it would have landed in the net.

You think that losing 3:1 wouldn't have made much difference? Well tied at one a piece, the swinging momentum would have given the Americans their wings back and Tomas Rosicky might have been too busy defending to show any sparkling moments in the offence. From 25 yards, an inch is a width of a hair. One inch to the right and Santa Claus could have been stuffing a star spangled stocking.

Quiet before the Storm

In less than 24 hours, the country in which I spent the first 29 years of my life will play against the country where I spent the remaining 15. Both USA and the Czech Republic have high expectations going into this game. The US Team is keen on validating their improving international reputation, while for the Czech side this is a chance to showcase an exceptional generation of players - after 16 long years of the World Cup drought and for the first time as an independent country (as part of Czechoslovakia, Czechs actually made two World Cup finals: in 1934 and 1962).

But in soccer there is no point making predictions. Anything can happen in the course of 90 minutes. Just look at what happened yesterday to Sweden. Playing against the small island nation of Trinidad and Tobago, they could not find a gap in the World Cup debutantes' devoted defense. So by the time the Scandinavians were finished brooding over their lost chances, every Trinidad and Trinimom had been out in the streets dancing.

Both American and Czech camps are training quietly before roaring onto the world stage. The only question mark in the Czech starting line-up is the fitness of the striker Milan Baros. According to the Czech coach Karel Bruckner, the EURO 2004 best scorer will most likely miss the first game due to a foot injury. Karel Bruckner, however, is a sly fox when it comes to tactics as the following anecdote shows: one of his teams was once executing a free kick - two players seemingly misunderstood each other and collided - but while the opponents were chuckling, a third player kicked the ball and scored. So with Karel Bruckner, one never knows.

Finally, for practicing deja-vu aficionados, here is an interesting piece of trivia. When the Czechs were in the World Cup the last time, they played in a group with USA, Italy and Austria. Homework: what is the probability that 16 years later they would end up with USA, Italy and Ghana?

What's in a name?

My friend Melissa has a studio at the Montpellier Center for Arts and every now and then invites me for an exhibition opening. The Center is a simple and elegant wooden building, adjacent to a crowning rotunda and surrounded by a well manicured park full of old and spreading oaks. Its classicality and innocence reminds me of little castles in Eastern Bohemia, so whenever I have a chance I gladly undertake an hour drive there.

Yesterday's exhibition was devoted to the artwork of the Center's instructors and as I was walking among the progenies of their imagination I realized how important names are. Some pieces had simple ones, like "Study in Orange" or "Vase II.", but I liked more the ones showing a little twist, the ones jostling your mind into a different perceiving angle. My favorite name was associated with a grey ceramic cone to which two ugly gargoyle-like heads were attached, facing away from each other. The heads had caricatured countenances and crude wire hair. Their creator called them "The Extreme Right Looker And The Extreme Left Looker Can't See Each Other". When I saw the name plaque, it was as if someone turned an extra light on.

Imagine a cartoon character driving a sports car on a narrow mountain road. The car careens off the road and gets stuck on a cliff. The vehicle balanced precariously on the edge, the cartoon character dares not to breathe. Well chosen name is like a frivolous bird who descends on the ornament hood and sends the car tumbling into the abyss of understanding.

I think that simple names should be reserved for truly extraordinary human endeavors. I can see Michelangelo paying one last satisfied look to the monumental depiction of the Judgement Day on the back wall of the Sistine Chapel, contemplating all its hidden implications for a minute and then calling it "A Composition". That would be kind of cool.

The Magic of Nine

Czechoslovakia, a country in which I was born, had exactly nine presidents: Masaryk, Benes, Hacha, Gottwald, Zapotocky, Novotny, Husak, Svoboda and Havel. And because that state formation no longer exists, it will stay that way. That is why I regard the number 9 as a sort of Czech number.

A Czech team hasn't participated in a World Soccer Championship since 1990. Last Fall the long absence from the most watched sporting event in this part of the Solar System finally ended in a dramatic play-off with Norway. The Czech Republic qualified as the very last team for the World Cup which this time is held in Germany, tantalizingly close to the Czech border. But the best part came when I looked at the tournament dates: June 9th to July 9th. Wooo-hooo... It felt like an episode from the Twilight Zone. This has got to mean something. With star players like Nedved, Cech, Koller and Rosicky, this has got to be our year! Even Yahoo!Sports published an article yesterday in which a computer simulation predicted the victory for the Czech team.

But life has spent considerable time teaching me one important lesson: good things always come unannounced. The moment you start expecting something - forget it, it is not going to happen. So I guess when we look at June 2006 ten years from now, we will fondly remember it as "that time when we all mistakenly thought we'd become the World's Champions in soccer".

Disposable car

Every now and then, whether I like it or not, my car needs an oil change. Today, just as I realized that it is that time of three months or 3,000 miles (whichever comes sooner), I found an official business-looking letter in my mail. It came from a local Honda dealer where I usually drive my car when it needs to take a leak. They are informing me that recently a need for several 2003 Civics arose and that they'd be happy to give me a fair value on my car should I decide to procure any of the newer vehicles garnishing their parking lot.

Well, I didn't quite fall for it, but it did make me think about it. After all, I will have to drive there anyway. So I'd just give them my old car with an old oil and they'd give me a new car with a new oil.

Kind of like disposable cameras. No need to change the film. Once you shoot all your pictures, you surrender your camera to your Kodak dealer and buy a new one. Same with cars.

I am just not sure whether the world is ready for this revolutionary idea.

Czech Mate? Well, more a stalemate.

On the Czech calendar, this June features two important events that repeat only every four years. The World Cup soccer and parliamentary elections. The soccer fiesta is still a few days off, so I'll squander one or two kilobytes of my blog's memory talking about the electoral drama, which took place this weekend.

After the fall of communism, the Czech Republic implemented a parliamentary system in which the election of carefully selected representatives affects everything. The government, the president, laws, you name it. With so much at stake, the campaign has been fierce and dirty indeed. The race between the ruling Social Democrats (left) and the Civic Democrats (right) was dead heat. An access to taxpayers sponsored troughs is not something to be taken lightly even in the country of good soldier Schweik.

Well, at the end of the day the Civic Democrats won by a few percent, but it turned out that theirs was the Pyrrhus' victory as they will not be able to form a majority government. The left-wing coalition won 100 seats (Social Democrats 74, Communists 26) and the right wing coalition got 100 seats as well (Civic Democrats 81, Christian Democrats 13, Green Party 6). This is as close as I ever remember. The leaders of both leading parties better get their scalpels honed, for the coalition talks will resemble a delicate operation.

This mathematically precise tie also means that the next government will not be able to pack too much punch, because for every horse pulling to the left there will be an equally strong horse pulling in the opposite direction, leaving the cart of the Czech economy in dolldrums. As such situation is kind of undesirable, let me propose a solution (obviously inspired by an upcoming World Cup): when a soccer match ends up in a tie, the players shoot the penalty kicks. There!

What I am suggesting is that both parties rent a soccer field, put red and blue soccer uniforms on and shoot some penalties, instead of making macho statements in the press. The party bosses, Mirek Topolanek and Jiri Paroubek, should be goalies, and 5 MPs from either side of the aisle should take care of the kicking. Whoever wins the shootout will get the extra seat and with the 101-99 ratio all the laws dear to their party's heart will pass. Albeit "with scraped ears" as the Czech saying goes.

Yes, I am serious. I really want to see Jiri Paroubek in baggy shorts and a dingy purple t-shirt diving to a goalpost, while MUDr. Mgr. Ivan Langer chips a lazy fluffy ball into the middle of the goal.

Numbers to Czech

Every Sunday we play soccer in a park with a bunch of Czech guys and whoever else happens to be there. Often we end up playing rough Turkish guys so I customarily spend the rest of the day licking my wounds. But today, we played against ourselves and so I decided to celebrate the lack of bruises by doing what mathematicians do best - calculating statistics.

The fresh FIFA rankings have just been released, the World Cup is knocking at the door - so here is a look at what upcoming matches will pitch the best teams (I list those whose combined rank is 30 or less):

07: Czech Rep. (2) - USA (5) in Group E
11: Mexico (4) - Portugal (7) in Group D
12: Netherlands (3) - Argentina (9) in Group C
15: Czech Rep. (2) - Italy (13) in Group E
18: USA (5) - Italy (13) in Group E
19: Brasil (1) - Japan (18) in Group F
24: Brasil (1) - Croatia (23) in Group F
26: Spain (5) - Tunisia (21) in Group H
26: England (10) - Sweden (16) in Group B
27: Mexico (4) - Iran (23) in Group D
30: Portugal (7) - Iran (23) in Group D

Clearly, the group E will be "the Group of Death". Three of the top 5 high profile matches will take place there. And if you have any doubts about its strength, just do the following calculation yourself (the first number is the combined rank of the whole group)

068: Group E (CZE/2, USA/5, ITA/13, GHA/48)
084: Group F (BRA/1, JAP/18, CRO/23, AUS/42)
088: Group C (NET/3, ARG/9, COT/32, SRB/44)
091: Group D (MEX/4, POR/7, IRN/23, ANG/57)
105: Group H (SPA/5, TUN/21, SAU/34, UKR/45)
106: Group B (ENG/10, SWE/16, PAR/33, TRI/47)
113: Group A (GER/19, COS/26, POL/29, ECU/39)
133: Group G (FRA/8, KOR/29, SWI/35, TOG/61)

It is worth noting that while Group E has the highest rank, the Group A is the most balanced (all teams separated by merely 20 points), so some serious drama can be expected there. Finally, while tinkering with the rankings, here are the teams from the top_20 that didn't make it to Germany: Nigeria (11), Denmark (11), Turkey (14), Cameroon (15), Egypt (17) and Greece (20).

Shaking spears of time

I joined a couple of people from the office to see Shakespeare's Pericles yesterday night. The performance took place at the Carter Barron Amphitheatre in the Rock Creek Park. The sky was clear, the evening was cool and the combination of a lush June vegetation and equally lush verbiage of a classical play was outright spellbinding.

I haven't been in a theater for more than a year. Movies with their dazzling effects are dandy, but live performance has a charm even Steven Spielberg cannot duplicate. As I was reading the synopsis, I got curious how they would render a raging sea storm that was prominently mentioned in the brochure. But the director convinced me again that simplicity is the king. Large swaths of a shiny fabric, rhythmically heaving and swaying and undulating under motions induced by flailing of actors' hands were vibrant and boisterous just as seas should be. Imagination always likes to be tickled.

But the best part came after the intermission, when the night pitched its starry tent above us. The curtain opened, the stage breathed out a cloud of light and the whole amphitheater became a time capsule, temporarily insulated from the mundane world surrounding us. Actors spoke words that were written many hundred years ago and stars shone calmly their light which, due to astronomical distances in outer space, was emitted even earlier. And there were as many words as there were stars, each smiling down on us with the patience of ages, like a glint in the eye of Mona Lisa.

But nothing lasts for ever. The last scene wafted away, the curtain closed and 21 century slowly descended upon the amphitheater. We left our seats and the dark park regurgitated us onto the street glowing with red embers of cars' taillights.

Grievy at Grevey's

I haven't seen my favorite baseball team St Louis Cardinals for quite a while, so on my way home today I stopped at Grevey's to watch their game against the struggling Chicago Cubs. I just wanted to check out our new pitching marvel Sidney Ponson in action, but was treated to a dramatic edge-of-a-barstool 14-inning extravaganza, which lacked only a happy end.

What I like about baseball is that you can see the crucial plays coming. In other sports there are pivotal moments too, of course, but they happen so fast they are over before they even register. In baseball you can slowly sip the anticipation.

My favorite such moment came in bottom of the 7th, when we were still down 1:2. The second Albert Pujols stepped to the plate with players at 2nd and 3rd I got this feeling that something is coming. Apparently Cubs' pitcher felt the same way for he decided to give Albert a walk. With bases loaded, Scott Rolen couldn't really pass up an opportunity to shine. Aramiz Ramirez at 3rd didn't quite reach the ball and Perez and Luna scored. When watching the replay, I realized again how finicky this game is. Had the ball flown just a few inches lower it would have been caught and the inning would have ended just as it started - at 1:2.

There were other gems in this game: Perez walked because he was hit in the helmet in what looked like a perfect soccer-like header, top of the 8th ended with a superbly executed double play, Miles' then made a sacrifice fly which gave Izzy an extra cushion, but it was all in vain. When the 9th came, Cubs still somehow managed to equalize.

Enter five extra innings. Five excruciating tops and bottoms when the outcome hung in the balance. But it wasn't meant to be. Despite having bases loaded in 10th and 12th, and needing just one good hit. Despite Pujols making two more appearances at bat. Despite Encarnacion running like a bull. It was Cubs who finally scored, and Cards couldn't find an ace in their hand. John Mabry, who only last season played on our side made a spectacular diving catch and it was all over. Loosing at 1:15am really hurts.

I only hope that Lady Luck opened her little Book of Debts on a page titled "St Louis Cardinals" and wrote an IOU there in big, red letters. We may need it later this season.

Scaredy Cat

I like dogs because they are simple. They all have the same personality type. They are loyal and playful. Cats on the other hand are unfathomably complex, they sport intimidating attitudes and their personalities would perplex a consortium of weathered psychiatrists. It is not a coincidence that Andrew Lloyd Weber based his famous musical on a book about cats, for had he chosen dogs the whole skitty would have been over in less than 15 minutes (including an elaborate overture). There would be no Skimbleshanks, no Mistoffeles, no Grizabella.

I have no chance to ever comprehend cats. Yet somehow I always end up taking care of my friends' feline wonders. Which is strange, because -according to old family albums- my stroller was often guarded by a dog named "Gypsy" so I do owe the dogkind some serious babysitting time. Yet the only payment I was able to offer so far was a brief leash holding service to a mutt named Cobol that belonged to my old roommate Mike (can you guess what was Mike's major?). All my other friends decided to embroider my life with cats, whether it was Huckleberry, Jerry, Pele, or most recently Maddy.

Maddy belongs to my friend Sandy, and resides in a small apartment within an easy walk from my office. Every day I open the door, and Maddy sits on the mat directly behind, anxiously awaiting her rightful owner. When I came in the first day she ran away the moment she realized I am a guy - which puts me clearly in a Non-Sandy category of people. So on my next visit I entered the apartment very slowly, squatted immediately and tried to be as calm as possible. Maddy didn't move either and only gave me that steady John Wayne kinda look, while tickling the trigger of an imaginary colt with her front paw. No doubt she was born and raised in western Texas.

Well, for a while we just sat motionless, trying to stare each other down, but I finally caved in and moved and Maddy ran away into the bedroom and positioned herself deep underneath Sandy's bed. There she stayed for the rest of my visit. I am still not sure whether it was just an expression of her ultimate contempt for me or a manifestation of her superb mathematical skills (finding the exact geometric center of an unlit rectangle is quite a feat). Whatever it was, that scene repeated itself three more times until today she finally left her fortress and came out to kitchen to see whether I am filling her eating bowl properly.

I forgot to mention that my cell phone barks. I couldn't find an acceptable ringtone, so at the end I settled for a sound of some ferocious hound. And by an amazing coincidence, just as Maddy was approaching, Sandy called to see how Maddy was doing. Well, up to the point that my cell started ringing, Maddy was doing just fine. But when her ears caught the vehement barking of my cell, the look on her face hardened: "How come that this two-legged nuisance is making the same sound as the four-legged nuisance?" It was as if the Universe stopped making sense to her. Her upright tail paused for a second and then she turned around it and ran away again to ponder this conundrum in the privacy of her underbed kingdom.

Climbing Chomolungma

On this day, 53 years ago (which would be, hmmm, 1953), Sir Edmund Hillary from New Zealand and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay conquered Mt. Everest. When I was a kid I read this book about it, called "The Throne of Gods", which dramatically proclaimed that on May 29 at 11:30am both mountaineers had nowhere to climb for they were standing literally on the top of the world.

When I realized what day it was today, I started wondering whether I would be a good Sherpa and how would it feel to climb to 8,848 meters above the sea level (at which I pretty much live). Well, being a mathematician living on the second floor of an apartment complex, I took a tape measure and found that each of the fifteen stairs I have to climb to get to my door elevates me by 8 inches (20 cm), so that particular flight of stairs gives me 3 meters per climb. Suppose I climb it twice a day. That means I would need (8848:6) 1475 days to gain the desired altitude. Well, I started climbing these stairs on July 1, 2003 so my final climb to the peak should occur on (add 1475 days) July 15th, 2007.

On that day, I will wear firm shoes, an ice pick and a knapsack, possibly an oxygen mask, lest my neighbors have any doubts about my sanity, and I will conquer my Everest, or my Chomolungma as the natives call it. And on that day I will throw a party and Nepalese food will be served. So you guys mark your calendars and I have about a year to learn how to cook Daal Bhaat and Tarkari.

Liberated Balloon

My friend Louka had some friends visiting from California, so we went to the Tysons Galleria for a dinner. After a sampler of Lebanese cuisine we felt a bit of excitement was in order, so we went into the Mall and soon found a little purple balloon that was so delicately balanced that it floated gracefully when released and only reluctantly came back to the ground. That balloon had a short string and it occurred to me that the string itself may be that extra weight which is holding it down. With the help of my keys I removed the string and released the balloon. It hesitated a bit, suspended in the air, but then it started its slow ascent, like the Duchess of York measuring a staircase with her golden heels. It floated all the way up to the Mall's ceiling and never came back.

Sometimes the only difference between falling and flying is the burden of the string.

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