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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

Archives for: June 2006

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.

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