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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

Archives for: July 2006

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.

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