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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

Archives for: September 2006

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.

cesta

McKeever's

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.

polar

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.

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