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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

Archives for: November 2006

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.

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