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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

Archives for: December 2006

Checkers

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

people

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?

Anyway.

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 (www.nature.org 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!

z3

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.

strom

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.

flowers

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.

eden

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

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